Clint was mad.
He followed his daddy down the sidewalk. He didn't want to go to the park before school and talk to Natasha. Natasha had been so mean to him! She called him a dummy! She was not a good friend!
Clint kicked at a crack in the sidewalk. He had been mad all night and all morning, except for the two minutes after he woke up and had forgotten that he was mad at Natasha.
But then he remembered, and then he was twice as mad!
His dad had said that they were going to talk to Natasha and James before school, and that Clint had to apologize for saying bad things to Natasha. Clint scowled at the ground. He wasn't going to apologize, not if Natasha didn't apologize first! And even if she did apologize, Clint wasn't going to talk to her at all, not ever again!
Not until recess.
Clint kicked another crack, tripped, and fell down. "Clint?" Daddy said, hurrying back. "You okay, buddy?"
"Yeah," Clint said. Daddy hauled him upright and set him on his feet. "I hurt my hand."
Together, they inspected Clint's palm in the sunlight. There was a scrape on the skin and a tiny drop of blood. "You should watch where you're going," his dad said. He dug into Clint's backpack for the first aid kit that James had given him.
"I was!" Clint protested. He didn't make a sound when daddy wiped his hand with the antiseptic wipes, even though it stung a lot. "Then I fell anyway."
Daddy put a purple band-aid on Clint's hand. "There you go." He packed away the first aid kit, zipped up the backpack, and ruffled Clint's hair. "Let me see the rest of you."
Clint endured the examination, letting his dad turn him around. "Daaaaaaaaaddy!"
"You have to be careful of your clothes," his dad said. "You've almost scuffed a hole in your shoes."
"Shoes are dumb," Clint said darkly. Reluctantly, he took hold of daddy's hand and they started walking again.
As they walked, Clint didn't feel as mad anymore. Instead, he felt sad, and that was worse.
He'd thought Natasha was his best friend. But Natasha had said he didn't know how to play parachute, and that he was a dummy. Best friends didn't call each other dumb.
That made Clint feel real bad, from his head to his toes. How come Natasha had been so mean to him? Didn't she want to be his friend?
Clint felt so bad that his tummy hurt.
"Here we are," daddy said, and they were at the park. "Now we wait until Bucky and Natasha get here."
Clint didn't like this park. There were no swings, only rocks and benches and grass. He stomped over to a bench and sat down and crossed his arms over his chest.
Clint didn't look up.
"Clint." Daddy sat beside him. "Buddy, I know you're still upset about yesterday, but we talked about this."
Clint stuck out his tongue.
"Sometimes, best friends get into fights. You and Natasha, you're still best friends. But sometimes you don't agree on everything."
Clint could take no more of this. "She called me a dummy!" he exclaimed, turning to glare at his father.
There was a frown on his dad's face. "And you said a few unkind things too," he said. "And when she gets here, I need you to apologize for them."
"Only if she does!"
"That's not how it works," Daddy said. "You can only control your own behaviour. And you're going to apologize."
Clint jerked his head to the side. "I won't!"
Daddy put his face into his hands. "Oh, boy, this is going to be fun." He sat back. "I'm going to text Bucky and see where they are."
Clint swung his feet in the air. Maybe if he kicked his feet hard enough, his shoes would fly off.
So Clint kicked and kicked, all while daddy tapped on his phone. His shoes weren't coming off. Maybe if he loosened the laces, then kicked?
Daddy put his phone down. "What are we going to do after school?" he asked. "No archery tonight."
"Can we watch movies?" Clint asked. He liked it when they watched movies after school on a Friday with Natasha and James. "I can eat popcorn."
Daddy smiled. "That sounds like a good plan."
"Can we have pizza?" Clint asked, knowing he was pushing his luck. "Pepperoni and mushroom. I'll eat all the mushrooms so Natasha doesn't have to." After all, even if he wasn't best friends with Natasha right now, they could still eat pizza together. It was pizza.
"We'll see," said his dad, ruffling Clint's hair again. Clint squawked and leaned away, almost falling off the bench.
Daddy's phone rang. With another smile, he answered. "Hey, Buck, it's been a wild night," he said. "You still good to meet at the park before school? Can I grab you a coffee? We're a bit early and—"
Daddy stopped talking suddenly. His whole face changed. Clint didn't like it.
"What's wrong?" Daddy asked. "Did she fall?"
Clint wrapped his fingers around his backpack straps. Daddy's voice was weird and it made his insides feel funny.
"Where are you?"
Clint bit his lip. Natasha and James were supposed to come to the park before school. Why weren't they there? Natasha couldn't apologize to him if she wasn't here.
"I'll be there as soon as I drop Clint off at school," Daddy said. "Have you called the school yet?" He waited for a moment, then said, "I'll tell them. Bucky, I'll be there as soon as I can, okay? I'll be there soon." Daddy stood and put the phone into his pocket. "Clint, come on, we have to go to school. I need to drop you off."
He took Clint's hand and practically hauled him off the bench. Clint had to run to keep up. "We gotta wait for Natasha!" Clint protested.
Daddy stopped so suddenly that Clint tripped again. His dad caught him before he hit the pavement. "Clint…" Daddy said, kneeling down in front of Clint.
Clint bit his knuckle. Daddy's face looked really weird. Clint was scared and he didn't know why. Why couldn't they wait at the park for Natasha?
"Clint," Daddy said again. "Sometimes in life, things happen that we aren't expecting, and that we can't control. And Natasha… she got sick."
"Does she have to stay at home today?" Clint asked. He'd stayed home from school a few times when he was sick.
"She got really sick," Daddy said. "Bucky took her to the hospital, where they can help her."
"Why did she get sick?" Clint asked.
"I don't know." Daddy stood up. "But I need to take you to school so I can go help Bucky at the hospital." He started walking again.
