Jill and Patrick feel that Elisa has been been making good progress under Dr. Steinway and, concerned that news of his accidental death might mean a setback in that progress, they are sitting on the couch in the living room, waiting for their daughter to get home from school. They will break the news of his death to her together.
Jill looks at the clock again.
“She probably just stopped for Starbucks with Penny,” Jill says nervously.
“It’s going to be okay,” Patrick tells her with a certainty he doesn’t feel.
He is sure this is somehow connected to Charlie Bennett. For years he’s believed they failed their daughter by not putting a stop to that nonsense years ago. It had started when she was four. Elisa turned 14 last month.
Fourteen, almost all the child psychologists agreed, was far too old for a child to still have an imaginary friend. Many argued that the acceptable range to maintain such imaginary relationships was three to five. Others were more liberal and extended the upper age to nine. But almost all agreed that if by fourteen a boy or girl still maintained a friendship with an imaginary creation, that some form of therapeutic intervention was recommended.
Jill remembers the first time her daughter Elisa had interacted with Charlie. Elisa was only four at the time and as Jill walked past her bedroom door one day, she saw her daughter joyfully engaged in a little tea party. Jill had assumed it was intended to be a tea party for one at first but then she looked again, as she stopped and spied on her daughter by stealthily peeking into her bedroom. There on the floor between the door and the bed was her tiny little tea table with two place settings.
“Would you care for some more jasmine tea, Charlie Bennett?” her daughter had asked the empty chair.
‘Well, that’s adorable,’ Jill had thought. ‘Elisa has an imaginary friend.’ She carefully snuck away from the open door and retraced her steps back down the stairs to leave her daughter and her friend to enjoy their tea party.
By the time she had turned eight, Elisa had already openly shared that she did in fact have a friend named Charlie Bennett. But she looked pained when her parents and coerced her into saying out loud the derogatory adjective ‘imaginary.’ There was some brief acting out with Elisa insisting, that ‘no. Charlie Bennett wasn’t imaginary, he was real!’
One such conversation left both parents rattled and seeking answers.
“But you’re eight now, baby, maybe it’s time to let Charlie go,” one of them had said as the other nodded their spousal support and concurrence with that suggestion. “You’re too old to have imaginary friends.”
“But Charlie Bennett isn’t imaginary,” Elisa had protested defensively.
“But why can’t we see him, if he’s real,” Patrick, always the logical one, had argued.
“I don’t know why daddy. But he’s …. ” Elisa had started to say but then she had stopped and looked towards the closet door, off to her left.
What followed that, still gives both parents the chills.
While they watched mute, their only child, looked at and interacted with her imaginary friend, Charlie Bennett for a heartbreaking two minutes.
She nodded and shook her head occasionally as her friend had apparently began asking her a series of questions. A couple times she even vocalized an ‘uh huh’ or a ‘no’ to some question her friend had asked.
After a few minutes of the theatrical, one sided conversation, their daughter had capitulated.
“I’m sorry mom and dad. I was just having some fun. I invented Charlie one day when I was bored. But now I see that by holding onto him I’m causing you both some real concern her for the viability of my continued psychological development. Rest assured, he was a total fabrication, engineered by me and me alone.”
One second she’s bobbing her head up and down, listening to Charlie but then suddenly she’s saying it’s all a farce? That night, for the first time ever, Elisa’s parents sat down at Jill’s laptop and Googled child psychologists.
The un-realness of that moment pulls Patrick back to almost exactly one year before that, when Elisa had been seven. He and Elisa had been having a tea party in her bedroom. When he learns that it’s not just the two of them, but that Charlie is also seated at the table, Patrick had decided to try ‘playing’ a little and begins speaking and responding to Charlie.
Elisa had been confused because none of what her father was saying had made any sense. Because Charlie Bennett had never bothered to answer any of Patrick’s silly questions, Elisa would confess to Dr. Steinway years later. Her father had acted like a child, she had said to Dr. Steinway.
But, sensing Charlie’s upset, Elisa had asked her father to not joke with Charlie Bennett so much.
“But Charlie and me are friends,” Patrick had joked and pantomimed throwing his arm around the invisible guest’s shoulder.
“Daddy, stop. Don’t do that. Charlie Bennett doesn’t like that. He says he doesn’t know you. And that you are … how did you put it, Charlie Bennett?”
Elisa directs her full attention to the tiny little chair at the end of her little table. Patrick notices her lips moving as she ‘listens’ to Charlie.
“Oh right,” Elisa says. “He says you are not respecting his personal boundaries.”
Patrick feels two strong and conflicting things at this.
A sense of pride that his daughter has such a rich imagination. She could be a successful writer with an imagination like that.
A sense of concern. Maybe Elisa is a little ‘too invested’ in this mental creation of hers. ‘And who gives their imaginary friend a last name? That’s surely unusual he thinks.
