A young boy receives a unique gift from his grandfather
|"Did Pa-Pa ever talk to you at any of his parties?" Mother asked. She twisted around in the passenger seat of Dad's new Escalade, draping one hand across the back of the seat so she could see me better. "He was never fond of children, and I don't recall you two being together."
"He certainly scrutinized everyone well enough at Christmas," Dad interrupted. "Him traipsing around the dining room, a drink in one hand and the annual holiday whore hanging on the other. God only knows where he came up with those bimbos.” He looked over at mother and grumbled. “Or don't you remember his annual big event?"
When he said, 'big event' Dad's hands flew from the steering wheel as he waved them dramatically in the air, raising his voice like some kind of carnival barker.
"Watch the road!" Mom cried as the Cadillac drifted onto the rumble strips along the highway's shoulder sending a tooth-rattling buzz through the interior until Dad grabbed the wheel and brought us back into our lane.
" Smoked salmon, turkey and oyster dressing,” he continued with hardly a pause, “And oh, let's not forget the main course. Hinted insults Au-gratin served up with a big helping bowl of sarcasm. All the delights of a traditional McCurdy feast before him and that creepy butler vanished upstairs with his slut.”
"Honey, if you’re not going to pay attention to the road,” Mother huffed, ”then switch on the auto-drive and let the car get us there. Besides,” she said, seeing that father had no intention of doing as she advised. “Didn’t anyone tell you, it’s not nice to speak ill of the dead?"
"So?" She continued, her Botox vacant expression and unblinking eyes fixed on me once again. "Did you and Pa-Pa spend time together we didn't know about?" Only her painted nails tapping expectantly on the seat revealed any sign of concern.
Outside my window, the tree-lined hills of East Texas drifted past, the hiss of the tires on asphalt transitioning to a grinding squelch as we pulled off the highway and onto the gravel track leading to Pa-Pa's estate. Situated in the center of 92,000 acres of hardwood thickets and rolling grassland prairie, Pa-Pa's three-story stone mansion would have been the envy of any eighteen-century Irish Lord. I'd even heard the outer walls were those of an abandoned Dublin Castle he'd shipped over and had rebuilt in the late sixties. The builders had done a fine job replicating the look and feel of the original structure down to the restored wood banisters and paintings of Old Masters adorning its dark painted walls.
"I'll bet it was when you and your sister came up," Dad said. "Remember he was going through all that experimental treatment and was in and out for weeks. You and Jenny were here for the better part of a month before I was able to rescue you."
"Oh my, yes," Mother said. "Thank God you came up with that business trip to Vienna idea." She turned, laying a hand dramatically on her breast. "I thought I'd have to be there when he passed. Can you just imagine? Pa-Pa calling me in on his deathbed for some dramatic last-minute confession."
The conversation in the front seat lingered for a moment on that pivotal month spent at Pa-Pa's before meandering into a pointless discussion on film directors and plans for next year's Cannes festival. But Dad was right, it had been during that particular stay that the old man had found me.
I'd been playing in the garden pond, elbows deep in the warm murky water, my hands slick along the sides of the giant koi when a shadow fell across the water's surface.
"Boy, you gonna waste your day starin' at fish or wanna to get somethin' done?"
When I looked up, I almost tumbled back into the water. Standing above me was not the aloof and powerful patriarch who'd I'd admired every holiday since I could remember, but the skeletal parody of death himself. He stood shirtless, wearing a threadbare gray robe over a pair of shimmering silk pajama bottoms. His emaciated chest was covered in a forest of silvery fur, a Texas Longhorns ball cap cocked jauntily on the back of his head. Pa-Pa's skin was stretched tight over his cheeks, and his eyes were dark rimmed and sunken, but the orbs within stared out with a steely brilliance as bright as Galveston Bay. For a long moment, he wavered on his cane, not saying a word, before clumping off towards the garden. "Come along if ya want," he mumbled over his shoulder, "it makes no difference ta me."
