“Okay. Once upon a time—”
“Klee-shay. Like, it’s used too much.”
“Yes, I know. But where did you hear that?”
“Adam told me.”
“Your mom’s new boyfriend?”
“Yeah. He says it all the time.”
“Keep going, grandpa.”
“Right. Well, once upon a time there was a dragon. A big one, scaly and covered in spikes. Wings as large as cars. Stood twenty feet tall and was a hundred feet long. Tons of teeth, huge long ones. He could gobble you up in a single bite, and take down an entire house with one whap of his tail.”
The boy gave him a look that epitomized that one word: cliché.
He smiled. “Bear with me.
“This dragon was a real ba—” he hesitated, and squeezed the boy’s leg. “Bad apple. A mean old bully. He tore down castles and burnt down villages. This went on for hundreds of years, and nobody could do a thing about it because they were too scared.
“All of them, except for one.” He held up a finger and waggled it. “A knight. He came from a far away land, had heard of the bad dragon, and wanted to do something about it.
“Now, this knight wasn’t the best. He was strong but not the strongest, and a good fighter but didn’t win every fight. But what he lacked in strength and skill he made up for in bravery. He was courageous as—heck.”
“What was his name?”
“Jeffrey,” the old man said without hesitation.
A smile. “Grandpa . . . ”
“Okay.” He smiled back. “It was . . . ”
His eyes wandered about the room, seeking inspiration, and they fell on that photo in the corner. Of course they did, they always did. The photo of himself — a duplicate of himself — but younger. And sitting in his lap was yet a younger version: the third generation of the same face.
The first name that came to mind would be too easy, too obvious, too painful, so the old man blurted the only thing he could think of: “Jay. Sir Jay.”
“Yes.” He nodded. “There was a Sir Kay, and there was also a Sir Jay. Not related — in any way, if you’ve read your King Arthur.”
The boy looked up at him silently, patiently.
“Anyways,” the old man went on, “Sir Jay arrived, and hadn’t been in the kingdom a single day before he came across his foe by chance — the dragon was attacking a castle! Jay wasted no time. He ran up into the collapsing castle, taking with him only his sword and shield. It was dangerous — there was fire everywhere — but Jay was quick and careful.
“At the top of a tower Jay found the dragon, and he shouted for the dragon to face him. The dragon turned and his eyes glowed fiercely, and he spit out a ball of fire. Jay lifted his shield just in time and blocked the flames, but they made the shield — it was metal — too hot to hold, so he had to drop it.
“The dragon then lunged with his huge mouth, trying to bite Jay in half. But Jay jumped to the side and the dragon missed. The dragon was a little surprised, and Jay pressed his attack. He hacked and stabbed, a quick one-two with his sword — ”
The old man mimed flamboyant attacks with an invisible sword of his own. “ — and gouged out that dragon’s eye!”
“Howling in pain and fury, the dragon knocked Jay to one end of the room and Jay’s sword to the other. Now Jay had no shield and no sword, and the dragon was angrier and more dangerous than ever.”
“What did he do?”
“Jay? He did the only thing he could do: he lifted his fists — ” The old man lifted his own, mimicking a boxer. “ — and ran at the lizard.”
“Grandpa — ”
“I’m serious! It was his only option, so he began bludgeoning the dragon’s big, scaly nose. The dragon was so surprised that he didn’t even know what to do. The little human was punching him. He stepped back, trying to get away from the flying fists of the unarmed knight, until he was cornered against the wall.”
“Did Jay kill him?” The boy giggled. “With his punches?”
He almost said “Yes, exactly,” but hesitated. Knight killing dragon: that would be too cliché. He thought quickly for a twist, and — as always — his probing eyes came upon that photo . . .
“No,” the old man said eventually. “No, the dragon ate him. He was scared for the first time ever and didn’t know what else to do. So in a panic he lunged forward, and in a single gulp swallowed Jay whole. Armour and all.”
“Grandpa,” the boy said, looking up at him sternly, “the heroes aren’t supposed to die.”
The old man smiled, then glanced at his source of inspiration and the expression faltered.
“Sometimes they do. They shouldn’t ever have to, but they do.”
And sometimes it’s not a knight and a dragon, but another brave guardian and an altogether different kind of monster.
He looked down at the boy, his eyes sparkling a little more, and smiled again as warmly as he could. “But you know what? Sometimes it’s okay. Sometimes it’s okay that the hero dies.”
The boy’s brow tightened.
“Because, you see, Jay’s death finally gave the people of the kingdom the courage they needed to challenge that big, scaled bully. They knew the dragon could be hurt, so an army chased down and slew the beast.
“And then,” the old man concluded triumphantly, “everyone lived happily ever-after. Except for Jay, who was dead happily ever-after. Because even in death, people can be happy. Jay was happy because he knew that the dragon had been killed, and it was all thanks to his reckless bravery.”
A moment of silence, and then, “Grandpa, I liked that story.”
He kissed the boy’s head. “Me too, son.”