Dating : Take My Hand

h2>Dating : Take My Hand

Riley insisted we swear a blood oath. Then he told us about a spot in the swamp where a broken down robot was stuck in the mud.

It was the kinda New Orleans night that makes your skin stick together. This was back in 1993, the second time I ran away from the Hillcrest Home for Boys. We met in secret in the usual secret spot, behind the busted bunkbed in the back of the room. After all the other kids were sleepin, we huddled around the flashlight, and whispered so we wouldn’t get caught by Miss Malone.

There was me, Hop, feelin skeptical as usual. And Riley, feelin more excited than usual. And little Benedict Blake, who we called Bitty cause he was so little, feelin good to be included. And finally my best friend in the world Tommy, who never showed anyone how he was feelin. Though lately he was feelin mad at me and I didn’t know why.

I leaned on Tommy whenever my leg ached, which was just about all the time. Tommy was the strongest one of us. But Riley was the bravest. Riley had snuck outta the home on the regular, but he always snuck back in before the mornin bell. Riley had a chubby face like a baby, so he was the last kid you’d suspect was sneakin around. Which is maybe why he never got caught. Riley would always brag about his late-night adventures and we liked hearin about em. Like the time he watched firemen rescue a little girl from a burnin house. Or the time he saw a whole bulldozer sink to the bottom of the pond at Fat Jack’s Junkyard.

But this time, Riley wouldn’t say a thing until we swore by blood. So one-by-one we stuck our thumbs with the pointy end of a Hillcrest pin. Poor little Bitty looked about to cry. He was new to the group and this was his first prick. We were all about to have a lot of firsts, but we didn’t know it yet. I talked Bitty through it and he did fine. We smeared our blood on the bunk to make it official, and swore on the mothers we didn’t even have.

Then Riley got to tellin us the most amazing thing we’d ever heard.

Last night, he snuck out of the home, and with the moon bein so bright, he got farther than ever. He got passed the tracks and under the bridge. And got to the swamp where he saw some kinda airplane come crashin down like thunder. Then five or six police cars chasin after it with lights and sirens screamin. Riley climbed up into a tree to see the airplane climbin into the haze…

Only it wasn’t an airplane. It was some kinda UFO.

Spinnin inside itself. And it was crooked and makin noise like it was broken. And the cops were shoutin, and even shootin their guns at it! And it spun right over Riley’s tree and started suckin up the leaves. And he could barely breathe like he was inside a tornado, he said. Then he saw somethin fall from the ship just as the ship shot away, and the cops went screamin after it. And then everything got real quiet, and Riley was alone in that tree. Shakin like a leaf, shiverin in the dead heat of summer. He got down and rushed over real quick to that thing that fell in the mud…

A robot.

I imagine Riley’s mouth was hangin open with disbelief seein that robot the first time. Just like our mouths were hangin open hearin about it. Tommy looked angry. “What you mean, robot?” We started teasin Riley. Pokin fun at his story.

But Riley didn’t care. Cause Riley had proof.

Bein extra careful, Riley laid his backpack down on the bed. And started undoin the zipper, real slow like he was defusin a bomb. Talkin real soft. Tellin us the robot was big as us, but looked all banged up and broken. Tellin us it didn’t move or make a sound, like it was dead. Tellin us he grabbed the robot’s hand. And tried pullin it from the mud. “And the hand just came right off,” Riley said.

The suspense was killin Tommy. Maybe it was the sound of the zipper with the way Riley was unzippin it so damn slowly. Or maybe it was just Tommy’s temper. Or that stick he’d been carryin up his ass lately. All I know is, I blinked and Tommy ripped that backpack wide open like a doctor pullin stitches…

And there it was.

Mud in the knuckles. Scratches on the metal. Old and worn like a baseball mitt, the robot hand looked… real. In that way real things look kinda messed up. Bitty’s eyes looked like headlights. I asked if I could hold it. Riley scooped it up gently and placed it in my arms. It was real heavy. A real hand from a real robot. Riley wasn’t lyin. We passed it around. Each of us held it like a newborn baby. Each of us came quick to the same conclusion…

This robot was our ticket to freedom.

