Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
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by Peter Cushnie

"I want to embrace you," it said.

It hung from the ceiling, near the corner where the walls met, a pale and fleshy sack that seemed to grow from the plaster itself. It reminded six-year-old Davy of one of his grandfather's testicles.

"I want to embrace you," it said again, calmly. Kindly, even. Although it had a very human mouth with full lips and even, white teeth, and although it seemed to know exactly where Davy was in spite of its lack of eyes, it possessed no appendages by which it could fulfill its expressed desire. It could only hang, apparently helpless. When it stopped speaking, its mouth smiled, showing teeth.

"What are you?" Davy asked, remaining at a cautious distance. The sack frightened him and he was prepared to run like his hair was on fire and his rear was catchin', as his Grampa would say when Gramma wasn't around, should the sack make any sudden moves. But it did not. Sudden moves seemed to be beyond its abilities. It simply hung, its only movement that of its mouth and some faint metabolic rippling beneath its pruny skin.

"I'm your friend," it said, all smiles. "You can come in here and talk to me anytime you want, whenever you're lonely." Smile.

"What's your name?" Davy asked.

"Honeylips," it said, sweetly. "You can call me Honeylips."

"Do-- do Gramma and Grampa know you're here?"

"Oh, no. Only you know. Your grandparents can't come in this room. It's a secret place only you can enter. It's our secret." Davy was relaxing, gaining confidence from the sack's soothing voice. Anyway, how could it hurt him, even if it wanted to, stuck way up there on the ceiling? "You can keep a secret, can’t you, Davy?" the sack asked. "If you told, then Honeylips would have to go away and then I couldn't tell you all the wonderful stories I know. You won't tell, will you?" If the sack was capable of looking worried, it did so now.

"No, I guess not," said Davy. Then, at Honeylips' suggestion, he sat down on the bare wood floor, leaned back against the crumbling plaster wall and let Honeylips tell him stories all afternoon.

They were the most amazing stories Davy had ever heard.

* * *

Davy knew of two ways to enter the secret room and, as Honeylips had said, his grandparents did not seem to know they existed, though neither entrance was hidden. The inside entrance was at the end of the upstairs hall onto which Davy's bedroom opened, near the linen closet that always smelled so wonderfully of outdoors when Gramma would put away sheets and towels dried outside. The outside entrance was accessed at the back of the house, near the apple tree. It was painted green and had many little panes of glass in its upper half, glass that swirled and swam with distortions to such an extent that nothing of the interior could be seen.

Davy had spent other summers at his grandparents' farm, but they were sketchy in his memory and he could not have said whether or not he had seen these two doors in those earlier times. They seemed to be the discovery of this particular summer. When he had first become aware of the door upstairs, the one by the linen closet, he asked his grandmother what it led to. "Why, that's the linen closet, Davy," she had answered. "You know that." When he said he meant the other door, his grandmother said, "There's only the linen closet and the door to your bedroom, honey lamb," and she had looked at him quizzically. Davy did not mention it to her again. He received the same curious look from his grandfather when he asked about the outside door.

The outside entrance was spooky and dreamlike. It led to a narrow and creaking stairway, lit only by a cloudy round window on the first landing; a window which, of course, only Davy could see from the outside. Pictures hung in that hallway; dark canvasses in once ornate frames now connected by spider webs and heavy with dust, while the surfaces of the pictures themselves grew something that looked like the fuzzy mold Davy had seen on food gone bad. It was difficult to see, but, if he stared hard, he thought he could make out facial features on those grimy surfaces, but then he would get the feeling that something in the picture was looking out at him as intently as he was looking in and, that if he stared long enough, he would somehow be drawn into the picture and lost forever in some fathomless night. And so, when he used those stairs, he averted his eyes from the frames and their dark contents.

Honeylips' room was bare, like an unused attic room. Wooden laths like brown and splintery bones showed through the old walls where plaster had fallen away, speckling the floor with white clumps that crunched and powdered under Davy's feet. There were no windows here. A single naked bulb on a frayed cord provided the room's only light. Whenever Davy was not under his grandparents' direct supervision, he would go to the room and let Honeylips tell him stories.

* * *

Davy's mother worked in the city and visited the farm on weekends. On one such visit, Davy overheard a conversation between his mother and grandmother while they sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee. "An imaginary friend?" his mother said.

"Yes," answered his grandmother. "Your father and I hear him chattering away upstairs sometimes, when he's alone and thinks no one can hear him,"

"Oh, dear. Maybe we should do something..."

