The Oath

Originally published in Beyond The Imagination in September 2014 (offline)

I was a young lad in the summer of 1961, one of the rainiest summers I
can remember. It was so grim, Toby and I often joked about running away
from home, finding a nice sunny island somewhere, and living off the
land. Not even an island, really. Anywhere but South England.

“I’d plow the field, and you’d milk the cows and gather the eggs.”

Toby joked. He knew I wouldn’t leave my parents, not until they were dead.
He, on the other hand, didn’t have that problem. His adoptive parents were
both pricks.

Toby skipped another rock in the river and grunted. He always got fussy
when we spoke about his parents, so we steered the conversation toward
something more pleasant, something else that gave us another reason to

“We’ll get her one day, mate,” Toby said, and sat on the ground.

We both got lost in thoughts for a moment, just like we would every time we
talked about Jeannie.

I chuckled. When it came to Jeannie, I always thought I had the upper hand,
with my straight jaw and blue eyes. Toby had one of those sponge-faces,
splattered with freckles that seemed to change color and move as he spoke.

“Eighth grade, that’s it,” I said, giving myself mental reasons why I
shouldn’t talk to her during the summer break, thinking that somehow being
back in school would make it easier for me to communicate.

And the school started, and fall came, and I wasn’t able to utter a word in
her direction. Then one day Toby came to me, all red in the face, and
slapped me over the shoulder. There was a dark glow in his eyes, something
I haven’t seen before.

“Robert,” he said and that was all I needed to hear.

We both hated Robert. I hated him because he had a straighter jaw and bluer
eyes. Toby hated him because he was tall and muscular and didn’t miss an
opportunity to punch him in the arm.

“Bloody bastard,” Toby said, almost foaming at the mouth. “I’d kill the
wanker if he wasn’t so big, mate.”

It was a sad way to start the school for both of us, and what made it
sadder was her dating Robert made her so much more appealing. She was
glowing, her clothes were shining, her hair was sparkling; she probably
even smelled better.

“What the hell do we do, mate?” Toby exploded.

I took a deep breath, watching Jeannie and her friends smoking behind the
school. “Nothing,” I said, resigned.

“Nothin’? Nothin’?” Toby’s voice rose, and his body began to shiver. He
spat on the ground and shook his head. “I can’t be here today, mate. I’m

We skipped school often and seeing Jeanie hang around Robert made it that
much easier. I followed Toby and we ran to the only bridge in town. By the
time we hid under it, it had started to pour.

Toby hugged himself and sat down, his back against the cement.

“It’s not fair, mate, that’s all I say.”

I sat next to him. “Life’s not fair,” I tried to say philosophically, but
Toby gave me an icy glance.

“You could take Robert.”

“Me?” I said in an unusually high voice. “No, no, no.” I laughed. “With a
busted face I’m never getting Jeannie.”

“What if I take him?” Toby looked at me with creased brows.

I wanted to laugh, but didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I glanced at his
brittle wrists and fists the size of a baby bunny.

“He’ll murder you, mate,” I said. “It’s not worth it.”

He spat again and kicked his heels in the ground. “But what if I do?” he
insisted. “What if I take him out and you get Jennie?”

I threw my head back in surprise. “What? You go to jail for beating up this
bloke, and suddenly Jeannie is mine? How is that?”

Toby took a long breath. He hadn’t thought of it all, I could tell.

I looked away, watching the downpour bubble in the river waters. I wish
there was a way to dump all my thoughts in those waters and let them be
carried far away. But there wasn’t.

Toby extended his hand towards me. “Let’s make a deal.”

“A deal?” I said and wanted to laugh but stopped when I saw the look in his
eyes. He meant it.

“This town, mate, it’s killing us. Everything around us.” He continued to
keep his hand extended, his voice getting louder. “We can’t catch a break,
man. Shake it–”

“For what?”

“Shake it!” As he shouted bubbles of spit gathered at the corners of his

“Toby are you–”

“Shake it, mate!”

I grabbed his hand more out of fear than anything else. I could feel the
vibration of his body through his arm. His eyes turned fiery, moving ever
so gently, half scared, half angry.

