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It had all started at the sandbox.
There had been plenty of other things to do during recess. There was a tower with a slide, and a seesaw. A nearby tree had a swing, and a tire tied to it. In spite of it all, she would go to the sandbox to dig a hole, everyday. Without fail, she’d always dig deep enough to reach the black dirt below, and at the end of every recess, an adult would come along and fill her hole in with sand again.
That day had begun just like all the others. The moment they went outside, she headed straight to the sandbox and crouched inside of it, a stick and plastic shovel in hand. She had just gotten as deep as the damper layers, some tiny pebbles had found their way into her shoes, and the fine grains caked under her fingernails.
Then a bucket of sand was dumped on her head.
She had been crouched over with her head bent down, so most of it spilled off of her head through her hair and not into her eyes. She heard giggling from behind her, but didn’t bother to turn around. She just sat perfectly still, until the giggles faded off along with the sound of little sneakers on the dirt.
No sand had gotten into her eyes, but they stung all the same. Her face screwed up as she started to dig again.
“That wasn’t nice,” a voice commented. She paused, blinking. Her eyelashes were wet. She turned her head slightly to see a boy crouched beside her, peering down at her now half collapsed hole. “You should tell a teacher. Meanies like that’ll get yelled at for sure.”
She remained mute, just staring at the stranger. This didn’t perturb or dissuade him however. He just smiled at her, not minding that he was having a conversation all by himself.
“My name’s Teddie,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Nina,” she said shyly. He beamed at her.
“Can I dig with you?” he asked. She nodded, some remaining sand sliding off of the top of her head. He picked up a stray stick, and sat down next to her, digging it into the pit. “Are they always like that?” he asked. She nodded again, still digging. “Why?” She stopped scraping with her stick for a second, bowing her head.
“Cause I don’t talk,” she mumbled. “All I ever do is dig.” Teddie laughed.
“You’re talking now,” he pointed out. She shook her head, more excess sand flying out of her hair.
“Not to them. You’re different,” she told him. Her bottom lip trembled, and her eyes became watery. “Even though,” she hiccupped. “Even though I just wanna be friends.”
He patted her on the top of her head.
“You don’t need people like that,” he declared. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, squeezing tight, but gently. “I’ll be your best friend, forever and ever.”
“Promise?” she asked. He nodded vigorously.
Before she knew it, they’d reached the black dirt. There was still time left before her mom would come to pick her up. She gazed at the hole in wonder. It was so much bigger than she’d ever been able to make it before. Then Teddie stood up. She craned her neck back, looking up at him. He reached down and took her hand.
“Now let’s go tell the teacher about those other kids.”
“But that’d be tattling,” Nina protested. He gave her hand another tug.
“No, cause we’re doing it together and they’re being mean.” She ended up following him anyway, in spite of her misgivings.
The teacher had immediately scolded the boys, and in turn, the boys had shot her dirty looks. Teddie had glared back at them. The teacher called her mother, and told Nina that she was on her way.
“Will you be here tomorrow?” Nina asked Teddie, clutching at his shirt. Teddie scratched the back of his head.
“Well, if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to go home with you,” he said. Nina’s eyes widened.
“Won’t you get in trouble with your mom?” she asked. He shook his head.
“Then, will you get in trouble with my mom?” Nina asked. Teddie shook his head again.
When Nina’s mom arrived, Nina thought it was almost silly how the adults were making such a big deal about it now. She was ushered towards the car, her mother promising her a bath and ice cream. All the while, she didn’t let go of Teddie’s hand. He sidled into the car with her. Miraculously, her mother didn’t object, she didn’t even comment on Nina’s new friend, which put a pout on her face. She was proud of Teddie, and she wanted her mom to know that. As if reading her mind, he touched her shoulder again.
“Don’t tell her about me,” he warned her. “She’ll send me away if you do.” He made a face as serious as her daddy’s, except he was a kid like her and it made her giggle a little bit. He grinned as if he’d just won a trophy. “I made you laugh,” he crowed.
“What are you laughing about honey?” he mother asked, looking perplexed. Nina shook her head, smiling.
“Nothing mommy, I want strawberry ice cream,” was all she said in reply.
That night, Teddie went to sleep in her closet, and she went to bed smiling.
She didn’t care that people stole her second slice of pizza during lunch, because Teddie would call them all the names in the book. He would sit with her while she struggled through her homework. He never ran out of patience, no matter how long it took her. It didn’t matter that none of the other kids liked her. She wasn’t interested in talking to them, because they would never be as nice as Teddie. It was in fourth grade when she had been invited to another classmate’s birthday party just because Nina was in the same class. She told her mother she didn’t want to go, and spent the night watching a movie with Teddie. It was a little while later when her mother said to her casually over the dinner table.
“Nina, I’m starting to get worried about you.”
Nina looked up, still chewing a mouthful of grilled salmon. Teddie, who had been busily humming her new favorite pop song, quieted as well. She swallowed.
“Yes mom?” she asked.
“Who is Teddie exactly?”
The question ate up all the sound in the room greedily, leaving nothing but leftover silence. Teddie shuffled in his seat beside her.
“Teddie?” Nina echoed. “What are you talking about?”
“I hear you talking to him while you brush your teeth,” her mom told her. “And I hear you whispering to him at night in your bedroom. Who is it Nina?” Her mother leaned forward with a stern expression. “Do you have an imaginary friend?”
