Below is the second short story titled He died, and I woke up… in response to the prompt: “Start your story with an ending and work backward toward the beginning.”
It was in the afternoon when my grandpa passed away. As I woke up from my nap, I was in a daze. My grandma was in shock; she was crying. My parents came home early that day. As everyone was scrambling around, I fell into my own bubble of thoughts. A world without my grandfather was not going to be an easy one. This, I knew in my heart. Still, the final lesson he had managed to teach me in the last month we spent together was that “sometimes, in life, when nothing seemed to be going your way, you just have to take a leap of faith.” And so, with those words still ringing in my ears, I took a leap.
Earlier that day…
“So what was it you wanted to tell me earlier, grandpa?” – I asked as I sat at his desk and was coloring the picture he had drawn me. I was in third grade. It was a beautiful day, and I didn’t have to go to school. As usual, my parents had already gone to work, so there were only my grandparents and me at home. My grandma was cooking in the kitchen, and my grandpa was entertaining me after I was done with homework.
When he didn’t reply, I glanced over to see him staring at me, apparently deep in thoughts. Slipping down from the chair, I came over and hugged him. He patted my back before started to say something, just as my grandma’s voice came in:
“Lunch is ready, you two! Come out and eat!”
That sentence rang up a sense of déjà vu, and I vaguely heard my grandpa mumbled something about “goodbyes” and “timing.” But as I shook my head to clear the ringing in my ears and looked up at him, he simply smiled and said:
“Let’s go eat, kiddo! I’ll tell you later.”
My dad was seeing the acupressure doctor, Mr. Long – who treated my grandfather, out when the medicine man suddenly turned around and walked back into the house. As I had no school that day, I shifted at the breakfast table and craned my head to hear what he told my grandmother and parents:
“I have a bad feeling today.” He’d said, “And I fear he felt as much given what he told me. He may not make it until tomorrow. It’s best that you make preparations.”
A vague sense of déjà vu washed over me, and I didn’t quite hear what my grandma had said. Knowing her, though, it was probably overreaction or something along the line of asking if there was anything he could do. My grandpa hadn’t been well for quite some time now. Over a year ago, he had a stroke during one of the meetings he was usually going to back in those days. Ever since, he had been in and out of hospitals, meeting all kinds of doctors, both western and eastern ones. This acupressure doctor had been a miracle worker, or at least the most suitable. My grandpa’s conditions were getting noticeably better by the day.
I slipped down from the chair and ran into my grandpa’s room. He was sitting in his favorite chair, reading a newspaper. Seeing me, he glanced up and smiled:
“Ah, there you are! No school today?”
“No, Grandpa! I’d told you two weeks ago, we have two days off this week.” There was that déjà vu again… I guessed this wasn’t the first time my grandpa had forgotten something like that.
“That’s good, child. It’s good that we get to spend this day together. Now, I’d like to tell you something.”
He looked at me and was about to say something when my parents called from outside:
“Nam! We’re leaving for work. Come out and say goodbye!”
I glanced back, my grandfather simply nodded:
“Go ahead! It can wait.”
Three days earlier…
It was a Saturday afternoon. I was waking up from my nap when I heard my grandparents talking.
“Promise me!” He was saying, “Promise me you’ll see him finish University before you join me!”
“What are you on about?” She replied, “You’ll live through this and see it yourself!”
Silent. Then, “Just promise me!”
“Oh, alright, fine! I promise!”
“Good,” My grandpa said, “He’s waking up!”
I groggily rubbed the sleep – and an odd sense of déjà vu – away and sat up as my grandma came over to the bed. As my house only had two bedrooms, I usually sleep in my parents’ one. However, today workers were cutting down trees outside the window of that one, so my grandparents let me sleep in theirs instead.
“What were you two talking about?” I asked. My grandparents glanced quickly at each other, and then my grandma said:
“Nothing, dear! Just old people stuff. You had a good sleep, I hope?”
“Yes, grandma. It was great.”
“Good. I shall go get you something to eat!” She said as she stood up and walked out of the room.
“So what were you talking about before I woke up?” I tried to ask my grandpa again.
He looked at me for a long time before finally said:
“I supposed I should tell you now. Come here, Nam!”
Just as I got down from the bed, though, my grandmother came back with a cup of bean soup in her hands. As I took it from her and started sipping, my grandparents began talking about my studies. When I looked at him with a silent question, he simply looked back with eyes that said, “it can wait.”
