Friday was my favorite day. Not because it initiates the weekend. Friday was special because my dad would pick me up from school to go visit my great-grandpa Ellis. He was the oldest person I know. Born exactly a century before I first saw light, he blew his 106th candle last month. Papa Ellis – as I called him – had been recently transferred to a retirement home an hour away from school.
The wheels of my dad’s Rover spun to the sound of Whitney Huston’s “aaa… I will always Looo…ve You…wooo”. The overwhelming fragrance of pine trees created a pleasant atmosphere through the half-opened window, taking me to a sepia-hued scenery. The shifting objects on the sideways mesmerized me in a deep-sleep state, contracting the long-drive into a five-minute nap. My dad turned off his time machine, quickly drawing me back to reality.
“Wake up champ. We made it!” uttered my father with excitement.
I held my dad’s hand as we walked through the tight hallway. The lights were white and strong completely burning my sleepy eyes. The cold draught from the AC triggered my shivering mechanism to produce heat. I came closer to my father’s leg to regain a sense of security and warmth from his wool pants. A strange feeling had pressured my chest the minute I entered the retirement house. I grabbed my dad’s hand firmly, raised my contorted face, pouted my lower lip and asked, “Daddy, is papa Ellis happy here? Cause, I don’t like this place daddy…I don’t”. We continued walking and I never got an answer.
“Hi sir. How can I help you?” promptly asked the woman behind the desk. Her face was a mystery to my eyes since I wasn’t tall enough to reach the counter.
“I’m here for Mr. Ellis Farhat. He’s my grandfather,” answered dad.
I heard her nails typing letters on the keyboard at an ultrafast rate. Once she was done, she made my dad sign a sheet and then led us to the room. Her ecru overall could fit an oversized forty-year-old and it took me a while to spell her nametag “Enn… Nuh… Nurse…”. I saw some grandpas and some grandmas walking around with other misses wearing big clothes and named Nurse as well.
Nurse unlocked a wide wooden door with a small blurry glass window in its center, and then voiced, “Welcome Mr. Ellis Farhat.” but the only thing in that room was an empty bed.
“Where is papa Ellis?” I asked, expecting the worst. I pouted my lower lip again but this time I burst into tears, “I waa…aant my pa…paaaa!!!” and I cried and yelled. My eyes sucked all the water from my throat and poured it on my cheeks. The woman grasped me and I heard her mumbling slowly, “It’s gonna be okay sir, just stay calm.” My eyes followed her lips. She was too close to my face… I kept crying. My body felt lighter. I was draining all my energy. Then I collapsed.
“Wake up champ… I’m here,” whispered a deep voice in my ear. I opened my heavy eyes with some effort and I saw him, Papa Ellis, sitting on the bed next to me. He was neatly dressed as always: a brown winter suit, assorted with a dark green tie and his usual Gatsby cap. I hugged him tight and expressed my concern. He remained silent, but I could read the sadness between the wrinkles on his forehead.
“What’s wrong papa? Why are you sad?” I asked innocently.
He looked at me through his thick eyeglasses and said, “kiddo, life is unfair. You might not understand that now, but as you get older you’ll see. Everything can turn on a dime. And when it does, you won’t be able to go backwards, rewrite the past or fix your mistakes. You passively watch the butterfly effect build its cocoon around your lungs, choking you until your last breath.”
“But papa what happened to you? You’re not happy here, aren’t you?” I asked rhetorically, confirming my suspicions.
Papa Ellis grinned and continued, “I’m fine… hah… I’m fine kiddo. To be honest with you, I don’t have much time left and I need to tell you a short story. Not like the ones mama reads you before you go to sleep. My story is real and its ending is not happy.”
I loved listening to papa’s stories. He had an eloquent way of describing quite everything, leading me to envision the world his way. He kept his hat tucked under his armpit for a while before placing it besides him and putting back to place whatever was left of his hair.
“I was almost eighteen years old when humans all over the globe decided to fight. They called it The Great War,” started papa “but trust me, it wasn’t great at all,” he added.
Although living in the deep mountains spared him some of the violence, papa Ellis went on describing the atrocities he witnessed. From embargo placed on food supplies to grasshoppers that consumed all the crops, it only took famine a few weeks to hit the country. “It was horrible,” added papa, “to get wheat or bread, every Friday of each week, my brother and I would ride our donkey and travel for days from our village to the nearest city.”
I never knew that I had a great-granduncle so I had to ask, “what’s his name papa? Your brother.”
His voice cracked and his eyelids vainly tried to hold his tears as he said, “Thomas… his name was Thomas. And the last time I saw him was on a Friday back in 1915… that horrible year.” He paused deeply inhaling to gather his wits. He continued, “I looked for him all over the city, but he was nowhere to be found. I told him to wait for me while I stand in line to get wheat. I should never have left him by himself.” He cleared his throat this time and surrendered to the flow of his emotions.
“Where did he go papa?”
“I ask myself the same question. Everyday. That’s why I need your help kiddo. I need you to solve the mystery, to ease my guilt, to tell me that he lived a better life,” he begged. A lump formed in my throat. “Some citizens heard Thomas sing gracefully that day until two Ottoman soldiers interrupted him mid-performance and seized him. He had the most angelic voice you know?” he added while wearing his cap “help me.”
