PodCastle 782: The Girl Who Never Was

Show Notes

Rated PG

The Girl Who Never Was

Harold R. Thompson


I met Kate Krimple at a downtown coffee shop. Kate’s new children’s book was called Tayo and the Wolves, about a dog who claims to have lived with wolves for a week. I was to provide the cover and interior illustrations. This was the first time we’d met face to face, and I was happy to find her warm and easy to talk to. In fact, our conversation came so easily that we moved on to talking about ourselves.

“Is Krimple your real name?” I asked.

I guess that was maybe a little too forward, but the way things were going I felt comfortable asking, and I was happy to see her smile.

“No, of course not. It’s Dugger, but Kate Krimple has a better ring to it.”

She tucked a lock of dark hair behind one ear, and I wondered how old she was. I’d read her official bio (in which she was definitely Kate Krimple and not Kate Dugger), but there’d been no mention of a birth date. Then I wondered why that mattered. It just popped into my head.

“How about you?” she said. “I like to know things about my artists and illustrators. Family? Kids?”

No, I told her, I’d been married, but . . .

“She passed away. Cancer.”

I gave her the same shrug I used every time.

“It happened quite a while ago,” I added.

She offered her condolences, and asked, “So no kids?”

I guessed, as a children’s author, she was always curious about her market.

“No, we never did. I always wanted to, but it didn’t happen.”

She nodded, but her smile had faded and I could feel a darkness creeping in and knew I had to lighten the mood.

“At least my house is tidy,” I said. “More or less.”

We moved on to other topics. When the meeting ended, we shook hands and I promised to show her some sketches soon.

I headed home to the outskirts of town, to the rambling old former farmhouse I’d inherited. I stood on the front walk and stared up at the dark windows of the second story, and what I’d said to Kate came back to me. The house would have been a good place to raise kids, but now I lived there alone. It was too big, it was too old, but it had been the setting for most of my life, and I couldn’t imagine anything being different.

This was a bleak thought, and I sensed that darkness was still there, hovering just out of sight, so I opened the front door and went straight to my studio on the main floor. I’m never unhappy there. I sat in my oak banker’s chair, surrounded by the light from the many windows, and gazed around at the various works, some completed, some just sketches and ideas.

On one of my easels was a half-finished watercolour of a dog, sitting with one paw raised. Yellow coat dabbed with orange.

I hadn’t painted that picture.

I went into the kitchen to start making my meagre one-man supper. I noticed a package of chocolate-chip cookies on the counter. The package was open.

I didn’t eat cookies.

I paced the front hall, wondering if I should call the police, but a strange painting and a pack of mystery cookies didn’t seem like the basis for an actual crime. I told myself there had to be a simple explanation, but as I turned to head back to the kitchen, I spied a mauve-coloured knapsack leaning against the wall next to the front door. Beside the knapsack was a pair of turquoise sneakers, much too small to fit my size-twelve feet.

When I’d come home from my meeting with Kate, the knapsack and sneakers hadn’t been there.

I examined the knapsack’s contents, finding high school textbooks. Chemistry, American History. There were also a few binders of notes written in blue ink, handwritten in a very neat and rounded script. Cartoon dogs and cats and wolves and dragons in the margins. A rocket ship and a sailboat. But no name I could find.

Now my heart was pounding in my ears.

“Is anybody here?” I called out.

I started to search the house. Upstairs were two spare rooms, one furnished for potential guests and the other a default storeroom, filled with boxes of useless junk I should have tossed years ago. I thought the junk room would be a good place for an intruder to hide, so went straight there. I wasn’t afraid of a confrontation, given my intruder liked cookies and had small feet and a mauve knapsack.

The room was painted and furnished, the walls pale blue, rag carpets on the floor, a single bed with a patchwork quilt tossed across its foot, a dresser, chairs, bookshelf, desk with computer, and posters of movies and books and animals. A teenager’s room, by the looks of it.

Panic sweat sprang from every pore, drenching my shirt. The only rational explanation for what was happening was that I was suffering some kind of mental breakdown. Either my memory was faulty or I was hallucinating.

I needed to talk to someone, so I ran back downstairs to where I’d left my phone. Struggling to think of who to call, I settled on Kate, but hesitated before I could punch in her number. Why her, and what would I say? Hey, do you remember when I said I didn’t have any kids? Well, I may have forgotten about one.

A thump sounded from upstairs, from the newly furnished spare room, followed by creaking footsteps.