A week ago…
I came home that day with a bad grade in Literature. It wasn’t the first, and I knew it wasn’t going to be my last. So much for dreaming of becoming an author someday. My grandma was strict, so she had me knelt out in the yard as punishment. It was supposed to last one hour, but fifteen minutes in, my grandpa came out with a mischievous smile on his face:
“Come on, kiddo! She’s busy cleaning up the mess I made. Now you and I are going to have some fun.”
Our fun activity had simply just been tending to the garden, but I didn’t mind. Watching my grandpa gardening had always filled me with happiness I could never quite explain.
“Do you know why I garden, kiddo?” My grandpa suddenly asked as he plucked out a rotten leaf.
“Because the plants in our garden can be used as medicines and save lives?” I ventured a guess.
“True, but that’s just why these particular plants are grown here, not why I tend to them.”
“Because I love to do it, kiddo. There needn’t be any other reason.” He replied, “Gardening makes me happy.”
“But I thought drawing makes you happy. Or playing the flute.”
“In a way, they do. Because they make you happy, and that always makes me happy. But no, before you, drawing and playing the flute helps me relax; it’s not the same thing as being happy. Gardening makes me happy, just like telling stories makes you happy.”
“But I’m no good at it.” I looked down to the ground.
“You can always learn to get better at something, kiddo. But not everyone is as lucky as we are to have already found what makes us happy.” He turned around and beckoned me with one hand, “Now come here. I want to show you something!”
I stood up from the step I was sitting on and jogged over to him. In front of us was his kumquat tree; its fruits are often used as cough medicines. My eyes followed my grandpa’s fingers to find a grey and odd-looking shape underneath one of the leaves.
“That’s a swallowtail butterfly cocoon.” My grandpa explained, “I saw it a few days back and was going to get rid of it, but I figured this is something you’d like to see happens.”
As I watched, the cocoon slowly cracked open, and low and behold, a butterfly – one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen emerged before our very eyes. Still marveling at the sight, I heard my grandpa said beside me:
“You know, Nam, when that butterfly was just a caterpillar, every day was a challenge for it. I could have caught it at any point, and because this was my garden, I would have wanted to get rid of it, so it couldn’t harm the trees I have growing here. Even when going into that cocoon, it didn’t know whether or not it would be able to come out as a butterfly, or I’d have gotten rid of it even then. But here we are, witnessing it emerging as a beautiful butterfly. You are like that butterfly, my boy!”
“I am?” I looked over at him in surprise.
“You are. As you grow up, life is going to keep throwing challenges at you. And sometimes, it’ll get so hard you’ll wonder if you could even keep going. But at times like that, I want you to remember today – this very moment – and have faith. Sometimes, all you can do is have faith, keep looking forward, and make a jump for it. And just like I’d decided to let the butterfly live for you to see, life will sometimes let you spread your wings and fly, too. But you must first have faith in yourself. That’s why they call it a ‘leap of faith,’ kiddo!”
“Have you also taken leaps of faith, grandpa?”
“Yes, plenty, my boy!” He smiled warmly at me. Then something flashed underneath his eyes, and his tone turned serious, “Now, there is something else I must tell you. I fear there isn’t much time left!”
He stared at me, but before he could say anything, the gate bell rang, and he looked over to see who was there. The smile returned to his face as he glanced back at me:
“Maybe later, kiddo. It can wait!”
Two weeks ago…
“She said in two weeks, we’d have 2 days off from school, grandpa!” I excitedly told him as I saw that it was him who came to get me from school that day. Ever since he had that stroke, he’d hardly walked me home from school anymore. Before that fateful day, he used to walk me home almost every day. Before that day, everyone used to say he was strong for his age, able to jog for miles without needing to catch his breath. Now, he needed a cane to walk anywhere, and ever so often, he’d need to sit down and rest.
His canes were about the most marvelous things I’ve ever seen, though. They were all carved in dragons’ shapes, with the handle being the dragons’ heads, their snout biting down on different sizes orbs. No two canes of his were exactly the same, either. And he had a total of five. He would often let me play with the ones he wasn’t currently using, pretending I was a wuxia character.
As I cheerily told him about my day at school while we walk back home, he laughed encouragingly and asked more questions for me to keep going. As I told him about the Literature exam that I was pretty sure I had failed, he simply smiled and said:
“Don’t worry, kiddo! I’ll have your back if anything happens.”
When we were nearing our house, waiting on the last traffic light to cross the street, my grandpa suddenly said:
“There is something I should probably tell you!”
I turned to face him, “Yes, Grandpa?”
But just as he was about to speak, someone called out:
“Oh, Mr. Độ, is that you?”
We looked over; it was a man in his forties. He jogged over to us, smiled at me, and said:
“And you must be his grandson!”