The hammering in my chest slowed at the realization my young life was not about to end. So drying my hand on my shorts, I followed. Pa-Pa shuffled beneath the rose entwined arbor and out towards the rows of trellised grapes stretching across the hills east of the estate. He'd only gone a few yards when he turned up a row, and I spotted a folding card table with a pitcher of lemonade and a single glass on top. Stranger still, one of the high backed chairs from the dining room was sitting beside it.
When he reached the table, the old man dug into his robe and dropped a pair of pruning shears on top before plopping into the chair. I stood at the end of that row for a long while, the desire to run fighting with a sense of curiosity at what the old man intended to do. Ever since leaving the pond, he'd not turned to see if I followed, so I wasn't even sure he knew I was there. Eventually, he picked up the pitcher and filled the glass, the ice cubes tinkling as they tumbled in. Then, with the delicacy of a surgeon, he picked up the shears and leaning towards the vines, began snipping at the branches, his gnarled hands like a pair of gaunt spiders crawling among the dark green of the leaves. Without even realizing it, I found myself standing beside the table watching him work.
"Might get that basket at the end of the row," he said, his voice gravely and deep. "Gonna need it to haul these cuttings to the mulch pit."
And so it went for the next hour. The old man bent to his labor, snipping at the vines. He'd pause every few minutes rising from his seat with a groan and taking a long pull at his lemonade; waving me in to retrieve the fallen branches and advance his chair along the vines.
"Mister McCurdy, it's time for your treatment."
I turned, surprised to see Lois Gorte, Pa-Pa's lifelong Cuban butler standing at the row's end an empty wheelchair waiting beside him.
"Damn it, Deek, do you have to bring that thing?" Pa-Pa waved a hand towards the wheelchair.
"I'm afraid so, Sir," Mr. Gorte said. He patted the chair's back and smiled. "Doctor's orders."
With a sigh, Pa-Pa set down the shears and brushed a wrist across his sweat-beaded brow. Then Mr. Gorte helped him into his wheelchair before turning to push him away.
"One moment, Deek," Pa-Pa said. He turned, rotating his whole body so he could look at me. His lips parted into a knife blade of a smile. "Good work," he said. "I'll see ya tomorrow. Same time. At the pond."
We spent three more afternoons like that, him snipping quietly at the vines, me scooping up the cuttings until my wicker basket was filled. Then the long, hot walk to the compost heap and back. He moved with a stiff dignity among the vines having me drag the chair as we progressed along the rows. We didn't talk. Not much anyway. Every now and again, he would wave me over and point out a particular vine telling me, "That's a Blanc du Bois, I grafted that one on two years ago." Or he'd snatch a bug off a leaf and hold it up for me to see. "Gotta watch out for these little bastards," he'd say before crushing it between thumb and forefinger. "You see more than a couple of these and you know it's time ta spray."
At the end of that third day, a helicopter circled the house before dropping out of sight and landing on the front lawn. Mr. Gorte appeared soon after, his bald head gleaming in the sun's yellow heat.
"Mr. McCurdy, Sir. Your transport to MIT labs has arrived."
Pa-Pa let the sheers drop to the table and sagged into his chair. He took a long gulp of lemonade and set the glass down. "Well, boy. This looks like the end."
My eyes ping-ponged between Pa-Pa and Mr. Gorte unsure of what to say. All of a sudden every question I had began rattling around my head, I asked the one that had bothered me the most. "Are you going to die?"
The old man's eyes went wide and a laugh burst from his lips. He covered his mouth with one hand, doubling over as the mirth transformed into a series of hacking coughs. When he'd recovered, he turned to me and smiled. "You know, kid, besides, Deek, here, I think you're the only person with the balls to ask me that question." Mr. Gorte helped Pa-Pa into his wheelchair and covered his shoulders with a shawl.
