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Vivian's First Secret

Vivian’s First Secret
by Rory Say

Vivian named him Little, because even when she was three, which might have been when they first met, he came only to her shoulders.

Back then she would sometimes ask her mother about the strange tiny boy in the house—who was he, and why did he never say anything? If her mother paid any mind to these questions they typically caused her to crouch down, ruffle her daughter’s hair affectionately, and pinch her cheeks pink. “Aren’t you just adorable?” was often along the lines of her reply. “Wait till I tell Daddy. A little boy in the house—imagine!” Then she would laugh brightly and wander away, seeming to forget all about the conversation.

This kind of response confused the young Vivian, and soon she stopped mentioning the mysterious boy whom every now and then she found hiding somewhere in the bowels of the house, or saw scuttling from room to room like a rodent from outside.

It had never once occurred to her to bring the issue up with her father. Mr. Blandercamp was hardly ever in the house on account of work—the nature of which, naturally, was unknown to his toddler child—and when he was, he liked to be left alone with piles of paper and pee-coloured drinks which burned the insides of Vivian’s nose and brought tears to her eyes when she smelled them. If he was not left alone his face grew angry and he yelled.

So instead Vivian allowed her imagination to invent what she wanted to know: Little had grown like a plant in the garden a hundred years ago and had spent the first portion of his life hibernating in a burrow beneath where the house now stood. When finally he awoke, he was surprised to find that a building had been put on top of him. Luckily he adapted easily, and ever since then he had lived between two worlds, secretly invading the upper house when he craved its comforts, but always retreating to his home beneath its foundations to sleep for weeks at a time.

Vivian had searched for the network of tunnels that she believed connected the basement to secret caverns beneath the garden, but never to any avail. Once her mother came down the creaking steps and found her removing boxes of storage from where they were stacked against a cement wall. When asked what in the world she was doing, Vivian turned meekly around and said that she was looking for something. From then on she was forbidden from going unsupervised into the basement, which was a drafty and damp vast room filled with unused tools, cobwebs, and mounds of clutter.

So be it, thought Vivian. That she could never learn anything about Little only made him more wonderful in her eyes. He never spoke, but still she liked to ask him questions when he appeared to her and also to answer questions she imagined him asking her. It was almost like talking to her cat, Molly, but not quite; usually she felt that something was communicated, if not conventionally understood.

In many ways he was more like a pet than a person, but Vivian never thought of him as anything but a friend. Her first real friend and her first real secret. A friend because she had never known anyone outside of her immediate family, and the rare sightings of Little excited her and made her feel not so alone in the huge, mostly empty house; a secret because it became clear that Little had never been seen by anybody else that she knew, and in time she understood also that, for whatever obscure reason, it was meant to stay that way.

During their one-sided conversations, Little’s pale gray eyes would fix themselves to Vivian’s vibrant green ones and stay there. If she invited him to follow her somewhere he would make no indication that he understood her words, but if she took his limp hand and led him, his feet would move in the direction they were taken.

They would sit crosslegged on her bed for entire afternoons while Vivian told stories and Little either silently listened or silently did not listen. If Vivian left for any reason—to go to the bathroom or to ask her mother for a snack—her friend would be gone when she returned. Sometimes she would merely turn away for a moment to show him something in her closet or from underneath her bed and find that he had disappeared when she looked back.

And when that happened, there was no telling when she would see him next. It could be an hour later or the following month. Usually, it seemed to be the moment she stopped looking. She might spend an hour scouring odd corners of the house only to find him afterwards in the kitchen, hiding from nobody, eating scraps of leftovers off a counter. Instances like this prompted Vivian to begin leaving platefuls of food scattered around the house, but she stopped when one evening Mr. Blandercamp stepped in a pile of cold pasta in the upstairs hallway and, after prying a confession from his daughter, scolded her so fiercely that she had fled to her bedroom and wept herself asleep.

When Vivian was four her mother took her to a daycare where, for the first time in her life, she met and mingled with others her own size and age. All of the boys she met there shocked and repulsed her; they were nothing like her friend at home, who was clean and quiet and respectful of personal space. These callow fiends were without exception loud and foul, their faces and sleeves always smeared with snotty stains or evidence of whatever they had eaten last. Worst of all they never kept their hands to themselves, but liked to grab or smack or tug whomever they addressed with their shrieking voices.

