David had an imaginary friend he pushed around in a wheelbarrow all day. No-one was sure why. Why he had an imaginary friend? Why the wheelbarrow?
David was friendly enough. He’d say “Hello” and “How are ya?”, then park his imaginary friend in the forward pocket and play football.
When the ball went near his wheelbarrow, he’d yell: “Get it! Get it! Grab the ball, Frook!”
Frook was his imaginary friend’s name.
Of course, the other kids teased David. How could they not? They would put their school bags in his wheelbarrow as he went to school, and even, once or twice, let down its tire. That was hilarious.
The sight of small David, determined, sweating, carrying his wheelbarrow all the way home made them feel guilty. To hide their guilt they teased more.
“They’re not so bad, Frook,” David would say. “They are wheat they are.”
Then, everybody would watch as David and his imaginary friend would argue about how cruel or not cruel they were.
Which made them feel guiltier. Which made them tease more.
One day, Freddy Thrip and his mates chained the wheelbarrow to a pole. Everybody laughed as David went home, red-faced, as if about to cry. But then, David came back with a hot chocolate, some pizza, a torch and comics to read for his imaginary friend. And spent the night.
“I think he really believes it,” Freddy said to his mates.
“Freak,” said Louie.
“I sort of respect him,” Jane said.
Jane was Freddy’s kid sister. She was the quiet one of the group. Most of the boys would forget she was even there. The fact she spoke up at all made the others think.
“Maybe…” Freddy said, watching David and his wheelbarrow. “It sure can’t be easy, the amount of hell we give him.”
A week later, David was sitting under a tree with his wheelbarrow, watching the playground, when Jane walked up. “Hi,” she smiled.
David just mumbled. He kept his head low, using a small stick to draw lines in the dirt.
“Don’t be like that,” Jane said, play punching his shoulder. She almost asked what he was thinking about at the moment. Then she remembered who she was talking to. As casual as she could, she asked: “What are you and your friend talking about?”
David looked at her, then the empty wheelbarrow, then back at her.
“How I could destroy them all…”
“Oh… Destroy who?” Jane asked.
“Them…” David said, jutting his chin at Freddy and his gang.
“My brother and his friends? How?”
David looked at the empty wheelbarrow again. At her once more.
“Frook can see other people’s imaginary friends…”
“You brother has a toy bunny he talks to,” David said.
Jane laughed from her spot, sitting under the tree with him.
“What’s its name, then?” she smiled.
Suddenly, Jane wasn’t smiling.
“That one, Louie, has an imaginary dad because his real dad is mean,” said David. “And that one,” he pointed at another member of the gang, “talks to a superhero version of himself. And that one pretends he’s talking to you. He wants to kiss you and hold your hand. And that one-“
“Enough…” said Jane. She was no longer amused at all.
That night, Jane couldn’t sleep. She lay awake, imaging the world as Freddy saw it. Not just with people, but all their hidden, imaginary fiends. Sharks in suits, zombies, pretty pink unicorns, princesses, monsters, giants, eagles. The good imaginary friends, the evil. Brave, quiet, tiny, tall. The schoolyard would be a zoo of colour and noise.
‘What if…?’ she thought. ‘What if, what if, what if…? Maybe he’s just really, really smart. Smarter than everyone gives him credit for – the loner at the back of the class who’s always thinking. Maybe he simply watches people so hard he can figure them out. But what if?’ Bubbles. Had her brother mentioned that in passing? Maybe. She couldn’t shake the thought, though: What if David’s imaginary friend was real?
Jane pleaded with her big brother.
“Don’t hurt him!”
“Bubbles!?” Freddy Thrip raged. “BUBBLES!?”
Everybody else tried to calm him down.
“He had me pegged,” Louis confessed.
“Nailed me, too,” said another one of the gang.
“I do NOT have an imaginary friend!” Freddy shouted, brushing everyone else aside.
He marched off looking for David, and his wheelbarrow, with murder in his eyes.
“Well, have you ever tried to run pushing a wheelbarrow?” David gasped. “It’s hard.”
