III: Past & Present
The memories crash over me like a tidal wave, and it’s all that I can do not to drown in them. I’m four years old all over again, and more interested in fairy tales than I am in other children. It isn’t easy to become a pariah when the rest of your class is still a decade off from even knowing what the word means, but somehow, I had managed. Even back then, I’d had little interest in socializing, and the other kids knew it. Maybe it’s something about human nature, but nine times out of ten, when you push people away, they push you right back; and so, the other preschoolers pushed.
They hadn’t just pushed me metaphorically, though. They’d pushed me physically. They’d pushed me mentally. They’d called me names, and knocked over my things, and snickered at me behind my back. They’d pushed, and they’d pushed, and all that that had accomplished was to push me that much deeper into my story books.
Those stories had been my escape. They were a world of heroes and princesses, of knights and dragons. They were a world where right and wrong had always been black and white, and where good had always prevailed in the end. They’d been a lie, but they’d been the lie that I had needed.
Eventually, my parents had taken to setting up playdates, and enrolling me in extracurricular activities. Though well-meaning, the effort had been wasted on me. There were a few small successes here and there but in the end, none of them stuck. I would either get bored of them, or they would get bored of me. Either way, the outcome was the same. I became isolated. I became lonely.
Then, in one night, all of that had changed.
I’d been lying awake in bed, staring off into the nothingness beyond my ceiling when I’d heard a noise. I’d been a lot of things as a little kid, but a chicken had never been one of them. Having spent my still-short life wrapped up in fairy tales, I’d grown to revere the countless tales I knew of fearless knights, and mighty heroes who had looked evil in the eye and laughed. And so, I’d taken upon myself to emulate them. If my heroes could be brave then so could I. So, at first I’d ignored the noise. This particular noise though, had had no intention of being ignored…so it repeated itself.
Bump, the noise had echoed. I’d laid stock still. I wouldn’t give it the satisfaction of letting it see me sweat.
Bump, bump, that time it had been louder. Still, I’d continued to ignore it, and for a moment the noise had subsided.
And then, even louder and faster than before, bump, bump, bump! bump, bump, bump!
I’d shot up into a sitting position, and scanned across my messy room, which was lit only by a dim nightlight. “Who’s there?” I’d called out lamely. “I’m not a’scared a you!”
But there had been no reply. As such, kid logic dictated that I must have scared the noise off. A little bit overly-proud of myself, I’d laid back down and rolled over to make myself comfortable. When I’d done so, however, it wasn’t my wall that I’d seen in front of me, as I normally would have. Instead, less than an inch away from his face was the face of another young boy. At first, I’d thought that I was just seeing things, so I’d closed my eyes tight and counted aloud to three.
When I’d opened them once more, I’d been relieved to find that the other boy was no longer there. Still, I wasn’t so fond of the position which I’d been laying in anymore, so I’d rolled over yet again. It turned out, my relief would only be very short-lived. There, sitting at the edge of my bed, was the same little boy who had been so uncomfortably close to my face only a few seconds before. I’d stared at the boy for a long moment, dumbfounded, unable to make sense of what was going on.
“Hi,” the boy had greeted me with a large grin set on his alabaster face, in a voice much too sly and much too knowing for his age.
“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” I’d screamed. I may have been brave, but one more thing that I had never been was stupid. It didn’t take much to figure out that it wasn’t normal for another person to just appear out of nowhere inside of a closed room.
What I’d lacked in friends though, I’d been lucky enough to make up for with the best parents that a kid could ever ask for. As soon as they’d heard my scream, both of them had thrown themselves out of bed and rushed to my room as quickly as they could.
“What happened, Baby?” my mother had asked. “Is everything alright? Are you okay?” Even with her wavy blonde hair in the disheveled state that it was in, my mother had managed to be no less beautiful than always. Her soft, green eyes — my eyes — and her gentle demeanor had never failed to put me at ease.
“There was a person here,” I had informed her through a stifled sniffle, doing my best to put on my bravest face. “It was another kid.”
At that, my parents had both exchanged soft, concerned glances with one another. My father, who had been too sweet of a man to dismiss my claims outright, had set about the room. He’d made a good show of searching all of the typical places of interest. He’d checked in the closet, and under the bed, and even looked out through my bedroom window.
No matter where he’d searched though, he’d been unable to find anyone else there. There had been no trace of anybody in the room except for him, my mother, and me. After doing his best to thoroughly convince me that we were all alone, he’d sat down next to me and placed a broad hand on my shoulder.
“There’s no one else here, Champ. It’s just me, you, and your mom,” He’d promised me as he ran his free hand through his sandy brown hair — my hair. Christian McArthur had had the kindest blue eyes that anybody could possibly have. They were almost always happy, but that night they had been downcast. “You probably just had a bad dream, kid.”