My grandpa smiled:
“So you have come to see me off? I must say, though, this is better than you see me weak and frail on my deathbed.”
“Oh, master, always a joker!” The man said, “You will live until you’re a hundred.”
“It’s good to see you again, Quang!” My grandpa chuckled, “Though I doubt I’ll live that long, it’s nice to know you think that highly of this old fool.”
He then turned to me and said, “Nam, I’d like you to meet Mr. Quang, my old student. Quang, as you have guessed it, this is my grandson, Nam.”
After the pleasantries, we invited Mr. Quang into our house, and I went to do my homework while my grandpa and his old student reminisced about their shared past.
Three weeks ago…
“What has gotten into you, child?” My grandma half-scolded me, “Your grandpa needs rest if he is to recover! You shouldn’t come here every night demanding he read you a bedtime story. You’re almost ten years old!”
The words brought up uneasiness and an odd sense of déjà vu in me. It wasn’t as if I didn’t understand what my grandmother was saying. It was just that, for the past week, I’d been having a gripping fear something terrible was going to happen soon and that I should spend every waking moment I can with my grandpa.
“It’s okay, dear!” My grandpa said, “Let the boy come. I want to spend time with him, too.”
“I give up!” My grandma said, “You two are always like that! Fine, have it your way! But five minutes! That’s it! You need your rest!” She told my grandpa, then turned to me, “And you need to let your grandpa rest!”
As she finished, she retreated back to her bed on the other side of the room.
My grandpa beckoned me over to sit next to him on his bed. He took the picture book I hold in my hands from me, opened it up, and started to read.
The story was “Sơn Tinh, Thủy Tinh.” It was about the eighteenth Hùng Vương – one of the first kings of Vietnam – looking for a husband for his daughter. Two contenders showed up: Thủy Tinh – symbolizing water, flood, nature itself; and Sơn Tinh – representing the mountain, dams, and the will to conquer nature. In the story, Sơn Tinh eventually won the hand of the princess; and Thủy Tinh, in his rage, raised the flood to attempt to take her back. The people and animals joined Sơn Tinh and built dams to hold back Thủy Tinh, who eventually lost and retreated. But he would come back every year to challenge Sơn Tinh, beginning a rivalry that lasted through centuries.
As the story was coming to an end, my grandpa looked over at me and said:
“And just as Sơn Tinh has always been there to beat Thủy Tinh back every year, I’ll always be here when you need me. So there’s no need to fear, kiddo! Fear is a part of life, but you mustn’t let it control you. The people in the story, they feared Thủy Tinh, too. Because he was a force of nature, something we can’t really win against,” just like death. “But they stood up to him and joined Sơn Tinh in the fight against him. Be brave, my grandson! Be brave, look toward tomorrow, and make sure it’s better than today! And trust that I’ll always be there for you,” even after I’m gone.
Another wave of déjà vu washed through me as I made my way back to my parents’ bedroom. Oddly enough, the gripping fear that had clawed at my heart ebbed down after that night…
A month ago…
He died, and I woke up…
Cold sweat soaked the back of my shirt as I sat up on my bed…
It was an afternoon just like this one when he passed away…
And… I think my grandpa knew it was coming! He had said his goodbyes to everyone, from his student to his friends and family, even the doctor who was treating him.
“Have you had a bad dream, child?” My grandma asked.
I dizzily glanced over to see her sitting in the chair at the edge of the bed, watching over me with worry in her eyes. Blinking, I realized I had been crying in my sleep and raised my hands to wipe away the tears as I answered her:
“It’s nothing, grandma! I just miss grandpa so much!”
“Me, too, dear! Me, too!” The worry in her eyes was replaced by warmth, “But, he’s just gone for a routine check-up. He’ll be back with us in two days!”
A pang of déjà vu hit me so hard my ears were ringing as I asked:
“Well, of course he is, dear!” Then dawning realization seemed to flash under her eyes as she came over and hugged me, “It was just a bad dream, my boy!” she said as she patted my back, “Your grandpa will live until he’s a hundred…”
Those words seemed familiar. So familiar I could have sworn I heard my grandpa chuckled with a reply, “I doubt I’ll live that long.” But the overwhelming relief at the fact my grandpa was alive, and it was just all a bad dream pushed the thought to the back of my head.
He was alive! And I still have time to spend with him! I’d make sure I’d make every minute count. I’d spend every waking moment with him!
***Author’s note: While this was the chosen prompt for submission, I thought I’d challenge myself a bit, so elements that could make this short story fit into other prompts are also presented, though they are up to interpretation.