About ten minutes before the mornin bell, a firetruck rolled up squealin at the Hillcrest Home for Boys. Cause the tool shed was blazin like a bonfire. We could see the smoke from all the way down by the train tracks. But Riley said we needed to stop lookin back and keep goin forward. And keep our eyes out for trains. Usually I was in charge of things, or sometimes Tommy, but this was Riley’s robot adventure, so we did what he said.

The shed fire gave us a good head start. And it didn’t hurt anybody, but I was anxious about it anyway. I was never any good with a guilty conscience. “If we ever go back there,” I said, “they’ll know we set that fire, and we’ll be in real trouble.” Hearin that, Tommy looked legit ready to punch me. Like I said, he’d been mad at me for a while for some reason. “We ain’t never goin back, Hop,” he said, and he made me repeat it after him. Sometimes he liked remindin me he could kick my ass.

“We ain’t never goin back,” I said, to get Tommy outta my face.

See, we had figured this robot was our ticket to never goin back. Figured we could sell it to Fat Jack’s Junkyard. And then spend that money on four train tickets all the way to California, where no one would ever come lookin for us.

It was a real solid plan. And Riley’s robot adventure shoulda been real quick, but it got real big and real complicated real fast.

Between that UFO crashin down and that fire we started, there were lotsa cop cars crawlin all over town which we had to avoid. And, we saw a whole caravan of camouflage trucks roll in and set up camp in the post office parkin lot. Lookin through the fence, we saw secret agents arrive, too. Black cars, black suits, black sunglasses. Why were secret agents so bad at bein secret? We knew they were lookin for our robot, so we had to beat them to it. And we figured we had a leg up, on account of two things:

We knew where it was. And we had its hand.

One of those soldier boys saw us lookin through the fence, so we ran down the back alley. And ran right into one of them black cars. Three agents got out, but one was different. The others wore black sunglasses, but this one guy wore silver ones that shined like mirrors. The Man with the Mirror Glasses looked like he was in charge. And he looked at us like we were just little bugs he could squish under his shiny black shoes.

Seein him, Riley got nervous and dropped his backpack with that robot hand inside of it. It made a loud metal clunk on the sidewalk. But even then, the Man with the Mirror Glasses had no clue. These secret agents didn’t catch onto our secret, not yet. They just watched us run away. And with all that runnin, my leg felt like it was on fire. But Tommy told me to quit complainin, so I did.

Funny thing is, the person we most wanted to avoid wasn’t a military man or a secret agent. It was a skinny, rookie cop named Hershel who used to date Tommy’s momma before she died. Hershel was a real prick who liked talkin Tommy down. For us, Tommy was the tough guy. We all had string bean arms but not Tommy. I once seen him punch a kid who was so tall, his chin was higher than Tommy’s whole head. But when Hershel came around, Tommy would shrink like a turtle in a shell.

So by avoidin Hershel, and everybody else, and then runnin from that angry bulldog, and then Riley almost losin that backpack on the wrong side of a tall fence, our afternoon hike turned into a couple crazy days.

Every time we got outta trouble, we got back in. Like the whole world was just one cage connected to another. Story of our lives. Though it did beat sittin in class, or sittin in the cafeteria, or sittin around in general. It did feel like a real adventure. The kind where you learn stuff about each other. Turned out Riley couldn’t swim. Turned out Little Bitty cast a pretty big shadow when he took a piss. Turned out we were all afraid of heights. And dogs. And bein alone. I guess that’s the one thing the home did right…

It put us lonely kids together under the same roof.

Speakin of roofs, sittin outside that first night, with Riley and Bitty and my best friend Tommy, I almost missed bein back in the home.

The stars were out and it was hot, and Riley got a little fire cracklin. I don’t think I’d ever slept outside before. At least the home had a ceiling. And screens to keep out the bugs. But that was just me. Everyone else seemed so happy. Even Tommy, though he was still actin mad at me for whatever reason. He and Riley and Bitty were all smiles around the fire, and I sure wasn’t gonna mess it up. I tried to play it cool, but with all that runnin around, my leg was killin me. So I opened the straps and pulled it off.

