We’d barely gotten through the cottage door before I felt Grandma’s claws digging into both shoulders. I hadn’t minded her grabbing me from behind like that when I was a kid. Her towering over me, hands on my shoulders, had felt loving, protective—and less bony. But then Dad had explained that Grandma had been using me as a shield all those times, knowing mom wouldn’t fight with her in front of me. Now that I was taller than Grandma, her hanging from my shoulders was just creepy.
She stood on tiptoes to whisper below my ear, “Tyler, can you go out and help your grandfather with the barbeque? You know how he gets.”
I was glad to get outside. The arguing had already started before we’d even reached the turn off to the lake road. Mom had been on the phone the whole way after that, shouting over the noise of the gravel road, trying to make Uncle Mike take grandfather’s present back and get something ‘more suitable’.
“You don’t buy the most expensive phone there is for a ninety-year old! . . . No, I’m not saying he isn’t worth it, but he’s ninety. . . . No. You’re not listening. . . . You don’t buy a complicated smartphone for someone with . . .Alzheimer’s.”
Mom always lowered her voice whenever she said “Alzheimer’s”, like it might jinx Grandpa if she said it full volume.
“No! Listen! He needs a simple phone! . . . There’s no point spending a lot on— What? How is beta better? That means no one knows how to—. How much of a discount? Mike, it’s not a free phone if you have to sign a two-year contract! . . . Five Years! Are you crazy? He’s ninety! He’s not going to . . .” She lowered her voice and I couldn’t hear over the gravel what she was saying, but I could guess well enough.
“One of us? You mean you. It’s supposed to be a present for Dad, not me and Charlie subsidizing the newest phone for you . . . No, I don’t want the bloody thing. I have a perfectly good phone now.”
As I went through and out to the patio, Mom had already started in on Grandma. “Why did you let Mike buy the most expensive phone there is? Dad can’t handle—” I slid the French doors closed so Grandpa couldn’t hear.
“Hey there, Tyler.”
Grandpa was standing at his oversized chrome barbeque, pushing coals around.
“Little early for that, isn’t it?” I said. “I’m guessing supper won’t be for a couple of hours.”
Grandpa nodded, tilted his head towards inside. “Just needed to get away from that.”
My turn to nod. “Yeah. Sorry. You deserve better on your birthday.”
Grandpa held up his hand, palm out, stopping me. “No, it’s all good. They’ll argue themselves out before cake. Just glad everyone could make it out.”
“Victoria here, then?” I hadn’t seen her yet.
He made a face. “Yes. Yes, she is.”
I snorted. I didn’t have to ask “…is a what?”
Too bad, though. Everybody could usually get along well enough when Victoria wasn’t around. Seemed to me that Mike, and even their kids, would be happier if he divorced her, but apparently divorce was never on the table in our family.
Grandpa put down the tongs, closed the lid on the barbeque. “You know anything about phones, Tyler?”
Grandpa nodded towards the shed. “Go have a look. Don’t let them see, though.”
I crossed the yard—the spruce trees assured there was no actual lawn at the cottage—and let myself into the shed. It was dark, filthy, piled so high with junk it was hard to squeeze in more than a step or two. I left the door ajar for light, spotted a box with a too-perfect bow, half-hidden behind an old transistor radio. I pulled the fake-wrap lid off the gift box.
Inside: the latest Hydrogen Red. Titanium casing, no less. That was over the top. I wouldn’t want it. Too tempting for thieves. Or just forgetting it somewhere. You could buy three or four regular phones for what that must cost.
I snuck the phone back to the picnic table to show grandpa.
“What’d you think?” he asked.
“Top of the line. Great camera.”
He nodded. “I asked for an old-style flip phone. For if I fall again. Something cheap I could lose, you know?” He regarded the Red. “Could I even work that?”
I thought about it. “The model 11 is pretty flexible. I could set it up to be simple for you. Faces of everyone you might want to phone instead of numbers; clock, camera; keep it basic.”
“I’ll forget my password.”
“Comes with facial recognition. I’ll turn off the password. It’ll remember you instead.”
“Is that right?” He looked thoughtful. “Camera’s probably hard.”
I shrugged. “Not really. I can show you.”
Snaps are simple of course, but this latest model had a pretty sophisticated built-in editing suite. Fortunately, it had an ‘easy’ setting for people like Grandpa. Software did everything for you. “See, Grandpa, you just have to remember to press this button, and move your finger over what you want to erase, and it’s gone.”
“You don’t say?”
“Here, you try.” I took a snap of the dog peeking out from under the barbeque cabinet. “Try taking out those weeds.”
He pressed the ‘erase’ button as directed, rubbed his finger over the two straggly weeds that were intruding in the corner of the photo, and the software filled in the empty pixels with barbeque chrome.
“Isn’t that something!” He was grinning all over. “Yeah, that’s a keeper. Quick, put it back before the others come out.”
Mom was setting the picnic table when I got back, but I don’t think she saw me. Then Victoria marched over, picked up four of the plates and replaced them with paper plates from her bag.
