Looking over as the front door opened, Louise’s face burst into a smile of her own as Dylan strolled through. ‘Thank goodness you’re home, Dyl! Those girls, honestly!’
‘Not scrapping again?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. Lily’s said something to Freya and now Freya’s upset. I think I fixed it.’
‘Of course you did! You’re a wonderful mother, my sweet,’ Dylan smiled warmly as he squeezed Louise’s hand.
‘So, Dylan… Where’ve you been all day?’ Louise bit her lip as she tried to make the question seem as light as possible. Truth was, something had been bothering Dylan lately, not that he would admit it.
‘Oh, you know, here and there. Went to see Robbie earlier, got a bite to eat…’ Dylan trailed off as he felt his face grow warm. Oh, what was the use. She knew.
Louise always knew.
Taking a deep breath, Dylan blurted out the sentence he’d been hoping to keep from his future wife. ‘I saw a psychiatrist today.’
‘You… What… Psychiatrist?!’ Louise tried to make sense of Dylan’s admission. ‘But… Why?’
Shaking his head, Dylan could hardly believe what he was about to say. ‘Look, I know this is all going to sound a bit strange… I can’t really… Well… I’m not entirely sure how to put this into words…’
Seeing her fiance struggling, Louise reached out and took Dylan’s hands in her own. ‘Just start at the beginning, Dyl. I’m here for you,’ she said softly.
Nodding, Dylan took another deep breath. ‘I know, Lou. I know. Right… When I was four, I had an imaginary friend. Only… He became more than that… It was… It was almost like he was real…’
* * *
Picking his path carefully through the cemetery, Dylan carefully unlocked the iron gate embedded into the privet hedge and let himself into his family’s plot.
His father’s plot…
‘Hi, Dad,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I’m here.’
Roughly, he brushed aside a tear that was threatening to spill down his cheek. ‘I can’t believe you’re not here, Dad,’ he moaned. ‘I’m getting married in two days. You should be here!’
‘He will be, love.’
Dylan didn’t need to turn and look at his Mother to know what she would be doing. He could picture her in his mind’s eye, standing a careful distance smiling in sympathy, always there if he needed her, ready to step in at any given time.
‘Not properly he won’t be,’ he replied grouchily, his tone reminiscent of his teenage mood swings.
‘You know what I mean! He won’t be there physically, though my goodness, how I wish he would be… But you know as well as I do that he will be there Dylan.’
Dylan sniffed back his tears. ‘What’re you doing here?’
‘Me? Oh, I always stop by for a chat. I think your father sees more of me now than he did while we were alive, and we spent nearly every waking moment together!’ Ivy brushed away a tear of her own, gazing affectionately at the tombstone. ‘I miss him so much, Dyl.’
Turning to look at his mother, Dylan smiled. ‘I know, Mum. But you know that I’m always here for you, anytime you need me. Robbie is too, and Louise. I know it’s not the same, but -‘
‘I know, Dylan, I know. I just keep thinking of everything he’s missing… The girls growing up, your wedding…’
‘Ah, but he’ll be at the wedding!’ Dylan winked, and in spite of her tears Ivy laughed.
‘Very true! Shows you were listening too, young man!’
Dylan’s laughter joined with his mother’s before a thought came into his mind. Well, he’d already approached the subject with Louise… Maybe his mother would have some answers…
‘Mum… Can I ask you something? I know this is going to sound a bit strange, but -‘
‘Dylan, are you going to ask me to be your best man?’
‘Mother! I’m being serious here! Look, this’ll sound a bit odd, but… Well, when I was little, did I ever say anything about… an imaginary friend?’
Dylan’s mouth dropped at Ivy’s exasperated response. ‘Of course you did, you daft boy! How could you not remember? You were obsessed with that bloody doll weren’t you! What was it’s name again? Puzzle! You were inseparable for years, boy! Look, I think I even have a picture here…’
Ivy rooted around in her bag for her purse, and proceeded to pull out a whole strip of family photographs. ‘Mum, what on earth do you carry those around for?!’
‘Oh, you never know who you’re going to bump into who’ll ask about the family. Now then… Yes, here we are!’ Pointing, Ivy singled out a picture of Dylan as child sat in the sandpit, a peculiarly shaped doll sat opposite him positioned as if it were building a sandcastle of it’s own. ‘You used to sit there for hours pretending it was building too. Of course it was always you making the castles first then calling me and your dad out to see what “Puzzle” had made, but I think you even convinced yourself that that thing was real. It was a bloody nightmare, that doll!’
Staring intently at the picture, Dylan noted the resemblance between the doll and the one Freya had found buried underneath her bed. This must have been an earlier model of it! What were the chances? No wonder it brought up all those memories!
So that was that, then. Just a doll. Just a doll and an overactive imagination. Nothing more to it!
‘…Dylan?’ Dylan snapped out of his reverie to see his mother staring at him questioningly. ‘Why were you asking about this wretched thing, anyway?’
‘Oh, no reason! Oh, come here mum…’
Pulling his mum into a tight hug, Dylan beamed. ‘I’m so glad I bumped into you tonight, mum.’
‘Well, you’ve got your father to thank for that, my boy. You’ve got your father to thank for that…’
* * *
Surrounded by their friends, family, soft music and sweet scented rose bushes, Dylan gently clasped Louise’s hands in his own. He could hardly believe it. After all this time, he was finally stood face to face with the woman he loved, about to make her his wife.
‘Me too!’ was all the blushing groom could stutter out, nearly overcome with the enormity of the occasion. Clearing his throat, the registrar took his place at the head of the ceremony. ‘Ready to begin?’
As both Dylan and Louise nodded, the registrar smiled and began. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to join Dylan and Louise in matrimony…’
The service continued with all eyes on the ecstatic couple. No-one noticed the strange figure stood at the end of the aisle. Well, no-one would. No-one could see it.
Not even Dylan noticed the solitary puppet stood weeping his eyes out noisily as his best friend was lost forever.
Still, he’d been lucky. He knew that some of his kind only kept their friends for a few years. He tried to hold onto that thought, but it was so difficult. As Louise and Dylan exchanged rings, he knew that he would have to give him up now. He’d done his job.
Dylan was happy. Dylan had a new friend now, the lovely Louise. He didn’t need Puzzle any more…
And, even though the mere thought of doing so broke his heart, Puzzle knew it was time for him to leave. Taking one last look at the best friend he’d ever have, Puzzle turned and walked from the park, not looking back.
‘I love you, Louise. More than I can say.’