I had to go number two, but on my way to the bathroom, Opa called me to his den. I didn’t want to go in. It smelled like pipe tobacco and dying in there.
“C’mon, ” he said.
I took a few steps. Stopped just inside the doorway. The only light in the room came from a single lamp with a base in the shape of an anchor and chain. All carved from a single piece of wood. The dirty shade cast a weak, jaundiced glow over his collection of model ships, and the black and white photos from his time in the Pacific. He’d been stationed in New Guinea where he said the natives were half the size of a normal man and wore only a single leaf, pinned to their abdomen, to cover their privates. He liked to tell me stories about how they would appear out of nowhere and try to shoot him with poison-dipped blow darts and spears.
“Closer, I ain’t gonna bite’cha.” Opa gestured to the floor beside him. “I don’t even have my teeth in.”
I walked around his desk. Stood by his chair where the smells were strongest. If I breathed through my mouth it wasn’t as bad.
The pictures displayed were of him and his platoon. Camouflaged men mugging for the camera over a card game, or marching through the jungle. But there were other pictures too. Pictures Opa didn’t frame and hang on the wall. He kept those in the bottom drawer of his desk. Inside a metal box with a lock that could be picked with a bobby pin.
“Here.” He pulled something from another drawer and held it out to me with a quivering hand. It was a knife in a discolored leather sheath.
I swallowed and stared at him.
He stared back.
“Go ahead, it’s yours,” he said and jabbed me in the shoulder with the handle.
I took the knife in both hands. Surprised at how heavy it was. Unsure what I was supposed to do next.
“That got me outta some tight situations,” he said. “I think there’s still some blood on it.”
Opa had been a big, strong man. Bronzed from decades spent outside building skyscrapers. He didn’t go out anymore unless it was to the doctor. Now he looked shrunken. Frail. Half-swallowed up by his chair. His mottled skin hung in pale, papery sheets lined with blue veins. A surgeon had tried removing parts of his colon. It didn’t work. The disease spread too quickly, eating him from the inside. But his eyes. They were as cold as ever.
I slid the blade out. Carefully. It was so long it looked and felt more like a sword in my little hand.
“Ten inches,” Opa’s deep voice had become hollow and brittle. “One for each year of your life.”
Opa didn’t seem to hear me.
The knife had an S-shaped crossguard and a scarred wooden handle that curved.
“It’s curved for a better grip.” Opa said. “Makes it easier to pull it out of someone when your hand is slick with blood.”
On the edge of the blade, caked inside the engraved name and service number, I saw dark spots that looked like rust. Part of me wanted to drop the knife and run out of there and never come back.
Part of me didn’t.
“Keep this between us,” Opa said. “Your mom’s always looking for a reason to shit on me. And Grooty, she thinks the knife is haunted.”
I turned the blade. Nicks and scratches caught in the sickly light. “Is it? Haunted, I mean?”
Opa’s hard, watery eyes pinned my feet to the floor. The crusty corners of his mouth lifted, just a little.
“What isn’t?” he said, then winced and fumbled for his collection of prescription bottles. Pills ticked across his cluttered desk. Disappeared among the mess of hobby paint, reference books, and model parts.
I tried to help him but he pushed me away and spat some garbled words I couldn’t make out. His shaking fingers struggled to pinch up the medication.
I slid the knife into its sheath and backed out of his den. I didn’t have to go to the bathroom anymore.
Alan ten-Hoeve wrote NOTES FROM A WOOD-PANELED BASEMENT, available Fall 2021 from Gob Pile Press. He grew up in North Jersey and now lives in the woods of southern New England. Twitter @alantenhoeve