Miguel turned his head over towards Mr. Fat Belly, as his brown eyes deepened their gaze and his brows furrowed a little deeper. Mr. Belly was in the process of using his pudgy brown-fur covered arms to pat his own squishy stomach as he sat on the pillow.
“Do you die, Mr. Belly?” Miguel placed his elbow on the pillow and looked over at his friend, who was too preoccupied with the patting of his stomach to notice Miguel’s staring.
“Do I die?” Mr. Belly responded, looking up for a moment and expressing as much confusion as his tiny, solid black eyes would allow him to. “I’m not sure.”
“What happens to you then? Do you live forever?”
“Miguel, why do you ask? You know I can’t answer that. I’m just a stuffed bear.”
Mr. Belly was now giving Miguel his complete attention.
“You’re not just any stuffed bear, Mr. Fat Belly; you’re the best friend I’ve ever had in the whole world and I just…”
Miguel paused for a moment unable to find the words within him. He played with the edge of his blue solar system themed blanket and looked over at Mr. Belly, who decided to lie down next to him on the oversized pillow. His body was a little bigger than the size of Miguel’s head.
“What’s wrong, Miguel? Tell me.” Mr. Belly tilted his head as to express worry then dropped it down on the pillow.
“I don’t want you to leave me. I want you to stay with me forever. Ok?” his voice filled with urgency.
“I don’t think I can die, Miguel. I don’t eat, or sleep, or do any of those things that you do.”
“Then how do you live?” Miguel dropped his head back onto the pillow and proceeded to stare at the ceiling.
“I don’t know, Miguel. I really don’t know.”
The bear and the boy stared at the ceiling for a while in silence, their heads touching, until they dozed off to sleep.
The next day when Miguel arrived home from school, he was met with the stern gaze of his father who sat on the sofa, rummaging through the day’s newspaper. Miguel raced past him and upstairs into his room. He threw his book bag down and hurried back down the stairs, heading straight for the door. It was then that his father stopped him.
“Hey, let’s sit down and talk.” His father’s deep menacing voice stopped Miguel dead in his tracks.
“Oh come on dad! Joey’s waiting for me to go bike riding with him.” He said, while turning the knob of the front door.
“Your teacher called me today and told me she’s been having some problems with you in class.” Miguel turned to face his dad.
“What problems? I’m one of the best students in the class!”
“Oh, really?” His father folded the newspaper in his hands and placed on it on the coffee table in front of him.
“Yeah, come on dad, I’ve gotta go!”
“You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on.”
“Nothing’s going on, I promise.” Miguel fiddled with his hands which he had placed inside his pants pockets.
“She said something to me about you never paying attention. She’s worried that you have something on your mind.” His father stared at him with a mixture of concern and suspicion.
“I’ve got nothing on my mind. Really. I don’t.” Miguel stared down at his red sneakers.
“So then tell me why you’re not paying attention in class.” He patted the sofa pillow next to him; motioning for Miguel to come sit down. Jamie slinked his way away from the door and to the couch next to his dad.
“I don’t know. I don’t have a reason.” He stared at his sneakers again as he sat down.
“I like to daydream, I guess. I don’t know.” He shrugged.
“What’s so important to daydream about that you can’t focus on your work in class?”
“Just normal kids stuff.” Miguel looked up at his father, wide eyed and innocent.
“You’re not a kid anymore. I need you to stop acting like one. I don’t need teachers calling here to complain about it. You’re going to be 13 in a few weeks.” He lifted his son’s chin up to look him directly in the eyes. “It’s time for you to grow up.” He finished in his deep, serious voice.
“Ok. Can I go now?” Miguel asked, moving his chin away from his father’s hand.
“You just better remember what I said. Got it?” His father tapped his son on his chest.
“Got it. Am I free now?”
Miguel raced out the door in an instant and grabbed his bike from the garage. He pedaled as he fast as he could down the long streets towards Joey’s house. It was an unusually cool fall day. And he hadn’t had time to grab a jacket. He pedaled faster in order to reach Joey’s house and also to warm himself up.
His effort had paid off. What was usually a ten minute bike ride turned into five. He arrived to find Joey standing in front of his house waiting for him to get there. As he hit the breaks and before he could apologize for being late, Joey cut him off:
“I have big news for you, Miguel. Big news”
“The new Spiderman is out.”
“Bigger.” Joey grinned mischievously.
“What’s bigger than that?” Miguel looked at his friend, bewildered.
“We’ve got to ride away from here that’s for sure. We’ve gotta go where no one can see us.” Joey smiled at Miguel and hopped on his bike. He made his way down the block before Miguel started pedaling; following him down the long, wide streets. They rode for five minutes and into a seemingly deserted wooded area. They jumped off their bikes and threw them to the ground. Joey turned away from Jamie and stood for a moment searching through his jacket pockets.
“Ok. What is it? What’s the big news?” Miguel began
“I stole my mom’s cigarettes.” Joey said as he whipped out the carton from deep with his pocket.
