About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
They were four words, four innocuous words which -- considered individually -- were not especially alarming. But they had become personal nightmares for George, especially when uttered together and sequentially. When he saw Sheila approaching him that afternoon, he knew before she even opened her mouth to speak that they were going to come leaping, unwanted, from her lips.
He was sitting in his favorite chair in their rather unassuming living room, reading a text about his new favorite obsession: ancient mythologies. This particular text had been produced by a twentieth-century scholar, Joseph Campbell. For a man who had lived several hundred years ago, this Campbell fellow seemed to know what he was going on about, and George considered the text far more sweeping and interesting than, say, Bullfinch's Mythology.
As for George, he himself was about as unassuming as his living room was. There was nothing particularly memorable about him, and he prided himself on that. He had an ordinary face, not particularly interesting sandy hair, and a nondescript face, all of which suited him just fine. He would leave for his job at the research project in the mornings, spend the day not being noticed, and come home to where his wife paid attention to him on occasion while their offspring seemed to live in his own world anyway. To a degree, George was in absentia from his own life. That suited him just fine.
Sheila, his wife, had found this irritating, once upon a time. She had known she was marrying an unambitious man, and had labored under the belief that she could change him. She had quickly learned otherwise, and had spent much of her subsequent married years in denial over her own failure. "He has potential," she would say to her mother whenever the subject was brought up. As to whether that potential would ever be met or addressed, that was another question entirely and one that seemed something of a mystery. Every day, Sheila would look into the mirror in the morning, and every day would find yet another gray hair, or a crow's-foot or a wrinkle that she was certain had not been there the previous morning. She wasn't sure whether it was George who was causing them, or the simple passage of time. If it was the former, it angered her. If the latter, then she was watching a mute condemnation of the time that she was wasting as her life passed her by.
Not that she didn't have her own work, as an anthropologist teaching at Starfleet Academy right there in San Francisco. But she felt a growing frustration over her union with George, and found herself wondering every day if she wasn't investing time in a project that was never going to come to fruition. Sheila was, if nothing else, goal-oriented, and she felt as if she was losing sight as to what the goal for George was. She tended to wear her frustration like a shroud, and she knew that he must have sensed it. Furthermore, she knew that she wasn't doing their marriage any good by feeling that way, but how could she be less than honest with him? What good would that have done?
Nevertheless, she stayed with him because they had promised one another they would do so. Also, there was the matter of Sandy.
"Sandy" was not his given name. He had acquired it somewhere around the age of three, when his grandparents had commented that he seemed to spend the day in a dreamlike haze. He would stare off into space for long periods of time, fixating on blank spots on the wall. "That child," opined his grandmother, "lives his life as if he's in a dream." This prompted his grandfather to call him "Sandman," which eventually got shortened to "Sandy." The name stuck, if for no other reason than that he seemed to answer to it as readily as he did anything else.
Although his name changed, his behavior did not. He would always sit around, apparently oblivious of the world around him, his dark eyes seeming to look at everything and nothing at the same time. He would always bring his knees up to his chin, resting it there, giving his mother looks of vague disinterest when she would tell him to go outside. On occasion, apparently to satisfy her, he would do so...and then sit around outside. His father would watch in fascination as flies would alight on his nose.
"You need friends, Sandy!" said Sheila, despairing, convinced that her son was developing strange and frightening antisocial attitudes.
Somewhere around the age of five, he acquired a friend.
That made things worse.
Sandy had reached the ripe old age of eight on this particular afternoon, when George discovered that he was about to have his peaceful reading ruined by his clearly agitated wife. It had rained the previous day, cooling off the San Francisco humidity, and George had been briefly considering the possibility of getting out for some air. When he saw the way Sheila was approaching him, with something clearly on her mind, he regretted that he hadn't departed while it was still possible to do so.
Then came the four words, the words he'd been dreading.
"Talk to your son," said Sheila, pointing upstairs. Red shag carpeting lined the stairs that led to the upstairs bedrooms, similar to the carpeting throughout the rest of the house. George hated it. It was like living on the surface of Mars, only fuzzier.
