THE IMAGINATION GAME
E. G. Smith
“What did you see, bunny?” Harold cinched his tie crooked and turned from the bureau mirror to his daughter, who had half the backyard stuck to her new black velvet dress. “Megan, what have you gotten into? We have to be at the service in forty-five minutes.”
The girl plucked bits of bark from the hem of her skirt and dropped them on the carpet. “I saw a really, really big bunny.”
The imagination game. Now it was his turn to add to the description of the big bunny–rabbits being her favorite creature–perhaps saying that it had moose antlers. Then Megan would say she saw a big bunny with moose antlers that was purple with green stripes, and so on until one of them forgot a line. In order to trip each other up, they strove to make each additional description as outlandish as possible. They’d been playing this memory game every since she could speak and lately she’d been winning.
Her father crouched down and patted dirt from her black leggings. “We don’t have time to play right now. We’re running late for your brother’s service. Didn’t mommy tell you to wait downstairs?”
“But I saw it outside,” Megan whined.
Harold combed her tangled hair with his fingers. “Listen bunny, you know mommy doesn’t want you playing outside, not after what happened.”
A week before, Sean had fallen from the swing set beneath the big, leafless elm in the backyard, severing his femoral artery on a protruding bolt. His sister led Nancy to the body, crumpled on an oval of red sand. Six year old Megan didn’t seem to comprehend death, never asking where he’d gone or when he’d come home. Her mother was inconsolable, spending most of each day in bed, never fully awake or asleep. Harold took down the swing set and stored the tubes and chains in the garage and hauled away four wheelbarrows full of sludgy grit. No matter how deep he excavated, traces of red lingered.
“Your mommy’s very, very sad right now.” Harold untangled brown elm leaves from her curls. “We all are, but she really needs our help.”
“I went out to look and it followed me all over. It likes to play chase.”
“The big bunny,” she said. “It had so many legs I couldn’t count them, like a center-peed.”
Megan always had a vivid imagination, evinced in the myriad drawings hanging on walls and sculptures posing on shelves throughout the house, no two alike. Her mother lamented the clutter and the tape marks while her father indulged her fantasies, drawing out epic stories of friendship and revenge about each clay figure and magazine collage and crayon scribble.
“A giant centipede bunny, eh?” Harold straightened the bow on her waist, kissed her forehead and pointed her toward the hall. “Stay in your room until we’re ready to go, okay? I promise we’ll play when we get back from the service.”
Her shiny buckled shoes paused at the bedroom door. “You’d like it, Daddy. It’s so many pretty colors.”
“It sounds breathtaking. Now hop along.” Harold pulled his tie apart and started over on the knot.
A series of thumps roused Harold from another night of sweaty half-sleep. Nancy, buried under mounds of bedding and a double-dose of prescription sedatives, slept hard for the first time since the accident. Another thump and some scuffling reverberated from the hall.
Harold lurched out of bed and pulled on his robe. He checked the bathroom and the office and skipped Sean’s room in favor of Megan’s door, under which glowed a ribbon of gold light.
“Daddy, you just missed it.” She turned from her open window, grinning her few front teeth.
“Megan, what are you doing with the window?” He could see his breath.
“It was just here.” She leaned over the sill and thrust her head into the night.
“Megan, don’t.” Harold took the room in two bounds and slung his daughter onto her bed. He heard himself shouting but couldn’t stop until his terror burned itself out. “You know you’re not supposed to open that window. It’s two stories down to the patio. Your mother and I have enough to worry about.”
She hugged her giant plush rabbit and stammered between sobs. “But it was just in here. It wanted to play with everything.”
Harold backed to the center of the room and turned a circle beneath a teetering mobile of craft paper flowers with googly eyes. All the macaroni mosaics and pipe cleaner art from the shelves were scattered across the rug and dolls lay in the grotesque postures of bodies strewn by a flood. She’d had tantrums before, but nothing like this. He picked his way back to the window, craning his neck in an icy draft to search the dark recesses of the backyard around the swaying elm. Shivering, he closed the sash and locked the catch.
“Look bunny, I know this has been a difficult time.” The mattress squealed under his hip. “It must be especially confusing and scary for you, and you must worry that you’re not getting as much attention with all that’s been going on. Is that why you messed up your room?”
Tears dribbled into the corners of her mouth even as they curled into a grin. “I didn’t mess it up and I’m not scared. It told me not to be scared.”
“What told you?”
She eyed the window. “It said it wouldn’t hurt me. It’s very nice.”
“Oh, the giant bunny, the one with the spider legs.”
“Center-peed legs, and it doesn’t have those anymore.” Her smile puckered into a frown. “It said you wouldn’t understand.”
