“Aggie who are you talking to?” Jane Price asked as she passed her daughter’s bedroom.
The six year old sat at a small wooden table set with all the trimmings of a tea party. The rest of the chairs at the table were empty. Aggie jumped at the sound of her mother’s voice. Her big hazel eyes welled up.
“Gubbly and Merpurr, Mommy,” Aggie whispered.
“Agatha Christie Price, we have talked about this. You are starting first grade in a few weeks and you are too big to have imaginary friends,” Aggie knew she was in big trouble. Jane arms were crossed and the sides of her nose flared in anger. Aggie thought she looked like a cartoon bull ready to charge.
“I’m sorry Mommy but Gubbly promised he and Merpurr would try real hard to be good this year.”
Kindergarten hadn’t been easy for Aggie. Gubbly and Merpurr had been responsible for a lot of classroom mishaps. When her classmates’ lunches went missing Aggie would say, “Merpurr doesn’t mean to Mommy but sometimes dogs get real hungry and he doesn’t understand the rules.” When something was broken or someone was knocked down Aggie would blame Gubbly, “He’s too big for kindergarten.” Jane was called into school for conference after conference. As a single parent, each meeting required her to miss work. Jane’s boss had been supportive in the beginning but soon the constant absences took a toll. Jane could no longer be considered reliable for big projects. She developed anxiety over each note marked: To the parent or guardian of Agatha Price, that was sent home from school. To her frustration, Aggie stubbornly stuck to the Gubbly and Merpurr story. Jane felt like a failure as a parent. At the end of the school year, she had insisted Aggie give up the imaginary friends.
“It’s time sweetie. I’m sure Gubbly and Merpurr have other children they need to spend time with, “ Jane cajoled the six year old.
Aggie’s solemn response bothered Jane, “They protect me.”
Jane was adamant. Gubbly and Merpurr had to go. She packed Aggie’s summer vacation with activities to prevent Aggie from falling back into old habits.
Now, just weeks before the new school year, Jane discovered the plan hadn’t worked as well as she’d thought.
“Gubbly and Merpurr are not allowed to go to school with you this year, Aggie. It’s time for you to have real friends.”
“But Mommy, Gubbly says he has to come with me. Gubbly says he and Merpurr don’t have a choice.”
Jane looked down into the stormy eyes of her daughter. It was time to put an end to this nonsense once and for all. Hoping to spare the child’s feelings and get down to her level, Jane moved to sit in the chair across from Aggie. “Mommy, you can’t sit there. That’s Gubbly’s seat.”
Jane sighed, “Sorry Gubbly.” She shifted closer to Aggie. “Is this seat ok?”
“That’s Merpurr’s seat, Mommy.”
“Jesus Christ,” Jane huffed around to the other side of the tiny wooden table. She plopped down next to the six year-old. “Aggie is someone at school mean to you? One of the other kids?” Jane racked her brain for instances when Aggie complained about bullies.
“No.” Aggie mimed pouring tea into the pink plastic cups. She passed them out to her guests. “One for Merpurr. One for Gubbly. One for Mommy.”
“Thank you,” Jane held the toy to her lips and pretended to slurp the tea. Then trying another tactic, she asked, “Have any of the grown-ups at your school done anything to scare you? Mrs. Thomas? Mr. Harvey?” She pictured the old custodian pushing the trash bin toward the girls’ restroom. Jane shuddered at the horrible possibilities.
“No, Mommy. Have a cookie.” Aggie distributed invisible treats onto each pink plate. She watched Jane pretend to nibble her nonexistent cookie. “Is it good?”
“Delicious sweetie. Why does Gubbly have to protect you at school?”
“They’re chocolate chip cookies,” Aggie said. “Merpurr loves chocolate chip even though dogs aren’t supposed to have chocolate. Merpurr’s special. Chocolate can’t hurt him.”
“Aggie, why does Gubbly have to protect you?” Jane reached out and touched her daughter’s forearm. It had some of the roundness that reminded Jane of when Aggie was a baby. Jane just wanted her little girl to have a normal happy childhood.