"Now don't you go worrying about it," Davy's grandmother said. "There's nothing unusual about a child his age having an imaginary friend, especially around here on this lonely old farm. The local children don't always come out to play with him when they say they will."

But his mother was concerned, anyway. She said, "Maybe I should bring him back to the city with me--"

"Now don't you dare do that! I only mentioned it because your father and I think it's cute. Don't make me sorry I did. I'm telling you it's harmless and he'll outgrow it. One day he'll just up and forget about it and that will be that-- if we don't make a fuss over it now."

"Oh, I suppose you're right," his mother finally agreed. "Does his friend have a name?"

"Honey something, I think, but I'm not really sure. We can't really understand what he's saying. It's always muffled. His friend must live in a closet."

Davy slipped away at that point, disturbed by his grandmother's remark that he would "outgrow" Honeylips. The concept of outgrowing something was difficult for him to imagine. Did it mean that he would become bigger than Honeylips? But that made no sense because he already was bigger, even though Honeylips did seem to have grown over the summer weeks. If Honeylips had been the size of a football in the beginning, he was now about the size of a basketball (and Davy had come to think of Honeylips as male). But his grandmother had also said that he would forget Honeylips. Was that what she meant by outgrow? At this he felt a flash of panic. The horror of forgetting, he realized with sudden and precocious insight, was that he might not even know that he had forgotten anything. What was the point of ever knowing or doing anything if it could be forgotten? Honeylips had become basic to Davy's life on the farm. He could not imagine being there without that smiling sack with its soft, conspiratorial tones and the sweet, unidentifiable odor of its breath that always traveled across the room to Davy.

Davy spoke of all this to Honeylips (in a whisper, now that he knew he had been overheard).

Honeylips' mouth turned down at the corners and looked anguished. "Forget? Forget? Noooo, Davy, noooo," it wailed. "You must never forget your Honeylips! Never! If you forget, then Honeylips can't exist!" Honeylips was swaying agitatedly back and forth, more active than Davy had ever seen it.

"I won't forget you, Honeylips," he said. He felt his eyes become wet as he rushed to give assurances, realizing the depth of his affection for his odd friend, pleading with Honeylips to believe him; pleading with himself to believe. "Honest. I promise I'll never forget."

Honeylips stopped swaying and became quiet, its mouth forming a rueful smile. "I want to embrace you," it said and, for the first time, Davy wanted to be embraced. He extended his arms and tried to reach his friend, but he was still too short and Honeylips still too high.

* * *

In the year he graduated from the eighth grade, Davy forgot.

His mother brought him to the farm as usual when school let out. For six summers before that, Davy had gone to the secret room as soon as he could safely get away from the adults and, each summer, Honeylips had been waiting, always bigger than the summer before, always full of new and even more fantastic stories. But this time, Davy never even thought of Honeylips.

Not until his grandfather mentioned the subject. His grandparents were concerned by now about whether or not Davy was ever going to outgrow his imaginary friend. Davy had learned to be more secretive about his relationship with Honeylips, but still his grandparents knew and had decided that if Davy continued his invisible friendship into that summer, something would have to said to him about it. It was not necessary.

Davy and his grandfather were outside getting the grill ready for a cookout when his grandfather said, "Well, Davy, you bring your, uh, friend with you again this year? Honey whatsizname?" The old man waited expectantly.

Davy stopped in his task of spreading the tablecloth on the picnic table. At first, he did not know what his grandfather was talking about, but then it came to him and, remembering, he felt confusion and panic at the same time.

Honeylips! Of course! How could he have forgotten? How?

He quickly looked to the side of the house for the green door with its many little panes of distorted glass, the door only he could see.

It was gone.

He saw only the white clapboards of the farmhouse going back and forth from one end of the house to the other in unbroken lines, showing not even the smallest sign that they had ever been interrupted in their course. In that moment, he understood what his grandmother had meant years ago in that overheard conversation with his mother: He had outgrown Honeylips.

His confusion and panic gave way to a sinking sensation of regret and loss and an almost physical sense of something leaving him, taking flight; something ephemeral and impermanent. He knew that, later, when he went upstairs to his familiar room, only his own door and that of the linen closet would occupy the hall. There would be no secret entrance, no mysterious third door only he could see. Then, for a brief, hopeful moment, he thought he might be able to recover it all, to bring it all back into existence, simply by the act of remembering and concentrating, so he stared at the blank side of the house and tried to will the green door back again, but it was useless. The hope flared, fizzled, and then disappeared, like a falling star seen from the corner of his eye. The wall remained blank and uninterested and Davy realized in that moment that the matter was more than simply one of remembering. There was also believing to be considered and, as shocking as forgetting had been, he was now amazed to find himself actually doubting Honeylips' existence. It was just a kid thing, he thought.

