They were stern and strict old people. I believe love was a word that didn’t exist in their vocabulary. It was always do this, behave, do that, don’t swear and so on.
I dared to not obey their rules? Better be prepared to be screamed at and punished. It wasn’t just once that I got slapped across the face.
It was terrible when I was a kid and stayed with them for the weekend. After dad’s death, when I came to live with them, it was hell.
I loved dad more than anything. My mom died when I was only six, and from then on he took it upon himself to bring me up and take care of me.
For young me, he was the coolest guy in the world. Dad worked as a freelancer, a sort of business consultant. Even though he had quite a schedule, he always found a way to spend time with me.
We also had all the video game consoles you can imagine. We had both the PS2 and PS3, the Wii and Wii U and even the Xbox 360. You wouldn’t believe how many hours I spent on those, glued to the screen, either playing alone or with dad.
One thing I remember was dad’s many visitors. There were always people over. I guess some of them were people he worked with, others that were around more often, must have been his friends. I thought it was pretty cool to hang out with grown-ups all the time.
The best part about dad was that he often took me along when he visited customers. He said he didn’t want me to sit around at home alone all day and that it was good to get to know people. Connections are the ‘name of the game’ he always said with a big grin on his face.
I really don’t remember much about those trips. Most of the time dad would meet up with his customers, and I’d sort of tag along. I was never there for the actual business talk. It was super dull dad told me. It wasn’t a problem though. Most of the time someone else was around, and I’d often ended up hanging out with them, playing video games or watching movies. The cool thing was that it was often games and movies for grownups. Things like Postal or Soldier of Fortune. I also got to stay up much longer than other kids.
Another thing I remember is that dad seemed to share my animosity for my grandparents. It was quite often that he’d make a snide remark about them when we were there. Quite often we had a good laugh about those ‘silly old people’ when he took me back home at the end of the weekend.
I remember one specific night. I was watching cartoons on the TV when dad arrived to get me. To this day I don’t know what happened, but I suddenly heard grandpa scream at dad.
“I dare you! If you ever do it again,” he screamed at dad. Dad just laughed in his face, and we left without another word. Outside I asked what had happened, but he said the old man was just ‘being silly again’.
To this day, I vividly remember the night the police showed up at my grandparent’s house. I was on the couch, playing on my new 3DS when the door rang. I thought it was dad, but instead, I saw two police officers.
After a while, the two of them and my grandparents walked into the room. I could see the sad look on their faces. It was grandma who started talking and told me I’d be staying with them from now on.
When I heard that dad had been a car accident on the way to pick me up, I freaked out. I cried, screamed and didn’t want to believe it. I don’t remember much else of the night. It was more like a hazy fever dream to me.
In the end grandma was right. They took me in. A lot of things changed. No more games or movies for grown-ups and no more staying up after dark. Fun was exchanged for homework and supplemental lessons. Game consoles were replaced by books and soccer.
Looking back now I can’t say how often we fought. There was not a week with me getting off at them about their stupid rules and their boring house. In return, I was often yelled at and pretty much perpetually grounded. It didn’t help much. I often snuck out, tried to run away or spent the night at a friend’s place. Of course without ever informing them about it.
When I was old enough to attend high school, I told them I wanted to be out of the house and get an apartment of my own. It took another half year before they finally yielded.
It was mostly due to a government support program for students and my part-time job that I could afford it. What little money my grandparents felt guilty enough to send my way wasn’t nearly enough to pay rent. How cheap can you be, I thought back then. Once I was done with high school, I went on to university. My grades weren’t the best, never had been, but it was more due to a lack of studying then ability. It was our school’s counselor who actually urged me on and motivated me to try.
When grandma died two years ago, I felt nothing. Sure, I attended the funeral, but it was more a formality than anything else. There were no tears, no emotions.
It was two weeks ago that grandpa called me. It was late in the afternoon, and I’d been busy studying for exams when my phone rang. Annoyed I took it out expecting it to be one of my friends. When I saw that it was grandpa, I hesitated for a few seconds before I answered.
“What do you want, grandpa?” I asked in an annoyed voice. “You know I’m busy.”
