Jeff Ronan

Billy sat criss-cross applesauce in front of the television, his eyes glued to the screen. His mom didn’t like him having a TV in his bedroom, but it had been a gift from Grandpa Al last month for his fifth birthday, and Mom hated arguing with Grandpa.

Billy had a shock of blonde hair, so light it was almost white, and it hung down over his forehead, almost reaching his pale eyebrows. He was supposed to get a haircut later today, which he dreaded. The barber always asked Billy if he wanted to, “keep or lose the ears,” which he would then punctuate with a hoarse laugh. Billy didn’t like the barber, whose tiny glasses made him look like an oversized rat. He did, however, love his new TV, and he silently mouthed along with the puppets on the screen.

We’re always having fun . . .

The fun is never done . . .

The new episode of The Forever Friends had just begun, and Billy sat in rapt attention. Sunlight spilled over the familiar image of the Forever Forest, bathing its puppet inhabitants in warm light. There was Lucy Goosey, Golly-Gee, the Twins (Tuck & Tick), and Hambone, the leader of the Friends. They were in the middle of singing the Forever Friends theme song.

Cause when you’re a Forever Friend . . .

Billy giggled, anticipating the final line of the song.

The fun will never, ever, ever, ever, ever

The other Friends stopped singing and turned their heads in unison. As always, the groundhog Golly-Gee was stuck like a broken record, his head rolling again and again with each “ever” as Lucy Goosey squawked in dismay. Billy laughed, delighted. He always thought the simple Golly-Gee was the funniest of the Forever Friends, though Hambone the pig was his favorite. Hambone shook his head in comical annoyance and gave Golly-Gee a light smack on the back of the head.

“-ever END!” Golly-Gee finished singing as the other Friends clapped and cheered. Billy clapped along with them. He loved his Forever Friends.

“Whaddaya think, Forever Friends?” asked Hambone. “Should we make a new Forever Friend today?”

“YES!” cheered the rest of the Friends. Golly-Gee let out his signature bellowing laugh and clapped his hands wildly. Lucy Goosey flapped her wings and rose off the ground, squawking with delight. The twins excitedly clasped each other’s little raccoon paws and twirled around one another, chittering.

“Well, let’s meet them!” Hambone exclaimed with glee, before turning directly towards the screen. “Hi here, new friend,” Hambone continued. “Why don’t you get closer?” Billy scooted forward a few inches. “Come on Billy, up here where we can get a better look at you.”

Billy frowned. How did Hambone know his name? The puppet’s bright green eyes twinkled, and he let out a friendly oink. “Come on, Billy, don’t make Hambone sad. Come here so we can see you.” Billy rose to his feet and crossed closer to the screen, a strange feeling growing in his stomach.

“Do you want to learn the super-secret Forever Friends handshake?” Hambone asked, his eyes still twinkling. Billy nodded, wordlessly. “Then do exactly as Hambone does, ok?” The puppet grinned, not breaking eye contact, as he rested one cloth hoof against the screen. “Now you put your hand on the screen, the same place as Hambone’s. It has to be the exact same place if you want the handshake to work, ok?”

As Billy slowly lifted his small hand up, and placed it on the TV screen, the other puppets began chanting: “FOREVER . . . FOREVER . . . FOREVER . . .” And before Billy knew what was happening, a deafeningly loud ‘POP’ filled his ears, and everything turned to static.

“Billy!” his mother Lacey called up from the kitchen. “I don’t want to have to call you again!” Lacey looked down at the sandwich and fruit she’d prepared for Billy’s lunch and popped one of the apple slices into her mouth.

As the young mother trudged up the stairs, she thought to herself, He’s probably got the TV turned up too loud again. Dad and his damn birthday gifts. It’ll be that much harder to pull him away when it’s time for his haircut.

Billy . . .” she began to say, as she opened the bedroom door. But her voice trailed off as she saw the room was empty, save for the cheery voices coming from the television. She crossed back out into the hallway and opened the bathroom door. Empty. Lacey felt her voice tighten. “Billy?” she swallowed, the slight note of annoyance replaced with fear. “BILLY, WHERE ARE YOU?” she shouted, the waver in her voice betraying the bolt of panic she felt, the panic all young parents feel when they realize they’ve suddenly lost their children.

Lacey darted out of the bathroom, yelling louder and more urgently for Billy as she raced throughout the house, her desperation rising as each barren room failed to reveal her little boy.

If only she had stayed in the bedroom a moment longer. If only she had looked at the TV screen, she would have seen the usual members of the Forever Friends: Hambone, Golly Gee, Lucy Goosey, and the Twins. But she also would have seen a new member, a small puppet of a little boy no more than five, with a shock of blonde hair, so light it was almost white. She would have seen the little puppet boy silently pounding his tiny cloth fists against the screen, his felt mouth open in mute horror. And she would have heard the rest of the Forever Friends singing their song as they celebrated the arrival of their latest member:

We’re always having fun

The fun is never done.

Cause when you’re a Forever Friend

The fun will never, ever, ever, ever, ever end.

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