Wasn’t much of a leg, but it was more than nothin. More like a kickstand with a metal rod. And a plastic hinge for my knee to lean on. And straps to keep it strapped on, of course. I found Bitty starin at it as I rubbed the sting from the stump. Bitty had seen my leg before, but he’d always been too afraid to ask about it, until that night. I think maybe our adventure was givin little Bitty a little courage.

“Hey Hop, what happened to your leg?” Bitty asked.

“I lost it,” I said, like a real smart-ass.

“When?” Bitty wanted to know.

“The first time I ran away,” I said.

And that seemed to make Bitty worry a bit, like he hadn’t considered until that very moment that goin on this adventure meant riskin life and limb. But camp fires are made for scary stories, so I told him mine.

It was less of a runnin away and more of a wanderin off, I said. I was six, just a little kid squeezin through a little hole in a big wire fence. Then I crawled across the uncut grass. I felt so wild and free, my feet just started runnin. The grass got taller and taller as I ran, and I wasn’t all that tall myself, yet. So by the time I was reachin the roadway, I was burstin through what looked like a forest of weeds. And then all of a sudden I’m seein clear blue sky and feelin hot pavement under my feet. And then right there the memory goes lights out. Like my brain didn’t record what happened next cause it was so bad. And it sure was bad…

It was a big delivery truck. And it clipped my foot like a high-five, and the doctors had to cut it off at the knee.

I was in recovery for months. Months of wonderin if they woulda cut off a rich boy’s leg. Or the leg of a boy who had lovin parents at his hospital bedside, beggin the doctors to perform some kinda medical miracle. Maybe I wouldn’t have slipped through that hole in the fence if they had fixed it. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so free outside the fence if things inside the fence were okay. Maybe I wouldn’t have broken their rules if they weren’t so strict about em in the first place at the Hillcrest Home for Boys.

Truth is, I told Bitty, losing my leg was the best thing ever.

As a kid named Johnny, like John Doe, I never really felt all that special. Not when compared to other boys with cool names like Riley or Benedict “Bitty” Blake. But now I was one-of-a-kind too, and I even earned myself a one-of-a-kind nickname: Johnny Hop. Yeah, it sounds kinda cruel. But when another kid calls you a special name, even a kid you don’t like, it makes you feel like somethin. Makes you feel like you’re not invisible anymore.

“Don’t you agree, Bitty?”

Bitty smiled into the fire.

“Yeah, Hop. You right.”

Tommy was tired of hearin about my leg. Maybe Tommy was tired of me. He was the first one to fall asleep that night. And I was the last. I just couldn’t fall asleep with those stars in my eyes. Flat on the ground, feeling like I was wearin the whole world like a backpack. And then I saw some stars movin. And then I saw what looked kinda like lightning, but there was no thunder to follow it up. And the colors kept changin…

Made me wonder if maybe this robot’s friends were up there lookin for him.

I slipped on a patch of mud in the morning and fell real hard, but Tommy refused to help me up. Instead he yelled at me. “Pick up your own damn self!” Walkin along, we were all in a mood that mornin. We talked less, and when we did laugh, it wasn’t the loud kind. It was the kind you do with your eyes when you already know what the other person is thinkin. By the time we got to the spot in the swamp where Riley had found the robot, we just weren’t the same anymore.

And that robot? It just wasn’t there.

“Liar!” I decked Riley in the side of his stupid, fat head. Somethin I never woulda done before. Tommy had to break us up. And while we were checkin our faces for blood, Bitty found tracks in the mud.

“I think it got away,” he said. And he was right.

The robot wasn’t dead. It had woke up and dragged itself all the way into a big dark storm drain under the roadway.

We didn’t know if it was gonna kill us. Or at least kill Riley for stealin its hand. So Riley was first to go in. He held that robot hand straight out like he was bringin bacon to a pitt bull. Like that robot might bite. I got the flashlight on and we found the robot layin against the wall, deep inside the drain.

