10 a.m., November 29th, 2018. One month before the death of Shimizu Kei.
"This is the first time that I'm going to see your place, I'm kinda nervous..." Luke said.
"Why are you nervous? It's like I told you, It's just me and my grandpa. Just relax!" Kei answered.
Luke and Kei were on a public bus, they were headed to Kei's house. Luke was sitting beside his friend who was next to the window. Kei was quiet. He was observing the road while Luke was anxious about meeting Kei's grandpa.
"So what's your grandpa like?" Luke asked nervously.
Kei turned his head towards Luke and said. "Hmm... My grandpa is old and sick, But he is very friendly don't worry. Just don't believe any of his weird stories okay?"
Luke made a nod and answered with a creepy smile. "Looking forward to meeting him!"
Kei already told Luke about his parents, he never knew his mother as for his father, he abandoned him a long time ago. He has been living with his grandpa since he can remember.
The house was not far away from their school, about a 15 minutes bus ride, but it was located outside the city. It was a small Japanese house, two rooms, one kitchen, and a bathroom. it had a wooden fence and a small garden.
When they reached home, Kei opened the fence, and they entered. Kei's grandpa was sitting outside on a bench in the garden, observing the birds as they drink water from an old birdbath. He was very old and looked very sick.
"Grandpa! I told you to stay in bed! You are not going to get well like that!" Kei shouted to his grandpa causing the birds to fly away.
Grandpa made a welcoming smile, even if he didn't have any teeth left, his smile was so warming and honest that one could just want to look at it for a whole day. "Oh, Kei! You brought a guest!" Grandpa answered enthusiastically. "You should've told me! I could've made something!" He said as he noticed Luke. He wanted to stand up to greet him, unfortunately, he felt immense pain in his back so he couldn't stand up properly. Kei and Luke rushed to help him out. He was fragile and old.
"I'm sorry kids... I'm too old to move now..." Grandpa said sarcastically as they were walking home. They reach his room and helped him lay down on his bed. "So who is your friend, Kei?" Grandpa asked.
Luke felt embarrassed because he didn't properly introduce himself, so he bowed down and said. "I'm sorry Sir! My name is Luke Jones, and I'm Kei's classmate..."
Kei made a jaded expression, he thought that Luke was expressing too much politeness. "Nice to meet you too, son." Grandpa answered.
Kei put a blanket on his grandpa's shoulder and told him. " Grandpa, we have a school assignment to do. We'll be in my room, if you need anything, tell me. Okay?"
"Alright son, but make something first for our guest! Where are your manners?" He answered.
Luke appreciated the gesture but he politely declined, he just came to do the class assignment. Still, grandpa insisted anyway. He asked Kei to go and make some tea for his friend.
Kei smoothly exited the room and went to the kitchen to prepare some tea. However, he noticed that they were out of sugar, so he went out to buy some, leaving Luke alone with his grandpa. "I'm out to the store, I'll be right back, suit yourself, Luke." He said as he was leaving.
While Kei was outside, Grandpa kept chatting with Luke and asking him casual questions about his house, his parents, and his friendship with Kei. Luke was not very talkative, and most nervous around old people, it's not a lack of confidence from his side, they were just his soft spot. So his answers were brief, fast, and not at all engaging.
Luke was sitting on a chair near grandpa's bed and looking around the room. It was a casual Japanese room, with a wooden floor, cardboard walls, and a lot of lanterns. The most noticeable thing was the excessive number of framed pictures around the room, they were on every corner. Luke stood up and strolled to the drawer on the other side of the room. He took one of the pictures on top of it. It was a picture of a young man wearing a Japanese soldier uniform. The wooden frame of the picture had some black letters carved at the bottom of it that said. "Shimizu Tenma, 1945". It was the picture of a younger grandpa!
"Sir, you were a soldier?" Luke asked curiously.
Grandpa spread his arm towards Luke, he wanted him to hand over the picture. Luke slowly approached the bed and he gave him the picture as he sat down again. Grandpa stared at it for a moment. and then smiled and said. "Ah! The good old days..."
Luke was observing grandpa awkwardly as he was getting nostalgic. He didn't have much to say, but he tried to say something anyway. The moment Luke opened his mouth to speak, grandpa spoke again and interrupted him, making him feel embarrassed.
"This picture was taken before the end of WW2, right before our last mission. Me and my comrades. I was 19 back then..." Grandpa said. He seemed sad.
To shake his awkwardness, Luke tried to engage in the conversation and asked. "Are those your comrades?". He was pointing at the other framed pictures.