Aggie smiled at her mother. “Daddy said he has to.”
Jane’s thighs felt weak. She almost fell out of the tiny wooden chair. The room wobbled. Aggie smiled as if she brought home a gold star paper. “Daddy said he has to.” Jane repeated.
“Uh, huh,” Aggie nodded. She sipped her invisible tea and nibbled the imaginary cookie. “Daddy sent Gubbly and Merpurr to protect me.”
Jane looked at the other chairs at the table. The chairs were empty. She looked back at the innocence on her child’s face. Thick dread was building in Jane’s stomach. She pulled Aggie out of her seat and sat the little girl on her lap. She looked deeply into the child’s eyes and said, “Agatha, Daddy is dead. Daddy died a long time ago when you were very little. You know that right?”
“Yes Mommy.” Aggie looked scared now. Maybe it was because of the intensity of Jane’s voice. “I know Daddy is dead.”
Jane shook her head. Had she made some mistake in the way she raised Aggie. Jane tried to give her daughter an idea of who her father was. Jane brought out picture albums and told stories about the times she had spent with David Price. She told Aggie the story of her birth and how proud David had been. Jane gave her daughter a framed photo of David holding Aggie as an infant. Aggie kept it next to her bed. Maybe that had all been a mistake. Jane wondered if she had somehow encouraged her six year old to create these imaginary friends sent by a dead father. She squeezed Aggie to her chest.
“Mommy, ow! You are squishing me.” Aggie squirmed out of her arms and slid back into her own chair.
David Price swept into Jane’s life. He was boisterous and charming. Jane fell for him instantly. They had only been together for a few months when Jane found out she was pregnant. David was over the moon. He proposed and they picked out a ring together. Jane’s mother was devastated her daughter’s pregnancy. “This is not the life I imagined for you, “ her mother’s words had been a knife to Jane’s heart. David vowed that he would be all the family that Jane and the baby would need. Less than a year later, Jane found herself blissfully happy with an infant and a doting husband. Her contentment didn’t last long, however. When Aggie was six months old, a drunk driver hit David as he rode his bike home from work. He died instantly, leaving Jane to raise Aggie alone. Jane reached out to her mother but found she was unwilling to forgive and forget. Life without David was a constant juggling act. Jane spent countless sleepless night worrying if she was making the right choices. David had been so confident. Jane missed him especially when it came to making decisions about their daughter. The beginning of kindergarten signified stability and routine for Jane. Then Gubbly and Merpurr had added anxiety and confusion to life.
Aggie poured tea and passed out more invisible cookies. Jane began to imagine the conversation she was going to have with the pediatrician, the psychological testing, the therapy sessions, and the medical bills. Jane wanted to run from the room and pretend Aggie had never said anything or laugh it off as normal six year-old behavior. The little wooden chair felt like a life raft in the sea of uncertainty.
“Aggie, how do you know Daddy sent Gubbly? “ Jane asked.
“Mommy, because Gubbly said so. He said Daddy sent him to protect me. Merpurr too,” Aggie raised her chin defiantly at Jane.
“Well, that was nice of Daddy,” Jane said gently changing her ploy. “But I’m the mommy and I’m here to protect you. So you don’t really need Gubbly and Merpurr.” The room felt airless. Jane stood up and opened a window. She wiped her palms on the front of her jeans. The breeze lifted the bedroom curtains. Aggie stared at the chair across from her. She tilted her head as if listening.
“Gubbly says that sometimes you are busy and he and Merpurr watch out for me when you can’t. Like the time I fell in Marielle’s pool.”
Jane sat back down. Her mother had been no help with Aggie. Jane often relied on friends and neighbors to pick up the slack. Her friend Marielle sometimes watched Aggie if Jane had to work late. She had begun to rely on Marielle more and more, trying to make up time she missed at work because of Aggie’s behavior at school. Marielle was invaluable and Aggie loved her. Jane was confidant leaving Aggie in Marielle’s care. But last summer, Jane picked up Aggie from Marielle’s house and Marielle told her how Aggie had gotten too close to the edge of the pool and fallen in. Aggie was unhurt and Marielle was extremely apologetic. Her friend had even gone to the trouble of installing a pool alarm after the incident. Jane had just assumed Marielle had pulled Aggie out. “I thought Marielle pulled you out of the pool.”