"I want to go with you!" Clint protested. "I want to help Natasha!"
"You have to go to school," Daddy said. "Come on, hurry up."
"I am!" Clint cried. Daddy was nearly running, and his legs were so long. Clint could run too, but he was scared and his tummy hurt.
Why was Natasha sick? Why was his dad going so fast?
By the time they got to school, Clint's legs were exhausted and he was breathing hard. Daddy took him right up to the playground gates and said, "Clint, go on in."
Clint clung to his dad's hand. "I want to go with you!"
Daddy pried his hand out of Clint's grip. "Clint, I need you to be safe here at school, okay?" He crouched down. "I have to go help Bucky at the hospital."
"Why's Natasha sick?" Clint asked in a whisper.
"I don't know." Daddy put his hand on Clint's shoulder. "But I'm going to go find out, and you have to stay here."
"I can go too!" Clint said. "I'll be real quiet!"
Daddy pulled Clint in for a squishy hug. "You have to stay at school. The hospital is no place for kids."
"But Natasha's there!"
Daddy let go of Clint. "A hospital is the place for sick kids." He stood up. "I'll come get you after school and I'll tell you all I know, okay?"
Clint rubbed his nose on his hand. It wasn't okay, but Clint didn't know what else he could say.
"I'll see you later." Daddy pushed him into the playground, past the teacher minding the gate, and went away.
Clint made it a few steps into the playground before he stopped. It was early; hardly any of the other kids were there yet. Clint dragged himself over to the bench where Saanvi liked to sit at morning recess. He felt really strange in his tummy and in his throat and in his head.
All morning, he had been mad at Natasha. And now she was in the hospital.
Clint's tummy felt so bad he didn't even kick his feet. He sat on the bench and stared at the ground.
What was he going to do without Natasha at school? She was his best friend. They sat together in their desks, and beside one another in circle, and they played dinosaurs at recess and they ate lunch together in the cafeteria. And then, after school, they went home to Natasha's house and played and sometimes watched movies and then on Saturday morning they got to eat pancakes.
Clint didn't know what he was supposed to do without Natasha.
The bad feeling in his tummy got heavier and heavier. It felt like he had a bowling ball in his stomach, all heavy and round.
Clint wondered if Natasha ever felt like she had a bowling ball in her tummy.
And now she was sick. Clint had been sick enough to stay home from school a few times. Daddy made him stay in bed and drink chicken soup and ginger ale. Once, daddy had even called Grandpa Abraham on the phone when Clint was sick and Clint got to talk to him. But then the next day, Clint had gone back to school.
He'd never gotten sick enough to go to the hospital.
Clint didn't like thinking about the hospital. His Grandpa Abraham used to work in a hospital, and Aunt Sally still did, far away. But now Grandpa Abraham worked in a clinic and Clint had been to that clinic, and it wasn't scary.
But a hospital was scary. His dad's mommy had died in a hospital.
Clint wondered if Natasha was scared of being in a hospital.
Someone climbed onto the bench beside Clint. It was Saanvi. "Hi," Clint said sadly. "Natasha is sick."
"Being sick is bad," Saanvi agreed. She had her stuffed horse toy with her today.
"I don't want to go to school," Clint said.
"You have to go to school." Saanvi opened her backpack. "I have a new book about horses."
She proceeded to open the book on her lap, turned the horse so it could see the pages too, and began to read.
Clint shimmied back on the bench. Saanvi was a good friend, but she wasn't Natasha.
Feeling sad all over again, Clint looked at the pictures in Saanvi's book while she turned the pages.
It took forever for school to start. When the bell rang, everyone lined up to go inside. Clint stood behind Saanvi. Normally, he and Natasha would stand together, talking about what they wanted to do at recess and what they'd have for morning snack.
Clint wished he could be with Natasha, instead of at school by himself.
They went inside. Clint trudged along. His backpack felt so heavy, and the bowling ball in his stomach swung back and forth as he walked. He felt awful.
Inside Mr. Logan's class it was loud. Clint ignored the other kids and went to the coat rack. He put his backpack on the little hook under his name. Then he went to the other end of the wall and looked at Natasha's empty coat hook until Miss Doreen put her hands on his shoulders. "Clint, it's time for circle," she said.
With one last look at the empty hook, Clint went to the circle.
This was even worse. Every day that Clint had been in Mr. Logan's class, Natasha had sat beside him in circle. Now it was just Clint, and he didn't know what to do.
So he sat cross-legged and wished Natasha was there.
Mr. Logan clapped his hands for attention. "Good morning, everyone!" he said.
"Good morning, Mr. Logan!" yelled all the kids except for Clint. He didn't say anything. Saanvi didn't say anything either, but she had her big headphones on and she never talked in morning circle.
"How are you all doing today?"
Cheers and shouts shook the classroom. Charlotte-or-Leah yelled, "It's Friday!" and that got another round of cheers.
"Where's Natasha?" Ricky asked from across the circle.
"She's out sick today," said Miss Doreen.
But that wasn't all, so Clint said sadly, "She's in the hospital," and the room got quiet.
"Why?" asked Matias.
Clint shrugged and looked at the carpet.
"My grandma went to the hospital and she died," said Taylan.
Clint hunched over, the bowling ball in his tummy getting even heavier.
"Hey," said Mr. Logan sharply. "Natasha is just out sick. Let's all wish her well, and when she's back we can fill her in on all that she's missed. Right?"
Various children around the circle echoed right, but Clint didn't. He didn't say anything. The bowling ball in his tummy was starting to move up into his throat. It was hard to swallow.
He didn't pay attention to morning circle and would have just sat there forever until Miss Doreen came over to him. "Time for desk work," said Miss Doreen. Clint looked around to see that all the other kids were standing up. Slowly, he stood up too. He went over to his desk and sat down. Natasha's desk was empty beside him. Across the quad, Ricky and Saanvi were getting out their homework.
