A bittersweet story of summer, childhood and imaginary friends.
Ben hadn’t been very happy about moving at first. It meant that he wouldn’t be going to school with all the other kids that had lived in his old neighborhood and though his mother had told him that he’d make plenty of new friends as soon as school started in the fall it didn’t feel like much of a consolation as he faced a long, lonely summer as the new kid in the neighborhood.
As his parents both had to work, his mother had managed to quickly find a position as a secretary at a small law firm downtown and his father’s new job was the reason they had moved in the first place, Ben was left to his own devices for much of the day. But Ben was a big boy now, about to start school and so they felt that it was okay to leave him by himself for the hours of the day that both his parents were away. As long as he promised to stay by the house and not under any circumstances leave the safe confines of the garden.
Luckily the house and its lush garden was one of the good things about the move. The house was old, its paint cracked and fading, but the house itself felt as solid as a rock. The stairs creaked and popped in the evenings, but that was normal his dad had told him. There were elaborate carvings around every door, on the bannisters to the stairs and every doorknob had a face on it. There was a basement with hidden, secret holes in the walls where Ben found little trinkets and notes left behind by children that had lived in this house before him. His favorite treasure was some old marbles that glittered with flecks of gold in the sunlight outside.
If only he had someone to invite in to play with him…
The garden was another thing, filled with wonder and mystery. Even if the house itself, with its sturdy beams and intricately carved pillars around the front porch did not give away the age of the house, the garden with its tall apple and cherry trees, the flowerbeds brimming overgrown with plant life told its own story. His mother’s favorite part was the little gazebo, surrounded by roses, growing tall with their branches curled around the metal of the little garden house. The tall trees meant that much of the back garden was in the shade, which was very welcome during the really hot summer days, but the best thing was the little pond.
It wasn’t very big. Ben thought he might be able to jump across it at its narrowest part, but it had dainty water lilies dotting its surface and it was full of all kinds of creepy crawly things. In the evenings fire-flies dances across its murky surface and Ben would try to catch some to put in a jar by his bedside. He even caught a few frogs there that had decided to make the pond their home. It was always the coolest place in the garden, so he made himself a little base there, by making a tent using the blankets and the branches of the little willow tree growing next to the pond. There Ben would spend the hours waiting for his parents reading comics and drawing his own little stories using crayons and leftover pieces of paper from his dad’s home office.
One day, it wasn’t a very special day; just one of a series of warm days in early July when Ben was down by the pond as usual. Suddenly the relative stillness of the place was disturbed as he heard a strange splashing sound.
He looked up and to his surprise he saw a girl standing by the edge of the pond, her long hair, which might have been blonde, was streaked in different shades of green and a greenish gunk covered her naked body. She smiled at him and waved.
Ben slumped backwards in shock, collapsing into the walls of his tent, causing the blankets to fall upon him in a messy pile. He sat there for a while, in the musty smell of blankets, feeling the sun slowly stew him inside his woolen cocoon, wondering if he’d was seeing things. Then he felt something wet touch him through the blankets and when he pulled himself free he saw the girl sitting next to him, hugging her knees to her thin frame.
She tilted her head to the side and gave him a worried look. He carefully reached out a hand to touch her arm. It felt wet and slick, a little like a frog and she smelled all over like the pond. She was definitely not a hallucination then.
They sat like that for a while until Ben decided that if she’d been dangerous in any way, she would have done something bad by now and as weird as it was to have a girl show up out of nowhere…Well, he had been wishing for a friend to keep him company.
He called her Tadpole, from the way her skin felt and since she didn’t seem to have a name of her own. Or at least, she never offered up a name to him when he asked. For that matter, she didn’t speak much at all, but just smiled and giggled in a way that sounded a little like when he blew bubbles into his soda. One of the first things he did was offer up one of his blankets for her to cover herself up with. It felt like the decent thing to do. Tadpole seemed to enjoy it, bunching it up around her body and stroking the course surface. She seemed very keen to try most anything he tried, from reading his comics, to drawing, to even climbing the knobbliest trees in the garden to see how high up they’d get before they got too scared. Wherever Tadpole had come from, it seemed like she had been just as lonely as he’d been.
