Eleanor held the little monster’s paw as they walked through the park, ignoring the stares and laughter from passersby. This was their day, their last day, and she would not let anyone ruin it.
The world did not exist. Not politics, the economy, nor the latest scandal in the entertainment industry. None of it. The entire universe had been shrunk to a tiny, bright bubble around the two of them, and nothing could break its surface.
“Shall we get ice cream?” Eleanor asked.
Gidget nodded emphatically. “Yes, please!”
It was still strange to speak to the green monster directly, rather than having Anne relaying the conversation. He was so much fuzzier than Eleanor had ever imagined.
They walked along cobblestone paths that wound through lush gardens, some carefully tended with statuary and elaborate topiaries, and others where miscellaneous wildflowers had been allowed to grow where they pleased. Ducks and toy boats floated on the pond’s glassy surface, and from somewhere far in the distance came the brassy calliope music of the carousel.
“What flavor?” Eleanor asked as they approached the ice cream cart.
Gidget thought for a moment, his fanged mouth twisting this way and that. “Strawberry,” he growled finally.
“And chocolate. And rocky road. And I want butterscotch syrup and extra rainbow sprinkles.”
Eleanor gave him a look. Perhaps Gidget’s famous appetite hadn’t been Anne angling for a second dessert after all. “Well, I am going to have mint chocolate chip.”
“Ooh. Me too,” Gidget said. “With rainbow sprinkles.”
“Deal.” Eleanor smiled at the ice cream man. “Two mint chocolate chips, please. One with rainbow sprinkles.”
He raised his eyebrow in amusement, and his gaze traveled down her arm to the hand that held Gidget’s paw. A sad recognition came over his face, and he refused her money with a pitying smile.
“I remember you and your little girl,” he said as he offered her the two cones.
Eleanor’s hesitation must have looked to an outsider like she didn’t want to accept his charity, but it was the prospect of having to let go of Gidget’s paw that gave her pause. But let go she did, and she and Gidget went to sit on a bench in the shade of a sprawling, ancient oak. Eleanor had to hold Gidget’s cone for him, and all his enthusiastic licking didn’t seem to make a dent in the green treat, but they both pretended not to notice.
“Can we ride the carousel after this?” Gidget asked in his grumbly little voice, licking ice cream from his nose.
A jolt of panic went through Eleanor’s chest. The carousel was so close to the exit, it always marked the end of the day at the park. She couldn’t bear for this day to end.
“Maybe later,” she said, letting a chip melt in her mouth, trying to wring another precious few seconds from her ice cream cone. “Let’s finish eating and then walk around a bit more.”
Gidget nodded his agreement.
The carousel music seemed to grow a little louder.
Eleanor and Gidget were almost to the front of the line before Eleanor remembered that an invisible monster couldn’t get his face painted. And what a sight she must have been, a middle-aged woman talking to herself and holding nobody’s hand. What would people say if they saw?
Nothing they weren’t already saying. Whispered pity, criticizing gossip about her mental state. As if any of them would fare better if they lost a child.
The tinkling big band music seemed closer than ever, as if they might see the bobbing carousel horses peering ominously around any tree, their painted roses and ribbons sparkling in the late afternoon sun.
To hell with what people would say. If this was the last day she would ever spend with some remnant of her daughter, Eleanor wasn’t about to let sad smiles and gossip stop her from savoring it.
She looked at the sandwich board of designs the artist had propped up beside her wheelchair. “I’ll take a butterfly,” Eleanor said, sitting primly on the adjacent stool.
The face painter glanced around for a child before realizing Eleanor was alone.
“Yes, it’s for me,” Eleanor said as Gidget climbed up into her lap. “And then he would like to be a tiger.”
Gidget raised his claws. “Grr.”
“Okay,” the artist said unsurely, dipping her brush into one of the many pools of paint laid out on her palette. With graceful movements she applied cool strokes of color to Eleanor’s face, painting swirling purple wings and pink curlicue antennae. Then she looked to Eleanor’s lap, where her hands were positioned as if holding an invisible child.
