When Landon was younger, the days where he got to play with his friends were always precisely planned, and done so well in advance. He has almost perfect recall of the events leading up to when Linda first came to visit him. She wasn’t the first kid to come over and play, but she was the first to actually seem like she wanted to be there. Landon may have only been four years old at the time, and had less exposure to other kids around his age than most, but even then he could tell when someone was there of their free will or if they were being “encouraged” by their parents.
At that age, all of Landon’s playdates were heralded well in advance– at least a week beforehand. The Voice would usually segue into the announcement as a part of a regular conversation. “If you’re having fun now, Landon, just wait until next Thursday when you’ll have a new little friend visiting. Her name is Linda and she’s five years old. Just a little older than you. She’s very much looking forward to meeting you. I hope you like her just as much as you liked Ferdinand last week.” The Voice always insisted that Landon liked everyone who visited. That was rarely the case, especially early on.
The Voice would remind Landon of the impending arrival at least once a day, usually sprinkling in a little tidbit about his new potential “friend.” “When Linda was told you like The Muppet Show, she said she liked it too. She really likes it when they sing songs. But she said she didn’t really like Gonzo that much. Please don’t hold that against her. Everyone likes different things. Her favorite is Kermit. Be like Kermit, Landon. Be like Kermit.”
A day or two before their arrival, a video cassette would slide through the slit in Landon’s door. It was always some sort of home movie showing his new playmate doing stuff with their family and friends. Most of the other kids usually seemed awfully chipper and happy in their videos, but when they arrived in Landon’s room, they rarely seemed that way. Most of them were polite enough, and would play with whatever toys Landon wanted to play with, but even at four years old he could tell if someone was actually having fun.
Linda’s video was different. She wasn’t exactly sad, but she wasn’t overly cheerful, and wasn’t surrounded by more people than Landon had ever seen in person in one place. Her video showed her playing alone, smiling every now and then when the voice of her dad would say something from behind the camera. At one part of the video, Linda’s mother entered the picture, trying to interject herself into Linda’s playtime with a very cutesy doll. Linda shrugged it off, returning to playing with some die cast cars, smashing them into each other and jumping off ramps. Her mom tried a couple of more times to get Linda to try out what was obviously a new toy she had bought just for this video, but when Linda finally picked it up and acknowledged its existence, she had her cars drive over the doll like she was a dirt mount. Her mother snatched away the doll, glared at the camera– and thus at her husband– saying “Our daughter doesn’t know how to play right” before exiting the scene.
Landon swears Linda turned and winked at the camera after that, but in recollecting that moment he wasn’t sure if that’s how it really happened or if he just inserted that little bit in for his own amusement. It isn’t like Landon could go back and rewatch the tape. He had to insert each one back into the slit after watching it, and when he asked if he could rewatch one The Voice assured him that the tape had been recorded over since then.
On the day of his playdate, The Voice always awakened Landon a little earlier than usual. And instead of allowing him a little bit to watch cartoons on television before getting ready, it was straight into the bathtub to be prepped for his visit. It wasn’t that Landon was especially dirty or anything, as he rarely got to play “outside” on the days before his visits, but, as The Voice always said, “You have to look your best, smell your best, and be your best if you want best friends. Friendship isn’t just liking another person, it’s also being the sort of person another person wants to like, even if it means doing things you might not always do and doing things you might not always like.”
That wasn’t exactly what Landon learned from Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street, but if it meant he got someone else to play action figures with, it didn’t matter much.
For the most part, Landon’s first playdate with Linda was unremarkable. The Others escorted Linda to Landon’s room and wordlessly welcomed her in. They both said hi to each other, and they watched some cartoons. It was when Landon finally decided it was time to play that the day got interesting.
Landon’s go-to toys were his Star Wars figures. Everyone likes Star Wars, right? All of the kids who had come over up to this point liked Star Wars, so Linda would surely be no different. If she liked cars and action, then she should like Star Wars guys and action.
“Nah,” Linda said nonchalantly. “I haven’t seen Star Wars. I want to play something I know.”