“But it wasn’t a dream!” I’d pleaded.
Kind and gentle as they were though, my parents had still been adults. As far as they’d been concerned, the window had been latched and the door had been closed. There was no way that there could have anybody in that room except for me.
“I promise, Baby, there’s no one else here. You’re safe. Okay?” My mother had vowed.
“…Kay,” I’d agreed despite my misgivings. A large part of me had known better, had known what I had seen. There had been another part of me though, as there is with all kids, which had trusted my parents to a fault. They had promised me that I was safe, so I had done my best to believe them.
My parents had never lied to me. They had always gone out of their way to make sure that I knew that I was the most important thing in the world to them. It’s only when I look back that I realize how worried they actually must have been about me, especially since I had begun preschool. I didn’t know much about the world around me back then, but I can remember snippets of conversations between my parents and teachers. I remember words like, “withdrawn,” words like, “loner”. Even at that young age, I know that my parents must have realized that I was different. To this day, I’ve never felt as though they loved me less for it.
Once my mother was convinced that I’d calmed down some, she’d bent over and placed a gentle hand on each of my cheeks, planting a soft kiss on my forehead. “You know that your father and I love you more than anything, right Jimmy?”
I had nodded. Of that much, I had always been certain.
“And you know that we’ll always be here for you, no matter what?” My father had asked.
I’d nodded again.
“Good,” my mother had smiled. “I promise you, Jimmy, we’re never, ever going to let anything bad happen to you. Okay?”
“Kay,” I’d agreed. I’d been sure that they were telling the truth. They were incapable of telling me anything else.
“I love you, kid,” my father had reiterated, tousling my hair as he’d stood back up.
“I love you too,” I’d replied.
After that, there had been a group hug, and an exchange of goodnight kisses. Then, they were on their way. They’d made sure to close the door behind them to assure me that nobody else could get in without opening it.
Once more at ease, I’d pulled my blanket up to my chin, and smiled. Regardless of anything else that had happened, there was solace in the fact that I could be sure I had the best parents in the whole world.
“Wow,” said a small, sly voice had chimed from the corner of my bed. “You know, you’re really lucky to have parents who love you so much.”
Once again, I’d shot into a sitting position. This time, I didn’t scream though. “You’re not real,” I’d said bluntly. “Mommy and Daddy said so.”
“’Course I’m real,” said the boy with hair somehow even darker than the nighttime surrounding him. His grin was even wider than it had been before. “Don’t worry, your parents didn’t lie to you. They just can’t see me, is all. But if I wasn’t real, then how could I be talking to you right now?”
I’d let that simmer for a moment, but couldn’t think of any way to answer to that question. Instead, I’d just asked my own.
“Who are you?”
“I’m your friend, Jimmy,” the little boy had told me, his eyes glowing an unnatural shade of emerald green. “Or, at least I want to be. Will you let me?”
For a long moment, I’d simply stared the other boy down, contemplating him. I’d known that it wasn’t possible for someone to just appear into an empty room, yet there he was. Somehow though, it didn’t seem like he meant me any harm. He was just sitting there, smiling his wide, knowing grin. I’d leaned in closer to examine him. The other boy hadn’t so much as flinch. Instead, he’d simply continued grinning and allowed himself to be examined.
He’d certainly sounded real, and he’d definitely looked real. I’d poked at him, and pulled at his pale cheeks. He’d felt real too. Then, I had smelled him. He’d smelled like…
“You smell like strawberries,” I’d informed him. Strawberries were my favorite snack.
“I do?” the other boy had asked, sniffing his own shirt. “Hey, I guess I do. You must really like strawberries, huh?”
“Yeah…” I’d conceded carefully.
“You see, Jimmy, I am totally and completely yours. I can be whatever you want me to be. Watch, close your eyes and try.”
“Hmmm,” I’d hummed. Intrigued, I had closed my eyes tight, and dug deep into the most vivid recesses of my imagination. When I’d opened them again, I couldn’t stifle a gasp off pure awe.
There, standing before me, was a little boy wearing a suit of armor. He’d looked almost the same as the knights in my stories. It was just as I had imagined, save for two things. Firstly, rather than silver the armor was tinged an odd shade of gleaming black. Secondly, I could see the soft glow of his unnatural green eyes pulsing behind the grate of his helmet. Now convinced of what the boy had been saying, I’d closed my eyes tight once again. When I’d opened them again, there stood the ebony-haired little boy once more, twiddling the plume from the armor’s helmet between his fingers.
“Do you believe me yet?” he’d asked, tossing the voluminous feather aside.
“…What’s your name?” I’d asked him. This had seemed to please the other boy.
“It’s whatever you want it to be,” he’d replied.
