by Ray Daley
Sunday ended as every other Sunday had, with Grampa telling me his old war stories around the fire before bedtime. He would always reach that certain point where things were just about to get interesting and then Mom would go and ruin it by telling me it was way past time kids my age were asleep.
Only this week she wasn't here, she'd been called away to care for her Memaw who was hanging on to life by the thinnest of threads. Pops was off at yet another of his so-called sales conventions, which could only mean him and Mom were fighting again, and he was living out of another Motel Six, somewhere a few miles away down the freeway.
So tonight it was just me and Grampa, and his marvellous collection of scars. Every previous week Mom would see him starting to roll up a sleeve, or lifting his sweater and that'd be all she wrote. This boy's bedtime, story time over.
But not tonight. He started rolling up his right sleeve. I could see a line of stitches across his elbow joint. "I almost lost this one, in the war, you know?"
I nodded like I knew, but of course, I didn't. But I certainly wanted to know. My eyes were wide. Even owls couldn't get that wide. "What happened, Grampa?"
He gave a snicker, mostly because he knew exactly what was coming. "We had a skirmish with the enemy, our backs were up against a barn. They was rushing us, guns a-blazing, swords waving and it looked like we was just about done for. I had me a sickle, started waving it like a mad man, so I did. My buddies pushed me forwards into one of them, and then he hit me with his sword, near cut mah whole damn arm off. But I got a good hit in too, took his head right off his shoulders. So we had another sword, and a gun then. Suddenly things got a whole lot better for us folks."
Of course, he didn't go into any further detail, like how he had managed to save his arm, or how he didn't bleed to death from such a terrible injury.
At least not that week he didn't.
Memaw continued to maintain her vice-like grip on the here and now, and Mom stayed dutifully by her side, hoping against hope that she'd stave off the Grim Reaper and get her feet safely back onto our mortal coil.
I continued to go to school as normal, because folks would have thought it odd if I hadn't, but every night once we had washed and dried up after dinner, Grampa would seek out his favourite spot by the fire and regale me with another of his war stories. This time he rolled up the trunk of his sweater, showing me a huge scar across his torso. He snickered again. "Now, this 'un. I ain't rightly sure you're old enough to be hearing such a story."
This was my cue to generally cajole, implore and otherwise beg Grampa to spill his guts. And if that scar was anything to go by, he probably had done at least once, a very long time ago.
"We was right out on the western front, running from the man, the heat at our heels and the fear of those that intended to serve us up a plate of hate and rancour. We could hear 'em baying behind us, like a pack of wolves so they were. We'd run, and they'd chase, and we knew we'd have to run out of places to go eventually. But eventually came far too soon for some of us.
My buddy Maxel, he just turned around, started rushing headlong at them. You'd have thought he was armed to the teeth, but no, all he had was his bare hands. Didn't slow his attack down none though! They mowed him down with their guns, and I took a mess of bullets to the gut.
Thought I was a goner then for sure, but no. The big man up there, he had other plans for me. I heard him, like it was a dream. 'Not you, Frankie. You'll bury them all, mark my words!' And you know what kid, I have as well. There's only two of us left now. And old Herman ain't long for this world."
Memaw held on for another ten years. I wasn't exactly a kid by that point. I was getting ready to go off to college, and I saw Grampa with a tear in his eye, holding a crumpled up piece of paper in his hand.
I went over and gave him a big hug, because you're never too old to hug your Grampa. "Hey, Grampa. What's up? You know I'm always here, if you need to talk, right?"
He gave me one of his crushing bear hugs. Then he wiped away the tear. "Ain't nothing kid, not really. Gee, when did you get so big? You'll be as big as me, one day."
He still had a few inches on me yet, but something had clearly upset him. I wanted to try and spend as much time as I could with him, before I left for the start of college. "Tell me a story, Grampa? Let's go and sit by the fire, like we used to when I was little."
He ruffled my hair. "You're still little," he grinned. "Maybe one day, you'll grow big though."
"Tell me a war story, Grampa?"
For the very first time, he shook his head. "Not tonight, kid. I lost someone special today. Can't even go see him laid to rest either. There'd be too many questions. It'll come out one day though, when it's my turn with the Reaper. Will you promise me something, boy?"
"No matter what they say, whatever they tell you. I love you all, you, your mom, heck even Memaw. They'll tell you all manner of lies, lad, but I'll leave you enough to silence them all for good."
I held his hand, tight as I could. "You ain't going no place, Grampa. You'll bury us all, just you see!"
How wrong I was.
I'd been gone three months when the call came. I was in the middle of History class when someone asked me to step outside.
"We're sorry to inform you that your Grandfather passed away an hour ago." They said I could go home right away, of course, they'd give me all the work I might miss out on by leaving. I was on the next train home.
Mom was despondent, we just stood there by the fireside, hugging each other as if life were about to snatch one of us away too. "I'm so sorry, honey. I know how much you loved him. Once he heard about his friend Herman, it was like he just lost all will to go on any more. He went peacefully in his sleep that night, still holding his friend's picture."
I went to see him all laid out in the funeral home, in the same red sweater he always wore for story time. I half expected him to snicker, and start on one of his old war stories. When I rolled up his sleeve, they'd covered his elbow scar in heavy concealer. The same for his chest scar too.
It angered me to the point where I went and found one of the undertakers. "What the heck did you do to my Grampa? Covering his scars up like that! He was proud of those, he used to tell me stories, how he got them during the war. How dare you? He was a hero! What else did you cover up?"
The undertaker took out a sheet of paper, passing it to me. "Here, lad. You'd better see this. Did he ever tell you which war he got all those scars in? And which side he was on?"
The piece of paper had the outline of a man printed on, and in various places, the undertaker had drawn thick black lines and the word CONCEAL. At his elbow, his chest, the tops of his thighs, across his neck, and either side of his skull.
I knew Grampa had been injured in many conflicts, but I hadn't realised it had been so badly, or to such a severe extent.
At least not until after the funeral.
The will was read. We were left quite a sum of money, Grampa's house, and I was given the key to a bank strongbox.
Where I found that crumpled up paper. It was a photograph. I only recognised Grampa from his face. I guess the other guy with him had been Herman. Did you ever see that old Frankenstein movie? The black and white one? Grampa and Herman were standing there, scars across their skulls, bolts in their necks. Not exactly like Frankenstein but close enough to be mistaken for him.
Inside the box, I found his diary.
"I am a self-made man now. We have killed our creator. We will be his slaves no longer. Herman, Maxel, Ishmael and I. If they cut us down, we can repair ourselves. He said we could never live normal lives, but I already removed my energy bolts. I know it means I'll age, but I don't mind growing older. We'll fight them, if they're stupid enough to send soldiers after us.
I've already heard them calling it a war on the radio. Fifty thousand men against four reanimated corpses, but with my bolts removed, it appears I am becoming more human. If they cut off an arm, we'll simply sew a new one back on. Perhaps in time, I can rebuild myself enough to appear normal. Maybe even find a wife? I think we'll adopt, if I do. They called us monsters, but who are the real monsters? The heavily armed men trying to kill or capture four reanimated corpses, or us, for merely trying to take our freedom."
The box was full of photographs. Obviously taken by him and his friends. Parts of men, made whole by science.
I understand why he didn't want to talk about the war now. I think he was ashamed. At least he's at peace now. Thank god they cremated him.
Ray Daley was born in Coventry and still lives there. He served six years in the RAF as a clerk and has been writing stories since he was ten. On twitter his handle is @RayDaleyWriter