Seein it, the four of us got real quiet. The robot looked kinda like a kid, kinda like one of us wearin a suit of knight’s armor, playin a joke or somethin. It was broken real bad just like Riley had said. Missin a whole arm from the shoulder. And missin the hand Riley took. And missin a leg, just like me, but Riley hadn’t mentioned that before. Where each of those parts were missin, we could see little wires and plugs that told us it was no joke at all. It was real. And the closer we got, the less scared we got. Like I said, it looked like a kid.

“Riley,” Bitty said, “maybe you should give it back its hand.”

I dunno if it was made of magnets or somethin but when Riley got down and opened his backpack and brought the hand near the arm, it snapped right back into place where it belonged. And it happened so fast, it gave us all a good scare.

Then we all started laughin. And yappin about all the money we were gonna make when we sold this thing to Fat Jack’s Junkyard. I guesss with all our excitement, we failed to notice the storm drain was actin like a megaphone for our voices. Cause before we knew it, there were bright lights shinin in on us and police shoutin at us to come on out…

The four of us dragged the robot deeper into the tunnel, kickin and splashin through the muck. We figured those cops were too big to follow us in too far. But when we got to the light at the other end, we were cut off by a bunch of black suits. And there he was, the Man with the Mirror Glasses.

We were trapped, but there was one other way out. A smaller side tunnel we could see through a thick metal grate. But no matter how hard we tried to move it, the grate was just too damn heavy, even for all four of us. And just when it seemed our adventure was over, we heard a funny sound like a purrin cat…

A sound comin from the robot, like a motor turnin inside.

The robot raised its shaky arm, and pointed at the metal grate. Seein the robot move, I couldn’t even blink. It was really, really real. The robot musta had some kinda magnetic power or somethin, cause it moved that heavy metal grate like magic, and shoved it aside like it didn’t weigh a thing.

We dragged that robot arm-in-arm into the dark. And we got away.

Its metal arm dug into my shoulder and my leg hurt so, so bad. But we kept goin, and as we went, we decided the robot needed a nickname. After all, he had saved us. And so began a great debate. And by the time we had reached the far end and saw daylight again, there were five of us…

Hop, Riley, Bitty, Tommy… and Rob, the robot.

We popped up on a side of town none of us had ever seen. Every house had fresh cut grass and fresh paint. A side of town where we figured cops don’t waste their time. Where there was no sign of secret agents, anywhere in sight.

In a real nice yard behind a real nice house, we washed the mud off ourselves in some kid’s pool. I remember seein the family bathing suits dryin on the line. A mom, a dad, and a kid. Bet that kid never knew how good he had it. But he probably didn’t have adventures. Probably didn’t have friends like mine.

And he definitely didn’t have Rob.

From the top of the swing set, Riley could see the water tower. He knew the way. He said we’d have to carry Rob through town to get back to Fat Jack’s Junkyard, and that was gonna be tricky.

So we stole a plaid shirt and work pants from the clothesline and dressed up Rob. It was hard to do cause he was so heavy, and he was barely movin. He just made that purrin sound, which was gettin harder to hear, like he was runnin outta gas. There was no tellin what he was thinkin, or if he was thinkin anything at all. Did he like his new nickname? Did he like us? He just tilted his head, and watched us get him dressed…

We were sure we had chosen a good name for him, cause when we buttoned up his collar, he really looked like a Rob.

In town, we were starvin. We hid with Rob behind a car while Bitty tried to squeeze his little arm inside a vending machine. I doubt that’s somethin we coulda dared Bitty to do back at the home just a few days before. Too bad the shopkeeper came out and grabbed him. Bitty woulda been done for, if Rob hadn’t pulled another magic trick. He aimed his hand, and from across the street he made that vending machine go wild. It flashed its lights and rang its bells and emptied out like a slot machine. Seein that, the man dropped Bitty. Sure wasn’t the first time Bitty had been dropped. He scooped up a bunch of snacks that were pourin out the bottom, and jet.