“He’s not imaginary, he’s real,” Nina burst out. “He’s my best friend.” Her mother’s face crumpled, despair seeping through.
“Nina, he’s just someone you made up. You can’t live like that.”
“He’s real,” Nina insisted.
“You can’t stay holed up in our house all by yourself,” her mother cried. “It’s not healthy. You have to spend time with other kids, real kids.”
Nina refused to respond. She just got up and ran up the stairs. She slammed her bedroom door shut and sat on her bed with her face in her hands.
“You’re real, aren’t you?” she asked, her voice wavering. She felt his hand on her shoulder, and he squeezed it supportively.
“I’m your best friend,” he said softly. “I’ll be real as long as you want me to be.”
“I want you here always,” Nina said adamantly, lifting her head up to stare at him. Teddie was smiling at her.
“Then I’ll always be here,” he said. “Forever and ever.”
She talked with him about everything; food, television, music. She mentioned people that she particularly didn’t like, and he’d dutifully verbally tear each and every one of them down. It was in her freshman year of high school that she started mentioning one person in a positive light.
“His name’s Rob,” she said. “He’s so interesting. The sonnet he wrote for English class was so beautiful, and yet he hangs out with the skateboarders and listens to rock music. He’s like a character from a novel.”
Teddie listened like he always did, nodding in agreement with everything, but his eyes seemed distant. Nina paused.
“Ted, are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he said.
She spent the greater part of the semester trying to learn how to write good poetry. Teddie listened to all of her attempts, the failures and mediocre ones at home, because she didn’t speak with him while they were at school anymore. In spite of his insistences that she would hurt herself, she went ahead and tried to learn how to skateboard.
Amusingly enough, it was when she completely wiped out in front of Rob that he talked to her for the first time. The scraped knee had been worth it even if it stung and throbbed with varying degrees of misery because Rob had helped her sit down and got her some anti-bacterial cream with a handful of band aids. Teddie had sat behind her, murmuring sympathies the whole time.
Then Rob introduced himself and asked for her name and Nina forgot the pain. He had teasingly complimented her on her spectacular trick. The conversation had drifted down to the question of why she had started up ‘the Legendary Art of the Skateboard’, and Nina had blurted out that she liked Rob and wanted to get to know him better.
She had promptly clapped her hands over her mouth and came close to spontaneous combustion on the spot via embarrassment.
Now she was getting ready for her first date with him.
“What should I wear?” she asked, almost frantic. She dug through her closet, pulling out what felt like all of her most hideous garments. She had no idea why she even owned some of these. She threw all the rejects onto the floor, and all of the optimistic maybes onto the bed.
“Nina,” Teddie said. She looked up at him.
“Yes? What is it Ted?” she asked. He watched her a moment, before he just shook his head.
“No, never mind,” he assured her, and smiled. She looked at him a moment, puzzled, before she turned back to her full length mirror, holding a blouse against herself.
“How does this look?” she asked.
“It looks wonderful,” he told her softly. She laughed.
“That’s what you’ve said for all of the ones I’ve shown you,” she pointed out. He shrugged.
“Because you are, no matter what you wear.”
“Thank you,” Nina said, pulling out a different colored shirt to compare it. “Let’s just hope Rob sees it that way too,” she added, wincing at the contrast the second shirt made with her skin. “This color makes my skin look pasty,” she declared, and dropped it onto the floor.
“Nina,” Teddie said again. She looked up at him. He was sitting in her desk chair.
“What is it?” she asked, again. He faltered, his throat working silently a moment before his eyes met hers.
“You like Rob,” he said. Nina cocked her head to one side, bemused.
“What are you talking about? You know I do,” she said. Teddie just gazed into her eyes.
“Do you still want me here?” he asked her.
“Of course I do,” she replied, incredulous. “Ted, what’s wrong?” He just shook his head.
“I’ll only be here as long as you want me to be here,” Teddie told her. “If you go to him today,” he said softly. “I won’t be here when you come back.”
Everything fell quiet. Nina stood rooted to the floor, staring at him.
“You can’t have us both Nina,” he continued. “You have to choose.”
Her lips were dry, and her voice cracked a little.
“Why?” Teddie’s eyes saddened.
“That’s just how it is.”
“Then,” she croaked. “I choose Rob.”
She might as well have punched him in the stomach, and it caught her heart strings in a knot to see his eyes bright and shining in the light as the tears welled up.
“Why?” It was his turn to ask it now. The smile that cracked across her face hurt more than her skinned knee ever had.
“Because I can’t live holed up in our house all by myself,” she said. “I need real people. I need to go outside and live in a real world.”
Teddie didn’t say or do anything for a long while. Then his eyes caught hers.
They searched her face, apparently finding something there, because then he just smiled.
“Okay,” he whispered. “Good bye Nina.”
“Thank you for everything Teddie.” Her reply was even quieter. “Good bye.”
And then she turned away from him, walking out of the room. She went straight out the door of her house. She never looked back once, but she knew that he was gone. Her view of the path to the bus stop was blurry. Eventually it all spilled over and streamed down her cheeks in a mess of grief, but she didn’t pay it any mind. She just kept walking.
He had never been there in the first place, and she had to move on.