"To answer to your question," Pa-Pa said. "Yes. I'm dying.” He took off his hat and shook his head. “And to think I once prowled this county like a lion among sheep. Anything or any one that I wanted, I took.” For a moment, his eyes took on a faraway dreamy appearance before going suddenly hard and sharp. Then quick as a snake, he reached out and snatched my wrist his fingers sinking into my flesh. He pulled me close, his pallid face only inches from mine, the fetid odor of his breath like a dark fog washing across my cheeks. "They say you can't take it with you, but we're gonna show ‘em ain't we boy? One way or another, I think one of us is about to get very lucky."
He let go and I stumbled back, crashing into the table and knocking the pitcher to its side. As lemonade dripped to the parched, brown earth, Mr. Gorte wheeled grandfather away. Then just before he disappeared from sight, he raised an arm and waved. "See ya in the funny papers, kid."
As Dad pulled up to the front of Pa-Pa's mansion, the usual cadre of servants waited to greet us. Mr. Natukunda, whose skin was as dark and shiny as a wet seal's, Mr. Gordon, a frail old man as wispy and thin as a reed, and, Mr. Gorte his chin raised and broad shoulders squared, there to see everything went as it should. I grabbed my backpack and slid out of the SUV my eyes searching the grounds for the only reason coming here was anything but torture. The cook's son, Jamie. When I spotted him at the corner of the house waving at me from behind a spray of bugenvilijas, I flung my pack into Mr. Gordon's arms and raced after him.
"Don't get dirty," Mother called as I followed Jaime around the corner and we sped out of sight. "We're meeting with Pa-Pa's lawyer at three," her voice echoed over the grounds.
I followed Jamie along the outer walls and down through the fields ending our flight at the koi pond where he dropped onto a bench gasping for breath.
"How long... you here for?" he panted.
Jaime and I had gotten to be best friends during my last stay. Yet, even though we hadn't talked in months, seeing him now felt just like old times.
"We're moving in," I told him. "At least that's what Dad says."
Jaime leaned over and hocked a loogie into the pond. We both leaned over watching the koi jostle for the prize.
"Well, if you're still alive after dinner," Jaime said, "ya wanna run down to the stables and look at the new horses?"
After his spit had been devoured, Jaime searched the ground picking up a leaf and flicking it into the water. He watched in apparent amazement as the fish sucked it in then spit it back out.
"What do you mean, If I'm still alive after dinner?"
He looked up, his face going suddenly pale. "Uhh...I didn't say that."
"Yes, you did. Just now."
He straightened, looking around as if searching for something. Then his eyes locked on the distant dust trail of someone coming up the road. "Hey, let's go see who's comin’."
"Don't change the subject," I said. "What did you mean by that?"
Jaime dropped onto the lip of the pond and began poking at the water. "I'm not supposed to say," he said. "If anyone found out I knew, I'd get in trouble."
"Found out what?" I shouted in frustration. "Jesus, Jaime, you're driving me crazy." I sat down beside him and draped an arm across his shoulder. "Come on, man. Are we blood brothers or what? You've got to tell me what you heard."
He toed a rock from one foot to another before sighing and looking up to meet my eyes. "They're gonna inject you with dead man's blood," he said. "I heard ‘em talkin' about it at the meeting."
"What?" I blinked and shook my head uncertain of what I'd heard. "Dead man's blood."
"Yup, that's what I heard ‘em say. They've got blood from your grampa and they're gonna shoot it into you."
"Who said?" I asked.
Jaime's eyes drifted skyward as he lifted a hand and ticked off his fingers one by one. "Well, there was my mom, an' Mr. Natukunda, an' Mr. Gordon, and Ms. Jenny, and...."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," I waved my hands for him to stop. "When did you hear all this?"
"It was last week," he said. "There was a big staff meetin' letting everyone know your mom and dad were comin' and that they'd be the new residents of the manor. Since your parents send you off to school and camp all the time, I wasn't sure if you were comin'." He found a piece of koi food spilled on the trail and flicked it into the pond watching as the koi swirled around it.
"And?" I prompted.
"You promise you won't tell?"
I held up my hand, pinky crooked. He raised his own hand and we pinky swore that I wouldn't ever tell.