Grandpa remained silent for a while before saying "Yes".
"Are you still in touch with them?" Luke asked politely.
"They all died in that last mission..." Grandpa answered. And the awkwardness is back for Luke again.
Luke stood up and bowed his head sorrowfully. "I'm sorry Sir, I didn't mean to bring up bad memories!" He shouted.
Grandpa told him that it was okay, it has been a long time ago. "I just miss them sometimes... They were my family...". He said. After a moment of contemplation, he gave the picture back to Luke for him to put it back in its place. Luke grabbed the picture carefully and properly put it back into its original place. As he was rearranging the picture, he noticed another one behind, it was considerably smaller than the others and looked old and wrinkled. It was a picture of grandpa again, probably in his 20s this time, and interestingly enough, there was a kid by his side.
Luke took a long glance at that kid, he was astonished, that kid, in this picture, looked exactly like his friend Kei! The resemblance was mind-blowing! Luke kept staring at it, he was absorbed, he could've sworn that that was Kei.
"You noticed the resemblance, didn't you?" Grandpa said. he shook him up from his distraction. Luke turned toward grandpa and asked. "Is this Kei's father?"
Grandpa looked away, he didn't speak for a moment, then he made a long sigh and turned around. He gathered all the strength left in his legs and stood up. "Sir, you don't have to..." Luke shouted as he rushed to him to help him stand. "You should be resting, Sir!"
Grandpa tapped on his head, he reassured him that it was fine. He walked toward that drawer and grabbed that second picture. He looked at it and said. "I was an orphan, I didn't have any family... except my comrades.". Luke was listening attentively. "And when they died, I lost everything... I spent some years depressed and alone, I have to say that I managed to find a job as a fisherman, but it was all for nothing!" He said.
Grandpa turned towards Luke and told him. "Until I met him!" He was pointing at the kid in the picture. "He was the best thing that happened in my entire life!". Kei's grandpa was an old man, probably in his 90s, he surely experienced a lot of things in his life, but saying that this kid was the best thing that happened to him, means that It must be something sensational! That's what Luke has been thinking. "Yeah, you were alone, so having a child must have been reassuring!" Luke said.
"You are right... Life is about living beyond yourself, and you can't achieve that by living for yourself, it has to be for someone else, someone you care about!" Grandpa explained. Luke was touched by grandpa's warm words and he felt closer to him. "Indeed..." Luke replied.
Grandpa put the picture on top of the drawer again. He slowly put his hand down as he was still looking at the young kid in the picture. "It has been just like that for me and Kei... All of these years we only had each other... Since the day I met him... The only difference is that I got older... but he didn't grow a second!" Grandpa said as tears were filling his eyes.
Luke was confused, he didn't get what was grandpa saying. "Sir, are you okay?" he asked with concern. "Tell me how would you feel if you lived with someone who used to call you father, and as you get older he starts to call you grandpa? How can someone be a father and a grandfather?" Grandpa was telling this to Luke while he was obviously fighting the weep. "How can you live without growing?" He said.
Luke didn't know exactly what to say, as he lost track of what grandpa was saying. Grandpa wiped his tears and forced a smile. He went to his bed and sat again. "I know that Kei probably warned you about my weird stories, but this one is true!" He said. "You probably think that the kid in the picture is Kei's father, but it's actually Kei himself."
"But... But this picture was taken years ago..." Luke replied with confusion in his words. He was wondering if grandpa was actually being serious or was he just pranking him.
Grandpa made a sigh and said. " 70 years ago, when I was a young fisherman, I ran into Kei, he was an orphan... The war has left many orphans back then. Being an orphan myself, I couldn't let him like that, so I took care of him, and so our story began!". Grandpa opened a hidden drawer beside his bed and brought out an old picture album. He handed the album to Luke.
Luke Quickly opened it and checked it out. they were all pictures of a young grandpa and his son over the years. All of them were usual, the first time they catch a fish together, the time they ate ramen and all the other family stuff. Luke had a keen eye for details, he noticed that each picture had its year labeled under it, but as the years went on the kid didn't change at all!
"1958... he looks the same, 1961... 1965... 1972.... 1983... 2003... 2012... he's the same on all the pictures!" Luke shouted.
He didn't believe it, could it be true? He kept asking himself. He was looking at those pictures and seeing grandpa getting older while that kid didn't age a bit!
"This is impossible!" Luke said.
"Of course it is! And I never got to know why or how is this happening." Grandpa answered.
