The Imaginary Friend
This morning she’d become afraid of him. Not because he was growing up, not because she wasn’t his real mother, but because she’d finally come to believe that Roy was as real as the foundation of her house. And Roy, furthermore, was far from friendly.
Patty was pale, as she didn’t get much sun; she worked from home as a stock trader and got her exercise on an exer-bike. Antonio, seven years old, took himself to school, it being only a short walk away.
He was in his room now, speaking to Roy in English. Patty was listening but couldn’t quite make out the words. He was speaking English because he could barely speak a word of Spanish any more. It wasn’t only his complexion that set him apart at school. He was dark skinned, but he didn’t fit in with the Spanish-speakers there either. At first she’d thought that was why he’d created Roy, to give himself some company, but as it turned out Roy had been helping Antonio defend himself, therefore the conclusion Patty came to, sitting there knitting, was that she was a bad parent. Antonio faced problems of assimilation she couldn’t begin to fathom. She’d been tried and found inadequate, but oh God, how she’d tried. It pained her to see her boy picked on at school. Maybe she shouldn’t beat herself up for it. There was only so much a single parent can do. Maybe she never should have tried her hand at it.
She rocked back and forth while she knitted the sweater’s left cuff. It was the last bit she had to work on. She could probably finish the sweater today if she didn’t do any more trading. She wasn’t sure she could go back to work even if she wanted to. She’d lost her presence of mind. Maybe she should thank her stars that Roy had come to them. Maybe without him Antonio would have had an even rougher time of it.
She remembered when she had first seen Antonio in a photograph in an album that a representative of the Red Cross had presented to her. She’d instantly known he was the one. His parents, rural village people, had died in a cholera outbreak. Until today she had never felt an ounce of regret at having taken him in. But it was quite disconcerting to suddenly find that she had been playing host to an alien, hostile entity, and to find that it was welcome by one she loved.
Roy sounded like a white person’s name. Where had he come from? What did he want with them? The longer she sat there and thought about it the more she became afraid of what he might do to her.
Aside from Antonio’s voice there was absolute silence in the house. She turned on the television to break it and found herself watching Judge Judy, even though she hated courtroom shows.
The look in Antonio’s eyes when he’d gotten into the car had been accusatory. She wasn’t there for him like he needed her to be, and it turned out that the world was too inherently mean-hearted. So Patty had locked him in his room again. It was because she was afraid, she told herself, but there was a part of her, she believed, that hated him too: his helplessness, his wide-eyed obedience. He was a target at school because he didn’t know how to defend himself.
She finished the sweater’s left cuff and clipped the yarn. She held it by the shoulders and examined it. It was just her size. From here on out she would only knit for herself. She would never knit for Roy.
She turned off the television and sat for a moment in the stillness. The conversation coming from Antonio’s room sounded animated, at least from what she could hear.
There was more than enough time to make dinner, she decided, and today she would be eating with Antonio; Roy would surely be there too. It might be the last conversation the three of them would have. It might be the last conversation she would have with anyone. Roy could snap her neck like a twig, and she supposed she deserved it. She’d just been too afraid, and until today she hadn’t even known why. It had just come to her all at once. Antonio was imaginative, but not that imaginative. Four kids all at once, and that after he’d broken the teacher’s blackboard with his anger. He was a very angry little boy. Roy must feed off of it like a leech drinks blood.
Patty turned on the ceiling fan and opened a window, so that the smells from her cooking could escape. Tonight she would make filet mignon for two, a special meal for a special occasion. She believed that he loved her, despite the padlock she’d put on his door. He might even think that she was justified in it, because he was not her blood. That was important. She didn’t know what it was like to have a child of her own. It was a major regret that she harbored. He might want to hurt her tonight. It was a risk she had to take.
