Well, this would have been about three years ago now, just before my stepdaughter went into first grade. She was still in the process of getting used to me back then. There’s nothing quite like having a five-year-old girl think you’re the anti-Christ, I can tell you. I’ve got a stack of Crayola drawings of me and her mother about an inch thick. She only put devil horns on me in about half of them. The family counselor we were seeing said it was pretty normal with a new stepdad in the house, but it still weirded me out. I’m not used to being the bad guy.
Anyway, that was the state of play when John Fisher came into the picture.
Now I’d had imaginary friends when I was a kid too, but mine were Mr. Mouse and Electric Franny, and mostly I’d use them as backup when I didn’t want to eat something. You know. I have too tried broccoli when I was at Electric Franny’s house, and I didn’t like it. That kind of thing. When she started dialing her little toy cell phone and asking for John Fisher like she had to get through a receptionist, I figured it was the same kind of thing. The only difference was that I thought John Fisher was an awfully prosaic name for an imaginary friend. Looking back, maybe that should have been a clue, but I have a hard time faulting myself.
Apart from his name being a little off, John Fisher was an odd imaginary friend. He was really serious, and he wasn’t playful if you know what I mean. She would be on her toy phone, and most of the time it was play talk, but every now and then, she’d get really pissed at him. I mean tears-in-the-eyes upset. There was one time right at the beginning of all this when I was working in the back bedroom, and I heard her in the hallway. Her voice was low and kind of rough that way that kids get when they think they’re being quiet without actually being quiet. And she was saying, Not mommy. I don’t care what you do, but you don’t get to hurt mommy. When I looked out of the bedroom, her eyes went wide, like I’d caught her at something, and she hid the toy phone behind her back.
It freaked me out a little bit, but I didn’t talk about it. I mean, what was there to say? Little kids are weird and creepy sometimes. Sun sets in the west. No big deal. And she hadn’t had an easy life. She’d only been two when her real daddy and a couple of his friends had gotten t-boned by a drunk guy in a truck. She didn’t remember her father, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t still dealing with losing him. Just because you can’t recall all the details of something, that doesn’t mean it didn’t change you. And I was also deeply aware that she wasn’t my kid. I never even thought about talking to my wife about it. Criticizing a little girl’s pretend games seemed like the king of all dick moves.
But then I started dreaming about John Fisher too.
In the dream, I’d be walking down a street somewhere. Sometimes it was a place I knew, sometimes not. It was always just after sunset, though, and there was a smell that came with it; a kind of hot metal stink I couldn’t identify. And I was always scared. So there I’d be, walking down the street, and down a few blocks ahead of me, there was this other guy, walking toward me. And I’d know it was John Fisher and that when he got to me, something really bad was going to happen, and then I’d wake myself up. Now I’ve always had nightmares, ever since I was a kid, but they were the usual forgot-to-drop-the-math-class-didn’t-wear-my-pants kind. These were different, and they bled over into my waking life. The day after I’d had a John Fisher dream, everything that happened would seem like it meant something else. Something really bad. It was like living in a David Lynch movie. But it would fade, and the day after would just be normal again. Until the next dream.
And it seemed like every dream, he’d get a little closer, the sidewalk that separated us would be a little shorter, and that weird hot metal smell would be a little stronger. It even got to where I’d still smell it when I woke up. I’d wake my wife up at three in the morning and make her sniff the bedroom to see if she could smell it too, but she never could.
While this was going on, I started feeling like my stepdaughter was spending more and more time on her toy phone, and like she was having less and less fun with the game. There were more times that she’d get off the phone with John Fisher crying or sullen or, worst of all, scared. I didn’t know what it meant to be afraid of your own imaginary friend, but I didn’t have a scenario where it was a good thing.
And so one night when my wife was off at a meeting for her work, I tried to talk to my stepdaughter about it. We were in the kitchen waiting for a frozen pizza to be done, and she was on the floor drawing on some printer paper with a red crayon. I don’t know why I remember so clearly that it was red, but I do. I asked her how John Fisher was, trying to be casual about the whole thing, playing it like I was just a grownup humoring a kid. She said he was fine without even glancing at me. I asked if he’d said anything about being in my dreams. Lightly again, like I was joking about it. She put down her crayon and stared up at me then. Her expression was perfectly calm and somber, and just for a second, I could see exactly what she’s going to look like when she’s forty.
