*Sigh.* "It's Mike, Mama."
My hat was lifted off of my head and used to swat me in the shoulder before it was dumped into my lap. "I don't care if you call yourself the King of Siam! When I'm talking, you owe me the courtesy of listening!"
I rolled my eyes and pulled my hat back onto my head. When I heard Mama start her “For G-d's sake, you're only eight years old" ramble, I went back to watching the scenery roll by.
We'd left Houston three days ago on this trip, and I was sick and tired of Mama's rants. We were nearly there, though --- Aunt Maggie had invited us up to her house for a few days. Only catch was, we couldn't afford a plane ticket, so we were driving.
Houston to Niagara Falls in a tiny car with a grouchy mother. Oh, what fun....
Aunt Maggie lived in her house only in the summer. The other part of the year, she lived in Texas with her sister Kate. She came gushing out of her house. "Elisabeth!" she purred, hugging Mama. Then she smiled at me. "And is this little Bobby?"
"Mike," I corrected her.
"Stay in the yards, or come inside," Mama said as she vanished into the house with Aunt Maggie.
I sat down on the sidewalk and gave a heavy, bored sigh. Some vacation....
"Oof!" Something ran into me, knocking me onto my side. I glared up at a freckle-faced redhead. He stood and helped me up.
"You need to watch where you're sitting!" he laughed at me.
"You need to watch where you're going!" I shot back, looking around.
He laughed and produced my hat from behind his back. "Looking for this?" I reached for it and he pulled it away. "No! It's mine now!"
"Give me that hat!" I growled. "My mom made that for me!"
"Oooh, I'm so scared..." he laughed -- then yelped as a large hand came down on his shoulder.
"Give him back his hat, Jeremy."
I took my hat and looked up, ready to thank my rescuer -- only to stop short as I found myself looking at the very man who'd helped me when I was little little.
His smile was just as gentle as I remembered. "I'm sorry, son. Jeremy's a bit.... high-spirited." Then he frowned -- just a little. "Say, don't I know you from somewhere?"
I couldn't help but smile. Adults sure have short memories! The smile lasted even after he drug his son back to their rental house.
It couldn't be. I turned and my smile grew to see a familiar blond head blinking at me. "....only if your name's Peter."
He gave a whoop and hugged me. Hard. "Wait till the other see you!"
I broke the hug and stared at him. "...others?"
Peter nodded, grinning. "Micky's here -- and so is Davy! 'Angel-land' was England!" Suddenly he bit his lip. "Mike.... he doesn't remember the airport. Or us."
Thump. I sat down hard on the curb. "He...doesn't?"
"He was too little," Peter said, crouching beside me. "But he remembers the Feeling. He still gets it, too."
"Feeling?" I frowned as I climbed to my feet.
"Yeah, you know!" He lay his hand on my shoulder -- and there it was -- the warmth and brotherly love I'd felt all those years ago.
My eyes closed and I couldn't stop the grin that crossed my face. I lay my hand on his shoulder in return and whispered, "I'm home."
"Not yet," came another familiar voice.
I turned and laughed. "Micky!"
Micky hugged me. Beside him, I saw a boy staring at me with the hugest brown eyes I'd ever seen outside of a deer. I broke the embrace and smiled slightly at him --- trying to hide my sadness at not seeing any memory of me in his eyes. "Hey."
"'Ello," he said softly, holding out his hand. I took it and his head snapped up, his eyes meeting mine. "You....too?"
"Me, too," I said with a grin. "Have you told him the Promise we made at the airport?"
Micky nodded. "Together."
"Forever," Peter said as he laid his hand on Davy and mine's.
"Someday," I finished as Micky laid his hand on top of Peter's.
Davy grinned. "Together Forever Someday. I like the sound of that."
I don't know how long we stood there, grinning at each other. But I can't help but wonder if --- if we knew what awfulness the next day brought --- if we'd have stayed there a little bit longer.
The next morning, I wolfed down breakfast. "My lands, boy!" Aunt Maggie laughed. "Slow down!"
"Can't," I told her. "Meeting some friends -- we're gonna go play!"
“Grownups around?" Mama asked me.
"Of course," I said with a smile -- lying through my teeth. Well -- sort'a. Grownups would be around...but it would just be us. Nine year old Peter and 8 year old me were gonna take care of six year old Micky and five year old Davy.
We found a park with a great view of the Falls. Davy and Micky were all over the playground equipment. Peter and I stuck to the slides and monkey bars. Then we sat on the swings and talked awhile, one eye always on the littler ones while we did.
"Oh, lovely," Peter sighed, looking over my shoulder.
"What is it?" I turned and sighed. Jeremy had arrived, running ahead of his dad. "Oh, lovely," I sighed as well.
Peter grinned at me for a second, then he stood up, brushing the dust off of his tan pants. "Let's round up the others and go eat."
