"Hello," he said gently. "Don't you want to go inside with the rest of the students?" he asked.
She looked up at him with sad eyes. "I'm waiting for Daddy," she said simply. "He said he'd be here."
A wave of ice cold dread washed over Peter. "Where's your mommy?" he asked.
"I don't have one," the child replied matter-of-factly. "She died when I was little. I spent the night with our neighbors because Daddy said he had to work last night. But he never came home, so they had to bring me to school today."
Peter closed his eyes for a moment. Oh please, he begged an unspoken entity, already knowing in his heart what the answer was going to be, Please don't let it be this child's father who was killed last night.
"My name is Peter Thomas," Peter held out his hand as he introduced himself. "What's your name?" he asked as she politely slipped her tiny hand in his and replied, "My name is Elizabeth Edgar."
Elizabeth. Take care of Elizabeth. The words of a dying man echoed in his memory. I will, Peter had promised. I will.
"It's nice to meet you Elizabeth," Peter said softly.
"It's nice to meet you too," Elizabeth replied with a shy smile, before turning her attention back to the doors that were never, ever, going to open to welcome her father.
Doors that would never open to allow a good man to share his pride at his beloved daughter's accomplishments, Peter thought, as he struggled to clear his throat.
"You know," Peter said, "I met your father once, Elizabeth. He told me how much he loved you, and he said how very proud he was of you for being accepted to Elysius. But you know, sometimes sometimes things happen that make our lives turn out differently than what we might have planned "
Elizabeth turned and gave Peter her full attention.
A single tear ran down Peter's cheek. Elizabeth reached out and brushed it away.
"Why are you crying?" she asked.
"Oh " Peter quickly improvised. "I guess I'm a little bit afraid."
"But you're a grown-up," she said in surprise. "Why would you be afraid?"
"This is my first day, you know," Peter replied. "I don't know anybody here, I don't have any friends here at all. I guess maybe that scares me a little bit."
Elizabeth reached out and patted his cheek. "Its OK, I'll be your friend," she reassured him.
Another tear rolled slowly down Peter's cheek and Elizabeth watched it through the eyes of an old soul.
She looked directly at him. "Daddy's not going to be able to come, is he?" she asked, demonstrating remarkable prescience for a child her age.
Unwilling to lie to give the child false hope, Peter slowly shook his head No.
"I'm going to be all alone?" the child asked plaintively, her lower lip beginning to tremble.
"No, Elizabeth," Peter said decisively, discretely wiping his eyes on his sleeve. "I'm going to take care of you."
Elizabeth sighed heavily. "Well that's certainly not going to work," she announced.
"Excuse me?" he asked, totally taken aback.
"Well just look at you," she said, standing and putting tiny hands on her hips as she looked him over. "Here you are a grown-up, and you're scared of your first day at school."
Bemused, fighting to keep from laughing, Peter could only watch as she came to a conclusion.
"There's only one thing to do," she announced firmly.
"And what's that?" Peter asked her, a sparkle in his eye.
"We're simply going to have to take care of each other," she announced decisively.
Peter rose to his feet.
"If you hold my hand you won't be afraid," Elizabeth suggested shyly.
"Thank you. That's a very good idea," Peter agreed, and she smiled happily.
"Are we ready?" Peter asked her.
"As ready as we'll ever be, I suppose," she replied, as the two of them opened the door and stepped into the castle Elysius.
They hadn't gone more than five steps when the two of them stopped cold.
"Wow " said Peter, and Elizabeth clutched his hand a little bit tighter.
"Wow is right," agreed Elizabeth.