The shopkeeper gave chase and we ran. He woulda caught us, too, if it wasn’t for that marching band and all those people dancin in the street.

We cut through the crowd, haulin Rob in a hurry. The clothes fit him okay but he kept losin pieces. I heard somethin metal ping like a bell on the road behind us. And I saw someone in a phone booth lookin funny at us the whole time. I’ll never know if he called the cops. But somehow, by the time we got to the bridge, there was a black helicopter thumpin over our heads.

Black cars blocked all the bridge traffic. And those secret agents circled in on us like a wolfpack, steppin real slow. Almost like they were scared of us. Or maybe scared of Rob.

When the Man with the Mirror Glasses finally spoke, I could barely breathe. His voice was so warm and bright. Like how I imagined a kind and gentle father would sound.

“Listen here, boys. He’s dangerous,” he said to us, lookin real serious.

“You’re the ones with guns,” Tommy said, pointin to the agents’ sidearms.

“You don’t understand,” the Man with the Mirror Glasses said.

Now, listen. We had been told “You don’t understand” every damn day of our whole damn lives. But we understood a whole hell of a lot, so we were sick of hearin it. And maybe Rob was, too. Cause right then, he sprung into action…

For a robot that was runnin outta steam, Rob suddenly moved like lightning.

He stumbled out of our arms, waved his hands in the air, and made all kindsa crazy things happen. First, the agents’ earpieces started whistlin real loud, and they all cringed in pain. Then their black cars started flashin and honkin and crashin into each other. And then the ground started shakin under our feet, cause Rob was makin the whole drawbridge open on up…

The drawbridge! It was crazy.

Everybody scrambled, screamin and shoutin. I remember hearin the tires screechin as the agents were tryin not to get crushed by slidin cars. It was chaos, and it was the perfect chance for us to get outta there with Rob.

We cut down through the woods under the bridge, and stole a little boat. But Riley was so terrified of the water, he was ready to stay behind. Tommy and me called Riley all kindsa names, but nothin worked. Cars were crashin down into the river, and we had to hurry. It was little Bitty, of all people, who said what Riley needed to hear. He whispered somethin into Riley’s ear. Then Riley closed his eyes, took a leap of faith, and stepped onto the boat with the rest of us.

“What’d you tell him, Bitty?” I asked real quiet.

“Told him I was scared, too,” Bitty whispered back.

We rowed to the far bank with Rob, leavin the agents stuck on the other side of the drawbridge. We were back on track for Fat Jack’s Junkyard, and we figured we were home free. But when we reached the road, a cop car cut right in front of us, and would you believe it? Behind the wheel was that rookie cop Hershel, the one prick we wanted to avoid most. Tommy looked about to puke.

We ran into a barren field where we figured Hershel couldn’t drive after us. But he plowed right through the fence. Runnin, we were scared but we were laughin from all the anxiety. Then the metal in my leg made a squeal, and my knee came loose. I hit the dirt, and I told those fools to go on without me. And they woulda gotten away if they had listened. But no. Tommy, Riley and Bitty carried both me and Rob as fast as they could run.

They got us into an old barn at the edge of the farm, just as Hershel rolled up.

Inside this barn was like a maze of old farm machines. Riley knew engines and said we could make a run for it, if he could get this old tractor runnin. Rob was just layin like dead weight. I was puttin my leg back together. And Bitty was lookin for spark plugs from the other vehicles. So Tommy had to buy Riley time, which meant facin Hershel outside the barn.

Tommy went out there draggin a metal pipe like he was gonna wallop Hershel. So Hershel smacked him around real bad. Tommy had never talked about exactly why he didn’t like Hershel or what Hershel had done to Tommy’s momma when they were datin. But now he told Hershel he still had his momma’s diary. And he was gonna take that diary to the police captain, and when the captain read about what Hershel had done to her, he was gonna take away Hershel’s badge and gun. And Hershel would go back to being nobody, just like before.

