This is my second attempt at Sue Vincent’s photo prompt challenge. It’s a fair bit longer than my usual writing, but, as there’s no word count to this prompt, that can’t be a bad thing! I hope you enjoy!
Nobody knew about Freddy. For some reason, he liked to hide from other people. I suppose he’d once hidden from me, too, but I spent far too much time in the forest for that now; it would be more difficult for him not to talk to me.
At home, everything was noise. I had a big family: three brothers and two sisters, along with a mother who was inclined to shout at everything she saw; a father who was partially deaf; and two dogs, who had recently taken to yapping whenever they were lonely, hungry, sad, or just thought things weren’t quite loud enough as they were. The forest was my escape. There were no screaming siblings or parental reprimands there. There were the just the trees, the grass, the gentle tweet of birds, and peace.
In a way, I was jealous of my friend. He never had to leave the forest like I did. I had to go home before six every evening, or my family would assume something terrible had happened and start sending out search parties. Freddy, however, didn’t have that problem, because Freddy didn’t have a family. That’s what he told me, anyway. I couldn’t believe him; everyone had a family somewhere, or else how would they have come to be? Whoever they were, though, he certainly didn’t like talking about them. Whenever I raised the question, he would quickly change the subject, distracting me by pointing out some rare species of bird or suggesting that we went for another walk.
I loved walking with Freddy, because he was so good at it. When I’d used to go walking in the forest with my family, they’d always make so much noise, kicking up the leaves and shouting to each other. Much to my dismay, they chased every animal away within a hundred miles. Freddy was like me, though; he learnt where to tread to make as little noise as possible, balancing on the mossy parts of the path and remembering to step over the twigs, rather than causing them to snap loudly as he broke them in two. One day, we’d crept right up behind a peacock, its plumage extended to reveal a fantastic rainbow of colour. I’d never seen one before, and just wanted to stare at it all day, so Freddy had pursued the peacock for miles after I’d had to leave. The next day, he’d produced a rainbow feather for me, telling me that he hoped it would cheer me up whenever I felt sad or alone.
My parents, of course, were worried about me. They’d started giving me more chores about the house, stopping me from leaving whenever I tried to sneak off. They also kept asking me why I loved it out in the forest so much. I would never betray Freddy, of course; I would never tell them about him, but they were worried, because they thought I was by myself all the time. Some days, I wanted to tell them so badly, if only so they would stop pestering me, but I knew I never would, no matter how annoying they were. It wasn’t my secret to tell, and I didn’t want to lose Freddy as a friend.
That Thursday, they were being particularly irritating. My mother had first asked me to change all the sheets in the entire house, and, just as I finished and made for the shoe cupboard, she had handed me a mop and bucket, telling me to wash the car. I’d scowled and I’d complained, but there I was, a few minutes later, washing the car.
The annoying thing was, it wasn’t even dirty; my mother had evidently been running low on excuses to keep me tethered to the house, so had started to make them up, instead. I scowled at myself in the wing mirror I was supposed to be cleaning. I wasn’t really; I was just rubbing a dry mop over it half-heartedly; what I was really doing, was keeping both eyes on the kitchen window. I could see my mother watching me, sipping her tea as she leant against the window sill. As soon as her back was turned, I would ditch the mop on the floor, and run for it. I was patient, moving about the car ritualistically as I waited for my window of opportunity.
It happened when I was brushing down the second wing mirror; there was a sound of breaking glass from the kitchen, and I looked around to see my mother rushing away from the window. I didn’t wait to see what had broken who the culprit was. If my mother called me back now, it was too late; I’d tell her later that I hadn’t heard. She didn’t shout, however, and I escaped telling-off free to the boundary of the forest.
Freddy was probably wondering where I was by now; it had been long enough. I rushed down the bank towards the valley, turned a few corners and raced towards Freddy. Except Freddy wasn’t there. His bed was there, the magnificent frame carved from a single tree trunk, but someone much taller and much balder than Freddy, was now looming over it.
“Hey!” I shouted out indignantly. “Get away from there, it’s not nice to touch other people’s things!” The man, for I quickly realised he was a man, and not a boy, at all, turned sharply around to look at me. His eyes widened slightly.
“Oh, sorry, do you play here?” he said, taking a few steps towards me. I backed up instinctively, suddenly nervous. Where could Freddy be? He was always here when I came looking for him, no matter how late I was. Perhaps this man – this intruder – had done something to him somehow.
I gave him a searching look, taking in his shabby coat and torn, muddy jeans. He was holding up his hands to me as if making a silent surrender.
“I’m not gonna hurt you,” he said slowly, this time not moving any closer. “This is where I sleep, that’s all. I’m normally out at town in the day, which is probably why we haven’t met before, but I’m ill, I’m afraid, so I thought I better stay put.” He smiled at her, sitting down on Freddy’s bed. “It’s okay,” he said in what he must have thought was a reassuring voice. “I’ll be out of your hair tomorrow and you can play here to your heart’s content.”
