Do you remember how you saw the world as a child? Wasn’t it a magical place with mysteries and secrets hidden everywhere?
What about imaginary friends? I think we all had them at one point. They might have been the siblings we never had, magical creatures, or characters on TV.
Together with those friends, we’d go on adventures, visit magical places, or entirely different worlds. For many children, it was a way of passing the time, of finding out about themselves or to make a little more sense of things they didn’t understand. For other children, it was a way of coping with the harsh reality surrounding them.
I was one of the latter.
I grew up a poor boy, brought up by a single mother.
The house we lived in could barely be called one. It was a small, flat-roofed building, comprising only a handful of rooms.
Mom tried her best to raise me, but she had a weak body, so holding a job was impossible for her. Instead, our meager meals and other necessities were paid by government support. Life wasn’t easy; I didn’t have many toys. Still, I was happy enough.
Everything changed when Scott came into our life.
I still remember the time I first met him. I was woken by laughter and giggling from the living room, and I found mom on the couch with a man I didn’t know. A heavy smell wafted through the small room that made me cough.
“Go to bed, baby,” she said to me when she noticed me standing in the door. Her voice was almost incoherent and erratic as she gently pushed me back into our small bedroom. She locked the door, and soon I heard more giggling and other, different sounds. I didn’t understand what was going on, but soon I fell asleep again.
When I woke up the next morning, the man was still there, smoking a cigarette and drinking from a heavy glass bottle.
“Yo, little dude, what’s up?” he asked after taking a big sip.
“Who are you? Where’s my mom?” I asked, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
“I’m Scott. Your moms over there, still asleep,” he said, pointing at the couch. “She’s had a ROUGH night.”
He gave me a little wink that made me laugh, but at my age, I didn’t understand his implication.
I learned that Scott and mom had dated briefly during high school. They’d recently met again and gave their old relationship another go. He was a nice enough guy, for the first couple of weeks at least.
At first, he visited us only every once in a while, but soon he moved in with us. For a while, it was fun. Scott brought a ton of video games, and I enjoyed watching him play and laugh. Whenever I asked to play, though, he shooed me away.
As the weeks passed, Scott drank more often. It wasn’t strange for me to wake up to find him already holding a bottle in his hands. While mom took care of the chores around the house, Scott sat in front of his video games, smoking and drinking all day.
I still remember how hard it was to breathe and how the heavy smoke stung in my eyes. When I cried about it, he either didn’t react or told me to ‘be quiet.’
The first time he beat me was when I asked him for breakfast. Mom had to leave in the early morning to take care of ‘important government business,’ as she called it, and left Scott in charge.
I was hungry, but when I asked Scott for something to eat, he didn’t react, too absorbed in his video games, and too drunk. When I cried, he grew angry and slapped me against the head.
“Will you shut up, you little shit!?”
That day I learned that I shouldn’t talk to Scott when he was playing his video games. Which meant, never.
While he shouted at the screen, I retreated to mom’s closet. I sat there, in the dark, cramped space, crying to myself until mom got home.
She asked me what had happened, but one stare from Scott told me to be quiet. I mumbled something about falling, and that was it.
It wasn’t the last day I fled to the closet.
I guess mom was desperate in a way. For the first time, she was in love again. She didn’t catch on to Scott’s toxic behavior or chose to ignore it.
Scott was never violent when mom was around. Whenever she’d leave the house or even the room, Scott was quick to vent his anger at me.
I found myself inside of the small closet more and more often. At first, I’d only sit in the dark, sobbing to myself, but ever so slowly, it became my own little world. A safe haven from the reality that awaited me outside.
In there, my imagination transformed the mundane surroundings into my first imaginary friends. There was Kitton, the mischievous little kitty thief. He sprang to live from an old poster of a kitten holding on to a rope plastered against the closet’s back wall. The second one was Skyhawk, a giant bird soaring the skies. I conjured up his image from a single, bright feather I found tucked between the floorboards.
Together with them, I’d go on magical adventures. I visited massive castles, flew over boundless plains, and joined Kitton on lavish thieveries.
Many of those adventures were cut short by Scott. When I’d get too excited, yelling and laughing, he’d drag me from the closet, screaming at me to be quiet. More than once, he beat the shit out of me.
It was only a matter of time before mom caught onto things. Scott couldn’t explain the heavy bruises by yet another story about roughhousing.