While taking ingredients out of the fridge she could swear that she heard Roy himself for the first time — his voice was deep, sonorous, almost musical. She bobbled the steaks and peppercorns she’d been carrying to the chopping board and almost dropped them. She set them down hurriedly and turned on the radio. The station, a local news program, was appealing to their listeners for funds. Patty changed the station to NPR, and found a report on China’s slowing economy. She poured herself a generous glass of red wine which she drank completely while she cooked. When the steaks were done she poured herself another one.
She brought the plates to the dining room table and placed them, she at the head and Antonio next to her.
She would not be afraid of him.
Their two voices wound about each other, hollow sounding in the echoes down the hallway as Patty approached Antonio’s door, taking her keys out of her pocket. A strong sliver of light lined the four sides of the doorframe. It looked demonic, and felt that way too. She would soon see what was making that light, and the thing doing it would see her too.
She reached the door and stuck the key into the padlock. Antonio’s and Roy’s voices instantly silenced.
Moving slowly as if underwater, Patty opened the door.
Her adopted son was standing in the center of the room, facing his dresser, his right side facing her. His head hung like he had done something wrong.
“It’s dinnertime,” Patty intoned. “Come eat your dinner.”
Antonio shook his head.
“I’m not hungry,” he answered.
“Dinner’s ready, Antonio,” Patty repeated, her voice laden with import. “Come and get it. Now.”
He looked at her. There was apology in his dark eyes like he was already sure of the unhappy denouement they approached. Patty had never dealt with children until taking Antonio in three years ago. It still surprised her how much they seemed to know.
“Come on,” she said, entering his room and taking his hand. “You don’t have to be afraid.”
“Of what, mom?” he asked.
She had no answer. Perhaps she had meant to reassure herself.
He let her guide him out of his room, navigating the action figures and aborted Lego projects strewn across the floor.
“We have a lot to talk about,” she said.
“No we don’t,” he shot back.
“Yes we do,” she insisted. They’d reached the dining room. “Now sit down in your chair and say your prayers and I’ll say mine.”
He climbed into his chair and nudged it towards the table.
“I don’t like saying prayers,” he said.
“We have to thank God for His bounty.”
“I don’t feel like thanking nobody.”
Patty closed her eyes and folded her hands. She asked God to protect her, but felt no response.
“Did you learn anything at school today?” she asked after she was done.
“Jesús picked on you again?”
“Sure did. He and Luis, Martino and Chavez.”
“And what did you do?”
“Me and Roy picked on them back.”
“What did you do?”
“We beat them up. Punched them and kicked them, all at once.”
“Eat your steak,” Patty said.
“They knew it was him too.”
“How’d they know that?”
“Roy told them. You bet they’re never gonna pick on me again.”
“You’ve gotten better at it.”
Antonio had his fork and steak knife and was clumsily tearing himself a slice. He forced it into his mouth and chewed noisily. Patty told him to keep his mouth closed, then she took a swallow of wine. She breathed deeply.
“Are you angry at me?” she asked him.
Antonio abruptly stopped cutting his steak, then he resumed, head down.
“I don’t know why you lock me up,” he said.
“Yes you do.”
He put another slice of steak into his mouth. Patty discerned a slow but steady pulsation in the air. It sounded like Roy’s heart beat.
“I don’t know nothing,” Antonio said.
“Look at me, Antonio.”
Antonio looked at her.
“Do I look different to you?” she asked.
“Different from what?”
“Different from you.”
“You sure do,” he said. “You look like a gringo.”
“And you can’t even say that word the way the other Mexicans do, can you?”
“I’m not Mexican, mom.”
He poked the steak with his fork. The pulsation around them intensified.
“You think I’m being funny when I lock you in your room?”
“What do you think?”
“I think I want to hurt you.”
“I know you do, but you won’t. Because you love me, Antonio. I know you do, and I love you too, but that doesn’t mean things can work out with us, not with him here, and you know it.”
“Shut up, mom,” and he seemed to hesitate on this last word, like he wondered if he really thought of her that way, or as if she’d become just another person who picked on him.
He continued to push food around his plate. He scowled and couldn’t meet her eyes. “Are you afraid of me?” she asked.
“No,” he responded incredulously.