Freddy and his gang were gaining. The chase had gone on for three blocks. David was tiring.
“Hi David. Hi Frook,” said the shoe repairman, Lamar. He was standing, like always, outside his small shop that also cut keys. David wasn’t sure if Lamar actually believed Frook was real or not, but he always showed respect.
“Lamar, bullies are chasing me. Can I hide in your basement?” David blurted, as he frantically pushed his wheelbarrow into the store.
“Bullies!? I will hide, too!” said Lamar.
“Wha…? No… But…!” sputtered David.
It was too late, though. Lamar was hiding behind his counter, bum poking up in the air.
“Lamar! They’ll see you!” spat David.
“Only my bottom. It could be anyone’s! They won’t know we are here!” the storeowner insisted.
David slapped his head, and, pulling his wheelbarrow behind him, ran for the basement stairs.
“Look. A bum in the air is just the sort of thing that happens around that freak. I bet he’s in there!” shouted Freddy.
“Let’s get him!” roared Louie.
“Let’s leave. He’s had enough,” Jane said, forever trying to calm her brother down.
“Let’s burn his wheelbarrow to the ground!” Freddy called.
Him and his friends barged into the small, box-like store.
“I am not here!” Lamar insisted, eyes closed, bum still in the air.
Freddy’s gang charged. Jane tried to hold them back, but had no effect at all. David bolted down the basement stairwell.
“Got you now, David…” sneered Freddy.
“He is not here, either!” called Lamar.
“Leave me alone!” David wailed from the basement corner. He was terrified. Freddy and his gang moved in.
“Wait. Where’s-“ Louie started, then there was a rumble. The light flickered.
“What the…?” stuttered Freddy.
‘Was that you, Frook?” said David.
Then, there was a bigger rumble. Everything rattled violently. It was as if the world flickered.
“Earthquake!” called Lamar.
The lights went out. Everything boomed and crashed and fell. Lamar dove, covering Jane and David at the roof collapsed.
When Jane turned her mobile phone’s torch on, everything was crooked. Every wall, the floor. Everything was broken. There was dust and bits of what was once a room.
Outside, she could hear nothing but car alarms and people screaming, demanding to know what was going on.
Everyone began to come to around her, except Lamar. He had saved her life, maybe, and was now pinned, unconscious. Hurt real bad.
Jane shone the light everywhere. And there, huddled in the corner, was David. He looked different, somehow. Not right.
“Are you injured?” she asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Are you hurt in any way?” she asked.
“No,” he replied. “But I’m not okay.”
Tommy got his bearings and tried to find the door. The stairwell had collapsed, a support beam was blocking their escape. The door had a window in it, smashed. Upstairs was full of rubble, too.
“We’re stuck…” she said, breathlessly.
After a while, everybody got sick of screaming for help. Down there, nobody could hear. So they waited. So they watched David, huddled, hands holding his knees close to his chest, away from the rest.
“What do you think his imaginary friend looks like?” Louie asked.
Each kid stopped dead. They hadn’t even thought of that before.
“I bet it’s wearing a suit brought in an op-shop,” one of the gang thought aloud.
“I bet it’s a big, blue monster,” said another. “With fur and a line of small horns.”
Lamar had finally come too. He was dazed, confused. His ribs were broken.
“I think it’s a charming gentleman,” he said. “But very small.”
“It’s nothing,” Freddy grumbled, glaring at David. “It looks like nothing because there’s nothing there.”
For the first time in Jane’s life she felt something snap inside her. She had had enough! A lifetime of it!
“Stop talking about David as if he’s not in the room!” she raged. “Can’t you see his wheelbarrow isn’t even in here? Is it, David? It’s still upstairs!”
Then they noticed the rising water from the burst main.
“Help!” didn’t work.
“Nooooo…!” didn’t either.
Nor did: “I don’t want to drown!!”
“It’s no good!” Freddy shouted, as the water reached their waists. Nobody can hear us. We need to be upstairs.”
The water rose, the water rose. Soon it was up to their ribs.
“I’m not ready to die!” sobbed Louie.