I still remember her screams. At first, they were directed at Scott, mentioning my name and demanding what he’d done to me. After a while, Scott’s rage replaced them before it was drowned out by mom’s painful wailing. I don’t know how it all lasted, but to my young mind, it seemed had seemed to be forever.
Mom wasn’t the same after that day. She was quiet, timid, and only spoke to me in hushed whispers. Her face looked strange for a while, bloated and discolored.
Eventually, mom took to drinking as well. I guess she searched for an escape like I had, yet no magical worlds were waiting for her. Instead, she clung to a different type of magic. One that would bring sweet release, often as soon as the early hours of the afternoon.
Those days were the worst. Scott had grown unhinged, prone to anger issues. When he couldn’t vent his anger at mom, I was the only target that remained. He wasn’t just yelling at me anymore, not just beating me. By this point, he’d developed a sadistic streak.
He loved putting out his cigarettes on my tiny, white arms.
To this day, scars riddle them. I still remember the searing pain, the blistering skin, and the burned flesh below. When I cried in pain, he’d guffaw like a horse before he threw me back into the cramped closet.
During these days, I should meet a new imaginary friend, a small, stuffed wolf I’d never seen before. I came to call him Silverback, the Wolf King. In my mind, he wasn’t a small toy, but a giant beast and the king of all the animals.
Soon Silverback became my favorite imaginary friend. He’d let me ride on his back and take me to the Great Forest, a magical place with trees towering high into the sky, taller than any building I’d ever seen.
The more Scott drank, the more his behavior escalated. Before long, he took to other things, things a kid like me didn’t understand. I remember wondering if he was sick when he put a needle into his arm and hoped he’d have to go to the hospital. He never went. Instead, he became more unhinged, crazy.
And then, one day, he exploded.
I was in the closet, on another adventure with Silverback and Kitton when I heard screams coming from outside. As a little child, I didn’t understand what I saw, but I knew it was wrong.
Scott was on the couch, on top of mom. She’d been screaming, but by now, she hardly made any sounds. For a moment, I thought she’d fallen asleep, but Scott was doing something with his hands. They were wrapped around her neck.
His face almost made me crawl back. It had become a mask of pure and absolute rage. His eyes were huge and bloodshot, his mouth stretched so wide it almost divided his face.
“How dare you mess with my games, you freaking whore!” he screamed at her, his voice high-pitched and cracking.
“What are you doing to mom?” I blurted out in a low voice, not sure what was happening.
At that moment, Scott’s crazy eyes focused on me, and a sadistic grin showed on his face.
I didn’t know what I was doing. Suddenly, I was running, spurred on by something deep inside my subconscious mind.
In a moment, I was at the front door, then outside, and ran towards the small stretch of forest behind our house.
“Where do you think you’re going, you little shit?” Scott called after me guffawing like he always did.
I didn’t turn around. Fear swallowed me up, and I just ran. Yet, I had no hope of outrunning him. My legs were too short, my steps too small.
“Just wait till I get you little Danny, just you wait!”
His voice was so close by now, and with each passing moment, his heavy steps were getting closer. I could almost feel his disgusting, heavy breath on my neck.
“What the fuck’s that?!” he cursed, followed by a heavy thud.
When I turned around, I saw Scott on the ground. Behind him, a small rope was stretched between two of the trees, and just for a moment, I saw a tiny feline body vanishing between the underbrush.
Had that been…? I didn’t get to wonder, because Scott pushed himself up again. His face was furious, but when he saw me, his grin returned.
I stumbled on, from tree to tree, but I was exhausted, my small legs were heavy, and my chest hurt. Tears came to my eyes when Scott burst through the underbrush behind me.
“Shit, fucking bird, get the hell away from me, shit!” he screamed behind me, but a flutter of massive wings drowned out his voice.
Scott was still screaming and cursing as I pushed myself forward. Step by step, I continued on. My eyes grew wide when I saw a feather similar to the one I’d found in mom’s closet. It glided through the air before it vanished between the trees ahead of me.
I followed it, desperate, hoping for something, hoping to get away. But things are never so easy.
Scott finally got a hold of me and threw me to the ground. He put his twisted face close to mine and stared me down with his red eyes.
“Got you, little Danny,” he laughed, panting heavily.
He pulled me upward, pushing me against the trunk of a huge tree.
I struggled against his grip, tried to get free, and only now noticed how dark it had become. All around us were massive trees. They towered high into the sky, hiding the sun with their dense canopy. Even as a kid, I knew this wasn’t the small forest behind our house. This was a different place. As Scott giggled to himself, I realized where I was, in the Great Forest!
