Dedicated to my father, we love you and rest in peace.
I watched her slide down a spiral slide as her mother watched her at the bench, talking on her cell phone. I remember her face; the childhood roundness was disappearing but was still present. It was a cold evening and she was in shorts and a long sleeve tee that she rolled to her elbows as she went round and round on the merry-go-round.
My lips twitched into a grin. I knew this always happened but I had to do what I had to do. There was no other way around it. The jacket I wore came to my waist, but there was no need for it. The cold and the darkness did not bother me.
She jumped off and staggered a bit, catching her breath. It took her longer than the other children who ran past her to the yellow and red jungle gym.
She was further along than I had realized.
She walked sluggishly to the swings and with this opportunity; I joined her. She was swinging harder at a fast pace, as if racing to an unseen finish line. I swung slowly watching the determination and her dedication to reach the highest, with a chance to peek at the church behind the ivy laced fence.
“You know, if you swing hard enough you might be able to fly to heaven.” I said watching her progress.
She swung harder but soon enough she grew tired and her pace slowed.
“Are you okay?” I asked when she almost came to a stop.
“You were going really high.” I commented.
“Not really,” She smiled. “One time I almost went all the way around.”
She motioned a big circle in the air in front of her.
“Wow,” I said enthusiastically. “You have to be careful; you don’t want to get hurt or your family would be sad.”
I smiled at her childish grin, her two-buck tooth was growing in and her hair was loose from the ponytail she learned how to tie herself a week ago.
“My name is Andy.”
“Isn’t Andy a boy’s name?” she questioned knowingly.
“It’s my nickname. My real name is Andrea, but I like Andy because it’s different and I like being different.”
“You don’t look different.”
“I am.” I half chucked at her determination.
“Oh, my name is Alison.” She said.
“That’s a pretty name. Did you know your name means ‘noble’?”
“What does noble mean?”
“It means having high moral character.” I answered.
“Do I want to be noble?”
“Yes,” I said sincerely. However, watching her face fall made me cautious. “It’s good if you are but it is okay if you’re not.”
“But am I noble?” She grabbed a strand of my long curly hair twirling it in her small hand. I noticed her bravery and her willingness to accept me without a second thought.
I wanted to say yes but I held my tongue. “We just met, Alison.”
We barely swung as the sun disappeared behind the tall trees lining the park. The air was cold as it raced over her exposed skin, making goose bumps.
“Can I be Princess Alison?” she said after our long pause.
I nodded. She smiled and started rocking back and forth to start swinging. I saw a glint of competition and I started swinging harder, just to see what she will do.
After several minutes of hard swinging, I heard her mother end her phone conversation. Her mother stretch and scanned the park, calling her name a couple times.
“Alright,” I said, dragging my feet across the dirt to slow myself. “You win the swinging contest.”
She slowed and breathed heavily smiling all the while.
“You should go, I hear you mother calling for you.”
“Will you come home with me?” She said staring at me intently, willing me to follow her home.
“Not right now. I have to go home too.”
She nodded understanding, a slight frown crossing her face.
“But, can we be secret best friends?” I said to her downcast face.
She smiled and nodded excitedly.
“Alison and Andy secret best friends, you can’t tell anyone about us, okay secret best friend?”
She nodded exuberantly, shaking with happiness.
“Alison. Alison where are you sweetie.” Her mother shouted, stowing her cell in her purse.
“I’m coming!” she said turning and leaving me alone on the swings.
I watched her a lot after our first meeting at the park. Everyday her smile and her laugh were infectious. She had a slight lisp that I did not catch on our first meeting, and the competitiveness was always present. Her daily life never varied, she had breakfast with her parents got ready for school then went to school. She was at home five minutes after school with a baby sitter, doing her homework before her parents came home from work. After a family dinner, she spent time with her parents and then bedtime before nine o’clock.
I noticed she was a lonely little girl; she would play alone during school or play with dolls or stuffed animals after school. She did not have grandparents to watch after her, or aunts or uncles to spoil her, no pet to play with, and no fish to watch over. She had a little family: mother, father and lonely daughter.
I was waiting for her at the corner of the school parking lot. Her smile was infectious as I smiled back.
“Hi Alison, how are you.”
“Hi.” She said a little breathless though I was a couple yards away. “Are you going to walk with me?”
