This story is by Sandy Juker and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I remember snapping my suspenders, and counting raindrops as they splashed on polished mahogany until Grandpa’s hand, a cold leathery vice, squeezed my shoulder. Grammy’s coffin, splayed with fragrant white roses, slowly sank out of sight as a church lady sang my grandma’s favorite hymn.
At eight years old, the words confused me. “He walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.” She’s not his. She’s my grandma, and she belongs to my grandpa. I looked up and raindrops mixed with tears dampened my grandfather’s face.
“And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” That’s wrong. Grandma loved being with me. She told me I was the joy of her life.
August twentieth, nineteen thirty-six, seven years after my parents died of consumption and two days after Grandma’s funeral. I sat on the porch swing with Grandpa, watching the sun set behind the barn. The barn where he’d found her body.
The sun’s rays glowed like a halo around the gambrel roof. I turned to Grandpa and asked, “Why did Grammy have to leave? I thought she liked being with us.”
Grandpa’s chest heaved, and he hummed a guttural growl. “I’m not sure, Spencer. I don’t think she wanted to leave us.” His jaw was tight as he glared at the barn’s silhouette. “Your grandmother loves us very much. She wants us to be together forever.”
“How do you know, Grandpa?” I looked up at his stern face, but he continued to stare into the sunset. “When did she tell you?”
He scraped a hand across his unshaven chin and, in a wistful tone, said, “She told me last night, in a dream.” His eyes glazed, and he gripped the railing in front of us.
“Really?” I slid to the edge of the wooden slats, a knee curled into the swing. “I wish I could talk to Grammy in my dreams.”
My grandfather jerked up to the railing and muttered, “You won’t have to.” The swing jostled into motion and as I flailed, one of my sandals thumped to the floor and fell off the edge of the porch.
I scrambled to grab the porch rail and followed Grandpa down the steps and across the barnyard. I hopped and skipped, avoiding stickers and sharp rocks with my bare foot. “What else did Grammy say in your dream? Does she miss me?”
The barn door’s hinges grated as Grandpa swung it open. I followed him to a stall strewn with fresh straw. The stall where Grandma’s heart had stopped beating.
The barn swallows hushed their singing, and the two of us stood in silence. I saw the tears on Grandpa’s cheeks, and clenched my fingers into fists, afraid to take his hand.
Shadows crept in as the sun faded, and Grandpa retrieved a kerosene lantern from the central barn pole. He carried it, unlit, to a ladder leading to the loft. I tugged my britches and obeyed his command to climb up ahead of him.
From the loft, we admired the last vibrant orange of sunset as it creased the western horizon beyond dusky rolling hills. Grandpa lit the lantern and nimbly led the way across the rafters until we stood balanced above the stall.
I looked down, my eyebrows cowled. “Is that where Grandma —”
In a haunting monotone, Grandpa interrupted. “In my dream, your grandmother reached out to me. She beckoned me to join her.” He placed a hand on my shoulder and clamped his eyes shut. “And I promised…” He extended his arm and dropped the lantern.
Glass shattered in the stall below. I gagged on a strong whiff of kerosene and cried out when flames burst forth, consuming the straw and crawling up the walls. The fire licked at the rafters, releasing creosote fumes that burned in my throat.
I stepped back, raising my arms to fend off the heat. “Run, Grandpa! Run to the haystack by the garden. We can jump from there and pump water to put out the fire.”
My grandfather blinked as if shaken from sleep. He teetered on the rafter above the stall where Grandmother’s heart had given out. He reached out for me.
But I choked and clamped a hand over my mouth and nose. I ran across the beams to the loft door on the other end of the barn. Smoke billowed around me, reeking of charred wood. My grandfather, barely visible through thick black clouds that spewed from burning straw, yelled, “Take the leap!”
“No, Grandpa. No.” I glanced at the haystack that I’d jumped into countless times over the summer. “Please, Grandpa. I can’t do it without you.” With my bare foot curled away from the scorching heat, I balanced on one foot.
I wavered and fell to my knees on the roughhewn wood and rasped, “Hurry, Grandpa! I need you!”
Acrid fumes burned my lungs, and I coughed and struggled to breathe. I stared into the blazing inferno below me. Should I jump and be with Grandma, like Grandpa said? Paralyzed by the fear of living without my grandparents, I leaned forward, but a searing heat blasted my face and I pulled back. No! Grammy wouldn’t want that.
In search of my grandfather, I looked up, tears stinging my eyes. “Please Grandpa, come with me.” I stood and raised my arms to the heat as flames engulfed the rafters.
Amidst the din of the roaring fire, I heard Grandpa scream my grandmother’s name. I turned and took the leap into the haystack.
Today, thirteen years after the barn burned down, I stand in the garden alone, haunted by my grandfather’s voice. “Take the leap!”
I’ll never understand why my grandfather chose to die in that fire, with Grandma’s name fused in his last breath. Some nights I wake, hearing his screams and his plea, and wonder which way he wanted me to leap.
I turn toward the house where my wife Lydia sways in the porch swing with our young daughter. I grimace, remembering the hours spent alone in that swing, staring at the blackened skeleton of the barn, haunted by Grandpa’s choice and wishing I, too, had leapt into the fire.
White roses now flourish where the barn once stood. Lydia’s voice, like dew on the rose petals, nourishes my soul as she sings. “And he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.”
My daughter squirms from Lydia’s lap and runs to me with one shoe missing. I lift her into the air and she giggles as we spin between the rose bushes.
I gaze at the heavens and whisper, “Grandma, I made the right choice.”