I should be sitting in first period precalculus right now, filling out a unit circle or something. Instead, I’m sitting beside my grandfather behind the wheel of my father’s stolen car, bound for the Grand Canyon.
My grandfather moved in last week. I can’t have said more than a total of twenty words to him in that time. We’ve never really been close. He used to live halfway across the country, amid the cornfields where my dad grew up and swore he’d never return; now he’s sleeping in my room because the only other unoccupied bed in the house is the pull-out in the living room, and I’m the only one with bones young and spry enough to survive more than one night in it.
I’m trying to “be a good sport,” like my parents keep saying, because they’re clearly stressed about his impromptu stay despite how quietly they thought they were arguing last night. They won’t divulge all the details, but from what I can glean, my grandfather ran into money trouble and got kicked out of some retirement home. Now my dad rolls his wheelchair up to the breakfast table each morning and leaves us to suffocate beneath a blanket of awkward silence until the school bus comes to my rescue.
He tells me to call him Bill, but that feels weird, and so does “Grandpa,” so I don’t call him anything. But it’s kind of hard to politely ignore someone who’s sitting two feet away from you.
It’s even harder in a car. There are over 300 miles and many more hours to go.
“School will still be here tomorrow,” he’d said when I tried to tell him why this random road trip is definitely not a good idea. “I might not be.”
He doesn’t seem to care that it’s a Tuesday, or that I barely passed my permit test last summer and since then have only driven to the grocery store a mile from my house, or that my dad is going to have a heart attack when he wakes up to a half-empty garage and a hastily-scrawled apology note on the counter.
“I’m his father,” my grandfather says. “He can’t punish me.” I’m not so sure about that.
We haven’t even left the city limits when my phone starts to vibrate in the center console.
“It’s Dad,” I say without looking at it.
“Do you want me to answer it?” my grandfather—Grandpa—Bill?—asks.
“Do you want to get chewed out?”
He laughs for the first time since I’ve met him. It’s a nice laugh, warm and rough around the edges. “I think I can handle it.”
The ringing stops, only to immediately start up again.
I can feel my grandfather’s eyes on me. “Are you afraid of him?”
I shake my head. My parents rarely even raise their voices at me. I rarely give them a reason to. “Just afraid of disappointing him.”
“It’s gonna happen sooner or later. That’s life, my dear.”
“I prefer later.” Considering who got us into this predicament, I don’t think he’s in a position to be giving lectures.
“Hey, you’re assisting the elderly,” he says. “Who can be mad at you for that?”
A giggle pushes its way past the lump of anxiety stuck in my throat and bursts from my lips.
“Besides,” he continues, “it’s not like your father was a saint when he was your age.”
My phone continues to vibrate between us.
“Well, if you’re not going to answer it, can I turn it off?” he asks.
He does, fumbling for the right button for a minute, and tosses it into the backseat for good measure. Then, for the next few hours, he regales me with stories of my father’s teenage antics, and I comfort myself with the knowledge that at least I never drunkenly broke the kitchen window trying to sneak back inside after a night of debauchery.
We stop for gas in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t realize how hard I’ve been gripping the steering wheel until I let go and my fingers cramp up. I try not to wince when my grandfather squeezes my hand too hard as I’m helping him out of the car. He goes inside to get snacks—“We need fuel too!”—while I stay to fill the tank. I’m embarrassed to say how long it takes me to figure out the gas pump.
When my grandfather returns, he drops a bag of Cheetos into my lap. “Kids like these, right?”
I convince him to try one for the first time, and he proceeds to hog the entire bag. Which is fine, because I’m a bad enough driver when I have both hands on the wheel, though he assures me several times that I’m doing great. I think we have different definitions of “great.” But if his is “refusing to go above the speed limit, leaving the blinker on for two miles, and jumping the curb when both entering and exiting the gas station,” then I’m the greatest driver alive. At the very least, I get us to the Grand Canyon in one piece.
