Lit Up
Published in

Lit Up


His name’s Jodie.

The guy in the pictures. He started as a silhouette, a cross between a shadow and a lens flare. We’d see him in the pictures we snapped on our phones and there he’d be, this odd crescent of light, always near my daughter. Then he started taking shape.

My daughter, Kaya, saw Jodie for the first time when she was just over two. She’d point and laugh when there was no one there. Sometimes she’d cry when we’d take her out of a room, arms reaching out towards some empty piece of furniture or corner. She was particularly attached to the mirror at the end of the hallway. At first we thought she just liked looking at herself and babbling. But then she started talking to it. Her first word was to the strange invisible entity — a big, bright “Hi!” my wife Cara heard her chirp into the mirror one day.

As her speech abilities developed, she started to have more extensive conversations with her imaginary friend. The friend was apparently male, and older. She claimed he lived in the mirror at the end of the hallway, but he could step out of it and go wherever he liked. Cara and I would hear her in her bedroom, talking to him late into the night. One day I came home and Cara told me Stella had given her friend a name — Jodie.

“I didn’t name him,” said Kaya, overhearing us from the dinner table. “He told me.”

“She’s been saying that all day,” I told Cara. “Jodie this, Jodie that.”

“Your name’s Jordan,” she said. “She probably just changed a few letters around.”

But Jodie knew things. All of a sudden my three-year-old knew how to tie a perfect slipknot, demonstrating the ability with some of my wife’s sewing thread.

“Where’d you learn that?” Cara asked her, astounded.

“Jodie showed me.”

Jodie taught her the names of the plants that were growing in the old garden alongside the house we’d just bought. He told her about the history of the Navy, and where Kim Il Sung was born and how he came to power in Korea. He told her what kinds of berries you could eat in the woods and which kinds would make you get sick. She knew all different kinds of cars and was able to call out the names of all the birds that populated the trees in our back yard.

“Mama,” she asked at breakfast one day. “What’s the Kennedy assassination?”

In hindsight, we knew something weird was going on, but we chalked it up to a supremely advanced imagination. Kaya had been able to operate tablets, phones and laptops in all their infinite wealth of knowledge since before she could even speak properly. I put restrictions on the browser, limited her screen time and called it good.

In fact, we didn’t think too much of it until Kaya started insisting on having a place for Jodie at the table.

“He’s lonely,” she told Cara and I. “He likes having us here. No one was here before us.”

And there were always the pictures, the strange glowing silhouette in the corners, slowly developing shoulders and a head. Sometimes I’d leaf through them, wondering what the fuck was wrong with my phone’s camera.

We got our first family portraits done at a studio downtown. When they were sent to us, the photographer sounded spooked.

“There’s some other guy in these pictures,” she said in the email. “I don’t know where he came from. I tried editing him out. He keeps coming back as soon as I close the file or try to attach them to the email. Really sorry. No idea how this happened. If you want to come back and do the portraits again, I’ll do them for free.”

I opened the pictures and my heart started pounding.

The three of us were sitting there in front of an ocean-blue patterned background. Standing next to us, his hands clasped in front of him, was an old white man dressed in a blue flannel shirt and dirty jeans. He was skinny, almost emaciated. His eyes were chipper and brown. His head was bald, with a little fuzz of white hair coming out of the sides. His skin was like leather and his mouth puckered with rotten teeth.

When we’d taken the pictures, we’d obviously been completely alone, although Kaya had continued talking to Jodie.

“‘Jodie,’” she kept saying. “Why aren’t you smiling?”

The strange picture guy’s face looked sad, but I saw a touch of anger, too.

I called my wife in. She looked at the pictures and started tearing up.

“What is this, Jordan?” she asked.

We could hear Kaya downstairs, having a tea party with Jodie.

I printed off a picture and went down.

“Kaye?” I asked. “Is this Jodie?”

I showed her the picture.

She was pretending to sip from a small blue teacup, her little blue tea set spread out in front of her.

She looked at the picture and scrunched her nose.

“Jodie,” she said to the other side of the coffee table. “You didn’t smile!”

“Is Jodie here now?” I asked.

“He’s right there,” said Kaya, pointing and looking at me like I was an idiot.

“Can you ask Jodie who he is?”

“I already told you,” said Kaya, rolling her eyes and displaying a sassiness more fit for a 15 year old than a 4 year old. “He used to live here.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was lonely.”

“But we live here now.”

“He was loooonelyyyyyy,” Kaya said again, drawing the word out. She was getting snotty with me and I didn’t like it.

“Kaya,” I said, trying to hold my patience. “I don’t know what that means.”

I looked at the portrait and the empty space across the coffee table. I reached over and pawed at the air, expecting to feel a cold spot or something. Nothing.

“Jodie can’t stay here with us,” Cara said from behind me. “He’s scaring Mommy.”

“He’s sorry,” said Kaya. “He knows you don’t want him here. But he’s saying he’ll keep me if you try to make him leave.”

“What do you mean, he’ll keep you?”

“Like he kept himself here, with the knot.”

“What knot?”

“He made a knot in the rope, like the one I showed you. And he put it around his neck because he was lonely, and now he has to stay here.”

That’s when I grabbed her and ran, the little blue teacup still clenched in her fist. I don’t think my feet even touched the floor as we darted out the front door, Cara behind us yowling and shouting prayers. Kaya started bawling, partially from how roughly I’d grabbed her and partially from how distraught we were.

“Why did you hurt Jodie’s feelings?” she screeched at me as I reversed out of the driveway and nearly took out the mailbox.

We haven’t been back to the house since, and we won’t be.



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