Luke McDermott was a summertime Dad. To be specific, he was Faye McDermott’s Dad during summers, half the holidays and sometimes a stray weekend or two here and there. But in all fairness, she told him regularly that he was the best Dad there had ever been, and not just in the summertime. He became a summertime Dad a few years before, when Faye had been four years old. When he and Faye’s Mommy decided to live in separate houses. In fact, they ended up living in very different places, far apart, which is why he could only be Dad sometimes, like in summer. But the summers were what Faye looked forward to all year. Even at Christmas in the midst of Santa’s presents for her, huddled under the tree, eyes lit by the twinkling lights, even then, she only forgot summers for a little bit. But her Daddy would never know that she forgot to think about summers for even one instant.
This summer, though, Luke “Daddy” McDermott was more concerned about something else that seemed to be on his daughter’s mind and conversation this summer. It had started a week into the summer, after the rain stopped and he had let her play by the lake on her own for the first time. There was a stream hidden just inside the woods, fed by the nearby mountains that emptied into the lake. He had spent most of his summers as a child playing in that small stream and tried not to cry watching his daughter enjoy those same waters and stones now that he was grown. But the first day he let her play there by herself, she came home full of excitement over something he had all but forgotten.
“Daddy!! I made a new friend!!” Faye erupted into the house, nearly knocking down the skinny table near the door that she always said ‘didn’t b’long there cause it fell over too much’. It only fell over in the summers.
“Hey now Sprite, slow it down, you’ll make the wind jealous! What’s got you so excited?” She grinned at the old joke between them. She knew she wasn’t really all that fast.
“I made a new friend down by the lake. In the little stream! She’s really pretty and fun and she gave me a flower! See?” The poor bedraggled violet had suffered too much already. The trip from the stream to the house, in the hands of an excited child would be too much for most anyone. Luke took the flower and ran water into a vase. Perhaps with emergency care, the flower could still be saved.
“Sprite, you must be mistaken. There aren’t any other children around here for a long ways. Are you sure you met someone down by the lake? Or is this just pretend?”
“No Daddy, I didn’t make her up! She’s real. She’s just a little shy is all.” Luke shook his head, setting the vase on the table. The flower had held out better than it first seemed and would make an excellent centerpiece for dinner. Only one and a half petals missing and a leaf crushed to the side.
“Well, when you see her again, ask her where she is from. Perhaps the Garrets’ have a grandchild who’s come to visit.” Luke tenderly smoothed out the roughened leaf, leaving it with a crumpled, yet surviving look to it. It was a very nice flower indeed. “And I hope you said thank you to her for giving you the flower. That was very kind of her.”
“I will Daddy. May I go back down now?”
“Not just now, Sprite, we’ll be having dinner shortly. Go wash up.”
A little girl’s pout has been known to make lions rethink their timing for dinner, but not daddies. Luke kissed her forehead and urged her toward the bathroom to wash up for dinner, which would be ready very soon. The pout held up serviceably until finally a few sneaky tickles broke the resistance and sent her scurrying toward the bathroom, laughing as she retreated. Luke went back to buttering the bread before sliding it into the oven. One ear listened closely for the water and the way it would change sounds when hands were under it. He heard the faucet come on, streaming straight into the basin with nothing blocking or disrupting the fall. And then the sound of water rushing around a blockage, finding its path across her hands before continuing the fall. But the story the water told wasn’t changing. Someone’s hands weren’t moving.
“The water can’t wash your hands by itself, Faye, it needs help!” He smiled as a giggle preceded the water’s change in tune. Sliding the rolls into the oven, he felt at least confident that there was moving water on her hands, even if there was no proof of soap. Ah, there was the soap. The subtle squish of soap on wet hands, squeezing through the fingers as she wrung her hands together, and the way it frothed as it was rubbed into the back of each hand. Every drop of liquid made a noise, and together they told the story of the happenings in the sink. Faye was washing her hands for dinner. Luke shut the oven door with a smile. He finished his cooking as Faye picked up some toys in the hall and front room. With almost everything on the table, it was time for the rolls to come out and the two to sit down to eat. Opening the door, he carefully pulled the pan out using an oven mitt.
“Say Sprite, what did you say your new friend’s name is?” Luke stepped toward the counter near the table carrying the pan.
The pan twisted in midair as it fell, the rolls, golden brown and drenched in butter, soared and scattered of their own volition, one managing to land on the plate on the table and two even into the bread basket that had been waiting for them. The oven mitt slowly slid off Luke’s hand and followed the pan toward the floor. His eyes stared into nothing and his ears strained to deny their selves. Faye stepped into the kitchen to see what the noise was. Luke’s voice was barely over a whisper.
