Vivian named him Little because she had never met anyone else who came only to her shoulders.
Back then, at three, she sometimes asked her mother about the tiny boy that lived in the house—who was he, and why did he never say anything? If her mother paid any mind to these questions, they typically caused her to crouch to her daughter’s level and pinch her cheeks pink. “Aren’t you just adorable?” was often along the lines of her reply. “Wait till I tell Daddy. A little boy in the house—imagine!”
Such responses confused young Vivian, who soon stopped mentioning the strange boy she found now and then hiding in the bowels of her home, or saw scuttling from room to room like some rodent from outside.
It had never once occurred to her to bring the issue up with her father. Mr. Blandercamp was hardly ever in the house on account of work—the nature of which, naturally, was unknown to his toddler child—and when he was, he liked to be left alone in a room upstairs with piles of paper and drinks the color of pee. If he was not left alone his face darkened, and he yelled.
So Vivian allowed her imagination to invent what she wanted to know: Little had grown like a plant in the garden a hundred years ago and had spent the first portion of his life hibernating in a burrow beneath where the house now stood. When at last he awoke to find that a building had been placed on top of him, he began dividing his time between two worlds, secretly invading the rooms of the house when he craved their comforts, but always retreating to his underground chambers to sleep for weeks at a time.
Vivian had searched for the network of tunnels she believed connected the basement to hidden caverns beneath the garden, but never to any avail.
So be it, she decided. That she could never learn anything about Little only made him more wonderful in her eyes. He never spoke, but still she liked to talk to him when he appeared. If she invited him to follow her somewhere, he would make no indication that he understood her words, but if she took his limp hand and led him, his feet would invariably move in the direction they were taken.
For entire afternoons they would sit facing each other, cross-legged, while Vivian told stories that Little either silently listened to or silently ignored. But if Vivian left for any reason—to go to the bathroom or to ask her mother for a snack—her friend would have disappeared by the time she returned.
And when that happened, there was no telling when she would see him next. It could be an hour later or the following month. Usually, it seemed to be the moment she stopped looking. She might spend a morning scouring odd corners of the house only to find him afterwards in the kitchen, hiding from nobody, eating scraps of leftovers off the counter.
Instances like this prompted Vivian to begin leaving platefuls of food scattered around the house, but she ceased this practice when one evening Mr. Blandercamp’s rage was ignited after he placed a bare foot in a pile of cold spaghetti in the upstairs hallway.
Shortly after her fourth birthday, Vivian was taken to a daycare where, for the first time in her life, she met and mingled with others her own size and age. All of the boys repulsed her. She hated to see their faces and clothes always smeared with snotty stains or little bits of whatever they had eaten last. Worst of all, they never kept their hands to themselves, but liked to grab or smack whomever they addressed with their shrieking voices.
Upon returning home each afternoon, she hoped that Little (clean and quiet and respectful of personal space) would be waiting for her.
If she was able to find him, she would bring him to her room, sit him on her bed, and describe to him all the horrors of the day. If somebody’s name escaped her, she invented a new one. She described what her classmates looked like and sounded like. She imitated them. She also told him about Bethany.
Bethany was one of the girls at the daycare who was not like the boys. Aside from when she sometimes burst into tears without obvious cause, she was mild and restrained, and by the end of the first week her shyness had attracted Vivian. They began speaking, tentatively at first, and soon bonded through a shared terror of everything around them.
The first time Bethany came to Vivian’s house, they played hide-and-seek and afterwards shared a snack of cheese and crackers in the kitchen, each at either end of the long breakfast table.
“Do you not have a brother?” Bethany asked, looking curiously around the room.
“No,” said Vivian.
Bethany took a bite from the cracker she held in both hands. “I have a brother,” she said.
“What’s his name?” asked Vivian.
“James. He’s six and I hate him.”
In answer to this, Vivian pushed aside her plate and looked intensely into the eyes of her new friend. “I don’t have a brother,” she said in a low voice, “but I have a secret.”
“What kind of secret?” asked Bethany.
“Shh!” Vivian hissed. “A secret friend. His name’s Little.”
For a moment Bethany contemplated her cracker. “That’s not a name,” she said.
“Yes it is,” Vivian insisted. “It’s his name.”
“Where is he?”
Vivian crawled up onto the table, which she was often told not to do, and brought her face so near to Bethany’s that their noses all but touched. “He’s hiding!” she whispered loudly, spraying crumbs into the face of her helpless guest. “He sleeps under the garden and sometimes he comes into the house, but no one knows that except me.”
Bethany dragged a hand over her nose and cheeks. “You’re lying,” she said.
Vivian climbed down from the table and sat back in her chair. “We can look for him,” she said. “I can show him to you.”
Pocketing the remaining crackers, they began their search on the ground floor. Aside from in the kitchen, Vivian explained that the elusive boy had also been found scrunched inside a linen closet in the front hallway, or standing stone-still behind the heavy dining room drapes. He was not there and he was not there.
Next they took their search upstairs. They looked through a sitting room where one afternoon Vivian had discovered Little collecting popcorn from a bowl that rose and fell on the belly of her snoring father. But Mr. Blandercamp was now somewhere else, and Little was nowhere to be seen.
