A week ago, my Uncle Rob died.
The priest at the funeral talked about how everyone who knew Rob was blessed. That made me sad. I’d only met him a few times and never had much of a chance to hang out with him. Uncle Rob and Dad never got along. Dad’s never told me why.
When it was Dad’s turn to stand up and talk he had tears in his eyes. He said that he and Uncle Rob had fought for years over stupid, idiotic things. And now he could never make up with his only brother. His voice made me sad too, even though I don’t know what having a brother is like. I’m an only child.
When Aunt Ellison stood up and talked about Uncle Rob I couldn’t help but cry. “He always liked to play,” she said, tears running down her face. At the end of the service we were supposed to step by the casket and look at him one last time. Mom wept. Dad Cried. Grandma got real quiet.
I said, “I wish we could play.”
The next day was a Tuesday and everyone was busy. Dad was at work. Mom was out on errands. Even my friend Brandon was away; no one had time for Elliot. When the doorbell rang I thought it was Mom, needing a hand. Instead, it was someone else.
He stood tall with his suit and tie, hair combed and even; just as it had been the day before. “Hey Elliot, you said you wanted to play?”
“Uncle Rob!” I yelled, surprised.
“Yep, it’s me, little nephew Elliot,” My Uncle Rob said. “Are you ready to go play?”
We decided to go to the park. I loved going to the park on hot windy days. I like to go there and ride my bike, most days, but I only had one bike so I led Uncle Rob around the lake for a walk.
Uncle Rob looked a little different than he had at the funeral. His skin had gone gray and he walked with a limp. And when he wiped away sweat, it left green spots on his shirt. Uncle Rob looked uncomfortable in his suit and tie; I didn’t want it to get scratched and torn. I told him we would stick to the path. Uncle Rob smiled and said he didn’t care about the suit and tie. He’d only ever used it once.
We talked about a lot as we walked, alone in the park. Where he had lived, what he had done. Uncle Rob said he used to make games on the computer. Little funny ones online. I told him Dad never let me play online. That made Uncle Rob sad. There was so much to do there, he said, and he never got bored. I asked him if he missed it, and he only shrugged.
We talked about interesting things then. I’d been learning about Earth Sciences in school. Uncle Rob said some of his best games were on Planets where Earth Sciences were different. I thought that was cool.
When we got halfway around the lake I asked, “So what is it like?”
“What is what like?” Uncle Rob answered with a green-toothed smile.
“Being dead. What is it like?” I looked up into his cloudy white eyes as he smiled.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference.” He shrugged. His shoulder made a popping sound. “I’m not hungry, or thirsty. Cold or Warm. Almost like I’m dreaming, you know?”
“What about when it happened?” I asked, wide-eyed.
“Don’t really remember.” He shrugged again. “Just kind of… happened. One moment I was there, and the next I wasn’t.”
Suddenly we stopped in our tracks, Uncle Rob and me. Ahead on the path there was a big dog. Black with grey spots on its face. I was scared and I hid behind Uncle Rob. I was always scared of big dogs, especially strange ones. But Uncle Rob wasn’t scared.
“Heya doggy,” he said limping forward, holding out his hand. “What are you up to out here all alone?” As Uncle got closer, the big dog whined in its throat. And backed away slowly, its tail between its legs.
The next day Mom was out at a meeting and Dad was at work, so Uncle Rob came back and we played catch in the backyard with my ball. My glove was too small to fit Uncle Rob’s mottled gray hand and I didn’t have another. Dad had meant to get a big glove for himself so we could play catch, but he hadn’t. I didn’t think he would. I said, “I’ll try to throw softly.”
We played for a while, but Uncle Rob couldn’t catch very well. He said he never played before. He tried very hard but the ball kept slipping from his hand. And when he threw the ball back, it left brown stains on my glove.
“So why did you and my Dad hate each other?” I asked after a while.
“Oh, we never hated each other. We’re brothers,” he said, throwing the ball again. “We just had a disagreement is all. Never agreed on anything, that was us.” I caught the ball and tossed it back, wiping my hand on my pants after I threw.
