When I walked into the living room and saw my daughter sitting cross-legged playing, I allowed myself a smile; this was not something I’d seen before. She picked up one of the little figurines and placed it in front of her playmate.
My wife got up from her chair slowly and crept over to me. She placed her arm around my back. I felt her shoulders heave as she began to cry, happy.
“See, just like the psychiatrist said,” she whispered, “just give it time and she’ll come out of her shell, she’ll start talking. We’re going to have to arrange some play dates.”
“Yes,” I said, with a tear rolling down my cheek. I tried to feign a smile.
I started life in much the same way as my daughter. I was quiet. I kept to myself. I didn’t start talking when all the other children did. I went from psychiatrist to doctor to psychologist; I was diagnosed autistic. They didn’t understand the condition as well back then as they do now. They thought I was stupid.
Looking back, I cannot remember attending pre-school or many of the children my age; but I do remember my *friends*, the ones I talked to in my head. *They* always told me how great I was, at a time when my parents just pushed me from stranger to stranger to work out why I was too *intellectually stunted*. *They* told me to not trust the other children, they’d betray me. So I kept to myself.
*They* all had names. But now, I can only remember Mr Wednesday, I think I named him that, but am not sure now. I never saw *them* in the daytime, however I was always conscious of *them* being there, somewhere out of sight, like over my shoulder or under the table.
My Dad was always supportive, I think he thought I was *special* and needed extra help coping socially. When he tucked me into bed at night he’d shine a torch underneath and state, “You’re all clear of monsters, sunshine.”
After the door shut and the room fell back into the darkness I could make out the dark silhouettes of *them* huddled into the corners of my room. *They* scared me in the dark, *they* took on a whole new reality, *their* shadow-like ethereal bodies made all the more real by the veil of night. I held my eyes shut tight, as I felt *them* slink back under my bed calmly. When I finally did open my eyes, the silhouettes were gone. But I knew where *they* were. Just feet under my body, waiting for me to wake.
When I was eight I spent the weekend at my Grandma’s house, so that my parents could go on a short trip. I recalled my mother hugging my Grandma so tightly and repeatedly thanking her for the opportunity to get away.
As she turned, she knelt in front of me and said, “You be good for your grandmother, she doesn’t have the energy we do, so if you make her life hell…” She sighed, “Just be good honey, okay?”
*See, she’s leaving you, again, just like she always does.*
“Oh son, I’m sorry,” she said pulling me close and patting my back.
I watched from the porch as the car pulled away, my Grandma’s hand rubbing my back.
As they disappeared into the distance she leaned over and said, “Let’s get some cookies for you and your friends.”
I looked up at her, my eyes like saucers, “Your parents have told me all about them.”
The bungalow was small, but cozy. The fireplace kept the whole place warm, sometimes too warm and I’d need to take off my jumper.
My Grandma finished stoking the fire and hobbled into the open-plan kitchen, her feet shuffling on the wooden floor.
She took her seat at the dining table opposite me; I stared at the plate of cookies.
Leaning forward she asked, “Aren’t you going to eat one?”
I shook my head.
“That’s a shame, I’m sure one of your friends would like one?” she continued looking at me quizzically.
Shrugging, she picked up a cookie for herself and began eating.
Finishing the last mouth full she said, “Would you like some milk as least?”
I shook my head again.
“Not much of a talker are we? That’s okay; I don’t mind doing all the talking. I don’t get to see many people these days and when I do, it’s hard to get a word in edgeways,” she chuckled.
“How about we do some crafts?”
She pulled an old varnished wooden box towards her.
“This’ll be fun, trust me.”
She opened the box, curiosity got the better of me and I looked up.
“So you are interested then,” she announced with a smile.
She took out some cottonwool, and with a piece of cloth, she wrapped it up. Carefully she dipped back into the box and withdrew a piece of string.
“So, these friends of yours, are *they* nice?”
I nodded my head.
“I bet *they* tell you good things about you.”
I nodded again.
“Do *they* say bad things about other people.”
I hung my head.
“Do *they* say bad things about your parents.”
She had now stopped what she was doing. I looked up and she was staring at me.
“Do you ever see *them*?”
I acknowledged her by not breaking my gaze, thinking of the silhouettes I saw in my bedroom at night.
“Do you want *them* to go away?”
She handed me the creation and I took it. It appeared to be a crude representation of a man. The cloth and cottonwool made up the body and head, the string was used to separate the two; arms and legs represented by twigs.
“Do you want me to show you how to make one of these?” she asked.
Startled, I looked over to the far corner of the room. Backed up against the wall, two feet off the ground I saw a man in a tatty black suit, a white shirt underneath torn and dirty. His face in shadow cast by his unkempt hat. That was the clearest I ever saw Mr Wednesday and dread took over me. Butterflies gathered in my stomach and I felt feint.
He began slowly shaking his head and I shook mine.
“Okay, little one, maybe later,” my Grandma said, suddenly somber and distracted by what took my gaze.
“Hey, I’ve got something to show you,” she said, getting up from the seat and taking my hand.
I got out of my seat and held her hand tightly, so warm and gentle against mine, she squeezed my hand in response.
We stopped in front of a glass cabinet high up on the wall, just out of reaching distance. Gently she opened it and took out a small box similar to that on the table, but this one came with a combination lock. Out of view she unlocked it.
She sat me down on the couch and opened the lid. Inside there were around twenty little cloth men. Some were very basic and some very intricate, their faces painted, some dressed in miniature clothes.
“These are mine,” she started.
