AUTHOR'S NOTE -- the lines mentioned in this story are from a real book. "Play With Me", author unremembered, copyright 1958. My daughter quite literally loved it to pieces. I fudged the publication date in the story to fit with Mike and Peter's ages.
The twins were crying again. I got them fed and changed and settled, and they were still crying.
Finally, I just rocked them both to sleep. Once they napped, I looked in on Sarah -- she was still asleep, curled up around her teddy bear.
Smiling, I backed out of the room and closed the door. Moving to the table, I opened my books and began my work.
Since Momma had had the other babies and gone to work more hours, I had to leave school and take care of them. To keep up, I took courses with a tutor to get a high-school education without going to school.
Today, though, as for the last two weeks, my mind wasn't on my work. I'd not seen and barely heard from them in nearly five years, but the Others were on my mind.
Every morning, I woke with The Promise on my mind. Every night, I put myself to sleep with the same chant.
Together. Forever. Someday.
I suddenly realised I was twirling my pencil around and around in my fingers. With a sigh, I put it down and rubbed my eyes -- right when the door blew open.
I chuckled and shook my head. "Hi, Jim... Paul. How was school?"
"Great!" my five year old brother piped up. "Mrs. Timbale was a lot of fun!"
"Terrible," the barely-six year old growled. "Mr. Jefferson was boring! I can't wait till Mrs. Patrick has her baby!"
I laughed and got my little brothers a snack. As they ate and watched TV, I lay out Paul's homework and forged Mom's name on their report cards. "Guys, proud of you for pullin' your grades up!"
Paul came right to the table and started his first-grade homework. I sent Jim in to wake Sarah and check on the twins while I started supper. Maybe I could get some math done after....
BANG! BANG! BANG!
I looked at the clock and frowned. Barely four.... Momma wasn't due for another two or three hours....
Cautiously, I moved to the door. "Who is it?" I called warily.
For a moment, there was silence. Then a shaky, half-changed voice. "Mi...Michael?"
I blinked. No... freaking... way! I put my hand on the doorknob and called as a test, "Together!"
"Forever!" came the immediate response. "S-Someday!"
Without any further hesitation, I flung open the door -- and just stared.
He was just slightly smaller than I was. His clothes were dirty and a bit torn and he was so thin! His hair was so greasy and unkempt I could barely tell the color. One of his trembling hands held the strap of a bulging army-issue duffel bag that had seen better days.
But his eyes were unchanged -- large tawny brown eyes that held such deep innocent trust that it was heartbreaking to see.
"Peter," I whispered in stunned shock -- both at his appearance and the fact he was here at all -- really here!
"Michael," he smiled, those unmistakable dimples shining out.
Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he pitched forward into my arms.
I lifted him and moved into the house, bellowing at Jim to get his bag and Paul to get Sarah off the bed. As they obeyed, I carried Peter into the bedroom and lay him down.
"Who's he, Mike?" Paul asked, holding Sarah tight. She just stared at Peter with huge brown eyes, a grubby thumb firmly in her mouth.
"His name's Peter," I said, trying to get the dirty clothes off him. "Jim, get my spare pajamas. And some water and a washcloth, I gotta get him clean. Paul, take Sarah into the next room --- oh, hell, come on." I hustled them into the kitchen and sat Sarah in her high chair as I struggled with the strained food.
"The Peter?" Paul asked as he put a bib on our sister and wiped her hands and face with a wet paper towel.
"Yeah, the Peter," I said.
And the twins began to cry again.
Just when I got the food set in front of Sarah, the twins stopped crying! I frowned at that. That was very, very odd. "Paul, help her eat," I said as I ran for the twins' bedroom as fast as I could. I was expecting one of them or both of them to be on the floor, out cold. I was expecting them to be strangling or coughing or something. About a million terrible scenarios went through my head.
That's why what I saw in their room froze me to the spot for a moment, blinking in disbelief.