“It’s too bad we never got over it,” he said, shuffling after the dropped ball. “Then I would have gotten to know you sooner.” It took him two tries to pick up the ball. He smiled as he tossed it back. “At least I get to now.
“Do you and your Dad ever have disagreements?” he asked, as I tossed the ball again.
“All the time,” I said, frowning, talking as Uncle Rob shambled after the ball again. “He’s never here and when he comes home he is always telling me what to do. He never wants to play with me. He never has time.”
“Well that’s because he is working all the time,” Uncle Rob said, throwing the slimy ball back. “It’s not because he doesn’t want to play with you. My brother just gets caught up. He works very hard and so he’s always tired when he gets home. It’s not that he doesn’t want to play with you.”
“But when he has time, he doesn’t!” I felt angry now. “Last summer we went to the beach on vacation. Three days at the Beach! He stayed inside all weekend on his computer. We never even talked!”
I was angry and threw the ball too hard, forgetting Uncle Rob didn’t have a glove. There was a Crack and a Snap and the ball bounced away. I hit him in the wrist and could see his hand bend too far back. Uncle Rob quickly hid his hand in a pocket, before I could really see.
“Uncle, Are you okay?” I asked, worried, dropping my slimy glove. My anger was gone.
“You see what anger does?” he asked calmly, his cloudy eyes distant. “You forget things, you don’t pay attention. All you can think of is what makes you mad.” He kept his hand in his pocket and set the other on my shoulder. It smelled, dark and heavy. I looked straight into his milky eyes. “Your Dad was always like that, and you are his son.”
I put my hands to my mouth and started to sob. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I know you didn’t mean to,” Uncle Rob said as I hugged his cold body. “It’s alright, Elliot. I can’t feel pain anymore.”
The next day Dad was away and Mom was busy, so Uncle Rob came back to play again. His hand had a white cast wrapped around it, but the skin was dark brown and spotted. After I hugged him again my shirt was stained. Mom would be mad.
I didn’t care.
Uncle Rob’s voice was worse today, like mine when I was sick with the flu. “I wanted to take you to Caraway Point today,” Uncle Rob said, smiling his green smile. “I always liked amusement parks, so what do you say?” I grinned and hugged him again. He knew I’d never gone.
Caraway Point was a fun little park; it had roller-coasters and rides, and cotton candy too. I went on the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Carousel, and then the Swinger. I was having so much fun. Uncle Rob didn’t ride though; too fast, he said. I was sad he missed out so next we went on the Haunted House Ride.
A rattling mine cart carried us through the dark house. Spooky noises and rustles came from all directions. Vampires, Werewolves, and Ghosts howled and flew. I was scared. But Uncle Rob put his cold arm around me and said it was all okay.
At the end of the house there was a dark room full of dead people walking around and moaning. They looked like Uncle Rob. I asked Uncle Rob why they were supposed to be scary.
He told me he didn’t really know.
Before we left the park Uncle Rob agreed to go on one ride with me. I choose the big Log Flume because Uncle Rob looked sweaty and slimy and smelled very bad. Every time we touched he left brown streaks on my clothes. But it was a very hot day.
Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. The ride drew us to the top. Up and over the edge we went and then the big splash. Uncle Rob and I threw our hands into the air and shouted with glee. “That was great fun,” Uncle Rob said, but when we got out of the ride he left puddles of dark brown water on the stairs.
The next day it was raining but Uncle Rob came anyway. He looked bigger, fatter today and his voice sounded bad. “What have you been eating Uncle Rob?” I asked. “Spaghetti,” he joked. “Bowls and bowls of Spaghetti.”
I laughed. “Hey Uncle, here is a funny story. I went to a haunted house with Brandon last year. They had us close our eyes and put our hands in a bowl. The people said they held eyeballs and brains. So I ate a handful and said they tasted like spaghetti.”
Uncle Rob laughed roughly and sat down to play checkers with me on the deck. He played Red and I played Black. But he kept dropping pieces; his hands were too slimy and his fingers didn’t work right. I told him to wash his hands. That would fix that, I said.
“I’m sorry Elliot,” he said. His voice sounded like a groan. “I’m having a hard time holding onto them. Why don’t you move them for me?”
