Crime writer and fellow blogger D.S. Nelson has once again offered a terrific and unusual story prompt. This time, it’s a haunting song. This is the story that came from it. Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration! Folks, please do visit D.S. Nelson’s terrific site, and try her Blake Heatherington mysteries. You won’t be sorry!
‘Come on, Grandpa, let’s go. It’s gonna be dark soon,’ Jackie called.
‘Coming,’ Tom murmured absently. He stared down the path he and his grandson had just been following, hardly hearing what Jackie was saying.
‘Grandpa! Come on! I’m starving, and Dad says we’re having fried chicken for dinner!’
‘Sorry,’ Tom said, this time more attentively. ‘Let’s go.’
Jackie looked at his grandfather. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.
There was no sense lying; at ten years old, Jackie didn’t miss much. ‘It’s just that this isn’t too far from where my friend Michael – did I ever tell you about him? – disappeared.’
‘You said you had a friend named Michael, but you never told me about him. I want to know, though.’
‘All right, let’s start back to the house and I’ll tell you on the way.’
Twilight had already turned the trees into ghostly skeletons. The crunch of their feet in the snow, and the occasional hoot of an owl, were the only sounds. After a few minutes, Tom began.
‘This was way back in the late ‘50s. I was in a children’s home. You know what they are, right?’
‘Heard of them.’
‘Well, mine wasn’t like the ones they have now, with social workers and good food. This was a miserable place. We all wanted out.’ Tom paused and looked at Jackie to be sure the boy was following the story. He was.
‘The only thing good about it was Michael. He could make anything better. We made friends on the first day I was there, and we swore we’d always be best friends. Always help each other.’ Tom blinked a few times and swallowed.
‘So what happened?’ Jackie asked.
‘Well, Michael decided he was going to run away. I begged him not to. Told him he could get killed out here alone in the woods. You never know what – or who – is out there. But he wouldn’t listen to me. Instead, he made me promise not to tell. A blood oath, you know?’ Tom paused again. Jackie knew all about those oaths.
‘So did he run away?’ Jackie wanted to know.
Tom nodded sadly. ‘I saw him sneaking out one night. I told him he was going to get killed. Tried to get him to stay. But all he said was that I’d promised not to tell anyone. So I couldn’t. Not with a promise like that.’
‘Where did he go?’
‘I don’t know.’ Tom swallowed again. ‘The next afternoon, I found his scarf right about where we just were. It was a red scarf, like we all wore outside. But I never did find him. Neither did anyone else.’
Jackie looked up at his grandfather with a knowing expression. ‘It wasn’t your fault, Grandpa.’
Tom threw an arm around Jackie’s shoulders. ‘You’re right. Just makes me sad sometimes.’
‘But you kept your promise.’
‘That I did. Still miss him, though.’ Tom thought of Michael’s ready smile, bright blue eyes full of mischief, and the way he always managed to find treats when everyone else was stuck with thin soup and stale bread.
Jackie and his parents left the next day to go back to Seattle, where they lived. Three weeks after that, Tom got the diagnosis. At first, he didn’t tell anyone, not even his daughter, Sophie. But as the weeks went by, he got worse. The doctors told him the cancer had spread, and there wasn’t anything they could do. Sophie wanted to fly in and stay with him, but Tom wouldn’t let her. ‘Jackie and Gordon need you,’ he said. He did let her make the hospital arrangements, though. He didn’t have the energy for that any more.
Late one cold, crisp afternoon, Tom was lying in his bed, looking out the window. They’d given him a room with a view of the woods behind the building, and he liked that. It reminded him of playing with Michael and the other kids. He drifted in and out of consciousness, watching a lone cardinal flutter and settle on a tree branch.
‘Hey, Lazybones, get up! It’s your turn to mop the floor.’ That voice! It couldn’t be. But that was what Michael had always said. Tom slowly turned his head. Those eyes! He’d have known those blue eyes anywhere. There was a thatch of white where there’d once been a mop of dark, unruly curls, but it was still Michael.
‘You’re alive,’ Tom murmured. ‘I always wanted to believe you’d made it.’
‘Yup, I made it,’ Michael said. He sat down next to Tom’s bed.
‘You never wrote or anything.’
‘Didn’t want to get you in trouble. Then, I lost track of you after you left. Moved back here a few years ago and decided to try to find you. Took a while, but I caught up with you.’ Still that infectious grin.
‘Not for much longer.’ Tom swallowed.
‘I heard,’ Michael said. He looked away for a moment, and then back again.
For a few minutes, Tom and Michael shared the silence. Then Tom spoke. ‘We’re still friends, right, Michael?’
‘Always. Blood oath.’
‘I want you to do something for me.’
And Tom told him. Michael’s face went pale as he listened. ‘Tom, I can’t – I can’t do that.’
‘You’re the only one who can. I can’t ask Sophie or Gordon. Don’t want to draw them into this. And Jackie – he’s just a kid.’ Tom’s voice became quieter, his breathing a little shallower. ‘Remember how I helped you get free? It’s the same thing now. I want to be free. Please.’ Tom grasped his friend’s hand. ‘I won’t even feel it. I’ll take pain meds first. All you need is a needle. Or a pillow.’
At last Michael nodded. ‘You kept your promise to me. I’ll help you.’
Tom’s funeral was a week later. As they buried his friend, Michael thought about the young boy he’d known. He smiled a little. He’d kept his promise to Tom, just like Tom had kept his.