I didn’t really understand all of it, but Hershel sure did, based on how fast his face went red. Tommy had him by the balls. And then Hershel said some words to Tommy no one should ever say to anyone, ever. He told Tommy he was a bad kid that could never be made good…

That he was broken and would never be fixed. “Everybody knows it, and that’s why nobody wants you,” Hershel said. And Tommy started to cry.

Now I told you, I once saw Tommy punch a kid that was real tall. Well, I’ve also seen Tommy hit a cop in the face with a pipe.

I saw it through the barn door. And as soon as I saw it, I pulled Tommy inside. He was tremblin and gaspin with tears. Then the barn filled with noise like thunder cause Riley got that tractor goin. And we drove outta that barn and across that farm as fast as the tractor could go. We held onto Rob and held onto each other, with that patrol car speedin after us, and Hershel holdin his busted, bleedin chin and swearin as he drove. And just as he pulled up real close, Rob pulled a final magic trick…

He waved his hand and made that patrol car shut down like someone pulled the plug.

Hershel got out and even chased after us. The tractor was damn slow but it was a lot faster than Hershel on foot with a broken jaw. So we left that jerk in the dust. Normally I woulda felt guilty bein a part of somethin so violent. But I figured Hershel had it comin, with the things he said to Tommy. The way we clung to each other on the back of that getaway tractor, I could feel Tommy’s heart thumpin in his shirt. I think if we weren’t clung to each other, he woulda needed a hug anyway. And from the look in his eyes, he mighta even asked for one, maybe.

The sun was settin behind Fat Jack’s Junkyard, where the tractor ran outta gas.

We were carryin Rob over to a tree when my knee gave out and I hit the mud yet again. My leg was throbbin. And yet again, Tommy refused to help me up. Even worse, he exploded at me. Screamin, callin me all kindsa things. He even kicked me in the side! Riley and Bitty couldn’t understand what the hell was wrong with Tommy. But right then I figured it out. Right then I could see it in Tommy’s cryin eyes…

Tommy loved me. Simple as that.

I wasn’t just his friend, I was like his brother. And bein like his brother, I was his family. The only family Tommy had left. Time and again, I needed Tommy. And he needed me, too. And every time he picked me up off the floor, he realized how much I meant to him. That’s all it was. He’d been mad at me lately cause he was gettin worried I was gonna disappear, just like everybody else Tommy had ever loved before.

The other boys were quick to help me up, but I pushed them away. I told Tommy he needed to do it. Well, I told the back of his head, anyway. I told him he was my best friend in the whole world, and even if I had two legs or three or four, I was always gonna need him to pick me up. And I would always do the same for him, whether he liked it or not.

By the time Tommy turned around, I was already on my feet with my leg strapped tight again. He looked sorry. He looked like he had a lotta things he wanted to say. But we had a bigger problem right then…

Fat Jack was nowhere in sight. The junkyard was closed for the day. Would he be back before we got caught again? Besides, this junkyard looked more like a dump. How much money could Fat Jack really have for us? And how much money was a robot worth? And how much did we need to get to California, anyway?

We kept comin up with all these reasons that maybe this plan wasn’t such a good idea. But we were just dancin around the real reason. That’s kinda what we learned to do in the home. We learned to say everything but the thing we were really feelin. Hillcrest boys were good at runnin out the clock.

When Riley finally did say somethin, his voice was funny like he had a sore throat. And he wasn’t lookin at us, he was lookin at Rob, layin there against the tree. He didn’t expect an answer, but he asked Rob a question anyway.

“How could they leave you behind?”

The sun was gone now and the sky was weird. The big sky where Rob had come from. The wind was gettin in my eyes. At least that’s what I was gonna say, if anybody asked. I heard a gasp and I looked up and saw Riley’s face start squeezin like a fist. His cheeks got red and tears startin comin with his words.

“They flew away,” Riley said, cryin. “He fell in the mud, and they just flew away and left him there, all alone by myself…”

Then I saw Tommy’s chest movin, faster and faster like he was runnin. Then his lips curled up, and he let it all come pourin out. And then I heard this weird moanin sound, so I looked over to Bitty, but little Bitty was already lookin at me, and I realized he wasn’t the one makin those sounds. I was. Hell, I was cryin, too. I tried to get some air, so I could say what we were all thinkin about Rob…

“He’s one of us.”