“Yes I am, if you don’t mind.”
She shook her head and we walked side by side. We waited for the crossing guard to motion us to go and we did. She walked without a care in the world, being as young as she was it was hard not to but I watched her surreptitiously.
“Do you walk all by yourself?” I asked.
“Yep,” she replied.
She nodded in response.
“Where are your parents?”
“They are at work.” She said as-a-matter-of-fact tone. “I see my mom at five and my dad at seven.” I noticed she did not use the words “mommy” or “daddy” anymore, childish words she no longer used.
“What do they do?” I wanted to see if she knew what they worked as, already knowing the answer.
“Uh…” she thought looking at the pale blue sky.
“It’s okay if you don’t know.”
“Okay good.” She sighed into a giggle.
“What did you do at school today?”
Alison started talking as fast as she could, with as less breath as she could. In class, she read a book in front of the whole class and she did not make one mistake. During lunch, a boy named Hank was drinking milk. When he laughed, milk shoot out from his nose, spraying his friend Anthony and a mean girl named Sarah. Then after lunch, for P.E. she was the first girl in her class to race around the track. She laughed easily and spoke exuberantly. I could not help but envision her doing those thing she said.
We arrived to her house where she unlocked the door with her own key and made herself a snack, until the babysitter came. For about half an hour, I watched her without adult supervision. She microwave chicken nuggets, took out a packet of cookies in her plate, and pour a plastic cup of milk. She offered me something with unsure eyes. I refused with a shake of my head graciously.
She stared at me concerned. “Do you eat?”
“I’m not hungry right now.”
She nodded. I helped with the milk into the living room where she watched the ending of a children’s T.V. show and the beginning of another one when the babysitter knocked on the door. The babysitter, Jessica, had wavy hair to her back. She was talking on her cell phone to her friend about the people she dated and liked. She made herself at home on the couch changing the channel.
I followed Alison as she retired into her bedroom where she played by herself. I watched as she brushed her doll’s hair carefully, and then played house with me. I was the new visitor to her town and I took a tour of the city and of her house.
It was 5:10 when a car pulled into the driveway. She climbed onto her bed to peek out the window, though the time was a dead giveaway.
“Look it’s my mom!” she exclaimed, “Do you want to meet her?”
“I’ll wait right here, go.” I encouraged. This was the hardest part of my job. She had a look that was suspicious but she did not move.
“Will you still be here?” she asked earnestly.
“Yes I will, go.” I said again. Her mother called her name twice already and was heading this way. With her face lit, she ran out of the room, her footsteps muffled by her socks. I listened as mother and daughter started making dinner. Alison spoke nonstop. She told the same story about the book, the milk, and the race with just as much enthusiasm. I wondered through the parents’ room. Her mother was Heidi Armstrong, a replenishment team member at a super store 15 minutes away. She had steady hours and a cluttered purse. Alison’s parents had a queen-size bed with cotton black and gray sheets, a small vanity and a large dresser. Her father was Oliver Armstrong, a security guard as a mall ten minutes away and in the other direction of her mothers’ workplace. They were good people, doing as much as they could on their pay. I regretted my place in Alison’s life. It was common to distant yourself from the people you were assigned to ruin, but there was something I like about Alison.
I hated that thought.
When Oliver came home, she bound into his arms and Heidi gave him a kiss on the cheek. Alison giggled at that gesture. They had a lovely dinner together and half hour of family time, then bedtime for Alison. I greeted her with a smile after she showered, changed into her nightgown and got ready for bed.
I was sitting with my back to the door but I would hear if her parents came to say good night.
She smiled at me from her bed. “Do you want to meet my mom and dad?”
I sat on the floor being at the same eye level as her. “I’m not allowed to talk with adults.” I spoke slowly and choose my words carefully. “Moms and dads and anyone over a certain age, I’m not supposed to talk to them, like I’m talking to you now. They don’t understand and it becomes complicated. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“You’re like my secret friend?” She remembered my words I said the day on the swings.
“Yes, secret best friends, but only with you. You can call me your imaginary friend.”
I heard her parents footsteps creep to her door.
“Secret best friends,” she whispered.
“Alison sweetie,” Heidi pushed the door wider and peered around the room, looking through me twice in the process. “Who were you talking to?”
