A shadow fell across my lap, darkening the page of my book, and I knew it was Priscilla. That’s how it always was with Priscilla. She’d say hello by pressing the flat of her hand into the middle of your chest, or taking your stomach in her hands and spiking it to the ground like a volleyball. I know a lot of the other kids avoided her. I mean, nobody likes chasing after their stomach trying to catch it. It actually made a lot of kids cry.
“Oh, hi Priscilla,” I said. She stepped aside, taking the shadow with her, and sat down next to me.
“How are you today?” I ventured, smiling politely like my mom taught me. I waited for her to answer but she just sat there. I cast my gaze back down and thumbed the pages of my book to find my spot, but her presence weighed on me. The shadow fell on the page again as Priscilla leaned over to whisper, “I don’t think anyone likes you.”
I looked up to see her already running away. I hugged my knees to my chest. I didn’t want to read anymore.
At night my mom answered the phone. It was Priscilla’s mom. I knew because I heard my mom say, “We’d love to have Priscilla over to play!” She says I should be nice to all the kids.
When Priscilla came over we sat on the floor of my bedroom.
“What do you want to play?” I asked.
Priscilla just sat there. I looked down at my toes and wiggled them into the soft carpet.
“Do you want a snack?” I tried again.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said quietly.
I took Priscilla down the stairs to the bathroom, and waited for her outside the door. I always go in the bathroom with my other friends, like Stacey, but Priscilla wasn’t much like Stacey.
Suddenly Priscilla flew out of the bathroom and looked at me right in the eyes. I stared back, frozen. Priscilla’s icy fingers crawled up my neck and the sound of the water tank refilling the toilet rang in my ears.
“We have to get back upstairs before the toilet finishes flushing,” Priscilla said.
“What? Why?” I asked, eyes wide.
“And we have to save all the people on the way,” she continued.
“What people?” I asked again, my voice growing sharper. But Priscilla pushed by me and was already running toward the staircase, scooping up invisible people on the way. I didn’t understand the game but I started to run after her anyway. I scooped up the people like she did, but I could hear the toilet sounds start to slow down and knew we were running out of time.
“Faster! Faster!” I yelled as we clambered up the stairs. The game kind of made me nervous.
We barrelled down the hall to my room and I slammed the door behind us before we fell back onto the carpet. We laid on the floor, chests heaving from the race. I looked over at Priscilla and she looked at me.
“We did it,” she said, breathing hard.
“We did it!”
And we started to laugh.
The next week I was playing alone, reading my book up in my room. I heard someone knock at the front door and heard my mom get up to go answer it. Curious, I dropped my book and slithered off my bed on my back like a weird snake. I ran down the stairs to see who it was, but I didn’t recognize the lady’s blue coat or her long hair. I slowed down and watched her serious eyes looking at my mom and listened to her hushed tones explaining what happened.
My dog, Lucky, had been in the backyard. I don’t know how he got out, but he was a fast runner. That’s what the lady said, that’s why she didn’t see him. I looked past her out the front door and saw Lucky lying in the road.
“Mom?” I looked up at her. Her chin started to shake. I know it’s bad when a grown-up’s chin starts to shake.
“Lucky!” I screamed, and ran outside. Priscilla was standing across the street. She saw me crying.
My mom wrapped Lucky up in a blanket and said we could take him to the vet. Priscilla got into the car beside me and drove the whole way with us. She put her hand on my stomach and squeezed it, and kept squeezing it for the whole ride, even over the bridge. It didn’t feel good but I know she was trying to help, so I didn’t say anything.
After that, any time we drove over the bridge Priscilla would squeeze my stomach again.
“Remember when Lucky died?” she’d whisper. “That was so scary. We were right here. Doesn’t that make you want to cry?”
And it always did.
It seemed like Priscilla was always around after that, darkening the page of my book or squeezing my stomach. She knew some good games, even if they were weird. And I never forgot that she drove with me the whole way to the vet. None of my other friends did that.
When we rolled out our sleeping bags on my bedroom floor and stayed up whispering past bedtime she’d ask me why Stacey didn’t come with me to the vet. I didn’t know why.
“Do you think that means she doesn’t like you?” Priscilla asked. I never thought of it like that before.
“I think it means she doesn’t like you,” Priscilla concluded.
I stared at the ceiling in the dark. I guess it didn’t matter so much if Stacey didn’t like me anymore if I had Priscilla, even though me and Stacey used to run around the backyard with Lucky all the time.
My mom asked me if I wanted to have a playdate with Stacey. She said her mom had called to ask.
“I don’t think Stacey likes me very much, Mom,” I said.
“Then why would she invite you over to play?” I didn’t know why.
Instead, I just walked around the neighbourhood with Priscilla. I would see Stacey or my other friends sometimes, but Priscilla would pull me away. Priscilla was really good at remembering all the places Lucky liked to sniff on his walks and she wanted to visit them all the time.
“Let’s go!” she would say, pulling my hand.
Sometimes Priscilla got tired walking around, looking at all of Lucky’s old spots, and would crawl up inside my ribs and wrap herself around my heart. She liked to be carried, she said. It was warm in there. But Priscilla was really heavy, and there wasn’t enough room in for her in my chest. She made it feel like my heart was getting squished. It was actually kind of scary.
We started playing in the woods a lot, like Lucky used to. We climbed the trees as high as we could and told secrets at the top.
“I miss Lucky,” I said. “I miss Stacey. Sometimes I think you’re my only friend, Priscilla.”
Priscilla pressed her hand into my chest.
“I know,” she said. “I think so, too.”