“Oh Johann, I know you’re busy and all that, but could you visit me this weekend? I’d like to talk to you about-”
“Oh come on, this weekend? I’ve got exams coming up and all that! Not like I can just up and go!”
“The cancer is back,” he said in a quivering voice.
Suddenly I felt awful for being so cold. I could hear his labored breathing at the other and of the line, waiting for me to say something. I reminded myself that he wasn’t the stern old man of my childhood anymore. No, he was nothing but a lonely, dying man.
“Sure thing, grandpa, I’ll be there.”
“Thank you, Johann, you know I-”
I hang up without listening on. It was more of an old reflex than an actual conscious decision. Old habits die hard.
It was a couple days later, on Saturday morning that I arrived at the house. I was flooded by unwanted nostalgia. I hadn’t been here since grandma’s death, yet the place still felt wrong.
When grandpa opened the door, I knew the cancer hadn’t come back recently. He was haggard and thin, his skin translucent and bluish. He smiled when he saw me and motioned for me to go inside.
“There are a few things I wanted to talk to you about. I know you’d rather be anywhere else right now. Can’t blame you. Claudia and I were never-”
He broke up and started coughing violently. For a few moments, I just stood there and watched, before I took a step towards him. As I said, old habits die hard.
“You know, your mother, she used to be such a good girl. Probably a bit too sheltered by us, a bit too naive. Once she was old enough, she chose a bit of a different life and so-”
“Is this really about mom? I know all about her already. I don’t know why you’re starting with this old story again, but…”
I trailed off as I saw his eyes. They were hard, yet sad. Finally, I sighed and let him continue.
“She was searching for something else, you know? Can’t blame here, really, she wanted adventure, danger. That’s why she chose guys like, well, like your dad. She always had a talent of picking out those bad apples.”
I rolled my eyes. I knew grandpa never liked dad. What was this all about though?
“We didn’t know about the drugs. It was only when your mother died that we found out. Had we known earlier, I’d have done something, we’d have done something…”
“What drugs? What are you talking about?”
“You wouldn’t know boy, would you? You never had any idea what your dad did, right?”
“Oh come on, is this what you called me here for? Another one of your rants about dad? Wasn’t it enough that you spent all those years going on and on about him? And now it’s drugs? Really? I know you hated him, but this is just low!”
I realized I’d jumped up from my seat and how loud my voice had gotten. Still, I didn’t sit back down. I stared at the thin old man in front of me, shaking my head.
“I can’t believe this. You called me here for that? You know what, this was a mistake. I shouldn’t have come.”
I turned towards the front door when I heard grandpa call after me.
He stood in the door of the living room, holding something. My eyes grew wide. It was Dusty. The stuffed little doggie that mom had sewn for me when I was a little boy. I thought he’d gone lost all those years ago. How the hell was grandpa holding him now?
“Where the hell,” I started.
Memories came flooding back. I’d always had Dusty. It had been the only thing that still reminded me of mom. He’d always been by my side. Until the night dad and grandpa had that fight. We’d left so quickly, jumped into the car and drove off. I thought we’d lost him somewhere.
“Why do you have him?”
He held him out to me. “It was for the best boy, we had our reasons, we-”
I didn’t wait for him to finish.
“How dare you! How dare you took him away! I’d thought he was gone for good! Yet, yet, all those years, you’d hidden him!?”
I ripped the stuffed animal from his hands.
Grandpa said nothing. He was quiet. I saw the tears well up in his eyes. I didn’t say a thing. I simply turned around and left.
This time, I told myself, for good.
It was about a week and a half later when I couldn’t sleep. I picked up Dusty from the place I’d found for him in my room. I smiled as I looked down at him. He was so roughed up and dirty by now. I remembered my mom’s voice and her face as she’d handed him to me.
“He’ll always watch out for you,” she’d said and then asked me what I wanted to name him. Dusty, I’d said.
Right at this moment, I felt something on his stomach. Under the fur, I felt something else. It was a sort of slit.
I turned him around to get a better look and noticed a hidden little zipper. It was almost invisible due to the fur. Had it always been there?
