Annabelle was worried. Liam was her fourth child and as such, she no longer felt the agonising insecurities associated with becoming a new parent. The first had been difficult, the second had seemed impossible at times, and there had been a break between the second and the third in which she had apparently forgotten how to do everything she had done the first few times. But by the time that she had given birth to Liam, she had been fully aware of what she was doing. Well, more or less, anyway.
There was something about Liam that made her feel uneasy, and she was not exactly sure what it is or why she felt that way. He was different to her other children.
It was not something that Annabelle had noticed at first. It was not the sort of thing that happened once and then immediately freaked someone out – it had developed slowly and by the time that Annabelle had realised there was something wrong, it had felt too late.
As a baby, Liam had been just like all of her other kids had been: bubbly, noisy, and always happy to meet new people. He had never shied away from strangers but it had not worried Annabelle. Well, those were the things she liked to remember about him. Now that he was older, she knew that there were certain things Liam did that were very – and worryingly – distinct from his siblings.
At age two, he had started to get upset when he spent long periods of time away from home. When he had got home, he had screamed every time Annabelle had left him upstairs in the cot on his own. At age three, Liam had begun to go to a nursery on weekdays so that Annabelle could work longer hours, but the other kids had done their best to avoid him and Annabelle had been hit with a barrage of concerns from the nursery staff each week.
They had claimed that Liam had no discipline. Annabelle had raised Liam no differently from the way in which she had raised her other kids and they did not misbehave like Liam. At first she had thought he was not getting enough attention, and then that she might be giving him too much attention, but nothing had helped to change his behaviour.
Liam was almost five now. He was constantly in and out of school for punching the other students in his class and Annabelle’s attempts to teach him good manners or get him to calm down had not helped. When he was not bullying children his own age, Liam was either brooding in his room or playing on his own at the bottom of the garden. He liked to sit at the far end, facing the hedge. Annabelle had no idea what he did down there, because whenever anyone approached him, Liam fell silent.
‘Mum, Liam won’t play with me,’ her seven year old and her third child, Penelope, exclaimed one evening. ‘He’s playing with his friends again and he says they don’t want me to play.’
‘You can play with him later, Penny,’ Annabelle reassured her. ‘Besides, didn’t I see some maths homework in your school bag?’
Penelope hung her head. These were the good years: once she got older and realised that Annabelle was not going to be fooled by homework stuffed between the pages of a textbook, it would be much more difficult to persuade Penelope to do any homework. ‘I don’t like maths,’ Penelope told the kitchen floor.
‘Well, once you’ve finished your homework I’ll read you your favourite story.’
‘The one about the gorilla?’
‘Sure, the one about the gorilla.’
‘Okay,’ Penelope said, somewhat chirpier, and left the room in a hurry, hopefully to do her homework.
Annabelle turned back to the window to stare at Liam, sitting there at the bottom of the garden. She unconsciously chewed on the nails on her right hand as she watched him. She was sure that if she squinted – really squinted, mind you – then she could just make out the corners of Liam’s mouth moving, as though he was indeed talking to someone. There was nobody else out there, so he either had to be talking to himself – or to someone who Annabelle could not see, and who Liam could.
It could have been normal childhood behaviour, she told herself, but she was not convinced. Liam spent an awful lot of time with these fantasy friends. Too much time, in fact. How was Annabelle supposed to tell whether he had imaginary friends … or something more?
Annabelle stared at her son through the kitchen window, unable to ease her mind.