George sighed and put down his reader, folding his hands on his lap in what he hoped was an avuncular manner. "He's your son, too," George pointed out. This was self-evident. He was just stalling for time, hoping that Sheila would become so annoyed with him that she would go off and handle whatever the infraction was herself. If Sandy had misbehaved, George had no real desire to be the disciplinarian. He had too much desire to be liked. Besides, he didn't get worked up all that much. Things that Sandy did that annoyed the hell out of Sheila barely registered on George's personal radar.
"What's the problem?" George asked tentatively.
"He's doing it again," Sheila told him, sending an annoyed glance up the stairs.
"It?" He had the feeling he knew what "it" was, but he reasoned that if he delayed long enough, some sort of reprieve might present itself...such as, for instance, the sun going nova.
The sun, however, seemed disinclined to explode in the near future, and Sheila wasn't being put off. "It," she said with affirmation. "He's talking to her again."
George moaned softly and rubbed the bridge of his nose by pressing both his thumbs against it, looking as if he was worried that it would fall off unless he tended to it right then. "Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure," said Sheila, hands on her hips. Once upon a time, he'd admired the hell out of those hips. Now they were spreading. He didn't like to dwell upon what they'd look like in a few years. "I walked past his room and heard him chatting with her. On and on and on..." When George didn't seem properly exercised about it, she waved her hands about as if they were about to flop off her wrist and said, "He's eight years old, George! This is getting ridiculous!"
Crossing his legs delicately at the knees, George did his best to affect a reasonable, mannered tone with his wife. "As you say yourself, Sheila, he is eight. Imaginary friends aren't exactly out of line for -- "
"They're out of line for someone as intelligent as Sandy is," she said firmly. "You saw what his charts said."
Indeed he had. Sandy's aptitude scores had practically been off the scale. The most impressive thing had been that, after he'd taken the initial tests, the proctor had sadly informed them that he'd been watching the boy, and it seemed as if he was barely paying attention to any of the questions. He simply chose answers in what appeared to be an utterly haphazard manner. They had despaired upon hearing that...until the aptitude tests came back, showing that Sandy was bright enough and displayed enough potential to write his ticket...well, practically anywhere.
George had tried to parlay that score into the boy's mother easing up on him a bit. No go. Instead she'd wanted to step up the pressure on him to learn, feeling that he should be "maximized to his full potential." This was not an expression that George was especially fond of. In any event, Sandy hadn't seemed overly cooperative with the maximizing philosophy, and that resistance had only caused matters to deteriorate further.
"It doesn't matter how intelligent Sandy is," George told her, and when she tried to interrupt with shocked indignation, he continued right over her, "He's still only eight, for crying out loud. Let the boy be a boy, why can't we?"
"Talk. To him," she told him quite firmly, and George really didn't see any way around it. With a sigh that was as heavy as his heart, George hauled himself wistfully out of his favorite chair and walked with heavy footfall, thump thump thump, up the stairs. Normally the annoying shag carpet absorbed all noise, but George made a point of producing an extra racket, just so Sheila would be aware of how annoyed he was. She didn't seem to care especially, which naturally annoyed George all the more.
The door to Sandy's room was open, and George stood outside a moment, reminding himself that he was simply trying to act on behalf of the boy's own good. Imagination was fine as far as it went, but, well...
enough was enough. (Or was that Sheila's voice in his head? George was beginning to wonder how much of the person he was was actually left in him, and how much was Sheila's personality having insinuated itself into his.)
He heard his son's voice from within. He sounded as if he was talking to someone. Well, no mystery there: He knew perfectly well with whom Sandy was conversing, just the same as he'd been for the last two years. Okay, there was something to be said for just how badly it was getting on Sheila's nerves, and he had to admit, there was a certain degree of embarrassment involved. If they had friends over, Sandy would invariably wander in, chatting with thin air and barely noticing the company standing around and staring at him. A number of them thought it was cute. But there were always those few who regarded him with suspicion or even pity, and that attitude would then be reflected in the looks they gave George and Sheila. George would force a smile and Sheila would get extremely uncomfortable, as if he wasn't being a good enough father somehow.
Perhaps enough was enough at that.