Clint didn't care. He didn't care about homework. He didn't care about circle time. He didn't care about recess.
He wanted to be with Natasha.
At the front of the room, Mr. Logan was talking. Clint didn't bother paying attention. He didn't want to do any schoolwork without Natasha. They couldn't make him.
Clint stared down at his desk. The last time he'd seen Natasha, Natasha had said that he was not her friend. That he was a dummy.
And Clint had said that Natasha was not his friend.
And then he said that he wished she was dead.
The bowling ball moved up his throat to sit in his throat. Clint had said that he wished Natasha would die. And now she was in the hospital.
Clint's grandmother had died in the hospital.
Maybe Natasha would die in the hospital.
The world in front of his eyes got all wavery. His throat hurt and his tummy hurt and his head hurt.
Maybe Natasha would die because Clint told her to.
One tear slid down Clint's cheek, then another. His eyes burned. He wasn't crying, not really, but his head hurt.
Clint took off his glasses and put them on the desk. Then he put his head down on his arms on the desk, wishing that he could take back the words he said. He didn't mean it. He was still Natasha's friend. He didn't want Natasha to die.
Miss Doreen was speaking to him. Clint pressed his forehead down onto his arm, hard. But she was still talking, so Clint did the only thing he could think of – he pulled his hearing aid out of his ear and kept his head down. The words dissolved into meaningless sound, and it was just Clint with his head on his desk, his breath hot and damp against the polished desk, his eyes closed and his mouth full of bowling balls.
He sat like that forever, feeling so terrible he wanted to cry. But he wouldn't cry, because only babies cried.
A hand on his shoulder made him sit up. Clint rubbed his eyes. Even without his glasses, he knew it was Ms. Green. Now he felt even worse. Now he was in trouble.
"… … glasses," she said. Reluctantly, Clint reached for his glasses, and put them on. The world came back into focus. Ms. Green didn't look too mad. "And your … aid."
Mutinously, Clint put his hearing aid back into his ear and stared at Ms. Green. Was she going to yell at him?
"I think we should probably take you to the nurse's office," Ms. Green said. She stood. "Come on."
Clint slid out of his chair. He didn't take her hand, because he knew he was in trouble.
"Bye Saanvi," Clint said sadly. "Bye Ricky."
He hung his head as Ms. Green guided him across the classroom. They paused long enough for Ms. Green to collect Clint's backpack from Miss Doreen, then they were out into the quiet hallway.
"Am I expelled?" Clint asked as they rounded a corner.
"No," said Ms. Green. "I'm taking you to the nurse because you don't seem to be feeling well."
Clint considered this. "I'm not," he mumbled.
"So we'll go to the nurse, and you'll lie down and we'll see how things go."
"Okay." After a few steps, Clint reached for Ms. Green's hand. "My tummy feels bad," he confessed.
"Perhaps the nurse will be able to help."
Clint looked at the floor as he plodded along. He had never been in this part of the school before. He wondered if this was where they took the bad kids.
Down one corridor and another, and Ms. Green was pushing open a door and herding Clint inside. "Why don't you sit down on that chair," she said. "I'll be right back."
Clint hauled himself up onto the chair. The room didn't have a nurse in it, but it had a desk and a grown-up rolling chair, and on the wall there were a bunch of posters that might have been interesting to look at if Natasha was with him.
Clint looked down at his knees. Natasha wasn't with him. She was in the hospital because she was so sick, and Clint had told her that she should die.
The bowling ball in his stomach was moving up his throat again.
"… feeling poorly," he heard Ms. Green say. She and another lady came into the room. "At this point, we don't know what's happened with Natasha."
"I'll see how things are." The other lady smiled at Clint. He did not smile back, because he thought that if he did the bowling ball might come up all the way and choke him.
"Clint, this is Nurse Lee."
"Hi," Clint whispered.
"Jubilee, this is Clint Rogers, one of our first graders."
"Hi Clint. I'm going to take good care of you," Nurse Lee said, and sat down on the big chair. "Can I call you Clint?"
"Uh huh." Clint watched as Ms. Green left the room, closing the door behind her. He looked back at Nurse Lee. "You have big earrings," he said.
"I do," Nurse Lee said. "Clint, can you tell me how you feel?"
Clint picked at the fabric on his pantleg. "Bad," he whispered.
"Can you show me where you feel bad?"
Clint pointed to his tummy, then to his throat, then to his mouth.
"Oh dear," said Nurse Lee. "That doesn't sound good." Clint shook his head. "Can I take your temperature?"
Clint waited as Nurse Lee went to wash her hands, then pulled something out of a cabinet and returned. "Open your mouth."
Clint hunched over. He could feel the bowling ball, waiting to come up. He shook his head. Was he going to get in trouble?
"Hang on," Nurse Lee said. She got up again. This time when she came back to her chair, she had two things. "Hold this," she said, handing Clint a small paper bowl. "If you think you're going to throw up, throw up in that, all right?"
Clint wrapped his fingers around the edges of the bowl and nodded.
"I'll take your temperature by ear." Nurse Lee moved Clint's chin, just a little, then put the thermometer into his left ear. It felt weird. There was a beep. Nurse Lee took the thermometer away. Clint rubbed his ear. "All normal."
Clint looked at her. He didn't know what he was supposed to say.
"Do you think you could try to drink some water?"
Nurse Lee got Clint a small paper cup full of water. The water tasted flat, but he got it all down.
"Do you want to sit quietly in the nurse's office for a while?" Nurse Lee asked. Clint blinked. "Or do you want to go back to class?"
Clint thought about going back to Mr. Logan's classroom, all by himself, with no Natasha. He shook his head. "I want to stay here."