“I don’t play,” I snapped rather brutishly as I folded my arms in front of my chest. “This is Freddy’s bed.” The man gave her another toothless grin, seeming to relax slightly.
“Now, I can’t say I’ve seen no Freddy around here… are you sure you’re at the right bed?” I scowled at him, biting my lip slightly out of frustration.
“This is the only bed! And it’s not yours, it’s Freddy’s!” I was beginning to get quite upset now; I figured that Freddy must be waiting until the man left, but if the man was planning on sleeping here, Freddy would have to hide from him all night. “You can’t stay here!” I insisted, rushing forwards now and pulling at the man’s uneven cuff. “He won’t come out if you’re here! You have to go!”
“Alex!” called a horrified voice from the top of the bank behind us. I spun around to see my mother stood there, my little sister at her arm. “Get away from him, now!” The man got to his feet again, and I backed hurriedly away, moving towards my mother.
“I didn’t mean no harm, mam,” he was saying, putting his palms in the air again. “She just came running up to me, trying to make me move.”
“Alex, get up here right now!” my mother hissed, the anger in her voice paramount. I swallowed, but couldn’t not obey. It was strange how she held such power over me. I hadn’t had a second thought about running off earlier, but now that she was so angry, it was like I had to do as I was told. I ran back up the bank to stand at my mother’s other side, eyes on the ground. “You stay away from her!” my mother shouted at the man as she dragged her children away, pushing us in front of her around the corner and towards the house.
Back home, I was sat down at the kitchen table in front of my mother and father. The dogs had been shut outside and my five siblings had been banished to the upstairs whilst us three ‘had a talk’. I knotted my hands in my lap, not looking at either of them. I didn’t know what they wanted me to say. I understood why they’d be worried about me talking to strange men in the forest, but Freddy wasn’t a man, and I’d never seen the one today ever before. I doubted that they’d ever believe me, but I had to try.
“Have you forgotten everything we have ever taught you?” my father began, his voice desperate. He was taking a different tack to my mother; whilst she was relying on her raw anger, his voice was dripping with disappointment. I couldn’t lie: it was effective.
“No,” I said to my hands. “I’ve never seen that man before. I know it’s wrong to talk to strangers but I haven’t… I only spoke to that man just then because-” I stopped myself, remembering my promise to Freddy. I couldn’t tell them about him, I just couldn’t – but I was in so much trouble now; wouldn’t he, as my friend, understand?
“Because what?” my mother pressed, her arms folded tightly across her chest. I was strongly reminded of how I’d addressed the man earlier in the forest, and then I remembered how worried I’d been about Freddy. What if the man had done something terrible to him?
“That man doesn’t live there,” I said quickly, throwing all caution to the wind in my desperation. “My friend does. He’s called Freddy and he’s really nice, but I’m worried that man did something horrible to him.”
My parents looked at one another, their expressions unreadable.
Ten minutes later, I was pacing back and forth across my bedroom floor, fuming. How could my parents do this to me? How could they be so cruel? It was one thing to not believe me, but another to make me sound like a little kid who couldn’t look after themselves. I was fourteen! I was fine by myself, and didn’t need them making up lies about Freddy. It wasn’t fair. Freddy was real. He wasn’t – I shuddered at the thought – he wasn’t my imaginary friend. I was too old for that; I lived in the real world, and I’d spent so much time with Freddy! He was as real as I was!
I collapsed on my bed, still fuming.
I didn’t know what it was that I was feeling anymore. A strange sort of panic was coming over me now, constricting my throat and making it difficult to breath. Freddy was real, I told myself firmly.
But then why has no one else ever seen him? Asked a nasty voice from somewhere at the back of my mind. Why are you the only one he talks to? I shook my head, trying to get rid of the thoughts. Freddy was just scared, I reminded myself. He didn’t like people, not after his family had abandoned him.
But why does he never talk about his family? The voice pressed, forcing me to my feet in anger. Because they’re not real, either. He hates them! I thought desperately. Why would anyone want to talk about someone they hated? There was so much depth to him; so much reality when they talked. It was absurd. It was like saying everyone she knew was made up. There were no dogs and no siblings; maybe there weren’t even any parents, not if Freddy wasn’t real.
I kicked at the underneath of my bed angrily, tears beginning to roll down my cheeks. Why did no one ever believe me? Why didn’t they understand that I didn’t want to sit inside all day? I wanted to spend time with my friend, my real friend, in the slice of peace that I shared with him. All of that was all okay, because he was real. He had to be. I allowed my head to drop into my lap, eyes closed. Was there something seriously wrong with me? Had I managed to invent an entire person?
I opened my eyes, and caught sight of something poking out from where I’d kicked earlier. I reached for it instinctively, turning it over in my hands.
A shiver of pure delight erupted down my spine. It was shrivelled and misshapen, but there was no denying that it was: a beautiful, rainbow-coloured peacock feather.