This story was written by Chan Sung-on, 16, from Shun Tak Fraternal Association Leung Kau Kui College.
Each week during the holidays, we will publish a story from one of the finalists of our 2019 Winter Short Story Competition. Then our favourite entries will be compiled into a book, and each finalist will receive a copy of it. The winning entry will appear in Young Post on April 11.
Every night, Tom would have to listen to the sound of his parents’ angry voices, screaming and yelling at one another. Not even thunder could muffle their noise.
One day, Tom’s grandpa came to visit. Grandpa was a big fan of puzzles. He liked solving the kind of difficult puzzles that drove most people nuts. He also liked creating his own for other people. Sometimes it was word puzzles, sometimes a mathematical equation, or perhaps a hidden message within a passage.
Tom had never met his grandpa before, but the moment the old man appeared at his front door, he had a feeling he would like him.
He was right: the two got along instantly. Tom loved the puzzles his grandpa made for him. For the first time in his life, Tom had a friend. For the first time, he knew what it was to be happy. To feel loved.
Every day for a week, Tom and his grandpa did puzzles together, and Tom gradually got better and better at solving them. The more he did, the more he began to see all the possibilities within a simple line of text or row of numbers.
But the week ended all too soon, and it was time for Tom’s grandpa to leave. Tom felt more desperate than he ever had in his life.
“Please, Grandpa, please! Don’t leave me alone!” Tom cried, sobbing on the floor and gripping one of Grandpa’s legs tightly.
“Let go, you little toad,” Tom’s father growled, as he yanked the boy away. His mother simply stared, and said nothing.
At last, Tom’s grandpa bent down and gave him a tight squeeze. As he did so, he slipped a small piece of paper into Tom’s pocket. He then leaned his head closer to Tom’s and whispered: “This is a puzzle for you; solve it and you will find a way to find me.”
And then he turned and left.
Tom lay awake the whole night, thinking. He stared at the note his grandpa had given him, reading it and rereading it until the letters were a blur on the page.
There were only a handful of letters and numbers on the page: “14 npiit nomzzo, Opzi Hpi.” Tom had no clue what it meant. “What do those random letters mean? Why is there a number 14? It makes no sense!” Tom muttered to himself in frustration.
But he couldn’t give up. He thought again of his grandpa’s parting words, knowing there must be something in them that would help him. “Solve it and you will find a way to find me.”
In that moment, it dawned on him. The message must lead to a place! Maybe they were coordinates, or perhaps an address? Spurred on by this revelation, Tom felt confident he could work out the rest of the puzzle.
But after days of wracking his brain, he was no closer to figuring out the exact details of the message. He was beginning to lose hope that he would ever see his grandpa again.
But one day, as he entered his classroom, something grabbed his attention. It was a poster of the English alphabet pinned to the wall at the back of the classroom. He looked at it intently for a few seconds, his brain whirring. Then the answer came to him all at once.
Tom threw his bag on the floor and quickly rummaged through it looking for a pen and piece of paper. Then he began scribbling furiously on it. His classmates looked at him quizzically. “What is Tom doing?” they murmured among themselves.
Suddenly, Tom leapt out of his chair.
“I got it! I got the code!”
He rushed out of the classroom and ran straight back home. He knew his mum would be at work, and that his dad would be sleeping. Neither would care that he was skipping school. Not that Tom cared what they thought any more, either. Especially now that he had the address: 14 Sunny Street, Tuen Mun.
“14 Sunny Street, Tuen Mun,” he repeated to himself all the way home. Once Tom was there, he started to pack his things. He said to himself that he was going to his grandpa’s house to live with him. He couldn’t be more excited to escape from the storms of anger each night. Tom checked the map; luckily Sunny Street wasn’t too far away. He took out all the money from his savings jar and, after checking he had packed all his necessities, he started his journey.
After a short bus ride, Tom arrived at the place. He hesitated. What if he got the answer wrong? What if it has nothing to do with an address? He took a deep breath and knocked gently on the door. The door opened and there was a familiar voice. “I see you solved my puzzle. Well done.”
“Grandpa!” Tom immediately gave his grandpa a hug.
His grandpa hugged him back and asked, “How did you solve it?”
Tom replied, “I shifted all the letters by five backwards according to the alphabetical order.”
Grandpa smiled and said: “You know, the puzzle is called a Caesar Cipher. It is very clever of you to solve it.”
Tom entered his grandpa’s house and they continued to talk about puzzles for days. Days turned into months and Tom hadn’t heard a word from his parents. But Tom was perfectly happy to stay with his grandpa. The two of them often took walks together along the street, often to visit the nearby library. Sometimes they would head to the closest park and sit by a huge, towering old oak tree, where they would talk about puzzles, and create puzzles together.
