What Happens When Something Happens
Grandpa started having headaches the summer the tree fell on our house. Missy likes to joke that it was the tree that caused the headaches: that it somehow knocked loose something in his mind. I think part of her believes it. She certainly believed it back then.
He came to live with us when Grandma died. Grandpa took her death in stride.
He didn’t move in because he was wracked with grief or because he was feeble. I’m sure he was upset, because he was a kind man, but he’d always been something of an optimist. And he certainly wasn’t weak of body. I’m sure part of the reason Mother brought him in with us was because she could use the extra help around the house. Our father’s alimony checks provided some financial support, but they couldn’t fix a leaky faucet.
I was twelve that summer, my sister seven. When Grandpa moved in, we were forced to share a room. I hated it—she loved it—which meant our extremes cancelled each other out, and we got along fairly well. The tree came down in the middle of the night, during a strong windstorm; people would later say it was a tornado, though the sirens never sounded and no sightings were confirmed.
I remember being sound asleep, probably lost in a dream about Joanna Sanderson—truth be told, I still occasionally dream about her—and then suddenly awake, out of bed and screaming before I even know why. Missy was right there with me, and our mother was at our door about three seconds later. Only Grandpa took his time, and when he found us, he started laughing. There I was thinking our house was falling apart, or there’d been an earthquake, my sister seeing monsters and ghosts, my mother perhaps imagining the Second Coming, and Grandpa was bent over, laughing so hard he broke into a hacking cough. Only when it subsided did he tell us what’d happened.
Mother joked a few times that in old age Grandpa was suddenly starting to care about the world. He would smile and say he didn’t care about anything except a good night’s rest and maybe a cold beer…
That was the first time, you see. Grandpa had no way of knowing for sure, he’d had no time to go outside, and it’s not like the tree broke any windows. It struck the back of the house where there weren’t any bedrooms, just our father’s old study, which our mother had converted into a makeshift library. He couldn’t possibly have known, Missy would tell me. No way, José.
Of course, there were a hundred explanations—common sense being the most prominent. But I couldn’t convince Missy of that, and I have to admit that I was somewhat skeptical myself. Not right then, of course. None of us really thought about Grandpa’s deduction much until a couple months later, after a few other occasions presented themselves. But yes, for a time there, I wondered myself how he could have known. I don’t now, at least not during the day. Sometimes, when I’m in that nether region between sleep and consciousness…but then, the mind does tend to wander, doesn’t it?
We got the house patched up—not much damage, considering the size of the oak that struck us—and summer resumed. Missy spent her days at daycare, doing chores and hanging with friends when I was done. Mother worked, and Grandpa lurked around the house, doing odds and ends, reading, watching soap operas. Occasionally he’d go to a movie—I went with him a few times—or just drive around. I never joined him during the latter. Grandpa’s stories were occasionally interesting, but never after the third or fourth time. His younger self couldn’t create new stories, so he just recycled the old ones. I think he even told them in the same order.
A few weeks after the tree came down, our dog went missing. Sparkles—blame my sister—was an unfortunately-named Yorkshire terrier, a cunning little bastard who liked to piss in shoes and chew on the drapes, no matter how much discipline he received. We all loved him. Some dogs have that way about them—mischievous brutes, but they give you one look and your heart melts. Sparkles could chew through the electrical wiring and burn the house down, and we’d still keep him.
One morning he was there, and in the afternoon he was gone. We had a doggie door leading into the fenced backyard, but the gate was always closed. No holes dug under the fence, and no way could Sparkles jump over it. He simply vanished while Missy was at day care. I was smoking a cigarette beneath a bridge on the edge of town, and Grandpa was fast asleep in front of Maury Povich.
“He was kidnapped,” Missy said later, when her tears had stopped.
“Dognapped,” I corrected her.
“No one would want Sparkles,” Mother said. “He’s such a handful.”
The three of us were at the kitchen table hovering over a tray of cookies Mother had baked to ease our grief. Sugar helped back then. Not much helps now. Kids have it right: growing old sucks.
