The doctor had kindly eyes. He shook Mr. and Mrs. Johnson’s hands as they came into the office. Mr. Johnson appeared calm. His wife, however, was visibly agitated. Noting these sorts of things came with his line of work. The Doctor smiled and then he gave a very curt and professional handshake to their little daughter, Amber. She, unlike her parents, appeared totally normal.
“Welcome,” he said, in a subdued and professional voice. His office was painted in earth tones with calming, one might say boring, art along the walls. The one piece of unusual furniture was a large, red, mask – from some African or South American Tribe – sitting on a coffee table.
It was his conversation starter, in case he had problems getting people to talk.
He gestured towards the furniture, a few couches and some comfy looking leather chairs. The parents made their way slowly over. Amber ran, jumped and settled herself comfortably in a large leather chair.
The girl was about four, and cute as a button.
“Tea? Soda?” he asked.
Mr. Johnson asked for a tea, Mrs. Johnson passed. Amber just ignored him.
As he prepared the tea – he had a small sink, an electric kettle and a bar fridge in the office – the Doctor began to take a history.
He’d done it a million times before and he could see it unfolding in front of him. The father felt nothing was wrong, the mother was freaked out about something, and the daughter was perfectly fine – but could be ascribed some minor neurosis to comfort the mother and get a few checks in the door.
“So,” he said, his back turned as his filled two cups – one for himself and the other for Mr. Johnson, “Can you tell me again what happened?”
Surprisingly, it was not Mrs. Johnson who answered.
“She was in the shower,” said Mr. Johnson, “And she just started screaming and shouting and banging the walls – she kept up for almost 15 minutes.”
“Okay,” said the Doctor, “Children are often afraid of showers.”
“No,” said Mr. Johnson, “She’s never afraid of showers. She loves them in fact. She’s fascinated by them. By showers, by sinks, by toilets, even by storm drains. But she wasn’t shouting scared – she was shouting angry.”
“Okay,” said the Doctor, “What was she angry about?”
It was Amber who spoke up, “I’m angry because nobody will listen.”
Everything seemed normal to the Doctor, this was just a family that had to work on communication a bit.
“Listen to what?” asked the Doctor, facing Amber, teacups in hand.
“Listen to the song,” said Amber.
This was a bit of an unusual twist.
“What song?” asked the Doctor.
“Oh, it’s just a silly song she’s been singing for years,” interjected Mrs. Johnson, “Pay no mind.”
The Doctor smiled a warm smile, totally absent of condescension or judgement, “Sometimes a little listening is all that’s required. Amber, can you sing the song.”
“Sure,” said the cute little girl, “But you have to listen carefully.”
The Doctor nodded. And she began to sing,
“Ba ba black sheep, have you any wool? Yes Sir, Yes Sir, Three Bags Full…”
The Doctor smiled, it was a cute nursery rhyme,
“… One for the Master, one for the Dame and one for the little Boy who lived down the Drain.”
“You mean ‘Lane'” suggested the Doctor.
In an instant, the girl’s face changed. It burned with anger. “LISTEN!” she shouted, “THE LITTLE BOY WHO LIVED DOWN THE DRAIN.”
The Doctor gently put down the tea. He hadn’t expected this.
“Mr. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson,” he asked, “Do you know some boy who may drowned or something like that.”
They shook their heads no.
“Amber,” he asked, facing the now tightly wound girl, “Do you know a boy who drowned.”
“NO!” she shouted, “THE BOY LIVES DOWN THE DRAIN.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Johnson,” said the Doctor, “Can I ask you wait in the waiting room. I’d like to speak with your daughter alone.”
“Sure, sure,” said Mrs. Johnson, uncertainty spilling out of her voice.
Mr. Johnson guided her out of the room.
The Doctor sat down across from Amber. Perhaps she was just daydreaming, and caring a bit too much about it.
“There’s a boy down the drain?” he asked.
“Yes.” she said, calming down.
“How do you know?” asked the Doctor.
“He taught me the song,” said Amber.
“He speaks to you?” asked the Doctor. She was a bit involved with this imaginary friend. The long-term diagnosis might be poor – perhaps schizophrenia. He hoped it was just a touch of overactive imagination.
“Yes,” said Amber, breathing evenly.
“Amber,” he asked, “Can anybody else here him?”
“People?” asked Amber.
“Anybody,” said the Doctor, open to surprises.
“Dogs,” said Amber, solidly, “Dogs can hear him.”
“How do you know?” asked the Doctor.
“They bark when he talks,” said Amber.
“Could you be imagining that?” asked the Doctor.
