My daughter has always had an active imagination. Can’t say I’m surprised by that outcome- I had the same active mind when I was young, too. She had her imaginary friends and would play all day long with them. Weird thing was, it was never really about tea parties or dress up. Most of the time, she just talked. And would pause, as though she was listening. Not that it was abnormal, at least to me. My wife understood to a degree, but she hoped once she enrolled in school, our daughter would make friends, and perhaps the imaginary friends would disappear.
Emma isn’t our only child. She has an older brother, Todd. Todd’s childhood was relatively normal. He didn’t have the imagination his sister did. They are three years apart, so they get along for the most part; every sibling has their brawl now and then. They played together, but Todd would always come back after some time, saying Emma told him her friends had said to her that Todd was being selfish with their time together. Sarah would explain to Emma that playing with her brother was important, and that one day, she would miss it. Emma would just nod, then be on her way. I understood Emma, but I’m an only child. I didn’t have to share my time with anyone. So, I guess I didn’t understand completely.
Kindergarten came around, and Sarah and I had hope as we watched Todd walk inside the school with Emma by his side; he’s a protective brother, and despite their differences, cares for her greatly. We saw some other little girls run up to Emma, giggling and excited, and our hearts fluttered. A chance.
It wasn’t long until we had our first parent-teacher conference. Mrs. Winston explained to us that Emma’s social skills were severely limited. She wouldn’t play with the other classmates, and would sit alone in the corner or behind a tree outside during playtime, talking away to people who weren’t there. Sarah and I informed her that Emma had imaginary friends, but Mrs. Winston dejected that, claiming that many children had them but would still play with other children. The word “autism” came out of her mouth, and I thought Sarah was going to flip her lid. I assured Mrs. Winston that wasn’t the case at all, and I would talk to Emma that night.
That night, I sat beside Emma on her bed and attempted to establish the difference of real friends and imaginary ones. Her big brown eyes took in every word, and when I was done, she said something that I wasn’t expecting.
“Daddy… you didn’t have many real friends. Why should I?”
I was a private person. Not even Sarah knew much about my past, because none of it was worth knowing. Yet, here was my daughter, telling me something about my childhood no one knew.
“I… just didn’t, sweetie. But I have friends now. Friends are a wonderful thing to have.” I leaned in and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Just try for Daddy and Mommy. Okay?”
Emma nodded, and for a few years, that was the end of the problems. Sort of. She made friends, but she never went to any sleepovers. Todd would encourage her to go, but she just wouldn’t. Todd played basketball, but Emma didn’t bother with sports. Which was normal to me. Some kids just didn’t like sports. The only time Emma ever became vocal was when she cheered for her brother during his games. It made the both of them happy.
The older Emma became, the more Sarah insisted on getting psychiatric help for our daughter. At fifteen, Emma still had her imaginary friends. Or, well, friend. Only one “stayed”. She would whisper to this one all the time. Her best friend, Brae, would tell us often of the awkwardness they had since Emma would talk to this imaginary friend more than anyone else. Todd was away on college, but he would check in on his sister frequently.
The last thing I wanted was to have some doc put my daughter on mind-numbing drugs. As a last resort, I called my mom. I told her everything. She just listened, waiting for me to finish. Once I had disclosed all, she said:
“Henry. You need to tell her the truth.”
I hung up. I felt guilty; I’d called my mom for help, but she was always talking about “truth”, which I had no idea of. My mom tried calling back, but I couldn’t answer. I wasn’t… no. For a moment, I just stared at the phone, mind buzzing.
I jumped and turned around simultaneously to see Emma sitting on the chair. Confused, I stood up. I was in my bedroom. I had closed the door behind me, and I would’ve heard it open. The door always creaked, no matter what I did to fix it. I shrugged it off. I was probably so caught up in my thoughts I just hadn’t heard.
“She’s good,” I answered, calming slightly. “She misses us.”
“I miss her, too.”
I took a step toward her. “Anything you wanted to talk about, honey?”
