The retirement party for Peterkin was quiet and short lived. Most barely knew he worked there and had no idea he was retiring or that someday they would as well. But that was the nature of the job.
He knew a few of the Friends – Charlotte, a spider from North Dakota; Nicolas, a giant from a small island near Antarctica; and Paul, the smallest man to ever live. And they showed up to bid him farewell and to share a chocolate cake they knew would be his last. Nicolas was nearly as old as Peterkin and had already felt his own wall building, the end nearing. He only hoped his chocolate cake would be bigger when his time came. But the other two were still young. They had years of adventures left. And Peterkin was jealous of them.
Everyone finds his or her way to The Company eventually. Or, at least, that’s how it was it was before The Surge. That’s not its official title, of course. Up at corporate, they have some long, technical name for it. But amongst the dedicated front line, The Surge has always been an apt name.
There wasn’t really a date that it started. Some say it was the summer of ’77. But no one’s really sure because so few current employees were around to experience the change. Peterkin was one of the last generations of Imaginary Friend that knew what it was for each Friend to be an individual. He joked as he gobbled down his delicious chocolate cake that Charlotte had made, “Remember the first staff meeting that had two different Robin Hoods? To think I was upset at that…” In years to follow, entire departments were built for Robin Hoods, Luke Skywalkers, Edward Scissorhands, and all the others. The days of children having their own unique character slowly disappeared.
Peterkin’s career had been noted as something for all to strive for. His adventures and lessons were taught at the Imaginary Training School – a three-year, rigorous program that only the select survive.
The first two years are straight forward – getting to know oneself, understanding imagination, and learning the intricacies of select invisibility and dimensional travel. The third year is when it gets tough. That’s when and where Peterkin really shined. He watched some of the best and brightest from years one and two crash and burn in year three, commonly referred to as The Age of Connection.
It’s in the third year that trainees are first introduced to real world children. Each practices with four to start, and then as the year goes on, it is narrowed down to one. And that one will be that trainees Best Friend. His job. His life, until retirement.
Everyone’s retirement party happens in the same room. It’s a basement conference room at the Hiatt Meridian in Southfield, Michigan. Peterkin had been there seventeen times since his illustrious career began. The first time was for his mentor and friend, James, an accountant from South Dakota. He was an inspiration. No one thought the personality of an accountant could ever be a successful I.F., but he found a child that adored him and counted on him for everything.
James was also the first and only I.F. to ever be called out of retirement. His friend, who had built the wall and severed the friendship at the expected time, between his eleventh and twelfth birthday, needed James once again later in life. The boy had loved James. He, of course, had had other I.F.’s as well, most children do, but James was his number one. James had tried to convince HR that it wasn’t time for retirement, that his Best Friend needed another year or two. That James should receive what corporate calls a suspended retirement contract. But, they wouldn’t go for it. A decision they especially regretted when James’ Friend experienced a severe mental collapse at the age of 31. That’s when James was called back in, looking as fresh and well pressed as ever, to help bring his Friend back.
Peterkin was overjoyed to see his old mentor. And James was so proud of Peterkin, who had attached himself to an extremely creative young boy named Danny. On James’ first night back, he and Peterkin went out to dinner together at The Imaginary Bistro – Imaginary City’s premier restaurant.
“I’m so proud you. I knew you’d be great, but you really have made quite a name for yourself. Even us retirees hear about it.” Peterkin blushed and, as always, gave credit to his Friend as opposed to accepting the praise. James knew the truth. He had been around long enough to know neither Peterkin nor his Friend, Danny, could take the credit alone. It’s the pairing that makes the magic real. That makes the adventure more than. He was happy for his old student. And Peterkin was tickled pink to have his mentor back.
James eventually brought his Friend back to reality. He guided him through the subconscious and revived his ability to interact with real people. It was an amazing accomplishment that The Company took great pride in.
And even though everyone knew James’ reinstatement would be temporary, it didn’t make the goodbyes any easier. It hit Peterkin hardest of all. He had grown used to fancy dinners out and late night conversations usually reserved only for retired I.F.’s. For months after, his work suffered.
There were days Danny called for him and he didn’t show up at all. The Company sent substitutes in Peterkin’s place, but that was always a risky maneuver. Often, the sudden implant of another personality within the child’s mind would lead to bad behavior and awkward social engagement. That is why HR had to send Peterkin an official warning. If he didn’t return to regulated work immediately, his personality would be erased and he would never again be permitted to travel dimensionally.
Being a professional and truly attached to Danny, he returned to work immediately. And for another six years, joined Danny on his epic adventures through cloud waterfalls, caves of unimaginable danger, and treks across terrain that would’ve killed lesser Friends.
He first felt the wall building on Danny’s tenth birthday. He stood in the back of the Michigan home, proudly watching his Friend laugh and joke with his real world teammates. He could see it right then, as he held the small wrapped package that Danny would never receive. Once the wall starts to grow, it takes very little time for HR to deliver the retirement package and announce the party date. This is to avoid any possible breach in protocol. There are to be no official goodbyes, no explanations as to why, and no last hurrahs.
That was the last time Peterkin was to see Danny. It made him sad. Even as he laughed and joked with Nicolas, Charlotte, and Paul, he felt a huge emptiness opening. And suddenly so much that James had said at their dinners and late night talks made sense. And he just couldn’t take it.
He looked around the Southfield Hiatt conference room, at the pictures of him and Danny, at the films of their adventures, and he realized that notoriety within The Company meant nothing to him. He needed Danny. That was all he cared about. And he wasn’t about to let a few corporate rules stand in his way.
Once retirement papers have been handed out, I.F.’s lose the ability to travel inter-dimensionally. Which meant, Peterkin had to manage his way back to his ten-year-old Best Friend the human way. He took a bus, he hitchhiked, he ‘borrowed’ a bike, and after a full day and half of travel, he found Danny, who was asleep.
Corporate has numerous defenses against this kind of breach. There are fleets of officers and hounds that are dispatched immediately. So, Peterkin knew he didn’t have a lot of time.
He sat Danny down and hugged him. He explained who he was and told Danny about James and Charlotte and Paul. He didn’t mention Nicolas, because he knew Danny had a fear of Giants. He told him about The Company and retirement and that he didn’t have much time. Danny pleaded with him, through tears and sobs, to stay and just be a real person. “Everyone will like you. You can come to school with me and borrow my clothes and I can help you with your homework.” Peterkin smiled, feeling how much Danny loved him, and how worth it it had been to come here. But he also knew it was impossible. It had never been done.
A light shone through the wall and fleets of armed officers that only Peterkin could see lined the border of the yard. “I don’t have any more time, my friend. I will always miss you. But I will never be back. You will grow up to be something wonderful and amazing. Something this world has never seen. And I will be watching, from somewhere, somehow, I will know. And I will be so proud, as I am right now.”
The two hugged as they had a million times before. Years of memory flushed through Peterkin’s head – from the first time Danny hugged him, while lying in his crib, his arms barely able to bend around his neck, to the time they sailed across the ocean into the stars, to the morning they battled the mighty spiders of the cave worlds. Each day lived within him.
He slowly started to fade away. And as The Imaginary Police took him into custody, he smiled, knowing he had done his job, he had loved his friend, and he always would.