They opened cupboards and looked beneath furniture. They lifted toilet seats and peered behind shower curtains. They crumbled up their crackers and left a trail of dusty crumbs behind them as they went from room to room, searching. At last Bethany grew restless.
“He’s not here, is he?” she said, despairing. “He’s not anywhere. You’re lying to me.”
“I am not,” Vivian insisted. “We haven’t looked everywhere. We have to keep looking.”
“I don’t want to,” said Bethany. “I want to go home.”
Tears came to her eyes, and the sharp sound of her wailing quickly summoned the presence of Vivian’s mother.
That night, after being tucked in and read to, Vivian left her bedside light on as she lay awake, waiting. She knew he would come, just as she had known earlier that, in spite of herself, they would not find him.
And suddenly he was there. She did not see him enter through the door, which she had asked her mother to leave ajar, nor by any other means. He had simply just appeared, standing at the foot of her bed, facing her. But there was something wrong with his face, Vivian noticed as she pushed herself up with her elbows. Little seemed to have lost his eyes.
“What happened?” Vivian threw aside her blankets and crawled to the end of the bed. She took one of Little’s hands and pulled him to her. He clumsily obeyed.
Once seated in their usual positions, Vivian studied the awful change in her friend’s face. It did not look as if his eyes had been plucked out, but rather like they had never been there to begin with. Nothing but a smooth surface could be seen on either side of his nose’s narrow bridge, and when Vivian ran her fingers over where his eye sockets should be, she felt only a hard skull beneath the pale skin.
Then she told him about her day, about Bethany coming over and about how long they had spent looking for him. At first she was cross, because now Bethany thought she was a liar, but then she apologized. She told him that she understood.
She began telling him a story about a cat as big as a bus who kept little children as pets to play with, and the longer she spoke, the more tired she became. In the morning, only a small imprint remained on the bed where Little had been.
The next time Bethany came to visit, it was on the strict condition that they waste no time looking for Vivian’s stupid friend who isn’t real, terms to which Vivian, after a moment’s hesitation, acquiesced.
This time after finishing their snack in the kitchen, Vivian brought Bethany up to her room, instructed her to sit cross-legged on the bed, and spent the afternoon telling her stories. It was different from the times she would do this with Little; Bethany had eyes that wandered, as well as a voice which she frequently used to interrupt.
At first this irritated Vivian, but soon they began collaborating, one of them coming up with the beginning of a story and allowing the other to take it over. This kind of interaction was not possible with Vivian’s usual audience, and she found that it forced her imagination to bend in unexpected ways.
For a while after this newly discovered pastime, Vivian stopped looking for Little when she came home in the afternoons. She had other things on her mind, and felt content in the assumption that her secret friend was deeply asleep somewhere beneath her.
Then came one evening when Vivian pressed her father with the wrong sorts of questions over dinner, causing Mr. Blandercamp’s face to transform and his icy yellow drink to be struck hard against the table’s cluttered surface. Vivian, sliding quickly from her chair, bolted from the room. Even once she was upstairs in bed with the covers pulled over her ears, she could still hear her parents shouting.
She lay hidden until there was quiet. Then, emerging from the darkness she had drawn over herself, she nearly screamed when she saw Little sitting at her feet.
His mouth was gone.
He still had his tiny ears and his wispy white hair, but without eyes or a mouth he hardly looked like himself at all. And he was smaller, Vivian now noticed. Almost half his usual size.
Crawling across the covers to her friend, she took his head in her hands and studied him. There was now only a small nose in the center of an otherwise featureless face. She asked what had happened and received no answer. Letting him go, she sat down and began relating the trouble over dinner. She said that maybe she should be the one without a mouth; her father always hated when she told him her stories, or when she asked him to tell her one of his.
When a moment later she heard her mother on the stairs—she could always tell her mother’s quick footsteps from her father’s slow, trudging ones—she helped Little to hide under the bed, then she hid her own self beneath the covers.
Her mother slipped into the room and sat gently beside the mound of her daughter. In a whispered voice she asked if Vivian was asleep, and when no reply was given, she sighed sharply.
She talked for a while. She used a word to describe Vivian’s father which Vivian had never heard before, and afterwards said she was sorry for using it. She fell quiet for a time, humming softly some tune as she lightly stroked the blankets over her daughter’s fetal form. Then she stood up and left.
Vivian listened carefully to the receding footsteps before she uncovered herself. She felt guilty for not talking to her mother, but just then she only wanted to talk to Little. Rolling onto her stomach, she wormed her way to the edge of the mattress, leaned over it, and looked upside down underneath the bed. Just as she suspected, he was gone.
In the following days, Vivian searched urgently for her disappearing friend. She woke with confidence in the mornings, combing as many rooms as she could before her mother snatched her up, threw clothes on her, and took her off to daycare. In the afternoons her search continued until no corner of the house was left unchecked, no piece of furniture unturned. But when she lay exhausted in bed at the end of each day, she had to wonder if she would ever see Little again.
