Let this be real
What’s your home like, Ainsley?” Eddie asked me one day when he was supposed to be doing his homework. I was on the floor next to the table, counting how many times I breathed in and then out. When Eddie did his homework, he didn’t pay attention to me, which was why it was my least favorite time of the day. Although, I was noticing that he was ignoring me more and more often. My eagerness for his attention was the only reason I decided to answer his question.
“My home?” I exhaled softly, brow furrowing. “What’s it like now? Well, I don’t know, Eddie. I haven’t been there in a long time. I’m too busy playing with you, silly. Why do you ask? Do you want me to go home?”
“No,” Eddie said quickly. “Of course not.” His grip on his No. 2 pencil tightened.
I rolled onto my tummy and put my ear against the old carpet, listening for a long moment. “Hey, Eddie,” I said, “do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” He put down the pencil. He hadn’t written anything on the paper except for his name.
“It’s…” I concentrated harder. It was more distinct now. “It sounds like a dinosaur.”
Eddie sat up a little straighter. “A dinosaur?” He scrambled off the dining room chair and flopped onto his belly next to me, pressing his ear against the floor, too. “How can you tell?” he whispered, staring at me wide-eyed.
“Because they’re sending me a secret message,” I informed him simply. “Can you hear it? The tapping?” We were quiet together, straining to hear the soft tip tip tip that the dinosaurs were sending me.
“Yeah,” Eddie breathed. “But aren’t dinosaurs supposed to be really loud?”
I rolled my eyes. Honestly. “Only when they’re having a shouting contest, silly. Otherwise, they like to be really quiet. You want to know why?” Eddie nodded eagerly. “Because dinosaurs love to play Gotcha.”
Eddie’s eyebrows came together and he frowned. “What’s that?”
“It’s a game where you have to be super quiet. And then, when someone is busy getting a snack or something, you jump out and yell, ‘Gotcha!’ really loud. And if the other person screams, then you get a point. The winner has the most points.”
“How did you get to meet the dinosaurs?”
I shrugged casually. “I went to their country a while ago when you were taking a bath. They really liked me. I was lot smaller than a bunch of them, so I could sneak around easier. I got a lot of points when I was with them.”
The awe on Eddie’s face made me feel proud. “What are they trying to tell you now?”
Now it was my turn to frown. “I don’t know,” I answered crossly. “I’ve been talking to you this whole time. I haven’t been listening.”
We stopped talking so I could hear my secret message more easily. After a while, I got up from the floor. “They thought I wasn’t here,” I said huffily, “because I didn’t respond for a long time. I bet they were going to invite me back, too. They liked me. Especially the one with the really long neck. What was his name, again? Bronchus? Bruno?”
“Bronchiasaurus?” Eddie offered.
I clapped my hands together. “Yes! That was it! How did you know? Did you meet him, too?”
“No, but – “
“Edwin,” Nana said, poking her head into the room. She looked at the empty chair and then around the room until she saw him on the floor. “What are you doing? Have you done your homework yet?” She gave Eddie a knowing look.
“Not yet, Nana,” he replied. “But homework is boring. Why do I need to do it?”
Nana laughed. Her laugh was nice. It was deep and came straight from her belly. “Edwin, homework is good for you. It will help you be smarter than you already are. Come on, now. Why don’t you get back to work, and I’ll bring you some cookies to help you think?” Eddie gave a long, dramatic sigh and then climbed back onto his chair and took up his yellow pencil again. Nana padded back to the kitchen to get the cookies.
Nana was my next favorite person after Eddie. She was Eddie’s grandma and looked kind of like him. They had the same curly hair and brown eyes. On the weekends, she would read Eddie bedtime stories from a big blue book. Better than that, she was the best baker in the whole wide world, and every now and then I wished she was my grandma, too.
“Do you want me to help?” I asked, putting my chin at the corner of the table. “I’m better at math than you are.”
“I’m not doing math,” Eddie grumbled sourly. “I’m doing reading. I have to write what my favorite part of the story was.” He pushed the little book to me so I could see. I scrunched up my nose at it. The only things I knew how to read and write were my name and his.
“Oh, phooey,” I sighed. “Maybe you can ask – “
Nana walked back into the room with a paper plate with four little cookies on it and a glass of milk with two bendie straws. I scrambled out of her way. I was eyeing the blue straw. The other one was green, but blue was my favorite color.