"All right." Nurse Lee stood, taking the paper cup and bowl from Clint. "Let's go over here."
They walked to one end of the room, where Nurse Lee pulled back a cloth curtain. There was a little plastic-covered bed there with a pillow on one end. Clint sat down.
"I'll be back in ten minutes and we'll see how you feel then." Nurse Lee put the paper bowl on the bed beside Clint. "You can lie down if you want."
Clint waited until Nurse Lee had gone back to her desk before he laid down on his left side, his arm under his head. He could hear the tick-tick of his watch. The room was quiet except for Nurse Lee at her desk. And Clint was miserable.
He missed Natasha. He wanted Natasha to get better. He didn't want Natasha to die. He wanted to go to the hospital and be with Natasha. Even if she was really sick, they could read a book, and eat jello, and Clint could tell her that he didn't mean that bad thing he said.
Feeling terrible and awful and miserable, Clint closed his eyes. It didn't make him feel any better.
Clint dragged his eyes open. It was Nurse Lee. She was crouched down beside the bed, and she was looking at him.
"How do you feel?"
"I still feel bad," Clint whispered.
"Can you sit up?"
Clint sat up.
"Can you tell me where you feel bad now?" Nurse Lee asked.
Once again, Clint pointed to his tummy, and to his throat. But this time he also pointed at his head.
"Do you have a headache?"
"Can you point out where it hurts?"
Clint put his hand on the top of his head.
"Oh dear," said Nurse Lee. "That's not good."
Clint shook his head.
Nurse Lee looked at him. "Do you think you'll feel good enough to go back to class today?"
"No," Clint whispered. He couldn't go back to Mr. Logan's class, not without Natasha.
Natasha had to get better, so Clint and Natasha could go back to class and learn things and sit in circle and eat snacks and play together at recess. But if Natasha didn't get better…. If Natasha died because Clint told her to…
All the sadness in Clint rose up from his tummy and into his head and up to his eyes, and he started crying.
"Uh oh," said Nurse Lee. "Clint, does your head hurt more when you cry?"
"No!" Clint said, his breath hitching on a sob. He wanted Natasha to be better. He didn't want to be at school alone.
"Okay." Nurse Lee patted his hand, then his arm. "Do you want more water?"
Clint shook his head. The tears made the bad feelings in his head get smaller, and he gradually sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve and stopped crying.
"Here you are," said Nurse Lee. She handed him a box of tissue paper. Clint blew his nose with a honk. "And a clean one for your face."
Clint took off his glasses to scrub a tissue over his cheeks.
"I'm going to call your parents to come get you," Nurse Lee said. "Do you want to read a book while you wait?"
Clint put his glasses back on. "No."
"Do you want to lie down again?"
Clint lay down on his back and stared up at the ceiling. Daddy was going to come get him and take him home. And then maybe Clint would know what was happening with Natasha.
"All right," said Nurse Lee, and she went away.
Clint wondered if Natasha missed him. Was she mad at him? Would she ever want to talk to him again? Would they be friends? They had swimming class on Monday; how could they go to swim class if Natasha didn't want to be his friend?
Clint rolled onto his side. He wished he had Floppy to hug. The nurse's office was bright and cold and Clint felt so alone.
He wanted to go home.
Time drifted. At some point, he got up to go to the bathroom, then Nurse Lee made him wash his hands and she gave him more water. He sipped it and tried not to feel too hungry. He was missing snack time in Mr. Logan's class. But Clint was a big boy and he wouldn't complain.
He wondered if Natasha got snacks in the hospital.
Then he waited forever. He wondered how far away the hospital was, and how far his dad would have to come get him. Maybe Clint could tell the nurse that he could walk to the hospital and he didn't have to wait for his dad any more.
Just as he was getting ready to stand up, the door opened, and Ms. Green came in with Clint's Uncle Bruce.
"Here we are," said Ms. Green. Clint stared as Uncle Bruce came over to him.
"Where's daddy?" Clint asked.
"He's at the hospital with James," said Uncle Bruce. "He called me to take you home. Your grandfather's coming in from New Jersey in a little bit. How does that sound?"
Clint didn't know what to say, but he stood up and took Uncle Bruce's hand. Nurse Lee said a bunch of stuff to Uncle Bruce and gave him Clint's backpack, but Clint didn't pay attention. Daddy had always said that Uncle Bruce would come to pick Clint up in case there was an emergency.
In kindergarten, Clint's stinky teachers had said that in an emergency, people die.
Had Uncle Bruce come to get Clint because Natasha was going to die?
They stopped in front of Ms. Green. She looked down at Clint and said, "I hope you feel better, and we'll see you on Monday, all right?"
"Uh huh," Clint whispered.
Uncle Bruce squeezed Clint's hand. "Happy's got the car outside," he said. "We'll get down to your place in no time, how does that sound?"
"Okay," Clint said, and then wished he hadn't. The bowling ball in his tummy was sloshing about, making him feel sick.
"I'll show you out," said Ms. Green.
Outside the school, Uncle Tony's big black car was waiting with Mr. Happy the driver sitting in the front seat.
"Hop in," said Uncle Bruce, opening the car door. Clint climbed into the back seat and tried to figure out the seatbelt. Uncle Bruce got in beside Clint. "All right, Happy, we can head off."
"Sure thing." Mr. Happy started the car. "We'll get you home safe and sound, Clint, how about that?"
"Thank you," Clint said, looking down.
"How are you feeling?" Uncle Bruce asked as he buckled Clint into the middle seat.
"Your dad said that there was a problem in class?"
Clint shook his head. "Natasha's sick."
"I know." Uncle Bruce sat back as the car pulled out into traffic. "Your dad told me."
