Alice, newly four, woke up one spring morning with a high fever. No other symptoms. Tylenol didn’t kick it. Advil didn’t kick it. I took her to the doctor.
“Viral.” The on-call doctor said after looking her over. “Just wait it out. Come back if the fever isn’t controlled in a few days.”
A few days later, the fever was still fighting strong. We went back and the on-call doctor, again, told us it was a nasty virus.
And Alice started talking about the girl out in the yard. “There’s a girl outside. She wants me to play with her.”
I look outside and see only a foggy morning. “What does she look like?”
“She looks like me. But she’s wearing a nightgown.”
More than once I wondered if the swing tied to the giant silver maple in the front yard wasn’t swinging on its own.
A week later, the fever still wouldn’t go away.
“There has to be something we can do!” I implore the on-call doctor.
Alice was spinning in circles and laughing in the office, acting totally normal, but the fever still wouldn’t go down.
“Is she coughing?” The doctor asks.
“I mean, it’s spring?” I say. “We all cough from November to May.”
The doctor stares at me blankly.
“Yes,” I say, “She has an occasional, dry, small cough.”
It’s pneumonia. I can see it on the X-ray, and I have no medical training.
They prescribe antibiotics and the fever is gone in a couple days. But Janie didn’t go away.
“The girl,” as we knew her at the time, kept showing up outside during the night. I’d ask Alice what she was doing up at night and she wouldn’t have a good answer for me. She’d tell me she’d gone to her window in the middle of the night and had seen the girl out there asking her to come play.
“But you won’t go play, right?” I ask, carefully.
“No. I won’t go play with her.” Good girl.
“Why not?” I ask. I’m trying to avoid eye contact in case she sees my trick and learns how to open doors like a velociraptor tonight. “Why don’t you go play with her?”
“Because there’s the mean scarecrow.” She says, matter-of-factly.
“The what now?”
“The bad guy scarecrow is outside my window at night.”
“What does he look like?” My heart is racing.
“What’s his name?”
She thinks. Smiles, a wicked glint in her eyes. “Mike Wasoski!” My daughter is a perfect mimic, and I instantly recognize her deft imitation of Boo from Monsters Inc.
I decide not to worry too much about the girl and the scarecrow.
We also discovered during this time that Alice is far-sighted. Once the glasses came in, Alice’s art skills skyrocketed. She started drawing people that looked like people and flowers that looked like flowers. She also drew shovels that looked like penises, but you can’t win them all, can you?
Most of her drawings were of people and almost all of those drawings included self-portraits. I noticed, though, that, with increasing frequency, the drawings were of two girls.
“Who is this?” I ask, pointing to one little blonde girl in a drawing.
“That’s me!” she says, looking at me like I’m an idiot. “See my glasses?” I look closer and see that she did, indeed, draw glasses frames around the eyes.
“And who is that?” I ask, pointing to the other girl.
“Janie.” It was the first time I heard her name. I searched my lexicon of “kids we know” and didn’t come up with anyone named Janie, Jane, Jamie, or anything close.
“Janie,” she says, matter-of-factly, “My sister.”
“Your sister?” I wonder. Alice has a brother, Wesley, two years younger.
“My big sister, Janie.”
“She’s older than you?”
“Um. A little bit. She’s a half-year older than me. See how she’s taller?” Alice points to Janie on the page and, sure enough, Janie is a bit taller than Alice.
I am sure I know what this is about. “Alice, are you feeling sad that you don’t have a sister? Or maybe jealous because some of your friends have sisters?”
“Are you sad because I told you I’m not having any more babies?”
“You love your brother?”
“So why don’t you draw you and your brother?”
“Because I drew me and Janie.”
“Do you think you could draw me a picture of you with Daddy, Wesley and I?”
I decide to drop it. No big deal. Imaginary big sister. Alice is the oldest; it makes sense that she’d fantasize about having a big sister around to be her friend.
I am a bit upset, though, because Alice has been producing these beautiful family portraits lately…and Janie is in all of them.
Usually her dad is on the left, tallest, with a mess of curls. Then me, looking like a tall Alice except with brown hair. Then Alice. Then Janie. And at the bottom, barely fitting on the page, is a smudgy lump-like thing representing Alice’s actual sibling, her brother, Wesley. Sometimes the cat is in the mix, too, and some flowers or grass. Or a rainbow. Or one of those famous shovels. The pictures vary, but Janie is in all of them.
I commission a picture of the four of us, sans Janie, and she agrees begrudgingly.
One night, at bedtime, Alice tells me Janie is in the room with us. I don’t know how she managed to snag an invite inside after always being relegated to the yard, but she’s in, and, according to Alice, she’s “standing right there.”
Right there, near the bed. Watching me. I try not to give too much weight to this. “Oh, she’s here? What is she wearing?”
“Oh, the white one?” Always the white nightgown.
“Yeah,” Alice says, “white. With like, red dots on it.”
“Red dots?” Like…blood?
“Yeah. Red polka-dots.”
“Oh,” I say, trying to keep my tone even, “Pretty.”
Janie shows up in drawings Alice does at preschool. One day, a teacher tentatively asks me, “Alice…doesn’t have a sister, does she?”
Oh no. “Is she talking about Janie to you?”
“Yes. She says she has a big sister named Janie.”
“Janie is…imaginary.” I say.
“Oh, ok. She draws her in all her family pictures and was talking about playing with her big sister. But I didn’t think you had any other daughters.”
“Right. I don’t.” I pause. “Janie might be a ghost.” The teacher laughs. So I laugh. It’s a joke. It’s not real. Janie’s a cute, imaginary friend.
It’s developmentally appropriate. My sister had an imaginary friend and she turned out okay, didn’t she?
It has been two years and Janie still lives with us. She’s casually at the table at breakfast. She’s listening in at storytime. I try not to make a big deal of it. No need to squelch Alice’s creativity…or anger any spirits. Sometimes, though, my curiosity gets the better of me.
One night as we wrap up dinner, I ask, “Alice, who are Janie’s parents?”
“You and Daddy.”
“But I didn’t give birth to her. I’d remember that.”
She thinks for only a moment. “Her parents died. So she lives here now.”
I feel a coldness in the air, in Alice’s tone.
“Why did she choose to live here?” I ask.
“She heard about me. And came here to be my…” she searches for the right word, “stepsister.”
Wesley, now almost four, says, “She’s not alive, Alice. Let’s go play.”
“She’s not…alive?” I ask. Wesley shrugs and runs into the living room.
Alice goes to play with her sibling.
Laura Wheatman Hill lives in Portland, Oregon with her two children. She blogs about parenting, writes about everything, and teaches English and drama when not living in an apocalyptic dystopia. Her work has appeared on JSTOR Daily, Parent Map, She Knows, and others. You can find her at www.laurawheatmanhill.com and on Twitter and Instagram @lwheatma.