When you’re a little kid, you do some strange stuff to get attention. Especially when you’re an only child and then poof, you’re not, you’re getting the “little brother or sister” pep talk from Mom and Dad and everything changes. You’re used to being the center of their world, being told you’re the most special little girl, but as Mom’s belly gets bigger and bigger and Dad’s patience with you gets smaller and smaller you realize it’s not going to go back the way it was. Not ever.
That’s what happened to me when I was seven, anyway. I was the kind of kid that needs a lot of attention. I hadn’t had to try hard for seven years, I’d been coasting on my parents’ single-minded doting. But pretty soon I noticed some small differences; they were less interested in what I’d done in school that day, more interested in getting ready for my new little brother or sister.
I was like an alcoholic without a bottle. You feel fine at first but soon the tremors set in and you realize you just need it, you know? You need their eyes on you, loving you, reminding you that you’re the most special little girl in the whole wide world, maybe the only special little girl.
So in the last month or so before the baby came, I got creative.
“I made a new friend!” I told them one night at dinner.
“At school, sweetheart?” Mom asked.
“No!” I was fidgety, excited, twitching in my seat when they both looked at me with rapt attention from across the table. Time to launch my plan into action. “He lives in the air vents! His name is Marty and he’s MAGIC.”
“Oh,” said my Dad, and he smiled a little. “That’s fun. Eat your peas, Rosie.”
And that was it. That was IT! I’d just told them that Magic Marty lived in our air vents and all I got was ‘that’s fun?’ And what’s worse, they went back to talking about the BABY — I always heard that word with an ominous sort of importance — and whether they thought the nursery could be painted over the weekend or not.
I stewed and pushed peas around my plate. I knew I was going to think of something better. Something to make them ask me questions about Marty, about me, like they used to.
Stupid BABY. I didn’t care if it was a brother or a sister. It was a pain before it even got here.
Over time, I came up with new tidbits about Magic Marty and how amazing he was. He only ate jellybeans! He could move things with his mind! He had a cat named Baseball and he was my VERY best friend!
Mom and Dad didn’t care all that much. I mean sure, they smiled and nodded and gave me the barest hint of recognition. They had their minds on other things.
I upped the ante and started talking to the air vents in rooms all over the house, loud enough so that my parents could hear me in the den.
“Marty!” I’d cry excitedly. “You moved my coloring book when I was at school! Did you do that with your mind?!”
“Marty!” I’d shout with glee. “I wish I could eat jelly beans for dinner!”
“Marty!” I’d exclaim. “Have you let Baseball out? Kitty cats need exercise!”
Nothing. The dumb old BABY got everything. I started wondering if I was really so special after all.
After one particularly hard day when I’d brought home a gold-star paper and Mom left it on the counter — didn’t even bother to put it up on the fridge with one of my favorite fruit-shaped magnets — I crawled under my bed. I’d hidden under there before during games of hide and seek with my best friend Britney and that day I didn’t even want attention anymore, I just wanted to hide away from the world and think about how things used to be.
I lay there glumly on my stomach with the dust bunnies, chin on my hands, trying to decide whether or not I had it in me to even cry when I noticed it: the air vent.
A slotted metal rectangle set in the carpet hidden by my bed. Mom sometimes yelled at Dad for rearranging the furniture, he covered the vents up and then they had an argument about whether the air conditioning could even cool the room properly with some huge couch covering it. I guess she’d never noticed the vent under my bed because there’d never been a fight about that one.
I don’t know why, but I started talking to it. For real.
Up until then, it had all been stories and playing for show but that day I decided if I wasn’t going to be the most special little girl anymore I may as well have a friend, even if he was a made up one.
I told Magic Marty I thought Baseball was a very good name for a cat. I said moving stuff with his mind must be hard but it was a neat trick to have. I confessed that it was really cool he only ate jelly beans. I liked the red ones best. Which color was his favorite?
And the air vent said, “The pink ones.”
A pause, and then: “They taste like cotton candy.”
I stared at the vent. I had a hell of an imagination, sure, but even at seven I knew that voices weren’t really supposed to come out of the air vents.