“No Mommy. Merpurr jumped in and pushed me to the edge. Then Gubbly pulled me out before Marielle got outside.” Aggie’s hazel eye eyes were wide with the memory. “It was really scary.”
“That is scary,” Jane said. “This whole conversation is scary,” she thought. She turned to each empty chair trying to appease her child’s fantasy. Jane wondered if the swimming pool incident had some how triggered the formation of Aggie’s imaginary protectors. “Something for the child psychologist to figure out,” she thought wearily. Aloud she said, “Thank you, Gubbly. Thank you, Merpurr.”
“Gubbly says your welcome. Merpurr just kind of slobbers because he’s a dog. Gubbly says he will tell David that you are doing a good job.”
At the mention of her dead husband’s name, Jane’s patience with her daughter was sucked out of the window by the breeze. She grabbed Aggie by the arms and shook her, “Aggie stop it! Just stop it! I’ve had enough!” Her voice rose and spittle fell from her mouth, “David is dead! Why would you say that to me? What’s wrong with you?” The six year old began to cry. Aggie’s tears infuriated Jane even more. She gripped the child’s face like a vise. Her voice was a growl, “Don’t you ever speak to me again about this. Never—“
Aggie screamed. Jane felt herself crumple forward. The room went black.
Hours later Jane woke up shivering on the floor of her daughter’s bedroom. It was dark. The window was open and the cold night air was pushing the curtain around. Jane’s head throbbed. She reached up and felt for damage. There was a tender spot on the back of her head. Jane croaked, “Aggie… Aggie!” She fumbled in the dim room. Jane whacked her toe against the leg of one of the little chairs. “Damn it!” Limping, she made her way into the hallway. “Aggie! Aggie, where are you?” Jane heard noise coming from downstairs. It sounded like the television. “Aggie!”
“Mommy! I’m downstairs!”
Jane ran. She thundered down the steps to find her six year-old sitting on the couch in front of the TV. Aggie had the remnants of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich next to her on a plate and more evidence smeared around her mouth. The child’s big hazel eyes watched her warily.
“Mommy, are you still mad at me?” Aggie asked.
Jane collapsed next to her daughter on the couch. The television blared an episode of Aggie’s favorite cartoon, one she had seen a thousand times. Jane stared at it dumbly. Her head felt like she’d had one too many margaritas. “I’m not mad. I’m sorry about earlier, Sweetie.” Aggie snuggled up next to her mother wiping some peanut butter off onto Jane’s shirt. Jane stroked her daughter’s hair. The events of the afternoon slowly replayed in her mind. The back of her skull throbbed. She winced as her fingers explored the source of pain. Jane puzzled over her injury. “Did I have a seizure?” The odor of peanut butter distracted her and she marveled over Aggie’s resourcefulness. “Did you make yourself a sandwich?”
Aggie shook her head. “Gubbly made it for me.”
Jane sighed. Her daughter’s response added to the pounding of her head. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes. An overwhelming weight of loneliness sat on her chest. “God, I wish I had some help?” she thought. The smell of peanut butter combined with the blaring television was making her nauseous. “It’s a good thing Gubbly is around to help take care of you,” Jane mumbled.
“That’s what I’m here for. I made a sandwich for you too, Jane. Would you like me to bring it out here?” The voice came from the doorway behind them. It was deep and masculine. Jane felt like a bucket of ice water had been dumped on her. Her limbs turned to puddles. It hurt to breathe. From the kitchen came the woof of a large dog.
Jane’s mind attempted denial. Her body refused to move. Aggie looked up at Jane. “Mommy? Gubbly wants to know if you want a peanut butter sandwich.”
The invisible bonds broke. Jane patted the six year old’s leg. Still too terrified to turn around, she whispered “I heard him, Aggie. I heard him.”