He spent his whole life trying to figure this out, but he couldn't. He was tormented by the idea of not being able to see his son grow stronger, but his love for him was much stronger, that it gave him the strength to endure it. Having him refer to him as grandpa instead of dad, due to the increasing age difference, was heartbreaking for him, but he endured it. Although, now he's facing a much more cruel reality. A man of his age, that doesn't have much time left to live, has to spend his remaining years, suppressing an unbearable anxiety that comes from the fact that, sooner or later, he is going to leave his only family member, a lonely child in this world.
"I don't know if it's a curse or an illness, or anything of this sort! I just want to help him, but he doesn't want to tell me why, why doesn't he age!" Grandpa said.
Luke was moonstruck, all of this was unimaginable for him, he didn't know what to say to what to believe. He just stood still, holding that pictures' album without moving a muscle.
Suddenly the door opened, Kei was back.
"I'm back!" He shouted.
He quickly went to the kitchen and put the grocery bag there. Right after, he came to his grandpa's room to join the company. As he entered the room, he saw Luke's face, it was pale. He noticed that his grandpa has already shown him the album. Kei looked his grandpa in the eyes, and then looked at Luke, he remained silent for a moment, then he immediately started laughing! "khkhkhkhkh! He pulled that prank on you too!" He said as he was pointing to Luke.
"Say what!?" Luke asked confusingly. He turned towards grandpa, who started laughing as well! Luke kept watching them as they laugh at him feeling played.
"So this was fake?" He asked full of embarrassment.
"Of course it's fake, did you really believe that I don't get older?" Kei said while wrapping his arm around his friend. "I made this album for grandpa so that he can prank people!" He told him.
Grandpa, who has just stopped laughing said. "I'm sorry son, but you should've seen your face!" And he laughed again.
Luke started laughing as well, he didn't believe he actually fell for it. "Your acting was great, Sir! You got me!" He said.
They kept talking about it for a while until Kei told Luke to wait for him in the kitchen. Kei was going to prepare tea for them as intended, before getting to work.
Luke went to the kitchen leaving Kei with his grandpa, he was putting him comfortably to bed, and he was helping him wear his socks.
"You need to stop telling people about our secret!" Kei told his grandpa with a serious tone.
"Our secret? Son, you have been keeping this from me my whole life, when are you going to explain it to me?" Grandpa replied. He grabbed Kei's hand and told him. "I don't want to die not knowing what's going to happen to you! Please, son, tell me! Why can't you grow?"
Kei couldn't look directly into grandpa's eye, he looked down instead then said. "We have been over this for years now, I can't tell you, grandpa, I'm sorry!" And he stood up and left the room.
"I'm sorry, grandpa, if I tell you... I'll have to kill afterward..." Kei said in his mind as he was leaving the room.
After having some tea, they went to Kei's room and sat there working on their assignment. It was psychology homework where one of them should brainstorm some questions and the other one should answer.
"I think I'm done with my questions. Are you ready for your therapy session?" Luke asked while he was rotating his pen on top of his finger.
"I guess so... Let's get this done with." Kei answered.
Luke has made a large list of questions and overwhelmed his friend with them. He was taking the assignment way too seriously.
"Oh my God, how many of those are left?" Kei asked.
"Don't worry this is the last one!" Luke replied. He quickly wrote something down and brought up his textbook and read the last question. "What is the thing that you want the most?"
Kei kept quiet for a while and he didn't answer. Luke asked him again, still nothing. Kei stood up and walked to the door, he closed it and said. "Do you want the real answer or an answer to the assignment?"
"Does that mean you were not being serious this whole time?" Luke replied with furious eyes.
"Answer me!" Kei shouted.
Luke was curious to know the real answer so he asked. "What's the real one?"
Kei was hesitating for a bit then he said. "I want to meet my brother again!"
"You have a brother! you never told me!" Luke replied.
"I never told a lot of things, idiot!" Kei said.
"So where is he now? Why doesn't he come to visit?" Luke asked curiously.
Kei explained that he doesn't know where his brother is nor how to contact him, but his brother promised him that he will find him someday! And he is still waiting.
"What's your brother's name?" Luke asked.
"Oh! You want to know his name don't you?" Kei answered. He jumped on top of his chair and stood high out of enthusiasm. He wanted to talk about his brother to someone and now is his chance. "My brother has the coolest name of all times!" He claimed.
"Then tell! What's his name?" Luke asked while smiling, he was excited as well.
Kei made a huge smile and lifted his arm high up like he owns the world, and he shouted with great confidence and eagerness.
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