Squinting against the late-day glare, Thomas snatched his sunglasses from the dashboard and slipped them on. He glanced back over at his son and saw that Nathan was still silently chatting away in some muttered jabberwocky lingo to nobody in particular.
At least, that was how it appeared. Thomas Randall knew better. He knew just who his son was speaking to.
Crabapple was Nathan's imaginary friend. From what Thomas and Emily had been able to gather, the invisible amigo was an often cranky little redheaded boy, two or three years older than Nathan. Crabapple had first appeared not long after Thomas and Emily decided to separate. Imaginary friends were not uncommon for children of his age, and even less so in cases where domestic stress was involved. Or so the therapist, Dr. Morrissey, had said.
"Nathan," he said again.
The boy did not respond.
"Nathan!" he said, a bit sharply, and put a hand on his son's shoulder. Finally, Nathan turned to face him.
"We almost there, Daddy?" Nathan asked, as if the drive were taking forever.
"You know where we are. We'll be there in five minutes," Thomas replied, then smiled. "Does Crabapple want pepperoni pizza too?"
Nathan began to grin, the way he always did before accusing his father of being "a silly man." But the grin quickly faded, and Nathan began to frown.
"Crabapple isn't hungry," Nathan asserted. "But I am!"
"Good, more for the two of us," Thomas said. "Why doesn't Crabapple want to eat?"
"He's just being a silly, Daddy," Nathan said. "He's scared."
"Scared?" Thomas asked, and it was his turn to frown. He wondered if this was the source of Nathan's distraction. He knew Sister Margaret would only have broached the subject if Nathan had indeed been acting strangely. And she already knew about Crabapple, so it wasn't only that.
"What does Crabapple have to be afraid of?" Thomas asked. "Nobody can see or hear him except for you. And you'd never hurt him."
Five year old logic. Thomas always did his best to reason with Nathan, but it was just too far back to remember. Five years old. What's in your mind at that age? He couldn't recall.
"I'm not the only one who can see him, Daddy," Nathan said gravely. "Crabapple's afraid they're going to hurt him, or take him away forever."
Suddenly, Thomas found himself profoundly regretting that he and Emily hadn't continued to bring Nathan to Dr. Morrissey. Obviously, the child had deep-rooted anxieties as a result of the divorce. Guilt reared its ugly head, but Thomas pushed it away. Nathan was better off not listening to his parents fight all the time.
But sometimes the guilt overcame reason. It made him feel a little sick to even consider that he might have caused his own child such pain and sadness.
"Nobody's going to hurt Crabapple, buddy," he promised Nathan, forcing a smile. "Nobody's going to take him away from you."
"Crabapple doesn't believe you, Daddy!" Nathan cried, and now he was growing even more agitated. Though he'd at first seemed dubious about the imaginary opinions of his imaginary friend, they now seemed to have him frantic.
"They're going to take him away and hurt him, maybe kill him dead, Daddy!" Nathan insisted.
Then the tears came.
Thomas pulled over to the side of the road and flipped on the hazard lights even as he unlatched his seat belt. He reached out, unlatched Nathan’s seat belt, and pulled his son to him in a crushing embrace, cursing himself all the while. He knew it wasn't his fault. It was just life. But knowing and feeling were two different things; and what he felt was just the tiniest bit of self-loathing.
"Ssshhh, Nathan, it's okay," he whispered. "Daddy's here. I won't let anyone hurt you . . . or Crabapple."
"You can't stop them, Daddy," Nathan whimpered. "Crabapple says they're going to get him no matter what."
"Who's they, buddy?" Thomas asked his son, confounded by the boy's insistence. "Who's going to hurt him?"
"All of them. Feathertop and Grumbler and Bob Longtooth and the Wood Nymphs. The Jackal Lantern's going to hurt Crabapple, Daddy. They all want to hurt him," Nathan roared in tears.
Thomas could only stare. Strangewood. Nathan was talking about the characters in Strangewood, the characters Thomas — as TJ Randall — had written about most of his adult life. The characters who had provided a comfortable life for the Randall family all along.
"Why . . . why would they do that?" Thomas asked, not even wondering at the absurdity of the question.
"Crabapple says it's cause he's out here with me and they're . . . they're still in Strangewood," Nathan said, his voice hitching, but his tears beginning to subside.
