“Come on Grandma. Smile.”
Wincing in the light, Gertrud thought for a moment, trying to find the proper English words for her grandson.
“It’s bright out here,” she said through her soft accent.
“I know Grandma. But you look very pretty today.”
Gertrud smiled as best she could in the bright light of the afternoon sun.
Tim pressed the shutter button and the little black and silver box made a small “clack” sound. Tim rested the camera against his leg, looked up at his grandmother and smiled.
Gertrud wished she had a camera herself.
Behind Tim was her quiet street with sidewalks and tall trees. Perfectly manicured lawns before every big wonderful house. Neighbors waved and smiled and came to visit on Sundays after church. Even during the war no one had mistreated her for her German heritage. More than anything, they were concerned for her worry about her remaining family in Germany.
And there was Tim himself, a growing, kind, wonderful boy. The night he was born Gertrud held him in her arms and wept, only ever letting him go because she knew the boy would need his mother and father as well.
As far as she was concerned, her life could not have gone better if she’d planned it. Harold was gone. That was true. She missed her husband every single day.
“I know you’re going to miss me when I’m gone,” Harold once told her. “But you take your time following me. I’m not going anywhere. You’re my Heaven.”
A sad smile crept over Gertrud’s lips. Her eyes glittered, welling up with tears. How she missed that man.
“Grandma? Are you ok?” Tim fidgeted with his camera, looking at her.
She flapped her hand at him.
“I’m just fine. It’s the sun. There’s too much sun!” Gertrud turned around and began to shuffle back toward the house. “Come. Come sit with your grandmother.”
The two seated themselves on the porch in the white rocking chairs Harold had bought so many years ago. They sat for a moment, enjoying the silence of a quiet Saturday afternoon.
She turned to him with concern already written on her face. The tone of his voice, not requesting a snack, but wonder with a hint of worry in there.
“Did my dad kill people? When he was in the war? Mom said not to ask him about it and she won’t tell me either.”
Gertrud put her hand on her grandson’s forearm.
“Why is this important to you?”
“I guess because…” Tim licked his lips and thought for a moment. “I guess because I worry about something bad happening at home. Like robbers or something. And I think if dad had killed anyone in the war then he’ll be a lot better at protecting me and mom.”
“Timothy,” Gertrud began. “Your father loves you more than I do. And I love you more than anything else in this life. Your father would do anything to protect you.”
Gertrud smiled, love radiating from her like a heat.
Tim continued to look discouraged. Gertrud then looked to the street and back to her grandson.
“I don’t know if your father killed anyone in the war. That is the truth. But I must tell you a secret. Even your father doesn’t know this and he has lived with it his entire life.”
Tim looked up, confused and excited.
“Come,” she said, making an effort of getting out of her rocking chair. “Come inside and I will show you.”
Tim held the screen door open as Gertrud shuffled into the house, her thick soled shoes clicking loudly on the hardwood floor. They passed through the living room, clean, sparse, though still homey with family pictures hung on each wall. They passed through the kitchen where Gertrud fixed the finest family dinners. Gertrud led Tim down into the basement.
Gertrud liked the basement. Either it still smelled like Harold or Harold always smelled like the basement. Here was his workshop where he would fix and build things from around the house. Here he would get far too excited about baseball games on the radio as Gertrud smiled and washed the dishes.
It was also here where Harold kept the safe, his logic dictating that no one would dig around in that mess in the basement to try and find their valuables.
Gertrud walked to the workshop table and slid a stack of books to the right to reveal a small but very secure looking safe, about two and a half feet in height. She turned back to Tim, who was fidgeting in his anticipation. She returned her attention to the safe.
“Five,” she said as she turned the knob with a faint click. “Thirty-five,” Gertrud reversed the direction of the knob. “Five.”
“I used to say that your grandfather was the kindest man in the world,” Gertrud shuffled papers around inside the safe. “And he used to say to me ‘Gerty, you can say that when you’ve met every other man in the world.’” She stopped a moment to control her emotions.
On the table, with her back to Tim, she placed a handgun.
Tim had never seen a gun before. The sound it made when placed on the table made it sound much heavier than anything he’d seen in the movies. His heart pounded.
Gertrud turned around, her hands placed behind her back.
“Very long ago, when I first met your grandfather, I knew that people were frightful, unkind, and they worried so much even about the color of one’s skin. But he did not care. He was a young man, camping in the Black Forest when I came upon him. I was injured and alone. I couldn’t speak the same language as him. But he helped me.”
Gertrud put her hand to her chest, moved her eyes to the ceiling, and wiped away the tears.
“We fell in love. And this is the only thing I have left of the life I led before I met him. I was his completely. So I gave it to him.”
She turned, Tim expected her to reach for the gun, but she reached behind her. She handed him a small rag with something hard inside. Tim opened the rag to find a small dagger made from bone. He looked up to his grandmother.
“What is it?”
“It was the only weapon I had when your grandfather found me during the Secret Skeleton Wars.” Gertrud beamed. “Timothy, you are one quarter Skeleton.”
“What?” Tim seemed genuinely lost.
“Oh, I was such a young skeleton then. My bones were still pearly white and I was fantastically excited to rip the flesh from the upstart human race and create more of our own!” Gertrud found Harold’s old workbench and sat. “’Off with their face for a better race’ was my platoon’s motto.”
Tim continued to hold the dagger in his upturned hands like an offering, uncertain of what he was hearing.
“One fateful night the Skeleton Army had planned a night raid on a village in Germany. We were to dig our way up from the cemetery at midnight but the Cydonian Knights of Lazerhammer were waiting for us. All of my comrades were crushed to dust. I only managed to make it out because I’d gotten trapped in a particularly hard to open coffin and when they came looking for me I played dead.”
Gertrud held her arms up in the air, parallel to one another, palms facing inward, as if to either say “I will never forget my side in the Secret Skeleton Wars” or “it’s good.”
Gertrud lowered her arms and continued her story.
“I spent days wandering the forest, avoiding Sky Pirates, dodging Meat Patrols, and in the end I was finally taken down by a stray dog.” The old woman smirked at the idea. “I was thankful he only ran off with a rib but I was still very much gnawed upon. It wasn’t more than an hour later I came upon a young man sitting by a campfire. Oh, he was lovely.”
Tim was looking sad and worried.
“I saw the smooth skin of his face and those muscular arms and… I was not disgusted. Nor did I want to tear them from his wonderful bones. In fact, I remembered when I was alive and I had skin and hair and lips. I longed for them again so that maybe this man would touch me and care for me and love me.”
Gertrud paused for a minute.
“You see Timothy, the reason Skeletons are so dangerous is because they don’t feel touch, therefore cannot feel pain. Are you harder to hurt than the other boys at school?”
Uncertain of how to answer, Tim remained still, his mouth hanging open in shock.
“When your father returned home from the war he told me of how he had been shot many times and never felt it, never ceased charging the enemy. I don’t know if he killed another man in the war. But I can tell you that he has the heart of a father, the skill of a soldier, and the courage of a Skeleton.”