Gran stood over the stove, tending to a boiling pot. She was a stout old woman, wearing a cooking apron and a warm, wrinkled face. The kitchen was quiet and the steam from the broth drifted up and around her like mist. She was singing under her breath as she stirred, "Que sera, sera..." The door to the living room swung open and a boy walked in.
"Hey Gran, where's PopPop?"
Gran gestured towards the basement. "He's down there messing around, tell him dinner's almost ready."
"Sure." The boy walked down the flight of wooden stairs to the unfinished basement. At the bottom step he stopped and stood quietly.
PopPop sat at a little desk with his eyes closed. The boy gazed in silence at his long white beard and mess of white hair. The old man's face was pretty well obscured by all the hair and the boy came closer, peering at it, wondering if the old man was sleeping. He leaned in and squinted.
The eyes snapped open, fixed on the boy. The boy froze, unconsciously holding his breath. They were a shocking color, blue as blue sky amidst the clouds of white. They flashed, then sparkled, then eased. The boy took a breath. "Gran says dinner's almost ready."
"Excellent, boy, excellent. Where's your brother?"
The boy frowned. "He's in his room, told me to fuck off."
"Did he now? What's eating him?"
"He won't say, but I heard Amy slept with someone. Now she wants him back."
The old man stretched his bony arms and yawned. "You know how many girls I've had, boy?" The boy shifted his weight from foot to foot before answering.
"I don't know."
PopPop stroked his beard. "That's a pretty good guess. What do you think about that?"
"I think Gran must not like it."
"Well, that's the thing. Sit boy, let me tell you a story." He slid an empty milk crate across the floor with his foot. The boy sat and clasped his hands in his lap. He liked stories.
"A long time ago there lived a soldier. He was skilled with a sword, but he was more than that; he was an educated man, a philosopher and a poet. After the fighting was over he would wander off somewhere to sit by himself and compose verses."
"What are verses?"
"Poems, boy, poems. Don't they teach you anything? Anyway, one day he stood at attention on the front line of a grand army. Their banners flew crisp in the wind and the war drums beat a steady cadence at their backs.
"Rhythm, child, it means rhythm. So their general went riding down the line on a big horse, and as he rode past their voices rose as one and they beat upon their shields. Across the field there stood another massive army, clothed in black and monstrous to behold. The horns sounded and these brave men flooded onwards towards their destiny."
Here the old man paused and opened a drawer in the desk. He pulled out a little whiskey bottle and took a nip. Then he wiped his mouth, winked at the boy, and continued.
"But our soldier turned and fled. He ran away. The next day the remnants of the army returned to camp and he was in his tent, writing a poem.
"Why did he run away? Didn't you say he was a good fighter? Wasn't he brave?"
"Of course. That's what the poem was about."
"Wasn't he embarassed?"
"No, he wasn't embarassed."
The boy sat thoughtfully. "Well, that doesn't sound too brave to me."
"No, it wouldn't. But your brother won't listen to my stories." He took another nip off the whiskey bottle, screwed on the cap and put it back in the drawer. "Now get on upstairs, I think I hear Gran calling." The boy stood and began to walk away. "Oh, and one more thing." The child paused. "Be nice to your brother. He's going to need it."
"Okay PopPop." He scurried up the stairs and was gone. The old man pulled out the whiskey and drank off the end of the bottle. He ran a hand through his white hair and down his white beard. Then he just sat there. He sat there until Gran came to get him.
BIO: Joshua Clark Orkin currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan, where he eats, drinks, and squanders his potential. His turn-ons include but are not limited to seeing his writing published. His turn-offs include but are not limited to third person bios. He thanks you for taking the time to read. Or skim. Or whatever it is you've just done.