Peter, still dusty and grimy and now in just his jeans, had one of the twins in his arms. He was walking the floor with him, feeding him a bottle as he sang to him in a rich baritone. Jim sat on the floor, feeding the other baby, his face rapt as he listened to the song pouring from my friend.
As if sensing I was there, Peter looked up and smiled at me. "He was hungry," he said simply.
"Don't stop," I whispered. "Please don't stop singing."
If a smile could be said to light a room, Peter's surely did. He began the song again, a bit of nonsense about an alligator named Alvin thrown down a water pipe, before blending it seamlessly with an old standard about a baby whose father would buy him gifts if he would hush crying; each gift more lavish and outlandish than the next.
By the time he reached the bit about "If that cart and bull breaks down, you're gonna be the sweetest little baby in town", the boy was fed, burped, and dozed contentedly on the clean rag over Peter's bare, dusty shoulder. He smiled at me. "Sshhhh," he whispered. "He's sleepin'."
The innocence in his eyes as he said that brought back memories with the force and swiftness of someone hitting me with a fist. The brilliant child....the fall..... the damage done.... "Peter...."
The smile faded. "Michael...?" his jaw quivered. "Did.... did I do something wrong?"
"No!" I was quick to say, smiling. "No, you just surprised me. You're very good with babies."
Again the sunshine smile. "Thank you," he said as he lay my brother back in the crib. As Jim did the same to the other twin, Peter suddenly yawned. "I better take a nap before I pass out again."
"Just too tired, I suppose. Long walk from Connecticut to Dallas."
I blinked and signaled Jim to go be with the others. When he did, I asked, "You walked?"
Peter nodded vigorously, smiling. "I didn't have enough money for bus fare," he said as if that explained everything.
My brain silently imploded at that, refusing to work for a full minute. "You... you walked. From Connecticut."
Peter nodded again, the smile fading. ".....did I do something wrong?"
"I just don't understand. Why?"
The eyes went large and the trust there was almost palpable. "Because I knew you'd never hurt me, Michael. Together Forever Someday. I knew Someday had to be today."
I stepped forward. "Why, Peter? You're barely fifteen, I'm barely fourteen! I've got five little ones depending on me! Why's it so important that The Promise be now?"
A hardness appeared in those eyes that sent a jolt through me. His voice suddenly held no trace of boyhood highness, and cut through me like baritone steel. The one sentence that he spoke changed everything.
"Michael, I just can't take being abused any more."
I don't know what I was expecting him to say. I sure know I wasn't expecting that. My knees did a slow buckle and I found myself sitting on the floor, blinking mutely up at Peter until he sat beside me.
"Michael?" he asked, worry all over his face. A grimy hand gently touched my cheek. "Michael, are you all right?"
My voice didn't want to work. I tried a few times before I croaked out, "A-A-ABUSED?"
The worry turned to sorrow and he nodded slowly.
The answer was in a very matter-of-fact voice. "My mother. And it started when we left New York, right after I'd....changed."
Good Lord. I hadn't even dreamed of him remembering being different! "Oh, Peter...."
"But it's all right," he said quickly, grinning that sunshine smile. "I'm with you now, and The Promise is coming true. Everything's going to be fine now!"
I hated to do this. I really did... but there was something he'd forgotten. "Maybe not, Peter," I said softly, sadly. "There are seven mouths to feed in this house... I don't know if my mother will let one more in."
I felt so dirty when his face fell. Like I'd kicked a puppy or something.
I lay a hand on his bare shoulder. "Tell ya what.... you shower, I'll find you some clean clothes -- we're about the same size -- and we'll talk to Momma when she gets home. Sound good?"
The sunshine smile returned. "Sounds good! It'll be good to be clean again!"
He stood up and we moved to my bedroom, where he resumed undressing. "How long's it been since you ate last?" I asked casually.