“He slipped under the fence,” Grandpa said. “Like someone rubbed him with butter. Whoosh and he was gone—took off after a rabbit that was bigger than him.”
His voice was so confident that all of us looked up. He was in the living room, feet propped up in the recliner, rubbing his temple like he had been doing lately. His eyes were glued to the evening news. He’d started doing that recently, too. Every evening he’d watch the national, then local, news programs. During the day, I’d occasionally find CNN on, sometimes even Fox News or MSNBC. Mother joked a few times that in old age Grandpa was suddenly starting to care about the world. He would smile and say he didn’t care about anything except a good night’s rest and maybe a cold beer, but he’d watch the news intently, as though he were waiting for something to happen.
“Well, Grandpa,” Mother said. “If you saw him take off, why didn’t you stop him?”
He shrugged. “‘Cause I wasn’t sure it’d happen. Can’t know something’s gonna happen until it happens, can you?”
Missy and I tuned out, but Mother watched him for a few more seconds, a half-eaten cookie in her hand. Whatever she’d been thinking, it must not have made sense, because she shrugged and finished eating. We went out to dinner that night, a rare treat. Sparkles never came back.
Don’t let the Surgeon General fool you: when you’re a teenager and you smoke, you look cool, just not by grown-up standards.
A few weeks later, I finished cleaning the bathroom—easily my least-favorite chore—and went to the garage to get my old bike. I was meeting my friends Rory and Jake at the skate park. None of us skated, but there were a few cute girls—yes, Joanna Sanderson among them—who did, and they didn’t wear much except helmets and safety pads when they did so. Even at twelve, you’re old enough to know the best things in life are free. We’d smoke a cigarette and watch the girls, thinking we looked cool. Hell, we did look cool. Don’t let the Surgeon General fool you: when you’re a teenager and you smoke, you look cool, just not by grown-up standards.
Grandpa was waiting for me in the garage. I knew he was waiting, because he was standing next to my bike, arms crossed, not doing anything but watching the door. His appearance was so surprising I almost missed the stair and fell flat on my face. “Listen, Devin,” he said, and put a hand on my shoulder. The other hand was massaging a spot just behind his left ear. “I want you to do me a favor today.”
“Don’t go to that damned park.”
I wasn’t aware that he’d been following me or how he knew where I was going that day. When even I hadn’t known until half an hour before, when Rory called. Had Grandpa been listening in?
“Let’s see a movie,” he said. “There’s an old Steven Seagal showing at the theater. I can get you in. The girls there love feisty old men.” He winked.
“Sorry, Grandpa,” I said. “Rory’s got a book he wants to loan me.” In reality, it was the latest issue of Playboy, and the only way I’d ever get to peruse it was with Rory standing right beside me.
He smirked a little, as though he knew what I really meant, and then nodded. “Guess it was a fool’s hope. Foolishness comes with age, Devin. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Kids are way smarter.” His face became serious. “But do me a favor and avoid Grant. Come home a different way. Beg your friends if you must. Just avoid Grant. And blue pickups.”
“Blue pickups. It’s a terrible color for a truck.”
It wasn’t the strangest thing he’d ever said, so once I was on my way I shrugged it off.
Joanna Sanderson wasn’t at the park that day, only two girls were, and they were from the community college, and when they caught us watching them, they cursed us until we went away. But Rory had the Playboy, so we spent a while going over it, and then we went for frozen yogurt. Afterwards, Rory wanted to go back to his house, which was on Hayes—one block south of Grant.
The conversation with my grandfather had entirely slipped my mind. And, if you want to know the whole truth, which is all you’ll get from me, even if I’d remembered the warning, I wouldn’t have paid it any heed. Why would I? It was nonsense.
The truck that hit me was baby blue, the worst kind. The driver looked away for a split second, like they always do, and his bumper caught my front tire. I remember falling in slow motion, thinking, Christ, why didn’t I wear pads? Mother always tells me to wear pads, even though she’d stopped such chiding years before. I had an entire conversation in my head, the kind that would take almost half an hour in real time. And then my left arm struck the pavement, there was a flash of pain, and the world went black.