"But, come on, Nathan," Thomas pleaded with his son, trying to reason with him. "You know that the characters in Strangewood aren't for real. Daddy made them all up. And even if they were real, why, Grumbler and Feathertop would never be friends with Bob Longtooth and the others."
There, he thought. Five-year-old logic.
And it seemed to work, for Nathan brightened up a bit right away.
"Crabapple's just being a silly," Thomas said. "Why, who wouldn't want pepperoni pizza?"
"Silly," Nathan agreed, staring at the empty space where Crabapple was supposed to be.
The boy didn't talk to his invisible friend the rest of the way to the Pizza Palace. By the time they were eating, the conversation had moved on to sandboxes and swingsets and why chocolate milk was God's greatest invention.
But the incident stayed with Thomas. He vowed to himself that he would speak to Emily about it Sunday when he dropped Nathan off. He thought a return visit to Dr. Morrissey was in order.
By the time he'd finished cooking Nathan pancakes on Saturday morning, Thomas's mind had returned to the deal with Disney, and the possibility of developing Strangewood for live-action. The threat to Crabapple's life and well being had been forgotten.
Nathan was happy, maple syrup smeared across his chin. The sun warmed the kitchen, despite the cool breeze that blew in through the window over the sink. It was a beautiful day. Nathan jabbered on about Jonny Quest, Scooby Doo, and some of his other favorites on that time machine of animation called the Cartoon Network. Thomas was as content as he'd been at any time in recent memory. Happy that he could share his son's love of certain cartoons. Such simple things.
As they talked, and made silly faces, over breakfast, Thomas congratulated himself once again for having the foresight to rent a house rather than an apartment. Nathan had his own room and had to actually walk down stairs to have breakfast. Somehow, that seemed important. It made it seem like his real home, instead of just his Dad's house, where he spent weekends.
It was a nice place, too. Thomas had been fortunate to find it, and at an affordable price. After all, despite the money he was making, the cost of supporting separate households for himself and Emily — she had a decent job as HR Director at Sentinel Software, but not enough to pay the mortgage and the bills and daycare — not to mention the cost of raising Nathan . . . well, he'd gotten a deal on the house. It was a traditional Colonial, only a few years old. There were three bedrooms upstairs, one of which Thomas used as his office. Downstairs, he had transformed what might have been a dining room into a library. Other than that, there was just a living room and a kitchen. And bathrooms, of course, one on each floor.
The black and white house was in nice shape, but didn't have much character. It was too new, and Thomas didn't pay a lot of attention to decorating it other than to bury it in his books and videos. He hadn't read comic books in years, but he still had the collection he'd accumulated up through college and looked forward to the time when Nathan might actually have an interest. If he liked comics at all. With the Internet and CD-Rom, kids weren't spending time reading much of anything.
Sure, kids loved Strangewood once they were exposed to it. But Thomas found that his — TJ Randall's — audience was actually parents, rather than their children. Much to his pleasure, Nathan was already a voracious consumer of books and stories.
An errant breeze blew extra strong through the kitchen.
"Daddy, can I have some more juice?" Nathan asked.
Thomas fetched it for him, then began to clean up the breakfast dishes. When he was finished, he took a shower while Nathan watched ancient Superman cartoons.
"It's going to be a great day, buddy," he announced as he toweled dry. "What do you say we go to the zoo?"
Even Superman was no match for the Bronx Zoo. Nathan cheered and did a little dance that had been his trademark since the age of two. Thomas felt his heart surge, and he smiled so wide he thought his slightly dry lips would crack.
"Let's go!" Nathan cried.
Thomas gave him the thumbs up. "Cool!" he said, and Nathan mimicked the gesture and the word.
Later, as they ate cotton candy and watched the monkeys play tricks on one another, Thomas surprised himself by wishing Emily were with them. An unexpected and unwelcome sadness began to intrude upon the perfection of the day, to taint it somehow.
"See your friends, Nathan?" he asked, shaking off the feeling. "Monkeys, just like Mommy always calls you."
Nathan looked at him strangely. "Mommy doesn't call me a monkey, Dad," the boy said, as if his father were hallucinating.
