Five and a Half

Sebastian walked into his large kitchen and saw a boy cleaning silverware. He thought that was funny, because the boy looked to be somewhere around his age, yet Bastian had never in his life even been near the silverware before. This realization in turn made him anxious. Was he unreliable? Did his mother really think he couldn't handle a few spoons?

'Who are you?' he asked, puffing out his chest and frowning. 'What are you doing?'

'I'm cleaning', the boy said, looking absolutely terrified. 'They asked me to.'

Sebastian was taken aback. He obviously liked playing boss, but that didn't necessarily mean he enjoyed frightening people. Not at all, he reckoned, and held out his hand in a gesture of conciliation: 'I'm Sebastian.'

The boy exhaled in relief, which put Bastian at ease. 'I'm Gideon.'

'Gideon?' They shook hands, and Gideon's was impossibly small. 'That's a weird name.'

Gideon blushed and Bastian burst out laughing, because he'd never met a boy who was so easily flustered. His patronizing five-year-old self decided he liked that a lot. Gideon had so far made a marvelous first impression.

'Are you alone here?' Sebastian asked, inclining his head conspiratorially. 'Want to see my train set? It's huge.'

Gideon instantly pulled back. His wide brown eyes blinked rapidly open and closed. 'I can't play with you', he said, and Bastian noticed his tone held more than simple reluctance - there was a genuine fear. Even at the flimsy age of five, Bastian liked to think he was very perceptive.

'Don't be scared!' he said, waving his arms about. 'You work here, right? I live here, so it's fine.' And suddenly he realized: 'Do you… do you live here too, maybe?'

The boy nodded, swiftly and shyly. 'Starting today,' he said, wringing his hands. 'I'm a slave.'

'A slave', Sebastian echoed. 'What's that?'

'It's like-' Gideon shut his mouth and stared. He shrugged helplessly. 'It's what the lady of the house called me.'

'That would be my mother', Bastian said matter-of-factly.

'Oh', said Gideon. 'Well, uh, she said my parents are in... in debt? She said I'm here to stay.'

'Splendid!' Bastian cried, clapping his hands together loudly. He'd no clue what debt was, but he knew one thing: Gideon's presence meant he'd finally be free from the endless drag that was life in the countryside, locked in his parents' mansion with only books and toys for company. He'd gotten sick of reading long ago.

'Splendid', he repeated, because it was the fanciest adjective in his vocabulary. 'You need to come with me now, Gideon. I have lots of board games and paint stuff. We could look for sticks and-' As he was dragging the much smaller boy by the arm, Bastian realized he'd completely forgotten his manners, which was madness!

He solemnly cleared his throat and said: 'That is, if you want to.'

It took all Bastian had not to hop up and down in excitement. Meanwhile Gideon's pale little face was a mixture of expressions. The tall lady had told him not to move, had threatened with punishment, glaring to drive home her point. Nevertheless he was dying to accept the invitation, and Bastian could see it, could smell it, could taste it on his tongue. All Gideon needed was a little push! As aforementioned, as boy of the house, little Bastian really hadn't worked a day in his life, however empathy was his strong suit. Judging from the look on Gideon's face, he deducted that cleaning the silverware must be an exhausting and tedious assignment. Gideon needed a break.

Dressed in a formless grey tunic and pants, the boy looked impossibly small in the cold, wide kitchen. His face was a bit dirty and his hair was shaved. There were bags under his eyes and scratches on his chin and hands. Suddenly Bastian was the scared one.

'Are you alright?' he asked, feeling close to tears for reasons beyond his childish comprehension.

Gideon blinked and looked away. 'I'm a bit tired', he confessed. 'I didn't sleep at all last night.'

'How come?' Bastian asked, but Gideon didn't answer, and moments later Bastian realized why, as footsteps sounded in the hallway and his mother walked in, dressed in bright green colours. She had red on her lips and curls in her hair. As her eyes landed on Gideon, her face morphed into something awful.

'Filthy little…' she said, and slapped Gideon hard on the cheek. The boy cried out in a shrill voice. Sebastian flinched so hard tears sprung to his eyes. He'd never seen his mom hit anyone before.

'Sebastian, to your room!' she yelled.

He fled the kitchen and ran up the stairs, stumbling and nearly landing on his frail little face. He slammed the door and curled up in a corner. His mother was a monster.

Minutes ticked by while Bastian cried his eyes out, until eventually someone knocked on the door.

It was his nanny Isabella. She sat down on the bed, making the lush mattress creak and dip, and took his face in her hands.

'Sebastian', she said softly, 'Listen. We do not talk with Jews, Sebastian. Do you understand? Jews are bad news, they're bad, bad news.' Her beautiful plump lips curled into a sad pout. 'Do you understand?'

'Y-yes', Bastian answered. He was shocked into a state of silence. He'd never been more frightened.

For weeks he snuck around the house, not making a sound. He avoided the kitchen at all times, not daring to think of what might happen if ever he bumped into Gideon again. His heart'd been broken.

People wonder whether Innocence is truth or fiction, but a pure heart does exist. It's just that we tend to lose it early on, so that its existence never really has the time to fully register.

Sebastian's sneaking tactics worked, until one day he was peckish and carelessly strolled into the kitchen in search of a sweet bite. There was Gideon, sitting on a crutch, peeling potatoes. Doing it slowly.

Sebastian sucked in a deep breath. Lots of thoughts flew through his head, but the most prominent one was an image of Gideon getting slapped, looking desperate. That image would haunt his dreams for many years to come.

He puffed out his chest as he had before, and with sudden blind determination - because he was a boy of principles - walked up to Gideon in a few quick strides. Gideon winced, all but tumbling off his seat. Bastian firmly wrapped his arms around him.

'I'm so sorry!' he cried, bawling. 'Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!'

Gideon, to Bastian's surprise, returned the embrace with twice as much vigour. He was a scared, helpless kid in a hostile environment. In Bastian his saviour had arrived.

They cried in each others' arms for a while. Afterwards Bastian sat down next to Gideon, watching in awe as the boy's small fingers handled the knife. 'You're so good at this', he said. 'My mom would never let me do this.'

Gideon threw his peeled potato into the bucket. 'My daddy had a restaurant, so...' He shyly scratched his nose.

Bastian smiled widely. 'Does your dad live here too?'

As Gideon, unblinking, thought about this for a while, his bottom lip eventually began to quiver. He turned away and whimpered. Bastian quickly clapped a hand on his shoulder. 'Hey, uh', he said, wriggling in his seat. 'You're smaller than me, you must be younger, right?'

'I'm six', Gideon said, sniveling, 'Six and a bit.'

Bastian's eyes grew wide. 'Six!' he yelled, utterly confused. 'How can you be six when you're so small!'

'Imma grow tall', Gideon said, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. 'My dad's small but my mom's real tall.'

Sebastian pondered this matter seriously, because height was serious business. Gideon was small but already six. There was a possibility he would stay small, but he might as well become a giant, which was a slightly alarming thought. Then again, even if Gideon became a big man, Bastian decided there was nothing he could do. He owed Gideon big time after all, and tall or not Gideon needed his protection.

So he smiled, feeling all kinds of excited, and whispered: 'That's okay. I'm so sorry about before.'

Gideon shrugged, one eye slightly bigger than the other, his young face just a tad distorted.

'Do you wanna be my friend?' Bastian asked even more softly. 'I really wanna be your friend.' He was shivering in fearful anticipation.

Gideon blinked his wide brown eyes. 'I-I would-u love to.' He grimaced, having bitten his tongue.

They burst out laughing, because that was crazy funny.