“I can’t get the grades, I can’t run, I can’t get the girl.” Toby’s
nostrils flared as he spoke. “Maybe I can do something right.” He paused
for a moment. “But you have to promise me–”


He squeezed his hand around mine.

“If you ever get Jeannie, I’m going to get one kiss.”

I cocked my head to the side and withheld my chuckle. If I ever get Jeannie? It wasn’t hard to make a promise based on an
impossible premise.

“Of course,” I said softly and shook his hand.

As I said that, a smile lit Toby’s face. His shoulders lowered and his body
deflated, as though a valve had just opened up somewhere, letting all his
anger steam out.

“Thank you. That’s an oath,” he said and ran out in the rain.

Next weekend we went to play by the tank cemetery. Let me explain: it’s not
like we have tanks laying around in the UK, and people can just go and play
with them. No. This was a depot of confiscated German tanks, engines
removed, wheels and canons welded shot. It was basically a museum, but not
really. I mean, they dumped these metal monsters all over here, but nobody
managed to complete the museum. So, needless to say, it was one of the best
places to play Churchill and Hitler. I hope I don’t have to explain the

At the site, we’d usually go straight for the Panzers; those darn metal
beasts had this way of towering over the place like Titans. We could’ve
only imagined the power one must’ve felt driving one of these monsters
through the battlefield.

The third tank in the row was the one we were looking for–its top hatch
had come lose, probably from a bad welding job. Toby had jerked it open a
summer ago and it had become our playground ever since.

This time I drew the shortest straw, so Toby got to go in first.

He waved and gave me a toothy smile as he went in.

I waited ten, maybe fifteen minutes, then I got up, a bit annoyed. We had
spoken about this before. Five minutes max, then we switch.

“Hey, Toby, not cool, mate!”

No movement. Was he testing me this bloke? He must’ve known by now my
patience doesn’t run deep. I climbed the tank and banged a rock on the

“Come one, man, it’s my turn.”

Nothing. Now I was pissed off. I pulled the hatch open. “Not nice, wanker!”
I shouted into the tank.

No response, just the echo of my own voice.


I lowered my head down. This was a two man tank so there wasn’t a lot of
space down there. No space to hide for sure.

“Weird,” I whispered and lowered myself down the hatch.

I squatted as I touched the floor. The tank was empty. Toby wasn’t there.
On the floor I saw a pocket knife–Toby’s blade–laying there unopened. On
the side of the tank’s interior I saw three skid marks, red in color. I
looked closer and the color looked fresh.

? The thought terrified me. I grabbed the knife and darted out of the tank.
Once outside, I started to question myself. Did I see him go in? I was
certain I have. Did I see him leave? I was sure I haven’t. So, where was

“Toby,” I shouted. “Come on, this isn’t funny, mate!”

Still no response.

I waited about ten more minutes and left. If that bastard had abandoned me
there, I was going to rip the freckles off his face.

As I was sulking in my own anger, I heard something behind me, a rattling
of sorts. I spun around but saw nothing.

“Toby?” I whispered, a chill crawling up my back.

I scanned the area a few times and heard nothing else. I turned around,
took two steps, and there it was again. This time louder, like a grinding
sound, a screeching of metal on metal. I turned quickly and I saw it.

The Panzer. It moved.

The canon turned left and right. Not a lot, just a few inches or so, but I
saw it. Then it jerked forward. Again, just a bit. Maybe half a foot, but
enough to scare the crap out of me. I remember being numb for a moment but
then, as the steel monster dashed directly towards me, I jumped sideways
and ran between the tanks.

I was fast, but the Panzer was faster. It darted after me, following me
with every turn, screeching, puffing like a locomotive. I couldn’t
understand, I just couldn’t. The tanks were supposed to be dead.

I swear I heard laughter behind me. I turned but I saw nothing but the
beast chasing after me. But the laughter was there, I know it.

The exit was only a few yards away at this point, so I ran as fast as my
feet could bear. I ran and I didn’t look back. I made a sharp turn and
sprinted through the woods where I knew the tank couldn’t follow. I ran
through the forest and exited at the other end, near a road that led back
into town.