She tapped her fingers on her crossed legs. “Mom thinks I’m crazy.”
Oh no. Had she heard one of our conversations? “No. No, Emma, that’s not it. It’s just… it’s time to, you know…”
Emma tilted her head. “Hmm?”
I cleared my throat. “Most have grown up by now. Know what I mean?”
Emma shook her head. “No.”
I chuckled as I knelt down in front of her. “I know, Em. It’s scary to grow up. But we all have to. Okay?”
I stood up and started to leave the room-
“I won’t abandon him, Daddy,” she suddenly spoke, making me stop. “I know everything. And I hate him, too.”
I turned around to see her standing, her shadow beneath her bigger than it should be. Her arms hung loosely by her sides, but her eyes… Something was different about her eyes. I just… stared. No words came. What was she talking about?
“He never left. He never forgot. But you did. He was so lonely, Daddy. Todd was scared of him. I wasn’t, though. I was always different, like you. And he knew it.” She smiled, an odd, innocent smile that was almost disconnected from reality. “I had other friends like him, but he didn’t like them. In the end, it was only me and him. He told me about Pop. And you. And what you two did.”
My heart raced. It couldn’t…
Emma clasped her hands behind her back. “It was really sad what happened, but we don’t blame you. Pop was mean and made you do bad things. You were so little, and you couldn’t just run away, and you couldn’t forget. Not until Pop made you.” She patted her chest. “I’ll hold onto him. Because now, you remember again. But he isn’t a part of you anymore. And don’t worry. I understand it all.”
She gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Love you, Daddy.”
As she walked away, I felt tears glide down my cheeks. Memories. Long ago.
I was ten. My dad was late one night, as usual, and my mom was a night shift nurse. I remembered being half-asleep on the couch in the living room when my dad’s car squealed into the driveway. He burst open the door, and in my groggy state, I sat up before he pulled me up and practically dragged me outside to the car. He threw me inside, and we took off. I don’t know how long we drove, but I do recall stopping outside a dense forest. Dad turned off the car, got out, and barked orders at me. He then opened the trunk, and inside…
I wanted to scream. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to do so many things. But all I could do was stand there and stare at the eyes of a dead boy from my school, his body mangled and bloody. His face was transfixed in shock and pain. His warped bike was shoved in the trunk with him. I looked up at my dad, who grabbed the back of my neck and squeezed it tight.
“You’d better listen to me, and you’d better listen to me good. You will help me, and you won’t say a word. You do, so help me, I’ll bury you with him. Got it?”
A single nod, the smell of alcohol on his breath nearly toxic, and we drug the body deep in the forest, my dad carrying two shovels. It took time, but we dug a deep enough hole, and my dad just tossed him in. Breathless from all the digging, Dad straightened his back.
“Stay here. I gotta piss.”
He walked off a distance, and I looked down into the “grave” at the boy. Finally, the tears came. I sniffled and wiped the snot dripping from my nose on my sleeve.
“I’m sorry…” I croaked, sobbing harder. “I’m so sorry, Lucas. I can’t help you… and I’m sorry…” I sniffled again and wiped more snot on my sleeve. “I won’t forget you. Okay? Promise.”
The heavy footsteps of my father coming back made my eyes dry up quickly, and we finished the deed.
But I did forget. I broke my promise. My dad… He had me sent to a psych ward because he claimed I was “hearing voices” and talking to people not there. Somehow, my mind had manifested Lucas as a real, live person, and I would talk to him, play with him. Did you know electroshock therapy is pretty painful? Enough of that will make a person forget things real quick. And Lucas had been forgotten. Not by his family, no. But by the one other person who knew what had truly happened.
Mom and Dad divorced, and I went to live with Mom. And I was happy. I didn’t remember. I couldn’t.
But Lucas had never left. And now, he’s bonded with my daughter.
I can’t see him. I can’t feel him. But I know he’s there. And as much as it scares me, it gives me comfort, because Emma won’t abandon him. She won’t let herself. I won’t let Sarah try to force them apart.
It’s what Lucas deserves.