I carefully pulled it open and found a pocket. Why…? I couldn’t help but put my hand inside and soon found something. I pulled out a number of pages, written in fine print and a few other, smaller pieces of paper. For a moment I wondered if these pages could be by my mom, but then I noticed grandpa’s handwriting.
I sighed and almost threw it aside in an instant. Then, as I got mad, curiosity got the better of me, and I started reading.
I knew you wouldn’t listen to me, Johann. I can’t blame you after all that has happened. I wish there had been a different way, an easier way to reach you. I just want to explain to you why Claudia and I did what we did, why we acted the way we did.
I crumbled up the letter and threw it across the room. Really? Even now? Even here he was giving me this shit? Were these words anything but stupid excuses for how they treated me?
I picked up the other notes next and was about to throw them away as well when I saw a small newspaper clipping. In a moment my eyes had scanned the headline.
Tragic death, young woman (28) dies due to overdose
Why was that here? Why did grandpa put this in? It was from an article from a popular German tabloid. The date was… March of 2004. That date, I knew it, but how? In a moment it clicked. Wasn’t that when mom died?
I skimmed the rest of the article within a few moments. It wasn’t long, barely two paragraphs in total. A young woman overdosed in her home, had to be taken to the hospital and unfortunately died there. It said she left a young boy, aged six and a husband behind. The husband was under suspicion of ownership and trade of illegal substances.
My hands started shaking. What the hell was this? I read the article again and again. The name, Natalie M.
Natalie Müller, mom’s name. Boy aged six, the age I was at the time. The clipping fell from my hands. No freaking way. This had to be fake somehow.
Once I’d entered the name and date into Google though, there was no doubt. Mom’s death had not only been mentioned in the tabloid but also in half a dozen other, local papers. It was real.
Grandpa had mentioned drugs and an overdose. Had he told the truth?
I went to pick up the crumpled up letter and started reading again.
Your mother’s, Natalie’s death, it came out of nowhere. We’d always known your father wasn’t good for her, but it was her life. We never thought it would get that far. To this day, I’m blaming myself for it. There’s not one night when I wish I’d done something. If I’d only looked more closely. Shouldn’t I’ve noticed something? Maybe if we’d cared more for her after she left?
When we learned about what had happened and what your dad was involved with, we pressed charges of course. Nothing ever came of it. The investigation took too long, no one cared. Most of all, there was his uncle in real estate. I’m sure he paid people off to save his own goddamn reputation. Couldn’t risk people found out that his nephew was a junkie! The only thing we were able to get in the end, was the right to see you for the weekends, nothing else.
You have to understand how hard it was for us. Seeing this man and having him come into our house. How we had to endure his smug smile, his attitude, his behavior, his smell, and his bloodshot eyes. We never wanted to see this goddamn junkie again, and there he was each weekend.
Worst of all was that with each year, with each month even, you looked a little more like him, behaved like him and spoke like him. We couldn’t help it, boy. I’m so sorry. We tried so much to love you, but we failed. We wanted to get you away from him, but the custody battle was a never-ending mess.
I lowered the letter again. What the hell was he talking about? Dad hadn’t been a junkie! There was no way!
One by one the memories crawled back into my mind and like a spider weaving a web, I started to connect the dots of doubt.
Dad had always been smoking, hadn’t he? Looking back now, I remember him calling them his ‘funny cigarettes’ every once in a while. All those people who came over, who were they? Dad had said business associates, home calls, meetings and so on. Then why did they spend the day drinking and playing Xbox? And all those phones he owned. Why’d you need more than one business phone? Why did he own almost a dozen?
Those visits as well… I’d never thought about it, never remembered much about them. Now, the memories came back. Fat Mario, the half-naked drunk guy who always smelled weird and watched all these strange Japanese movies. Bobby, who said he wanted to be a professional gamer one day and owned all the newest games. Sure as a kid it was awesome watching weird movies or playing games. But what sort of business would you do with guys like that?
There were so many more things that came to my mind now and which didn’t add up. The groups who hang out at our place. The fact that I was always sent to the next room.