I’m not supposed to talk about that, she said, and I swear for a second the pepperoni grease and z-grade cheese smelled exactly like the dreams did. I didn’t try to talk about it anymore. When my wife came home, I played it off like nothing strange was going on, but what I was really thinking was My stepdaughter’s imaginary friend wants to kill me.
After that, other things started happening around the house. A suitcase that I’d stowed in the attic appeared on the dining room table one morning. My wife and I wound up making up a story about an electrician we’d had in the week before moving it and us jut not noticing it until now, but I think we both knew better. And one night the bathroom mirror shattered for no particular reason. And the TV started turning on by itself in the middle of the night. For my wife, it was just the usual background noise of life, but for me, it was John Fisher.
That was probably as close as I got to leaving. That sounds bad, I know. I love my wife, and I’m not a coward, but I was at the part where if it were a movie, I’d have been yelling at the dumbass to get out of the house. And I would have, I think, if my stepdaughter had been okay. If she’d been happy or I thought she was on John Fisher’s side, I’d have been out of there, but she wasn’t. If anything, she started getting worse. She’d run to her toy phone as if it was ringing, have long, hushed conversations, and come away weeping. Her preschool teacher sent home a note asking if everything was going on at home because she was getting in fights on the playground. Her skin took on a grayish tone that had her mother — but not the pediatrician — worried. Whatever John Fisher was up to, and by now he was right on that edge between being a really rich symbol and an actual guy for me, the kiddo wasn’t in on it. At least that was what I thought. I’m not sure of that now.
Then April 16th came.
It was the night after taxes were due, and my wife and I had profoundly different reactions to that. As soon as the stress and wrangling with the IRS was done and the checks were in the mail, she put it all out of her mind. Didn’t think about it at all. I, on the other hand, got more stressed, convinced that I’d made some error of arithmetic or interpretation that would bring the wrath of the government down around my ears. So it was about three in the morning, and I was at best half asleep when I heard my stepdaughter crying.
Now crying’s like music or language. It can express anything. This was an exhausted sound, like she had already been through fear and pain and was spooling down into something more autonomic and empty. It’s the kind of crying I imagine torture victims fall into when they’ve already been through too much. I shook my wife, but she was so deep in her sleep that she didn’t respond. So I got out of bed and walked down the hall, calling my stepdaughter’s name. I was hoping she was having a nightmare, and that I could wake her up, tell her everything was all right, and have it be true. But when I got to her room, she was sitting upright in the middle of the bed, her eyes open. I asked her what was wrong, and she said John Fisher’s angry with me. And as soon as she said it, I heard something bang at the end of the hallway. It was a sharp sound, like someone hitting the wall. She started keening, and I was telling her everything was all right while I looked for something solid enough I could use it as a weapon.
The banging came again, closer this time, and I had the same sense of dread that the dreams had carried. John Fisher was in the hallway, and he was getting closer, and I was absolutely certain that when he got there something terrible was going to happen. I shouted my wife’s name, but I knew she wasn’t going to wake up. Whatever John Fisher was up to, it was about me and my stepdaughter. He wasn’t going to let anyone interfere.
The banging sound came one last time, and then there was this fast shuffling sound, like footsteps on carpet, moving toward me. I picked up this posable Elmo doll, and stood blocking the doorway like there was something I could do. And then he was there. He was this pale, sort of nondescript man. Thinning brown hair, and a kind of basset-hound face, and he was looking at me. And I knew this was it. This was the moment that had been coming in all those nightmares. Whatever the hell John Fisher was, he was here now, and the bad thing was happening. I cocked the Elmo doll like I was going to hit him with it, and I said If you get her, it’s because I’m already dead, motherfucker.
John Fisher hoisted his eyebrows, like he was saying You sure you mean that? I took a solid grip on Elmo. And then he looked past me, to the bed. To my stepdaughter, and he said He’ll do.
And then he was gone. When I looked over my shoulder, my step-daughter was curled up in her covers, dead asleep and snoring a little. I put down Elmo and walked through the whole house room by room until I was sure there was no one there, and I started feeling kind of silly. Then I went back to bed. In the morning, I asked my stepdaughter if she’d slept all right, and she said she had, but she said it with this little smile I couldn’t quite parse. And that evening when we were just getting ready for bed was the first time she called me Dad.
I don’t know who or what John Fisher was. I don’t even know for sure that anything happened that night. But privately, without bragging to anyone about it, I’m proud that my first, panicked instinct was to stand my ground. And I think somewhere in the back of her mind, my stepdaughter knows I did, and thinks better of me for it.
And that’s good. She’s a special little girl.