The sound of a car door slamming, followed by an engine starting, pulled me out of the house. I looked toward the fence and called out, “Frank, you there?”
No response. I came to expect as much, though I wish that wasn’t the case. It’d been nearly a week since the last time Frank had come out to join me, and I was beginning to worry we’d never play again. I walked toward the fence, feeling the sun in the empty sky beat down on me as I left the shade of the patio. The closer I drew to our shared fence, the stronger the smell of freshly cut grass became. I peered through the pickets of our wooden barrier, greeted only by a lone lawn mower.
I raised my voice again, this time sticking my pursed lips through the crack. “Frank!” I pulled my mouth away, quickly replacing it with my right eye. Still no movement.
When I was younger, Frank would be quick to respond, bounding towards my voice. At times like that, I almost forgot he was the older one. He was usually out on the grass long before I had woken up, finished my breakfast, and cared to exit the house. We weren’t allowed to leave the confines of our properties to visit each other despite being right next door, at least not without our parents around, which is why we took to passing snacks and small toys back and forth between the slits of the fence.
“Max,” I remember him saying, “that’s not the toy I want. Pass me the other one.”
I’d drop whatever I was carrying and pick up another toy to pass through the crack. He’d laugh and shake his head, pointing to another toy beside me.
“The other, other one!”
Dropping the second toy, I’d reach for the third one only to have him joke that it still wasn’t the one he wanted. In the end, the toy he wound up accepting from my side would be the original one I tried to pass him. It was a game he liked to play, thought it was funny. And well, I have to admit, I guess I enjoyed it, too.
Frank’s absence caused a rush of nostalgia to drift back to me in waves. Things I may have found annoying at the time didn’t feel as annoying now that I was experiencing life without them. If only I could go back to the days when Frank and I would nap next to each other—of course with the barrier between us—and I’d listen to his heavy breathing from the other side. Oh, how I longed to hear it again. Now, it felt too silent.
I walked down the line of our border, calling his name every couple of steps. Every lack of response I received edged me to call out again. My pace quickened. I found it odd that I hadn’t seen his parents around, either. Usually, they’d be out during a day like this—a day that neither of my parents were working—and especially with the sun shining so brightly. In fact, I swear I heard Frank’s dad mowing the lawn earlier as I drifted in and out of my midday nap. I ran back to the front yard and peeked through the slats again, confirming my suspicions. The lawn mower was definitely left out with no one else in sight.
“Mom!” I yelled, running toward the house. “Dad!”
Something was off. Sure, I hadn’t seen Frank in a while, but for his parents to be gone, too? Frank’s dad wasn’t one to leave the lawn mower out unattended. He always had a spot for everything and when something wasn’t in use, it needed to be put away in its proper home. Even Frank’s toys were stored in a special box labeled just for him, unlike mine which were scattered throughout the yard or hidden in the garden for treasure hunting at a future date.
“Mom! Dad!” I barked, louder this time as I ran inside searching for someone.
I found Mom in the dining room, sitting before her laptop, typing away. I tugged on her pant leg, trying to coerce her toward the door.
“Max, not now.” She batted me away with her hand.
“Something’s wrong with Frank and his family. They’re nowhere in sight! Frank’s dad left his lawn mower on the lawn and I haven’t seen Frank for days.” I pulled harder.
“Okay, okay, up you go.” Mom finally stopped working for a moment long enough to pick me up and sit me on her lap. She gently stroked my back in the way she knew I loved. It calmed me down a bit and I relaxed in her arms. “There’s a good boy.”
“He’s probably just lonely,” Dad called from the living room, “since Frank’s been sick and all.”
I tensed up again. Sick? Frank? For as long as I knew him—which was my whole life—Frank never showed any signs of illness. Every time I saw him, he’d always be joking or playing with me. How could he be sick? No way, I wouldn’t accept it. I shook my head in defiance.
