I saw him for the first time while walking home from school. He was on sitting on his porch, a gangly boy with sandy brown hair and a brooding, almost angry expression. Must be from the family that moved in yesterday, I thought. The bullies from the school bus had followed me home that day. I had not been able to get away from them fast enough. I could hear them betting on who would kiss “my smelly mouth” first. As one of them neared dangerously close, I tried to make a run for it and tripped. A faint metallic taste of blood filled my mouth and tears streamed down my dirty face when I heard a voice say “Leave her alone”.
It was porch boy. He was standing between me and them. The bullies looked stunned and to my astonishment, they abandoned their obtuse plan and left. I couldn’t figure out why. I said a meek thanks to which he responded with an indifferent shrug and went back to his perch on the porch. I saw him again the next day at the same spot. “Do you just sit here everyday?”, I asked. He shrugged again.
“I’m Kelly”, I pressed on. He looked up at me with a pained expression. Clearly he was an introvert and just wanted me to go away. It was my turn to shrug and walk away when he said “Peter, Peter Wilder”. And so began our fledgling friendship. I saw him almost everyday after school and always stopped for a little chat, although I did most of the talking. I started bumping into him a lot, which I’m not sure was by design or just plain coincidence. But I didn’t mind it at all.
Peter was a great listener and I loved to talk. It was perfect. I could be myself around him. I told him all about school, my family, the bullies, just about everything and he would nod and sometimes smile his wonderful smile.
“Do you like your new house?” I asked him one day. He shrugged his signature shrug and said “Yeah I love the house, but not the people in it”.
“You mean your family?” I asked
“They’re not my family”, he said, rather angrily
I decided to leave it at that. He was always strangely cryptic about his life. To end the awkward silence, I asked him “Do you want to come home for my grandma’s birthday tomorrow? It’s her 80th and we’re surprising her with a party”. “Sure”, he said to my complete surprise!
I was excited to introduce Peter to my family. My parents had met him once when we were walking back home from the store. It was a very uncomfortable conversation, with my parents and Peter only saying hello to each other and nothing else after that. I had to carry the weight of that conversation too.
He came in really late to the party. I was surprised he showed up at all. My parents behaved as if he was invisible. I hated that my parents always did that to him. So I took him to Grammy. She was always kind and accepting of new people.
“Grammy, this is my friend Peter”, I said excitedly. I knew she would give him a warm welcome, if not my parents. But without even so much looking at him, she shot a clueless look to my mother.
“Oh, Kelly has a little imaginary friend”, my mom said to my horror. I could not believe she was humiliating my friend like this. Peter had a stoic expression on his face.
“I don’t know why you always do this to me, Mom! Peter is not imaginary! Can’t you see he’s right here? I hate you, I hate you all!” I exploded and walked out of the door.
Peter followed me out. “I’m sorry about that”, I said through my tears. “I know how it feels when people make you feel invisible. I feel like that in school all the time”.
“Come with me, I want to show you something”, he said, unfazed by what had just happened. We walked together for a short while down the dirt road until we reached the place he wanted to show me. An overgrown garden? I stopped in my tracks. There was a sudden chill in the air. Dusk was falling and all of a sudden, I wanted to go home.
Peter was a few steps ahead. He looked back and beckoned me to walk a little further.
I walked over to him. It was an epitaph. Carved in that cold stone was “Here Lies Peter Wilder (1970 – 1985) RIP”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. My first instinct was to run. I tried to back away slowly, but I tripped, once again. I looked up at him and saw a ghostly pallor on his face.
“Don’t be scared”, he said
“B..B..But you’re here!” was all my confused brain could manage.
“I’ve been here a long time, Kelly”.
It all made sense now. That house next door. People moving out within months of moving in, the strange banging noises in the middle of the night, the wails, the rumors about the house being haunted, it was all him! He was saying something as he walked towards me. I couldn’t hear a thing over the drum of my petrified heart. I gathered myself and ran. I didn’t stop till I reached my bedroom. I flung my blanket over my shaking body in a weak attempt to hide. Maybe this was all a dream and would go away.
A strong gust of wind came in from the open window. Strong enough to blow my blanket off me. There was nowhere I could run from him. He was here, in full force.
And Mom thought he was imaginary!