Thomas grimaced. He almost argued, then realized that he hadn't actually heard Emily call Nathan her "little monkey" in quite some time. It was possible enough time had passed that the boy had simply forgotten. The sadness threatened to sweep in full force, but Thomas pushed it away. They were making new happy memories now. That was what life was all about. The present. Not the future or the past. Children grew up so terribly fast, and Thomas wanted to make the most of every day he had with his son.
Nathan was much too old for naps, but he fell asleep briefly on the way home from the zoo. It had been an exhausting day, and Thomas felt as if he could drop off as well. But someone had to drive the car. As they pulled into the driveway of the house in Ardsley, he noticed that Nathan clutched a long, green feather in his hands and wondered where the boy had gotten it. It must have come, he decided, from the parrot house at the zoo, though Thomas couldn't recall having seen any bird with such vibrant green plumage. It was so bright it looked artificial, like something painted.
When Thomas turned off the engine, Nathan stirred and the feather disappeared down between the car seat and the passenger door.
"We're home, Nathan," he said. "What do you want for dinner?"
"Pepperoni pizza," Nathan predictably replied.
"Again? I don't think so. How about homemade fishsticks and French fries?" Thomas asked.
Nathan mumbled his assent, still sleepy. Thomas smiled, knowing he'd be up late with the boy now that Nathan had taken a nap. Which was fine with him. He'd already planned to introduce Nathan to the wonderful world of the Planet of the Apes film series this weekend. He only hoped his son wouldn't have nightmares.
Thomas's eyes flickered open a moment before he realized he was actually awake. Even then, whatever had woken him was still part of the dream world he'd just left. There were cobwebs in his brain, and they had to be shaken loose before any actual thinking could be accomplished.
Nathan's next scream brought him to his senses.
"Daddddddyyy!" his son cried from across the hall.
There was a hitching, plaintive quality to Nathan's voice, which Thomas remembered from before the divorce, when Nathan was smaller and more prone to waking during the night. The boy was lonely and frightened. He'd had a bad dream.
"Damn you, Roddy McDowall," Thomas grumbled and whipped back the covers.
"I'm coming, buddy," he called. "You're okay!"
In his underwear and a T-shirt, Thomas hurried across the hall to Nathan's room. Something moved by his feet, gossamer and green, disturbed by his passing. A green feather? The same one he'd thought Nathan had left in the car.
When he pushed open the door to Nathan's room, the feather was forgotten. The eerie incandescence of the boy's night-light cast a gas-lamp pallor across Nathan's NFL bedspread. The shadows pooled in the folds of the bedclothes, on the pillows, and on Nathan himself where he huddled against the headboard. Tears on his cheeks, Nathan stared in abject horror at the pooling darkness. For just a moment, as Thomas tried to look more closely at what had so terrified his son, the shadows didn't look like shadows anymore.
Instead, they seemed to have transformed into indigo bloodstains, soaking through the sheets and spread, splashing the walls . . . splashing Nathan. Thomas recoiled, blinked several times, and stammered his son's name.
"Nath . . . Nathan?" he asked, and by the time the word was out, the shadows were only shadows again, and Thomas realized they had never been anything more. He wondered if, perhaps, he too should be more careful what he watched on television before bedtime. Or maybe it was just the guilt catching up to him.
"Daddy!" Nathan cried. "Oh, Daddy, save me!"
He rushed to his son's side, took the boy in his embrace and sat down hard on the edge of the bed. Nathan sobbed and buried his face in his father's shoulder, and Thomas held him tightly, whispering comfort and love in his ear.
"It was just a bad dream, honey," he promised, though he'd given up calling Nathan "honey" two years earlier, fearing the endearment too feminine for a boy. "Just a bad dream, and Daddy's here now. I won't let anybody hurt you."
Nathan continued to weep, arms clamped around his father as if he might be pulled from the warmth of Thomas's embrace at any moment. It was all Thomas could do not to cry as well. Regardless of what the boy might have dreamt about, he could not help feeling partially responsible.
Nothing Thomas said seemed to calm him, and finally, he tore Nathan away from him, held the boy at arm's length and stared into his frightened eyes.
"Hey, hey, come on, now," Thomas chided. "Nathan, buddy, you've had nightmares before. It's okay, Daddy's here now. What did you dream about?"