Pleased at this, I’d thought it over for a moment. When I did, the first thing that sprang into my mind was the noise which I had heard earlier that night; the one that the strange boy had made when he had first appeared.
Bump, bump, bump…
“You’re Bump,” I had decided, practically on a whim.
“Bump…” The little boy had repeated, rolling it over on his tongue. “Bump…I like it!” At that I had returned the other boy’s ever-present grin to him in kind. For some reason, I’d been sure that I could trust Bump no matter what.
Then, out of nowhere the other boy wrapped a warm embrace. I’d never had a real friend before, so at first this had caught me off guard. After a moment, I’d been able to regain my wits, and hug my new friend back.
“It’s time to go to sleep now, Jimmy,” Bump had then told me.
Releasing my grip on the other boy, I’d looked him straight in his sharp, green eyes and asked, “will you be here tomorrow?”
“I will,” Bump had said. “I’ll be here for as long as you need me. You have my word on that. And knights never break their word, do they?”
“No,” I’d agreed. “They don’t.”
“Exactly,” Bump had grinned. “Now go to bed. I’ll still be here when you wake up. I promise.”
And just like that, I’d believed him. So, I’d laid down and finally drifted off to sleep, with a smile on my face that was probably almost as big as the one on Bump’s.
When I’d woken up the next morning, Bump had been there waiting for me just as he’d said he would be. Very quickly, it had become apparent to me that nobody else could see the other boy except for me. Still, I’d known that he was always by my side, and that had been all that mattered.
From that day forward, the two of us had been inseparable. Anywhere I went, Bump would follow. Any time I was scared, or nervous, or felt out of place, Bump would reassure me. With his help, I slowly became more confident, more at ease, and less detached than I’d ever been. Even my classmates had taken notice. For the first time, I had been able to make friends. All of it had been thanks to Bump, and I’d known it. It was the happiest time in my young life, and I can only imagine what a colossal weight it must have been off the minds of my parents. For more than a year, the two of us were partners-in-crime. We’d learned together, grown together, even gone on adventures together.
As I’d become more confident, eventually I’d grown to the point where Bump and I could spend longer periods of time apart without my worrying about whether or not my friend would return. I knew that, whenever I’d needed him, Bump would be there. Bump had always proven that to be the case…until the day that he hadn’t.
One day after school, I’d been waiting for my parents to pick me up as they always had. I’d waited, and waited for them…but they were late. That had been odd, because they were never late. They were both writers, so they’d worked from home. This had always meant that they were free to spend as much of their time with me as they wanted, and that they always picked me up on time.
Still, I’d thought nothing of it. I’d been sure that, if they were running late, they must have had a good reason for it. They would be there. In the meantime, I would just play with Bump. Or, I would have. However, for the first time, Bump was nowhere to be found when I’d called out for him.
“Bump!” I’d tried again. Still, there was no answer though. “Bump?” Nothing.
I’d decided that he must have been busy, so I’d continued waiting on my own. I’d waited…and I’d waited until all of the other children had already been picked up, leaving me alone on the campus save for the teacher whose job it was to keep watch until all of the parents had arrived.
Unsure of what to do, I’d just continued to wait there alongside the chaperoning teacher, who seemed to be equally confused. After a lengthy period of time, eventually the principal had come to collect me. Normally, Principal Biel was a strict, staunch woman. But that day, she’d had a soft smile on her face. Somehow though, she’d seemed sad.
“Can you come with me, Jimmy?” she’d asked me.
“I gotta wait for my parents, though,” I’d told her.
“Jimmy…please?” the principal had asked again.
“But they’ll be here soon,” I’d insisted. “They’re just late.”
“Jimmy…please come with me?” the principal had asked once more.
This time, a tear had trailed down her withered old cheek as she’d spoken. I’d never seen the principal cry before. It had been clear then that she must have been sad. I’d reasoned that she may just need a friend to talk to, the way that I had before I’d met Bump. So, I’d followed her. I’d known that my parents would have understood. After all, they had always taught him to be friendly to others who were in need.
Once we’d gotten to Principal Biel’s office, both of us had sat down in the waiting room. For the longest time, the principal didn’t speak a word.
“Are you okay, Miss Biel?” I’d asked after sitting in silence for too long.
The white-haired old woman had looked down at me softly. “I’m…I’m okay, Jimmy,” she’d said.
“Are you sure?” I’d asked.
Principal Biel had attempted to answer once more, but this time she’d broken down into tears. I didn’t know what was wrong, so I‘d had no clue what to say to comfort her. Instead, I’d done what my parents had always done whenever I was sad. I’d hugged her, and after a moment she’d hugged me back, trembling. For an indeterminable amount of time that was what we’d done. We’d just sat there, hugging.