“It talks, does it?” Harold held up the covers and she crawled under. “What does it sound like?”
“Well, it doesn’t move its beak, but I can hear it talk when its tenter-culls touch me.”
He tucked the comforter under the chins of girl and stuffed rabbit and recited, “I see a giant bunny with a beak and tentacles… that’s white with pink polka dots.”
“No daddy,” she said. “I’m not playing the game. It’s my friend.”
“That’s quite a friend you have there, but maybe you shouldn’t let it in your room, okay?” He switched off the desk lamp.
“Okay.” Her voice drawled as her head sank into the pillow. “It says it likes me most of all.”
“It’s got good taste.” He kissed her salty cheek. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
“There’s no such thing as bedbugs,” she whispered as he picked his way toward the door.
Nancy called Harold at ten o’clock his first morning back at work, too frantic to communicate much more than anguish. He parked on the curb beside the mailbox and ducked sleet past the two police cars in the driveway.
Several uniformed officers ringed the kitchen, one writing on a metal clipboard and another speaking into the microphone on her lapel. Nancy fumbled with a picture frame, trying to remove Megan’s most recent portrait. Harold kissed her cheek and helped extract the photo, handing it to the nearest officer.
“She disappeared some time after breakfast,” Nancy slurred. “I was folding laundry. I assumed she was playing in her room but when I checked… she wasn’t there. She wasn’t anywhere.”
An officer beckoned Harold away from his wife, conferring beside the sliding glass back door, beyond which hummed wet gusts.
“She’s been under a lot of strain,” Harold said. “Our son died three weeks ago.”
As the policeman asked about Megan’s state of mind and the prescription for Nancy’s medication, whether they’d noticed any suspicious activity and if they normally kept the back door locked, Harold’s gaze strayed past the rain-spattered glass and up the elm’s trunk to a tiny figure huddled on a limb, her long hair swaying among leafless twigs.
Parents and police spilled into the yard and encircled the tree, shielding their eyes from the icy rain as the girl climbed down limb by limb.
“I told you we should cut down that tree,” Nancy snapped at her husband.
“Don’t try to come down,” shouted a policeman. “We’re getting a ladder. We’ll come up and get you.”
If Megan heard the command she ignored it, her tiny fingers gripping knurls and her bunny-eared pajama feet scraping over slick bark. She dangled from a low branch and dropped onto brown, wet leaves before jumping up and running into her father’s arms. Megan hugged his neck, smearing snot from her upper lip on his chin.
“Hey bunny.” Harold spoke into the girl’s tiny shell ear. “What were you doing up there? Were you looking for Sean?”
“No daddy,” she said. “Sean’s dead.”
The word stung deep in his chest. “Then why did you climb so high? You know you’re not allowed to go past the first branch.”
“It said it was ok. It said it would keep me safe.” Her chest shivered against his own.
“Your imaginary friend again? Megan, you can’t keep blaming something that’s not real.”
“It is real.” Her voice grew shrill. “It has bat wings and eagle feet and a snake tail and I saw it.”
Harold carried his daughter past the officers, into the house and to the bathroom where he wrapped her clammy body in a towel. He sat on the toilet lid and searched her downcast face as he dried her hair. “Bunny, we understand that Sean’s accident must have scared you and made you very upset, but there are still rules…”
“Sean broke the clay bowl I made.” Megan shrugged off her terrycloth shroud. “The one with the rabbits on it.”
Harold dabbed a drop from her tiny nose. “I know he made you mad sometimes. Still, you must miss him very much.”
“I don’t miss him at all. I’m glad he got bit.” She sucked a ribbon of goo back into her nose.
“Bit? What do you mean bit?”
“Bit by its big grabbers. You know, like on an earwig, except really big.” She formed her tiny fingers into a pair of pincers, snapping them at the towel’s hem.
Nancy and Harold agreed that Megan should see a therapist as soon as they could get an appointment.
Megan drew on a pad of yellow, ruled paper at a desk as Dr. Chilton spoke to her parents on a couch.
“First of all,” he said, “let me assure you that what you’ve described is not out of the ordinary. I understand how frightening some of your daughter’s behavior has been. She’s trying to communicate very grown up feelings, scary feelings about the loss of her brother the best she can. We can guide her toward less dangerous, more fruitful ways to express herself, but we shouldn’t stifle her.”
Harold shifted on squeaky leather. “She blames everything on an imaginary friend that sounds like something out of a lower circle of hell. That’s all she talks about, isn’t it honey?”
Nancy lifted her face from a wad of damp tissue. “She goes on and on about it. It’s horrible.”
