It was nothing special. That’s not what you’d say about my grandfather’s home — just a small cabin in the woods with little more than a bed, a bookshelf, and an old cook stove that looked like it belonged in a museum somewhere. It was spare, but my grandfather liked it that way. Said it reminded him of ‘Nam, and I believed him. We both knew he’d left a piece of his soul over there.
There were other things, too, but they felt misplaced. Red drapes hung over the windows. An old ball cap, hooked on a laundry rack above the stove, looked worn through from overuse. The faint smell of citrus lingered in the air, a selection orange peels siting on the stovetop beside an old pan, coffeepot, and cutting board.
My wife noticed the board first, a slab of wood littered with bread crumbs and crossed with a heavy, serrated knife.
“That’s not like him at all,” she muttered. “Are you sure we’re in the right place?”
I shrugged. “The key worked.”
It had shown up in the mail two days ago with a handwritten invitation to come see the place. A handwritten letter. No phone call, no email. I wouldn’t say my grandfather was well-versed in either of those things, but he knew enough to click reply or dial a number.
Of course, I saw neither phone nor laptop within these rickety cabin walls. I perused his bookshelf: a selection of war stories, military history, and travel guides. My wife appeared over my shoulder when I pulled one off the wall.
“The Fall of Saigon,” she said. “Wasn’t he in that battle?”
“I think so. He never really talked about it.”
I thumbed through the book, then laid it on the foot of his unmade bed. She sat down beside me a few minutes later, surveying the room from the little nook where my grandfather had slept every night for the past five years.
“You want to call the police? He couldn’t have gone far. It looks like he just went out for a while.”
“He won’t answer his phone, and he hasn’t replied to my emails.”
“That just means he didn’t go to the library. Maybe his phone battery died and he hasn’t realized it yet. You know how he can get.”
“I do,” I said. And I did. This felt like something different. Something bigger. Why send a handwritten letter? The pieces just weren’t adding up. “There’s something else. There has to be.”
She squeezed my leg. “Okay, then. If you’re sure, we’ll tear the place apart.”
We did. In the space of an hour, we overturned every single thing in the building. We looked under the bed, checked the stove, thumbed through all the books, the sheets, even the clothes hanging on the far wall. I tapped against the walls, searching for a false panel and checked what few shelves I could find for a false bottom.
I don’t know what I expected to find. A letter, maybe, or journal filled with life plans. Maybe a postcard with a Vietnam hillside on it and the words Viva Saigon! or something similar.
But there was nothing.
“He’s gone,” I said, when we’d finished. “He just up and left. Why?”
As if in answer, the door handle rattled. My grandfather eased through the threshold a few minutes later, a shopping bag nestled in the crook of his arm. He looked around the place, a question poised on his lips before his eyes settled on me.
“You haven’t made this kind of mess since you were three years old,” he said, an amused twinkle in his eye. “There’d better be a good story to go with it.”