“That’s news? I don’t care about that.” Miguel rolled his eyes.
“Well you better start caring because I brought them here for us to smoke.” Joey removed a single cigarette from the carton and smelled it. His face lit up.
“Are you kidding? We can’t do that.” Miguel shoved Joey’s cigarette away from his face.
“Why not? There’s nothing wrong with it. All the adults tell us not to do it and yet they do it themselves. Does that make sense?”
“No. I mean, I guess you’re right. But why would we do this?”
“Dude, once we smoke these cigarettes we’re grown ups. We’re not little kids anymore.” Joey placed the cigarette behind his ear, grabbed the lighter from his inside pocket and flicked it on and off.
“What’s wrong with being a kid?” Miguel became transfixed by the fire from the lighter.
“Everything. No one listens to us. No one takes us seriously. And girls like mature men not boys.”
“So smoking is going to make us older, mature men? That doesn’t really make sense to me.”
“Look, if you want be a kid for the rest of your life and waste your time talking about Spiderman and comic books, that’s fine. But, think about all the possibilities that open up for you when you grow up. Cigarettes will speed up the process to getting there.”
Joey pulled the cigarette from behind his ear and extended it to Miguel.
“You know, my dad was just getting on my case about that. He said I needed to grow up.” Miguel said, grabbing the cigarette from Joey’s hand and staring at it.
“See, you’ve even got your dad’s approval. What’s better than that?” Joey flicked the lighter on and covered the flame with his hand, so the wind wouldn’t blow it shut.
“Take it, man. I’ll show you how to puff it. I learned from my mom.”
Miguel placed the cigarette in his mouth and watched as Joey held the lighter to the end of it. Joey instructed him to breathe in as the fire met the cigarette. He took a giant puff. The cigarette was lit and Miguel was coughing his brains out. A couple puffs later and Miguel had gotten the knack of it. Together, the boys smoked a couple more cigarettes in the span of a few hours. In between drags of the second cigarette, Miguel turned to Joey who was seated next to him on the leaf covered ground.
“So, I’m a grown up now?” He began, smiling, holding the lit cigarette between his fingers.
“ We both are.” Joey finished, holding his own cigarette to his lips and taking in a puff.
By the time the boys finished smoking, it was night. They rode their bikes as quickly as their legs would let them through the dark streets. They went their separate ways as they pedaled to their respective houses. Miguel’s parents had been entertaining some guests so they barely noticed as he made his way through the front door. He entered his room, threw his sneakers off and jumped on his bed, still smelling like cigarettes. He placed his hands behind his head as he laid down, staring at the ceiling which was covered with a glow-in-the-dark solar system replica.
“I had an interesting day, Mr. Belly. You want to hear about it?” Miguel glanced over at his friend who lay on the bed next to him. Mr. Belly didn’t respond. Instead, his tiny eyes stared blankly up at the ceiling, remaining expressionless.
“Well, too bad. I’m going to tell you anyway. When I got home from school, my dad gave me some stupid lecture about needing to grow up. He told me to stop daydreaming because Ms. Kopowski had called him wondering what was wrong with me. Can you believe that? Just because I was daydreaming, something has to be wrong with me! Only little kids can daydream, I guess.” Miguel sighed momentarily.
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Then, I go out bike riding with Joey and he gives me some cigarettes that he stole from his mom. He tells me I’ve got to smoke it or else I’ll stay a kid forever or something stupid like that. So, I did it.” At this point, Miguel turned over to look at Mr. Belly.
“I don’t see what the big deal is with smoking. I don’t really feel too different. I mean, I don’t know. I guess I’m grown up now. Am I? Do you think I am, Mr. Fat Belly?”
Mr. Fat Belly stared blankly at Miguel. There was no movement in his tiny plastic eyes. There was no expression on his normally cheery face. Mr. Fat Belly didn’t make a sound.
“Mr. Fat Belly?” Miguel looked at his friend for a long moment.
His eyes began to well up. Reality dawned on him.
“Mr. Fat Belly, please talk to me. I know you’re kidding. If you don’t make a peep I’m going to rip the stuffing out of you.”
Jamie managed a weak smile; his glassy eyes looked down at his friend who laid lifelessly on the pillow with him.
“Please, Mr. Belly. Don’t go.” Jamie pleaded softly, proceeding to stare at his stuffed bear.
“You’re all I have left.”
Minutes passed and no sound left the tiny mouth of Mr. Fat Belly’s brown, soft, furry face. Not a peep. His motionless body lied next to Jamie’s. He was just a bear now.
One single tear flowed down Jamie’s face and hit Mr. Belly’s tiny button nose. Jamie lifted his friend from the pillow and hugged him for a long while, then lied him down next to his head. Looking over at Fat Belly with his big brown eyes, Jamie managed to let out a few words in a muted whisper:
“Goodbye. Goodbye, Mr. Fat Belly.”