I waited a few moments, panting, trying to stop my hands from shivering. I
took a few deep breaths and I resumed running. I ran until I got home,
afraid to even think about going to Toby’s house. I stopped in front of
mine, teeth clenched, trying hard to convince myself that this was just
something I had imagined.

But before I could catch my breath, people appeared around the corner,
running, screaming. They ran along our street, and in the distance I heard
the metal rattling again. I took a step back, my heart about to jump out of
my heart. I leaned my back against the wall and that’s when the Panzer

“Oh no,” I said, picturing the tank crushing me.

I closed my eyes tightly, waiting for my demise, but the tank passed right
by me, and kept thrusting forward. I opened my eyes and looked after it, as
it dashed down the street, leaving deep marks on the ground.

People were pouring out of their homes, running after the tank, eyes wide
open in horror. Somebody must’ve called the police by then because I heard
sirens approaching.

The tank was now nearing the end of the street, when it suddenly made a
right turn. Not onto a street, but towards a house. I froze. That was
Robert’s house.

The Panzer smashed the house head first, passing through the fence as if it
were made of paper. The old house was no match for the German steel. The
wall cracked like glass as the metal beast passed through it. The roof
collapsed and the entire house imploded. Immediately after that, a column
of fire blasted out towards the sky and a thundering explosion shook the

The gas pipe
, I thought.

The explosion was massive and threw walls, windows, metal and brick up in
the air. The flames rose up, burning everything–the trees, the fence, the
grass–extending outward like the hands of a demon.

“What the hell happened?” my father said. I hadn’t noticed him coming out
of the house, but he was there, watching the horror at the end of the

I didn’t answer. I didn’t know what to answer.

The firefighters and the police cars were there already. The sirens covered
the crowd’s clamor.

“I don’t know,” I finally said. “I’ll take a look.”

“Don’t you–”

I didn’t hear the remainder of his rant; I had already started running. The
crowd was thick by now, and it wasn’t easy to get any closer, but the
flames were up high in the sky and the towers of water were arching over
them, without too much effect.

As I was getting up on my toes to see over everyone’s heads, I noticed
someone from the corner of my eye. Jeanie. She was standing by the
side of the road, too tiny and petite to see anything, but aware enough to
know what had happened. She was white like a cloud, and kept swallowing
empty. I walked towards her.

“Jeanie?” I said, and she jumped, startled.

“Oh, hi,” she said, her face a mask of fear. “What happened?”

I shrugged, unsure what to say. “A tank,” I mumbled, aware of how stupid
that sounded.

“Is Robert all right?”

Her question was so innocent, and her tone so mellow, I almost chocked. I
couldn’t know if Robert was all right, but I could see that the flames had
already consumed most of the crumbled structure. The firefighters were
basically just making sure the fire doesn’t spread to the nearby houses. If
there was anyone inside that house, they were not alive anymore.

I grabbed her hand, and looked into her eyes. She looked back and tears
began to flow on her cheeks. She knew it too.

“He just dropped me home,” she said, between sobs. “He said he was going
home to watch a game.”

I nodded and put my arm around her shoulders. She leaned her head on me and
I held her tight, letting her cry it all out.

What else was I supposed to do?

I hated myself for feeling good in that one single moment.

Later that day, the firefighters managed to put out the fire. The whole
neighborhood was outside; the police had a hard time keeping us away. By
nightfall the police chief came out and told everyone that the
investigators were able to locate three bodies inside the house. I figured,
Robert and his parents.

Jeannie fainted in my arms. I held her tight. The whole night. She was so

As for the tank, the chief said–there was no engine, but the welding spots
on the tracks and cannon were broken, as if somebody purposely broke them
off. They took the tank away to test it and attempt to understand how a
tank without an engine was able to drive through broad day light by itself?
The story died soon, just like the story about Toby’s disappearance.

That was the last time I’ve seen Toby. I still have his pocket knife. I
keep it with me at all times. I know I’ve made an oath. Sooner or later,
Toby will come to collect on that kiss.