"She's in the hospital," Clint went on.
Clint wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Is a hospital scary?"
"Not really." Uncle Bruce smiled a little. Clint didn't believe him. "That's where they keep all the medicine. It's good that she's there."
"Can I go to the hospital to see her?"
Uncle Bruce's smile faded. "Not right now," he said. "Your dad told me that your friend is in the emergency room. The doctors are going to take care of her."
An emergency room. Was that where all the emergencies were kept? Was that where Natasha was because she was going to die?
Clint's head spun and his tummy sloshed from side to side and he felt so, so bad.
"Oh crap," he heard Uncle Bruce say. "Happy, sick kid imminent."
"Seat back in front of you," Mr. Happy said.
Uncle Bruce dove for the pocket. He yanked out a white paper bag and shoved it into Clint's hands just as Clint's stomach rebelled.
He threw up, right into the bag.
"Should I pull over?" Mr. Happy asked, rolling down the windows.
Clint threw up again. "He's not usually carsick," said Uncle Bruce, taking Clint's glasses off his face. "You got any kleenex?"
"Same pouch. Water's in the mini-fridge."
"Mini-fridge," Uncle Bruce repeated. "Of course Tony's got a mini-fridge." He smoothed the hair back from Clint's forehead. "You think you're going to throw up again?"
Clint shook his head. The bowling ball in his stomach was gone, replaced by a big empty hole.
"Okay." Uncle Bruce took the bag and put it somewhere. He wiped Clint's mouth with a dry tissue. Clint remembered his birthday when Natasha said to him that when you have feelings, you have to wipe your face. But Natasha had given him a wet facecloth, not a dry tissue.
If Natasha was there, she would have known that a wet facecloth was better.
But she wasn't there, because she was in the hospital.
More tears fell out of Clint's eyes as he sat back, clutching the little packet of tissues. All his tears were falling out of the empty place in his middle.
"How about some water?" Uncle Bruce asked him. Clint looked at the blurry shape in Uncle Bruce's hand. "You might feel better."
Clint blinked. His eyes hurt. He shook his head.
"Not even a sip?"
"No!" Clint burst out. He held his tissues to his chest and hiccupped.
"Okay." Uncle Bruce drew back. "It's here if you want it."
"I don't!" Clint said, hot and angry. Uncle Bruce didn't understand!
Then, just as fast as he got angry, Clint got sad again. He pushed the tissues away and flung himself sideways, hugging Uncle Bruce as hard as he could.
Uncle Bruce patted Clint on the back. "It's okay, Clint," he said, sounding far away.
Clint turned his face, wiping his tears on Uncle Bruce's scratchy jacket. "I miss Natasha!"
"I know you do." Uncle Bruce patted faster.
"I love you, Uncle Bruce!"
"I love you too, Clint." Uncle Bruce moved. "How about you try to drink a bit of water?"
Sniffling, Clint sat back and let Uncle Bruce give him the bottle. The water was very cold, but Clint drank down a whole mouthful.
"That's better." Uncle Bruce took the bottle and gave Clint back his glasses. "How do you feel?"
Clint shrugged. "Can I have more water?"
"Slow sips," said Uncle Bruce. "Hey, Happy, how we doing on time?"
"We'll be there soon," Mr. Happy called.
Clint sniffled again. "Mr. Happy, do you know where I live?"
"Sure thing, kiddo. Got the world's best G-P-S right up here." He tapped the side of his head. "Also, I've driven you and your dad home a few times."
Clint took another sip of water. "When was that?" he asked. "I don't remember."
"You were pretty young," Mr. Happy said. "Last time was after your second birthday party."
"Oh." Clint tried to remember when he was two years old. That was a very long time ago. Over four years ago.
Uncle Bruce put his hand on Clint's forehead. "How do you feel?" he asked.
Clint handed Uncle Bruce back the water. "I want to go home."
"We are going home. And your grandfather will be there soon."
Clint slumped against Uncle Bruce. "Where's my daddy?"
"He's at the hospital, with James and Natasha."
"How come he gets to be there and I gotta go home?"
"Because he's a grown-up and he's helping out James."
"I can help!"
Clint closed his eyes. He imagined all the ways he could help Natasha at the hospital. He could read a book with her so she wouldn't be bored. They could fold paper airplanes. They could play I-Spy. Clint could make sure her pillow was fluffy.
And Clint could tell Natasha that they were still friends.
But Clint couldn't do all that if Natasha was going to die.
The car went over a bump. Clint's head hurt and he wanted his daddy.
He wanted Natasha to get better and to not die.
The car rocketed on.
When they finally got home, Mr. Happy stopped the car. "You want me to wait?" he asked Uncle Bruce.
"No, I don't know how long it'll take Steve's dad to get here," Uncle Bruce said. "I'll catch the train back into town."
"Sure thing." Mr. Happy looked at Clint. "You going to be okay, squirt?"
"I don't know," Clint said sadly as he followed Uncle Bruce out of the car. "Thank you for the car ride, Mr. Happy."
"Any time!" Once Uncle Bruce had closed the car door, Mr. Happy sped away.
"Here, put this on." Uncle Bruce handed Clint his backpack. Clint did so. "Let's go inside."
"When'd you get my daddy's keys?" Clint asked, following Uncle Bruce to the building's entrance.
"He's got a spare set in his desk at work." Uncle Bruce jiggled a key into the lock. "Up we go."
Clint hauled himself all the way up the stairs, the empty hole in his tummy squishing and squashing with every step.
Once Uncle Bruce had unlocked the apartment door, Clint stomped inside. He dumped his backpack on the floor and kicked off his shoes before heading straight for his bedroom. He shucked off his school uniform and his socks and climbed straight into bed, curling up around Floppy.
"Floppy, Natasha's sick," Clint said. "She's in the hospital."