“Oh,” I said, lifting my chin from my hands. I didn’t really know what to say, you know?
“You’re a very nice little girl, Rosie.” The voice was a man’s voice, pleasant and lilting, almost like a song. It was, if I’m being honest, exactly as I thought Magic Marty should sound. “You’re a very nice little girl for talking to me, telling such wonderful stories about my life to your parents. You’re a very special little girl.”
“Wow, thanks,” I said, surprised. It felt like the first nice thing someone had said to me in a long time. And I mean, if someone as great as Magic Marty thought I was special — maybe it was true!
“But I made you up, Marty.” There was a long pause, then in a tone that almost held a chuckle in it,
“Are you sure, Rosie?”
Suddenly, no. I wasn’t sure at all.
“Rosie, my special little girl, how could you make up all of my magical adventures? You’re special, yes, but you’re not magic!” Now Marty did laugh, a wonderful musical sound that made me giggle a little too. “How could you make up good ol’ Baseball here?”
A pleasant meow floated through the metal slots of the air vent.
Marty had a point. I mean, all those crazy things that he could do, and a cat — a real life cat that meowed and everything! — I couldn’t have made it up, not on my own. It only made sense that I’d been talking to him all this time for real and just been so distracted by —
“Magic Marty,” I said, laying back down again. “I don’t want a little brother or sister. I miss when Mom and Dad liked just me.”
Baseball meowed again, and this time it sounded sad.
“Of course you don’t!” Magic Marty said sympathetically. “Of course not. What good are babies anyway? Garbage. Noisy little stinkers. They can’t even do a cartwheel!” He let this sink in before prodding slyly, “I bet you can do a cartwheel.”
“I can! I can!” I cried out, eager to scramble out from under the bed to show him, but he shushed me right away.
“Quiet now, Rosie. If your parents find out we’re friends, well, they may not like that I live in the air vents so much. They may decide to make me go.”
The idea struck me with such cold horror that I scooched even closer to the vent, nearly pressing my face against its smooth metal.
“No, Marty, no!” I’d only just found my new friend, how could my parents make him go so soon?! “They’re going to have their stupid baby, why can’t I have you for my friend?” There was a small, hard lump in my throat that I couldn’t swallow down for some reason; I was on the verge of tears.
“Don’t cry, Rosie,” said Magic Marty in a voice as sweet and smooth as honey. “I will think of something.”
For the next month, Marty and I talked about everything. Every day after school I would crawl under my bed, push my face close to the air vent, and tell him all about my day. I told him when Arthur traded me his plastic snake for my slide whistle, I told him how we only needed three more gold stars to get a class pizza party, I told him that Marissa S. was the best hop-scotch player I’d ever seen. Marty oohed and ahhed and asked questions, asked for more. He also asked when he thought I’d be getting a new brother or sister. I told him I didn’t know.
One day I came home and Teresa, my teenage neighbor one house over, was sitting on the couch instead of my heavily pregnant mother.
“Hey, Rosie girl,” she said as I walked in and dropped my backpack. “Your mom and dad are at the hospital! You’re going to have a new little brother or sister soon!”
“Neat,” I said, but I didn’t think it was neat at all. “I’m going to my room.”
Under my bed, I moped and played with my plastic snake. When you held it by its tail, the segmented pieces slithered back and forth like a real snake. My plastic snake was neat — the baby was garbage, like Marty said.
“It’s coming, isn’t it, Rosie?” Magic Marty’s voice asked me from the vent.
“Yeah.” I wiggled the snake back and forth, back and forth. “Maybe tomorrow, or a few days, I don’t know. I don’t care.”
“Do you think it will be bad when it gets here?” For the first time there was something else in Marty’s voice — not laughter, not honey. Something… else. “Do you think it will be very bad? For you, Rosie? Do you think your parents will even look at you ever again once that stinky little thing is here? Do you think it will be even worse?”
I hadn’t even considered it. I knew the new normal, sure, but it never crossed my mind that things could get worse. Baseball let out a plaintive mewl.
“What do you think, Marty?” I asked, worried.
“I think,” he said after a very long moment, “that I promised you I would think of something, and I am so very pleased to tell you that I have.”
