Tilda’s Imaginary Friend
I wasn’t anxious about anything that day. In fact, I was quite content, sitting on the front porch of our new house, picking through a crate of Pink Ladies so that I could make applesauce.
Our new home was situated in a rural, wooded section of northern Washington, surrounded by a forest, and creeks, and a four acre orchard of Pink Ladies, Braeburns, and Honey Crisp apples. We made a little extra money selling apples at our roadside stand, and I had developed a bit of a following for my cinnamon applesauce.
I looked up to see my eight-year-old daughter, Matilda, standing in front of me. I smiled. She was the spitting image of myself at that age, right down to the long blonde braids and a missing front tooth.
“Mommy, can Missy spend the night?” she asked. “She says it’s too dark at her house.”
Missy was Tilda’s imaginary friend. Missy had made her appearance about three months previously, and Tilda, who had been very lonely since our move, was quite happy to have someone to play with, even if that someone didn’t really exist.
I’d had an imaginary friend myself at her age. My imaginary friend’s name was Susan, and I’d spend hours pretending to have a playmate one summer. Somehow, once school started, though, Susan sort of disappeared, now that I had real friends to play with.
I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I thought, smiling.
“Sure, honey, Missy can spend the night.”
“Thanks!” And off she went, chatting happily with someone I couldn’t see.
It was early fall, and we’d been in our new house for less than a year. We were fairly isolated, but that didn’t bother me. My husband, Jim, had been in the Marine Corps, so we felt perfectly safe “out in the boondocks,” as he called it. We were fulfilling a lifelong dream to own our own property, grow our own food, and live as closely to the land as we could.
That’s not to say we were living primitively. Heaven’s no. I was a city girl, and I liked my modern conveniences, thank you very much. Electricity, indoor plumbing, and central heat-and-air were all absolute musts when we were looking for a place.
The first time we drove up the driveway and saw this house, we knew we were home. It was an older two-story, complete with a wraparound porch, a cellar, an attic, and land as far as the eye could see, including an apple orchard and a barn. We were told later that the place had sat empty for quite a while, the isolation apparently off-putting to potential buyers. But for us, it was perfect.
In addition to the orchard, we had a few chickens, a goat named Belle, a cow we called Sugarplum, three dogs, numerous cats, Tilda’s hamster, and several rabbits. Jim sometimes threatened to name our new place, The Ark, since we seemed to be gathering a few of everything living.
So now, here we were, settled in and content to be self-sustaining land owners, with friendly, helpful neighbors, and a beautiful, imaginative daughter. Our lives were complete.
“Mommy,” Tilda asked when it came time for dinner. “Can Missy sit at the table with us?”
I grinned over her head at Jim. “Sure, honey, why not?”
“She won’t eat anything though,” Tilda said. “Missy doesn’t eat.”
“More for me, then,” Jim said as he placed a chair next to Tilda’s.
Jim and I carried on adult conversation at dinner, not really paying attention to what Tilda and her imaginary friend were saying. I kind of wish I had, now.
When bedtime rolled around, Tilda, for once, didn’t put up much of a fuss. Usually she found every excuse under the sun not to go to bed, but this night, she seemed perfectly happy to do so.
“Missy and I are going to have a slumber party,” Tilda informed me as she put her pajamas on. “We’re going to stay up all night!”
“Oh, I doubt that,” I said with a grin.
She knelt by her bed, said her prayers, then crawled in, shivering slightly. “It’s cold, Mommy,” she complained.
“I know,” I agreed. “Daddy turned the heater down. Our bill was really high this month.”
I put an extra blanket over her and kissed her goodnight.
“Don’t forget to say goodnight to Missy,” she said as I flipped off the light.
I smiled. “Good night, Missy.”
“Missy says good night.”
I closed the door and went into my own room. Jim was already in bed, reading.
“This imaginary friend business,” he said, without preamble. “Is that healthy?”