“What?” mom demanded.
“Your mother never uses soap in the dishwasher.” Victoria ran her finger across the plate, held it out to show the smudge. “I’m not having my family eating off that.”
“You can’t bring you own plates. It’s like, like a gut punch to her.”
Victoria rolled her eyes. “Well, I brought enough for everybody. I figured you’d appreciate clean plates too. Just tell her I had the table set already when you. Came out. To save her from having to do dishes.” She reached in her bag pulled out more plates, plastic utensils.
Mom was livid, but she scooped up Grandma’s china and retreated through the French doors. Frankly, I was with Victoria on this one.
I went back to hang with grandpa, make sure he didn’t get distracted and forget to put the burgers on, or flip them, or take them off when they were ready. It takes way more concentration to do burgers than you’d think.
People came out, had beers or lemonade, pretended to get along, and as grandpa had predicted, things had pretty much settled down by the time for cake. The weather was great, there were hardly any mosquitos this year, and looking out across the lake was calming. Of course, it helped that Victoria had taken a call and gone to sit in her car for most of the meal. Even her kids had relaxed more with her gone.
Then came the presents: a giant card from grandma, drawings from art class with “TO GRANDPA” in block letters from my cousins, a bottle of homemade wine from Charlie, though he had also contributed to thepresent. The box was presented with due pomp and ceremony, though Mike scowled at Mom momentarily when he found the cellophane was off the phone. But he let it pass, and if Mom noticed, thought the scowl was him still being pissed about earlier.
Grandpa was completely surprised, of course. He did such a good job of faking it, I wondered for a moment if he’d actually forgotten. But he knew right away which was the camera icon on this model, got everyone up and posing for photos: the cousins with their drawings, Charlie with his homemade, me with mom, and then everybody over again with Grandma. He even insisted Victoria come back and pose with Mike and the kids.
I worried the camera function might be a bit too hard for Grandpa after all, as he seemed to be struggling with it at times. He took forever to take the shots with Victoria. He kept moving Mike a couple of inches closer to the big tree, getting the kids to squat down, Victoria to move so he could center her in the frame. The way he insisted everyone was posed just so, I thought maybe he had forgotten he could always crop the shot after, let the software square things up. He seemed satisfied in the end, though.
Everyone managed to pull out a smile, except for Victoria who always looked impatient. She never hid that she would rather be somewhere else, doing something else, than being with our family.
I cleared the table (which today just meant scooping everything into a big green garbage bag) while everyone but Victoria went down to the beach. The dock was too broken to walk out on, and the lake was too cold to swim yet, but the kids stuck their toes in, and the adults sat in their beach chairs, and Mike and Charlie had a blaze going in the firepit by the time I joined everyone.
Grandpa kept saying how much he appreciated his new phone, over and over, so I could tell he didn’t know he’d been repeating himself. The others went with it. Somewhere along the line I realized Grandpa didn’t have his phone on him, so I went to look for it. It was on the barbeque, which probably wasn’t the best place, so I picked it up; decided to look at how he’d done with the camera.
Grandpa had done alright. Nothing to win any awards, but good enough for family snaps. I liked the two of me. I couldn’t find the ones with Victoria, though, so he had been having some issue taking those. There were still a bunch with Mike and the kids, so not a total loss.
Mike came out of the cottage. I hadn’t noticed him going in, but now he was out again, I called him over to look at the snaps.
But he waved the phone away. “Yeah, in a minute. Have you seen Victoria? I can’t find her.”
“She leave?” She’d looked so bored, that wouldn’t have surprised me.
“No, her car’s still here. I’m going see if she walked down to the village for smokes. Tell, the others if they notice. I’ll be right back.”
I took Grandpa his phone, congratulated him on his photography skills. “These are good, Grandpa.”
“Thanks. I had a bit of trouble getting my head around that you can change things. I mean, change everything right inside the phone.”
“It’s all in the software, Grandpa.”
“The things a person can do nowadays.” He shook his head in wonder.
I should demo some of the more advanced editing features for him sometime. It would seem like a magic show to him.
Uncle Charlie leaned over placed a hand on my knee. “Hey, I just wanted to thank you for doing the weeds. You didn’t have to do that, but I know your Grandma really appreciates it.”
“I saw that you took out those big old weeds by the barbeque. Those tap roots are a pain to pull out. They must have gone down pretty deep. Appreciate it.”
I was about to say I couldn’t take credit for the weeds when Mike showed up again. “Hey, everybody. Has anyone seen Victoria? I can’t seem to find her anywhere.”
Robert Runté is Senior Editor with EssentialEdits.ca and was formerly Senior Editor for Five Rivers Publishing, a small Canadian press for which he acquired and edited 30 books, primarily science fiction and fantasy. A former professor, he has won three Aurora Awards (Canadian SF&F) for his literary criticism and is shortlisted again for 2020. In 2018, he inherited the incomplete manuscripts of Canadian SF&F author Dave Duncan to finish and publish. Robert’s own fiction has been published in a variety of venues, and four of his short stories have been reprinted in “best of” collections.