She looked at me alarmed. I nodded at her letting her know it was all right.
“I’m talking with Andy, my friend.”
“Andy is a boy?” Heidi voice rose a bit.
“No, she’s a girl.” Alison rolled her eyes, “Her name is Andrea but she goes by Andy.”
“Oh,” Heidi’s face relaxed. “Hi Andy it’s nice to meet you.” She gave a small wave in the direction Alison looked earlier. She mumbled something to her husband and he nodded understanding.
“Hi Andy,” Oliver’s face was not as friendly. It was guarded and weary.
“Andy, Alison has school tomorrow so she has to sleep.” She was firm and smart, talking to the imaginary friend rather than to Alison.
I nodded in response.
“Good night mommy, good night daddy.”
“Okay then, good night sweetie.” Heidi said kissing her on the cheek. Oliver said a goodnight, stifling a yawn.
They backed away and left her room, leaving a night light glowing in the corner of the room.
“I should let you sleep.”
She nodded, but there was something bothering her.
“Is there something the matter?”
“Can my mom and dad see you?” she said looking at my face.
“I can turn invisible if I want to.”
Her eyes lit up, “Really!”
“Yes, I can.”
“Can you turn me invisible?”
“I haven’t tried that before. You have to sleep. You have school tomorrow, as your mother put it. Good night Alison.” I patted her hand under the blanket.
“You forgot ‘Princess’.”
I smiled. “Good night Princess Alison.”
She rolled over and fell asleep almost instantly. I listened as her breathing steadied and then slowed. From the kitchen, I heard Heidi and Oliver’s slightly loud voices.
“Isn’t she too old to have imaginary friends?” Oliver asked wiping down the sink.
“She’s only eight years old. It is a phase and she will grow out of it. I had an imaginary friend and her name was Hayley, I grew out of it and she will too, just give her time.” Heidi was fixing the dished in the sink. “And she’s a child, our child Ollie. She’s not, you know, someone neglected or unloved kid that you see walking alone in the street.”
“What does that mean?” he chuckled.
“I don’t know.”
They were silent for a while, thinking about their side of the argument.
“Shouldn’t she have real friends? She does go to school and talk to real people.”
“People mature at different times in their lives. I like that she has someone to talk to, even though she is imaginary.”
“Her name is Andy.” Oliver said sarcastically.
“Short for Andrea,” Heidi corrected.
“Then why does she go by Andy? And are we sure she’s female?”
“She’s imaginary and it’s Andrea, and I’m sure Alison can tell the difference between male and female. If you feel uncomfortable then talk to a child therapist, but it think Andy and Alison are fine together. “
Oliver huffed and did not say more.
“Ollie, don’t you… or, I feel like we leave her alone too much.” Heidi looked at Oliver’s face in profile as he scrapped the stove.
“I know, Heidi, but in a couple of year the house will be paid off and the car too. We just have to stick it out.” He glanced at her. He pulled her into a tight hug, kissing the top of her head, soothing her worry.
I always came back to Alison. Her bright smile greeted me every time afterschool when I waited for her at the same corner of the same street.
“Hello Alison.” I said. She ran and hugged me. I was stunned at her affection. Hesitating for a half second, my arms found their way around her, holding her against me.
“Are you going to stay with me again?”
I smiled. “I just wanted to see if you are alright.”
We walked to her house as she explained a math test where she got the highest score and a gold star, I did not want to dampen her spirit but I had to tell her. We were in her room; she was starting her homework on a table facing a photo of a dog on her wall.
“Alison I have something to tell you important.” I said watching her.
I waited as she rifled through her binder and her bag pack angrily.
“Alison.” I touched her hand.
She jerked back as if I electrocuted her. I pulled back and rallied again.
Her face screwed to hide the fact that she started the cry. I opened my arms and she willingly hugged me. I helped her into her bed. I saw the effort she strained to keep awake. I pulled back her covers and she got in bed. I tucked her in and cleared her face of the stray hair. When she was calmer and rested, I started.
“Are you okay?” I asked concerned.
She nodded. “My mommy said that to me when Parker died. Parker was my dog.”
I nodded. “Alison I have to go for a few weeks, but I’ll be back.”
“Why?” Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
“I have to help some other people. It is my job. I will be back, don’t worry.”