“What did you say her name is?”
“She said her name is Nixie.” Luke’s eyes glazed over, as years rolled back and he could hear a different voice, now decades gone, but still hauntingly familiar.
“She said her name is Nixie, Momma. She’s nice.”
“What sort of name is that? Nixie? Is she from around here? Where is she from?”
“She’s from the lake Momma. Or the stream. Maybe the stream.”
“What do you mean from the stream? Speak sense, boy. You have to be from somewhere, not something. Is she American? Indian? Another country?”
“She’s from the stream, Momma. She’s a fairy.”
Luke McDermott slowly leaned back against the counter, holding onto the edge to support himself. That little lie about the ‘girl from somewhere else’ had gotten him grounded for a week. Back then, it wasn’t imagination, it was lies. The imaginary girl had been his best friend for years. His best friend had been an imaginary fairy that lived in the spring down by the lake near his home. How could he have forgotten that? He hadn’t thought about it in years. He smiled slightly, recalling how silly he had been and how much fun he’d had, pretending to be friends with a fairy. What had made him think of that now? So many years later, what could have brought that memory to his thoughts? His eyes fell on Faye, watching him, confused, not understanding why he had dropped the pan, or the look on his face, but his small smile beginning to reassure her. She had brought back the forgotten memory. It was the same name. Not just that she also might have made up an imaginary friend for these confusing times in her childhood with few others around. It was the same name. It would be cute, for his daughter to have made up an imaginary friend just like his, trying to be like her Daddy. It would be cute, if he had ever told her about the imaginary friend of his youth. It would be cute, had he ever even mentioned that name. But that name had been forgotten for decades. It had not been uttered since he was twelve, maybe earlier. Yet it was the same name.
“Faye, honey, I’m ok. You just surprised me. Where did you hear that name? Did your Momma tell you something about that? Something maybe Grandma told her? Where did you hear the name Nixie?”
The little girl in the stream said it. She said it was her name.”
Luke watched her a moment more before taking a deep breath. “I’d like to meet Nixie tomorrow, ok?”
The rolls were dusted off and they sat down for dinner.
Later, after bath, story, and bed, Luke made a phone call.
“You’re sure you didn’t say anything to her about it?”
“Luke, I never even knew you had an imaginary friend! Why has this got you so worried? Just go to bed. It’s an imaginary friend. That’s all. Kiss her goodnight for me though. Goodnight.”
His ex-wife hung up the phone and he stood there in the hall a moment more, her question still floating through his mind. Why has this got you so worried? What was so bad about his daughter having an imaginary friend? She was the right age for such things. She spent her summers without many other children. It was only natural. And was there any problem that she just happened to choose the same name he had chosen when he made an imaginary friend? A name he had never heard more than 50 feet from that stream? What was his problem?
He didn’t know. He knew why it didn’t make sense. He didn’t know why it bothered him. What difference did it make if Nixie were real? Luke sighed.
“She can’t be real. Even if she were real then, she’d be old now. She wouldn’t be playing with a little girl down by the stream. I’ll get it all settled tomorrow.”
But he didn’t get it settled the next day, nor the day after that, nor the week following. He went down to the stream with Faye to meet Nixie, but he could see nothing and no one there.
“Daddy, she’s invisible to grown-ups!”
Of course. Why hadn’t he remembered that himself? But he remembered her eyes, like smooth clear stones in deep water.
He called the Garrets. No, they didn’t have any grandchildren up this summer. He called anyone and everyone else that lived anywhere near the lake. No one had a little girl visiting.
He even called the county sheriff’s office, to see if there was anyone new, that had just moved in, that he hadn’t heard about yet. No one. And yet every night at dinner, there was a story or six of the adventures the two had had that day.
One stormy afternoon Faye wasn’t allowed out because of the weather and she lay in the living room coloring pictures, listening to the rain. Luke loved the rain, the storms, always had. Every raindrop was different; made a different sound; had a different story. He stood at the window, looking out, listening to the subtly different toned splatterings of the raindrops. He was half lost in his own private contemplations of the natural world when he heard a little voice.
“Nixie says every drop of water is like a different person. That each one has its own voice.”
Faye continued to color, but Luke stood with his eyes out of the window as though the lake itself had reached up and slapped him. He was playing in the stream with Nixie, when a summer shower fell. She squealed in delight and started to dance, humming in that way she had, with a voice that sounded like the creek after a good rain. He looked up, watching her spin and step across the stones.
“Ever drop of water is a different person, Luke. Each one has its own voice.”
“But Nixie, that’s silly, they’re just raindrops!” She knelt down beside him, looking in his eyes.