“I call the blue one,” I whispered to Eddie.
“Thank you, Nana,” Eddie said.
“Yeah, thank you, Nana,” I echoed.
Eddie bit into his cookie, and I nudged him with my elbow sharply. He jumped a little and gave me an annoyed look. “Tell her I said thank you,” I ordered impatiently.
Eddie swallowed his mouthful of chocolate-chipped goodness with some difficulty and obediently conveyed, “Ainsley says thank you, Nana.”
Nana smiled warmly at Eddie. “She’s very welcome. Does she like the cookies?”
“She hasn’t tried one yet,” Eddie explained on my behalf, “but she always likes your cooking, so she’ll probably say it’s fantastic.”
But before I took my first bite of Nana’s cookies and fulfilled Eddie’s prophecy, I made a wish. A really selfish wish. I wished that Eddie and I could stay just like this – together – forever. The problem is, when you’re selfish, bad things happen a lot faster.
“Then I’m going to turn off the light now,” Nana said, stepping over the stray socks and Uno cards that littered the carpet to get to the light switch.
“W-wait,” Eddie mumbled from under his many layers of blankets, blinking rapidly as he struggled to keep his eyes open. “Did you… Is the nightlight on?”
I leaned around the bed to check that the little fire truck was plugged in and shining. “It is,” I assured. Nana echoed my answer.
“And my baseball bat? I think I forgot to bring it up after practice.”
Nana nodded patiently. “I think I saw it in the kitchen. Do you want me to get it for you?”
“Yeah. Because…” Eddie stifled a yawn. “Because just in case the Boogie Man shows his face again, Ainsley can chase him away with it.”
“Ah,” Nana said and nodded again. “Ainsley is very brave, isn’t she?”
Eddie closed his eyes. “Mmm. I’m lucky to have her as my friend.”
I sighed happily, resting my chin on the edge of Eddie’s bed so that our noses were a thumb’s width apart. “Me, too,” I whispered, silently marveling at how I could see Eddie’s every individual eyelash when we were this close. “I’m lucky to have you as a friend, too.” Even though Eddie’s eyes stayed shut, his lips turned up at the corners.
It only took Nana two minutes to get Eddie’s bat, but by the time she came back, Eddie was snoring softly.
I crept down the stairs, careful to avoid the second step from the bottom, since it creaked so loudly. Eddie had been asleep for an hour now, and the Boogie Man still hadn’t shown up. In my experience, it was unlikely that he would turn up for the rest of the night. But just in case, I had lined up Eddie’s G.I. Joe, Power Ranger, and Batman figurines so that they faced the door with their fists and weapons poised to attack.
“Listen up, men,” I had told them, in as loud a voice as I dared to speak when Eddie was still dreaming. “You are to keep watch over your larger comrade until my return. Attack all others who approach!” I couldn’t have left Eddie in better, more experienced hands.
It was rare for me to keep a secret from Eddie, since we shared almost everything, but my late night expeditions were one of them. Nana and Eddie’s mom sat around the kitchen table around this time, mostly talking about people and things that I didn’t understand: money, wars in different countries, old people that were fighting to become president. Even though I had trouble following their conversations, it was exciting to get a taste of the world of adults without actually becoming one.
“His father and I have been talking about it,” Eddie’s mom was saying seriously when I jumped up to sit on the counter. “We’re looking to find a good therapist for him.”
“Charlotte, is that really necessary?” Nana asked, her eyebrows coming together.
“He’s seven now, Mom, not four. It’s not normal for him to have such a strong attachment to some imaginary friend.” Eddie’s mom clutched her yellow mug with both hands.
“And why would you want Edwin to become ordinary? He’s an extraordinary boy, Charlotte. There’s nothing wrong with him.”
“But he can’t even tell the difference between real life and his imagination anymore! When I took him shopping, he wanted this toy because he said Ainsley wanted it. When his father tried to teach him how to swim, he wouldn’t go near the pool because he said Ainsley was afraid of water. His teacher called me the other day. She wanted to know if I was aware that he talks to himself… It’s not healthy!”