Landon was shocked. She hadn’t seen Star Wars? How could you have not seen Star Wars. It was everywhere. Every other toy commercial was Star Wars. All of the kids talked about Star Wars. Landon couldn’t remember a point in his life where he wasn’t thinking, eating, and sleeping Star Wars in some way.
But Linda wasn’t any of that. When Landon said he would tell her about Star Wars, and then they could play, she just didn’t seem to care. “I’ll wait until my dad takes me. Let’s play something else, OK?”
Landon wanted to push back. Not literally, since that wouldn’t be nice at all, but he wanted to insist on playing Star Wars. And had it been any other kid– especially that jerk Ferdinand who laughed when he broke one of Landon’s toys when he visited– he would have done just that. “This is supposed to be my day,” Landon would have thought to himself, “why can’t I play what I want to play?”
But Landon stopped and thought about what The Voice told him. Not the part where she suggested that Landon do things he didn’t like to do in order to make friends. That just sounded like another way to lie. No. Landon thought back to what she said when Linda liked The Muppet Show but didn’t like Gonzo.
“Be like Kermit.”
What would Kermit do? Well, he might panic and run around, but in the end what would he do to fix the problem? He wouldn’t push back, he would be nice and try to do something everyone can enjoy.
It’s lying to pretend to be something you aren’t. It isn’t lying to try to find some common ground.
“What do you want to do?” Landon asked as he put away his Star Wars figures.
Linda shrugged. “Watch more Scooby Doo? My mom doesn’t like me watching it. But I like it.”
So that’s what Landon and Linda did for the rest of their time together that day– they watched the episode of The New Scooby Doo Movies where the gang met The Harlem Globetrotters.
When the playdate was over, one of The Others entered the room and escorted Linda out of the room. She walked down the long stone hallway, The Other right behind her politely ushering her in that direction. Linda looked around her, taking it all in as he dad requested. The door to Landon’s room was different. It was the only one that looked “new.” All of the other doors were made out of wood and something out of some old castle, but Landon’s looked like something out of a plane or a submarine or something else high-tech. When they passed one room at the end of the hall, Linda heard some strange mumbling. It was a language she had never heard, and despite only being five years old– but close enough to six if you asked– she had heard plenty of different languages before. This sounded nothing like the languages her parents used with people at work. It spooked her a bit– the unfamiliarity of it all combined with an eerily quiet person wearing all white lightly touching her shoulder and making sure she kept facing forward.
They rounded a few corners and passed through a few doorways. Each doorway they passed through led to an area that looked newer than the last, until finally they were in a hallway that felt a lot like a hospital. Everything was shiny, clean, and very, very white. “The Other,” as Landon referred to him, directed Linda away from the hallway she knew was the exit and towards a smaller hallway off to the side. There was a single door at the end of this one, and it automatically opened when Linda stepped in front of it. “The Other” motioned for Linda to enter, and after a moment’s hesitation she did just that.
The room’s mood was drastically different from everything else Linda had seen, outside of Landon’s room. Where everything else looked like some weird castle or sci-fi place, this room looked like something out of one of the suburban homes she’d been in when visiting neighbors. The walls were wooden paneling. There were shelves with books and a few potted plants scattered about the room. There was a couch off to the side, a desk with a large leather chair behind it towards the back, and a few smaller chairs in front of that desk.
And it all smelled a bit like flowers and perfume. It wasn’t the plants, since none of them had flowers on them. So it was definitely perfume. It wasn’t quite as strong as what Linda’s mom wore, but it was also hard to not notice.
The door leading out quickly closed behind her, and Linda could clearly hear it lock. That was when “The Voice” spoke out to her. “The Voice” had spoken a few times while Linda was watching cartoons with Landon, but this time it was accompanied by a person.
A woman entered from a door behind the desk. She was wearing mostly white, much like everyone else Linda had seen during her visit, but her outfit wasn’t so strange. Everyone else looked like they were wearing robes or doctor’s clothing, but this woman was wearing a pants suit, and around her neck was a dark red neckerchief neatly tied into a bow and offset to the left.