It all pointed to a much, much different story. Only I never thought about it, I never saw it like that. I trusted dad and always believed… Fuck! What the fuck was this?
I read on as grandpa explained their struggle with me and the custody battle. How hard the whole situation was on them, especially grandma. And then I learned the truth about the night dad and grandpa had fought, the truth about dad.
That day your father had red eyes as usual, and he was in a terrible mood. He merely dropped you off, threw us his backpack and drove away without another word.
You acted just like him. Rushing past us to the living room, to play with one of those Gameboy things. You always had one of those glued to your face.
It was your grandma who found Dusty in your backpack. She got him out to bring him over to you, and that moment something dropped to the floor. It was a small plastic bag, containing a couple of pills. Your grandma, bless her soul, didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was those damned drugs. I took Dusty from her, found the zipper and half a dozen similar bags inside of him.
I knew what was going on. You’d always been talking about those people you went to with him. Oh, I asked him, but it was always the same lies. ‘You can’t expect the boy to sit home all day, Uwe’ or ‘it’s good for him to meet other kids’ and so on. I knew it was all lies, but I’d never thought he’d go that far.
Dusty had always been by my side I remembered. I took the little doggie everywhere. He was always hidden away in my backpack. Dad had told me so many times to keep him close.
“It’s what your mother would’ve wanted. That’s why she made it for you. He’ll always protect you.”
I picked up the small doggie again and looked at it. It was the perfect hiding place, wasn’t it? Who’d suspect a kid’s stuffed animal?
I sat there, crushed, shaking with rage. I wanted to scream. I beat down on my desk with my fists over and over again before I slumped back into my chair.
Dad had never cared for me I realized. Never. He kept me around because I was useful. I was his little mule, a safe way to get his drugs from one place to another.
The night when grandpa took Dusty away, it was to protect me.
“I dare you! If you ever do it again,” he’d screamed at dad.
I never understood what was going on. I didn’t care. Now I knew what he’d meant. That evening he’d realized how dad used me and exploded at him.
Of course it hadn’t stopped dad. I remember how he was always tinkering with my backpack after that. He said he made it cooler looking by adding on some patches, but I was sure he did other things. And I, being the child I was, was so happy about it. I felt awesome wearing my backpack. If only I’d known.
I read on to find out that dad hadn’t died in a car accident that night. Instead, he’d been out and got into a fight with some local thugs. No one really knew what happened exactly, but it was written off as related to drug money.
After that, you came to live with us. There was no one else to take care of you, so custody fell to us by default. Your grandma was so happy she cried tears of joy when she got the news. Now, she said, everything would be better.
I knew we tried too hard, boy, and we didn’t treat you well. I guess we wanted to make up for what happened with Natalie. To protect you from following in the same path as she and your father did. That’s why we were always so strict.
We always wanted to tell you, but how could we ever hope you’d understand all these things? It was much easier to go on that way. We knew you hated us, but there wasn’t much we could do. We never wanted to hurt you, Johann. I hope you find it in your heart to forgive us one day.
With that, the letter ended. The tears were streaming from my face. The world had just come crashing down on me, swallowed me up and spat me back out an empty, emotional mess.
I sat there, reading the letter over and over again, hugging Dusty. This was too much. It was too goddamn much.
I thought about all the things I’d said to my grandparents, about all the things I’d done. The things I could never take back. I remembered grandma’s funeral and how I’d acted. Most of all, I thought about how terrible my visit to grandpa had ended two weeks ago.
I don’t know when I drifted off to sleep. The moment I woke up though, I picked up the phone and dialed grandpa’s number. There were so many things I wanted to say, so many things to apologize for. I was already on my way to the car to visit him when the call finally connected.
“Grandpa, I’m so sorry, I’m going to come-”
“Hello, Johann,” a female voice answered. I recognized her as their neighbor Mrs. Mathe.
“Oh dear,” she started to speak with shaking voice, “I didn’t know how to reach you, I’m so sorry…”
I didn’t listen anymore. I didn’t have to. The phone dropped from my hand.
I knew, I was too late.