"I think you said the magic word," I laughed as the others ran up, Micky nearly dragging Davy by the hand.
He stopped right in front of me, grinning a front-toothless grin. "I'm hungry!"
Peter and I looked at each other and laughed.
"What?" Micky blinked his eyes, staring at us and looking about to cry. "What'd I say?"
"Nothin', Micky," I giggled, wiping my eyes. "We just had said let's go eat when here you come, saying you're hungry!"
Davy grinned. "Da calls tha' good timing."
We all laughed this time and began to walk. After a few steps, we all stopped like we'd walked into something. Micky and Davy both blinked their eyes and got the weirdest look on their faces. Then they both looked up at me.
"What?" I asked, looking at each of them. Something felt --- off. I turned around and realised what it was that had me so bothered.
Peter wasn't with us.
"Peter?" I called. I took the littler ones' hands and led them to a bench, sitting them down. "Don't. Move."
They nodded, both of their faces so solemn I nearly wanted to cry. But that wouldn't find Peter. I had to be strong. Mama always told me 'Be strong, Robert. You gotta be strong.'
I walked away from the bench. "Peter?" I called. "Hey, Peter!"
My airport friend nearly ran into me. "Jeremy!" he was calling. "Jeremy!"
I grabbed his arm. "Mister, is Jeremy gone too?"
He nodded. "Yeah, he was just here. Jeremy!"
"There!" I cried, pointing. Peter had worn a one-of-a-kind t-shirt, and I saw its color plainly. A familiar red head was close to his --- and I saw him shove Peter.
So did his father. "Jeremy Babbitt you stop that right now!" he bellowed as we broke into a run toward his son and my friend.
As we got closer, we saw Jeremy had Peter up against a metal railing and was punching him. Above the racket of the Falls we could just barely hear Peter's screamed, "No! I won't! You take it back! They are *not* babies, they're my friends!"
G-d, what had that brat called Micky and Davy to get Peter this upset? Why is he punching Peter so?
That question was answered when we heard Jeremy's laughed, "They are *too* babies! So are you, you won't even defend yourself!"
Peter shoved him away slightly. "I don't have to defend myself!" he screeched. "You're a damned coward!"
I winced. Good thing his mother wasn't here, or his mouth would be seeing a bar of soap up close and personal....
As Jeremy leaped toward Peter, swinging, his father screamed "Jeremy!" His red head snapped around, eyes wide in surprise.
The fist connected with air between Peter's ear and shoulder. Jeremy was thrown off-balance and into Peter ---
And they both went over the railing.
Jeremy's dad and I both screamed and ran to the railing. I could taste my heart in my mouth as I saw the both of them hanging onto a branch in the side of the cliff. "Peter!" I yelled. "Are you okay?"
He raised his head and smiled that huge grin at me. "Yeah! There's a ledge right under us --- we're gonna let go and wait for help!"
"He's right, Dad!" Jeremy called up, seeing his father bending over the railing too. "That way we can just wait!"
He nodded. "Go ahead, son!"
Peter looked at Jeremy and I could see him count. On what looked like 'three' to me, they both let go and landed on the ledge only a few inches under their feet.
Both of them looked up at us and smiled, and Peter held up his thumb to me. I returned the smile.
Peter froze. His eyes widened and his smile faded. He looked over at Jeremy, whose expression was the same.
Peter's head snapped up to me. *"MMIIIIIKKKEEEE!!!!"*
All I could hear for long, long after were the screams as the ledge crumbled....and Peter and Jeremy....
I don't know how long I stood there, staring, as rescuers went over the cliff after my friend. I wasn't surprised when two small hands slid into mine. "Mike, you're cryin'...." Davy whispered.
"Where's Peter...." Micky asked, then followed my look. He curled into my side and began to cry. Davy followed suit a moment later.
"Here, now.....you come here...." It was a woman. She pulled us away from the railing and led us to the same bench I'd sat the pair down at. "Sit down here and let me call your folks t'come get you." She took our names and stood up. "Poor things, never should have seen that..."
We sat there in a tight knot, trying to soothe each other. "He's not dead," I said firmly. "He's not dead.....we'd feel it if he was...."
"But he fell so far..." Micky whimpered.
A rescuer finally appeared at the railing again. "Call an ambulance!" he bellowed over the crowd. "They're alive! Both of them!"
Micky and Davy whooped and hugged me so tight I thought my ribs would crack. I grinned as wide as I could. "I told ya!" I giggled. "I told ya!"
"No. Absolutely not."
I couldn't believe this. "But Mama...."
"No buts, Robert! You're too young to go visit the hospital, especially one in a strange city!"
"Elisabeth, that's not fair," Aunt Maggie said. "The boy is his friend."
"I don't care," Mama snapped, whirling to her. I lowered my head. Truer words were never spoken.....