“And it’s different every time,” Harold said. “Sometimes it sounds like a dragon, then it’s a lion with feathers, then it’s a bear with a long sticky tongue. Yesterday it had three heads and ten tentacles.”
Dr. Chilton tapped the end of his pen against his lips. “All fearsome incarnations. Why do you think your daughter would suddenly want to have a big, scary friend?”
“It’s not a friend.” Nancy crushed the tissues in her fist. “It’s a monster.”
The doctor drew a giant shape in the air. “A monster big enough and scary enough to frighten away a little girl’s fears. Your daughter’s mind has conjured up precisely the powerful ally she needs during this traumatic time.”
“That makes sense,” said Harold. “But it feels like her ally is tearing the family apart. I don’t know. I worry that all the games I’ve played with her are to blame for this. Did I push her into a fantasy world?”
“No, not at all. A child’s imagination is the most powerful manifestation of the human mind’s potential, a power that’s almost always lost in adulthood, its potential forgotten. Your daughter needs every bit of that power right now.”
“All right,” said Harold. “But she’s putting us through ordeal after ordeal. When will it end?”
“My advice is to let her fertile mind take the lead,” said the doctor. ” She’ll get what she needs from her friend and then it will gradually be forgotten.”
Nancy picked a shred of tissue off the carpet. “But what if her friend wants to hurt someone? ”
“Has she hurt you?” Harold asked.
“No.” Nancy’s voice quavered. “I’m just afraid. I don’t know what she’ll do next.”
Dr. Chilton cleared his throat and leaned in, speaking so Megan couldn’t overhear. “If your daughter’s behavior is inappropriate, hold her accountable for it even if she blames it on her friend. Calmly explain to her that rules of conduct apply to both little girls and giant friends and that if they’re broken she will be punished. Tell her to pass that information on to her friend. In that way, you can communicate your expectations and the consequences for failing to meet them without challenging the fantasy that’s supporting her emotionally. Does that make sense?”
Harold and Nancy agreed that it did.
“Well then.” The doctor rose and ushered the parents to his desk. “I think it’s time to see what Megan has been up to.”
“Hey bunny,” said Harold. “What’s that you’re drawing?”
Megan scratched at the paper with a crayon gripped in the bottom of her fist. “I can’t get its skin red enough.”
Sheets torn from the pad littered the desk, each bearing a unique assemblage of serpentine heads and many-clawed feet, insect mandibles and craggy hide, intertwined horns and stinger tails. No two images were alike in color or form.
“Megan,” asked the doctor, “are all of these drawings of your friend?”
“Uh huh,” she said.
Harold shifted the papers around, noting the angry V brows and sharp fangs. “But they all look so different from one another.”
“Of course,” she said. “It can change anytime it wants.”
The doctor asked, “If I played the game like you and your father do, and I said that your friend now has a yellow mane or a fish tail, would it change for me?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “It asks me what I want it to be. It says I’m very clever.”
Megan’s first day back at school ended before noon with a call from the counselor. She’d cut animal shapes from the pages of books during reading time and hurled wooden blocks when the teacher tried to stop her. At recess, she lingered beneath a pine tree at the far end of the playground, threatening any children who came near. It took two teachers and the principal to carry her thrashing and screaming to the office. The counselor suggested that the girl needed more time at home to cope with the family’s tragedy.
Each evening Harold returned from work to find his wife at the kitchen window, watching Megan playing alone under the elm.
“When are you going to cut down that tree?” Her words always fogged the glass.
“It’s a big job,” he’d half-lie, afraid of how Megan would react to losing the tree that had become her only playmate. “I’ll need to borrow equipment and see when Don can help. He used to be a landscaper.”
“It’s the only way to keep her away from it.” Nancy would return to her vigil.
Their daughter only spoke to describe her friend’s changing manifestations and to detail the many games they played. Taking the psychiatrist’s advice, Harold encouraged her rambling tales of flying around the neighborhood on her friend’s back and sliding down its scaly tail, waiting for the fantasy to play itself out.
One dinnertime she abandoned a half-eaten meal, bunny-hopping into the family room with her hands curled under her chin.
“Megan,” Harold said. “Sit down and finish your dinner. ”
She halted in mid-hop, balancing as if on an invisible hopscotch court. “My friend says I don’t have to if I don’t want to.”
“We explained the rules,” said her father. “Even if it’s your friend’s idea, you’ll be punished.”
“I don’t think so.” She hopped to the sliding glass door.
“Megan, you stay away from that tree.” Nancy bolted from her chair, spilling a glassful of red wine over the tabletop.