He cleared his throat to serve as warning to Sandy that he was entering the room, and then he walked in. Sandy was seated cross-legged on the bed. The bed was neatly made, top smooth, corners folded, as per Sheila's insistence and long years of discipline. The rest of his room was likewise immaculate; Sheila would simply have it no other way. His stuffed animals sat neatly lined up on shelves, under assorted star maps that he had mounted on his wall, not being satisfied with the ones that he was able to call up on his computer screen. The carpet was that same annoying shag red. By the one window in his room, there was a telescope that he used to observe the stars for what seemed hours on end. It was the only other thing he tended to do other than look at nothing at all.
He was wearing a simple white crewneck pullover shirt, and blue shorts. His face, with a row of freckles arranged on his cheeks and his questioning eyes opened wide, was turned upward toward his father in what seemed passive curiosity. He said nothing, having halted his chat the moment he became aware of his father's presence.
George ruffled his son's hair. Sandy didn't budge as the strands settled back down onto his scalp. "How you doing, Sandy?" George asked.
Sandy tilted his head in a manner that looked vaguely like a shrug. The question didn't seem to interest him much.
Feeling as if he was uncomfortable in his own body, George sat on the edge of the bed. Sandy waited patiently, his hands resting, neatly folded, in his lap.
"We need to talk, Sandy," he said finally.
Unsure of how to start, George finally said, "When a boy reaches a certain age...there are some things that just, well...just aren't appropriate..."
"Is this about when I walked in on Mom in the shower? 'Cause she already yelled at me."
George stifled a laugh at that. "No. No, it's not about that at all."
"Good." Sandy seemed visibly relieved at that.
"No, it's..." He shifted on the bed, which seemed extremely small to him at that point. "It's about things that you do as a little boy that aren't, well...appropriate when you get older. You see what I'm saying?"
"Yes. You're saying the same thing you said before."
There was no hint of arrogance or snottiness in the way Sandy informed him of the fact that he was repeating himself. It was more in the nature of an "FYI." He just wanted his dad to know that he was not moving forward in the conversation. George had to admit that that much was true.
"Okay, well..." He slapped his thighs a couple of times and rocked slightly, as if preparing to launch himself off a high dive. "Well, here's the thing: It's about Missy."
Sandy turned his head and addressed the empty air to his immediate left. "You were right," he said, and then turned back to his father. "Missy said she thought it was going to be about her. I wasn't sure, 'cause she always thinks everything is about her. So it's kind of hard to tell."
"Well, that's Missy for you," George said, and then realized that acknowledging quirks in the imaginary friend's behavior was probably not the best way to proceed. "Look, Sandy, the thing is...here's the thing, it's...well, I don't think you should be talking to Missy anymore."
The child blinked once, very slowly. "Why not?" he asked.
"Because it's not...well...appropriate."
"Well, there are certain things that are all right for small children, but not for bigger children. And you're getting to be a very big boy. You know that, right?"
Sandy nodded absently. "But...I like talking to Missy."
"I know that, but..."
"I'm not hurting anybody."
Letting out another, even heavier sigh and feeling much older than he had when he'd come into the room, George drew closer to his son and draped an arm commiseratingly around the boy's shoulders. "I know you're not hurting anybody, Sandy, but..."
"Missy says you're an idiot."
The words, coming out of the boy's mouth in so matter-of-fact a fashion, caught George completely off guard. "Wh-what...?"
"Unh-hunh," Sandy said, his head bobbing up and down as if it were mounted on a spring. "She says you're an idiot, and a fool, and you don't understand anything."
"Now wait just one minute, young man," George said heatedly. He'd removed the arm from the boy's shoulder. Suddenly there was no sense of empathy for his son. Instead he was beginning to wonder whether Sheila hadn't been more correct than she'd known. Perhaps what they were seeing was, in fact, a hint of a deeper problem, and this imaginary friend business was only an outward manifestation of it. "You are not allowed to talk to me in that manner."
"I didn't," said Sandy. "Missy did."
"No, Missy did not!"
"Well, you can't hear her, Dad," Sandy said, sounding remarkably reasonable given the circumstances. "So how would you know?"
Now George was on his feet, bristling with full parental indignation. "Stop talking back to me, young man!"
Sandy had never looked more perplexed in his life. "So...so I can't talk to you or Missy? Can I talk to Mom still?" Suddenly he looked again to empty air and there was genuine worry on his face. "Missy, I can't say that to him!"
"What? What can't you say?"
"What can't you say?"