We spent so much time in the trees we decided to build a fort.
“No one will be able to find us,” Priscilla said, digging through a pile of branches, looking for something sturdy. “Not that anyone even wants us around.”
I thought about how the other kids ran away from Priscilla, holding their stomachs.
It took a while but we made our tree fort out of fallen branches and nails we snuck from my dad’s garage and anything else we could find. We picked dandelions and leaves and arranged them in bouquets in plastic bottles that we found in the woods. We hung up scraps from my mom’s rag bag like curtains and even braided some into a rug. We held our breath when anyone walked close to the fort so they wouldn’t hear us and find us up there. We’d see who could hold their breath the longest. Priscilla always made funny faces so I would start to laugh and lose. Just like the first good game we ever played, we laughed as we tried to catch our breath.
“We should have a sleepover out here,” said Priscilla, looking around our fort. “It’s like a real house.”
I knew I’d have to sneak out. My mom would never let me have a sleepover in the fort. I didn’t even tell her about the fort — she didn’t like me playing with Priscilla so much. She said she was “concerned.” She would ask, “don’t you want to play with your other friends?”
Priscilla said if my mom didn’t want me playing with her she must not care about me very much.
That night I put on my pyjamas and packed my book, my flashlight, and the good cereal in my backpack and hid it under my bed. I would wait until my parents said “Goodnight,” and sneak out into the woods to meet Priscilla.
I never snuck out before but it wasn’t so hard. My parents didn’t hear the door open or close over the sound of the TV.
The beam from my flashlight bobbed along, lighting a path in front of me. It had rained earlier and the beads of moisture shone on the bushes as I squelched through the woods. When I reached our tree I flashed the light up the trunk and Priscilla poked her head out of the fort. She was already here. I switched off my flashlight and zipped it into my backpack.
In the dark I’d have to climb the tree from memory.
I tightened my backpack straps and put my hands up on the first branch, the bark soft from the rain. I swung my legs up like I always did and started to climb. But it was harder to grip in my rain boots than my usual sneakers.
“Priscilla!” I called. “Shine your flashlight down here!” I waited for her light, but she must not have heard me. I felt around in the dark for the next branch.
“Priscilla!” I kept calling as I climbed. Finally I heard her.
“Shh!” she hissed. “Someone will hear you! They’ll find us!”
“Sorry,” I said. I reached for another branch but missed it in the dark. The sound of the air swooshing as my hand connected with nothing made me feel like Priscilla was squeezing my stomach. Maybe she was, I couldn’t really see.
“Can you shine your light?” I asked again.
“Someone will see,” Priscilla’s voice came through the dark.
“But it’s getting hard to climb,” I said. I looked down, trying to guess how much farther I had to go. I saw another tiny light moving through the forest.
“What’s that?” I asked Priscilla. It was another flashlight.
“I told you someone would hear you,” she scolded. “Be quiet!”
I heard my mom call my name. I gasped.
“It’s my mom! She’s looking for me!”
I remembered why Priscilla said we should build a fort.
“She does want me around,” I added more quietly.
“She’s just going to get you in trouble,” said Priscilla. “Now hurry up!”
“But I can’t see, I’m getting scared,” I whined.
“Sweetheart, where are you?” my mom sounded scared, too, yelling into the woods, flashing her light all over.
“I’ll pull you up,” said Priscilla. “Grab my hand.”
“I can’t see!”
I looked down at the wildly swinging orb of light connected to my mom’s voice. Maybe Priscilla was right. I didn’t want to get in trouble. I took one hand off the damp branch and reached out in the direction of Priscilla’s voice and waited for her hand to grab mine. I stretched and stretched as far as I could but still felt nothing. It was hard to hold on with one hand; it was starting to get so cold it felt weird, like it wasn’t part of me anymore. My toes ground into the bark of the branch I balanced on, chipping little bits away.
“Please come home,” my mom kept calling. She sounded like her chin was starting to shake. “We love you!”
“See!” I yelled to Priscilla. “She does want m—”
Suddenly the chunk of bark that wrapped around the branch under my toes tore off and fell away, sending my feet sliding off over the curve of the branch. My hand was too cold and stiff to keep its grip.
I started to fall and screamed, “Priscilla!”
After the accident, I figured out Priscilla wasn’t my only friend. I started to think maybe she was my worst friend. Stacey came to visit me in the hospital and all the kids at school signed my card. My mom said, “of course we want you around, how could you think that,” and held me while I buried my sobbing face into her stomach. They all told me they missed Lucky, too.
If Priscilla came to see me, she didn’t say anything. Sometimes at night I thought I saw her lurking behind the door, or at the edges of the glow from the machines.
Now when Priscilla comes to visit me, I still take her for walks around the neighbourhood. We laugh at some of the old times, look at all the things we wrecked. We sure played some weird games. I still ask her what she thinks of my friends, of my mom. I still listen, but now I just nod.
“Huh,” I say thoughtfully. “I never thought of it that way.”
Sometimes Priscilla still reaches for my stomach, or tries to crawl inside my ribs but I just shake my head.
“No, Priscilla, not today.”
Sometimes when we walk by the woods, Priscilla still gives me a quiet look, silently asking me to run away with her, to build another fort to hide away in. Sometimes, I still want to. But I can’t forget falling. I can’t forget how it felt to reach for her and feel only air, like she’d been making it up the whole time, like she wasn’t even real.
Andi Schwartz is a writer, editor, and acafemmeic. Her writing has appeared in Flare, Xtra, Guts, Herizons, Shameless, and more. She lives in Toronto with her fur babies, Franny and Zooey.