“No,” said Amber, “Ask my parents. Wherever I go, the Boy speaks to me. And dogs always bark.”
He didn’t believe her. But she had to think he did. So he walked to the door, opened it a crack and asked the parents, “Do dogs bark around Amber?”
“Always,” said Mr. Johnson.
He closed the door and considered. The answer surprised him. But dogs were sensitive animals, perhaps they could smell something wrong with her. Perhaps she set them off. He was beginning to get worried.
He turned, and Amber was staring at him.
She spoke evenly, “And One for the Little Boy who Lives Down the Drain.”
He looked away, gathered himself, and turned back to her.
“The Boy,” he said, “Have you seen him?”
“Yes,” she said.
“How big is he?” asked the Doctor, trying to flesh out her story.
She held her fingertips about four inches apart.
The Doctor nodded.
“Is there just the one, or are there more?”
“Just the one who talks to me,” said Amber.
“And the others?”
“They are around. They talk to each other. But I can’t understand them.”
“Does the Boy do anything but talk?”
“Yes,” said Amber.
“Like what?” asked the Doctor.
“He made my parents get married.”
That was a strange answer. Maybe there were problems at home?
“Why?” he asked.
“To get me.”
“Why?” he asked again, intrigued.
“Because I can hear them,” she said, “They need me because I can hear them.”
“What does the Boy want?” asked the Doctor.
“I dunno,” said Amber, “Stuff. Maybe a bag of wool?”
The Doctor laughed.
“Don’t laugh,” said Amber, “They don’t like that.”
He stopped. Imaginary friends generally liked laughter. This little girl was beginning to frighten him. Something was wrong.
“Why don’t you sing the song correctly?” asked the Doctor.
“I do,” said Amber, “Everybody else sings it wrong. It took the boy a long time to come up with the song. And he taught it to a little boy a long time ago, in another place. But nobody believed him either. They changed the song. And then they killed him.”
Amber seemed very familiar with the concept of violent death. “Why did they kill him?” asked the Doctor, a concerned edge in his voice.
“Because they thought he was crazy,” said Amber.
‘I’m glad times have changed,’ he thought to himself, sardonically, ‘Now we just drug you to submission.’
“He wasn’t crazy?” asked the Doctor.
“No,” said Amber, “The Little Boy taught him the song.”
“Why him?” asked the Doctor.
“That boy could hear him,” said Amber, “It is very rare. It took them all this time to make me before they had
somebody else who could.”
The Doctor nodded. She had established a reason, albeit something imaginary, for why she was important. That wasn’t unusual in children. But she had put so much thought into it, and so much emotion, that it was, well, borderline insane. But she was clearly a bright girl and he was hoping for the best. He didn’t want to tell the parents anything bad.
“Why should we give them wool?” he asked.
“Because,” said Amber, “Then they’ll clean.”
“Everything,” said Amber, “They love to clean.”
“How do they clean?” asked the Doctor.
“They eat,” said the girl, “They eat poop. But they also have little vacuums and zappers stuff for the stuff they don’t eat. They showed me.”
“Are they friendly?” asked the Doctor, a little amused – but remembering not to laugh, but smiling just a touch.
“Yes,” said Amber, “If they weren’t, they’d just eat you.”
The Doctor stopped smiling.
“Amber,” he said gently, “What if I were to tell you there was no Little Boy down the drain.”
“I’d tell you you didn’t know what you were talking about.”
“Amber,” said the Doctor, gently, taking the risk of trying to prove there was no imaginary friend, “Why don’t you show me the Boy who Lives Down the Drain?”
“Can he trust you?” asked Amber.
“Why shouldn’t he?” asked the Doctor.
“Because people have killed the Boy’s friend before.”
The Doctor waited, impassively, before he answered. There was a lot of death, he had to be careful.
“I promise that I won’t hurt the Boy.”
“Okay,” said Amber, “I believe you.” And with that, she pointed.
The Doctor looked, pretending to care what he looked at – but expecting nothing.
But there was something. Perched on the edge of his kitchenette sink was a little man – about four inches tall. He glistened with sewage, he looked strange, and evil, and alien.
He opened his mouth like he was speaking, but nothing came out.
Amber, though, spoke.
“The boy says ‘Pay us, and we will clean.'”
The Doctor stared.
Then the Boy took a small device out his pocket and a slideshow of strange cities appeared on the office wall. Before and after shots. Open sewers becoming parks, manure-filled streets become boulevards.
The Boy wanted to clean. And he was using a PowerPoint presentation to show how well he could do it.
“Well?” asked Amber, “Expecting an answer.”
But the doctor just stared.
One thought kept going through his head, “What am I going to tell the parents?”