I dashed for the stairs, but slowed as I began to ascend, one careful tread at a time. I should have been terrified, but was more curious than anything, and hopeful that I was about to get some answers.

At the top of the stairs, I turned the corner and entered the spare room.

A teenage girl lay on the bed, on her stomach, reading a book. She had long hair past her shoulders and big-lens glasses perched on the end of her nose.

I didn’t react as I should have, as the average rational person would have. I didn’t say the obvious things. Who are you? How did you get in here? She shouldn’t have been there, but I recognized her, like the memory of a dream.

“Hi, Dad,” she said.

“You look like your mother,” I said.

“What’s for supper?” my non-existent daughter asked. “I’m starving.”

I searched for an appropriate response. I’d been about to fry myself a pork chop and have it with leftover rice and steamed vegetables. Now I’d have to make that for two.

I went back to the kitchen and prepared our meal as if everything were normal.

We ate at the big dining room table, something I never did. The teenage girl sat across from me, eating with her phone in her hand. The phone had a turquoise case.

“Did I get you that phone case?” I asked.

She looked up. Her eyes were large and round above her glasses, and I saw their colour, a rich brown sparkling with gold flecks. I wondered where that trait could have come from. My wife Elly’s eyes had been a deep, rich brown, but no gold flecks. My eyes looked either gray or green, depending on the light.

“You don’t remember?” she said.

I shrugged, unsure how to answer. I couldn’t remember something I’d never done.

“How old are you?” I said.

It was a stupid thing to say to her, but I knew nothing about this child. I didn’t even know her name. What was she like when she was ten? Or six? When was she born and what day was her birthday?

She gave me an incredulous look.

“I know you spend a lot of time in your studio, Dad,” she said, “but I didn’t think you were ignoring me that much.”

“I’m getting old, I guess,” I said.

After we’d finished eating, my daughter returned to her room. I could hear her talking behind her closed door, on her phone or computer with friends. This seemed like typical teenaged behavior, as far as I knew. I listened for a few minutes, then went to the living room where I kept a few photo albums. I took the albums to the coffee table and started flipping through the stiff pages, searching for evidence of a life I’d somehow failed to recall, but all I found were familiar pictures of Elly and me on our various trips just before and after we were married. No sign of a forgotten child.

I realized these pictures were more than fifteen years old. And that my wife had been gone for fourteen years.

I kept more recent digital pictures on the computer in my studio, so that was my next stop. I kept the images in folders designated by year. I opened each one, but again I found nothing I’d never seen before. Most of the images were work related, studies for my artwork.

Then I found a separate folder labelled “Marin.”

“Marin,” I repeated.

I’d never seen that folder before. I opened it.

Five hundred images of my daughter. Shots of her as a baby, in a hospital bassinette and in a photo studio, looking chubby and happy. Pictures of her as a preschooler, and opening Christmas presents in this house under a big Christmas tree the likes of which I’d never bothered with. Shots of her in a soccer uniform and playing trumpet in what looked like a school band. A trip to Niagara Falls, and another trip to a rugged seashore, and another to a place with palm trees. There were other kids in some of the photos, but no one I recognized and none of her mom, none of me.

I guessed this was because her mom was gone, and I was probably the one who took the pictures.

I reclined in my chair and the room started to spin. Was this person, Marin, a wishful hallucination, something my conversation with Kate had awakened, or was I suffering catastrophic memory loss?

I’d give it more time. In a few days, maybe everything would make more sense.

The next morning, I watched Marin head to school. A yellow school bus, like one I’d seen drive by my house thousands of times, stopped at the curb as if it had always been doing so, and Marin got on board.

I went to my studio and tried to work on Tayo and the Wolves, but I was too distracted. I kept going upstairs to check Marin’s room, to make sure her things were still there. They were.

Later in the day, the yellow bus brought Marin home, along with a school friend who called me by name and smiled when she saw me, even though I’d never seen her in my life. Her name was Naria. She and my daughter hung out in the kitchen and I had the idea to make them snacks, so I put on some popcorn.

“I know this is corny,” I said, and realized I’d just made my first Dad Joke.

After that I stayed out of their way and went back to my studio. I could hear their muffled laughter from Marin’s room.

Suddenly the house seemed full and alive, more so than it had in years. Despite the absurdity of the situation, something broke inside me, and tears started to pour down my cheeks.

By the time Naria went home, I’d regained my composure. Marin came into my studio and said, “What’s for supper?”

One of her favourite questions.

“Not sure yet,” I said, and my eyes fell on the watercolour of the dog. “Did you paint this?”

