The paper was late again. He peered out the window onto his front lawn, and frowned, then strode onto the porch. The empty wicker chair stood at attention beneath his scrutiny, but the man ignored it, and was rewarded with the sight of the paperboy flying around the corner on a black Avanti.
“Going damn fast, too,” he said to himself as the teenager skidded to a halt and pegged the rolled up newspaper towards the front door. It wouldn’t take much for him to hit someone and knock them flying, the fool. “About time,” he said, more loudly, but the boy only laughed.
“You’re welcome, Grim!” The kid yelled, not at all put off by the old man’s rancour. Egbert Wheaton grunted and turned his back. “A stupid sobriquet,” he said, slamming the door. He unrolled the paper. “Pah.” The small dark print of the date in the top right corner seemed like a special insult today. Grim tossed the paper into the corner, where it was greeted by a small pile of other rejects. The third of any month was never particularly flavourful, and in August, it was especially irksome. The only thing he could ask for today was to be left completely alone—
A whisper of a knock came from the front door.
Grim swung around. He waited for a moment. He had just about convinced himself that it was one of the neighbourhood’s nosey teenagers playing their semi-weekly prank, when the sound came again. Not quite a knock, it rattled tentatively against the door like a naked branch on a window in the dead of night. Grim hated surprises. And today, today of all days. He moved towards the noise with brows beetling darkly: he looked quite ferocious when he pulled this face, which was precisely the reason it was one of his favourites to wear when dealing with visitors. With any luck, the interloper would be too intimidated to do little more than squeak and scram. He yanked the door open. There was no one there. Grim paused for a moment. Confusion swept away the scowl and lifted the brows, and thus, when the tug of a small hand made him glance down, the fearsome visage he had so carefully assembled was long gone. A bemused old man greeted Evan Abbott, who stared up at Grim without a trace of fear. Grim grunted and struggled to recreate his mask, but it was too late.
“Mr Grim,” Evan said, very seriously, “I came here today because I heard that you have fairy tales.”
If Grim had made a shortlist of possibilities for what the child wanted, this scenario wouldn’t have merited an ink splotch on the mental page. He squinted at the boy, who looked back, unwavering. His face was solemn. Uncertainty flickered in Grim’s chest.
“Stupid things, fairy tales” he muttered, scowling down at the child on his doorstep. “Only children believe in fairy tales.” He wasn’t entirely sure whether he wanted his visitor to persist, or to flee, but Evan didn’t move. He stood there, waiting for Grim to let him in, and Grim clenched his jaw. “I’ve lost the book,” he said abruptly, pushing away the memories of another time, another place, where he had read those stories to another small boy.
“I need to hear your fairy tales,” Evan said again, ignoring Grim. He looked over to where the old wicker chair sat, abandoned, on the verandah. A small crease appeared between the dark brows. In the early morning sun, the golden scrollwork of the old book glinted, and fear rippled through Grim at the sight of it. He hadn’t seen that book for years, not since—no. He ignored the insistent part of him that noted that the book was always wherever it was needed most, and considered throwing it into the garbage.
“Would serve you right,” Grim informed the book. It didn’t reply. The gilt-edged pages fluttered in the persistent breeze. Far more hopeful than they had any right to be, Grim thought. He eyed the book darkly, then glanced at the boy. Dark hair curled on the collar of his midnight-blue puff jacket, and feathered around ears that jutted out a little bit—almost pixieish, Grim thought—as he silently regarded the tome.
“What do you need fairy tales for, anyway?” Grim asked, forcing himself to look away from the boy, his voice coming out gruffer than he had perhaps intended. There was a soft sigh from the boy, as though whatever burden he carried was an old one. A tired one.
“No one reads them to me anymore,” was the soft reply. “Not since Daddy died.”
Grief, sudden and unexpected, welled within Grim and try though he might, he couldn’t force it away. It swept through him until every limb was heavy with it, as though it might never leave. He coughed, but the sensation stuck stubbornly to him, and he found himself lifting the book with hands that trembled only a little. He just needed to sit for a moment.
The chair held him like an old friend, just as it always had. He braced himself for the pain, but it didn’t hurt this time, the man realised. There were just the memories of joy: it felt safe, the way it had a long, long time ago. The way it had felt before he had lost his son and the darkness had crept in. Without prompting, Evan crawled into the man’s lap and curled up, head nestled into the man’s chest, his ear pressed to the reassuring constancy of his heartbeat. The man drew a deep breath, and felt the quivering inside him subside. Evan was warm and solid on his lap, and the man couldn’t prevent a single tear rolling down his nose as he opened the book.
Egbert Wheaton rested his chin on the dark silky hair and began to read.
[I wrote this story in response to the 2017 Winter Fiction War prompt ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’]