After the epic food fight, when everyone was sitting around covered in many colors, Rufio, still sulking over his loss at the insult game, declared that everyone had to go take a bath.
"Now!" he ordered. "To the waterfall! Form two lines, little ones at the front! Let's go, boys!"
The boys all got up, and fell into formation as if they had practiced it before. Peter took his place at the end of the left-hand line, and followed them all the way down to the waterfall.
I know this place, he thought.
The air was full of bubbles of all different colors, and as he reached for one, he had a sudden mental image of a tiny baby hand, reaching up to touch the bubbles. Then it was gone.
"I remember this," he said aloud. "Wendy made us take baths once a week, whether we wanted to or not. Before that . . ." He closed his eyes and tried to see it again, the baby's hand reaching up for the colorful bubble. Who was it? Why couldn't he remember?
He looked up toward the end of the line. Boy, was it a long way away! It would take forever for him to get up there. And he wanted to talk to Rufio, to try and explain himself. Not that he expected the boy to listen. But he had to try.
Peter broke away from the others and strode up to the edge of the water, ignoring calls of "No cutting in line!" Rufio was on his knees, holding a younger boy in the water, washing his hair.
That used to be me, Peter thought. I used to do that for . . . for . . . oh, who was it?
Without looking up, Rufio snapped, "What do you want?"
"Look, I don't know what I did to offend you, but whatever it is, I'm sorry."
"Yeah, whatever." To the child in the water, he said, "Put your head back. Now close your eyes."
"I'm trying to talk to you here."
"I'm busy! Go back to the end of the line!"
"Listen to me!" Peter came over and knelt down beside him so they were almost eye to eye. "If you're worried about me taking over your little kingdom here, forget it. I just want to save my kids and bring them home."
"Yeah, and then you'll forget all about us all over again."
"I won't forget you. I promise."
Rufio turned and looked him directly in the eye. "Grownups say a lot of things they don't mean. They lie a lot."
"I'm not lying!"
"Why did you leave us? Why did you stay away so long?"
"I . . ." He had to admit it. "I don't know. Not yet. But when I do remember, you'll be the first to know."
"Like I care." He turned back to the younger boy, rinsed the last of the multi-colored soap out of his hair, and told him to go dry off. The next one in line took his place.
"Okay, fine, then. I'll just go to the back of the line." He got up and started back the way he had come.
"Did you hit your kids?"
The question stopped him in his tracks. "What?"
"Did you ever hit them?"
"What kind of a question is that? No! No, never!"
"Really? You never beat them with a belt, or burned them with lit cigarettes?"
"I don't even smoke." Then the implications hit him. "Rufio . . . did someone do that to you?"
"Did your father do that to you?"
The boy didn't answer. Peter came over and knelt down beside him again.
"I can see why you don't trust grownups, if that's what they did to you. I am so, so sorry. And I mean that."
"Okay, now, hold your breath," Rufio said, to the younger boy, as he dunked him under the water.
"You don't want to talk about it. That's okay. But believe me when I say that not all grownups are like that. I love my kids, and I'd never, ever hurt them, not for anything in the world. I just want to take them home."
He waited. Silence. Discouraged, Peter started back to the end of the line, when he heard a sound barely louder than a whisper.
"What?" He stopped and turned around.
"He was my stepfather. I never knew my real dad."
"Well, I'm sorry he hurt you. I promise you – I swear on the great Nevertree that I will never hurt any boy under my protection. Now, or ever."
He thought he had him for a second. Then Rufio turned away and said, "Grownups lie."
It was useless. Peter sighed and went back to the end of the line.