A glimmer of hope. I glanced left, making sure Teresa couldn’t hear us, then looked back at the vent.
“Really? You can fix everything? You can make it so the baby doesn’t ruin it?”
“Oh, Rosie girl.” Marty let the words draw out like stretching a wad of chewing gum. “I’m magic. I can do anything.”
Magic Marty told me to wait. He told me he would fix everything.
He was my friend, so I believed him.
Mom, Dad, and stupid baby Sophie came home a few days later. She was a pink bundle of squished up skin and soft little tufts of hair.
I had to admit, she was sort of pretty. And it was kind of neat how small she was. I didn’t like how she sounded when she cried, though, and that first night she was screaming loud. So loud I got under my bed and put a pillow over my head, hoping that if I couldn’t block out her cries long enough to sleep that maybe Marty would be around and we could talk about his secret plan.
“Marty?” I whispered, but no one answered.
“Baseball?” I tried instead. Nothing.
After a while, the muffled sounds of Sophie’s shrieks finally stopped and I fell asleep under the bed, hoping that Mom and Dad hadn’t found out about Marty before he could fix everything.
When I woke up, my room was full of light but dark at the same time. Strobes of red and blue streaked the walls like fireworks on the Fourth of July. I was waking up because someone was pulling at me, trying to get me out from under the bed.
For half of a sleepy second I was sure it was Marty, he was pulling me out because he didn’t have to live in the vents anymore! He’d talked to Mom and Dad and they’d decided he could live with us in the house but then I saw a police officer with a serious stern face and I knew something was wrong.
Police officers were only around when there was something bad. They were around when people needed to be saved.
Did I need to be saved?
Turns out I did. A neighbor, Teresa’s mom I think, had heard screaming and called the police but it was too late.
My parents were found in their bed, shredded into bloody meat. Stab wounds, a lot of them, the autopsy reports said. More than likely a robbery gone wrong. Or, more accurately, an abduction gone wrong.
Because little three-day-old Sophie was gone, her brand new crib empty.
The police told me I was lucky. Whatever monster had hurt my family probably hadn’t found me because I’d been “hiding” under the bed.
Pretty lucky, right?
I made it out okay. I stayed with relatives, in foster homes, got lots of therapy. I was treated all right. None of the horror stories most unfortunate orphans have to survive.
In therapy I realized that I had made up Magic Marty as a coping mechanism. He’d become more real to me than my parents had because I so desperately needed to think that someone found me special. I’d never really heard anything and my coping mechanism, as it turns out, probably saved my life.
Against the odds I grew up well-adjusted. (Well, well-adjusted enough.) Did all those things you’re supposed to do — graduate high school, meet a guy, get married. And, eight months ago, got pregnant.
I’ve been so excited. So long without a real family of my own, and now all that was going to change.
But yesterday I was setting up my daughter’s nursery and I dropped one of her little blankets on the ground. My husband wasn’t home so after a few clumsy attempts, I managed to get down to a knee and pick it up.
It was covering an air vent.
I felt a cold chill slither through me for no reason at all but I told myself the same old mantra — Magic Marty wasn’t real. Magic Marty was a coping mechanism. Magic Marty was something I made up.
And then, a voice as syrupy sweet as dripping honey said:
“It’s coming, isn’t it, Rosie?”
It was like all the strength had gone out of my legs. I wobbled backwards and landed on my ass.
Not real. I made him up.
“Is it a little girl, Rosie?” Magic Marty said, because there was no one else that voice belonged to, no one else it could belong to. “I hope it is. Oh, I so hope it’s a little girl. Do you know why, Rosie girl?”
“You’re not real,” I said, but I didn’t believe it, and I suddenly realized I never believed it.
“Because I fixed it.” He started laughing then, and somewhere in the laughter I thought I could hear the yowl of a feral cat. “I fixed it just like you asked and you don’t even know the best part.”
I’d just wanted to feel special.
“The best part,” Magic Marty chuckled, “was how she tasted.”
The last thing I heard before I scrambled to my feet and fled screaming from the house was this:
“The pink ones taste like cotton candy.”