Sandy had slid off the bed, and he was backing up, never taking his eyes off his father. "I...I better not tell you...I mean, you got mad when Missy called you a...you know...and this is much worse..."
"You can't keep hiding behind your imaginary friend, Sandy." George felt as if he was being overwhelmed, even suffocated by the anger he was feeling. He suddenly felt as if he was much taller, the boy much shorter. "Talk to me."
Sandy's hands were moving in vague patterns in the air, as if he was trying to snag dust motes between his fingertips. "You said I shouldn't talk back...if..."
"Talk to me!"
His father had spoken with such abruptness and force that Sandy jumped slightly. He had kept backing up, and his back bumped up against a shelf of toys. He grabbed one, a rabbit, and held it in front of him, his small arms curled around it as if it afforded him protection. The words spilled out of him. "She...she said you were dumb, and didn't know anything, and that you were jealous of her. And that if you did anything, or tried to make her go away, then she would do bad things to you. Really bad things."
George was trying to keep his calm, but he felt it slipping away. "Now you're threatening me? Is that it, Sandy?"
"No, Dad -- !"
In two quick paces, George was in front of his son, gripping Sandy by either shoulder. Although he wasn't hurting the child, he was nevertheless scaring the hell out of him. "Now you listen to me!" he bellowed. "It's enough! Do you hear me? Enough! You're a big boy, and you're too old to play with imaginary friends! Do you understand?"
"She's not imaginary!" wailed Sandy. "She's not! Don't make her angry, Daddy! Please! It'll be bad!"
George shook him again harder, as if the very notion of an invisible playmate could be sent tumbling right out of him if he was just agitated with sufficient force. "There is no Missy!" he shouted. "There is no invisible friend! There is no -- !"
That was when the hair on the back of George's head began to stand on end. But it wasn't from fear or some sense of foreboding. Instead there was some kind of buildup of energy, like static electricity, except...worse.
His mind tried to justify a reason for it, and he thought that maybe he'd been rubbing his feet on the carpet too quickly, or something equally ludicrous. But the power was building up, stronger, more intense with each passing moment. Sandy was sobbing wildly, and he looked terrified as he kept crying out repeatedly, "I warned you! I warned you, Daddy!"
The power was coming from all over the room. George saw blue-white energy crackling along the toys, knocking them off the shelves, like plush-filled cannonballs. The threads of the shag carpet were standing straight up and down. Over on the desk, the computer station was trembling, first a little, and then a lot. The screen pitched backward off the desk, crashing to the floor. The racket prompted Sheila to shout from downstairs, "What the hell is going on up there?!"
"Stay away! Stay down there!" bellowed George. He had backed away from Sandy, and now he spun on his heel and bolted for the door. It slammed shut in his face. He'd been moving so fast that he crashed into it, rebounding and staggering from the impact.
"Missy! Stop it! Don't hurt him! He's my daddy!" Sandy begged, but his pleas did no good. The power buildup continued. George let out a scream of unbridled terror, and then energy blasts erupted all around him. He jumped to the right, to the left, barely staying out of the way...or was it that whatever-it-was was playing with him, toying with him? He ducked and a blast tore through the air just over his head. He hit the ground, smelled something burning, thought it was he himself and then realized it was the carpet. There were no flames, but it was smoldering, and the air was thick with the smell of ozone. Over the cacophony of unleashed power all around him, he heard Sandy's voice crying out, begging Missy to stop what she was doing. Toys were flying everywhere, as if being knocked aside by an invisible baseball bat.
The computer screen shattered, fragments scattering through the air like a grenade. George, lying flat on the floor, buried his head beneath his arms and cried out for it to stop, to stop already, just stop...
"Daddy!" screamed Sandy, and suddenly George snapped out of his paralysis. He was on his hands and knees, scrambling for the door again, cutting himself on broken shards of the computer and not caring. His knee crushed the stomach of a teddy bear, which let out a squeak of protest. This time, when he got to the door, it opened. He didn't question his luck, and when Sandy cried out for him again and again, he didn't so much as cast a glance back over his shoulder. He started for the door, and suddenly he was lifted into the air, propelled, as if a giant hand had picked him up and tossed him across the rest of the room, his weight meaning nothing.
