She was five when her friends first arrived. An only child, she smiled when she realized her games could be for more than one now. Her mother worried, as usual, but the five-year-old mind didn’t catch the damp eyes and furrowed forehead.
Christine was her favorite. She knew she wasn’t supposed to have favorites, but Christine was still it. Christine would tell her things that she wasn’t supposed to know—secrets.
“Someday you’ll meet me for real,” Christine would say.
“What do you mean? Aren’t we friends for real now?” she’d say, worried that Christine was leaving.
“Yes, but you’re the only one who can see me right now,” Christine would answer. “Don’t tell anyone. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
She would wriggle in the warmth of Christine’s secrets. Sometimes she would ask about the place Christine and the others came from, despite never getting an answer, just for the satisfaction of hearing her whisper again and again, “Don’t tell anyone.”
The others were more distant. Brian would play her games, but his eyes were always gazing off, reaching for something that was too far away. Maddy was fun some days, but other days she would sit by herself and cry.
“Isn’t crying something grown-ups do?” she asked Christine one day.
“Some children grow up before they’re supposed to,” Christine answered, staring sadly at Maddy’s lone figure. “You’re growing up too fast, little girl.”
“Don’t call me little,” she objected. “I’m almost six.”
Christine turned and looked into her eyes. “One day you will cry,” she said. “It’s because you haven’t that we’re here. When you cry, that means you have loved. You are too old, little girl, for tears to never have wet your face with lost love.”
“Does that mean you’ll leave when I grow up?” she asked, suddenly frightened.
“Yes,” Christine answered, “but you’ll meet us again.”
“Will we still be friends?” she questioned, sensing an oldness behind Christine’s statement.
Christine looked at her with an expression she couldn’t quite read. “Your idea of friendship will change by then. You will be different, and so will we.”
“Aren’t you already different?” she asked, knowing she was prying into the territory of Christine’s secrets, a land that could be either welcoming or harsh, depending on the day.
Christine bit her lip. “I’m no more different than you are. You will see someday.”
That night, she dreamt that her bed flew far away, carrying her over gradually disappearing trees and rivers, to a lonely building in the middle of a lonely desert. When she landed in a bare hallway, she was suddenly surrounded by vague shapes that dragged her down, down, down into the depths of her own soul. Their dull murmuring filled her ears, engulfing her until suddenly Christine’s voice spoke clearly over the tumult.
“It isn’t time for you to be here yet. Go home.”
Christine emerged from the crowd, but it was a different kind of Christine, a Christine with confidence in her eyes, a Christine who wasn’t weighed down by unspoken thoughts. A Christine who somehow seemed more real than the Christine she knew.
“Go home,” Christine repeated, and Maddy and Brian came up behind her. They too somehow looked the same but as if there was less of them.
“Will you be there when I get back?” She felt her lip trembling, and her nose prickled.
“No,” said Christine. “This is the last time you’ll see us for a while.”
It was then that the tear fell. She hadn’t expected it to be so warm, so friendly and somehow comforting. It engraved a pathway down her cheek and settled on the inside of her lip. She tasted salt.
“Goodbye,” Christine whispered.
“Goodbye,” echoed Maddy and Brian.
“No,” she said. “No, I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to be alone again.”
The shapes around her took her bed and lifted it up, pushing it back into the air.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she heard, before she was rushing back to the different kind of lonely building that was her home.
The single tear that separated her from her friends had friends of its own. She got to know them very well, tracing their journeys on her face with a permanent marker so she wouldn’t forget where they came from.
“Wash your face,” her mother told her, exasperated by the black patterns covering her features.
“I don’t want to forget,” she said, staring into the mirror and memorizing the crisscrossing paths of her loneliness. In their intersections, she saw the faces of her friends. She screamed when her father smothered them with the washcloth, watching her only friendships smudge into nothingness. The tears that came this time left no marks but flowed uninhibited until she slept.
On her sixth birthday, her parents brought out a scrapbook of pictures she had never seen before. She flipped through them, suddenly confused.
“I thought you couldn’t see Brian and Maddy,” she said.
Her mother took her hands. “Brian and Maddy were your brother and sister,” she said. “They died before you were born.”
She was silent for a minute. “Is that why they cried all the time?” she whispered, finally. “Is that why you cry?”
“They were so excited to have a sister,” her father said. “We’d been trying for years before you finally came.”
She closed the book, feeling peaceful on her insides.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll meet them again.”
Her mother started crying and held her tightly to her chest.
“Oh Chrissy,” she whispered. “Oh, Chrissy.”
Created: Jan 01, 2011remilyp Document Media