“It’s true,” Mom insisted. She had returned her attention to the screen but must have noticed my reaction. “The Sanchez’s have been keeping him in the house to better monitor him. Doctor’s orders.”
“Well, he is getting up there,” Dad stated, “won’t be long now.”
That was it. That was all either of them had to say about Frank before they returned to their respective tasks. And I was to simply accept it? Wanting to demand for more information, I squirmed within Mom’s arms, but she continued to stroke me, easing my restlessness. Maybe Frank actually is sick and that’s why he’s staying inside, so he can quickly recover. Maybe Dad was right and it wouldn’t be long before Frank returned to playing with me outside. Yeah, that must be it. I closed my eyes.
My mind drifted back to the last time Frank came over to visit my side of the fence. I think it was maybe a couple months ago? It was one of the few times both our parents were home and in each other’s company. The sun was high and the smell of barbeque hung in the air. Frank and I had just finished running around my house chasing each other, until Frank suggested we stop. I’m sure he was getting tired of being caught by me every time since I could outrun him for days.
Now I was showing him the best treasure hole in the backyard. Technically, he already knew where it was, but he regularly forgot despite me revealing it every time he came over.
“What do you think happens if no one comes to dig up the things you’ve buried?” he asked in between wheezing breaths. He seemed more out of breath than usual that day, but I had just chalked it up to our game of tag.
I contemplated for a moment before answering. “Nothing happens. They stay there.”
“Nothing.” I confirmed.
“That’s kind of sad, don’t you think?”
“I guess so?”
He firmly sat up and looked me hard in the eyes. “Think about it. You bury all these goodies and the only one who knows they’re there is you. But if something happens and you can no longer dig up your favourite toys, they just continue to sit there, unloved. Forever.”
“Sure, I guess.” I chewed on his thought. “But I think I’d definitely dig up all my toys before I couldn’t. And I’ll take them with me if I ever need to leave. That way they’ll still be forever loved.”
He laughed, but it seemed to hurt, so he stopped and just smiled. “How about this?” He threw down his favourite toy in my open stash before us.
“What are you doing? That’s yours!” I exclaimed.
“We exchange one of our favourite toys with each other. This way, if something happens, at least a toy from each of us can still be loved even if we can’t love them ourselves.”
Despite the crazy nonsense this guy was spewing out, I chuckled. Perhaps he was onto something. In any case, I handed him my favourite raccoon squeaky animal. “Deal.”
It was well passed dinner by the time Frank and his family returned home. Their lawn mower was still waiting in their yard, ready to greet them. My parents and I were just returning from our evening walk when they pulled in.
“Evening, David. Getting home pretty late, eh?” Dad called out as Frank’s dad exited the driver’s side door.
Frank’s dad could have looked better—well, he certainly couldn’t look any worse. Heavy bags hung beneath his eyes as he slowly raised his head to look at Dad.
“Jesus,” Dad exclaimed under his breath.
No more words needed to be exchanged between the pair. Mom rushed over to the passenger side and helped Frank’s mom out of the vehicle. The two opened the back seat and struggled to lift something.
Finally, I saw him—well, just his head anyway. It was Frank!
I howled in excitement, running up to the women, sniffing at my friend.
“Max, stop it.” Mom pushed me aside. “Sorry, I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
Frank’s mom smiled. Her eyes and nose were red. “It’s okay.” She knelt down and scratched my head. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it? You want to say goodbye to Frank?”
Wait a minute.
Then, I saw him as Mom helped pull the rest of Frank out of the car. His tail drooped behind him and he couldn’t lift his head without his mom’s help. His breathing was slower and lighter than I’d ever heard it before. Each breath was accompanied with a light squeak of escaping air as he struggled to keep a toy in his jaw. I’d never seen him like this. He looked at me and stared, blinking every few seconds. This was one of his jokes, right? Tomorrow he’d be able to join me outside again. That’s why he was inside all week, so he could rest and get better. I nudged my face against his, trying to understand the punchline.
The raccoon in his mouth squeaked one last time.