I undressed, shivering. “Perfectly healthy,” I assured him. “I had one myself at her age.”
“Hmmmpf,” he said. “Must be a girl thing. Come here, woman, and keep me warm.”
I crawled in beside him and before long, we were both asleep.
It was about two o’clock in the morning when I heard Tilda’s voice at my bedside. “Mommy!” she said insistently. “Mommy! You have to get up. Missy says you have to get up!”
I rolled over. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Tilda. It’s the middle of the night. Go back to bed.”
“No, Mommy, Missy says you have to get up.”
Jim sat up. “This is ridiculous. Go back to bed.”
“I don’t care what Missy says,” I snapped sleepily. “Go back to bed.”
Tilda started to cry. “I can’t, Mommy. Missy says Belle is hurt and you have to go take care of her.”
Sighing mightily, Jim and I both got up. We put on our bathrobes and our slippers.
“If we go show you Belle is all right, will you go back to bed?” I asked.
“Hurry, Mommy!” she said, grasping my hand and pulling me toward the stairs. “Hurry!”
It was freezing cold outside, so Jim grabbed our coats and scarves from the peg by the back door. Our little threesome made our way to the barn. Everything seemed quiet enough, until we got to the far end where Belle’s stall was.
Belle lay in the straw, tangled up in wire that had cut her leg badly. She was bleeding profusely, and Jim immediately grabbed the scarf from around his neck to bind the wound.
“Quick,” he said. “Go call the vet. This isn’t something I can take care of by myself.”
It took a while for the vet to arrive, but Jim comforted Belle as I comforted Tilda.
“It’s a good thing you found her when you did,” the vet said. “She’d have bled to death by morning.”
Jim and I looked at each other with disbelief.
“Honey,” Jim asked Tilda, “how did you know Belle was hurt?”
“I told you!” she said angrily as she stamped her foot. “Missy told me!”
Jim just shook his head. “Well, it’s late, and we need to try and get a little more sleep. We’ll talk in the morning, okay?”
The next morning, the only answer we could get out of Tilda was that Missy had told her that Belle was hurt. It was odd, but eventually we just stopped asking, since Tilda was convinced that her imaginary friend had saved Belle’s life.
I watched Tilda all that day as she played with her imaginary friend. Later in the afternoon, my daughter came to me once more and asked, “Mommy can Missy stay here again? She likes it here.”
I could feel my brow furrow. “Sure, but honey, what did you mean by Missy doesn’t like it at her house?”
“Missy says it’s too dark there.”
“Do you know where her house is?”
“Uh-huh,” she answered. She pointed towards the woods. “It’s over there.”
To this day I couldn’t tell you what made me say, “Show me.”
She took me down an overgrown path that led into the adjoining forest. We stopped under a huge tree. “Here,” she said.”
I looked around. “Where?” I felt extremely foolish. “There aren’t any houses here.”
“Not in a house, Mommy,” Tilda said. “Here!” And she pointed to the ground where a very small mound was just visible under the tree.
I blinked as I surveyed the area. Dear God, surely not, I thought.
I went back to the house and got Jim. He brought a shovel.
It was all over the news that night. The body of little Melissa Grant, who had been missing for three months, had been found.
It was later that evening, as I was fixing dinner, that I overheard Tilda’s side of a conversation.
“Do you have to? Okay, I’ll miss you, though. Bye.”
“Honey, who were you talking to?” I asked.
“Missy,” she answered sadly. “She had to go.”
“Where did she go?”
“She said she’s going to go live with her grandma.”
I felt a surge of relief, but hid it as I answered, “Oh, gee, honey, that’s too bad. But school will be starting soon, and you’ll have lots of other friends to play with.”
“Oh, it’s okay, Mommy,” Tilda answered. “Missy says there are lots of other kids here. Can Darlene spend the night?”
And she walked off down the hall, chatting happily with someone I couldn’t see.