“You should be. I’m your mother. But it’s not like that with us. I’m afraid of you.”
Antonio did not answer.
Patty took another swallow of wine. Sweat was breaking out on her forehead. The room was getting hotter. Roy was itching for a bitching.
“I don’t like this,” Antonio said.
“You need me.”
“Roy doesn’t like it either.”
The analog clock on the wall was ticking faster seconds than it should. Roy could barely contain himself.
“I know Roy doesn’t like me,” she said. “He never did. You know he doesn’t belong here. He needs to go.”
Antonio was silent. She reached out and stroked his hair, and it was like stroking a doll he was so still. She moved her chair closer to his, the presence of Roy grinning and bearing in all around her.
She thought about taking Antonio back to his room. He looked so small and confused. She never should have locked him up in the first place.
“I’m scared,” she said.
“My life’s gonna be shit,” Antonio said.
“I know it will be,” she answered.
“And it’s all your fault.”
“I know it is. I’m so sorry, Antonio.”
“Just you wait,” Antonio responded. “I’ll help myself and beat everyone. I’ll never need you or Roy again.”
Antonio fell silent. She wondered what he was thinking about. Was he going to hurt her?
All of a sudden the windows she’d opened in the kitchen slammed shut. The air was hot.
“I love you, Antonio,” said his adoptive parent. “I’m so sorry.”
“Finish your food,” said Roy. “I’m all the family he’ll ever need.”
“Why did you come?” she asked. “Why did you do this to us?”
“Because he can’t speak Spanish.”
Antonio burst out crying; tears and snot started to come out of him, some of it reaching the plate he wouldn’t touch any more.
Patty went back to her filet mignon. She was beginning to cry herself, but didn’t want to get any closer to him, afraid of how he would react.
She tossed a slice of steak in her mouth with her tongue. She had cooked it to a perfect medium. The lightly fried potatoes and the sautéed green beans were exceptional. She might have been a chef in a former life.
“I hope you’re enjoying your meal,” said Roy.
“I am,” she answered.
“Our life doesn’t have to be shit.”
“No it doesn’t,” said Antonio, raising his head.
“Atta boy,” said Roy.
Patty chose not to contribute to the conversation, so silence fell between them. Before she knew it she’d finished her plate and then started into her wine.
“Are you done?” she asked after she’d finished her glass.
Antonio nodded, even though his plate was still half full.
“Then I’ll take what’s left for left overs. You can eat it tomorrow for school,” she said, sniffing back tears.
“Okay,” he said and pushed himself away from the table. He left Patty to clear the table by herself and went back to his room.
He started packing his bags with clothes and toys as soon as he’d shut the door. Fifteen minutes later he heard Patty lock the pad lock.
“It’s going to be okay,” Roy told him. “I’ll take care of you.”
“I don’t know if you can.”
“I can or I’ll die trying.”
“I don’t know what that even means.”
But both of them knew that it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. People are locked out in the cold everywhere, every day. Patty was just another cruel mistress. There were plenty of them to go around.
They climbed out of Antonio’s bedroom window. Roy shut it behind them out of an unnecessary sense of courtesy.
Patty couldn’t summon the heart to unlock the door and begin clearing out the room until three weeks later. In the meantime she worked on her story for the Red Cross: Antonio and she had been unhappy for a long time, and one day he’d just disappeared, and she had been at first too ashamed to tell them. She would remove the lock from the door, and plaster over the screw holes where it had been. She had failed. She wouldn’t take another child in, not after Roy. What misery the poor child must have been suffering for such an entity to find himself necessary.
At least the child wasn’t completely alone. But neither the police, nor anyone else, ever found him. He was a missing person’s case that went unsolved, and Patty was not found to blame. She could thank her lucky stars for that.
She too had had an imaginary friend when she was younger. Her name had been Lottie. But her imaginary friend had been just that: imaginary. Maybe Antonio would be happy and safe with Roy, while Patty, perhaps, should thank God that she would never see either of them again.