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A Breath of Freedom

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It had been eight days, fourteen hours, and approximately sixteen minutes since Richard Parker had been home. An arguably long time for an eleven-year-old to be without a parent.

For little Peter Parker however, this was considered normal. His father travelled often for his work, and even when he was home, he distanced himself from Peter often, too wrapped up in phone calls and grief to say much else.

Peter supposed he couldn’t complain. His father made sure the house was always stocked up with the latest technology and toys. Nonetheless, he wanted to go outside. He wanted to go to school, make friends, have fun. He wanted to have a life; but instead he was a lonely child left spending time with only his Aunt sometimes and whatever gifts his father provided him with. No matter how much he pleaded with his father, that normal childhood would always be a fantasy to him.

Peter was practicing piano when the knock came on his window. He startled, the piano keys beneath his fingers shuddering out a booming, off-key note as he slammed his hands down in surprise. Outside, there was a little girl with light brown pigtails and inquisitive dark eyes peeking in.
Peter opened his mouth to call for his Aunt May, but paused when he made eye contact with the strange girl in his window. His curiosity got the better of him and before he knew it, he was pushing the curtains out of the way and bringing the window up.

The second the glass was no longer a barrier between them, the girl smiled brightly and held her hand out.

“Hi! I’m Michelle. But you can call me MJ. My mom calls me Em sometimes, but nobody else does. I like your piano playing!”

Peter was momentarily stunned. This girl, MJ, rambled on, each word clear and concise enough to feel as though she were slapping him with them.

His brain took a moment to process the lively girl in front of him before he hesitantly clasped her outstretched hands. He noted MJ’s firm grip, shaking it a couple of times before retracting it.

“Why are you here?” he questioned, not unkindly.

“I accidentally kicked my ball into your garden and when I came to get it, I heard you playing and wanted to say hi. What’s your name?”

“Um...I’m Peter.” MJ looked positively delighted at this information.

“Nice to meet you, Peter! I used to have a turtle with the same name, but I had to put him back in the lake because Auntie said he was too smelly. How old are you?”

Peter laughed, the shy tension leaving his voice as he spoke again.

“Nice to meet you too, MJ. I’m eleven and a half.”

“Me too! Well, I just turned eleven last month. My birthday is August 14th!”

“Cool!”

MJ beamed, and her joy was so contagious, he couldn’t help but grin back.

“I got my ball back,” MJ held up the faded soccer ball to show him, “Would you like to play with me?”

“No, I’m sorry. Thank you for the offer though.”

“Are you sure? I could always use a partner, it makes playing way more fun.”

Fun. The word seemed to echo through his head, and the playful twinkle in her eyes was enough to make Peter question his earlier statement. She looked so happy, and he couldn’t remember the last time he had felt anything other than alone. With a deep breath, Peter spoke.

“Actually...sure.”

MJ laughed, the bright noise carrying through the room.

“Well, come on, let’s go!”

Tentatively, he stepped out onto the soil below and then onto the small stone pathway. Adrenaline coursed through his body, his entire being practically pulsing with excitement.

“Woah,” he murmured quietly, squinting his eyes at the bright sun.

“Haven’t you ever been outside before?” MJ asked with a frown.

“Never like this. Only with May to the shops or in the yard. Sometimes to fancy banquets with Father when he’s trying to sell people stuff. I’ve never been allowed to step in the garden before.” Distantly, he thought of how angered his father would be should he find out, but Peter was so overwhelmed with excitement that he quieted the small voice with hardly any trouble.

Ahead of him, MJ began to run once her beat up Converse touched the grass, the marker coloured fabric darkening from the light dew. He followed suit, relishing the feeling of the fresh grass against his bare feet.

The pair played for hours, kicking the ball around and chasing each other, laughing and smiling the entire time until they tired.

When the sun began to set, MJ brought him to sit under a nearby tree. He was warmed him from his head to his toes at her kindness, and as he lay there staring at the beautiful pinks and oranges filling the sky. He found himself burning this moment into his mind forever. Peter felt entirely content.

When the sky was in danger of growing dark, Peter and MJ quickly made their way back to the little window.

“Bye, Peter!” MJ said, turning around.

“Wait!” Peter cried, grabbing her wrist before she walked away.

“What?”

“Will I get to see you again?”

MJ grinned, her eyes twinkling with excitement. “Of course!” She shifted her ball under one arm to wave goodbye and Peter watched as her figure disappeared behind the line of trees blocking his view from the rest of the world.

Climbing back inside, Peter looked at the open window. He decided that he never wanted to close it again.