Scott’s big hands closed around my neck as he pressed me against the tree. I struggled, wanted to scream, but no words escaped my throat. All I could see was Scott’s eyes, two massive, red orbs right in front of my face.
For a moment, my vision grew dark, but then Scott released me. Confusion replaced the grin that had been on his face. No, not confusion, fear.
“What the fuck?” he pressed out as he stumbled backward.
That’s when I saw him, Silverback. The giant wolf stood between the towering trees, his eyes resting on Scott. A moment later, he jumped forward.
Scott screamed, but he’d only made it a few steps before Silverback was upon him.
I heard Scott’s cries, high-pitched, and filled with such terror that I pressed my hands over my ears and closed my eyes. I don’t know how long I sat there before I felt something gently nudging me.
When I opened my eyes, Silverback stood in front of me. Once more, he nudged me on with his snout, and I stood up on shaky legs.
For a moment, I glanced over at where Scott lay. He wasn’t moving, and the forest floor below him was wet and sticky. Before I got a closer look, Silverback pushed himself in front of me.
Together, the giant wolf and I made our way through the towering forest. As I walked, I cried again; the emotions bursting out of me like a rushing torrent. I sobbed and cried and clung to Silverback’s mane. The giant wolf didn’t move but waited till I’d calmed down. Then he lowered his snout and licked away the tears that had streamed from my eyes.
Before long, the forest grew smaller, the towering trees were replaced by the birch, so common to the area. When I reached the edge of the forest, standing in a backyard I didn’t know, Silverback had vanished.
“My god, boy, what happened to you?”
An old lady who must’ve seen me come from the forest hurried towards me. I didn’t say a thing; I couldn’t. Instead, I cried and cried and cried, staring back at the tree line behind me.
I was in a terrible state, my tiny legs scratched and cut in too many places to count. The old lady’s husband called an ambulance right away.
With my limited vocabulary, I told them what had happened. Scott had hurt mom, and when I ran, he chased me through the forest.
I didn’t tell them about Silverback, or my other friends who’d been there to help me. Even as a little child, I knew there was something to the events that had unfolded. No, what had happened was meant for me and me alone.
The police found Scott in the middle of the small forest, his throat torn to bits. They were baffled by it, but conclude that he must’ve been attacked by a wild animal.
They could do nothing for mom. She was still on the couch; her face swollen and purple, suffocated to death by Scott.
No one told me about those things back then. No, I only learned about it much later. By then, I was already living with a loving foster family.
My life became happy. There was no need to hide inside a closet and flee to imaginary worlds. And as time passed, there was no more need for imaginary friends.
The years passed, I went to school, then to college, and before long, I entered the workforce.
The only thing that stayed with me from those terrible days of my childhood were the nightmares. For all my life, dreams of that house haunted me. Dreams of Scott, what he did to mom, and what he’d almost done to me.
One day, I decided to pay my old home a visit. I guess I wanted to put those old demons to rest and prove they couldn’t hurt me anymore.
After a five-hour car ride, I arrived in front of the old house. It was even smaller than I remembered. It had been long abandoned, and when I entered, I found it in a state of destitute and chaos.
As I stepped into the living room, I noticed the closet in an instant.
When I opened the door and entered the cramped little space inside, memories came flooding back to me. Memories of the imaginary worlds I’d created and all the friends I’d made.
One look at the back of the closet showed me that the old kitty poster that had become Kitton was long gone. No hint remained of the feather that had conjured up the image of Skyhawk. The only things in here were old, half-rotten clothes and dirty.
Or, so I thought because then I saw him. Discarded in a corner lay a tiny stuffed animal.
He was old now and dirty, but the few silver threads on his back told me who he was in an instant. My very best friend during that terrible time: Silverback, the Wolf King.
When I picked him up, I saw that the fabric was torn in many places; the stuffing pouring out here and there. Even one of his small button eyes was missing.
I hugged the small toy dearly, and as the memories of that day returned, tears came to my eyes.
“What happened to you?” I asked as I held the dirty, old toy in my hands, but of course, I didn’t get an answer.
I was an adult now. The magic that had once resided in this place was gone, pushed aside and replaced by reality.
Still, as I held him in my arms and whispered the words ‘Thank you’ again and again, I could’ve sworn there was a glimmer of that old magic in his one, lonely button eye.