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The rain dropped in large splatters. In the mornings the hospital was silent - we had grown to realize that - and, by his request, I would wake my grandfather so we could hear the noises of the place; the sounds no one ever paid any attention to. But for the first time, we heard rain. Pounding, hot, gray rain.
I was still small enough to lie next to him, and my usual rustling didn’t need to wake him, the water was enough. We didn’t say anything. Just both lay there as I tried to keep my eyes open; listening to the steady hiss of air as oxygen was fed into him, the quiet murmur of machinery, the almost inaudible rasp of each painful breath taken in by him. The room was beginning to flood with cloudy morning light - the grave, exhausted color of winter’s skin - and the weak panels of white from above were starting to flicker to life.
He had taught me this, my grandfather, just to lie and listen. We had been doing this for a month.
“I need something to take my mind off things. I’m sick of this place.” The suddenness of a voice startled me. “What do you kids do for fun?” he asked. He pushed himself upright, gritting his teeth and sucking in air as he lay back his head with comfort.
“I’m dunno. Mostly video games.” Even the feeble glow from the window was enough to warm me, and I pushed myself up with him. My grandfather’s body, I noticed, had been growing colder every day.
“Those gadgets with wires and buttons? Rot your brain,” he said to me bitterly.
“What about Tic-tac-toe?”
I remembered my bag and rummaged through it. “Cards?”
“A sailor’s game? You know I hate the goddamn navy.” My grandfather’s voice was tired and raw. “No, I mean, something new. What do you play with at home?”
“Um . . . dominoes?” I asked, pulling out the tin.
“Ah! Now there’s a man’s game,” he almost cried as the bricks clattered out of the box.
We never played a game I had brought with me by the rules. “Rules are wrong and boring,” my grandfather had announced one day, back when he was better.
“It’s never fun to do what you’re told, Ethan. Be like everyone else. You of all people should know that.” So of course our game turned into building skyscrapers and pyramids. And he, of course, let me smash them.
“Now.” He began to pile the dominoes with shaking hands. “Watch.” Slowly he stood a brick upright on it’s end and continued until he had made a loop. I joined him.
As we lined them up like soldiers, I watched my grandfather, with big, loose, trembling hands, like ten gnarled roots, pinch the dominoes and balance them ever-so-carefully, making sure they didn’t wobble before moving on.
We made two separate formations that led to a small tower at the center of the plastic eating tray. I sat back, careful not to knock it, onto the bed. By the time we had finished, it was noon, and small amount of yellow light had poured through the window, but the rain still hammered on. My grandfather’s kind eyes were silvery gray, and even though he was weak, they had not yet lost their lust. They fixed on me, giving me the word.
I flicked an end domino, sending the row snaking, parting, twisting and clattering like a typewriter, bringing the tower to its knees. I smiled at the destruction, at the fallen soldiers, the white bodies.
A nurse stuck her head in and told me it was time for me to leave. I didn’t listen, just sat there for the longest time admiring the white war. My grandfather started coughing again and laid back down.
“Maybe I should go,” I started, collecting the dominoes and shoving them in my bag.
“Wait. Ethan.” My grandfather raised his hand. “You don’t have to,” he said in the rasp of his voice. “I thought you never did what we were told.”
I looked back at him; a kind-eyed man, a dying man, and released my bag. “Come here,” he whispered. “I am still a sick man, you know.” And we lay there again, just me and him, listening to the rain that pounded on the window, the small noises of the hallway as his eyes shut. I loved him. I couldn’t tell him how much, I realized, laying my head on his shoulder. As I watched him wait for the wonderful suffocation of sleep, I noticed he was still holding a domino in his hand.