MJ came to his window every Monday and Thursday after that for weeks and weeks. During good weather, they would go out to the field and find the shapes of clouds. When it rained, MJ would climb inside, her brown fringe soaked and small hands clutching a deck of cards wrapped tightly in a jacket to keep them from getting wet. They would play quietly for hours, uninterrupted.

Richard hardly ever came into the small music room; it was near the back of the estate and Peter knew that he hadn’t played since his mother passed nearly six years ago.
Richard was travelling so often that he didn’t even notice his son slipping in and out of the house every so often, and he definitely didn’t notice Peter’s sudden mood change. No longer was Peter quietly sulking, now he was upbeat and full of life in nearly everything he did.

Peter was also fairly certain that May knew about his new friend, he caught the looks that she gave him sometimes: the small side smiles, or subtle winks when she handed his father extra paperwork on the days MJ would visit.

For a long time, things were good. Peter enjoyed having a friend, she would ask about his day and make him laugh. They had fun together, more fun than Peter had ever experienced from his own simple toys. Peter felt whole for the first time in his life, the emptiness receding entirely when MJ came by. He was happy.

Until the storm arrived.

When it came through, it was violent. Rain could be heard pounding on the roof of the music room. The wind howled loudly outside and the blue curtains flew wildly around as though possessed.

“Peter! You should know to close the windows in a storm like this!” Richard scolded, stepping into the music room.

“Of course. I’m sorry,” Peter replied. He scratched the back of his head and looked down at his feet to avoid his father’s eyes.

“Don’t be sorry, boy. Be better.”

Peter’s face crumpled as his father stalked over to the window and locked it. That was his only way out, his only way of seeing MJ. The lock was on top of the sill, he would have to pull up a chair to reach it again.

Richard had resumed scolding him when Peter saw a figure in the now shut window. His father was facing him, back to the wall, so he hadn’t seen it yet. Hadn’t seen her.

Peter’s heart leapt to his throat, his breath catching in his chest as he tried to signal MJ with his to turn around, to walk away, to be anywhere but here. She shouldn’t even be out here in a storm like this, much less without a jacket. Especially not while his father was home.

MJ didn’t catch his silent signals, but stopped short when she saw the second, towering figure through the glass. She tilted her head to the side as she stood outside the window, but made no move to knock or open it.

Peter was trying to ignore her now, hoping she would get the hint to just walk away. She turned and Peter tried his best not to sigh in relief.

Then everything went from bad to worse. His father must have caught on to his discomfort, or maybe he could feel he was being watched, but whatever the case, he turned to look out the window just as MJ was starting to walk away.

In an instant, his father was yanking the window open and yelling.

“Who do you think you are to be trespassing on my property?”

MJ stood still for a moment, looking like a deer caught in the headlights before regaining her composure.

“I’m Michelle Jones...uh, sir.” She held her hand out for him to shake, but Richard disregarded it entirely and it slowly fell back to her side.

“And what business do you have here?”

“I’m Peter’s friend.”

Richard glared at the girl in front of him. “Oh, are you now?”

Peter decided now was the time to speak up. “Please, Father. She doesn’t mean any harm, she’s just here to have fun.”

That was the wrong thing to say. Peter watched as his father’s face turned stone cold with suppressed rage.

“Well, tell your friend that she’s no longer welcome here. She has to leave immediately.”

“Father! But when will I be allowed to see her again?”

Richard’s mouth was set in a thin line, voice tight as he uttered the word that had Liam’s heart sinking to the floor.

“Never.”

MJ began to cry.

“Sir, please! I’m not bad, I promise! I’ll ask for permission from now on, I promise,” she pleaded.

“Father, she’s my best friend! I’ve never had a friend before, don’t make her go!” Peter added, tears pricking at his own eyes.

“I refuse to let my son hang around with a sloppily dressed child who clearly has no respect for adults or authority! What would your parents say about this?”

“I haven’t got those. I live with my auntie, sir. She thinks that freedom is a good way to keep my mind open and my heart happy,” MJ replied, still sniffling.

“It’s unsafe, is what it is. May, drive her home immediately.”

“Richard, come now, the storm--”

“I don’t care. I want this girl gone,” his father demanded, and then stormed out.

May looked at Peter with sad eyes as she took MJ’s hand and started gently guiding her out the door. MJ ripped her hand away and launched herself at Peter.

“No!” she screamed, her voice shrill in his ear. Peter hugged her tighter than he had ever held anyone before. She was shaking in his embrace, whether it be from the cold or her sobs

Peter was unsure. Neither spoke until they let go.

“You are the best friend I’ve ever had,” Peter choked out, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you, too. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.” The door clicked shut.

Peter’s knees echoed on the tile floor as he crumpled to the ground and wept.