“I just knew,” Grandpa said, when I asked him afterwards. “Wasn’t a vision or anything fancy. I just knew it, like I knew what’d happen to your dog, except of course I didn’t know because it hadn’t happened yet. The dog running away, that’s no big deal, right or wrong, the world keeps spinning. You getting run over, that’s something worth worrying about.”
I didn’t tell anyone about my conversation with Grandpa that day. Not until later, when Mother and Missy were both in on it. I had the feeling Grandpa wanted to keep it a secret, a childish thought, but Grandpa didn’t care if the whole world knew. It just wasn’t a big deal to him.
Over the next few weeks, Grandpa began to mutter while he watched the news, fingers almost always kneading his forehead. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what he was doing. Grandpa was seeing things, like he’d seen me getting hit by the truck, and was watching the news to see if any of them came true. I would’ve given anything to know what he saw in visions—he protested to the word, but I couldn’t think of any other term for it—especially the ones that made him watch the national news. When there was a school shooting in Sacramento in September, I watched Grandpa’s face, to see if he’d predicted it, but his eyes held nothing but the normal level of sorrow and surprise. Maybe his visions didn’t extend to outside of Chelmsford or maybe Illinois in general. Maybe he couldn’t see anything west of the Mississippi. I don’t think I would’ve understood it even if Grandpa had explained it to me.
Mother and Missy found out about it on Halloween. Mother had taken notice of Grandpa’s headaches by then, and encouraged him to see a doctor—which was basically like trying to get an elephant to cross a road by swatting it with a piece of string. He wouldn’t even laugh about it. “Hell no,” he’d say, “just give me another Tylenol and be done with it.”
On October 31, Grandpa woke up at five in the morning screaming. Mother and I raced to his room; Missy, thank God, slept right through it. We found Grandpa upright and pale, sweating. He looked at me, and I knew what’d happened. I also knew it was much worse than the blue truck.
“I don’t know his name,” Grandpa was saying, distinctly but quietly, not talking to us, but to himself. His eyes settled on me and he said, “Not you, it’s not you, thank God,” then he went right back to his mantra. “I don’t know his name, I don’t know his name.”
Mother got him a warm cloth and put him back to bed. I couldn’t go to sleep, so I went downstairs and watched infomercials. Never understood why anyone would want to buy that crap. Even now I don’t. But I watched, because it was mindless entertainment, and I didn’t want to have to think about anything.
When Grandpa came down to breakfast at the normal time, he was still pale. Missy joined us, and she immediately noticed Grandpa’s condition. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Mother said.
“I don’t know his name,” Grandpa said.
“Damned if I know,” I summed up. Mother didn’t even scold me.
We went to school, Mother went to work, and Grandpa probably sat in his recliner all day glued to the news, repeating that single sentence. He had stopped by the time school let out, thank God, but dinner was far from normal. Grandpa didn’t say a word, except grunt occasionally when Missy or Mother said something to him. I knew better. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, but if he noticed my observation, he gave no sign. Instead he just stared at the table, taking small bites of casserole.
I took Missy trick-or-treating that night. It was a school night, so the city imposed an early curfew. I half-expected Grandpa to bar the door and keep us inside; instead, he just gave us a wary glance. I remembered what he’d said—It’s not you—but took little comfort in it.
The next morning we found out. The local news wouldn’t be on until nine, so Grandpa turned on the radio. We had to listen to four country songs before the news bulletin came on.
“Police are reporting the disappearance of a Chelmsford child. Last night, between six and eight o’clock, Gregory Clemens vanished. He was last seen on Harrison Street, in the company of his older sister, who stopped to talk with a group of friends. Gregory was last seen wearing an all-black ninja costume. Anyone with information regarding Gregory’s location or this situation is urged to contact the Chelmsford police immediately.”
Mother and I turned to stare at Grandpa, who slowly turned the radio off. He looked up, and his eyes met mine. I saw guilt in them. I don’t know his name.
“Grandpa,” Mother said. She spoke as though each word were forced from her lips. “Can you tell us what is going on?”
