Martin’s grandpa was hospitalized a week before Jefferson County experienced the worst ice storm it had ever seen.
There was plenty of news coverage on its approaching shadow. Stores were ransacked by frantic mobs; they sold out of canned goods, batteries, shovels, picks, thick woolen clothing, and salt within 24 hours. There was a lot of talk about the Second Ice Age, and even more talk about the Coming of Christ.
Martin’s parents were nervous. They bought their fair share of warm sweaters. Grandpa thought it was all hilarious.
“If the world’s really ending, what good is a sweater?” he grunted from his hospital bed. He had spent the last half hour making fun of the news-people on T.V., laughing at their grim face and warnings of ice and blocked roads. “A bottle of gin would keep you just as warm, and you’d freeze to death with a smile.”
“What’s gin?” Martin asked.
“A good time.”
“Daddy,” sighed Martin’s mother, looking at Grandpa with exasperation.
“For grown ups,” Grandpa corrected himself. Martin scowled, and he chuckled. “How’s school, Marty?”
“You’re seven, yeah?”
“Oh, well, I beg your pardon, sir.”
“I’m running to the bathroom,” Mom said, standing up. “You boys behave.”
As soon as the door closed behind her, Martin leaned forward onto Grandpa’s bed and blurted:
“Grandpa, are you going on a trip?”
“I doubt it,” Grandpa said. “I can’t even pee by myself these days.”
“Mom said you were on your way out.’’
“I heard her and Dad talking about it in their room when I got up to go to the bathroom last night.”
“It’s not polite to eavesdrop, Marty.” “I can’t help hearing.”
“Well, don’t worry about it,” Grandpa said, smiling in a way that made his wrinkles scrunch up into a thousand cracks at the corners of his blue eyes. “I won’t really be gone. I’m going to The Sleep Place.”
“It’s where old farts like me go when they’re finally bored with their lives.”
“Can I come?” “Some day. Not now.”
Grandpa’s big, leathery hand patted Martin’s brown hair, ruffling it into further tangles of curly chaos. His heavy metal ring, set with a sliver of ruby in the middle, rubbed gently against Martin’s scalp. Grandpa never took that ring off; he once said that a friend in the army had given it to him. He’d worn it for as long as Martin could remember.
They didn’t speak for a while. The steady beeping of the monitor filled the white, sterile room along with the dark shadows of approaching twilight. Grandpa leaned back on his pillows, staring with distant eyes out the window until Martin reached up and tentatively tugged at his sleeve.
“How long will you be gone?”
“What did you do to your arm, Martin?”
Martin followed Grandpa’s gaze to the small but deep abrasion on his left bicep. He smiled sheepishly.
“Fell out of the treehouse.”
“The one you and Dad made me last summer, remember? I lost my balance climbing the ladder.”
“ I hope you didn’t tell your mother.”
“Naw. Aunt Rachel was the only one around. She gave me a bandaid and said what Mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.”
“I would’ve liked to play in that treehouse again with you.”
“You can when you come back from The Sleep Place.”
Mom re-entered the room just then, a smile pasted across her face and a tray of food in her hands.
“Hungry, Daddy? I found the cafeteria. ”
She and Grandpa started to talk about politics, and Martin eventually tuned out of the conversation. But he watched his grandfather’s face, memorizing every crevice on his cheeks, every twinkle in his eye, mentally folding the images and storing them in the back of his mind. When Grandpa went away, he could console himself with these memories until he returned---because of course he would.
After lunch, Mom switched the TV over Grandpa’s bed to some sports channel. They’d only been watching a few minutes when Dad and Aunt Rachel walked into the room, beaming.
“Oh!” Mom exclaimed, jumping off the bed to run over and hug them. “We weren’t expecting you!”
“It’s been a long time since we’ve all been together, so we figured we’d pop in,” Aunt Rachel said, giving her a squeeze. She winked at Martin from over Mom’s shoulder. He made a face at her, only to have Grandpa poke him hard in the back of the head seconds later.