Each afternoon, Vivian came home and hoped that Little would be there. If she was able to find him, she would bring him to her room, sit him on her bed, and describe to him all the horrors of the day, recounting the names of each boy and girl who had tugged her hair or hit her on the arm. If she could not remember their names she would invent new ones. She would describe what they looked like and what they sounded like. She would imitate them. She also talked about her father, about how she wished he would never come home because when he was home the house seemed different and strange and she felt trapped inside it like a bug under a glass jar. She also told him about Bethany.

Bethany was one of the girls at the daycare who was not like the boys. She was quiet and restrained except when she sometimes cried without obvious cause, and by the end of the first week, her shyness had attracted Vivian to her. They began speaking, tentatively at first, and soon bonded through their shared terror of everything around them.

The first time Bethany came to Vivian’s house, they played hide and seek and afterwards shared a snack of cheese and crackers at the kitchen table. For a while they ate without speaking, each of their minds occupied by its own private thoughts. Then Bethany looked curiously around the room and asked Vivian a question.

“Do you not have a brother or sister?”

“No,” said Vivian.

Bethany nodded and took a bite from the cracker she held in both hands. “I have a brother,” she said.

“What’s his name?” asked Vivian.

“James. He’s six and he’s mean to me.”

They chewed in silence for a moment. Then Vivian, who had been brooding intensely in her chair, leaned in close to her new friend and said softly, “I don’t have a brother. But I have a secret.”

“What kind of secret?” asked Bethany.

Shh!” Vivian hissed, pressing a forefinger to her lips. “A secret friend. His name’s Little.”

“That’s not a name,” said Bethany defiantly.

“Yes it is,” Vivian insisted. “It’s his name.”

“Where is he?”

Vivian crawled up onto the table, which she was often told not to do, and brought her face so near to her friend’s that their noses almost touched. Bethany looked suddenly frightened and leaned back in her chair. “He’s hiding!” Vivian whispered loudly, spraying crumbs into the face of her guest. “He sleeps in the ground outside under the garden and sometimes he comes into the house but no one knows that but me.”

Bethany dragged a hand over her face and was quiet for a moment. “You’re lying,” she said at last.

Vivian climbed down from the table and sat back in her chair. She reached for a cracker and bit into it. “We can look for him,” she said with her mouth full. “I can show him to you.”

“Where will we find him?” Bethany asked nervously.

“I don’t know,” admitted Vivian. “We’ll just have to look.”

They pocketed the remaining crackers to take with them as bait for Little, and began their search on the ground floor where, aside from in the kitchen, the elusive boy had sometimes been seen scrunched inside a linen closet in the front hallway or standing stock-still behind the thick dining room drapes. He was not there and he was not there.

Next Vivian led the way upstairs. They looked through a sitting room where once she had found her father sprawled and sleeping on a loveseat and Little behind him, reaching over the back of the small couch to collect popcorn from a large bowl that rose and fell with the belly it rested upon. Mr. Blandercamp was now out of town and Little was nowhere to be seen.

They looked inside cupboards and underneath furniture. They lifted up toilet seats and peered behind shower curtains. They crumbled up their crackers and left a trail of crumbs behind them as they went from room to room, searching. At last Bethany grew restless.

“He’s not here, is he?” she complained. “He’s not anywhere. You’re lying to me.”

“I am not!” Vivian shouted angrily. “We haven’t looked everywhere. We have to keep looking.”

“I don’t want to,” said Bethany. “I want to go home.” Tears came quickly to her eyes and began spilling down her cheeks as she repeated over and over again that she wanted to go home. Soon Vivian’s mother rushed into the room, took Bethany in her arms, and carried her away.

That night, after being tucked in and read to, Vivian left her bedside light on and lay awake, waiting. She knew he would come, just as she had known earlier that, in spite of herself, they would not find him.

Suddenly he was there. She did not see him enter through the door, which she had asked her mother to leave ajar, nor by any other means; he was simply and suddenly just there, standing at the foot of her bed, facing her, looking at her. Except, as she pushed herself up onto her elbows and looked down the length of the bed, she saw that he was not looking at her, for he no longer had eyes to look with.

Vivian gasped. “What happened?” she said breathlessly.