Marin gave me another of her “you’re going senile” looks.

“You don’t remember that either? That was the last watercolour I tried.”

I looked at her, studying the colour of her hair, the shape of her face. I’d seen my wife there before, but now I couldn’t find her. All I saw was myself. Marin held her mouth the same way I did.

She had a tablet computer in her hands.

“I still prefer drawing on this,” she said, and showed me a picture she’d just started. “It’s supposed to be a bear, like the book cover you did. That was my favourite of your pictures.”

I had no memory of painting a picture of a bear.

Over the next few days, I lived a changed life. Although I spent most of my time in the studio as usual, there was this sense, in the background, that I was no longer alone.

I looked at my wife’s picture where it sat on the computer desk.

“Is this the kid we never had?” I asked her. “Come to life somehow?”

I looked into her face, her eyes, remembering when the photo had been taken, but getting no answers. There were no answers.

Meanwhile, I work had work to do, and called Kate to tell her I had finished several sketches.

“Could I come over and see them?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Do you know how to get here?”

Marin wouldn’t be home for hours. I wouldn’t need to come up with an explanation for her existence.

Kate arrived about forty minutes later. I showed her the house and explained its history, then took her to the studio and showed her my first rough ideas for Tayo the dog character and some of the wolf characters. She was pleased and the visit was friendly and positive and I offered her a cup of tea, which she accepted. We sat in the living room.

“I thought you lived alone?” she said, gazing at a pair of Marin’s shoes that she’d left near the doorway. There were also schoolbooks on the coffee table, next to her tablet computer.

I almost spit out my tea. I’d forgotten about Marin’s things and hadn’t considered that they’d also need explaining.

Then realization dawned.

“You can see that stuff?” I asked.

Kate chuckled, thinking I was joking. But the fact that she could see Marin’s things meant that my daughter wasn’t imaginary. Option one — hallucination — eliminated.

“I have someone staying with me,” I told her. “A relative.”

“So you have relatives. You’ll have to tell me about this mysterious family some time.”

I gulped my tea.

“I’m still trying to figure them out myself.”

It was a relief to find out I probably wasn’t seeing things, but also alarming. At least hallucinations were within the realm of the possible. It was time to get to the bottom of what was going on. Things like this just didn’t happen. It had to be some kind of trick, and I’d fallen for it, told myself I recognized her, that there was truth in her existence, truth I felt in my soul. But I’d been a dupe.

It was the only rational explanation.

When Marin got home from school, I told her, “We need to talk. Let’s go into the studio.”

I was most comfortable in the studio, and I needed to feel in control. I told Marin to sit on a stool facing me.

“Who are you?” I said.

“What do you mean?” she said, with a nervous smile.

“I don’t have a daughter. Elly and I never had any kids, and you know that.”

This was my strategy, to bluff her into thinking I knew what her game was, even though I didn’t.

Marin’s face turned red, and I saw tears behind her glasses.

“Why are you saying this? It isn’t funny!”

She stormed out, and I heard her stomp up the stairs and slam the door to her room.

I tried to analyze her reaction, whether it had been the denial of someone who’d been caught in a lie, but she’d seemed genuinely upset. My own emotions were mixed to the point of indecipherable, but as the minutes passed, the more remorse came to dominate. I started to think I’d been wrong. Completely wrong.

I would do what a dad did when he’d had a set-to with his kid. I’d go up and talk to her.

I climbed the stairs, one ponderous step at a time, in no hurry. At her door, I knocked, just a soft tapping with one knuckle.

“Marin, I think I need to explain.”

I had no idea what I was going to explain.

There was no answer. I knocked again, put my ear to the door and listened for movement. Nothing. So I tried the knob. The door opened, swinging on old and creaking hinges.

The room was filled with cardboard boxes. No furniture, no Marin.

Whatever I’d experienced, it seemed over, and the hollow feeling it brought was close to unbearable. For several days I couldn’t work and spent almost every minute mulling over potential explanations. Marin had been the fulfillment of a wish, a physical manifestation of my loneliness. How I’d done that, I couldn’t begin to understand, but it fit. And it could have been that I’d driven her away with my doubts. Maybe that’s all there was to it. I’d stopped believing, and poof, she was no more.

I had my art, and I threw myself into it. I started calling Kate every day, my reason being that I wanted to discuss our project, but really I just wanted to talk to someone, and she was easy to talk to.

