BY James Tadd Adcox
Sam has had imaginary friends since she was two. Now she’s eleven. Most of our conversations involve her imaginary friends. This worries me, a little, but my wife says it’s fine. It’s a strong indication of developing creativity and empathy, she says. “I don’t remember ever having imaginary friends,” I tell her. “Well, you never had much imagination.”
Around Christmas, Sam and I are in the kitchen making a gingerbread house. I’m melting the candy for the moat that surrounds the gingerbread house. We’ve already baked the gingerbread drawbridge. Where gingerbread houses are concerned, Sam and I go all out. Sam’s talking to me about her imaginary friend Leonard. Leonard, she says, likes Barbie dolls, which she finds strange because Barbies are girl toys. She herself does not like most girl toys. She is perched on the stool by the kitchen counter, using a plastic knife to cut shapes in the excess gingerbread dough. The candy moat is nearly ready to be poured. I turn off the burner and lift the saucepan from the stove. “Which one’s Leonard?” I say. I can’t keep track of her imaginaries.
“He’s the man who walks with me from the bus stop.”
I put the saucepan back on the stove. “What does he look like?” I try to say this calmly—after all, why shouldn’t she have an imaginary friend who walks with her from the bus?—but Sam clams up, looks like she’s worried she’s said something that will get her in trouble. “I don’t remember,” she says, quiet and careful.
I tell my wife about Leonard. She has a long conversation with Sam while I’m in the other room debating whether or not to call the police. My wife returns to tell me that Sam has assured her that Leonard is imaginary. “Can you be certain?” I say. “Are you absolutely certain she’s not just saying that?” “Sam wouldn’t lie to me,” my wife says. “We have a bond.” “Right. Me she would lie to, but you have a bond.” “You know that’s not what I meant.” “Look, these men, they’re like, I don’t know, like hypnotists, they convince kids to lie to their parents all the time…” “What, you saw that on the news?” “Sure, it’s on the news all the time.” “You’re paranoid, Martin. Sam’s not going to lie to me. Not when it’s important.”
The next day I drive from work to the bus stop to meet Sam there. I sit in my car with the engine off, waiting for the bus and scanning the street for Leonards. I think about those news stories where family members talk about how the man who preyed on their child was the last person they’d expect. I try to think if I know anyone named Leonard, or anything similar. Then the school bus arrives and there’s Sam, jumping off of the second-to-last stair and landing on the curb. It’s mild out, and she’s wearing her coat tied around her waist. It flutters like a skirt as she walks. I get out and wave her over.
I tell her we’re going to get ice cream, as a surprise. “Because it’s a warm winter,” she says. “Right,” I say. First, though, I want to drive around a little, and I want her to tell me if she sees anyone she recognizes. “That’s really weird, Dad.” “I just need to know… Look, I just need you to do this for me. Then we’ll go get ice cream.” She seems unsure. She seems worried. Every person we pass by, she’s acting like she’s trying not to look at them too long, trying—is that it?—not to give them away. She works with her fingers at the place on the door where the fake leather is coming unglued. Each man we pass, I say, calmly, so calmly, “Do you know him? Does he talk to you?” It feels horrible, like I’m twisting her arm, but I have to know. She doesn’t say anything. She shakes her head, she cries, but without sound. I can hardly breathe. It takes forever. When we finally make it through the neighborhood and go to get ice cream, she holds the cone carefully with both hands, like a gerbil or some other small, nervous animal, and refuses to look at me.