"Okay," he said. "It was after the meetin', and a bunch of ‘eightem were in the kitchen having coffee. Like I said, it was Mr. Natukunda, and Mr. Gordon, my mom, and a couple others." He looked up and saw my scowl. "Anyway, they were all talkin' about Mr. McCurdy, your grandfather that is, sayin' some things that weren't so nice when Mr. Natukunda says. It's the devil's work them puttin’ the old man's blood in that boy. 'Course I didn't know who they were talkin' about until my mom said, 'And he's such a good boy too. Not like his mom and dad at all. Well, that's when I figured they must be talkin' about you."
"So you never heard ‘em say my name?"
"Kyle?" a woman's voice echoed faint and distant from the front yard.
"No. I never heard your name," Jaime said. "I just figured. You know. The way they were talkin'."
"There he is," I heard my father say.
Looking up, I spotted my dad and Mr. Gorte standing at the garden entrance.
"Kyle," my father shouted. "We'd like you in the library, please. There's some legal matters we have to attend to before dinner. Once we're done, you can rejoin your little friend." He waved an arm beckoning me over before stepping inside. Mr. Gorte remained outside watching.
"Well." Jaime stood up and slapped me on the back. "Good luck."
As I strolled inside, Mr. Gorte closed the door and fell in stride behind me. When we turned the corner leading to the library, I paused. The double doors were open wide and inside I could see several people seated around a large mahogany desk beneath the window. My aunt turned briefly to scowl at us before turning back to the desk.
"Come on, little master," Mr.Gorte said. "There's nothing to be afraid of."
Pa-Pa’s library was an expansive space divided into two sections. On my left, was a forty foot long room lit with an etched glass ceiling running the room's length. Lining all four walls, floor to ceiling shelves housed books of every subject and variety. It was, in truth, the heart of the library. The smaller anteroom in which I stood, was more office than anything else. The space beneath the wall-sized window was dominated by the desk. The display cases lining the wood-paneled walls contained everything from antique firearms to shards of ancient Greek pottery. Typically the room held four deep backed leather chairs, but six additional seats had been pulled from the dining room to hold the crowd gathered within.
Besides mother and father, aunt Gail, and uncle Reese, there were three or four older cousins I recognized from family gatherings as well as an equal number of severe-looking men and women standing behind them, each wore expensive dark suits and clutched notepads or tablets in their hands.
"Kyle, come have a seat," father said. He patted one of the empty leather recliners pulled up in front of the desk. "The doctor just arrived, and we're ready with your inheritance."
"What are you talking about?" I asked. "What inheritance?"
I scanned the crowd of faces. Except for Mother and Dad, the rest considered me with tight lips and narrowed brows.
"Isn't it wonderful?" Mother said. "Pa-Pa is giving you three-quarters of his estate." She rose from her seat and wobbled over giving me a peck on the cheek and drenching me in the stink of pricey scotch and expensive perfume.
"Darla, please, you're making a scene," Father said, helping her back to her chair.
"Well, he is," Mother protested brushing away his hand and dropping down in her seat. "I'm just so proud of him."
"He only receives the full share if he abides by the guidelines of the will," one of the women standing behind my aunt said.
"Oh he'll abide, don't you worry about that," Father snapped.
I was about to ask what the heck everyone was talking about when a lanky bald man wearing a tweed jacket and a mismatched tie scurried into the room.
"So sorry I'm late," he said, dropping a gleaming metal briefcase onto the desk. The room went silent as he pressed his thumb against the case's face and the latches snapped open with a pop. Then bending over the case, he rummaged inside for several seconds before straightening and turning to face me. In his latex covered hands, he held a syringe.
Jaime had been right! I'd thought he was pulling my leg, but he was right. I took a step back bumping into something fleshy and solid. When I raised my head, I was staring into the wide nostrils of Mr. Natukunda.
"Don't worry, Master Kyle," he said. "It will all be over in a minute." Then his hands clamped on my shoulders like a pair of vises.