"What day is it?" he asked, pulling a towel I handed him around his hips before he shucked a pair of underwear that might have once been white, but was so dirt-caked I wasn't sure.
"Sunday," he said before he vanished into the bathroom.
That did it. No matter what, he wasn't going hungry or dirty or homeless again. And he sure as hell wasn't going to be abused anymore!
And if Momma objected, I'd.... I'd....
Aw, hell, I'd think of something....
I sighed. It figures. "Momma...."
"No, Robert Michael. There are seven of us already in this house; we can barely afford to feed one more!"
"Momma, you don't know what he's been through...."
She shook her head. "And I don't particularly care. We can't feed every stray that ---"
"He's the one who was in the hospital when we were at Niagara Falls. The one who fell off the cliff and got brain-damage."
That gave her pause. She looked at me, her eyes slowly widening. "It...is?"
I nodded. "And his mama's been beatin' on him cause he ain't the way he used to be."
Her eyes hardened again and she tilted her head, glaring at me. "I hardly think ---"
"He's right, Mrs. Nesmith."
Momma whirled, to see Peter standing in the doorway. He was clean, his straight hair back to its normal brownish blond. His face was serious, though his hands nervously twisted the hem of my sweatshirt that he was wearing. "She said she loved me, that she did it for my own good." He shrugged. "Maybe she was right.... I'm a dummy, ma'am, I always will be. Maybe gettin' beat is all I deserve."
"Peter!" I chided, taking a step toward him.
Momma's hand flashed out, catching me on the chest. Gentle pressure from her fingertips kept me from moving as she addressed Peter. "Why would you think that, Peter?"
He looked down at his hands, twisting and untwisting the green material, as he spoke. "Cause I can't think right. Cause I can't read or write or do math good anymore."
She nodded and asked, "What can you do good, Peter?"
Even with his head bowed, his smile lit up his entire face. "Music. I'm great at music ---" His face fell again. "But music doesn't count, Mama says."
Momma looked me in the eye for a long moment, her eyes and face guarded. Then she lowered her hand from my chest and moved to Peter's side. "Look at me."
Slowly, he raised his head. His eyes bored into hers.
"You've the same eyes as Bobby...."
"Mike," I corrected automatically.
"Mike." She chuckled. Her fingertips touched under Peter's chin, and she scanned his eyes in silence for a moment. Then she sighed. "We really can't afford eight mouths to feed..."
Peter and I sighed in unison, and I felt my shoulders slump even as I saw Peter's do the same.
"....but we'll find a way somehow." She wrapped her arms around Peter and pulled him close, tucking his head under her chin and carding her fingers through his sandy hair. "You're safe now, poor dear...."
He let out a single sob and flung his arms around Momma's waist, his eyes clenched tightly shut. Then they opened and locked onto me. "Michael?"
"Yes, Peter?" I asked, my voice trembling.
"Together...." he said in a whisper.
"Forever," I replied.
His sunshine smile bloomed as he finished, "Today."
True to her word, Momma and I found a way. Peter was a natural with children, and together he and I cared for my brothers and Sarah -- and others.
It had been Peter's idea to open the babysitting service for extra money. While Jim and Paul were at school and Momma was at work, he and I would watch babies and kids too little for school, to give overworked parents a few hours' break.
It worked, too. Between Peter's near-instant bonding with the children and my practicality, we had the service down to a science.
Always, the highlight of the day would be my reading to the children. Peter would sit beside me and study the words. Eventually I began to run my finger under the words so he could follow along.
I'm not entirely sure when it 'clicked' for him. All I know is that one evening I realised I was picking up alone. "Hey, Pete?" I called. "I could use a little help here!"
"Pete?" I walked into the living room and found him hunched over, his shoulders shaking in silent sobs.
"Peter?" I knelt beside him and rubbed his back. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," he choked out, looking up at me, hugging something to his chest. "I'm just so...happy!"
I returned the smile he beamed on me. "What's got you so happy, huh?"