Life with Grandpa was simple, but extremely joyful for Tom. Years later, Tom became a master of puzzles himself. He began to publish books about puzzles. People loved his puzzles and he started to become famous. Tom enjoyed every moment of his life ever since he found his grandpa.
Tom’s grandpa gradually grew weaker with age and eventually fell ill. Tom went to the hospital every day to look after him. Although Tom was all grown up, he still needed his grandpa. After all, he is the only true family Tom has ever had.
One night, as Tom was fast asleep, he received a call from the doctor. “Your grandpa’s condition is getting worse, prepare to see him for the last time.”
Tom rushed out of the house with no hesitation. He hopped in a cab and went directly to the hospital. He prayed over and over again on the way. When he arrived, he saw doctors surrounding his grandpa. Grandpa lay very still on the bed. Tom moved very close to his grandpa and knelt down to hear his last words. “I am … afraid this is the end for me ... but at last ... I prepared my final puzzle … for you, remember all the … knowledge I have shared with you.”
He slipped a piece of paper into Tom’s hand and closed his eyes. Tom cried as he held onto Grandpa’s hand, like the child he was that day when Grandpa first left him. Grandpa’s death left Tom broken, alone and depressed. From that day, all Tom could think of were the precious memories he shared with his grandpa.
Two months passed and Tom still hadn’t got over his loss. However, one day, when he came across the final puzzle from Grandpa again, he felt the urge to finish it. He looked at the piece of paper Grandpa left him. It was a short poem:
Life is full of
Be brave and stare
Right into the passed
Age, there you shall find the SAFE
Right path to the past
For years Tom had been digging into puzzles, so he thought to himself this one should be a piece of cake for him. Grandpa’s last words came to his mind: “Remember all the knowledge I have shared with you.”
“Library.” As he murmured this to himself, he saw the first letters of each line in Grandpa’s poem form the word “library”. But what exactly did Grandpa want him to find in the library? A book?
Tom went to the library he and his grandpa used to frequent. He read through the poem over and over again, yet he could find no clues. He walked in between the book shelves and skimmed the numbers on each book, and then he realised something. He counted the number of words on each line and got the number “4244651”. Then he found the book with the same number.
Tom was stunned when he saw the book. It wasn’t the content that surprised him, nor the title of the book. It was the name of the author. It was Tom’s grandpa. “I never knew Grandpa was an author, too,” Tom said to himself. He flipped through the book. There was nothing special about it; just a book full of puzzles. If Tom had found the book earlier, he would’ve started solving them immediately. But now that his grandpa’s passed away, Tom wasn’t in the mood for it.
For days, Tom examined the book closely but he didn’t discover anything special. He started to wonder if he interpreted the poem correctly. He went back to his grandpa’s note and noticed something odd for the first time. The word “SAFE” was written in capital letters.
Earlier he thought it had just been a mistake, but maybe it was another clue. He looked all over Grandpa’s house and in the corner of the attic he found a small safe. “This is getting interesting!” said Tom. He entered the series of numbers from the library book and the safe opened. Inside there was another piece of paper, which contained another poem:
The last gift for you, Tom. You are close already
Don’t forget what is the most
Important things which lies under all these
Years of memories will become the
Nutrients to grow your own life tree.
Tom sighed as he realised what his grandpa wanted him to remember. “Never forget the passion you felt when you first started solving my secret messages.”
His grandpa didn’t want Tom to give up solving puzzles after he had passed away.
Tom walked out, heading to claim his last reward. He walked slowly, everything around him bringing back memories of the times he spent with his grandpa. The street they used to walk down together. The playground Grandpa used to take him to. The lake inside the park they used to sit by.
Finally, Tom stopped. In front of him was the same huge, towering old oak tree. He walked to the side where he and his grandpa used to sit. Then he took out a shovel and started digging. Before long, there was a “cling” sound, which meant the shovel had hit something hard. Tom took a metal box out of the ground. He opened it slowly. Seeing what was inside, Tom could no longer hold his emotions back. Tears dripped down his cheeks as he took out its contents. They were pictures Tom took with his grandpa, along with the puzzles they made together a long time ago. What is important are not the physical things, but the joyful moments captured in the photographs. At the bottom, there was an envelope. Tom took out the paper inside and began to read.
By the time you find this letter, I would have already passed away. First off, congratulations on decoding my last secret message to you. I know it must be hard for you without me there, but I need you to let me go. I wish I could stay with you forever but our time on Earth is limited. I want you to keep smiling like you are in these photos. Stay happy. I love you forever.
The sun began to set. Everyone at the park started to go home. Everything became quiet and silent. All that was left was a madman sitting down by an oak tree and the sound of him sobbing.