“A tiger, please,” Eleanor reminded gently.
“With big stripes,” Gidget added, though of course only Eleanor heard him.
With a humoring smile, the artist loaded her brush with paint and leaned forward, making careful brushstrokes in the air. Gidget’s green fur turned orange, and though she hadn’t run out of paint, the artist washed her brush in her cup of muddy water anyway and used a fresh one to add bold stripes and dainty whiskers to the monster’s face.
“Is… that good?”
Gidget nodded and gave a thumbs-up.
“Splendid,” Eleanor translated as Gidget scrambled down from her lap and ran off. “Wait for me!” she cried out, all but throwing money at the patient artist as she hurried after the monster.
“I want to play on the swings,” Gidget said, pointing across a field to the shiny playground equipment.
“Not without me.” She knew it was irrational, that fear that he might disappear if she lost sight of him. She’d kept a careful watch on Anne all through the treatments, and in the end she’d still lost her.
But she knew Gidget couldn’t stay forever. What if he just slipped away while she wasn’t looking, and she didn’t get to say goodbye?
Gidget waited, pleading for permission to go. When she gave a tiny nod, he was off, running on his fuzzy little legs all the way to the swingsets.
“Stay where I can see you!” Eleanor called out, as if that would make any difference.
Still, the carousel grew louder.
They flew a kite, they fed the ducks, they picked pansies and tucked them behind their ears. All of Anne’s favorite things.
Anything to stall, to keep the day going just a little longer.
But the sun was low in the orange sky and the music surrounded them, coming from every direction at once and so loud that Eleanor could hardly hear herself think.
She tried to avoid it, tried to go anywhere else in the park. But then they turned a corner, and there it was.
The carousel spun, its mirrors and filigree catching the last gasps of sunlight and casting everything in a warm glow as its sculpted horses danced to the calliope.
Eleanor’s breath caught in her throat. No, no, it was too soon, but Gidget held her hand and led her to the ride and she realized that maybe it was time.
Eleanor stooped to Gidget’s level and hugged him tight. It was the last hug she would ever give him, so it had to be a good one. Then she stood back with all the other parents as the carousel slowed to a stop and let another group of children board.
For one terrible second, she lost sight of Gidget among all the children, but then he popped up, seated on a white horse.
The one with the cream mane frozen in place as if in a strong wind, and its front hoof raised in an elegant prance. The one with purple roses on its bridle and saddle.
The carousel began to turn, and a tear slid down Eleanor’s face.
“Which one’s yours?” asked another mother.
Eleanor held her breath as the horse with the purple roses took Gidget out of sight, but he was still there when it came back around, waving his paw and grinning a big, fangy grin.
“Mine?” Eleanor knew enough not to point to the horse with the imaginary rider. “Mine was a little girl named Anne.”
This was the first time Eleanor had said her name aloud, the first time she’d used the past tense. It didn’t hurt as much as she thought it would.
“We used to come here,” she said. “Every Saturday. She loved mint chocolate chip, and getting her face painted like a tiger. Playing on the swings. She loved the carousel most of all.”
The horses went around again, and Gidget wiggled in his seat in time to the music.
“Then she got sick. I told myself I could keep her safe if I kept her at home and never let her out of my sight. I still lost her. She…” The word seemed to stick in Eleanor’s mouth, like it didn’t want to be spoken. “She died anyway, and she never got to ride the carousel again.”
She lost sight of Gidget again, and squeezed her hands into fists. Not yet, not yet. But there he was, coming around the other side.
“I miss her every day, but Saturdays most of all. So today I did something silly. I took Anne’s imaginary friend to the park, because I think he must miss her as much as I do.”
The carousel began to wind down, the horses hardly bobbing. Gidget kept waving, but somehow it was different. Somehow, this was goodbye.
Eleanor waved back. “Goodbye, Gidget,” she whispered. “If you see Anne, tell her I love her.”
The horse with the purple roses came around again, this time without a rider. Eleanor took a deep breath to steady herself, then turned and walked away, letting the sound of the carousel fade into silence.