I wasn’t a lonely child. My mother, who’d always wanted a girl and who hadn’t quite known what to do with me when I’d failed to be one, had dashed away my best chances at good childhood company with mismatched sets of stained hand-me-downs and horrifically underbaked, underdeveloped social abilities, so I didn’t have friends at school. They thought I was weird. During recess and after school while waiting for my mother to remember to collect me, I’d taken to wandering the perimeter with the biggest stick I could find and poking things with it. Worms, dog shit, and the same dead bird for a whole week in April met the business end of my stick, and I couldn’t have been happier doing it. Really, I wasn’t lonely. I had Beanie.
The doctor had told Mother it was normal for kids to have imaginary friends. In response, she’d asked in a low voice, as if children couldn’t hear below a certain frequency, if it was normal for boys to have imaginary friends, to which the doctor had said, yes, even little boys could have them. That doctor had never liked me. Subconsciously or not, her left nostril had wrinkled slightly with every glance she took of me, like I smelled bad. To her merit, I probably did. Mother never bathed me.
Regardless, the doctor sent Mother home reassured. I liked it when Mother was reassured. That meant she’d be retiring to her room to look at a book and have wine, so I was free to do as I pleased.
Our house was small, one of those self-ashamed, flat-roofed ranchers on Charley Road, right by all the dairy farms so it always smelled like cow shit. The walls were paper thin to boot, which made it almost impossible to do anything without mother knowing. Even though the doctor had given me the all-clear to have imaginary friends and all, I knew Mother would still be angry if she heard me talking to Beanie. Beanie made her very angry. I had to go out into the woods if I wanted to play with her.
I liked Beanie because she didn’t think I was weird, or that I smelled bad. She seemed to like being around me just as much as I liked being around her, which I never experienced with anyone else. We could talk about anything, Beanie and I, and we did. I told her everything.
We were walking the line of the stream, carving a winding path dead center through the woods behind the cow pastures, our shoes in our hands and our feet in the water. Beanie’s sneakers dangled from the very ends of her fingertips, nearly scraping the surface of the water at its deeper points, and her shorts were rolled up high on her legs. I was telling her about the doctor and she was listening, nodding, keeping her eyes down on our bare feet climbing over a floor of mossy rocks, careful to avoid all the needles. Mother said that just one jab of a creek needle could get a person addicted to heron, or worse – could give them The AIDS. There was nothing scarier in the world than The AIDS, so Beanie and I always looked where we were walking when we had our shoes off.
“You don’t smell bad,” Beanie laughed. She had a nice laugh, like she really thought I was funny. “You just smell like Norton. Everybody here smells like that.”
“Not you,” I said. It was true. Beanie smelled like French toast with powdered sugar. She had a point, though. The scent of manure tended to cling to Norton natives, tight as skin.
“Yes, me.” She bumped her arm into mine. “All of us.”
The thing about Beanie was that she was nice. She was gentle, and thoughtful, and was the sort of person who told someone they didn’t smell bad even when they did, just so she wouldn’t hurt their feelings. She cared about people. Even when I told her about the kids who were mean to me or the doctor who wrinkled her nose at me, she was always telling me that they were probably just unhappy, or that they were just jealous of me. Beanie was always saying people were jealous of me. Though I’d told her a million times that I had nothing to be jealous over, she insisted that I was just humble, and that was another thing that was making people so jealous. The thing about Beanie was that she’d say other kids, kids who lived in Canton County and had bikes and smelled like Dove soap and had mothers who bought them matching clothes from the store, were jealous of me just so I wouldn’t feel so bad when they called me a shit-licker.
The thing about Beanie was that I’d wanted her to be real so badly that she was.
Real, I mean. She was real. That was something Mother had never understood, something I hadn’t even bothered bringing up to the doctor because Beanie told me that they wouldn’t understand, either, and even if they did they’d just be jealous.
Ever since I could remember, Beanie had been there. She grew up with me. When I was two, Beanie was two. When I celebrated my sixth birthday with Mother at the ice cream parlor in Canton City, Beanie was there, too, celebrating hers even though she never ate anything and couldn’t have the ice cream. Then, walking along the stream, we were both eight years and three months old, and would be turning nine in February.
It was getting dark. Mother said it was dangerous to stay out past dark, but she was reassured, and that meant she probably wouldn’t notice if I didn’t make it home in time. Mother was very hard to soothe, so she tended to milk her rare times of peace, not reemerging from her room until every drop of wine was gone and every page of her book had been looked at. Mother would only drink in times of reassurance. Otherwise, she just got sad. She was sad very often. Sometimes because of me, but mostly because of other things, things she wouldn’t tell me about. Every time I asked about them, she just told me to never grow up, and I promised her I wouldn’t. I took my promises very seriously.
There was a crackling to our left, and a pair of white-tailed deer took off running deeper into the woods. I hadn’t even noticed them there, but Beanie said that she’d known about them the whole time. Beanie was a lot more observant than me. I asked her where she thought they were going, and she said probably to go look at the cows in the fenced-in pastures and laugh at them for being stupid enough to be trapped there. Beanie hated the cows. She was always calling them stupid, saying that if she were in there she would find a way out. I’d even conveyed to her Mother’s thoughts on the subject – that the cows were there to feed us and give us our milk – but Beanie didn’t seem to care, which made sense. Beanie had no use for food or milk.
The streetlights were on by the time Beanie and I made it out of the woods. The evening was purple and soupy with humidity, and bugs swarmed thick in the air around us. I hated bugs. Whenever spiders or flies got into my house, I made Beanie kill them for me. I swatted them away from my eyes, wishing all the bugs in the world would just die.
The year before, I’d gotten in trouble for making Willie Anderson eat a roach. Willie was the only one in my class who got picked on more than I did, so it usually felt pretty good to take my frustrations out on him, even though Beanie didn’t like when I was mean. There’d been this quick little brown cockroach darting around our hallway when I’d been walking to the bathroom one day during algebra, and Willie had just so happened to be getting a drink from the fountain a few feet away. I’d grabbed him by the back of his neck and pinched as hard as I could until he cried, and told him to eat it or I’d never let go. He did. I got two weeks of detention for that, and I wasn’t allowed to go to recess and poke around with my stick for the whole rest of the year. They didn’t understand that I hadn’t made Willie eat the roach out of cruelty, but rather necessity – there weren’t very many viable options when it came to killing cockroaches, and I couldn’t stand the thought of it continuing to run freely about in the school, so I’d done what I’d had to. Mr. Anderson told Mother that if I ever touched their son again he’d come to our house and beat me senseless. Mother had said in a very serious way that I was already senseless, so there would be no point.
“The doctor said that it’s normal to have imaginary friends,” I told Beanie as we reached the stop sign at the top of Charley Road and paused to put our shoes back on. Mother didn’t like me going barefoot.
“How many times have I told you, Brendan? I’m just your friend.”
Mother was still reassured when we got in, so I didn’t have to worry about my feet being muddy. I crept in real quietly, guiding the screen door so that it didn’t slam and tiptoeing to my bedroom so as to not upset Mother’s peace. There were few offenses less forgivable than upsetting Mother’s peace.
I wasn’t a lonely child. I laid down on my bed, and Beanie laid beside me. She was always right beside me. Really, I wasn’t lonely. I had Beanie.