He unfolded a book from his chest. It was a brand-new one, one I'd not had a chance to read to the kids yet. He opened it to the last page and his finger touched every word as he haltingly..... read!
"...and now I w-was happy...
As happy co-cou-could be
For a-all o-of? Of them....
ALL of them....
W-were? Were play--ing...playing with me!"
I blinked, then took the book. Sure enough....
"And now I was happy
As happy could be
For all of them -- ALL of them!
Were playing with me!"
I just stared at Peter, then I began to smile. "You can read."
"I can read!" he cheered.
He shrugged. "Guess it was still in there somewhere." Suddenly Peter laughed. "Now I can tell everyone that I've been able to read since I was fifteen years old!"
I laughed and hugged him. I don't think I'd ever been so proud of him.
We buried Momma and Sarah shortly after the new year. They'd been coming home from a grocery run when a speeder came around the curve and hit them head on.
They hadn't suffered, we were told. It happened too fast. The other driver had been drunk out of his mind and hadn't known what he was doing, we were told.
As if that helped.
There ought'a be a law against someone drivin' drunk.
I don't remember too much of the next few days. I don't think I was fully myself. I barely remember the funeral -- just the fact we buried them in a single coffin.
The first clear memory I have after that, I'm in Momma's room, with Peter, and we're folding Momma's clothes into boxes. I lifted a dark blue suit, a decade out of fashion, and stroked it like it was cashmere.
She'd worn this when we left Poppa... when we ended up at the airport in LA....
Slowly, I brought the fabric up to my nose. I inhaled, then let out a strangled noise and fell onto my behind.
It still smelled like the lavender perfume Momma always wore.
Suddenly the suit was lifted from my grip and I was enfolded in a pair of strong arms. Gentle fingers carded through my hair, a soft voice soothed....
And my heart shattered. It poured out of me; I couldn't stop it. Right then, I wasn't the 'man of the house'.
Right then, I was a scared fifteen year old kid who'd lost his mother.
When the storm of emotion passed, I raised my head. "Thanks," I whispered, not surprised to find it was Peter comforting me.
He nodded. "Anytime. C'mon, they'll be here soon."
I nodded and sat up, my attention drawn by something. "Peter, look...."
"She must have just finished it," Peter said, lifting the lump of wool from the dresser. "Look, it's not been cut off yet."
"Uhm... could you...?"
He smiled as he cut the strand holding it onto the needles, then he shook it out. "It's your favourite color...."
I took it. "She said she was making me something special....unique...." I shook the green wool hat fully into shape, then perched it on my head. "Well?"
"Brings out your eyes," Peter smiled.
Amazingly, I found myself laughing!
Watching my four brothers ride away with Aunt Phyllis and Uncle Mike -- yes, I was named after him -- was the hardest thing I'd ever done. The house suddenly felt too big, too quiet....
A sudden knock on the door startled me. "Who in the hell...."
Peter opened it and smiled at the words, "Telegram for a Peter Tork?" He signed for it and walked back in.
"Telegram?" I asked.
"I've been waiting for this." He sat beside me and handed it to me after he'd read it silently. "I'll go pack a pair of backpacks."
"Yeah." He squeezed my shoulder. "We've got a long walk ahead of us." He vanished into the bedroom.
I blinked after him, utterly confused. "Walk?" Then I looked down at the telegram.
I had to read it twice before the words made sense -- then I ran into the bedroom to help Peter pack.
We sure did have a long walk ahead of us!
PETER -- STOP -- UNDERSTOOD -- STOP -- MOM SAYS YES -- STOP -- IF YOU AND MIKE CAN GET HERE THERE IS A PLACE WAITING FOR YOU -- STOP -- AS PROMISED -- STOP -- SEE YOU SOON -- STOP -- TOGETHER FOREVER SOMEDAY -- STOP -- MICKY -- FULL STOP
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