He swallowed. “Not in front of the kids, Miranda.”
“Devin, take your sister upstairs.”
“I’m not done yet,” Missy said.
I took her hand. “Come on, kiddo. I’ll give you a Twinkie.”
We went upstairs. Mother never called us back. We wandered back downstairs when it was time to leave. She and Grandpa were huddled over the radio. Mother looked up at us, and I swear for a moment she didn’t even know we were there. Her eyes were distant, tearful. I quickly turned Missy away so she wouldn’t see.
On the bus ride to school, I briefly explained the situation to Missy. I didn’t go into specifics—except with the blue truck; I figured that wouldn’t be too dramatic—but she immediately picked up on it.
“He dreamed about that boy, didn’t he?”
I didn’t know if his visions-that-weren’t-visions came in dreams or not, but I nodded. “Yeah, he did.”
Missy was matter-of-fact. “He’s dead, isn’t he? That boy. Otherwise Grandpa wouldn’t be so sad.”
I don’t know if they ever found the boy’s body. I moved away from Chelmsford when I went to college. But I know, in the six years that followed, nothing ever turned up. Not one eyewitness, not one fingerprint or scrap of clothing. The boy had simply vanished. Grandpa never told anyone, except maybe Mother, what he saw. I doubt he knew who had taken the kid. He would’ve spoken up about that. The theory I’ve come up with is that Grandpa knew what’d happened, but not who’d done it. And that half-knowledge haunted him.
The headaches got worse. Mother eventually forced him to see a doctor, who found nothing wrong. “Stress,” the doctor said, but didn’t even prescribe any medication. He just told Grandpa to take it easy. As if he could.
There were more visions. He told them to me, occasionally. Most of them weren’t bad. One of them was actually good. He told me one of my classmates who had cancer would go into remission; a week later, she did. He predicted a fire at the abandoned shoe factory—”Arson, but don’t ask me which brats are gonna do it”—and plenty of snow for winter. For Thanksgiving, he told me our father wouldn’t be able to make it, but he never said why (turned out, Dad was involved in a minor motorcycle accident, which, Mother said with a relieved smile, was just what he got for riding a motorcycle in November). Several of Grandpa’s predictions didn’t come true; he didn’t tell me everything, but he told me enough so that I understood that they were random. A hurricane in Florida; an earthquake in Oregon; a gunman at a Dallas Wal-Mart. He said he knew the winning lottery numbers, but that only a thief would buy a ticket. He also predicted that I would grow up to be a successful doctor, which he only said because I got queasy around blood.
Missy became fascinated. Whenever Grandpa started rubbing his temple, she’d get him a Tylenol and a glass of water. She stayed by his side, asking him constant questions. I could tell he was sometimes annoyed, but he did his best to put on a good face. I doubt he ever told her anything truthful, at least as far as the negative predictions went. “I see a little girl who won’t get presents on Christmas if she doesn’t go to bed soon,” he said a couple of times, but Missy would laugh and say that Grandpa was no match for Santa Claus.
Christmas came and went—Missy got plenty of presents—and then the New Year. Grandpa appeared a little weaker, but he always had during the winter. “Ice and old bones don’t mix,” he’d say, using it as an excuse not to leave the house. There was one night where he woke up screaming again, and stayed glued to the news for an entire week. He never explained, not even to Mother, what he’d seen, but after seven days had passed without any major story breaking out, he seemed to relax a little.
Spring Break came, and normally we’d take a short trip somewhere, just two or three days, but Grandpa’s headaches had been occurring more frequently, so Mother thought it best to stay home. “Sounds great,” Grandpa said. “We’d probably just go see that old son-in-law of mine anyways, and I’d have to listen about his damned fishing trips. How interesting can bass be?”
I spent the week hanging with Jake, because Rory’s family went to Ohio for some reason. We didn’t have a whole lot to do without Rory prodding us along, so we basically played video games at Jake’s house. Grandpa watched Missy, and without much complaint; lately she’d taken to simply sitting beside him, waiting for him to have one of his predictions. I guess she’d figured out that constant yammering didn’t help any. Nor, of course, did her silence, but no one saw any reason to tell her that.