When he hugged Floppy, he didn't feel any better.
"Clint?" Uncle Bruce called. He poked his head around the door. "What are you doing?"
"I feel bad," Clint said.
"Yeah, I picked up on that." Uncle Bruce looked around. "Do you want to put on your pajamas and sit out in the living room with me? I can get you some juice, see if that stays down."
Clint sat up. "Okay," he said. Uncle Bruce vanished. "Floppy, we gotta go sit on the couch. You come with me."
Clint slipped out of bed, pulled on his pajamas that he'd left on the floor that morning, then grabbed Floppy and shuffled out into the living room. He crawled up onto the couch, tucking Floppy close in at his side.
In the kitchen, Uncle Bruce was pouring water into a glass. When he was done, he carried the glass and a juice box over to put on the little table beside the couch, then he sat down. "Does your stomach still feel bad?" he asked.
Clint rubbed his nose on Floppy's head. "A little."
"Do you feel like you'll throw up again?"
Clint considered. The bowling ball was gone out of his tummy, and even that bad empty space inside had settled down. He shook his head. "Can I have juice?"
"Let's try water first." Uncle Bruce held out the glass. Clint sipped. "Still okay?"
"Yeah." Clint sipped again. "How come Mr. Happy had a paper bag in the car?"
Uncle Bruce blinked at Clint for a moment. "Are you talking about the barf bag?"
In spite of everything, Clint giggled a little. That was a funny word. "Yeah."
"It's probably a hold-over from Tony's party days."
"Okay." Clint sipped more water. "Does Uncle Tony get sick in cars? I get sick in cars sometimes when I can't see the road. I hope Uncle Tony doesn't feel like that."
Uncle Bruce ruffled Clint's hair. "You're a good kid," he said.
Clint drank the last of the water and held out the empty glass for Uncle Bruce to take. "Can I have juice now?" he asked hopefully.
Uncle Bruce sighed. "Sure thing." He gave Clint the juice box. While Clint was struggling to poke the straw into the box, Uncle Bruce looked at his phone. "What do you want to do while we wait for your grandfather to get here?"
"I dunno." Clint shimmied around. The water sloshed around in his insides. He didn't really want to do anything, except see Natasha.
Natasha. In his haste to drink his water, and in thinking about Uncle Tony, Clint hadn't thought about Natasha in a whole minute.
Clint lowered the straw. He wasn't sure he wanted to drink juice any more.
"Clint?" Uncle Bruce said. "Are you going to throw up again?" Clint shrugged. Uncle Bruce took the juice box away from him. "Do you want a hug?"
Clint leaned against Uncle Bruce's arm. "No," he said, voice muffled by Uncle Bruce's jacket sleeve.
"Do you want to talk about anything?"
Clint thought about that. He could tell Uncle Bruce that he felt bad. He could say that he had said bad things to Natasha, and that he had told her she should die. And then Natasha got sick.
But then Uncle Bruce would be mad at Clint. Maybe he would go away and never come back.
In the end, Clint didn't say anything, and Uncle Bruce sighed and patted Clint's back and told him that everything was going to be okay.
After forever, Clint heard the front door open. He turned around. Maybe it was his daddy, and he'd say that Natasha was all better, and everything was all right!
But it wasn't Clint's dad at the door. It was Grandpa Abraham.
"Hello," Grandpa Abraham said, putting down his big black bag on a chair and closing the door behind him. "Where is Clint?"
That was what Grandpa Abraham always said when he came to visit Clint – he said, where is Clint? and Clint would jump up and say, Here I am! and go get a hug.
But maybe Grandpa Abraham knew what Clint had said to Natasha, and why she was so sick.
Maybe he would be mad at Clint.
Clint didn't want Grandpa Abraham to be mad at him.
Clint picked up Floppy and hugged him close. Floppy wouldn't be mad at Clint. He knew that Clint didn't mean it when he told Natasha to die.
The couch moved as Uncle Bruce got up. Clint stayed put. There was the murmur of voices by the door, but Clint didn't look up.
He wanted everything to go back the way it was.
"Clint." It was Grandpa Abraham. Clint peeked out from behind Floppy. Grandpa Abraham had a frown but he didn't look mad. "Clint, Bruce tells me that you threw up in the car."
Clint shrugged. "I guess."
"How do you feel now?"
Clint shrugged again.
"Clint, sit up straight."
Reluctantly, Clint uncurled. Grandpa Abraham sat on the coffee table, reaching into his bag and pulling out all his doctor things, like his stethoscope and the thing that had a light on the end of it.
Grandpa Abraham put his hand on Clint's forehead, then felt Clint's throat. "Now, Clint, tell me, does anything hurt?"
"Does anything feel strange?"
Clint considered. "Yeah." He pointed at his tummy.
"That is not good." Grandpa Abraham picked up the tongue depressor and the little light. "Open your mouth and say ahh."
Clint opened his mouth and said ahh. Grandpa Abraham shone his light on Clint's tongue for a long time, then let Clint close his mouth. Clint made a face at the taste of the wood.
"No swollen glands, and no fever," Grandpa Abraham said. "Stand up."
Clint stood and let Grandpa Abraham move his arms and turn his head from side to side. Then Clint sat back down and gathered up Floppy once again.
"I am going to speak to Bruce for a minute," Grandpa Abraham said, patting Clint's knee. "Is that okay?"
Clint put his face against Floppy's fuzzy back and nodded. He couldn't hear what Grandpa Abraham and Uncle Bruce were saying, but he felt worse and worse. Maybe Grandpa Abraham would find out what Clint said to Natasha to make her sick, and be mad at him.
"Floppy, you're my first friend," Clint said into Floppy's fur. "I love you."