When he heard his mother’s car in the driveway he tried to coax Tadpole into coming with him inside, but when he turned around she was just gone, the blanket deposited in a messy heap on the lawn. The surface of the pond rippled and though he called her name she didn’t reappear. But any worry he felt melted away when he, later on, looked back outside towards the garden and saw that someone had left a white water lily on the mound of blanket left on the lawn.
From that day, whenever Ben found himself alone in the garden and pining for some company Tadpole would be there, all smiles and with her hair in green tangles about her slick body. Once he actually tried to pull his fingers through the mess, but she gently nudged him away, turning it instead into a game of catch-me-if-you-can. It seemed like combs and such things were foreign to her. They would play together until his parents came home and every evening there would be another water lily left on the back porch, by the swing he used to sit in with his mother after dinner.
His mom never questioned the water lilies; she’d just smile and take them inside, assuming Ben had picked them and left them there. He had thought of telling her about Tadpole, but something told him his mother wouldn’t believe him. When he drew Tadpole in wax crayons, a true gift for his mother she just ruffled his hair and commented on his vast imagination.
“You’ll be a true artist or writer one day, Ben”, she said and put it up on the fridge with the others.
He didn’t much care if she thought Tadpole was make-believe, not as long as she still showed up every time he was down by the pond felling lonely with nothing to do.
Then, around August, when the worst of the summer heat seemed to have passed, his parents had a few days off. They took Ben to the zoo and after that they all went out for ice cream. Ben rather liked having his parents around, but he still missed Tadpole.
It made him immensely happy when they arrived home that evening and he still found a water lily on the back porch. He decided he would give Tadpole a present when they met up next time, one of the drawings he’d made of her perhaps.
Ben woke up the next morning to a real racket outside. When he sleepily arrived in the kitchen downstairs he was greeted by his smiling mother.
“Just you wait until you see what your father is putting in for us”, she said. “They’re building a pool in the back garden!”
They’d never had a pool before and initially Ben felt a jolt of happiness course through him. Maybe he and Tadpole cold go swimming together and then when he started school…
Then he looked outside, out through the net of the kitchen door he saw the mess that was the back garden. Several of the old knobbly trees had been cut down and way in the back…Nothing but a large muddy pit gaped, worked on by the excavator that was making all the noise.
“Mom…What happened to the pond?” he asked and turned back towards his mother, panic creeping up to replace the joy.
“Oh, honey, that filthy old thing was just a breeding ground for mosquitoes”, his mother said as she flipped another pancake onto a plate. “Isn’t it much nicer to have a pool we could actually use?”
“But I was using it!” Ben heard himself cry out, tears stinging his eyes. “There…were frogs and bugs and things!”
“I’m sure the frogs will find another home, honey.”
He slumped into his seat by the table. Maybe Tadpole had just found herself another home too. Maybe she was hiding somewhere else.
But that night, there was no water lily left on the back porch. And there wasn’t one there on the next day or the day after.
Ben held onto a hope that when they finally finished the pool and filled it up with sparkly blue water maybe, just maybe…Tadpole would be there, same as always, but maybe with cleaner hair.
But when the day came, the first day when he was left to himself again…Even though he waited for an entire day, unable to do much else with that knot in his gut, the girl with the green hair and slick skin never appeared.
Maybe Tadpole had been just a figment of his imagination after all he told himself that night; maybe she had just been something his mind had made up to fill those empty days when his parents were at work. Well, it felt made him feel better to think of it like that, than the darker alternative: That the destruction of the pond had made him to lose his friend forever.
But even after he started school and made friends, just like his mother had promised, even as he grew older, Ben never stopped drawing that girl. She lingered in his mind, like a pleasant memory, with her smell of old pond and summer.
That smiling girl with the green hair and the slick skin of a frog.