Little stood perfectly still before her, like an eyeless effigy of himself.

Vivian scrambled from her blankets and crawled to the end of the bed. She took one of Little’s hands and pulled him to her. He obeyed, but clumsily.

“What happened?” Vivian asked again when they were both seated in their usual positions.

Silence answered her.

It did not look like his eyes had been plucked or gouged out, but rather like they had never been there to begin with. There was nothing but a smooth white surface on either side of the bridge of his nose. When Vivian reached a hand to his face and ran her fingers over where his eye sockets should be, she felt only a hard skull beneath the clean white skin.

Then she told him about her day, about Bethany coming over and about how long they had spent looking for him. She scolded him for not coming out and showing himself because now Bethany thought she was a liar. Then she apologized for scolding him. She understood.

She began telling him a story about a cat as big as a bus who keeps little children as pets to play with, but before she finished the story she fell asleep. When she awoke in the morning, only the imprint of Little’s sitting form remained at the bottom of the bed. She lay there a moment, savoring the images of a wonderful dream in which she flew over buildings she did not recognize, but when after a minute the images began to fade, she flung aside the covers and made her way downstairs, drawn by the familiar sounds of her mother in the kitchen and by the smell of breakfast cooking.

The next time Bethany came over to play, it was on the strict condition that they waste no time looking for Vivian’s “stupid friend who isn’t real,” terms to which Vivian, after a moment’s hesitation, acquiesced. Instead, when they finished their snack in the kitchen, Vivian brought Bethany up to her room, instructed her to sit crosslegged on the bed, and spent the afternoon telling her stories. It was different from the times she would do this with Little; Bethany had eyes that wandered and a voice which she used to interrupt with questions or suggestions for a story’s outcome.

At first, Vivian found her friend’s participation irritating, but at length she decided that much of Bethany’s input was useful. Soon they began to collaborate on stories, with Vivian beginning one and allowing Bethany to take it over, or vice versa. This kind of interaction was not possible with her usual audience, and its unpredictability forced her to bend her imagination in ways she had never previously thought to.

Meanwhile, Vivian stopped looking for Little when she came home in the afternoons, and she stopped expecting him when she lay in bed after her mother had tucked her in. She had other things on her mind, like daycare, or what stories she would tell Bethany the next time they were together.

Then one evening over dinner she asked her father the wrong sorts of questions about where children come from and, after she was told not to persist but did, Mr. Blandercamp had slammed his frothy glass hard on the table and yelled at her to go to her room. Vivian slid from her chair and ran, unable to help the tears come pouring from her eyes as her father’s loud voice followed her out of the kitchen. Even when she was in bed with the covers pulled over her head she could still hear her parents shouting at each other downstairs. It made the tears come faster because she knew it was her fault that they were angry, and she only wished she could turn back time and not say whatever she had said.

She lay there hidden until the shouting died away, and when it did, and the tears had dried cold on her face, Vivian emerged from under the blankets and found Little sitting crosslegged and alert at the bottom of her bed. She cried his name aloud then recoiled when she noticed the change in him.

His mouth was gone.

There was now only a nose in the center of an otherwise featureless face. Beneath the nose was a smooth blank space where his thin colourless lips had been. He still had his tiny ears, and he still had his wispy white hair, but without eyes or a mouth he hardly looked like himself at all. He was smaller too, Vivian now noticed, almost half his usual size.

She crawled across the bed to her friend. “What’s happened to you?” she whispered into one of his ears. Then she sat across from him and looked at his strange face for a while, feeling as though he was looking at her too, or regarding her in some other way.

She told him about what happened over dinner. She said that maybe she should be the one without a mouth because that would save everyone trouble. Her father hated when she told him her stories or when she asked him to tell her one of his. She began to cry again as she spoke but she kept speaking through her tears; now it felt good when they poured from her eyes and warmed her cheeks and chin.

When a minute later she heard her mother coming up the stairs—she could always tell the difference between her mother’s quick footsteps and her father’s slow, trudging ones—she helped Little under the bed so he could hide. He usually did this by himself, but without his eyes he seemed much less aware of his surroundings. Then she hid her own self beneath her covers and pretended to be asleep.

