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That Boy in the Picture

"We talked about you in class today grandpa," I said. The colored parts of his eyes widened like a submerged marble surfacing in a cup of milk. Interested, maybe annoyed. "We got to the chapter in our history book about the Great Wizard War."
I didn't mention that his name only appeared a single time or that the beginning of each chapter has a bank of important names that are bolded the first time they appear in the text and that his name wasn't one of them.
I also didn't say that he was described as a decoy and nothing else.
"Well," he began, his fingers tightening around the steering wheel. His voice was usually brittle, like a damp paper towel that fell apart before it could leave his mouth, but now it lifted, thickened. "I'm sure it was drowned in a sea of David Worton. No, not even a sea, a tornado, a hurricane, a natural disaster that blows through and uproots everything in its path."
Grandpa picked me up from school a few times a month when Mom took on some overtime. He was as happy to spend time with me as he was happy to spend time with anyone. I never took his moods personally.
"Everyone in class knew you were my grandpa," I said. "The teacher even mentioned it."
His face tipped toward the ceiling as we stopped at a red light, only cocking it forward again just in time to catch the light. "Is old Mr. Gregory still the history teacher over there? He was a big part of the Final Battle, you know?"
Gregory died a year after I was born. Grandpa knew this. He couldn't remember where he put his keys, but he could remember just about everything else when he wanted to.
"No, he's gone."
"The bastards who teach you probably don't even know which end of a wand points out."
"We still have wand classes," I said, but grandpa didn't respond, as if I knew why that was a stupid rebuttal.
We pulled into Jerry's, the only place Grandpa ever took me after school, the only restaurant he went to. They had cafeteria style food, hot dogs, fries, things you knew had been simply warmed up in the back, probably purchased from a local grocery store and served with a high mark up. They were famous for their chili, nutty, too thin to eat on its own but perfect dripping off the sides of a hot dog. As I got older the chili sat worse and worse with my stomach, enough to make me wonder if Grandpa knew an antidiarrheal spell, if that even exists.
When we entered, we grabbed cafeteria-style trays, each one covered in pale, claw like scratches. We both got the same thing, always: two dogs with everything, small fry. They handed them to us as we moved down the line. We both plopped them on our trays, allowing them to tip on their side, the cheese that wasn't glued to the chili tumbling off. We'd both learned that the hot dogs wouldn't make it to the table upright no matter what you did, so it was best to not bother trying.
Grandpa had a fondness for this place, partly because he came here as a kid, partly because it's the place he chose as a last meal before the Final Battle of the Great Wizard War began, partly because his picture was on the wall, just behind the main register.
"What else did they say?" Grandpa asked once we had sat down, and he was through his first hot dog. "About the war, about Worton."
"Not much, it was pretty general. You know how it is, a lot of history to cover, not much time."
"Did your book say he was a hero? That he was the prophesized one?"
"It said he killed Helgot." I shoved the rest of my hot dog in my mouth, hoping to not have to elaborate.
"He did do that," Grandpa said, distant. I traced his gaze until it met the picture of himself on the wall, young, handsome, full school robe on. "Do people like you?"
It took me a second to respond, not sure if he was talking to me. "People?"
"Like at school. Are you popular?"
"I have friends."
"Good, good," he said, bringing his eyes back to me. "See, I was the most popular kid that school has ever seen. I was the prophesized, I was going to vanquish Helgot, restore magic to its natural balance. I'd already paid in blood, to see my parents..." he stopped, realizing who he was talking to. "I'd had a hard life before that, let's just say."
"I wish I were that popular," I said, uncertain, not sure if I wanted those eyes on me, those expectations to live up to.
"I was chased, you know. Hunted. Helgot sent assassins, shapeshifters, men who could talk to animals, and women with knives older than humans. My roommate my second year of school was killed trying to protect me from a flying rath snake."
"Sounds terrifying."
"Maybe, but also exciting," he said. "It's hard for me to believe now. To use a child as a decoy, to keep the real chosen one, the one who mattered safe...."
Grandpa downed the last piece of his second hot dog. "Anyway," he continued. "Did I tell you that Jerry's son is taking over this place now? He wants to change the menu, update it."
"Seriously?"
"And even worse, he wants to take down the picture of me."
"Why?"
Grandpa shrugged. "I wasn't chosen. I was a fake. Worton's the one who did the deed, saved the day, crossed the finish line. I imagine most people don't even know who that boy in the picture is. Bet Jerry's son is sick and tired of trying to explain."
"You're still important," I said, wanting to add that he was always important to me, but I knew that's not what he meant, not what he wanted.
Not what he was promised.
That was the last time we ever went to Jerry's together. Jerry's son left up Grandpa's picture for a few more months after he died as some kind of show of respect before taking it down, replacing it with nothing but the wall behind it.
Grandpa didn't have much to leave, but I did get his books, mostly spell books, a few biographies, some tabletop books with tour posters of old bands. On the shelf there were also a few yearbooks. Inside, they were covered in signatures, well wishes, signatures with hearts tacked on the end. He was loved, respected. They wanted to be him, wanted what they thought he had.
And I guess he wanted that, too.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 16th, 2021
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