[I got the idea for this when I saw Scribbit’s Write-away Contest theme for October: Ghosts. But it turned out to be pretty darn long, so I’m wavering on entering it. Having written it, though, I’m sure as hell going to post it.]
I was 4 when my family moved into the Arlington house. My daddy had been transferred to the Pentagon, and my parents bought a house in a neighborhood filled with children. My older brothers both found friends quickly. Of course, they were already in school, so that made it easier to find kids to play with.
But I was alone with my mom and my baby brother. I didn’t know it at the time, but I know now that my mother was overwhelmed by the newest kid, a colicky, clingy, crying creep of a baby. She didn’t have a lot of time or energy for me. Since she was stuck with dealing with him, she didn’t really venture out into the neighborhood beyond the Williams’ house on one side and the Parsons' house across the street. Mrs. Williams had a boy the same age as my oldest brother and a baby the same age as Creepy. (That’s the secret name I had for Christopher.) Mrs. Parsons had a baby, too.
The neighbors on the other side of us didn’t have any children. They kept to themselves, not even attending the annual block party or handing out treats on Halloween. They didn’t decorate the house for any occasion. The Mercers’ house stood out because of it. They had lived in their house longer than anyone else in the neighborhood, but no one really knew much about them because they were so anti-social.
My daddy put up a swing set right after we moved in. He and the boys also made a tree house in the backyard. They’d built it in the tree closest to the Mercers’ house, before we found out they didn’t really like noise or laughter or kids. A couple of times, Mr. Mercer yelled so loudly at us that we were really scared to go up there again.
My mom would send me out to play by myself whenever Creepy was sleeping or crying. It felt like I was being banished. I hated Creepy. And I hated my mom for making me play outside.
I was swinging one morning in September when I first saw Rendy. Somehow, she’d gotten into the backyard and was in the tree house. I heard someone call my name, and when I turned around, there she was. Up in the tree house. I wasn’t going to go up there because I was afraid Mr. Mercer would come out. She called my name again and told me to come up. She looked a lot older than me. I thought she was maybe 6. I wondered why she wasn’t in school. And I wondered how she got up there without me seeing her. And I wondered how she knew my name.
Wonder is a powerful motivator when you’re a kid. Even though I was afraid to go up in the tree house, I went up anyway. Because there’s this big kid with a huge smile on her face calling me, beckoning me to join her.
She was great, Rendy. My first friend. She used to live in the neighborhood and had just moved back. She was 6 years old. And she was great. We had so much fun that day! We played on the swing set. I brought my dolls out and we played house. She even liked to play with the Little People, so I brought those outside, too. We played tag. We laughed. (Quietly because we had to watch out for Mr. Mercer.)
When it was time for me to have lunch, I asked if she wanted to come with me, but she said she’d just wait outside. So I ate really, really fast and went tearing back out to play some more. When the boys were coming back after school, she said she had to leave but would come back the next day.
I told my mom all about her. She got really concerned and mad at me for not telling her someone was in the backyard with me. I told her Rendy was a really nice girl and that I had tried to get her to come inside and that I’d bring her in to meet mom when she came back tomorrow.
And she did come back the next day. Only she said she wouldn’t go in the house to meet my mom. She told me she didn’t want my mom to see her and then call her mother and tell her she wasn’t in school. I promised her I wouldn’t tell my mom that she was there, so she needed to stay in the tree house. I saw my mom looking out the window at me. I waved back. She called out to me, then, telling me to tell her when Rendy came. I lied and said I would. And then we went back to playing with the dolls and the Little People. We couldn’t play tag or play on the swings because my mom would see her, but I didn’t mind. Because I had a friend. My very own friend.
We played nearly every day, even if it rained. My daddy put up a tarp over the tree house so I could keep playing in it. My mom wouldn’t let me go out when it was too cold, so December, January and February were terrible. I missed Rendy so much. From my bedroom window, I could see the tree house. Sometimes, she’d be there and wave for me to come down. I cried. A lot. I was afraid Rendy would find someone else to play with because I couldn’t come out.
But she came back when the days got warmer. She wasn’t even angry with me for not coming out to play. I had told her she could come into my house, but she didn’t want my mom to see her, so she never did. But there she was again, and we picked up where we left off.