The girl set off the porch light as she bounced across the yellowed lawn to the elm, her parents scrambling in pursuit. Harold grabbed her waist before she could climb onto the lowest branch, breaking her grip on its bark. Nancy fought to hold the girl’s legs as she flailed and shrieked in Harold’s arms on the march back into the house.
They grounded Megan in her room, leaning a chair stacked with kitchen pots against her door as a makeshift alarm. Even with this precaution, both parents lay awake in the green glow of the clock radio.
Nancy’s voice jolted her husband. “We’ve lost her, just like Sean.”
Harold turned to his wife’s silhouetted face. “She isn’t lost, she’s upset, she’s grieving.”
“She’s not grieving,” his wife said, drawing a long breath and tenting the covers. “She wanted him dead.”
“You don’t mean that.” He tunneled for her hand under the sheets.
Nancy rolled away muttering, “There’s nothing we can do.”
Harold rubbed her stiff, arched spine, not knowing what to say.
A flicker of orange in the corner of his eye, then another. The ceiling above the bed shimmered with wisps of gold and red, as if the plaster had melted into a rippled pond mirroring autumn leaves. Harold sat up and traced the glow to a curtained window ablaze with flickering light.
He ran downstairs and out the front door, his bare feet smacking over the lawn to the side yard. A garbage can burned like a torch, purple tongues of flame licking the house’s siding black, reaching almost to the master bedroom window. He kicked the warped plastic bin over, scattering embers across wet gravel where they hissed and smoldered.
Nancy stood on the porch, wrapped in a blanket. “Harold be careful,” she called after him as he stormed into the house and up the stairs.
He shoved the tower of pots away and threw open the girl’s door to find her cowering against the headboard, bear-hugging the stuffed rabbit.
“Why can’t we see it?” His voice resounded off bunnies-and-carrots wallpaper, Dr. Chilton be damned. “Why can’t I see your friend? Do you know why? Because there is no friend. Because you made it up as an excuse to misbehave. I call you bunny. Does that make you a rabbit?”
She sniveled. “No.”
“Because it’s just pretend, like that monster you’ve dreamed up. Are you going to say your friend set that fire?” Harold checked the window, finding it shut and locked, the sill clean. How had she gotten past the pots?
“Sometimes it can breathe fire,” she said. “It can do anything I can think of.”
He threw back the covers and wrestled her pajama-clad foot into the lamplight. The plastic sole was clean and warm, the sheets dry. “So an invisible monster set the trash on fire? Something no one else can see.”
She tucked her legs back under the comforter. “Mommy saw it.”
Harold awoke to rhythmic vibrations of the bed frame, an interminable moment of shaking and then calm, repeating. The ceiling fan wobbled and a family photo dropped from the wall to the carpet. By the time he stumbled down the hall to the kitchen the tremors had ceased. Nancy leaned over the sink, the shadows of branches crisscrossing the morning light on her face.
“Did you feel that?” He steadied a copper pot swaying from a hook. “It must have been an earthquake.”
“It was the tree,” she said, pointing into the yard. “I can’t live with it anymore.”
The girl ran circles around the elm, her left hand tracing a line around the trunk, her fingers juddering over the bark like a stylus in a groove.
“What do you mean?” he asked. “Did it drop a branch? I felt it in the bedroom.”
She sounded far away from the Formica counters and oak cabinets. “That tree is a monster, her monster. ”
His neck bristled and his gut soured as he rifled through stacks of papers on the counters and shelves, finding the manila envelope on the hall table. He sorted Megan’s legal-pad art into rows, composing a crayon-illuminated medieval bestiary on the dining room table’s glass top.
As different as each image seemed at first glance, with mammalian, reptilian and avian features jumbled together in peculiar combinations, a common theme bound them together. Many of the monsters had convoluted horns which could also be branches, many others had intertwined feet and claws which could also be roots. Rough hide scribbled in crayon could be bark, feathers could be leaves. Almost every drawing bore some resemblance to the elm tree in their backyard.
He jumped when Nancy’s hand pressed against his ribs. She moved the papers around, folding some, tearing pieces from others, assembling a tree from components scattered across the table. The final collage looked just like the elm around which their daughter danced. “Megan told us all about it in her drawings,” she said.
“She must have heard you talking about the tree and worked it into her fantasy,” he said, wondering if it had been the other way around. Had Megan blamed the tree, planting a seed in her mother’s mind? Is that why Nancy fixated on it?
She swept her hands across the glass, scattering the papers. “It won’t stop until one of them, either Megan or the tree, is gone.”
“I’ll call in sick. I’ll cut it down today.” It was the only thing Harold could think to do. Dr. Chilton’s advice wasn’t working. He allowed himself to believe that removal of the tree, whose wooden slivers had wedged themselves between father and mother and daughter, might allow his broken family to heal.