Her mother slipped into the room and seated herself at the edge of the bed. In a whispered voice she asked if Vivian was sleeping, and when Vivian, not sleeping, said nothing, her mother sighed deeply and said that she was sorry.

She talked for a while, saying how angry she was with Daddy, and assured Vivian that none of this was her fault. She used a word to describe Vivian’s father that Vivian had never heard before and afterwards said she was sorry for using it because it was a bad word. Then she fell silent but remained where she sat, lightly stroking the blankets over her daughter’s fetal form. Finally she leaned down, kissed the covered lump in the bed, and left.

Vivian listened carefully to the door closing before uncovering herself. She felt bad for not talking to her mother, but just then she only wanted to talk to Little. Rolling onto her stomach, she wormed her way to the edge of the mattress, leaned over it, and looked upside down underneath the bed. Just as she suspected, he was gone.

For a while she lay facing upward in bed, gazing vacantly at the cluster of glow-in-the-dark stars and crescent moons her mother had stuck to the ceiling. She was worried about him. Why had he shrunk? Where had his eyes gone? And how could he live without a mouth? She knew he was different from her, but she was sure that he still needed a mouth to eat. A feeling came to her that his transformation was somehow her fault, and with that feeling lingering in her confused mind, she rolled over and slept fitfully.

Vivian searched urgently for her disappearing friend in the following days. She would wake with confidence and comb as many rooms in the house as she could before her mother snatched her up, threw clothes on her, and took her off to daycare. In the afternoons she would look more thoroughly, but when each day ended and she lay in bed waiting in vain, her confidence melted until she fell asleep feeling hopeless.

She began having Bethany over more often. They would talk about the others at daycare, their parents, or Bethany’s horrible brother, but mostly they talked about things they invented.

Soon there came another distraction which Vivian’s mother reminded her of daily: Vivian’s fifth birthday was approaching. Five was a big number, her mother said. It was halfway to ten, and when she was five she would finish daycare and go off to a bigger school filled with older children. And because five was a big, important number, she needed to have a party to celebrate turning five. She was told she could have the party wherever she liked and could invite anybody she wanted to attend. After some thought, Vivian decided to have it at the house with Bethany.

When the day arrived, the two girls were given cone-shaped paper hats and had their faces painted by Vivian’s mother to make them look like tigers. Mr. Blandercamp planted white hoops throughout the garden, and a portion of the afternoon was spent trying to batter heavy balls through them with big wooden mallets. When the growing wind drove them indoors, the girls were fed chocolate cake and apple juice while Vivian opened presents. From Bethany she received a dinosaur colouring book and from her parents she was given three different dolls with changeable outfits, a picture book about the solar system, a blue-striped corduroy dress, and another copy of the dinosaur colouring book Bethany had given her.

Upon seeing this, Bethany asked if she might be able to keep one of the colouring books because surely nobody needed two of the same. Vivian, with encouragement from her mother, agreed, and the two girls spent what remained of the afternoon side by side at the kitchen table filling their identical books with colour until they were interrupted by the arrival of Bethany’s father, who, after a noisy argument, was forced to carry his wailing child away from the house and into a parked car.

Vivian, apparently unhindered by the tearful episode, continued playing with her new gifts by herself into the evening. She was in the midst of telling a story to her three new dolls when, half an hour after her usual bedtime, her mother carried her upstairs to her bedroom and said she could finish her story quickly and then turn out the light herself. Alone in her room, Vivian arranged her new dolls at the foot of her bed then threw aside her covers and flinched with shock when she found him lying on her pillow.

“Little” she whispered when her breath returned. “Did you come to wish me a happy birthday?”

He was facing away from her and made no reaction to the sound of her voice. His breath was slow and came in a quiet wheeze, and he had shrunk again, now hardly bigger than the dolls seated at the other end of the bed.

As Vivian looked down at the miniature boy on her pillow, she was reminded of the time she had found a dying mouse in the basement during one of her searches for secret tunnels. It was lying on its side like Little was now, and its whole body quivered as it breathed. She had watched it for a while with growing sadness and had finally scooped its soft and limp body into her hands, carried it outside to the garden, and placed it gently inside a rosebush. There was no way to know for sure if this act was of any help to the creature, but it felt at the time like the right thing to do.

