Lillie Mae Paumans had been missing for nine days in the town of Loxley, Alabama when they pulled her body from the Blackwater River. Local officials determined Lillie Mae had drowned. Her thirteen year old son, Cotter, did not believe them.
Social Services from Mobile had contacted me and instructed me to pick up Cotter and deliver him to his sister’s home in Monroeville. Cotter had no other living relatives, and Lillie Mae did not leave a will or any legal instruction. I was to become Cotter’s liaison and examine his sister’s residence to see if it was fit for Cotter and report back to Mobile after my visit.
I was familiar with his case. I had met Cotter about a year ago when a school counselor was having trouble “getting through” to him and contacted Social Services for assistance. She assumed there were problems at home. She was wrong.
Cotter was a quiet boy, not a troublemaker, but often the victim of others who were. He was different. Every classroom has a child who doesn’t gel well with the other groups of children. There’s always an outsider who gets picked on at recess. Their only fault is that they don’t enjoy sports like the other boys or aren’t amused by dolls like the other girls. Or maybe they prefer playing with the opposite sex rather than their own. Or their clothes are a bit dirty and their shoes have holes in them. Just as adults do in society, children quickly learn to outcast those who are poorer or misfortunate, or just different.
“Cotter’s special,” his mother told me when I met with her once. “My special little boy.”
Mrs. Paumans was a short plump lady with thinning curly hair. She always wore homely floral print dresses and an apron. She was the kind of lady you expect to see pulling pies out of ovens in Norman Rockwell paintings.
Parents, especially older ones like Mrs. Paumans who was in her early fifties, are often blind to the problems their children are experiencing in school because the child is different at home and doesn’t want to talk about what’s happening at school, as was the case with Cotter. He was quite the normal twelve year old boy, who liked to read and play outside, when I first encountered him at his home.
“He has a big imagination,” his mother told me.
And that he did. At twelve, Cotter still had imaginary friends. This wasn’t anything I had not witnessed before in children his age, so I wasn’t too concerned about it until I stood out on the porch with his mother watching Cotter play in the yard.
Cotter was involved in a game of chase around the yard, but he not only spoke out loud to his invisible friend – or friends – who were playing with him but paused many times to listen as if they were speaking back. And he seemed to be taking direction from them and lifting his head to make eye contact with one of them who must have been taller than he was.
Again, it wasn’t anything new or out of the ordinary that I had not seen before, but I still decided to question Cotter about it. He was hesitant at first, as most kids are when being questioned by a stranger about whatever uncomfortable hardships had fallen upon them recently, but I was genuinely interested in hearing what he had to say so it didn’t take long to convince him to open up.
“Promise not to laugh if I tell you?” he asked.
“Promise to believe me?”
“Cross your heart and hope to die?”
I crossed my heart and put two fingers in the air. Scouts honor.
“I promise,” I repeated.
I could tell that Cotter was still apprehensive about telling me. He licked his lips and looked away from me as if acknowledging someone else who had come into the room. I turned and looked in the same direction but there was no one there. Then, he nodded his head and whispered, “Okay.”
“Who are you talking to?” I asked.
He looked back at me and said, “My father.”
“Is that who your imaginary friend is?” I asked.
“He’s not imaginary. Only I can see him.”
I’d seen the movie Sixth Sense. I didn’t know if Cotter had, but I half expected him to whisper, “I see dead people.” Thankfully, he didn’t. He did act a bit like that introverted kid played by Haley Joel Osment, only not as tearful or scared. I decided it would be wise to question Mrs. Paumans about Cotter’s father since there had been no mention of him until now.
“You don’t believe me,” Cotter said, as I fell quiet while making a few notes in his file.
“Yes, I do. I believe you,” I said in the most assuring tone I could muster, but something deep inside me actually did believe him, or at least wanted to.
Mrs. Paumans told me that Cotter’s dad had died in a hunting accident when Cotter was just two, so Cotter had never known his dad. She took a framed photo off the mantel and handed it to me. He was tall and thin with a handlebar mustache and a crew cut hairstyle that gave his head a boxy look. His eyes were large white ping pong balls frozen in a surprised bug-eyed look. He wasn’t smiling, but wasn’t frowning either. He was just a man with that permanent stern look on his face with sunken cheeks and a heavy brow line. Besides the mustache, he had that typical deep south Veteran look with the short hair and strong facial features.
“We were never married,” Mrs. Paumans confessed with a smile, holding back a tear, as I took the photo from her. “But he was the love of my life.”
I decided against telling her what Cotter had said. His words echoed in my head. Only I can see him.
