This short story is for the purposes of the writing competition at: Creative Writing Ink.
The summer breeze ruffled their hair and made their skin blush as they approached the shore. It had been far too long since the Caputo family had set their eyes on the sea; Maggie hadn’t even been born when they had last visited. Mrs Caputo watched her youngest daughter run on ahead at the first glimpse of golden sand, her raven hair loose in the wind and bare arms waving as she danced forwards. Mrs Caputo sighed, watching the girl as she shouted at her siblings to join her. How she did worry for her; she didn’t understand the world as her brothers and sisters seemed to. She didn’t respect order or authority, having thrown her bonnet into the wind as soon as the family had first stepped outside. She was beautiful, yet, at the same time, although Mrs Caputo despised herself for thinking it, she was also wrong in some way. It was almost as if her brain didn’t function like it should, too busy dreaming of fairies and far off lands to contemplate her future.
The family set themselves down by the shore, Duncan and Cedric setting up the picnic, whilst Annie and Rosie, the oldest children of the Caputo family, and twins, supervised Mr Caputo’s descent to the floor. He whined as his daughters pulled him down, his back cracking horribly as he went. Mrs Caputo, however, was busy gazing at Maggie as she drew closer and closer to the water’s edge. She was jumping in the waves, screaming with delight as the water lapped at her legs.
“Cedric, dear,” Mrs Caputo said, turning to her youngest son. “Please go and tell your sister to be careful, there could be glass, or anything left in the sand there.” The boy grunted, his lack of enthusiasm visible from his every feature. Still, though, he dragged himself from the card game that he’d been engaging in with Duncan, and raced down to the shore to join his sister.
“Maggie!” he shouted, grabbing his sister’s hand when she did not respond to his cry. “Mags, listen to me.” Still, however, the girl did not respond, shaking off his hand and instead raising her head, looking directly out across the sea.
“Don’t be silly, Alex,” she giggled, still not looking at her brother. “He’s got the same hair as me!” She laughed again, then took a few more steps forwards, the water now reaching her thighs. “Don’t be mean!” she retorted to thin air, a painted smile across her face.
Cedric was still standing on the shoreline, nonplussed. Out of all of his siblings, it was Maggie who he understood the least. She had always been strange, talking about things that the rest of them couldn’t understand, or couldn’t see. His mother thought that he did understand her, at least more than the others, for he was the closest to her age. He supposed that their mother took his abashed silences for some kind of understanding, but that was wrong. He loved his sister out of duty, but, really, he didn’t have a clue who she was.
“Who’s Alex?” he asked quietly from behind the grinning child. The name appeared to trigger something in her, for she whipped around, blinking and looking rather confused.
“Alex is my best friend,” she said simply, furrowing her eyebrows slightly. “I’ve told you about her before. This is her first time at the seaside, too,” she paused, almost scowling at her brother now. “She’s always been here,” she said, quieter now. “You ignore her almost as much as you ignore me.”
Cedric’s eyes widened at this. His sister was turning back to the sea again, walking steadily forwards, her arms slightly outstretched, as if clutching at something just in front of her. Words seemed to escape him; he’d never seen such deep emotion, such deep sorrow in his sister’s face before, and it scared him. He didn’t like the idea of her being alone, even if, now that he really thought about it, she probably had been.
“Cedric! Cedric, what did I tell you?” Mrs Caputo snapped furiously, suddenly at Cedric’s side and pushing him backwards. “Maggie, dear, it’s not safe out here. Come back to the sand now, please,” she asked calmly, but really her heart was hammering in her chest. The water was half way up to the girl’s shoulders now, her legs and midriff completely consumed by the dark waters. “There could be a current, darling. It’s not safe.” Mrs Caputo made a move forwards, attempting to grab the child, but Maggie only took another step backwards. Her mother withdrew, panic clouding her thoughts.
“Alex is fine,” Maggie retorted gleefully. “And she’s a lot deeper than me.”
“Who’s Alex?” Her mother said, turning back to her youngest son. Cedric struggled with his words for a moment, still too stunned by his sister’s revelation that he couldn’t properly take in what was happening.
“She’s…” he paused, his throat constricted. “She’s her imaginary friend.”
“No she’s not!” Maggie shouted furiously, stepping still further back into the swirling waters. Splashes were catching at her shoulders now, and she giggled, despite herself. “Alex is as real as I am, and you don’t call me imaginary, do you?”
Mrs Caputo painted a false smile on her face, holding both hands out towards Maggie now. She sensed that the rest of the family were now lining up besides Cedric, but she didn’t turn around to check. She couldn’t take her eyes off her youngest child. “Of course she’s real, darling. Now let’s come back to the shore and dry off, okay? It’ll be lunchtime soon.”
Maggie looked slightly confused at this, seeming to genuinely contemplate the idea.
“I like the water,” she said, stepping still further into the ocean’s clutches. “It’s warm, and Alex says that we should be deep enough to swim now.”
Mrs Caputo almost lurched forwards at this, but she caught herself. She didn’t want to startle the girl, after all. She smiled that fake smile again.
“But you can’t swim, darling.”
“Alex says it’s easy.” Maggie smiled that strange, distant smile, and reached her hand out to the side, just under the surface of the water, and folded it slightly, as if it was wrapped around another’s hand. “She says you just relax, because people float.” She looked in the direction of her outstretched hand and giggled. “She says she’ll teach me!” she cried excitedly, turning back to her mother.
