The little girl was playing in the backyard.
“Look, what I made for you,” she opened her palm and showed a small finger puppet. It was a white cow with black spots, made of felt cloth.
“I named him Mr. Moo. Do you like him?”
She waited a quick moment. Then her face lit up.
“Thank you! That’s so nice of you. Here, take him,” she outstretched her arm and offered Mr. Moo.
Only, there was no one to accept her offer. Facing her was a vacant wooden bench.
Suddenly, she had second thoughts. She felt unsure that giving Mr. Moo to her imaginary friend was a good idea.
“You won’t lose him like you lost Miss Piggy, will you?”
She withdrew her arm and held Mr. Moo in both hands, hugging the finger puppet to her chest. “Perhaps, I shall keep him safe for you”.
A voice rang out from home. Mother was calling, “Annie, enough playing. Come in now. You have chores to do.”
The little girl replied aloud, “Coming, mother. Just a moment more.”
Catherine is in a rush. She is always in a rush at this time of the day, every week day. She is searching for something, holding a phone and talking into it over the speaker.
“There must be something you can do. She’s getting worse with each passing day.”
“Why do you think so?” the doctor’s voice sounded distant and dispassionate from the other side of the line.
“She usually could remember things from ages ago. But nowadays, she forgets … almost everything.”
Catherine spotted her purse lying on a chair, picked it up, and exited the room into a short corridor that connected the other rooms in the house.
“That’s expected with Alzheimer’s,” said the doctor.
“She keeps to herself, talks to herself. Is that expected too?” Catherine blurted out, hurrying along the corridor.
“What does she talk about?”
Catherine didn’t reply. She arrived at a room and peeked inside. It is untidy, with toys thrown everywhere. On the floor near the door is a bright purple school bag with the letters ‘ANNIE’ hand-painted across the front. It is loaded and ready to go.
With clenched teeth, Catherine picked up the school bag and hung it over her shoulder. Then she spoke into the phone.
“Sorry, but I have to go. Can I call you back later?”
Without waiting for a response, she ended the call and turned around.
The old lady is sitting at the edge of her bed, mumbling something. Nowadays, that’s all she does most of the day when she’s not sleeping. She recently turned seventy but looks a decade older than that, and quite frail. She has wrinkles all over her skin, looking like ancient canyons. Sunlight falling on her through the east-side window made impressive shadows.
Presently, the old lady is stooped over an antique box held in her lap.
Catherine appeared at the door, carrying the school bag and her purse. “See you later, mom,” she said aloud.
The old lady is lost in her own world.
“Mom?” Catherine called, louder.
The old lady stopped mumbling, slowly turned her head and looked at her daughter.
“I’m leaving for work. Did you take your medicine?”
The old lady stared with a blank face.
Catherine sighed and walked in. Her gaze fell on the side table, where a tumbler full of water is resting next to a vial of pills. She picked them up with her free hand and stretched it towards her mother.
“Come on now, mom. Take them today. I’ll make sure Annie doesn’t skip from tomorrow,” she pleaded.
The old lady still gave a blank stare.
Catherine pleaded again, with her eyes this time. And she got the same response. She gave up.
“Alright. Have it your way. I haven’t got all day.”
She placed the tumbler and vial back where they were, and turned to her mother.
“Don’t forget to eat your lunch. I’ve set an alarm at noon.”
Then she left.
The old lady stared for a few moments, at her daughter walking away in a hurry. Then she turned her attention back to the antique box and resumed mumbling. With bony fingers, she felt around the box and carefully opened it. From it, she picked up a shiny spherical object the size of a small marble, inspected it for a moment and placed it back. Then she picked up a small wooden piece that looked like a voodoo doll, inspected and placed it back.
Then she picked up a blunt but elaborately decorated miniature knife.
Annie realized suddenly, that her mother would show up in the backyard any moment now. Somehow, she always sensed not only her mother’s moods but also her movement. She is running out of time. But there’s one thing she must make sure before she left.
“That’s our secret. Swear you won’t tell anyone?” she extended a hand, fingers folded except for the pinkie. Then she shook her arm in the air, faking a pinkie-promise.
At the same moment, Catherine came out of the back door that opened into the backyard, and called out, “Annie”.
Annie ignored her mother and warned her imaginary friend, “You know what happens if you don’t keep a promise?”
“Annie,” Catherine called again.
Annie rushed her next sentence, “I will stop believing you. Do you want that to happen?”
“ANGELINA … DROP IT AND COME HERE, THIS MOMENT!” Catherine fumed now.