For the next few days, I felt as if someone had tied a knot around my stomach. My nights were haunted by human skeletons trying to eat my flesh, while grasshoppers invaded the sky. I kept visiting papa Ellis on Fridays and every time he asked me if I had found any clues, I would bow my head in sorrow.
Months had passed and I wasn’t even close to finding any trace of Thomas Farhat. Papa’s face crumpled even more, and his dimmed smile progressively disappeared. As the guilt swallowed him whole he was slowly raising his white flag.
Summer was finally here! This meant moving from the city to our native village: the place of ultimate freedom. I could spend the whole day playing outside, collecting shiny stones and running in wheat fields.
I lost track of time; it was the first Friday on which I don’t visit the retirement house. Instead, I rode my bike between the tight alleys, replied to all the hellos with a smile or a hand gesture and followed my path. Under the old famous oak tree, I saw a boy – probably my age – playing with a soccer ball. I slowed down then dropped my bike to the ground, hoping to join him in a game.
“Hey!” I said eagerly, “Can I play with you?”
He nodded and passed me the ball. After that, each of us built his own goal with a couple of rocks and we kept kicking the ball for hours. We were enjoying our game so much that counting points and chatting seemed to have little importance.
“Thomas… it’s time to come home!” a motherly voice shouted.
“I’m coming mom…” He yelled back and then told me: “I’m sorry, we’re travelling back to our country tomorrow morning, so I need to get going.”
“Where do you live?” a feeling in my gut pushed me to ask.
“We live in Istanbul, Turkey. We only came here to discover our home country,” he responded as if he had memorized the answer his parents constantly repeated.
Thomas… Turkey… Home country… is it possible? I was trying to link his answers in my mind. It must be a coincidence. It probably doesn’t mean anything. I’m overthinking this too much I kept telling myself. But I had to be sure… ask him!
“Hey Thomas…Uhmm, what’s your last name?” I hesitated.
My heart was pounding so hard I could feel it ripping off my chest. I was picturing him pronouncing the letters F.A.R.H.A.T.
“Slim,” he said, “Thomas Slim. What’s yours?”
My expectations were wrecked. What was I thinking? Thomas is a very common name!
I interrupted my internal monologue and answered, “Mine is Farhat. Nice to meet you.”
He shook my hand and then said, “Oh… That’s my mom’s maiden name! We must be related then. In fact, it was her idea to come visit this town as a tribute to her grandpa. He used to live here before moving to Turkey where he became a famous singer.”
There it was. My clue. A living proof that Thomas survived, got married and probably lived a better life with his family in Turkey.
“Carry on!” I said eagerly as I ran towards my bike. I had to tell my father first so I hopped on and headed home. The wheels couldn’t keep up with the pace of my cycling speed. The wind was smacking my face producing a loud howl in my ears. The trees were shifting rapidly in a tunnel-like effect, until a hovering grasshopper shook me off my daydreaming. “Get off… Get off!!” I yelled turning my head to the sides to stop it from landing on me. As I was struggling, my foot got stuck between the pedal and the metal chassis, and head first, I fell to the concrete ground.
I slowly opened my eyes tucked inside the white, fresh smelling sheets of, as it seems to be, Papa Ellis’s bed? I looked around and I confirmed my speculations.
How did I make it to the retirement house? Oh yes, today is Friday.
A tingling sensation on my forehead instinctively drew my hand to feel the wounded area, reminding me of the fall and the surprising encounter. I can’t wait to tell my Papa!
As I was getting out of bed, the door slowly opened.
“I see you’re awake champ!” It was my dad, “ready to go to the village?” he asked.
“Hey daddy…” I uttered “I can’t wait to go back, but I need to talk to papa first. You know daddy, I think I found Uncle Thomas’s family. Papa is gonna be so happy,” I added excitedly.
“Oh really?” he asked indifferently, as if this situation weren’t unprecedented. “He’s gonna be up there,” responded my father as we walked out of the room and into the hallway. He stopped in front of the counter to sign another form. Sitting behind her desk, Nurse looked at me with her dark eyes, grinned and then said loudly, “Have a good weekend sir and take care of your wound! Don’t move too fast, you might fall again! See you next week.” I smiled back and kindly thanked her. I felt so cold so I hugged my father and covered myself under his jacket.
I realized that we finally made it to the village as soon as my father parked his Rover next to the old famous oak. As I got out of the car, I recognized Papa Ellis standing under the tree.
“Papa… I found it!” I screamed while running towards him. He stood still, looked at me and then said peacefully, “I know you did champ… and I’m proud of you!”
We were standing face to face but I couldn’t understand his reaction. I imagined he would be happier, he looks so calm. Plus, what is that on his forehead? It looks like we have the same wound?
I touched my forehead, he did the same.
Why is he copying me? Who is he anyway? Wait… where am I?
My head felt heavier, the earth spun around and I found myself standing alone under the oak tree. I looked under my feet and read the following words engraved on a marble stone:
Here lies the body of Thomas Farhat: 1900 – 1915
I fell on my knees, held my Gatsby cap in my hand and burst into tears… not because I discovered that my brother was dead, because I already knew he was, last Friday and the Friday before…
This was my state of lucidity so I held my tears and said to myself,
“It’s okay. You’ll probably forget all this by tomorrow Papa Ellis…”