Our relationship began to change. We started having meetings that were more than meetings. I asked her to accompany me to an art exhibition at a local gallery, a painter who was an acquaintance and whose work I admired, even aspired to rival. We enjoyed it and had dinner afterward.

I started to feel hopeful again and realized I hadn’t felt like this for about fifteen years.

I sat in my studio one evening and studied the photo of Elly. You have to move on, she seemed to say to me. You have to advance. There’s no going back, there’s no bringing to life any what-might-have-beens.

“Why do things happen they way they do?” I said to my wife’s image. Just another dumb cliché, but one of those things we can’t help thinking.

I heard movement from the kitchen, a chair being pulled out from the counter, footsteps. A sigh.

I rose from my chair and moved toward the sounds, not daring to even wonder about what I’d heard. I just needed to see.

Marin was at the counter on one of the tall stools and working on her tablet. I watched her, not daring to move. There was something insubstantial about her form, like she was only half there.

I moved to the opposite stool and sat. She didn’t look up.

“Is it almost finished?” I asked.

“Almost,” she said.

After making a few changes, she handed me the tablet. I studied the picture.

“Please don’t go away again,” I said, and I meant it, despite what I’d told myself minutes earlier. No might-have-beens.

“I’m not going anywhere, Dad,” she said, but her voice seemed to come from a distance. I felt the cool metal and plastic of her tablet in my fingers. I’d squeezed my eyes shut, but when I opened them, my hands were empty, just like the stool where Marin had been sitting.

I saw Kate the next day. We went for a walk by the river and had ice cream. It was spring, and the sun was warm. My mood began to lighten, and before long I was feeling reflective.

We sat on a bench. I knew if this was going to progress, I needed to be honest, but wasn’t sure how to relate my fantastic tale.

“I recently had a strange dream,” I told her, because that’s how it felt. “I dreamed that I had a daughter.”

Kate smiled. “Wishful thinking? Regrets?”

“Maybe both?”

The sun lit her in such a way that her hair glowed, and I saw her more clearly than I ever had before.

“I think she was supposed to be the daughter —”

I found myself staring. I think my mouth fell open. I’d been about to say the daughter Elly and I never had, but at that moment I noticed the gold flecks in Kate’s eyes.

“The daughter you want?” Kate said, arching an eyebrow. I’d noticed she did that a lot.

I nodded.

“I suppose so.”

I’d made an assumption about Marin. I conjured her face, could see it clearly in my mind, and I started to laugh. My bright surroundings suddenly seemed even brighter, even though I’d been wrong, so completely wrong.

“Can you let me in on the joke?” Kate said.

“I will,” I told her. “I will when the time is right.”

Host Commentary

…aaaaand welcome back. That was “THE GIRL WHO NEVER WAS” by Harold R. Thompson, and if you enjoyed that and are so inclined, you may enjoy his historical military novels set in the Crimean War, beginning with Dudley’s Fusiliers and followed by Guns of Sevastopol.

Harold told us this about THE GIRL WHO NEVER WAS: “Tayo and the Wolves,” the children’s book mentioned in the story, is a real children’s book I’ve been poking away at for years. Maybe someday I’ll actually finish it. Tayo is my dog, an eleven-year-old Portuguese Water Dog.

Thank you, Hal, for that background and the story. The ache in this one for what-could-have-been is heartbreaking–all the more so when Marin disappears for the first time, even though our protagonist’s doubts at that point are entirely understandable. The paths we didn’t take always hold an allure like nothing else, and more than any other fantasy–except perhaps romantic crushes–are rarely polluted by considerations of what it would really have been like, once all of real life’s inevitable mundanities came and crashed the party. That said, hindsight is not only a wonderful thing but an important thing, I think, an essential act of self-reflection–cos it’s only in looking back and seeing the path taken so far that we can prepare ourselves for the next fork in the road.

About the Author

Harold R. Thompson

Harold R. Thompson is the author of the bestselling “Empire and Honor” series of historical adventure novels, which include Dudley’s Fusiliers, Guns of Sevastopol and Sword of the Mogul. He has also written non-fiction and short science fiction and fantasy for a variety of print and online magazines. He lives in Nova Scotia and, when not writing or spending time with his family, works for Parks Canada.

Find more by Harold R. Thompson


About the Narrator

Wilson Fowlie

Wilson Fowlie lives in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada and has been reading aloud since the age of 4. His life has changed recently: he lost his wife to cancer, and he changed jobs, from programming to recording voiceovers for instructional videos, which he loves doing, but not as much as he loved Heather.

Find more by Wilson Fowlie