“Jesus, Grandpa!” Martin bawled, eyes watering.
“Martin,” Dad said disapprovingly.
“Well it hurts!”
“Is that the way you were raised to treat your aunt?” Grandpa said.
“Sister privileges. Sorry, kiddo,” Aunt Rachel said with a grin as she crossed the room and sat in a chair by the bed. She reached over and patted Grandpa’s hand. “How are you feeling, Daddy?”
The room filled with the buzz of chatter. Martin let himself lean comfortably back onto Grandpa’s arm; he smelled pleasantly of soap and clean linen.
The next night, Mom wasn’t home for dinner. Dad said she was going to see Grandpa.
“Why can’t we go too?” Martin asked, taking a huge bite out of his pizza slice. Dad had ordered them two mediums; one of them even had banana peppers on it. Martin’s favorite.
“She thought we could have a boys’ night,” Dad said, smiling. “Besides, she’d like to just spend some time with him alone.”
Martin didn’t understand why anyone would want to go to that depressing hospital alone, but he was getting a pizza out of it, so he decided not to complain. After dinner, they watched T.V. for a bit (a rare privilege, since it was a school night) and around ten o’clock, the front door opened.
“Stay here,” Dad said, climbing to his feet and hurrying down the hallway. Martin heard him say, “Hey, how’d it go?” Martin couldn’t hear his mother’s response, but then Dad said, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”
“Mom?” Martin called.
He heard his parents muttering, footsteps going up the stairs, and a door slamming. Dad came back into the living room.
“Mom’s going to rest for a bit,” he said.
“Is Grandpa gone, then?” Martin asked.
Dad looked at him warily. Then he took a deep, steadying breath.
“To The Sleep Place?”
“Grandpa told me about it. He said that’s where old people go.”
“I see.” Dad came and sat back down on the couch. He was silent for a long time.
“When is he coming back?” Martin asked finally.
Dad seemed to rouse himself from a deep dream. He smiled and tousled Martin’s hair.
“We’ll talk about it later. Time for bed, bud.”
Martin obediently stood up and headed up to his room, taking the stairs two at a time. When he reached the landing, he hesitated in front of his parents’ bedroom. He could hear gentle sobbing coming from inside. His heart ached in his chest. As he tiptoed back away, he silently prayed,
Come home soon, Grandpa. Mom misses you.
The next two days were spent in a flurry of activity that Martin wasn’t allowed to take part in. At one point, a small, shiny, silver box was delivered to the house, but his father took it to their room before Martin could get a good look at it or ask what it was for.
“You’ll understand when you’re older, bud,” Dad said.
Which was what grown ups said when they were hiding something cool from you. He resolved to look at the box as soon as he got a chance.
Aunt Rachel came over, saying she was going to stay with him while his parents were busy with “this whole business.” Martin really wished someone would tell him what the “business” was supposed to be. She talked with Mom in hushed voices in the hall for a moment, and after a few hugs and tearful kisses, Martin’s parents walked out into the wintry air. Aunt Rachel closed the door behind them and turned to Martin, smiling as she dabbed her eyes. He hurried over and reached up as far as he could to hug her. His arms barely fit around her waist, but he squeezed fiercely.
“Don’t cry, Aunt Rachel.”
Aunt Rachel smiled and gave him a tight hug. She smelled like lavender.
“How are you doing, baby?”
“Want some lunch?’’
Martin wasn’t hungry, but he let her fix him something. The two of them sat at the table, silently munching sandwiches. Finally Martin looked up and said,
“Aunt Rachel, do you know when Grandpa is coming back?”
“Do you know how long people usually stay in The Sleep Place?”
“You should talk to your parents about it, baby.” Her eyes were sparkling with moisture. She pushed back her chair and took her dishes to the sink, turning her back to him. Martin went to watch T.V. in the living room.