"No dead man's blood!" I screamed trying to twist away. But Mr.Natukunda's grip was undeniable. When the odd man with the syringe stepped close, I changed tactics. Instead of trying to run, I attacked. My first kick caught him in the arm, the syringe flying momentarily into the air before he caught it delicately in his hands. My second kick caught dad in the kneecap and sent him to the floor with a yelp. Then the room erupted with shouts.
"He's denied the injection," someone called, "the will's in dispute."
"Hold him! He's getting away," I heard Mother shout.
"Someone grab a sedative!"
Before I knew it, I'd been hoisted from my feet and slammed atop the desk. Along with Mr. Natukunda, and Father, Mr.Gorte, and a woman in blue medical scrubs held me down. Then the face of Dr. Bik, Pa-Pa's private physician, appeared above me. I felt an icy punch in the right arm, the chilled numbness spreading like twined ivy along my arms and legs. Then everything went black.
When I awoke, it was to Mother's voice.
"Are you sure he'll be all right?" she asked.
A voice I didn't at first recognize said. "Of course he will. The haloperidol-promethazine we gave him will keep him out for another couple hours. Then his natural sleep pattern will kick in. I expect he'll wake in the morning feeling just fine."
"I didn't mean the sedative," Mother said. "I mean the other injection. The nanos."
"Oh, that. Well, there are some possible side effects, the most serious being a full rejection by your son's body. But we'd already have seen signs of fever if that were the case. No, no, everything will be fine. After all, medbots have been in use for years."
"But I thought Pa-Pa's nanos were different," Mother said. "Specialized some way."
"Oh, they are. Quite specialized. Mainly to fight your father's cancer, but there were other tweaks as well."
The cobwebs cluttering my thoughts began to fade and I remembered where I'd heard that voice before. It was the strange little man from the library. The one who wanted to give me the injection.
"Mrs. Bilks, your father spent a great deal of money for the rights to this particular variant of medbot tech. It's leaps and bounds ahead of anything else on the market. Not even the military has anything that compares."
"Well, what do these nanos do?" Mother asked.
"Oh, all kinds of good things. Sadly, most of them I'm not at liberty to disclose. Let's just say your son will never catch a cold, will never have cancer, and will never be poisoned or drown. Did you know the technology has advanced so much that only a few grams of biological material...say, five or ten drops of blood, are enough to store over eight-point-five petabytes of information. That's enough storage to hold the entire Library of Congress a dozen times over. Enough storage to hold the memories of an entire human lifespan."
There was a long silence, and I heard the rustle of clothes and the warmth of Mother's touch on my brow. My eyes fluttered open and I looked up into my mother's face, her cheeks flush, a glass of wine in one hand.
"Oh, look he's awake," she said.
"What? That's impossible," the little man said.
He appeared beside my mother then stepped to where a clear plastic bag hung above me on a hook. He adjusted a screw on the bag leading to a clear tube running to my arm. In moments, I felt a heaviness reenter my limbs pulling, pulling me down.
"Don't worry," the little man said. "It's just the nanos cleaning out his blood. See, the process had already begun."
When I awoke the next morning, it was to a ravenous hunger. I was laying in Pa-Pa's bed, the alarm clock on the dresser reading 05:00. I pulled on a well-worn but surprisingly comfortable gray robe and made my way down the servant's stairs to the kitchen. To my surprise, I found a plump, red-cheeked woman already at work laying out pans of bacon and mixing a bowl of pancake batter.
She gasped when I stepped in, her hand darting to her breast like a frightened bird. "Oh, my you scared me, Master Kyle." She turned and opened the oven door before sliding two pans of bacon inside and slamming it shut. Then she turned and faced me, her hands planted firmly on her wide hips. "That robe threw me," she said her chubby face dimpling into a grin. "For a second there I thought you were Mr. McCurdy come back from the dead. He always came down at five o'clock, right on the dot wanting a poached omelet and two pieces of toast and jam. He'd keep me company while I fixed breakfast for all the staff and guests."