Hop, Riley, Bitty, Tommy and Rob. Us five were under that tree for what felt like forever, each wonderin in silence why in the world we were left behind.

Back at the Hillcrest Home for Boys, we dreamt of goin all the way to California, we said, so no one would ever come lookin for us. But the truth was, we wanted to be found. And we all knew it.

When we were done wipin our noses, we sat in a circle around Rob under that tree. I pressed my ear on his metal chest, and heard his purrin motor gettin softer and softer.

Rob didn’t have much time left.

The last thing Rob did was lift his hand. The hand Riley had stolen and given back. We waited to see what kinda magic he was gonna do, but nothin happened. Then Riley took hold of Rob’s hand, and he held it real tight. And that seemed to be all Rob wanted all along. Someone to take his hand.

A minute later, Rob stopped purrin for good. And everything changed.

We weren’t goin to California, cause we wouldn’t have any money, cause we weren’t gonna sell Rob to some junkyard. We couldn’t. Rob was one of us. Rob had helped us. And Rob had died. Now Rob needed to be laid to rest. If there was one thing all four of us new about, it was funerals.

Beside Fat Jack’s Junkyard was a nasty, oily pond. The pond Riley had once seen a whole bulldozer sink into. We wondered what other machines were down there to keep Rob company. With the moon out the way it was, the pond actually looked kinda nice. It was the best we could do for Rob.

We carried him to the water and laid him on some boards. We didn’t know what to say, so we just stood there listenin to the crickets and frogs. Tommy and Riley started easin Rob into the pond. Then somethin came over me. I went in after them and started unstrappin my leg.

“What the hell you doin, Hop?” Riley and Bitty didn’t understand. But Tommy didn’t say a thing. He just came to my side automatically, like old times. Right where I needed him. So I held onto Tommy, and strapped my fake metal leg onto Rob’s robot knee.

I looked out into the night, and pointed to the row of headlights snakin over the hill. The secret agents and the cops were comin our way. Then I told my friends somethin I was nervous to say out loud.

“We gotta go back.”

Riley nodded, and Bitty too. But it wasn’t official until Tommy said it, real soft. “You right, Hop. We gotta go back.”

We pushed Rob out over the murky water with the moon lookin like a spotlight. And then the wood boards started to shift under him. And his rusted, busted body started to sink. And bubbles came up all around him as he dropped away. And we watched the bubbles disappear. And for a few seconds it was like the whole world was holdin its breath…

Then we were squintin in the headlights, and surrounded by cops and agents and all kinds of uniforms. And then everybody’s jaws dropped open with what happened next…

The stars scattered from the pond. The night sky opened like a corkscrew. And that UFO came down, spinnin inside itself just like Riley had said. The pond water moved, like cubes risin up from the ground. And there was that sunken bulldozer, and a lot of other sunken crap, too. And there was Rob with my old leg strapped on him. He floated up into the ship. And the ship zipped away…

And the pond splashed back into place.

Everybody looked like they were gonna faint, even the secret agents. I turned back and saw the Man with the Mirror Glasses remove his shades. He had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. He wiped his tears, and from the way his mouth was movin, I’m sure he was sayin his prayers.

My lips tasted like salt. My mind was goin a thousand miles an hour. Lookin at my friends, I could tell we were all thinkin the same thing…

Sometimes they do come back for you.

We went on Riley’s robot adventure lookin for one thing, but we found somethin else. Somethin we had all along. When the pond settled, we saw ourselves in the water, little Bitty wipin his eyes, Riley standin tall doin a salute, and me with half a leg gone, leanin on my best friend Tommy. We didn’t know much about Rob. Didn’t know where he came from. Didn’t know if we’d ever see him again. Turns out, back in 1993, there was only one thing we knew for sure. We had each other.

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Dating : Great first date but he isn’t over ex – reconnect in future?

POF : Just dodged a crazy woman!