Patrick, looks penitent, contrite. “My apologies to both of you in that case. I truly meant no offense,” Patrick says. He extends his right hand to the empty chair waiting for a handshake from the wounded party however. After a while Patrick even offers one pump as if Charlie had indeed accepted her father’s apology and had made peace with Patrick.
“He never shook daddy’s hand at all,” a hypnotized Elisa would tell Dr. Steinway years later.
Elisa had never been content to pretend drink from empty cups at any of her celebrated tea parties. That was in her words, not a real tea party, that was pretend. So the kettle of Earl Grey that sits just in front of Patrick’s place is nearly half full of tea. Very hot tea.
Some commotion upsets the table and the kettle falls from the table and into Patrick’s lap. The emerging liquid burns him quite badly and he hobble steps from his daughter’s room in an attempt to minimize her emotional reaction to the accident.
As Patrick approaches the door to the upstairs bathroom, he can hear his daughter say, “That was very mean Charlie Bennett! Daddy was only playing. Why did you have to do that?”
Elisa and Penny had, as Elisa’s mother expected, stopped at the Starbucks at Royal and Pauly on their way home from school. They did more often than not.
“Didja hear about Britney?” Penny says to Elisa as she noisily sucks the last bit of vanilla frappuccino from the cup.
Dread seeps into Elisa’s heart. What did he do now, she wonders. Unable to speak, Elisa just shakes her head no. Fearing that whatever Penny is about to divulge will somehow implicate Charlie Bennett in some bit of foolishness.
“Well apparently when she was taking the trash out for Mrs. Clendenin yesterday, she slipped on the ice next to the dumpster and hit her head on a parking divider. The fall didn’t kill her but it paralyzed her. So sad.”
“But her mom … ” Elisa says.
“Had no idea,” Penny says. “Britney told her mom that she was spending the night at Laura Lackland’s house so she didn’t expect her home until today anyway. When Britney never showed at Laura’s place, Laura just assumed Britney had changed her mind. Again. You know? How she was.”
Elisa just nods once solemnly.
Britney was known for frequently changing her mind. Just ask any of the eight boyfriends she’s had just this school year!
This is getting bad, Elisa thinks.
“But she’s okay? I mean Britney, she’s going to be okay?” Elisa says.
“No. She froze to death right next to the dumpster. They didn’t find her body until this morning,” Penny says.
Elisa looks around for Charlie Bennett but he is nowhere in sight at the moment. She feels like she needs to have a long talk with him soon.
“That’s so sad,” Elisa finally says as the girls wait at the pedestrian stop-light on Royal but Penny has picked up her phone and is preoccupied with it and doesn’t say anything more.
The front door opens, Elisa enters, drops her backpack to the floor, closes the door, sees her parents huddled together on the couch. Her defenses go up immediately.
Had they heard about Britney already? Elisa thinks to herself.
While she can’t be certain, she’s dreading the possibility that Charlie Bennett might have had something to do with Britney’s death by the dumpster.
And if he had, well then it’s no longer an accident is it El? she asks herself.
“Hey sweetheart. How was your day?” her father asks. Her mother gets up and gives her daughter a big hug.
Despite wanting to not upset her daughter, Jill breaks down sobbing. Her mother’s tears are running onto Elisa’s face.
While pinned by her mom, she steals a quick glance around the room – no sign of Charlie Bennett.
Patrick approaches them and disentangles his wife from his daughter.
“Now, let’s just take some deep breaths and try to calm ourselves,” he says more to Jill.
Jill begins deliberately breathing, trying to collect herself.
Patrick just jumps in with both feet.
“E, we got some bad news today. Dr. Steinway fell down the icy stairs at his clinic yesterday.”
‘Again, with the ice Charlie?’ Her heart is breaking. If she learns that he had anything to do with either death, she will send him away and it will be the hardest thing she’s ever had to do.
“He died during the middle of the night at St. Vincent’s. I’m so sorry baby. But we will find you another therapist I promise. One every bit as good as Dr. Steinway is … was,” Jill says from the loveseat.
Elisa starts to cry softly. “I see,” she says. “Well, that’s a lot for me to take in all at once. I feel a need for some space and a little time to start processing all of this. If you’ll excuse me, I think I will take a little nap before dinner.”
With no further words, Elisa floats like a wraith up the stairs and to her bedroom.
Both parents wait until they hear their daughter’s bedroom door close before they begin speaking again.
“Was she upset? Or did she seem calm to you?” Jill asks Patrick.
“I don’t know. Maybe .. both? Like she’d already had something on her mind when she came …” Patrick says but stops short when the living room closet door opens and an eight foot tall creature enters the room.