She picked up a Hello Kitty coffee mug and couched it in her palms before lifting it to her lips. "I'm Kathy, by the way," she extended her hand and we shook. "but everyone here just calls me Kat."
I didn't know why, but right then, I couldn't imagine anything better than a big poached omelet and several pieces of toast and jam.
As I ate, the horrors of the prior afternoon dwindled in importance. Like trying to recall a dream in the bright glow of morning's light, the facts of that terrifying day seemed to dwindle like mists. The sun came golden through the eastern window flowing across the kitchen floor and bringing with it a sense of goodwill to everything it touched. I thanked Kat for the omelet an toast and turned to go but a sweet smell caught my attention. I lifted my nose scenting at the air.
"Do you smell strawberries?" I asked.
"That’s the nanos," she said.
I turned on her, my eyes wide. How did she know?
"Don't worry," she laughed. "Not everyone knows about them. Your grandfather told me after he'd had them installed. Besides you, he's the only person who could smell my strawberry pre-wash." Kat laughed and fluffed her mane of thick red hair. "I can barely smell it myself, but the nanos make all your senses keener, especially the sense of smell."
I went upstairs and dressed excited to see where my heightened perception and this strange sense of deja-vu would lead. Everything seemed brighter, more intense. Every flower and vine somehow familiar. As I strolled along the budding grapes, I seemed led to a low spot in the vineyard. It was quiet and hidden here. Safe. But there was an odor too, a musty smell of decay mixed with an eerie tingle of what ... anticipation? I searched the branches and vines and discovered nothing, but the more I looked, the more convinced I became there was something here. Something important. Something secret. I returned from the shed with a shovel, gloves, and a determination to uncover the truth I knew lay hidden here.
As afternoon faded to dusk, the sun hanging wounded and red on the horizon, I leaned on my spade and examined my work. Five shallow trenches lay scattered along the base of the vines.
"Whoa, what have you found?"
I looked up to see Jaime cresting the rise, jogging down to join me. He bent over, hands on knees gaping into first one pit, then another. “What is it they’ve got in their hands?” he asked staring into one hole. “Is it a glass ball?” He moved to the third pit then the forth. “Some of them are broken,” he said, “But they’ve all got the same kind of orb lying on their chests.” When he stepped up beside me and stared into the last grave, the color drained from his face. Dropping to a knee, he reached inside then rose, a golden globe shimmering in his hand. “I remember this. Mom bought this ornament for Mr. McCurdy to celebrate ten years working for him.” He glanced around like someone seeing things for the first time. “The only person allowed down here was your grandfather.” He eyed the ornament again then looked to me his face dark with concern. “We have to tell someone. We gotta call the Sheriff.”
Jaime was right. The proper thing to do was inform the authorities. But I couldn't allow grandfather's name to be dragged through the mud. Our family name as well. A murder investigation would mean scandal and media coverage; a crash in the price of stocks. My knuckles went white on the shovel's shaft. I couldn't allow that to happen. Couldn't allow it.
When I strolled into the dining room two hours later, the aroma of roast mutton and lime jelly filled the air.
"Where have you been, young man?" Mother asked, rising from her half-finished meal and rushing across the room. "I've been worried half to death." She leaned down to embrace me but paused seeing my dirt-caked knees and grime smudged face. "Lord, Kyle, you're filthy. Where have you been?"
"Leave the boy along, Darla," Father said. "At least he's outside and not locked upstairs playing video games all day. By the way," Father added. "Have you seen the Cook's boy? His mother's been looking for him."
I shook my head and pulled out the chair at the head of the table. "No, Sir. Not since this morning." Then glancing over, I waved to Mr. Gorte standing expectantly along the back wall. "Deek, could you get me a glass of lemonade? You know how I like it. With an extra spoonful of sugar.
"Yes, Sir," Mr. Gorte said, springing from the wall, his face creasing into an uncharacteristic grin. "Lemonade, with an extra spoonful of sugar," he repeated. "And may I say, Sir," he paused at the kitchen door, glancing at me over his shoulder. "It's nice to have you back."