“I’m Sorry” is one of the outstanding stories of the first biannual International Short Story Contest 2018 written by Yun-Tzu (Allison) Lin, Canadian Academy, Japan.
He stalked closer and closer to me, those narrowed eyes demanding. I froze. Like a deer in headlights, panic-stricken, but too terrified to move. I started regretting my words, regretting them very, very much.
It had been a typical autumn day, brisk and chilly, the sidewalk strewn with rust-colored leaves. I had just crossed the threshold of our house, red-cheeked and beaming from all the excitement outside.
“Have you been playing in the dirt again, Katiya?” Grandpa’s curt voice sounded from the living room.
“Go wash your feet upstairs, before you make the floor dirty with all the dust from outside. Don’t leave a trail of havoc for your grandma to clean up, eh!”
“No,” I replied, in a bout of irritation.
“No?” Grandpa’s eyebrows rose high, and a hint of disbelief shadowed his eyes.
“No,” I responded, now stubborn. “No.”
“Head upstairs to wash your feet,” he exhaled slowly.
“Five seconds, I’m giving you five seconds to hustle away.”
“Is that how you address your grandfather? 5!”
“I’m not going!” I stomped my feet, like a three-year-old throwing a hissy fit.
“It’s a simple command, 4!”
“I don’t care!” I covered my ears.
“What’s the matter with you? 3!”
“You can’t force me!” I wailed desperately.
“I’m waiting. 2!’’
“NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” I screamed.
“1. That’s it.”
Thrown back to the present, my voice died down. I faced Grandpa meekly. He looked vexed, his face frustrated, regarding me like an unwanted bag of garbage.
“Up,” he commanded, and literally dragged me up the stairs.
I half stumbled and half slid along the hallway, where I could see my grandma knitting in her room, shaking her head disappointedly. My brother was with our cousins in the adjoining room, who had all fallen magically silent at the first sight of a smoldering Grandpa.
To all of us young kids, Grandpa was a legend, and quite a scary one at that. Grandpa was a doctor, the finest in town. Strict and demanding, he held himself and everyone around him in the highest discipline possible. The only one of twelve siblings to graduate secondary school; the only one in a village to leave for college; the only one in a district to own a house and car at twenty-five. He was never seen without formal attire, his shoes polished to its finest gleam. He demanded to be addressed as “sir”, and slouching of any form, especially with the younger kids, was firmly reprimanded. Grandpa was, and is still, a man to be revered. I was typically the most obedient, and Grandpa liked obedient children. Which is why you could catch my brother having his backside whacked for talking back, wailing like hell froze over, but Grandpa had always regarded me fondly. Until now, that is.
Grandpa pointed at the shower stall and I had no choice but to step in, “You have been disrespectful, both to me, to your Grandma, and to the house that has raised you. What have we taught you?”
He picked up a nearby bucket and filled it with ice-cold water straight from the tap. I was confused, an ominous confusion mixed with mounting terror. Would I have to carry the bucket back down to clean my trail of dust? How would that explain stepping into the shower stall? I shrank back towards the wall, eyeing the bucket precautiously. The gray, steel, and slightly rusted bucket. My eyes followed the bucket, the curve of its opening leering slyly at me.
Then the bucket was raised.
On my head.
The shock and desperation I had felt that instant, and still feel vividly today, had me wailing unstoppably. I sucked in another breath and continued howling, all the while with icy water dripping from my clothes, my hair, my shoes, and shivering. My ears rang, I saw dark spots, and my head became dizzy. It felt like I was dragged into a whirlwind, and the colors blurred about me. From the squint of my eyes, I could make out a furious figure barging in.
“What are you doing, father? She is seven! Only seven!” Aunt Gloria demanded hurriedly, engulfing me with towels from the nearby rack. The disorientation receded a little, but the shock was still there.
Grandpa stood unblinking. Then he turned and walked out the door.
Aunt Gloria bustled about me, showering me with hot water, peeling away my soaked clothing, and enveloping me in her bone-crushing embrace.
But then she pulled away, not without a firm reprimanding in the ear, “Grandpa was right, you should be ashamed of what you did. Now hustle away to clean up the living room floor, though your Grandma has probably gotten to it already.”
