A week after Abigail Whitaker’s funeral, her two children reluctantly began going through their mother’s belongings. To sell the valuables, donate usable items, and discard the rest. But it wasn’t an easy task. Abigail was a hoarder her entire life, and she couldn’t easily throw things away. She kept postcards, some of which belonged to sixty to seventy years ago. And like a zealot, Abigail kept all belongings of her late husband, who was listed as MIA in the Vietnam war decades ago. She loved her husband dearly and waited all her life, expecting him to walk through the door at any moment.
Amongst all her children and grandchildren, Paul Whitaker was Abigail’s favorite grandchild. Perhaps because he had the same name as grandpa, and by getting older, like two peas in a pod, he further resembled his late grandfather, the man he had never met. There was a framed black-and-white photograph of the grandpa in the military uniform on the grandma’s lounge room wall, very much resembling Paul today. Despite grandpa being around ten to fifteen years older than Paul when that photo was taken, the resemblance was stunning, as if Paul himself posed for that shot. Therefore, Paul had a special place in Abigail’s heart.
Paul willingly volunteered to clean grandma’s attic. Grandma didn’t like anyone to get close to the attic. It was a no-go zone for everyone. So much so that when Paul was a child, he and his cousins believed grandmother had a secret, and whatever it was, she hid it in the attic. In their imagination, they believed grandma kept a treasure there, more like pirates’ treasures, a box full of gold coins and jewelry. They possibly got the idea from the Treasure Island story, with its animated movie having just been released back then.
Now Paul was in his late twenties, a Ph.D. student in theoretical physics, researching the concept of Time. However, it was implausible to find anything valuable in the attic. Still, Paul was keen to find what grandma stored there and why she didn’t want anyone to walk in there.
The attic hatch was secured with an old and bulky padlock, and same as all old things, it was made of high-quality steel. But no one knew where its key was. Eventually, he had to cut the tough lock with a bolt cutter, and he found it more challenging than he had expected. The attic was dark, and its light wasn’t working, possibly for ages. Its air was damp and heavy. At first glance, it was like a cave with lots of abandoned goods left forgotten for centuries. Everywhere was covered with a thick layer of fine dust. Paul walked in and stood in the middle of the attic. It took a while before his vision adjusted to the dim light.
First, he noticed a few pieces of old furniture such as; side bed tables, chairs, and a lampstand, all covered in dust and spider webs. Some looked heavy and bulky. ‘How did grandma carry them up in here?’ Paul questioned. ‘They will go straight into the waste bin,’ he decided. Then he saw a bookshelf full of old, dusty books with discolored pages. As a bookworm, Paul quickly decided to keep the books for himself and read them all. He was sure no one would protest against his will to keep those old and dirty-looking books. ‘But family will worry about my sanity!’ He smiled at his thought.
There were many packed carton boxes there, stored on top of each other lined up next to the walls. On close examination, Paul recognized his grandma’s handwriting on the boxes, with a short description of their contents. It made it easier for him to sort them.
The first box he examined was full of unmatched glassware. ‘Sorry, grandma. I know you don’t like to throw them away. With your permission, I will drop them at a charity,’ he murmured as if he was talking to grandma. Though he didn’t believe in the afterlife and the existence of spirits, he liked to think grandma’s spirit was there, monitoring his actions, and he didn’t want to cause her any distress.
The next box was full of old and out-of-fashion dresses whose color had changed by the passage of time. ‘Should I donate them or throw them away?’ Paul asked himself. ‘With your permission, grandma, I will discard these old dresses. I don’t think anyone will wear them.’ Paul murmured as if he was talking with Abigail.
After going through a few boxes with unimportant contents, he found four large carton boxes with grandpa’s name written on them. He got curious about their contents. Paul had never met his grandfather. He was listed as MIA during the Vietnam war a few decades before he was born. But his memory was alive in the family. Grandma had told many stories about Paul Whitaker, her husband. So, for everyone in the family, grandpa was a hero. But for Paul, grandpa was a superhero. He was proud of being named after him. And their resemblance was Paul’s pride.
Paul opened the first box. It was full of civilian clothing belonging to grandpa. A quick examination told him they were all in his size. ‘I can wear them. There are good for a retro, 70s party,’ he smiled at his thought.
The next box was full of old military uniforms and boots. At the bottom of the box, he found a military belt, a bayonet, and a stainless steel military water bottle. He excitedly decided to keep all of them to himself.