Annie told her imaginary friend in a hushed tone, “Mama’s here. See you later,” Before that line’s finished, she got up and ran to her mother.
Catherine is upset; a hint of anger in her countenance. But she gathered herself and calmed down by the time Annie reached her, and said, “You’re supposed to give grannie her medicine, Annie. Your negligence could be dangerous to her.”
“Sorry, mama,” said Annie, looking down.
“You know that grannie makes a fuss about her medicine, unless you give it to her. Don’t you?”
Annie looked up. “Yes, but why isn’t she fussy with me?”
“You look so much like her. That’s why.”
Annie imagined herself and grannie side by side and tried to find a resemblance, and failed. But she didn’t announce her disagreement.
“You won’t neglect your chores again. Yes?” Catherine stared straight into Annie’s eyes. The kid nodded her head.
“And, Annie … you are a ten year old; a little too old to be playing with imaginary friends,” Catherine bent her head in the direction of the cement bench where Annie was playing earlier, “It’s time to let them go.”
A sadness swept over Annie’s pretty face. “Is it bad to have them, mama?”
Catherine leaned forward and gently grabbed Annie’s shoulder. “Not at all, honey. I had my own pretend friend when I was a kid. But after a certain age, we don’t need them.” She felt sorry for her daughter, but she had to be firm. She stood straight and clarified further.
“All I’m saying is, you need to make real friends.”
Catherine expected a response but she got none. Annie just looked at her in a non-committal manner. Catherine decided to drop the matter. She said, “Okay. Let’s go now, or you’ll be late to school”, and handed over the school bag to Annie.
The two gentlemen seated on the cement bench have been quietly watching the conversation between Catherine and Annie, until the moment mother and daughter turned back and made their way into the home.
“An adorable child has you there,” remarked the older of the two gentlemen, staring in their direction. He was called Raphael. He appears to be about twenty-five but it’s really hard to say for sure. He seems like a man born at that age and stuck in it ever since. His face has perfectly symmetrical features. There’s an angelic grace emanating from him.
The other gentleman nodded. He is also staring in the same direction. He is called Jimmy, and he looked much younger than Raphael.
“A child had me once. She’s as adorable as yours,” Raphael said again.
Jimmy turned to Raphael, with a surprised look. “She had! What happened?”
“She grew up, and …”
“… she stopped believing in me.”
Jimmy’s eyes grew wide. “How is that possible!?! She created you, didn’t she?”
Raphael turned to Jimmy. “That’s the way it is. A day will come when they don’t need us anymore. It happens to us all. It’ll happen to you before you know.”
Jimmy is horrified. His mouth gaped open. He suddenly felt depressed. “I can’t imagine such an existence. That’s … purposeless. What do I do when … after?” he asked Raphael in a shaky tone.
“Ask not what you do but what you don’t do.”
Jimmy stared at Raphael quizzically.
Raphael explained, “You don’t give up on her. And … you wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“For the day she might need you again. Until then, you watch. You watch over her, every step of her life. That’s your purpose. That’s what you do … after.”
The old lady picked up something from her antique box, inspected it and placed it back. Then she stopped.
She stared at it for a few seconds. Her brows furrowed. She picked it up again, kept it in the middle of her palm that’s trembling with an unexpected excitement, and looked at it carefully.
Deep down, somewhere in her old heart, a recognition dawned. Her eyes widened and her lips parted, making a soft ‘Oh’ sound.
Resting in her palm is Mr. Moo, staring back at her. He appeared to be smiling. A promise made ages ago played in her ears, “… I’ll keep him safe for you.”
The old lady held Mr. Moo in both her hands, brought them to her chest, and closed her eyes.
Raphael swiftly turned his head and looked at the east-side window of that home. He stiffened and froze like a statue. Jimmy got baffled. He tried to shake up Raphael, but Raphael recovered before that and said as if he’s talking to himself:
“My child needs me. I must go … now.”
And he disappeared, leaving Jimmy alone in the backyard — with his mouth still hanging open.
The old lady hugged Mr. Moo tight. Tears are streaming out of her closed, sunken eyes.
Raphael materialized next to her, like fog taking a distinct form, and softly called her.
The old lady did not respond.
Raphael bent forward and called again, louder.
At this, she opened her eyes.
And she saw him for the first time in sixty years. Joy and happiness flooded her wrinkled face which still looked adorable to him.
Annie opened her hands and offered Mr. Moo to Raphael.
© 2021 Anil S. Royal