“Frook’s up there,” said David, looking at the broken window. It as the first time he’s spoken in an hour.
“Yeah, your amazing, imaginary friend? What’s he doing then?” shouted Freddy, really annoyed.
“Standing there. Watching us,” said David.
And still the water rose.
“This is not good, David,” said Lamar. Jane was helping him keep his head above water. “The generator automatically kicks in. The power must be on. If the water reaches that exposed wiring, we will all die.”
Everybody looked at the wiring, dangling behind the rubble blocking the door.
“No…” whispered Jane.
And the water rose more.
“Okay, freak, if your friend is real, get him to call for help, then,” Freddy spat.
The water was now less than a foot from the wiring. Everybody was standing on tippy toes as it swirled.
“He doesn’t want to,” David said.
“Frook’s not helping?” Jane pleaded.
“He’s still just standing there, watching,” David said.
“Why?” pleaded Louie.
“You’ve been mean. I’ve let you be mean. He’s deciding,” David said.
“Well get him to decide quick!” one of the gang sputtered.
The water was eight inches from the wiring now. Seven. Six.
“I thought you said Frook wasn’t real,” David said.
“Well, I was lying!” Louie cried. “Okay!? He’s our only hope and I always believed in him! I just didn’t want to sound like a clown!”
David was beyond scared! This wasn’t bullying, this was real! They were going to die.
“Frook, please!” he pleaded.
“Please!” Louie called.
One of the other gang members hesitated, then called, too. “Yes! Please!”
“I know you’re real!” Jane shouted, horror in her voice. “Please!”
“Frook!” David bellowed. “FROOK!”
Finally, Feddy cracked.
“Okay! Frook! I believe in ya. I believe in your mate, and how he believes in you! He just doesn’t give a damn what we think. I admire it! It’s this, I dunno, quiet sort of strong! Okay!? I admit it! Okay, now will you help? I admire him! He’s tougher than me.”
Everybody was screaming at Frook.
“Stop standing there, Frook! I don’t want to die!” David cried.
Then the water hit the wires.
“Are you all okay?” a voice said.
“I heard your noise, but the generator was around back,” the fireman said. “It took a while to get back in here to tell you I’d turned it off.”
Everybody made noise. Sighed or sobbed, or cracked a joke.
David just said; “Oh…”
“Stand back, we are going to bust the door down and get you out,” the fireman commanded.
David was warm. The emergency crew had put a blanket around him, were feeding him soup. His wheelbarrow was by his side. He couldn’t look his imaginary friend in the imaginary eye.
Everything was different now. Freddy and his gang were all awkward around him. He’d seen them at their worst, they had seen him at his worst. His friendship with Frook was too big for them.
Louie was the first to come up and say something.
“Thanks Frook,” he told the air above the wheelbarrow.
Then Jane came up and held David’s hand. “Some sort of believe, some don’t. But they’ll leave you alone now,” she said.
He liked the feel of her hand in his. Liked it heaps.
“Bye David…! Bye Frook!” she smiled as her parents arrived.
David’s parents were having trouble getting there. He sat in the silence of emergency crews and their two-way radios, almost alone.
“They believed in me,” Frook said.
“Did you flag down the fireman?” David asked.
“Maybe,” Frook said, with no expression at all.
“You didn’t, did you!?” David hissed, with rage. “You would have let us drown! Just to get Freddy to say you’re real!”
“Now, now,” said Frook.
“Maybe you’re not real! Maybe you brought Freddy with fear, but he was right all along!”
Just then, the fireman came by.
“Your friend was fantastic,” he said. “Coming to get us while you were all unconscious. There were live wires everywhere. That was brave.”
“My friend…?” David said. Could it have been Frook? Nah. But what if… “What was his name?”
“No idea. Where is he now?” asked the fireman.
David looked to his side. The wheelbarrow was empty.
Maybe he’d gone for a pee? Maybe he didn’t like attention. Maybe Frook didn’t exist, even though he’d helped shape who David was, and would be.
Either way, David was grateful.
So much had happened. Jane believed. If he got to hold her hand again, maybe the three of them could hang out.