“But you’re my only friend.”
That brought me up short. “Just rest,” I said tucking her in and fussing with her already made blankets.
“I’ll be back, do not forget about me.”
I kissed her closed eyes and left.
It was midnight and I was waiting in a hospital room. Its soft walls did not soothe my nervousness. Jonathan Drake was sitting peacefully in his bed. The portable game system was in his hands as his hands raced over the colored buttons. I greeted him briefly as he looked up from game. Our relationship was nonexistent. He did not talk to me and I tried not to talk too much. He was into his videogames and watching cable T.V, loudly. He was always in and out of the hospital, and I was always in his life at a very young age. He was waiting for a heart transplant. He fought so hard until he was 12 years old when his heart finally gave up. I kept my distance until a week ago. He thought I was a doctor who checked up on him every now and then but I started showing up more frequently. I told him he will be seeing more of me and that I was not a doctor.
I sat in the plastic chair thinking about the possibility of an argument when it happened. The monitor flat lined and there was a rush of hospital personal to his room. I stood and watched. There were nurses and a doctors directing and working on him. They started CPR and then the electric paddles. I felt him stand next to me. He looked around at the buzzing room and then realized where he was standing. He watched as his body flopped lifeless on the bed.
“What’s happening?” his voice was a whisper, scared of the answer but unbelieving of the scene in front of him. I stayed quiet; silence was the best answer. He walked closer, his eyes wide and unblinking.
“That’s me.” He said in the same tone. “I’m… I’m...”
“Jonathan, come here.” I whispered softly. He did. I held his hand and watched as they tried to shock him back to life. They did it again and again and again.
“Jonathan, you’re dying.”
He slowly looked at me, taking in what I said and why I was here with him. He nodded once and continued watching.
“Damn it!” the doctor said angrily, slamming her hands on the bed. Jonathan flinched at the anger she doctor never showed around him. The nurses and his doctor left the room drained of energy. We stood there until there room was empty of life. He walked to his body and concentrated on his pale face, pulled me along with our clasped hands. I waited until he was finished, until he realized he was dead.
“What happens to me now?” his voice was as broken as his face. If he were able to cry, he would have tears streaming down his face.
I gave him a hopeful smile. “Do you remember Grandpa Sean and Aunt Victoria?”
He nodded cautiously.
He hesitated, looked at his body one more time, but I gently pulled him to the door and he let me.
I saw a red head girl sitting by herself in a table at an all-night diner.
“May I sit?” I asked politely.
She just looked away from me. I sat down without her consent and smiled.
She looked down at her lap and crossed her arms.
“Mary if you don’t talk to me, would you like to walk with me? I can take you where you belong.”
“No.” she said angrily.
“There are people who can help you, people who can be your new friends, new family?”
“No.” she said again, stubbornly.
I waited until her anger subsided. I knew she was angry at what happened, at my presence, and at her 4 months of trying.
“Mary-dear, what happened?” Her face crushed at the name her mother always used whenever she was feeling down.
“They were here, sitting and eating. They didn’t think about me. Not even for one second.” She spat.
“That’s what they have to do.” I said sympathetically. “They have to continue living.”
She started to cry but no tears fell on her freckled face.
“Mary let me take you somewhere special, some place where people can talk to you , and you can play and be happy and not sad, and not here. You can continue existing and maybe if you’re lucky you can see your mommy and daddy again.”
“No, I don’t want to go.” She said jutting her lips and staring at me with furrowed brows.
“Mary you can’t stay here forever.” I said reasonably.
She covered her ears and ran out of the diner
I was leaning against a street lamp at an empty intersection. I was waiting for Phillip and his mother. They were coming home from a late night snack to celebrate his good grades. I heard the sound of footsteps approaching, the clip-clop, clip-clop of high heels on the concrete. She sighed and leaned against the other side of the street lamp. I stood straight and ignored her.
“Hello to you too,” she said sarcastically.
“Hello Nikki.” I groaned.
“Well, hello Andy. You’re supposed to be in a good mood. You get two tonight and I…”
“And you get one. Yes, I can count.” I interrupted.
“I still don’t hear your good mood.” She pried.
I didn’t reply and she sighed again.
“You’re here early.” I commented.