“No, Luke. Every drop of water falls a different way, at a different speed, from a different height. This drop is heavier than that one; this one may be smaller, weigh less, and hit less area when it falls. Just like every leaf on the tree is unique in its own way, so is the water, Luke. Every little piece of nature is different in some way, and it takes all of it to make the world we live in. If you listen closely, the water can talk to you; tell you what is happening to it. It can teach you about the world around it. Listen, Luke, you can hear it sing.”
And he did hear it sing. He sat there in the rain, in the stream, and listened to the music of the storm and watched Nixie dance. And when he listened after the storm was done, he could hear the water talk of how full the stream was, so many drops of water, how wet the ground was around it. He could hear how the water was deep or shallow in the lake when he canoed past. He would listen to the story when he washed his hands after coming inside.
The memory shook Luke. So much of the way he looked at things had come from Nixie. But she wasn’t real. She had been an imaginary friend. What he thought he had learned from her he had just been learning from his own world, his own experiences.
How did Faye do that? How did she break into his forgotten memories, his forgotten imaginings?
“Faye you have to stop this. I don’t know how you do it, but you have to stop.” Luke looked out into the storm.
“Stop what Daddy? Coloring?”
“No Faye, you have to stop talking about Nixie. You’re too old for that.”
“Why do I have to stop talking about her? She’s my friend!” Somehow, the child’s affirmation of her reality caused him to lose his temper. He had been holding it in all summer, maybe before the summer. Holding it in every time he saw her, and every time he had to send her away. It wasn’t fair to her to have to do this. It wasn’t fair to him not to see her every day. It wasn’t fair, but it was reality, and it hurt. Luke turned finally from the window and glared down at the little girl.
“Because she isn’t real!” he roared. And, as the little fingers dropped the crayons, he saw it. He saw the picture. The picture she had drawn of Nixie. It was her. The deep water eyes, the long flowing hair, the gossamer wings that glittered like dewdrops in the morning. It was all there. Every detail was perfect. Every feature exactly as he remembered. It was Nixie. It was someone who couldn’t exist.
He didn’t know she was gone until the wind blew the rain into the hall. He could almost imagine it calling his name. The crayons laid where they had fallen. The blue one was broken where a small foot had crushed it on its way out. The door swung wide open and the rain and wind were soaking the rug. She wasn’t there. She had run.
“Faye!” He cried out against the storm as he grabbed his coat from beside the door. “Faye! Come back here!” He stepped onto the porch and the rain nearly beat him back into the house.
“You hurt her.” The rain seemed to accuse him of what he already knew. Luke threw himself against the wind and back onto, and then, off of the porch. Standing in the yard, squinting into the rain, looking in every direction, he tried to see where she had run. He could hardly see ten feet. But he knew where she must have gone. Luke raced down to the stream, calling her name. He screamed out confession after apology, begging her to come back.
She was no where to be seen. Even as the rain began to slacken off, as the wind died down, there was no sign of her. A mist rose up to obscure what the rain could no longer hide. In despair, Luke dropped to his knees in the middle of the stream and screamed for his child.
“There’s no reason to yell.” At first it seemed the stream he knelt in, or the leftover drops running off the leaves, were speaking to him. Then he looked up and there she stood.
“There’s no reason to yell, Luke. Faye is hiding, but she can hear you.”
“I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings.”
“Just like you didn’t mean to hurt mine. I know. But it still hurts.”
“How did I hurt you, Nixie? We were best of friends. What happened?”
“You grew up, Luke. You grew up and forgot me.”
“I had to grow up. I didn’t have a choice about it!”
She stamped her foot and the waters rose an inch around his knees, growing more turbulent in the overflow from the rain. “You always have a choice. You can’t stop yourself from growing, but you never have to forget. That’s what hurts, Luke. Being forgotten hurts. Being left behind as you go off into the world hurts.”
Luke knew the drops on his face weren’t rain and what she said stung. It wasn’t fair. It may have been true, but it wasn’t fair.
“I hurt too!” he snapped back. “You don’t think it hurts to walk away? To have to leave behind? For the world to drag you from the things you are closest to? To be torn from those you love the most? I hurt too, Sprite!! I hurt too!” Luke fell forward, crying, tears mixing with the stream, carried out into the lake.
As his sobs slowed, he felt her fingers running through his hair, caressing him. Letting him know that even though it hurt, even though he had left her behind, she still loved him. And she knew he loved her too.
“It’s ok, Daddy.” Faye laid his head in her lap as she stroked his face. “I’m sorry I got mad. I just don’t like when summer ends.”
“Neither do I, Sprite. Neither do I.” He held her tightly to him, silently swearing to himself he’d never let go again. “I love you, Faye.”
“I love you, too, Daddy.”