In the third box, he found documents, photos, and letters grandpa had sent to Abigail. Paul couldn’t hide his excitement. It was a real treasure, and he would keep them all for himself. The letters were sorted by date. So he opened the first letter dated 10th of June 1970 posted from Quang Tri, Vietnam, and read it.
My dear Abigail,
Today is the tenth day since my arrival in Vietnam. I am sorry for not being able to write sooner. We were busy attending induction groups and adjusting to our new environment. Today I got a desk job, working at the company office at Quang Tri. My condition is not as bad as you might think, and we are far from any action. It is pretty safe here, and you don’t need to worry about me. The heat and the mosquitos are our sworn enemies. I am sharing a bunker with six other guys. But, three of them compete to prove who snores louder than the other two. So their symphony orchestra keeps the rest of us awake all night. I guess this is an army’s plot to force us to volunteer for the front line than sharing the bunker with these roaring bears.
Sorry, I have to go. The sergeant is calling me.
Grandpa’s handwriting was like his. And strangely, his signature was exactly like Paul’s signature. How could two people, who lived at two different times, adopt to sign like each other? ‘Statistically speaking, its chance is near zero!’ Paul argued with himself. ‘If I knew, I would forge documents under grandpa’s name and get away with it,’ he smiled at this thought. Paul heard about hereditable genetic traits that some individuals are physically and psychologically more like a parent than another. But in his case, he looked almost identical to grandpa. But, as far as he knew, he should inherit just a quarter of his genes.
That night he finished reading all the grandpa’s letters addressed to his wife. Some were funny, and a few brought tears to his eyes. Now he understood why grandma had always been talking highly about his grandfather and had never remarried. They were in love.
There was a bulged large manila envelope full of black and white photographs in that box. Paul took the bunch of photos out and explored them one by one. In the first picture, grandpa was in a bar and held a pint of beer in his hand. Grandpa wrote a short description on the back of the photo: 5th of August 1970, at a local bar in Quang Tri. Vietnam. Paul Whitaker.
Most of the photographs were from his time in Vietnam. While shuffling through the photos, Paul found a much older picture, damaged, with low resolution, possibly over a hundred years old. A man that could be grandpa stood next to an old warship. He looked at the back of the picture. As he expected, Paul found a handwritten description there, which had aged with time. It was grandpa’s handwriting, which was like his own. 24th of December 1863, USS Wissahickon ship armed with an 11-inch cannon (Dahlgren gun). Civil war. Paul Whitaker.
‘Was grandpa interested in the civil war?’ He asked himself. Soon he found a sepia-toned old photo. In that image, a man who could be grandpa posed in a bunker with a long rifle hung on his shoulder. Paul quickly checked the back of the picture. As he expected, grandpa left a description. 5th of September 1914, France. A day before the battle of Marne. Paul Whitaker.
Paul suspiciously stared at the old picture. The man looked like grandpa or even himself. ‘How could it be? How could he take part in that war?’ Paul asked himself, puzzled. ‘Maybe this man is his father and my grand grandfather!’ He mused.
Then he found another photograph. This time, grandpa or someone similar to him stood next to three other soldiers, with the one on the left having a sergeant insignia on his uniform’s sleeve. It was in another war zone near a coastal line with many warships on the horizon. By their uniforms, he could say it wasn’t Vietnam. He quickly checked the rear of the picture and nervously read the handwritten description. Wednesday, 7th of June 1944, a day after D-day, Normandy, France. From left to write; Sergeant James Blackwater, Corporal Paul Whitaker, Private John Parish, and Private Timothy Spring (our Medic). Paul Whitaker.
Paul was puzzled and couldn’t digest how his grandfather could be in all those wars! ‘If today someone shows me photographs of himself at different times in the history, I would suspect that the pictures are photoshopped. But these are real photos taken long before the invention of personal computers and photo editing software. So how can it be possible?’
Paul re-examined those bizarre photographs again and again, without finding a rational explanation for them. Then, suddenly, an epiphany caused a chill to go down his spine. The stunning similarity he had to his grandfather, their same physical size, similar handwriting style, and their identical signature made him ask, ‘what if I am my grandfather?’ Paul had been seriously researching the concept of time and the possibility of time travel in the last two years as part of his doctoral research. ‘What if I build a time machine in the next ten to fifteen years? Then I can time-travel into the past. And I can be my grandfather!’ Then he asked himself, ‘did grandma know the grandpa and I are the same person?’
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I love this paradox - it is a classic one. We had similar themes for this prompt, keep writing about time travel, friend.