“But it’s perfectly natural. He’ll grow out of it when he’s ready. You don’t need to pay a man with a clipboard to get your way, sweetie. Just be patient.”
“I think he thinks that she’s real. Like, actually real,” Eddie’s mom persisted.
“I agree,” Nana returned smoothly. “But it’s not our place to tell Edwin whether she’s real or not. Right now, he believes that she’s real, so she is. In his mind, he loves her and she loves him, so how will it help if we try to take her away from him? We might end up hurting him.”
“Can’t you see that she’s the one hurting him?” Eddie’s mom snapped impatiently. “Let’s assume for a second that Ainsley was actually real, even though no one besides Eddie can see her. Just assume. We know that Eddie loves her, but don’t you think it’s really obvious that she doesn’t love him? She doesn’t even care about him a little bit! If she did, she would leave him alone. He doesn’t need her. The other children tease him at school because of her. If they were really friends, wouldn’t she not want that? Wouldn’t she want him to have other friends? If she really loved him, she would just leave.”
It was time to go. I didn’t want to hear anymore. I hopped off the counter, landing on my toes, before bounding back up the stairs, back to Eddie’s room. He was still asleep, undisturbed by my absence. I pushed aside the figurines so I could sit at the foot of his bed with my legs pulled against my chest.
Maybe Eddie’s mom was right. Maybe I was hurting Eddie by staying with him, by trying to command so much of his attention. He only had a handful of friends besides me. They got along really well when Eddie ignored me. Was I holding him back?
I bit my lip and squeezed my eyes shut, fighting with all my might to stop myself from crying.
Eddie’s gaze on me was steady, and I kicked at the ground with the toe of my yellow Nikes. “You’re going home?” I nodded with three jerks of my chin. “When are you coming back?”
I tucked a strand of my frizzy hair behind my right ear and cleared my throat softly. “The thing is, Eddie – “
“Hey, Eddie!” Brian called from across the schoolyard. “We’re going to start a game of kickball! Want to join?” Eddie’s eyes brightened at the invitation, and he shouted that he would be right there, give him a second.
“Sorry,” Eddie said with a sheepish grin. “Do you want to talk later?”
I swallowed. “Well, the thing is, Eddie, I’m kind of leaving now.”
“Now? As in, now now? When will you be back?”
My voice came out in a whisper. “I don’t think I am. Coming back, I mean.”
“What are you saying?” The light in his eyes was gone now.
I stared down at my rainbow-colored shoelaces. “I mean, it’s going to be a long, long time before we see each other again.” I forced myself to look at him and then hated myself for it. His eyebrows were pulled together and the confusion and hurt were there in his eyes, plain as day. I hurried to add, “But I’ll always remember you. And I want you to know that you’re the bestest friend that I’ve ever had. Ever.” I swiped my sleeve under my nose.
“But why? Why are you leaving me?” Eddie’s voice wobbled. I wished it wouldn’t, because it was only making this harder on me.
“Well, you don’t really need me anymore, you know? You have other friends.” I gestured to the cluster of kids who were splitting into two teams on the other side of the yard. “And I’m super happy that they’re finally starting to see how awesome and cool you are. But if you’re with them, you can’t be with me. You just… can’t. So, I have to go.”
Eddie’s eyes pierced right through me, and I wished they wouldn’t, because I was going to cry and because pretty soon they really would be seeing through me.
“We’ll see each again,” I promised impulsively when he didn’t say anything. “And the next time we meet, I’ll take you to my home. Okay?” I slid forward and hugged him briefly, a gesture he didn’t return. Over his shoulder, I could see the kickball game was about to start.
I didn’t know if he could still hear me, but I told him, “Go, Eddie. They’re waiting for you.”
It was almost eighty-four years later that I saw Eddie again. And when he saw me, he knew me right away.
“Ainsley,” he said, wrinkled cheeks pulled back in a wrinkled smile. “Finally, here you are. I’ve been expecting you. Don’t you think it’s time you took me to your home?”
I told him yes and tapped his shoulder with my finger three times. “That’s dinosaur code for, ‘I missed you.’” He copied the pattern onto my own shoulder, and I smiled, offering my hand to him. He took it. His big, wrinkly hand engulfed my smaller, smooth one. “Let’s go.”
Back in his house, in his bed, Edwin Tradehr’s heart became very still.