It wasn’t for long, though, because my daddy got transferred again. We had to move almost right away. We were going to go to San Diego. I didn’t want to go at all. I knew better than to tell my mom why, so I told my daddy how we had to stay, how I couldn’t leave Rendy.
The night I begged my daddy to stay, both my mom and daddy came to my bedroom to talk to me. They told me that they knew all about Rendy. I guess we hadn’t been as careful as I’d thought we’d been. My mom must have seen her but just decided that she looked all right. Or maybe my mom just didn’t care.
Then they told me she was imaginary! Imaginary? Rendy? They said she could come with us, that friends like her were magical and could go anywhere we want them to go. I tried telling them both that she wasn’t imaginary, that she was real, as real as me. But they just looked over me at each other and said she wasn’t. I screamed at them, then. Both of them. I cried. I begged them to believe me. I told them I’d prove it to them the next day, when Rendy came over. They still didn’t believe me, but they said they’d love to meet her. I’d show them.
But Rendy didn’t come the next day. Or the day after. Or ever again. I cried so much. I missed her so much. My stupid brothers kept saying I was crazy and immature and a baby. Even though my parents told them to stop, they kept saying things to me all the time.
Within a month, we moved to San Diego. I started kindergarten that fall. I was very shy and didn’t play with the other kids. But then both of my brothers made friends with boys who had sisters my age. One was even in my kindergarten class. Her name was Diane. She became my best friend. I told her all about Rendy, except about my dumb parents and brothers thinking she was imaginary.
Thirty years after moving away from Arlington, I found myself back in the same neighborhood. I had married a man in the Navy. I guess I must have enjoyed the Navy life as a kid to “enlist” in it as a wife. When my husband got stationed at the Pentagon, we chose to rent a house not far from the one I had lived in briefly as a kid. I wanted to show my own daughter the house her mommy had lived in long ago, so one day we went exploring my old neighborhood.
The tree house was still there. I could see it from the street, and I pointed it out to Christy. I told her all about how I used to play in it every day, playing with a friend. She asked if she could go see it up close. I had gushed about it so much that she was beside herself with 5-year-old wonder to climb up.
I figured there was no harm in asking, so we approached the front door. The woman who answered was more than welcoming. Her name was Lily, and she and her family of three boys had lived in the house for 15 years. She encouraged Christy to go see the tree house, assuring me that the fort, as her boys called it, had been repaired and reinforced over the years.
Lily and I chatted in the kitchen while Christy ran out back to the tree house. I asked her about the neighbors. She had never known the Parsons family. They had moved before she had moved in. But she knew the Williams family very well, and she chatted about her wonderful next door neighbors.
She also talked of the Mercers. She said that Mr. Mercer, Robert, had died about 10 years before. Jenny, Mrs. Mercer, had died just the week before. They were never close to Lily and her family. They kept to themselves and avoided nearly all contact – except to complain when her boys were too loud – just like they had done when I was a kid.
After we had been talking for about 10 minutes Christy came racing in, excitedly telling me about a girl named Brenda who was in the tree house and wanted to play. She pulled on my arm to take me out to meet her. Lily said she didn’t know any girl named Brenda and quickly followed us out.
She was gone. Christy was disappointed because she had wanted me to meet her. Lily was worried about a child she didn’t know coming into the yard through the high, latched gate. We looked around the entire back yard, but there was no sign of her. Nor was there any girl on the street when we said our good-byes.
Christy talked about Brenda all the way home. When I asked her to describe her, I became very chilled. My heart began beating so fast. I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. I had to pull over.
I had never physically described Rendy to Christy. I only had vague recollections of what she looked like, but Christy’s description of Brenda pulled clearer images of Rendy into my mind. They sounded identical. It scared the hell out of me. I had never been so scared. Never.
I told John about it when he got home. A logical, reasonable man at all times he is. Maybe I wasn’t really sure what Rendy looked like. I had admitted myself that my recollection of her was vague. Maybe I was just building her image in my mind now with the traits of Brenda as described by Christy.
The more we talked, the more reasonable John’s explanation was. It did make sense. Until a week later, when I was looking at the local newspaper to see what open houses I might like to see. I happened upon the death notices. Jenny Mercer’s obituary was there. It noted that she had been preceded in death by her husband and by her daughter, Brenda Roberta, who had died at the age of 6 in 1957.
[I thought about mentioning this was fiction up front, but I preferred to not have you know it until the end.]