A hand on Clint's back made him look up. Grandpa Abraham sat down on the couch and pulled Clint onto his lap. Clint cuddled in close to his grandpa, who had a soft shirt and smelled like coffee and cinnamon. "Clint, is there anything that you want to tell me?" Grandpa Abraham asked.
Clint picked at Floppy's ear. He could see Uncle Bruce sitting on the coffee table, looking back at him, and he ducked his head.
"You don't have a fever and I cannot see a sign that you are sick," Grandpa Abraham went on. "Bruce says that you were crying in the car? Can you tell me what is wrong?"
Clint could take no more of this. "Natasha is sick!" he burst out. "She's in the hospital!" He took a deep breath, all the way down to his toes. "And she's going to die because I said so!"
All the worry and sadness bubbled out of Clint, and he started crying, big huge sobs where he could hardly breathe. Grandpa Abraham hugged Clint tight. He said something but Clint was crying too hard to hear.
He felt so bad. Grandpa Abraham was going to know that Clint was a bad boy.
"Clint," Grandpa Abraham said. "Are you ready to stop crying?"
"No!" Clint shouted, hiccupped, and cried harder.
"Okay, bärchen." Grandpa Abraham patted Clint's back.
Clint tried to catch his breath. He didn't like crying. Only babies cried. And now Uncle Bruce had seen Clint cry, and Grandpa Abraham had seen Clint cry, and they were going to think he was a baby - a baby and a bad boy who said mean things to Natasha and made her sick.
Clint turned his cheek against Grandpa Abraham's shirt and told himself to stop crying. He clutched Floppy so hard his hands hurt. It was difficult, but Clint made himself take in big breaths and that was almost like he stopped crying.
"There you are," Grandpa Abraham said, bouncing Clint on his leg. "Hello, hello."
Clint sniffled hard. Uncle Bruce held out the tissue box. "Do you want to wipe your face?" he asked.
Clint looked at the tissue box and felt even more tears coming up his throat. "It has to be wet!" he exclaimed. "Natasha says it has to be wet!"
"There, do not go to get upset," Grandpa Abraham said. He looked at Uncle Bruce, and Uncle Bruce looked back at him, then Uncle Bruce stood up and went to the kitchen. "Why does Natasha say it has to be wet?"
"To wash your feelings away!" Clint clung to Grandpa Abraham and to Floppy, but he didn't cry. He was a big boy and he wasn't going to cry any more, even if he was really sad.
Uncle Bruce came back to the sofa and held out a damp paper towel. "Is that okay?" he asked Clint.
"Yes. Thank you, Uncle Bruce." Clint took off his glasses to let Grandpa Abraham wipe his cheeks. The towel felt cool and nice. Clint thought about how smart Natasha was, then got sad again.
"You're welcome, Clint."
"There," Grandpa Abraham declared as he set the towel down. "Now. Clint. I need you to tell to me what you mean, when you say that Natasha is sick because you told her so?"
Clint rubbed his eyes on his arm, then put his glasses back on. "Natasha was mean to me!" he burst out. "She said I was a dummy! And I said… I said…" Clint hiccupped. "I said I wasn't her friend! I said that she should die!"
In spite of himself, Clint started to cry again. Tears slid down his face and he felt so bad.
Grandpa Abraham gave Clint a big, huge hug. "Oh, Clint." He sat back. "Look at me." With an effort, Clint did so. "I need to tell you a very important thing, do you understand?"
"Life does not work like that," Grandpa Abraham said. He had a very serious face. "Natasha is sick, and she got sick because of an illness. She did not get sick because you told her so. That cannot happen."
Clint sniffed hard. "It can't?"
"No. It is important that you hear what I say, yes? It is not possible to wish harm to someone. It is impossible." He said something in German, which Clint did not understand, but the words made him feel warm in his insides. "If people could harm others by wishing, the world would be a very different place. We are very lucky that it is not so."
Clint considered this. "I didn't make Natasha sick?"
"No," said Grandpa Abraham.
Clint put his finger in his mouth and chewed on his knuckle. "She's not going to die?"
Grandpa Abraham rubbed Clint's back. "Natasha is at the hospital with lots of doctors and nurses to take care of her," he said. "And her father is there, and so is your father, making sure that she has lots of help."
Clint looked at Uncle Bruce. "Did you ever be in a hospital?"
Uncle Bruce cleared his throat. "A few times."
"Were you sick?"
Uncle Bruce's face changed, like he was sad, then thinking, then sad again. "Sort of. Then I got better." He reached out and put his hand on Clint's arm. "Clint, listen… what your grandfather said about wishing bad things… saying something bad in the heat of the moment isn't like actually hurting them."
"No. I mean, you shouldn't say bad things to your friends, but what you said, that didn't make Natasha sick." Uncle Bruce patted his arm. "If Natasha is this sick today, she was probably sick yesterday, too. Whatever is happening to her, it isn't your fault."
Clint curled in against Grandpa Abraham, chewing on his finger so hard it hurt. Grandpa Abraham tsked and pulled Clint's hand out of his mouth.
"Was that what you were worried about all morning?" Uncle Bruce asked. "At school, and in the car?"
Clint nodded. "I thought Natasha was going to die because I told her so," he whispered. "That we'd never be friends again because she was dead."
Grandpa Abraham said something in quiet German. Uncle Bruce pressed his lips together. "That's a lot for a little boy to be worried about," he said.
"Uh huh." Clint wiped his nose on his arm.
"That is gross," Grandpa Abraham said. "Come, now, blow your nose on a tissue."
Clint climbed off Grandpa Abraham's lap to go for the tissue box. He blew his nose with one, two, three honks, then carried the tissue to the garbage like daddy had taught him to. When he came back to the couch, Grandpa Abraham and Uncle Bruce were talking.
