Whew! I spent most of the day watching Hallowe’en films (my favourite today was Practical Magic, mostly because I didn’t feel the urge to hide behind the sofa during that one but also because it’s a great film) but I still got this story done in time, just about. Now, fair warning, I started off with a vague idea of the ending and it was going to be scary and ambiguous and then the story changed completely and now it’s spooky but kinda accidentally really cute. At least, I think so. Anyway, enjoy!
by Eleanor Musgrove
Olivia was four years old – nearly five, Mummy! as she’d say – and the most precious thing in our world. Like many four-year-olds, she had a lot of friends. Some of those friends were the sort of friends we’d see often, running around in our garden or sharing their toys at preschool. Some of them were the sort of friends we only saw once in a blue moon. And one of them, we never saw at all. That’s not to say she never came round; on the contrary, that little girl was always underfoot, Olivia’s very best friend.
“Mummy, Emily says she’s cold…” I’d been thrown by declarations like this to begin with, but Olivia’s father had consulted the grandparents and come back with a firm solution. He said that Olivia was using this ‘Emily’ to ask for things she wanted, but didn’t want to ask for. We should just play along until she grew out of it.
“Alright, sweetie, shall I get you both a nice big blanket to share?” A few minutes later, Olivia was snuggled into half a blanket, the other half tucked around an invisible person. If you looked out of the corner of your eye, you’d be forgiven for thinking there really were two little girls there. “Better, sweetheart?”
“Yes, Mummy. We say thanks.”
“That’s quite alright, darling. Now, Daddy’s going to put a video on for you, which do you want?”
“Um…” She whispered to the blanket for a while, as if having a serious discussion, then smiled up at me. “Can we watch Bugs Bunny? It’s Emily’s favouritest one.”
“Of course you can, Livvy. Is it your favourite too?”
“Hmm… it’s nearly my favourite. I like Mickey more, though.”
“Well, then, how about we watch Mickey first, and then we can watch Bugs Bunny later? You always do what Emily wants these days.” Another whispered conference of one.
“…Emily says that’s OK. I wanted us to watch it first because she’s sad, but she says she likes Mickey too.” I rolled my eyes good-naturedly at her father – such imagination our little girl has – and he put the Mickey Mouse DVD on.
A few minutes later, in between giggles at the animated on-screen antics, Olivia piped up again.
“Mummy, Emily wants to know how the TV works. She didn’t have one when she lived here.”
“Oh, it’s quite… well, it’s a bit complicated, actually, but it’s really just a lot of pictures one after the other, really fast.” Olivia turned solemnly to the empty air beside her, listened intently for a few seconds, then turned back to me.
“Emily says it’s alright that you don’t know.”
We got used to Olivia’s little games and stories with Emily; it wasn’t doing her any harm, and she never tried to involve other children in her games. She told us that it was because Emily was shy. Whatever the reason, we were just glad that she wouldn’t be getting us all into trouble with any other families, and that no kid was going to break her heart by telling her her best friend wasn’t real. It wasn’t until the evening I caught Emily drinking ‘her’ hot chocolate while Olivia chatted away about her favourite TV show that I began to realise our little girl wasn’t making things up.
Liv’s father was away again, which was a relief, because I knew he’d try to tell me I was crazy. But suddenly a lot of things I’d shrugged off, strange things that had happened around my daughter, were starting to make a crazy sort of sense. I relocated the girls to the sofa in the living room, hot chocolates and all, and made us a little blanket tent, ideal for sharing secrets among girls.
“Settled, Livvy? Comfy?” She nodded happily and snuck another marshmallow out of the little bowl I’d brought, dropping it into her hot chocolate with a satisfying ‘plop’. “And Emily, is Emily settled?” Liv nodded, but I knew I had to make sure we both understood what was going on here. “Where’s she sitting, sweetie? I can’t see her.”
“Right here, next to me.” Olivia indicated the space to her left. I settled opposite them both and held the bowl of marshmallows out.
“Hi, Emily. Would you like one?” For several long moments, nothing happened. I felt a fool, offering food to a child that wasn’t there. Then, just as I was about to give it to Olivia instead, pretend it had never happened… a marshmallow lifted itself into the air and dropped into Emily’s mug. I’d seen that. I’d seen it happen. And one glance at Livvy told me she’d seen it too. It took a few moments to process, so I stalled for time by drinking my own hot chocolate – with a marshmallow of my own, of course. The sweet taste helped to settle my thoughts a bit, and it was with new strength that I turned back to Olivia.
“Sweetheart, I can’t hear Emily. Would you mind telling me what she says?” Liv nodded solemnly. “OK, do you know how old Emily is?”
“She’s five already. She’s been five a long time.”
“Wow, a grown-up girl. Where are your parents, Emily?” There was a long silence. “…Liv?”
“Oh. Sorry, I thought you could hear her now. She says they went away. She waited for them to come back and tuck her in, but they never came. And then she stopped getting grown-up and people couldn’t see her any more and then we came here so she met me and we’re very best friends.”
“When did that happen?” Liv frowned.
“Emily doesn’t remember. Years and years ago. There weren’t TVs or cars or any fun things like that.” There was another pause. “Sorry, Emmy. She says there were rocking horses and those are fun.”
“Yes, they are fun. I had one when I was a little girl; maybe we should get you girls one. So will Emily be staying with us?”
My daughter adopted an unfamiliar, serious expression, almost worried.
“She says she’s sorry if she should have left us alone. She says… she just wanted someone to talk to her. She misses being looked after and… and being tucked in at night.”
“Oh, no, honey. Emily, sweetheart…” I hesitated. I’d seen the horror films; inviting a ghost – what else could poor little Emily be? – into your home to stay was a terrible idea. Yet Liv trusted her, and she’d never done us any harm yet, and she sounded so sad… “You can stay with us as long as you like. I’ll try to include you more, but I’ll have to tell Livvy’s Daddy very carefully in case he’s worried because he can’t see you.”
“…She says thank you, Mummy.” Indeed, I could see Emily’s gratitude for myself; a marshmallow had levitated itself out of the bowl and landed gently in my hand.
“That’s alright. Now, I think it’s bedtime, don’t you? Run along, both of you.” As Olivia rushed upstairs, I absent-mindedly chewed the marshmallow Emily had given me and folded up the blankets I’d used to make our little sanctuary. I could hear little feet pattering around upstairs – two, or four? I couldn’t tell – as my daughter and… well, I supposed they were both my daughters now, in a way…. got ready for bed. By the time I headed upstairs, Olivia was in her nightie and climbing under the sheets. There was already a lump in the bed next to her, as if caused by an unseen shape. The duvet was a mess, bunched up at the end of the bed.
“Ready? Good girls. Get comfy, I’m here to tuck you in.” I smiled as I patted the duvet into place. “Both of you.”
What did you think? Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow for the start of the NaNo madness!