The first time I saw my friends was right after we moved into our new house. I didn’t like the house my parents bought. It was old and dirty, with grime on the windows and doors that creaked and redbacks under the stairs. The yard was practically a jungle with overgrown gardens and grass up to my knees. I just knew I would be stuck cleaning that mess up even though there was bound to be mice and snakes and who knows what else living there.
The kitchen was old. It had one of those orange laminate bench-tops that were popular when my mum was a kid. The wallpaper was faded and peeling and there was only one sink. There was a little square table and two uncomfortable looking chairs in the corner that the previous owners had left behind.
Off the kitchen was a dark and gloomy hallway with wooden floors that probably once had been polished but now just looked like untreated timbre. Next to no natural light made its way into the hallway, so the light was always on, even in the middle of the day.
At the opposite end of the hall, past all the other doors, was my bedroom. As much as I disliked the house in general, I loathed my room. It’s not like it was that much different from the rest of the house. It had the same grimy windows, the same ugly wallpaper, and the same awful carpet as the rest of the bedrooms. It felt weird, though; dark and heavy and oppressive; like I couldn’t breathe properly when I was in there; like there was always somebody peering over my shoulder, just out of sight.
I told my Mum about how it felt in there. She said it was just how some old houses are; that it felt different living in a house with history and I would get used to it. I just sighed and nodded and refrained from telling her just how scared I was feeling.
That was the night I met my friends for the first time. I had followed my usual bedtime routine; a mug of cocoa, a bath, cleaning my teeth. I even went to sleep in the usual way, lying back on my pillows, covers up to my chin, feeling slightly apprehensive. It was in the wee small hours that I suddenly woke up, completely certain that there was somebody else in the room with me.
At first I thought it was my Mum. She would check up on me sometimes, before she went to bed or if she got up to use the loo. But when I looked around, I didn’t see my Mum standing there. What I saw, instead, were some kids standing by the door, staring at me. There were three of them – two girls and a little boy. The eldest looked to be about my age while the youngest, the boy, was very young, maybe not even old enough to be in school yet.
I don’t know why I didn’t scream. Any normal person would have. It’s not as though I wasn’t scared; I was. It’s just… well, they were kids. In all the times I had been told to be careful of strangers, to never go in a strange car, to never open the door when I was home alone, to never accept gifts from anyone I didn’t know well, I had never been taught to be wary of other kids.
So I lay in my bed, my heart beating a mile a minute, and I kept my eyes on them until, somewhere near dawn, they just kind of faded away. The next night they came back, and the next night and the next. They never did anything or said anything; just stood there and stared at me sadly. It was creepy, but after a few weeks I found myself getting used to it. My heart no longer skipped a beat when I woke in the night, my breath was no longer ragged, and my wide, staring eyes began to hold more curiosity than fear.
After a while, probably a few months, I came to think of these kids as my friends. They began to talk to me, to tell me things. We would spend hours playing hide and seek or whispering about school and my parents and the ocean. Once, when my Uncle Arthur came to visit, they acted really frightened and they disappeared for days. When I asked them why, they just said that Uncle Arthur was a ‘bad man’ and I should stay away from him. After that, I made sure to never be alone with him again.
I told my Mum about them once. She got a funny look on her face and set three extra places at the table and pretended like there were people sitting there. Later, I heard her talking to my Dad about whether it was normal for a kid my age to have imaginary friends. I didn’t talk about them after that.
As time went by, I began to spend less time playing with my friends. I was growing older, losing interest in childish games, and they were not. It was then that I began to truly understand what they were and to feel sorry for the children that they had been.
It took many months of internal debate before I approached my parents, worried they would ship me off to the loony bin.
“Hey, Mum,” I began.
“Yes, dear?” she responded, absently stirring the spaghetti.
“Do you remember those kids I told you about a few years ago? The ones who would play with me in my room at night?”
“You mean your imaginary friends. What were their names? Jane, Arrna and Grant, right?”
“Yes, that’s them. Only, I don’t think they were imaginary, Mum. I can still see them.”
Mum looked at me sharply. “You see people that aren’t there?”
“No, Mum. Don’t look at me like that. I’m not crazy or anything. I think they might be ghosts.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. There’s no such thing as ghosts.” She scoffed.
“Yes, there are. And I can prove it.” I was getting annoyed now.
“You can’t prove the existence of something that doesn’t exist.” Mum was looking at me with a concerned expression. “I know they probably feel real enough to you, but there really isn’t anybody there. I’m going to book you into the doctor tomorrow for a full check-up.”
“I can prove it!” I yelled at her. “There are three dead kids buried in our back yard and they told me where to find them!”
I stormed outside, earning a rebuke from Mum when I slammed the door behind me. Making my way to the shed, I pulled out our old, rusty shovel and proceeded to dig in the space between the shed and the fence, where we kept our compost bin.
I had a lot of trouble with it at first. The shovel was so old, it was hard to push it into the ground. I persevered and, after a while, I found my rhythm. I was angry and I took my anger out on the steadily deepening hole in front of me. I was hot and sweaty but I kept digging. The sun beat down upon me, burning me through my thin shirt, but I kept digging. My throat became sore and parched, but I kept digging. My arms and back ached, but I kept digging.
I kept digging as my mother yelled and cried and begged me to stop. I kept digging as the sun began to set and the evening air cooled the sweat on my body. I dug and dug and dug until the calloused hand of my father caught my own.
Gently, he removed the shovel from my grasp and pulled me into his arms. It was only then that I noticed the tears that were streaming from my eyes. I buried my head in Dad’s shoulder and sobbed. “They are real. I know they are. I can prove it. I just have to dig a little deeper.”
“No,” my father said softly, “I stopped you because you have already found them. Look.”
I looked where my father was pointing and saw a glimpse of something white in the moonlight.
“Come inside.” He continued. “You need to drink some water and have a cool shower, and I need to call the police and settle your mother.”
The next few days passed in a daze. I ate too little and slept too much. I barely acknowledged the police who interviewed me or the investigators swarming all over our yard or the flock of reporters speculating about the identity of the victims. According to the doctor I was in shock. He was wrong, though. I wasn’t in shock. I was grieving.
I was grieving for the gruesome way the bones said my friends had died. I was grieving for their lost childhood. I was putting the pieces together and grieving the fact that it was probably my own uncle who did these terrible things. But, mostly I was grieving for the loss of my childhood friends; because after that night, I never saw my friends again.