"Can I have the rest of my juice box?" Clint asked.
"Of course." Grandpa Abraham handed him the juice. Clint sucked the juice up through the straw as fast as he could. Now that he wasn't crying any more, he was really thirsty.
"I should get going," Uncle Bruce was saying. "Now that Clint's in good hands."
"Thank you so much for taking good care of him," Grandpa Abraham said. The two men stood up. "Clint, say goodbye to your Uncle Bruce."
Clint put down the juice box and rushed over to hug Uncle Bruce. "Goodbye, Uncle Bruce. I love you."
Uncle Bruce ruffled his hair. "I love you too, kid."
Satisfied, Clint climbed back onto the couch while Grandpa Abraham let Uncle Bruce out the door. Then Grandpa Abraham came and sat back down beside Clint. They looked at each other. "Clint, how do you feel now?"
Clint considered. "I was sad," he said. "When I thought Natasha was going to die. And I felt bad. I don't feel bad anymore."
"It is okay to feel sad when a friend is sick," Grandpa Abraham said. "I too am sad, to know she is sick."
"Would you be sad if I was sick?" Clint asked. Talking about this stuff was making him think about things he'd never thought about before.
"Oh, Clint." Grandpa Abraham put his hand on Clint's cheek. "Little one. I would be so very sad."
Clint didn't want Grandpa Abraham to be sad, but he was also glad to know that adults could get to be sad when their friends were sick. "I'd be sad if you were sick, too," Clint said.
"Well." Grandpa Abraham cleared his throat again. "I am not sick, so do not worry about that. Come, it is past lunchtime for little boys. I will make soup."
"Okay." Clint carried Floppy over to the table and sat, watching Grandpa Abraham move around the kitchen. He got to eat crackers while he waited, which he liked, but Grandpa Abraham wouldn't let him have any more juice, only water.
Lunch was soon ready. Clint slurped his soup while Grandpa Abraham crumbled crackers. Just as Clint was finishing the very last drop of soup, the apartment door opened, and his dad came in.
"Daddy!" Clint yelled, abandoning his bowl and dashing over. Daddy caught him and lifted him into a really big hug.
"Hey, buddy," Daddy said against Clint's shoulder. "I am so glad to see you."
"Is Natasha okay?" Clint demanded, pulling on his dad's ear. "Can she come home? Can I see her?"
"Oh, boy." Daddy carried Clint over to the table and sat down with Clint on his lap. "Natasha is… she's really sick, buddy."
Clint blinked. "When's she going to be better?"
Daddy let out a very long sigh. "She's still unconscious," he said. "The doctors are pretty sure she has a non-polio enterovirus with complications from her asthma."
Grandpa Abraham put his hand over his face. Clint stared at his dad. "When's she going to be better?" he asked again.
"I…" Daddy looked to Grandpa Abraham. "Dad, how do I…"
"Clint," Grandpa Abraham said. "Do you remember what I told you, about all the doctors and nurses at the hospital working to make Natasha well?"
"Well, now that they know what is making Natasha so sick, they can give her medicine to help her heal."
"Oh. Okay." Clint thought about what it must be like, to be in a hospital. "Is Natasha lonely?"
"No," Daddy said. "Bucky is with her, and there's a really special nurse who's there to take special care of Natasha, and lots of really smart doctors."
"Can I go see her?" Clint asked.
"Not right now." Daddy smoothed Clint's hair back. "She has to stay in a place in the hospital where other kids aren't allowed to visit."
"I can be real quiet."
Daddy smiled. "I know you can be, buddy." He gave Clint a hug. "How about you draw Natasha a picture, and then I can take that back to the hospital with me?"
"How come you're going back?"
"Because Bucky needs me there," Daddy said. "He needs to take care of Natasha, and he needs me to take care of him. Grandpa Abraham is going to stay with us for a few days and take care of you."
Clint thought about this. "James is a grown up."
His dad's eyebrows went wrinkly. "Yeah?"
"Grown ups don't need anyone to take care of them. Uncle Tony says so."
"Uncle Tony doesn't do as Uncle Tony says," Daddy said. "I'm going to make sure that Bucky has food to eat, and get him a bottle of water if he needs one, so he can focus all his energy on Natasha."
"I can do that," Clint said.
"I know you can." Daddy set Clint on his feet. "But your job right now is to stay here with Grandpa Abraham, and to draw Natasha a get-well card."
"A card you draw to tell someone that you hope they get well soon."
"Okay." Clint ran over to the box by the wall that held all his crayons. He spent a few minutes looking through the construction paper until he found just the right piece, a nice yellow.
He would draw Natasha the very best picture ever! And then Natasha would look at it, and know that Clint was sorry he had said that she should die, and then they could be friends again. Clint wouldn't even wait for Natasha to say she was sorry for calling him a dummy.
Daddy and Grandpa Abraham were talking in quiet voices over by the stove, but Clint didn't pay them any attention. He plopped the crayons on the coffee table and dropped down to draw.
First, he drew a big bird, then on the back of the bird he drew a little Clint, and a little Natasha, and even a little spider because Natasha loved spiders.
He would be Natasha's best friend forever, he decided as he wrote FRENDS in big letters across the bird's wing. Even if she said mean things to him, he would tell her not to do that, and they would still be friends.
Even when they were as old as their dads.
Even when they were as old as Grandpa Abraham.
But Clint didn't know how to spell all those words yet, so he drew with all his heart. When Natasha saw his drawing, she would know that Clint was her best friend.
He was glad that Grandpa Abraham and Uncle Bruce had told him that he didn't make Natasha sick. He was glad that she was going to get better. He was glad that they would be best friends, forever.
He hoped Natasha got better soon, so she could come home and they could eat soup together and draw together and go back to school together.
He couldn't wait to see his best friend again.