I walked down the stairs slowly, in my now drenched but no longer dripping clothes, still shivering slightly. I was greeted with the sight of Grandma crouching over the ground, mopping away my dust and dirt from outside.
Shame, red-hot and burning, should have been what I felt.
But it wasn’t.
Rage, intensified with the slight prickle of guilt, was what pushed me to tiptoe back up the stairs and into my room, not once turning to watch grandma’s hunched figure.
I was sent to bed at eight that night, an hour earlier than my usual bedtime. As I tossed and turned, the Snoopy on my blankets was turned upside down, inside out, and finally, crumpled to the ground. I went back to the earlier events, and decided, as I slumbered off to sleep, that though I was in the wrong, I did not deserve the punishment so harshly inflicted upon me.
I was angry at Grandpa, for sparing no pain as he broadcasted my mistakes to everyone in the house. At Aunt Gloria, for not once listening to my side of the story even after rescuing me. At Grandma, for covering up my mistake and worsening my guilt. Finally, at myself, for allowing this entire business to happen in the first place.
I woke up at midnight, burning with fever, and drifted between dreaming, sleeping, and being conscious till daylight. It started with a slight ringing, until the headache was so terrible that I couldn’t move my head. I wanted to ask for help, but the pride I held for myself, though it might have been the throbbing headache, stopped me at the door. In the morning, as Aunt Gloria shook me awake, I could only manage to croak feebly, “My throat, my head, ouch…” before relenting to the clutches of sleep.
The next time I opened my eyes, the scorching sun right on my face, along with a groggy headache, struck me like a trumpet blast to the head. Groaning, I peered dizzily at my clock. Two o’clock. There was a small slip of paper on the bedside table and a bowl of medicine, the murky brown of the liquid sinister as the swamps of Everglades. I sighed, knowing the protocol. I grabbed the bowl, ignoring the instructions. As I gulped down the repulsive brown goo, I cursed everyone I could think of, and twice more for grandpa. The rest of the day was a mixture of dozing off, drinking water, hobbling to the bathroom, and one more bowl of the nauseating brown muck.
As dusk fell, I started to hear boisterous conversation below and the sudden burst of raucous laughter. I once again lamented my predicament. Stuck in bed, drinking medicine, and with a raging headache.
Then the door eased open. Standing there was Grandpa in the doorway, holding his med kit in one hand. I rolled over to my side, facing the wall, still as a stone.
Clanging ensured as he took the bowl and checked its contents.
Then silence, as I felt Grandpa’s stare, scorching into the back of my head.
“Katiya,” he tried to reason.
My face remained against the wall, my back impassive. I shifted, but I never turned around. Then was the sound of footsteps receding, though Grandpa never saw the hesitant look on my face.
Strangely, I felt a sense of loss and unspeakable emptiness. I wondered myself, if Grandpa hadn’t been so hell bent on getting me to wash my feet the instance I stepped in the doorway, would I have disobeyed him? If his tone hadn’t been so demanding, so exigent, so distrusting, would I have uttered that “no”? But then why did he come back to my room? I looked back at the bowl by the table, then I realized suddenly. Grandpa never threw away the piece of paper, the instructions I ignored. Shakily, I stood up. I grabbed the paper.
There was a hasty scrawl, “I’m sorry.”
I dozed off again, so utterly confused.
I awoke at midnight, my legs curled up and facing the door, and feeling a foreign presence by my side. I tensed up, preparing to scream, until I saw a shock of white hair.
He seemed unaware that I was now wide awake, so I let it continue that away, relaxing my breathing once more. As he stroked my hair, our breathing matched. We stayed like that for awhile. It was so peaceful, just him and me. For a moment, it seemed as though our argument never happened. We were just grandpa and granddaughter. Together. Peaceful. Loving.
And I missed it.
Then Grandpa pulled my blankets up, the Snoopy on my blanket now enfolding me tenderly. He gently stood up from my bed. As he turned back to watch my face one last time, I opened my eyes.
“Grandpa,” I whispered, smiling.
“I’m sorry too.”