A while later, the door to the office had opened, and I’d turned to see who it was, expecting for my parents to have finally arrived. Instead though, it was my Aunt Clarice and my Uncle Bobby. They’d been a total mess that day. Bobby was wearing two different shoes, as though he had dressed in a hurry. Clarice’s makeup was forming a black channel from her eyes down each of her cheeks. Something was wrong.
“Hey, Buddy,” Bobby had said. He’d always been my favorite uncle. There had always been a gleeful smile on his face as he’d shamelessly laughed at his own jokes, showing no regard for what others might think of it. There’d never been a unhappy bone in the man’s entire body. That day though, there had been no laughter, no smile on his face. That day, he’d been quiet, somber, serious.
“Can…can I talk to you for a sec?” he’d asked me. As he’d done so, his shoulders had shaken, and his voice had cracked, but he had done his best not to cry.
“Are you okay, Uncle Bobby?” I’d asked. Everyone seemed so sad that, and I didn’t know why. That last question had seemed to be too much for my Aunt Clarice, who had then broken into a sob, and run from the room.
“Buddy, we…we need to talk,” Bobby had persisted as his eyes began to take on a glassy sheen.
I’d nodded my agreement, but first there was another question which had needed to be asked. “Uncle Bobby…where are Mommy and Daddy?”
Finally, the weight of whatever was happening had become too much for my uncle, and he had crumbled beneath it. The normally strong, jolly man had collapsed against the wall behind him, and slid down into a sitting position. Tentatively, I’d gotten up out of my seat and taken a step toward him.
“…Uncle Bobby?” I’d prodded on, carefully.
“Oh God,” Bobby had sobbed. “I…I don’t even know how to say this. I don’t…I don’t…”
“Mister McArthur…” Principal Biel had cut in. “I know it’s hard…but the boy needs to know…you need to tell him.”
At that, Bobby had managed to regain some of his senses, and had looked up from the floor. The tears had still been there in his eyes, but he nodded all the same. “Jimmy…Buddy, can you come sit by me for a second?”
Unsure what to make of everything, I had accommodated his request. “Why are you sad, Uncle Bobby?” I’d asked him. “Why did Aunt Clarice run away?”
“Jim…” he’d answered me, “Jimmy, there was an accident. And…and Christian and Penelope, your parents, they…they didn’t make it.”
“What’s that mean?” I’d asked dumbly, the gravity of the situation refusing to dawn on me. “Are they not home?”
“They’re…they’re…” Words had escaped him. Having broken into a heaving sob, my uncle had locked me into a tight embrace.
“Uncle Bobby…?” I’d pleaded. “Uncle Bobby, where are Mommy and Daddy?”
Bobby had looked up, looked down again, and when he had found the strength to do so, he’d looked me in the eyes. His cheeks had been wet with tears, and his voice had shaken, and cracked, and wavered as he’d spoken the words…but there had been no way that he could have kept them from me any longer. So, he’d spoke the three words that would forever change my life.
“They’re gone, Jimmy.”
At first, I hadn’t understood. Where had they gone to? They’d never made a habit of going anywhere without me. When they had, they’d always been sure to be back in time to pick me up from school.
And then, finally, I’d understood.
“No,” I’d replied in disbelief. “You’re lying to me, Uncle Bobby. Why are you lying to me?”
“Jimmy…” my uncle had pleaded.
“No!” I’d shouted. Pushing myself free of his arms, I’d run from the office, expecting to find my parents just outside the doorway. They couldn’t be gone. They had promised that they would always protect me. They had never broken a promise to me before and that couldn’t change, not like that. Not that way.
“Mommy?” I’d called out. “Daddy?” But only my Aunt Clarice had been there, sitting just outside the door with her arms wrapped around her knees.
“Jimmy,” she’d said, reaching out for me.
But I’d wanted none of it. Instead, I had ran away. I’d ran, and I’d ran. I’d ran through the halls of the school as fast as my legs would carry me, searching the building up and down. My parents had to be there. They had to be. But they hadn’t been. So, I’d ran some more. I’d ran until I’d reached the playground, and then I’d shouted. I’d shouted at the top of his lungs.
“Bump!” I’d called. “Bump! I need you! Where are you Bump?” I’d called, and I’d called…but Bump had never answered.
Eventually, my aunt and my uncle had found me sitting in the middle of the playground, sobbing. They took me home with them, and from there, a slew of horrible ordeals had occurred. Bump hadn’t been there for any of them. He hadn’t been there at the hospital. He hadn’t been there at the wake. He hadn’t even been at the funeral. Bump was gone.
It was then that I’d stopped believing in magic. I’d given up on fairy tales and story books. They had all only ever been lies. They were falsehoods that had promised to always be there for me, but had disappeared when I’d needed them most. So, I’d made the decision that I didn’t need them anymore, either.
For a long time, it was the best decision I had ever made.