"Elisabeth!" Aunt Maggie gasped. "The boy was hurt yesterday and he's his friend! It'll do Bobby a world of good!"
"It'll give Robert nightmares! He's only eight years old, for God's sake!"
Aunt Maggie crossed her arms and gave Mama a glare. "Seems to me he's only eight years old when it suits you for him to be eight years old."
"Margaret, that's not fair!"
I sighed. While they argued, I slid out of the house and walked down the street. Four houses down, I knocked on the door. A beautiful woman looked out at me. "Yes?"
"I'm Mike," was all I said.
She smiled. "Come in." I walked in and there was Davy, coloring on the floor. I knelt beside him.
He looked up at me. "Any news?"
I shook my head. "Mama won't let me go to the hospital."
Davy lowered his head and sighed.
"So I'm goin' anyway."
He blinked hard and looked at me. "Really?"
"Really. Get Micky and meet me here after -- I'll tell you all about it." I squeezed his shoulder and left, tipping my hat to his mother.
One thing I really liked about being little and quiet was I could sneak right by grownups and they'd never notice me. I learned that living with Mama --- she hated to be bothered when her head hurt.
So I just walked into the hospital behind a strange woman and nobody gave me a second look. I wanted them to think I was her little boy, and I guess I succeeded. I asked a nurse for Peter's room "cause my daddy needs to know". Then I shadowed a man into the elevator and up to the fourth floor.
Sneaking into Peter's room was easy. His mother was there, and she smiled at me. "Don't tell?" I whispered.
"I won't," she promised. She looked at the bed, and I could see tears in her eyes. "He's never woke up," she whispered.
Peter looked horrible. His head was covered in bandages and a mask was over his nose and mouth. One of his eyes was black, and his right leg and arm were in casts. I moved to the side of the bed and took his left hand, alarmed at the needle in it and that it just lay in mine. "Peter," I said softly. "Peter, it's Mike."
His mother let out a startled gasp as his eyes fluttered. "Keep talking!" she hissed. "It....it's working!"
"Peter....c'mon, buddy, wake up for me."
Slowly, his eyes peeked open. The mask muffled his words, but we understood them anyway. "....Mi.....chael....."
My eyes filled with tears and I rubbed his arm. "Yeah, Pete. Michael."
His hand squeezed mine slightly as his eyes swung to meet mine. "......to......geth.....er.......f-for....ev.....er......"
"Someday, man," I whispered, touching his cheek. "Someday."
Peter nodded slowly, his eyes closing. "......to...gether....for....ever.....some....day......Mi....chael.....Mi...cky.....Da....vy.....Pe...ter...."
"Yeah, man....that's the Promise. Together Forever Someday. It will happen."
His smile spread and his eyes opened to lock on mine again. "........yes...." Then his eyes turned to face his mother.
"Hello, Peter," she smiled at him.
He stared at her, then frowned slowly. ".....who.......you?"
That's how I felt after the doctor finished with Peter. He told his mother the findings while I was standing right there.
The smartness that impressed me at the airport. Gone.
The ability to read grown-up things. Gone.
His memory of his mother and little brother. Gone.
All he remembered was his name, how old he was --- and us and the Promise. Everything else --- Gone.
He'd never be the same. I bowed my head and took a shuddering breath. He'd never be the same ---
And that meant we'd never be the same.
I walked toward the elevator to leave the hospital and tell the others the bad news. At the end of the hallway, I saw Jeremy's father stand up and a doctor walk over to him. I was too far away to hear what was said.
But when Jeremy's father's knees buckled and he fell back into the chair screaming "NNNNOOOOOOO!!!!!! OOH GOD MY BOY!!!!!".....I didn't need an explanation.
My eyes closed. Poor Jeremy. He was a jerk, but not even he deserved that.
I snuck away to the hospital one more time --- to say goodbye. We were leaving two days early so Mama could go back to work two extra days.
I don't know why she didn't just look for a better job. She couldn't type worth a darn. And I kept wondering why she kept rubbing her stomach and telling me these two wouldn't be like me, they'd be good kids.
She didn't even have a husband, why was she talking more kids?
Anyhow, I had to say bye to Davy as well. Micky was already gone -- he'd said his goodbyes after throwing rocks at my window at three in the morning.
I knocked on Davy's door and waited. And waited. And waited.
The lady next door stuck her head out the window. "They ain't here."
"What?" I asked, puzzled.
"They ain't here. Mister Jones got a phone call and they had to catch the six AM plane to London. Sounded real important."
"Oh. Thanks." I didn't even get to say goodbye.
I turned and walked back to my aunt's house. The Promise ran through my head again.
"Together. Forever. Someday." Only now, it seemed to mock me. The only ray of hope I had was the last words Peter had said to me in the hospital.
"We'll find a way, Michael. I know we will. We'll make the Promise come true."
I believed him. He trusted me so much.... I had to make it happen.
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