George tumbled through the door, hit the outside corridor still rolling, and came incredibly close to rolling headfirst down the stairs. He snagged the banister at the last moment, preventing a painful and even a possibly fatal fall, had he fallen in such a way that his neck had been snapped. As it was, he managed to right himself at the last moment, but just barely.
He sucked air into his lungs. They were burning, the smell of ozone still seared into them, and then as if abruptly realizing where he was -- galvanized by the chaos being unleashed in his son's room -- he scrambled to his feet and tore down the stairs.
A terrified Sheila was waiting at the bottom of the stairs for him, crying out to him, demanding to know what was going on. He didn't bother to tell her. He couldn't find the words, couldn't push past the terror that was pounding through him. Instead he sprinted for the front door, and then he was out, out into the open air. There were a few puddles left over from the previous night's rain, and he splashed through them, running as fast as he could.
It was only later, when he had a chance to catch his breath and assess the panic that had seized him, that he would realize that he had left his son behind. That a braver man, a better father, would have picked the child up bodily and carried him out of the room, away from that...that thing. That creature that apparently inhabited the room and had tried its level best to kill him. But even as the thought occurred to him, he dismissed it. Whatever the thing was that had unleashed its wrath upon him, there was no reason to assume that it was going to stay localized in Sandy's room. He might very well have picked up the child and carted him out, only to have the whatever-it-was follow along right behind him.
His fleeing was an act of cowardice. He knew that beyond question as well. He should have remained, should have done something...but he had given in to utter terror, and he could think of absolutely no way that he could face his wife and child again. Of course, it might have been a harder decision for him to make had he actually wanted to face them again.
But he didn't.
It might very well have been that Missy had done him a favor. She had, in the final analysis, given him a concrete reason to do what he'd always considered doing, but never had the nerve to accomplish. He felt free and alive, and he would have Missy to thank, were he actually capable of dwelling upon what had happened without breaking out into cold sweats.
He hopped a freighter off Earth that night. It never occurred to Sheila, until too late, that he might pursue that route, because he'd always had a phobia about space travel. He'd never trusted that the relatively fragile hull of a ship could withstand the rigors of space travel, and had been more than content in his being utterly and blissfully Earthbound. By the time she did try to track him, he had effectively disappeared, leaving Sheila with Sandy...and her.
Sheila, not knowing that she was seeing her husband for the last time as he dashed out the door, looked up the stairs to the source of the commotion. Her maternal instinct kicked in and she called "Sandy?" with considerable worry.
There was no answer. The only response she got was the sounds of crackling energy subsiding. Slowly, apprehensively, she made her way up the stairs. She had only the vaguest of notions as to what had just happened, but she knew one thing beyond question: She was terrified of what might happen next. She got to the top of the stairs, peered in through the door.
Sandy was seated in the middle of the floor of his room. Toys were scattered all over, and he was bleeding from some minor cuts on his forehead, caused by shards from the computer that had exploded. His hair was standing on end as if he'd been hit with a lightning bolt, and his eyebrows were now a lighter shade of red than they'd been before. There was a dazed look in his eyes, and as was his custom, his knees were drawn to his chin. He was rocking himself gently, and it took him some moments to focus on his mother calling to him. When he did, he seemed to be staring at her from another quadrant of space, as if he was looking right through her even as he focused on her.
"Missy shouldn't have done that," said Sandy. "She shouldn't have done that. And now everybody's going to be mad at me."
Sheila stood there, transfixed, her body trembling as if someone had run a spear through her chest. She licked her dried lips, tried to say something. Nothing emerged. Sandy looked up at her, seeming to notice her for the first time, and asked, "Are you mad at me, Mommy?"
She tried to respond. Nothing came out.
With a hint of admonition, he said, "Missy wants to know."
"No," Sheila said instantly. She gripped the doorframe, steadying herself. "No. I'm not mad. At you. At all. Not at all."
Sandy let out a breath of relief. "That's good. I love you, Mommy. And Missy loves you."
"I love you both, too," said Sheila, which was what she had to say. Everything else she needed to say could wait for later. For when Sandy was grown...and Missy was gone...
...if she ever would be, that was.
And as she stared into her son's pleasant, soulful face, she couldn't help but feel that, more than ever, she had looked upon the face of her future.
It terrified her.
Copyright © 2001 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.