Now she saw the same helplessness in Little’s heaving body that she had seen in the dying mouse’s, and she felt just as helpless herself as she had then. She reached out to turn him toward her but stayed her hand at the last moment, deciding instead to walk round the bed and look at him before touching.

His face was all but entirely gone. Neither his eyes nor mouth had returned, and his nose seemed to have sunk into itself, now only the tiniest protrusion, the nostrils mere pinpricks in the small blank expanse at the front of his head. From those pinpricks air was being sucked in and noisily exhaled, the effort of which seemed to strain the whole body.

Vivian looked down in wordless despair: her friend was dying and there was nothing she could do to save him. Scurrying back around the bed, she climbed onto the mattress and carefully lay as close to Little as she could without touching him. For a while she said nothing and listened to the weak laboured breathing, her own mind emptied by helpless worry.

Then she began to whisper a story to him; he still had ears which she had to believe worked. Without thinking about what she was saying, she let words spill freely from her mouth, and as they did, she knew that she was telling the last story that Little, her first listener, would ever hear.

When she woke with a start some hours later, she could hardly believe that Little was still lying next to her, turned toward the wall, totally unchanged. She could never remember another instance in which he had remained with her for so long without unaccountably disappearing.

Then the silence reached her ears and she understood. There was no more wheezing intake of breath, no more heaving shoulder. Little, still lying beside her on the pillow, was dead. There is a particular stillness to dead things, a stillness that makes the very notion of animated movement difficult to imagine. Vivian had seen it before in bugs and in birds and in tiny creatures on the beach, and she was seeing it right now in her old friend who lay next to her, as lifeless as the three dolls at her feet.

Taking him in her hands, she gently lifted his all but weightless body and shifted out of bed. At her window, she saw that night still lay thickly over the grounds outside and guessed it would be a while yet before dawn.

Stepping out of her room, she moved lightly down the upper hallway and was glad for once to hear her father’s guttural snoring bellow from beyond her parents’ closed bedroom door. She glided down both flights of stairs, holding Little closely to her, and slid across the cold kitchen tiles toward the back door without lifting her feet. Taking one of her hands from the limp body, she reached up and unlocked the back door just as she had watched her mother do countless times before.

Outside, the back garden was cold and blustery. Vivian looked up and saw the moon as a shapeless yellow blotch behind a shifting ceiling of dark cloud. All around her, massive mounds of darkness loomed and swayed noisily in the ceaseless breeze. She ran toward the nearest of these and snuck inside its protective foliage.

Dropping to her knees, Vivian placed Little’s tiny pale corpse on the ground beside her and then began to rake at the black soil with bare hands. It was moist and chill and came up easily in great handfuls which Vivian flung in all directions around her. When she had torn a suitably-sized hole from the ground, she took Little, said goodbye to his strange faceless head, thanked him for his friendship, and put him down in the earth, dragging and dropping more soil on top of him until he was covered.

As she emerged back into the gusty night from the shelter of her haven—in fact one of her mother’s great rhododendron bushes—Vivian felt remarkably pleased with herself. She spent a moment wiping her soiled hands on the legs of her pajamas before dashing back inside through the back door, closing and locking it behind her, and darting upstairs to her bedroom without incident, hearing again the low comforting growl of her father’s snoring on her way.

Before getting back into bed, Vivian went to her window and looked out at the night-shrouded garden, at the large and small dense clumps swaying darkly in the wind. It was difficult to know which of the larger forms marked the grave she had made, so her eyes traveled between several of them as she thought fondly of her secret friend. For some nights that followed this became a ritual that Vivian quietly observed before sleeping; she would stand for a moment at her window, thinking about him, remembering him, and sometimes talking to him like she used to when they sat across from one another on her bed. Then, when the excitement of primary school swept up her attention, she began to neglect this nightly practice until finally one evening Vivian found herself standing at her window and staring down into the garden with no idea what she was doing and no memory at all of the one she had buried there.

* * *

Rory Say is a writer of strange stories whose work has appeared in such publications as Tell-Tale Press, Gypsum Sound Tales, and on the podcasts Nocturnal Transmissions and Tales to Terrify. He is currently surviving somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

I haven’t any clue, and if I did, I’m sure I’d write ten times faster. When I do get an idea that seems worth exploring, it feels as though it’s come from nowhere. I think that’s the way it’s meant to be. Something from nothing.