I’ve been once before as a small child, but I think I’d been more concerned with all the plush desert animals in the gift shop than anything else. My grandfather has never been, so we tour the entire visitor center, watch the introductory short film, and ask a very patient ranger an ungodly number of questions. When we finally get to the actual seeing-the-canyon part, we take frequent stops along the path so he can stare out at the vibrant expanse and sigh every few minutes. The sky is perfectly clear today, and the colors seem almost too bright to look at directly.
My grandfather digs in the bag strapped to the side of his wheelchair and fishes out a little black and green box. It takes me a moment to recognize it as a disposable camera. I think the last time I’d seen one had been on my first-grade field trip to the zoo. I’d dropped it into the pond trying to get a picture of the ducks.
“Go stand by that tree,” my grandfather tells me, pointing.
I lean against the lowest branch, and he snaps the photo with a nostalgic click. Then he holds the camera out to me. “My turn.”
He situates himself beneath the tree and cracks a toothy grin. What little hair he has left flutters in the breeze and catches the sunlight, creating something like a halo around his head. I wish I could show him.
I reach toward my back pocket for my phone so I can take some pictures too, only to remember it’s still in the back seat of my dad’s car with about a million calls, texts, and voicemails on it, waiting to be opened.
The bundle of nerves that sits like a stone in the pit of my stomach tightens again. I do my best to ignore it as we continue down the path.
We peruse the gift shops for a while. My grandfather buys a hat, more out of necessity than desire—we forgot sunscreen, and the top of his head is beginning to resemble a tomato—and a few postcards for some friends back at the retirement home. I buy a magnet for my mom and a keychain for my dad, hoping it will soften the blow of my inevitable punishment. My grandfather takes a picture of every squirrel we pass. We share an overpriced sandwich at a café, and he buys us ice cream afterward. We both order mint chocolate chip.
We’re sitting against the low stone wall that lines the path, gazing straight down into the canyon. A crow soars below us. Or is it a raven? I should have paid more attention to that ranger. Either way, it’s disorienting, looking down at the birds for a change.
“I hope you had a good day,” my grandfather says.
I turn to face him. He’s smiling at me, and there’s a smear of ice cream on his chin. I offer him my napkin. “I had a great day. Thank you.”
“I know you were worried about missing school and getting in trouble. But I figured I needed to take advantage of the time I have left and make up for all the years we didn’t get to spend together.”
I chuckle. “Oh, come on. You’re not that old.”
But he’s not smiling. “Your parents didn’t tell you, did they?”
Apparently not. But I can’t answer. My mouth has suddenly dried up.
“The reason I’m staying with you?” he prompts, his eyes searching my face for comprehension, but I can only shrug and shake my head.
“I stopped treatment a month ago,” he says. “I gambled away most of my money because… Well, because I thought I wouldn’t need it by now. Thought I’d go out with a bang.”
“Treatment?” I’m not stupid. I know what he’s talking about. But I want so badly for him to tell me my assumption is wrong.
But he nods.
“How long…?” The rest of the sentence sticks in my throat.
“I don’t know,” he admits. “Longer than I thought, it seems. Every day gets a little harder, though.”
“But don’t worry,” he says into the silence that follows. “You’ll get your bed back eventually.”
He attempts a laugh, but it falls flat between us.
Eventually is going to come too soon. Eventually, I’ll have to get back in that car and drive another 300 miles. Eventually, I’ll have to face my parents. Eventually, I’ll be eating breakfast alone again.
“I’m sorry,” Grandpa says. “I didn’t mean to ruin the day. I thought you knew.” He gazes over his shoulder one last time and sighs. “You ready to go?”
For a moment, I can’t answer. Can’t do anything but watch as the reds and purples and oranges before me bleed together and smear across my vision as my cheeks become wet. Embarrassed, I drop my gaze to my lap, where the camera is still nestled against my knees. We still have more than half the film roll left and so much daylight.
And I realize eventually can wait.
“Yeah,” I say to Grandpa. I try to surreptitiously wipe my eyes with the remaining napkin and flash the biggest smile I can muster. “Where to next?”