The figure is gray and black and covered in hair. Many of the dark pitches on it are so black, it’s as if they reflect no light whatsoever. He, it, has long rabbit ears and a mouth filled with oversized teeth. It’s eyes are huge, round, and black as obsidian.
Jill begins hyperventilating. Patrick does his best to position himself between whatever this thing is and his wife.
“Mom, dad, or shall I call you Jill and Patrick? I thought it was time we meet. Properly I mean. You, I’ve met before? At a tea party long ago? You still have the scars on your thighs?” he says to Patrick.
The giant rabbit’s voice sounded like someone who had a mouthful of gravel and water and was trying to enunciate each word without swallowing either.
Blank stares from both parents. The creature is menacing but much too large and solid looking for Patrick to try anything stupid.
“I am Charlie Bennett,” the rabbit man demon says to them through wet gravel.
“Now, don’t be alarmed. I don’t appear this way to Elisa. To her, I look like a young teenage boy. Neither overly attractive or repulsive. But I thought you folks deserved to see the real me.”
Neither parent is ready to engage in speech with this walking abomination. Patrick decides it must be a demon.
“What are you?” Jill says weakly.
“Oh, that’s what you want to ask me? Of all the things that might happen here, you want to know what I am. That’s your priority? Interesting. Elisa seems so smart compared to you two. Tell me was she adopted?”
Jill begins sobbing again.
“Now, now, don’t panic – at least not yet! Patrick knows what I am. Don’t you dad?”
“Please don’t hurt our daughter,” Patrick pleads.
“I have no intention of hurting your daughter. That is not my mission. Now tell Jill what I am before I start pulling her fingers off.”
“A … demon?” Patrick says.
“Ding, ding, ding! Winner, winner, chicken dinner!” the rabbit man demon sings.
“But what do you want?” Patrick says as Jill collapses against his right shoulder. Automatically he throws one arm over her, comforting his wife.
“Me? I don’t want anything. I’m here on another’s behalf. I have been since she was four.”
Neither parent says anything so Charlie Bennett continues.
“My father wants a new bride and Elisa really caught his eye. So I’ve been grooming her for years. When Elisa turns eighteen, I will take her to hell and she will wed my father. He’s a minister of hell, so it should be quite a party.”
Jill’s sobbing intensifies as her whole reality begins to shatter.
“Noooooooo,” she whines softly. One part of her hoping that her daughter won’t come back downstairs now.
“Intra servis suis!” Charlie Bennett says towards the closet door.
The closet door opens and two out of focus people enter the room.
Patrick decides it’s not so much that they are ‘out of focus’ rather that they are ‘unfinished’ or somehow ‘unformed.’
Both figures shuffle slowly into the room like drugged mannequins brought obscenely to life. They stop and stand behind Charlie Bennett.
Patrick thinks there’s something familiar about their bodies, which are a little more defined than their faces. With a sinking sensation he feels certain will never end, Patrick sees that the two figures are similar in build to him and Jill.
“Now, seeing as you two refuse to let this go, refuse to overlook my existence any longer, I’ve been forced to take … steps, shall we say?” as his hand points to both the fuzzy people behind him.
“My manners!” Charlie says apologetically. “This is Patrick 2.0 and Jill 2.0. They will be Elisa’s parents until she’s eighteen.”
It’s worse than Jill could ever dream. Not only are she and Patrick about to die but there is no way they can save Elisa from an even worse fate.
Over his shoulder, the demon says, “Incipe translationis.”
The two humanoids approach their human counterparts and begin the transfer.
The Patrick and Jill replacements tightly embrace and cover the humans’ mouths with their own fuzzy orifices.
“What your replacements are doing is like a … well I guess a ‘download’ is closest to what is happening to you right now. They’re downloading all neural wiring in your brains, all your memories, knowledge, thoughts, and opinions from your brains into theirs. Then they will begin finishing their faces and bodies to match every scar, every freckle, the precise eye pattern each of you has. Well you can kind of see where this is headed I guess.”
Oh, you’ll still have your souls but neither of you will physically survive this process. You will be undone.
You will end this ritual looking like they did when they entered the room, like fuzzy unfinished mannequins. Then the two of them will bury your bodies under the house.”
Charlie Bennett pulls a sheet of paper from some hidden pocket, unfolds it and reads.
1. Britney Busybody Bitch Borrego
2. Dr. Darryl Dickhead Steinway
3. Patrick & Jill
The first two have a checkmark next to them. The demon makes a flicking gesture with his right index finger and a checkmark appears next to the last list entry.
“Well, I guess my work is done here. I am just going to pop upstairs and check on Elisa.”
As he begins climbing the stairs, Charlie Bennett is already visibly morphing into an average teen-aged boy. It is the last thing Jill or Patrick see as the doppelgangers finish the transfers.