Just a kid thing.

Then, to his grandfather, who had been watching him intently the whole time, he said, "No, not this year, Grampa. I think I've... outgrown that."

His grandfather looked both relieved and sympathetic. He placed a hand on Davy's shoulder and gently squeezed, as if to communicate that he understood this rite of passage. "Let's finish gettin' ready for this here chowdown," he said.

* * *

"I'm selling the farm," his mother said over the phone.

"Oh, no. Mom, you can't--"

"David, please. Don't make this harder for me than it already is. What else am I supposed to do? It's just been sitting there empty since your grandfather died, with taxes due every year. You had the opportunity to live there yourself, but said it was too remote. The airport people have made a good offer, so--"

'The airport people?"

"Yes. That little airstrip nearby isn't so little anymore. That shows how long it's been since you've been up there. The whole area is changing dramatically. New homes and businesses everywhere. Everybody wants a piece of the country, I guess, until it isn't country anymore. Then I don't know what they'll do. Just gobble up even more empty land, I suppose."

"Guess that means it'll be torn down..."

His mother sighed. "That's right. I'm sorry, David."

They were silent then, not knowing what to say at this, the passing of an era. David felt that something more than silence was called for; a ceremony of some sort, perhaps. Something.

Then, in a more lighthearted tone, eager to change the subject, his mother said, "Well, David, I just finished your latest novel."

He was only half listening, thinking of something he had not thought of in years. Finally, he said, "Oh? What did you think of it?"

"Honestly, David, if you weren't my son... I know you writers don't like the question, but where do you get your ideas from?"

"Oh, you know, Ma. Some I order by catalog, others I buy at this little shop down in Greenwich Village." They both laughed at this traditional joke, but David's mind was back at his grandparents' farm, in a room only a small boy could enter.

* * *

He stood outside the empty farmhouse, looking at the green door with its many little panes of colored glass. It should not have been there, he knew. He had had enough psychology in college to understand how his child's mind had invented the doors, the secret room and... Honeylips. Nonetheless, when he learned from his mother that the farmhouse was to be torn down, he drove there to find what he knew could not be there. Should not be there.

And he found it.

He grasped the rattly knob and opened the door, then stepped into the dim entryway. His head swam in a rush of returning memories and he felt very small again.

Nothing had changed. He looked at the paintings as he climbed the stairs, the same dark canvasses in the same dusty frames from which he had always averted his eyes. Even now, as an adult, he could not see what they portrayed. That moss-like growth he remembered now covered almost all traces of the original canvasses. Even so, as he made himself look, he had a sensation of endless, swirling darkness and things lost beneath the moss. Then, when the moss itself seemed to move and wave like beckoning sea grass in a current, he looked away, dizzy.

He reached the landing, turned right, climbed again, and entered the secret room.

Honeylips no longer hung suspended from the ceiling. Though still attached, he now came all the way to the floor, filling almost all the space of the secret room like a great wad of mottled and wrinkled dough that had gone over. The odor was not pleasant.

Honeylips stirred while Davy stood in the doorway. Then the familiar mouth appeared at. It smiled weakly. The lips were cracked and covered with sores; the teeth were discolored and rotting. "Davy," it said, like one awakening from an illness to find a dear friend by the bed. "You have come back. You have come back to your Honeylips." Davy stared as two appendages, like the great fleshy arms of his grandmother, formed from the stuff of Honeylips. "I thought I was going to die without ever seeing you again, Davy," the mouth said, "but you never really stopped believing in your Honeylips, did you? Always, in the back of your mind, you kept me alive."

Six-year-old Davy stood frozen. The appendages grew.

"I love you, Davy," Honeylips said. "I want to tell you more stories. I have so many more stories." The arms reached for shim.

"But first, I want to embrace you."

Then the arms were around him and Honeylips embraced him and embraced him and embraced him...


2014 Peter Cushnie

Bio: Mr. Cushnie is 70 years old and has been writing short stories off and on since 1980. He embraced the short story genre since reading "The Martian Chronicles" in 1956 but doesn't always know what his stories mean. His last Aphelion appearance was The Apartments in our December, 2013 issue.

E-mail: Peter Cushnie

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