She began having Bethany over more often. They never looked for Little together, never even talked about him; there was nothing to suggest that Bethany had any memory of the search for Vivian’s secret friend. Mostly they talked about things they invented.
And soon there came another distraction: Vivian’s fifth birthday was fast approaching. Five was a big number, her mother said. It was halfway to ten, and when she was five she would finish daycare and go off to a bigger school filled with older children. And because five was a big, important number, she needed to have a party to celebrate the occasion. She was told she could have the party wherever she liked and could invite anybody she wanted to attend. After some thought, Vivian decided to have the party at the house, and to invite Bethany.
When the day arrived, the two girls were given cone-shaped paper hats and had their faces painted by Vivian’s mother to make them look like tigers. Mr. Blandercamp had planted white hoops throughout the garden, through which a portion of the afternoon was spent trying to batter heavy wooden balls.
After the growing wind drove them indoors, they were fed chocolate cake and apple juice while Vivian opened presents. From Bethany she received a dinosaur coloring book, and from her parents she was given three different dolls with changeable outfits, a picture book about the solar system, a blue-striped corduroy dress, and another copy of the same dinosaur coloring book Bethany had given her.
In the evening, long after Bethany was taken screaming back home, Vivian continued playing with her new gifts. She was in the midst of telling a story to her three new dolls when, half an hour after her usual bedtime, her mother carried her up to bed and said she could finish her story quickly before turning out the light herself.
Alone in her room, Vivian arranged her dolls at the foot of her bed before throwing aside the covers and flinching with shock when she found Little lying motionless on her pillow.
“Did you come to wish me a happy birthday?” she asked when her breath had returned.
Little made no reaction. He was facing away from her, and his breathing came in a slow, quiet wheeze. And he had shrunk again, his body now hardly longer than the dolls sitting at the far end of the bed.
Carefully turning him toward her, Vivian saw that his face was all but entirely gone. Neither his eyes nor mouth had returned, and his nose seemed to have sunk into itself, the nostrils mere pinpricks through which air was sucked in and noisily exhaled.
Vivian regarded him in wordless despair. Her friend was dying and she could think of nothing that might save him. She placed her head down next to his and listened for a while to the weak, labored breathing.
Then she began to whisper a story to him; he still had ears which she had to believe worked, and she had always told herself that he liked her stories. Without thinking, she let words spill freely from her mouth, and as they did, she knew that she was telling the last story that Little, her first listener, would ever hear.
When she awoke with a start some hours later, she could hardly believe that Little still lay next to her, turned toward the wall, totally unchanged. She could not remember another instance in which he had remained with her for so long without unaccountably disappearing.
But then the silence reached her, and she understood. There is an impossible stillness in death, Vivian knew, one that makes the very notion of animated movement difficult to imagine. She had seen it before in bugs and in birds and in tiny creatures on the beach, and she saw it now in her friend.
Lightly putting her hands beneath him, she gently lifted his all but weightless body and shifted out of bed. She saw at her window that night still lay thickly over the grounds outside, and she guessed it would be a while yet till dawn.
She moved quietly out of her room and down the upper hallway, glad for once to hear her father’s beastly snoring from beyond her parents’ closed bedroom door. Gliding down both flights of stairs, she held Little tightly to her chest as she slid barefoot across the cold kitchen floor. At the back door, she reached up and twisted the lock, just as she had watched her mother do countless times before.
Wind howled in the garden. Bracing herself against it, Vivian looked up and saw the moon as a shapeless yellow blotch behind a drifting mass of dense cloud. All around her, great mounds of darkness swayed loudly on their roots. She ran toward the nearest of these and snuck inside for protection.
Dropping to her knees, she placed Little’s pale corpse on the ground beside her, then began raking at the black soil with her bare hands. It was moist and chill and came up easily in great handfuls, which she flung behind her. When she had torn a suitable hole from the ground, she took Little, said goodbye to his strange, faceless head, and put him down into the earth.
Once she had dragged enough soil over her friend to cover him, Vivian emerged back into the night from the shelter of her haven—in fact one of her mother’s great rhododendrons—and spent a moment wiping her filthy hands on the legs of her pajamas before dashing indoors.
Back in her bedroom, she went to the window and looked out at the night-shrouded garden. It was difficult to know which of the larger clumps marked the grave she had made, so her eyes traveled between several as she thought fondly of her late friend.
For some nights that followed, this became something of a ritual Vivian quietly observed before sleeping. She would stand for a moment at her window, thinking about him, remembering him, and sometimes talking to him as if he were with her in the room. Then, when the excitement of primary school swept up her attention, she began to neglect this nightly practice until finally, one evening, she found herself standing at her window and gazing down at the garden with no idea what she was doing and no memory at all of what she had buried there.
This story previously appeared in Mirror Dance 2020
Edited by Marie Ginga.
Rory Say is a Canadian fiction writer from Victoria, BC, currently surviving somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Stories of his have recently appeared in Lucent Dreaming, Flash Frog, Short Fiction: The Visual Literary Journal, as well as on podcasts such as NoSleep, Tales to Terrify, and Nocturnal Transmissions. "Vivian's First Secret" originally appeared in the fantasy e-zine, Mirror Dance, April 2020.