The next time I saw Cotter was at the police station. Witnesses said he’d hurt a boy at recess who was calling him names. He had not just hit the boy and given him a black eye, but had apparently thrown him up into the air over a swing set, slamming the boy into a tree. The adults knew this was physically impossible, but several children who saw it happen swore that it was true.
The school counselor allowed me to sit in on some of the interviews with parents who had arrived with their children to give formal statements. Most of the children said Cotter had done it, and the authorities were close to believing it despite common sense telling them that a boy his age and stature was physically incapable of throwing another child over a swing set and into a tree.The boy was also at least twice Cotter’s size. He was literally a big bully.
Then there was one small girl who told a different story.
“An invisible man did it,” the little girl said in a soft mousey tone.
“Did you see this invisible man?” the school counselor asked.
“No, silly, he’s invisible,” she said with a giggle.
When Cotter was questioned about the incident, he wouldn’t speak. He neither confirmed nor denied he’d even touched the other kid, who was unharmed other than some bruising and a broken collar bone. He only stared off into the distance, his mind obviously tuning us out and visiting another place.
At the urging of myself and the school counselor, the boy’s parents did not press charges. Cotter was suspended from school for a week. He didn’t seem to mind missing school. His thirteenth birthday fell during that time, and I’m sure he thought that getting to miss a whole week of school was the best birthday gift ever.
I made a special trip to see Cotter that day and to give him some comic books for his birthday. Mrs. Paumans ushered me in with the hospitality of any Southern woman, offering me a slice of Cotter’s chocolate birthday cake and a glass of sweet iced tea. I accepted. While she excused herself to the kitchen, I walked out back where Cotter was sitting on a tire swing having a conversation with what I suspected to be his father or some other imaginary friend he had not told me about.
The conversation was cut short when he saw me walking across the yard. He got up to greet me with a hug and thanked me for the comic books. Before Mrs. Paumans came outside, I made it a point to ask Cotter if his father was responsible for hurting that boy on the playground, but he wouldn’t tell me. It was the last time I saw him until the day I picked him up after his Mom’s body was found.
“Good luck,” the social worker at the Loxley teen home said to me when I arrived to pick up Cotter.
He stood a few feet away with that glassy blank look on his face, the same look I remember from the police station, as if he were looking through you instead of at you. It was a typical expression of a child who’d suddenly lost a loved one or witnessed an aggressive episode in the middle of the night, only to be pulled from the home in a police car and dumped off in a facility like this one amongst other children with similar or worse problems. But seeing Cotter like that was much different. It was as if he were listening intently to a voice in his head, or quite possibly to one coming from someone right next to him, someone only he could see.
I drove him back to his house and helped him pack his clothes and a few belongings. An officer was waiting there to let us inside. I suggested he wait outside because I could tell he made Cotter nervous. While Cotter collected his things, I took the photograph of his father off the mantel and slipped it into my coat pocket.
“Is your father coming?” I asked in the car, looking at Cotter in the rear view mirror as he sat in the back seat. He had yet to say a word since we left the teen home.
“Yes,” he said.
His eyes moved and met mine in the mirror. I knew he was judging my reaction. I turned my eyes back to the road and tried not to look phased. I reached down and fished the picture of his father from my pocket and pulled off to the edge of the road.
“Why are we stopping?” he said with a bit of worry.
“I want to show you something.”
I turned to face him and handed him the photo over the back of the seat.
“I thought you might like to have this,” I said handing it to him.
“Where did you get this?” he asked, taking it from me. He gave it a quick look and then tossed it on the seat next to him.
“From your house. Your mom kept it on the mantel.”
“Yeah, I know,” his eyes turned to look back out the window toward the road, ignoring me.
“I’m sorry. I just thought you might like to have it,” I said.
“What do I need a picture frame for?”
“Your mother told me that is your father.”
“No, that’s not him,” he said.
He finally turned to look at me, giving me an irritated glance. He reached for the frame and unclipped the back of it. He took the photo from inside and handed it to me.
“It came in the frame,” he said in an I told you so! tone.
The photo was on glossy thin paper and didn’t feel of professional quality; it felt more like a page from a magazine. I turned it over and sure enough, there was a bar code printed on the back and a store logo for Kirkland’s. I somehow felt embarrassed and defeated. I put the car in drive and pulled back onto the street, wondering why Mrs. Paumans had lied to me. After several minutes, I looked in the rear view mirror again. Cotter was watching me.
“It’s okay,” he said, as if he knew what I was thinking.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Maybe some day.”
“Tell your father I said hello,” I said turning my attention back to the road again.
Cotter said, “You just did.”