“Please, Linda, sit down,” the woman said in the same gentle voice heard over the intercom. “And have some lemonade. I made it fresh, not knowing it was almost time for you to leave. Landon loves this. I think. I hope. And I hope you like it too, dear.”
Linda walked over to the desk, grabbed a glass, and hopped into one of the chairs. The chair was a bit big for a little kid like Linda, and almost any other child would have spilled half their drink in the process of sitting down, but she surprised her host with her flawless balance.
“I know you enjoyed yourself, Linda. Your father tells me you don’t have a lot of friends, and you tend to… disagree with most kids you meet. Can you tell me why? Not why you don’t play with other kids. Tell me why you had fun today with my Landon.”
Linda knew she would be asked this question. Her dad said something about this, that a woman would ask her some questions after playing. Linda’s dad said that no matter what Linda thought, she should say she did it because he told her to do it.
“Don’t let the woman know anything about you that she doesn’t already know. She will act nice. And in most ways she is nice. But do not tell her how you feel. Don’t ask me why she can’t know. Just don’t tell her. Do it for me. Do it for you, too.”
But that didn’t seem right. It would be a lie to tell this lady that she only played with Landon because her dad said so. Not that Linda cared about lying to someone she didn’t know. But she felt that if she lied about Landon, it would mean something would happen to him. This was some kind of test. These people brought in other kids to play with Landon, and it was testing him somehow. This lady wanted Linda to say something about Landon, and whatever that was would matter.
And even though she just met him, Linda cared enough to care whether Landon passed that test or not. So Linda pulled out a word she heard her mom use a few times when she wanted to say she knew something without revealing why she knew it.
“A vibe. Landon gives me a vibe.”
This piqued the interest of the woman. “A vibe? Please, dear, what kind of vibe do you feel?”
“Just a vibe. Like, something in my gut, right?” Linda pointed at her stomach. “I feel something. Like, a vibe. A vibe. That’s what mom calls it.”
The woman smiled and took a sip of her lemonade. “Good? Bad? Weird? Funny? Happy? Sad? What kind of vibe, dear?”
Linda shrugged. “Weird? Like, I can’t explain? It’s just a vibe? Mom never says what it’s like, it’s just a thing? So it’s weird because I don’t know?”
The woman wrote something down on a notepad and took another sip of lemonade. “Do you feel like that around anyone else? Any of your other friends have a “weird vibe” like Landon?”
“What other friends?”
“Ah. See. So you consider Landon a friend. If you don’t have “other” friends, then you think Landon is your friend, yes?”
“Excellent! I’m so very glad to hear that. Thank you, dear. Tell your parents we’ll be in touch soon about another little playdate. And please, finish your lemonade before you leave. Feel free to give the glass to anyone nearby when you finish. They all know how to clean up after our guests.”
With that the door leading back into the hallway unlocked, and a different “Other” entered, motioning for Linda to follow.
Linda didn’t take a single sip of the lemonade. Despite what the woman said, she didn’t trust her when she said Landon liked it. She’d wait and see what he said next time she visited before giving it a taste.
After Linda left, the woman pressed a button on her chair. One of the wooden panels behind her desk slid to the right, revealing several small television screens and a video camera. She turned around in her chair to face the screen, checking herself in her compact mirror before pressing another button on her chair. Each screen flickered to life over the course of a several seconds, revealing another person decked out in mostly white clothing. After each screen went live, the woman turned her attention to the camera and began to speak.
“I’m glad to report that today’s encounter was a rousing success! The Vega child may not be a perfect match, but she’s the first to show any signs of interest towards our dear child. We will arrange for another encounter next month and proceed from there. The prophecies foresaw today’s union, as our child is destined to amass a following of close admirers during his youth. I truly believe this is the first of many such matches, and I truly believe that our actions will ensure that the prophecies are fulfilled to our benefit. To the future of mankind! May its darkest days be followed by the brightest of nights.”