Mom and Dad came home around dinnertime. Aunt Rachel had been sitting in an armchair in the corner, but as soon as his parents unlocked the front door, she jumped up and went out to talk to them. After a few minutes, Dad called,
Martin rolled off the couch and went upstairs. As he changed into his pjs and brushed his teeth, a resolve solidified in his mind. He lay in bed until midnight to ensure everyone else in the house was asleep. Then he slid out of bed and opened his door.
Martin tiptoed down the dark and silent hall, listened at his parents door for a minute, and then gently pushed the door open. They were both fast asleep. He slipped in and waited for his eyes to adjust as he stared around the dark room. Once his eyes adjusted, he spotted what he was looking for: the silver box.
It was surprisingly easy to find. They hadn’t even tried to hide it. It was sitting on the nightstand near his mother’s side of the bed. She was lying on her stomach, her head turned toward it, arm dangling over the side of the bed so that her fingertips brushed the floor. When Martin tiptoed over to her, he could hear her steady breath, and he made sure to hold his own as he quietly picked up the silver box, turned, and hurried out of the room as quietly as possible.
He crept down the stairs, pausing to slip on his coat before he went outside. The cold was so aggressive Martin felt it in his bones. His boots crunched over the hard, frozen ground and each step sounded ten times louder than it really was, a mighty crack in the still winter air.There was a wind howling somewhere in the distance: gurgling and eerie, like a cosmic strangulation. Martin quickened his pace, shivering, numb from head to toe by the time he reached his treehouse.
He had decided that after seeing what was in this mysterious box, he would store it in the treehouse so that Grandpa could find it when he came back. He had a lurking suspicion that whatever was in this box belonged to Grandpa anyway, and that his parents would be weird about giving it back.
When he reached the tree, Martin took a moment to catch his breath, looking down at the box for a moment, at the way the lid caught the moonlight and ignited the surface into silvery-white fire. Suddenly he didn’t want to wait until he climbed up into the treehouse. He would look in the box now. Martin’s frozen fingers fumbled with the cold metal latch. His excitement mounted when he heard an audible click. He pushed the lid back and eagerly peered inside.
Nothing. Well, not nothing, but---what was that? Martin stared in confusion at the powdery grayish substance in the box. He cautiously leaned forward and, after several seconds of breathless mental debating, dipped his finger in it and pulled it quickly back out. His fingertip came up slightly dusty. The substance felt soft and fine. He poked around a little more until his curious fingers hit something cold and hard. Martin stared down at a heavy metal ring set with a glistening ruby shard.
He slammed the box shut, his breath coming out in little gasps. Fear pooled in his stomach and rose up in his chest and filled his insides to bursting until the pain of it was so much that he wanted to scream. Martin clutched the silver box to his chest and stared down at a few dead blades of grass that were undulating in the frigid wind. The box was growing colder in his hands, though not as cold as the creeping realization that was filling his heart. Tears began to stream down his face and froze there, leaving tracks of glistening ice on his cheeks.
Martin sat there with Grandpa in his arms while the moon sank lower in the black sky. When dawn came, the wind had stopped, and not a single blade of grass stirred.
When he didn’t come down to breakfast the next morning, Mom and Dad went to wake him up. When they saw his bed empty, they frantically searched the house for a good hour, calling his name and rushing upstairs and downstairs. It was only when Dad went outside to get his car, having decided to go to the police for help, that he saw a small figure hunched at the foot of the tree. He ran towards it, screaming for his wife.
Martin’s hair was tinged with frost; it spread over his dark curls like a web of brittle lace. His knees were drawn up to his chest, his eyelashes dusted with snow. He was holding something. It took Dad a moment to recognize it. When he did, he stood rooted in the snow for several horrified seconds, struggling to understand as he stared at the silent and accusing silver box clutched in Martin’s stiff fingers.
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