As I waited in Dr. Weber’s office that morning, I worried my protection wouldn’t be enough and that whatever was wrong with Maggie was beyond my control. Yet she looked normal when she emerged from Dr. Weber’s inner office, sucking on a lollipop and showing off a sticker on her hand.
“You’ve been so good today, Maggie,” the psychologist said. “Now I need you to be good for just a few more minutes while I chat with your parents, okay?”
Maggie nodded. “Okay.”
Dr. Weber gave Jess and me a warm smile. “Mom and Dad, come this way.”
The two of us stepped into her office and took a seat on the beige couch reserved for patients. Dr. Weber sat across from us, her face a mask of calmness. I searched it for signs that our daughter was severely damaged and it was all our fault.
“First, Maggie is fine,” she said.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“One hundred percent. She has an extraordinary imagination, which is a wonderful gift. But it also comes with its own set of difficulties.”
The main one, as laid out by Dr. Weber, was an occasional inability to distinguish between what was real and what wasn’t. Maggie’s imagination was so vivid that sometimes when she interacted with her imaginary friends, she truly believed they were there.
“That’s what seems to have happened last night,” the doctor said. “She thought those imaginary friends—”
“Ghosts,” I interjected. “She called them ghosts.”
Dr. Weber nodded in response, squinting ever so slightly to show how hard she was listening. I found it insufferable.
“We’ll get to that,” she said. “Back to last night. She thought—truly thought—there were others in the room, and her behavior followed suit.”
“Is that why Maggie hit the neighbor girl?” Jess asked.
“It is,” Dr. Weber said. “From the way Maggie described it, I think it was more a reflex than any innate sense of violence or attempt to cause harm. The best way I can describe it is like a dog snapping at someone when he’s cornered and terrified. In that moment, Maggie simply didn’t know what to do and lashed out.”
That didn’t explain everything. The closet door, the armoire, Hannah screaming that something had touched her.
And that noise.
The one under the bed.
That wasn’t just Maggie’s imagination. I had heard it.
“I want to know more about the ghosts,” I said.
Dr. Weber’s smile grew strained. “They’re not really ghosts, of course. Going forward, I think it would be best to refer to them as imaginings.”
“Maggie thinks they’re real,” I said.
“Which is something we’ll have to work on,” Dr. Weber said.
“Did she tell you about them?”
“She did, yes. She has three consistent imaginings.” She put extra emphasis on the word for my benefit. “One is a little girl she occasionally talks to. Another is a young woman she calls Miss Pennyface.”
“Don’t forget Mister Shadow,” I said, because Maggie sure couldn’t.
“He’s the one she fears the most,” Dr. Weber said.
“If these are all just—” I stopped myself before saying imaginary friends, choosing instead Dr. Weber’s preferred term. “If these are imaginings, why is Maggie so afraid of them?”
“Children have dark thoughts, too,” Dr. Weber said. “Just like adults. They’re also good listeners. They pick up a lot more than we think they do. When problems like this occur, it’s because the child is having a hard time processing what they’ve heard. Something bad happened in your home. Something tragic. Maggie knows that, but she doesn’t know how to grapple with it.”
“So what should we do?” I said.
“My advice? Be honest with her. Explain—in terms that she can understand—what happened, how it was a sad thing, and how that won’t ever happen again.”
* * *
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That night, we took Dr. Weber’s advice and sat Maggie down at the kitchen table, armed with some of her favorite treats. Hot chocolate. Sugar cookies. A pack of sour gummy worms.
Also on the table, at a slight remove from everything else, was the Gazette article about Curtis and Katie Carver I’d photocopied at the library.
“Before we moved in,” Jess said, “something happened in this house. Something bad. And very sad.”
“I know,” Maggie said. “Hannah told me.”
I groaned. Of course.
“Did she tell you exactly what happened?” I said.
“A mean man killed his daughter and then killed himself.”
Hearing those words come out of my daughter’s mouth almost broke my heart. I looked across the table to Jess, who gave me a small nod of support. It wasn’t much, but it meant everything to me. It told me that, despite our recent clashes, we were still in this together.
“That’s right,” I said. “It was terrible and made everyone very sad. Bad things happen sometimes. But not all the time. Not often at all, in fact. But we know that what happened might scare you, and we want you to understand that it’s all in the past. Nothing like that is going to happen while we’re here.”