“No,” she scolded as I reached out to touch one, “You mustn’t, these are not to be played with. I made each one of these for every one of *them* that talked to me, did things to me. For you, they may seem friendly, but I assure you, they are not. These, as long as I keep them, *they* will not bother me or others.”
She closed the box up and put it back in the cabinet.
“Well, I don’t know what kids like to do these days, would you like cartoons?”
Sitting, I tried to smile and watch the TV, but I couldn’t ignore the suited man who stood next to it halfway up the wall.
“I haven’t had to do this for years, I’m sorry if it is not how you like it,” my Grandma announced as she pulled the sheets up around my neck, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite sweetie.”
She approached the threshold of the door, took one more look at me, she waved closing the door. I watched the room descend into darkness and closed my eyes before it was pitch black, making sure I didn’t get a glance of *them*.
I waited for sleep to visit me. Suddenly, I became aware I was not alone. The feeling so palpable my heart skipped a beat in my chest, the next one so heavy it took my breath away.
*Get that box.*
I turned over in bed and scrunched my eyes shut.
*Come on, wouldn’t you like some more friends?*
I ignored *it* and held my hands over my ears.
*BOY, don’t make me angry!*
I felt a cold hand clamp down on my shoulder, gripping tightly.
I sat up, a clammy sweat pouring from my brow. Wondering if what I just experienced was a dream, I felt my heart race, trying to catch my breath.
*WELL, COME ON. DON’T DISAPPOINT ME!*
The words reverberated in my head, so loud I was sure my Grandma would hear.
I stood up and walked towards the bedroom door, hearing my feet slap against the parquet floor. Opening the door, I took a deep breath. I lurched forward as an unseen hand pushed me out of the room.
Scared, I walked along the dimly lit corridor to the living room. As quiet as I could be, I creeped past my Grandma’s bedroom and slowly turned the handle to the lounge. The door opened with a click and the air, still warmed by the embers of the fire escaped.
I spied the glass cabinet hung high on the wall and my pulse quickened. An anxiety let loose around my nervous system, telling me to run, run to my Grandma’s room and dive into her bed.
I turned and jumped in shock. Mr Wednesday stood in front of my bedroom door. A tall girl with her arm in a sling was just behind him; her pigtails cut off near the root leaving uneven knots of greasy hair on top of her head. She held down by her side, by its ears, what was left of a bunny rabbit. Her smile appeared unnaturally large, hundreds of teeth slithered in her mouth like a centipede’s legs. Just by her feet sat a dog, a mongrel, its tongue slack; staring back at me with two eye sockets long since stitched shut.
I panicked and ran into the living room, closing the door behind me. Stepping away from the door, I tried to catch my breath.
The handle to the lounge began to turn.
I tried to speak, “I am… trying. Stop… it,” the words laboured and stuttered as I was not used to speaking.
I pushed the couch with all my might, it squeaked as it relented; I winced at the sound. I sighed in relief when it came to rest under the cabinet.
The door handle started to move again. With haste I jumped on the couch and began to climb.
“What do you think you are doing?” My Grandma shouted through the now open living room door.
I turned my head, my lip starting to quiver, tears collecting on the corners of my eyes.
“I… am… sor-ry, Grand-ma,” I said crying, “I…m sorry. *Th-ey*, *th-they*.”
She cocked her head to the side and shuffled towards me as fast as she could, “Oh, I am so sorry, dear. Come.”
She opened her arms, I jumped down and ran into them.
“Everything’s going to be okay, everything is going to be okay.”
The doorbell rang and my head responded by looking straight at it. My Grandma got up from the chair, muddled her way to the front of the house and opened the door.
“Welcome back, did you have a nice trip?” she asked my Mother.
“It was great,” she responded, walking into the house.
Looking at me, she asked “How’s my little guy?”
I just stared.
“Don’t you have something to say to your Mother dear?” my Grandma said.
My mother looked at her confused.
“I… am… ha-happy to s-ee… you,” I mustered.
She brought her hands to her face, her eyes beginning to glass over.
“Richard, get in here, now!” she shouted out for my Father.
“What, what is it?” he responded, bounding into the house.
“Our little boy spoke!”
I glanced at my Grandma, she nodded knowingly.
His lips shuddered as he began to smile. He rushed over and hugged me.
“His friends are gone now, he’ll be fine,” my Grandma soothed.
We left the house that evening after eating dinner. The cold night turned to vapour as I breathed.
“Hey dear, don’t forget these.”
I spun around to see my Grandma hold out a wooden box.
“Here, take it. Remember, as long as you have *them* in here, *they* can’t hurt you.”
I grabbed the box, and on tiptoes kissed her on the cheek.
“I’ll miss you, you know that right?” she said as I waved and trotted towards the car.
Seeing my daughter playing brought back all those memories.
I peered at her playmate.
He sat cross-legged in a tatty black suit, his white shirt underneath torn and dirty. His face in shadow cast by his unkempt hat.
My daughter asked, “Can… M-mr We-ns-day… stay… sta-y… fo-for din-nn-er?”
“She talked! She talked! Can you believe it?” my wife said overjoyed, clapping enthusiastically.
“Oh course you’re *friend* can stay?” she said confused, looking at her sitting there on her own, so happy her daughter had finally spoke.
I feigned a smile and stared at the wooden box on the floor, it’s contents scattered on the carpet; little cotton effigies not moving like corpses on a battlefield.
My attention turned to Mr Wednesday, he slowly shock his head and brought his finger to his mouth.