I came home about three o’clock that Thursday. I usually waited until four when Mother got home, because being alone in the house with Grandpa and Missy, him in his recliner and her in a child-sized folding chair beside him, was kind of creepy. But Jake had beaten me pretty bad at Call of Duty, and I was in a sour mood. So I took my bike home—still avoiding Grant, I remembered the pain of my arm breaking all too well—and put it safely away in the garage. Then I went out to the mailbox, grabbed the mail, and went in through the front door.
Grandpa was in his recliner, of course, back to me. Missy, instead of beside him, was sitting Indian-style on the floor in front of him, looking up at his face. I was so surprised to see this change of scenery that I stopped in the doorway. A gust of wind came in from behind me and tore the mail from my hand. It fell to the floor and scattered with a hiss.
Missy glanced up. “Hey, Devin,” she said.
“He had another vision. I’m waiting for him to tell me what it was.”
“Just tell her, Grandpa,” I said. “She won’t leave you alone until you do.”
“Shut up,” she said.
Grandpa made no response, and Missy went back to watching him. And I knew. It’s not the kind of knowledge you act on, of course. Because even though you know, you don’t want to admit it. It goes against instinct. Can’t ever know something’s gonna happen until it happens, Grandpa had said, which applied to most people, if not himself. He could easily have said, Can’t know something’s happened until you already know it’s happened. But that last one wasn’t always true.
I walked to the recliner slowly, keeping my eyes on Missy. She was smiling sweetly up at Grandpa, such a charming smile, and for a moment I thought, Come on, look how happy she is, can you really be thinking what you’re thinking when she’s that happy? But I could, and I was, and I wasn’t wrong.
Grandpa’s eyes were open, but he wasn’t seeing the TV. He wasn’t seeing anything. I stood over him for a few seconds, fighting the urge to poke his arm and try and wake him up. Come on, Grandpa, you’re scaring Missy. Get up, dammit, wake up, have one of your headaches, start screaming, just do something you old man.
Instead, I took Missy by the arm and hauled her up a little too roughly. She protested, trying to twist out of my grip, but I tightened my hand and said, “Go upstairs. Right now.”
“Yes. Do it. You can take one of my Twinkies.”
“I don’t want—”
I shoved her towards the stairs. “Now, Missy.”
She knew better than to argue with me.
I called 911 first. Then I called Mother. I don’t know which conversation was the hardest; the 911 call was the longest, and I had to describe the situation in more detail. The call to Mother was short, straight to the point: Get home. Right now. It’s Grandpa. But those six words didn’t come easy, because by then my throat was pretty much dry, and when I hung up I began heaving. Nothing came up except a couple flecks of blood.
There was an autopsy. No discernible cause. “Which isn’t as rare as you may think,” we were told. “It happens to people his age. Rest assured, his death was in all likelihood quick and painless. He may not have even known it was happening.”
I didn’t buy that. I couldn’t help but think that, one way or the other way, his other way, he’d seen it coming.
By unspoken agreement, Mother and I stopped talking about Grandpa’s visions. It didn’t seem right with him gone. Missy learned not to talk to Mother about them—two quick bouts of tears, followed by a half-hearted spanking, provided a good lesson—but she’d still occasionally mention them to me late at night after we’d gone to bed. I wouldn’t say anything, just let her talk. I think that’s all she needed.
Like I said, part of Missy still believes it was the tree, even though it came down on the opposite side of the house. The place she shares now with her husband has no trees around it. There was one when they moved in, but Missy refused to sleep there until it was taken down. The last time I visited, her son lamented how wonderful it would be to have a tire swing. “But you need a tree for that,” he said to me, “and Mom hates trees.”
There’s a tree next to my house. In fact, it’s right outside my window. We had a strong storm pass through last week, and the branches shook, scraping against the window. My wife and I woke up in the middle of the night, and she said, “We need to take that tree down, Devin. One day it’s going to fall on us.”
I nodded. She was probably right. The only thing I didn’t know for sure was…whether or not I wanted the tree to fall.