“Go inside, bunny. Mommy will make you some hot chocolate.”
Megan straddled an exposed grey root, gouging dirt with a stick. “Why, daddy?”
“Just go inside now,” he said, clanging the wheelbarrow over tufts of grass, hoping that his brusque tone would shoo her away. “It’s not safe for you out here.”
She stood and backed against the elm’s trunk. “What are you gonna do?”
Harold parked the wheelbarrow at the edge of the sand pit and unloaded ropes, handsaws, a red can of gasoline and a chainsaw. The sun burned in a glaucous sky, glaring off wet limbs and dewy earth. He took off his jacket and hung it across one of the wooden handles. “It’s time to cut down the tree. Don Haskins–Charlotte’s daddy–he’ll be over here soon to help. But it’s dangerous work. Grownups only. You can watch from inside the house.”
“No.” She narrowed her eyes and clenched her pebble fists.
“Now, bunny. We know you’ll miss the tree, but it’s old and sick. You see that soft, dark spot where those two trunks meet, that’s rotten wood which might split in the next storm. It needs to come down before it falls on the house.”
“No.” She stuck her bottom lip out and huffed.
“Megan, I’m your father and I’m telling you to go inside right now.”
She turned to the tree, pressed her palms against the trunk and peered up into the gallery of branches.
Maybe the saw would convince her to move. Harold stooped and pulled the starter rope until the motor roared and sputtered.
Megan stepped back from the elm.
He yanked the cord again, starting the motor and switching it to idle. Megan retreated into the sandbox, her bunny slippers churning the dark patch where Sean had fallen. She shielded her eyes and spoke at the tree, her voice muted by the saw.
The handles rattled Harold’s entire body, as if the chain were too tight or the motor misfiring. He switched off the engine but the vibration continued, an interminable moment of shaking, then calm, repeating. The lawn under his feet trembled and buckled and he dropped the saw, staggering as each tremor grew more violent.
He fell backward as the trunk split and one half wrenched shaggy masses of roots from the ground and thundered down on the lawn with spray of grit and splinters. The other half of the trunk, another leg, stepped free from the earth and came down upon the wheelbarrow, crumpling the bed and snapping the handles like matchsticks. Dirt rained down over Harold as he crawled to his daughter and threw his arms around her.
“Look, daddy,” she squealed. “I told it to be everything.”
Harold turned to the behemoth. Bark crackled into scales and unfurled into feathers and bristled with spines and became slick with goo, ever changing, colored red then black then yellow. Its many eyes and countless teeth roiled as a jaw thrust forward one moment and stretched wide the next, pincers becoming mandibles becoming a beak becoming a cavernous maw. Grey elm limbs curled into a hundred sinewy arms, spread into a hundred wings, collapsed into a mass of slimy tentacles. It was everything and nothing at once, a many-limbed, many-faced wrathful deity casting a seething shadow across the yard.
Harold snatched Megan into his arms and ran to the house, stumbling over great clods of earth and exhumed stones, the girl giggling through the gaps in her teeth. He carried her into the kitchen and stood beside his wife, who pressed her cheek against the window, twisting her neck to see the full height of the creature.
“I saw it bite Sean,” Nancy said. “I assumed that I was crazy with grief so I didn’t tell anyone. But I’ve seen it again and again, always different, always hideous. Maybe I have lost my mind. I wish that were true.”
Thunderous pounding cracked the floor tiles and spilled china from the cabinets. A shadow fell across the house, eclipsing every window.
“What do you see, daddy?” Megan shouted into her father’s ear, her tiny voice almost smothered by the approach of a creature every bit as vast and as terrible as she could imagine.
About the Author:
E.G. Smith is a graduate of the University of Washington’s creative writing program, with a lifelong passion for horror fiction and film. He lives on a small farm in rural Southwestern Idaho with his wife, son, dogs, pigs, horses, chickens and flies. He’s recently published stories in the DarkFuse 1 anthology, Great Old Ones’ Bugs anthology, the Dead Harvest anthology from Scarlett Galleon Publications and the In Creeps the Night anthology from J. A. Mes Press. His website is www.ericgsmith.com.
I. Clayton Reynolds
I. Clayton Reynolds is an author of horror, suspense, and the supernatural. He studied Anthropology, Psychology, and History at the University of Texas and Iowa State University and gained extensive knowledge of legends and beliefs from around the world and deep into the past. His research has helped him to understand how and why frightening legends and cautionary horror tales have developed throughout the human past. A native of Texas, he now lives in Central Iowa.
I have reviewed 81 books so far this year.