Mrs Caputo watched in horror as her daughter closed her eyes and leant back into the waters, still giggling with joy. She reacted instinctively, charging forwards, grasping the girl’s shoe and yanking her tight to her. Maggie squealed in anger, but her mother was already dragging her back to the sand and throwing her at her father.
Mr Caputo wrapped Maggie up in a tight towel, and then offered another to his wife. They both kept a hand around their daughter’s as they marched her back to their picnic and set her down on another towel. All the way, Maggie screamed her frustrations.
“Slow down, Alex can’t keep up! She’s still all wet! Why couldn’t you just let me play with her? She’s my friend and were having fun. You ruined everything!” The entire family ignored Maggie’s outburst, the boys helping Mr Caputo with the sausages, whilst the twins began to lay out plates. Mrs Caputo did not move from Maggie’s side, her face stony and eyes tight shut. She’d known there was something wrong with her. She’d known that something needed to be done. The girl wasn’t right in the head, and Mrs Caputo’s own self-denial could have cost her life.
It had happened before. Maggie had only been five years old, and Mrs Caputo had simply dismissed it, thinking it a freak accident. The toddler had had the shared attic room with the twins, and they were always watching her, keeping her out of trouble. Then, one seemingly perfect summer’s day, Rosie had cut herself on a loose nail protruding from one of the floorboards. There had been so much blood that Annie had had to rush her downstairs to get help. Mrs Caputo could well remember wrapping the wound, without once giving a thought for the baby Maggie, alone upstairs. When the twins returned upstairs, however, the screams brought Mrs Caputo straight to them.
There, on a broken part of the roof that was left hanging out at the attic window, had sat Maggie, at least two metres from the window. Her mother had watched the broken roof as it swung and creaked menacingly in the wind, her youngest child laughing, as she squinted up at the sun.
“Maggie, Maggie darling, come back!” Mrs Caputo had called to the child, and yet Maggie hadn’t even turn around.
“It’s fun!” she had called out to the sky, arms reaching up, as if trying to catch something just a little way in front of her. Mrs Caputo hadn’t dared climb onto the roof to collect the child, for she had been certain that it would break instantly under her weight. She’d thus spent several hours attempting to draw the child in, and, when that had proved fruitless, at last succeeded by wafting the tempting smells of bacon and slightly burnt toast out of the window. It had taken at least five hours, but Maggie had returned to her, alive and well.
Mrs Caputo should have known then that there was something wrong with her daughter. She was dangerous: a danger to herself, and a danger to others. Mrs Caputo well-remembered Maggie calling to her sisters as they stood, curious, behind their mother. She’d wanted them to join her; she’d wanted them to put them in danger, too.
Now it was happening again. Maggie saw things that weren’t there, and just as she’d reached out to the sky those few years back, she did again now, on the towel, besides her. Maggie reached out to the girl that wasn’t there.
Mr Caputo served the sausages round to the family, and provided them all with a large hunk of bread. It was far past lunchtime at this point, Maggie having had been stood in the water for much longer than Mrs Caputo had realised. They thus all tucked in with great energy, gnawing at the bread and swallowing the meat whole. Maggie, however, did not touch the plate that sat balanced across her legs.
“What about Alex?” she asked accusingly, looking to her father. “Doesn’t she deserve to eat?” Mr Caputo’s mouth opened, half a sausage falling back onto his plate. He looked to his wife for guidence, who sighed.
“Alex isn’t really here, darling. I know that you see her, but she isn’t real,” Mrs Caputo swallowed, taking in the instant hatred that looked horribly out of place on her daughter’s small features. “It’s okay,” she said, using softer tones, now. “We’re going to get you help now, Maggie. It’s okay.”
Maggie didn’t say anything to this, but she did start eating, a sign which Mrs Caputo took to be her success. The family didn’t linger after lunch, but packed up the car once more, and prepared for the journey home. Mrs Caputo’s mind was, as it should have been long before now, set. She was going to go to the doctor, and she was going to tell him the truth. Even if he tried to take Maggie away from her, she knew that she couldn’t fight it. She had to do what was best for the child now. Whatever the cost.
Mrs Caputo turned in her seat to smile at Maggie, and then froze. There was no one there. She looked to the back of the car, where Mr Caputo and the boys were still forcing the damp towels into the tiny boot. Annie, Rosie and Maggie had all gotten in the car behind her. They were supposed to be there. The panic was back, and, without pausing, Mrs Caputo was running back to the sand.
She could hear screams, and her heart seemed to both freeze and accelerate simultaneously. Maggie was running backwards and forwards on the sand, her long hair flowing out behind her as she raced, and her white petticoat flying wild and free, dancing in time to her laughter.
“Mother, mother!” Maggie called at the sight of her. “Alex and I are playing chase, it’s so fun!” She didn’t stop in her game, and yet Mrs Caputo’s heart still seemed incomprehensible, despite the child’s joy.
“Where are Annie and Rosie?” She asked quietly. Maggie stopped, turning to her mother, and still, infuriatingly, grinning.
“Alex was teaching them how to swim, it was amazing! And guess what, mum? She was right, people do float!”
Mrs Caputo nodded solemnly, looked to the water’s edge, and felt her heart explode.
What had she done?