He won a game first. Then I won one next. The rain just kept falling. Soon it would be getting dark. “Elliot,” said Uncle Rob, his voice a harsh groan in his throat. “I’m going to have to go soon.”
“What? No!” I shouted, standing. Who would I have to play with if Uncle Rob wasn’t here?
“I’m afraid I have to, Elliot.” He moaned, shaking his head. “I can’t stay to play with you forever.”
I cried and hugged him but he was slippery and cold, my hands slid right off. “But playing with you is fun!” I cried. “What will I do when you aren’t here?”
“You can do anything you want, Elliot.” He groaned, his smile now lopsided. “You are Alive. Go walk in the park. Try out for sports. Go ride the rides. Do what you love. Have fun, Elliot. Go Live. Don’t wait here at home. Never waste what time you have.”
“There are no second chances in life Elliot,” he gurgled down to me. “Never leave things undone.” I tried to grasp his hand but his fingers came away. He stepped out into the rain before turning back to me.
“Do today, Elliot, what you could do tomorrow. Go hug your dad. Go kiss your mom. Say I love you at least twice a day. Never give up, Elliot. Life is your chance. Trust your Uncle Rob. Take that chance. And you will never regret. Your Dad never took the chance to fix things with me. And now he never will.”
“But you can stay!” I cried. Tears falling down my face as the rain ran down his. “You can talk to him yourself. He’ll be home soon. You can fix it together!”
“No, Elliot,” Uncle Rob said. “I was only here to play with you.”
“Please don’t go.” I begged and I pleaded. I hugged him so hard he let out a squelch. Before he left for the last time, Uncle Rob patted me on the head with his fingerless hand.
“Remember, Elliot,” he said with a gurgle. “LIFE has no second chances. Only Death.”
And then he was gone.
The next day was Saturday, and Dad was at home. I ate breakfast as he read the newspaper. I watched him as I ate my cereal, remembering what Uncle Rob had said. “Hey Dad. Do you want to play checkers with me?”
“Sorry Elliot, after breakfast I need to finish a report,” he said, putting away the paper and sipping his coffee.
“That’s all right,” I said. “What if I move the pieces for you?”
He looked at me and smiled. “Well… Okay. We can try it if you really want to play so badly.”
“Thank you Dad,” I said, and hugged him tight. “I love you.”
That afternoon I had Mom drive me to the cemetery where Uncle Rob was. I hopped out and ran through the stones until I found him.
Robin Lens Hewlett, 1967 – 2014
Beloved of Family, Friends, and Puns
“Thanks for playing with me,” I said quietly, past the lump in my throat. “I really enjoyed meeting you. I hope there’s fun wherever you are now. You deserve it.”
“I have a going-away present for you,” I said at last, kneeling before his stone. “Four little presents to remember you by. Goodbye, Uncle Rob. I’ll miss you.”
In the box I had put a leaf from the park: an oak, my favorite.
My baseball went in, too. I’m still sorry for hitting you.
A red checker was third. Our extra King-piece.
“Do you miss him?” Mom asked as I slipped into the car. I nodded quietly, tears still in my eyes. “I only wish you got to know him better,” she said with a sniff. “You really would have liked him. And he would have liked you.”
“He did,” I said stoutly, and looked back in my mind. To the fourth little present I’d given my Uncle.
A small printed photo.
Bought for ten dollars,
Of my Dead Uncle Rob and me as we rode into the water.
Stephen A. Dickson lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. A reader from an early age, Stephen grew into an intense love of fiction, spending what some would suggest was far too much time inhabiting worlds other than his own. This lifelong fascination with speculative fiction, whether it be published fiction, computer programs, or tabletop gaming, guided him, in part, to an even stranger destination: Working for the State of North Carolina with a Masters Degree in Public Administration. Today, Stephen is still an avid consumer of speculative fiction, except now he puts this experience with the worlds of others—and importantly, the perspectives that shaped those worlds—to work. Stephen is new author who most enjoys telling those unconventional stories; stories told through the subversion of preconceived notions, values, and perspectives that might elsewhere remain unchallenged.