“I love watching car accidents, the twisted metal, the chattering of glass, the flying of bodies.” She turned to look at me for my reaction. “Huh.” She looked away, slightly disappointed.
“These are people you’re talking about, human beings. You should have more respect or courtesy…”
“Oh there’s the feisty attitude I remember.” She interrupted, facing me from the lamppost. “I don’t care if they are people, rich, poor, murders, or reformed, saints or sinners. At the end of their miserable lives I get their souls.”
“I don’t have a heart. I lost it when I accepted this position as a soul herder, soul guider, or soul taker whatever you prefer.” She laughed menacingly.
Her laughter died down with some bubbling to her lips before she could hold them back.
“Do you remember our first soul together?” she whispered passionately in my ear.
I stayed quiet. I remembered my living days, which I clung to with everything I had.
I was happily married to my husband Eric and we were expecting our first child, my only child. I was driving home from work during a rainy night. I was driving on the freeway off ramp and a large truck was tailgating me. I pressed on my braked as I made a left onto the surface streets. The truck lightly tapped my bumper and my car skidded through a public bus bench, into a fence, and in a canal.
I remembered seeing my soul guide standing a little away from me. I watched myself and my car being doused my rainwater and canal water. I knew I was dead already, my unborn baby dying seconds later. My soul guide introduced herself as Melanine. She saw potential, and after practice and counseling, I was one of them.
I always watched my husband. After he heard the news of our deaths, he spiraled out of control. I watched helplessly. When he tried to drink his pain away, I held his hand as he got his stomach pumped. I tried convincing him to continue living when he thought about me on those rare nights he was sober.
I was away when he cut himself during his morning routine. When I got to him there was so much blood that I thought he would go that way. His sister came by to check on him and found him. She screamed so loud and cried harder than I imagined. If I could have, I would have tried to use my helpless and nonexistent hands, if I could produce tears, I would have cried alongside her, if I could have, I would have taken him at that moment, to end hers, his, and my suffering.
He tried several more times, on his wrists but he did not bleed fast enough. He started hanging himself, once in the closet. I thought for one brief second his eyes focused on mine. I was standing in front of him yelling, telling him to stop, and shouting that I loved him and for him to stop hurting us. He crumbled on the bed and laid there with his eyes open. I sat on his side and held his hand. I thought he had fallen asleep but he said my name clearly, as if I was alive again, as if I was there, as if we always spoke to each other regularly.
“Andy, I’m sorry I can’t live without you.”
“You never tried.” I said; my voice breaking with a nonexistent sob, my face screwed without tears.
“I never wanted to hurt you. I’ll try to be better for you. I am sorry about before. I promise it won’t happen again.”
I watched as his eyes drooped. He rolled over and fell asleep. I felt another presence in the room one similar to me. There was a figure standing in the door leading out to the living room.
“He’s not dying today, so you can leave.” I said to her behind me.
“Oh, I know,” she stepped into the dim streetlight pouring through an open window. “I’ll be here when he does eventually.” Her smile was wicked as all my happiness drained from me. Melanine told me once about the others during my training and counseling. They were from the other side, for the other side. A chill went through my bones as I thought of Eric going to the other side.
“My name is Nikki, and I know you’re Andy.” Her smile was still sinister, “I’m sorry to say that he’s going to break his promise.”
Eric was mad and I feel it in my body. I excused myself from my weekly counseling and rushed to Eric. He was sitting with a half-empty bottle of hard liquor.
“Eric, honey, listen to me.” I said touching his cheek, trying to pull his eyes to me.
He didn’t look or listen.
He swallowed mouthful after mouthful. After that bottle was empty, he went to another bottle I have never seen before. I called his name repeatedly; I stood in his way but nothing I did changed his determined face. That bottle was empty in minutes and he looked at the closet.
“No, Eric.” I said positioning myself in front of the closet. “No, you promised, Eric, no!” My shouting was useless.
He ignored me, tied his belt, and ended his life.
“Eric.” I was defeated and he was gone. I breathed without lungs and looked around the room for him. I waited turning away from his still body. He started to materialize next to our bed.
“Andy?” He asked.
I sighed in relief and I reached for his hand. I couldn’t repress the relief that flooded through me when I actually moved his hand with mine. I turned to the door, alarmed and it was empty.
“We have to go.” I pulled him to me and we were out of our little apartment.