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Radha got her imaginary friend before me. We were walking home from school on Tuesday when she stopped and stared at the fence. I kept walking until I realized she wasn’t with me anymore. When I looked back, she was smiling.
“What’s your name?”
Obviously, she wasn’t talking to me. We’d known each other since we were babies. Still, a part of me wished she were. I didn’t have an imaginary friend, not yet. I was almost eight. Radha was just a little over seven and a half.
Some people got theirs as early as four. For others, it didn’t happen till they were nine. Radha and I had been waiting, counting the months as they passed, looking everywhere for our imaginaries. We didn’t mind that we were getting a little old, cause we were together.
Radha giggled, a low, treacherous sound. She faced the fence, cow parsley and goldenrod leaning through the chain link. I wondered what her imaginary looked like.
She looked at me, joy and surprise filling her face. “Jenna!”
I walked back to her, my stomach twisted and empty. I wanted to get home to dinner. I didn’t want to stay, hearing one half of a conversation I couldn’t be part of. Radha beamed. “Her name is Xin!”
Not really sure what to do, I forced a smile at the blank spot in front of the fence. “I have to get home,” I said. I left Radha with her imaginary and ran the rest of the way.
That first week, Radha ignored me. She tried not to, asking me to come with her when Xin wanted to show her the places she used to play when she was alive. We went to the old school and an overgrown soccer field. Xin led Radha and Radha led me through the trees to a rock that her imaginary remembered standing on, pretending to be a queen. From the places we went I could tell that Xin had died a long time ago, though not really, really long. Not like Fran’s imaginary, Judith. According to Fran, Judith didn’t recognize any of the places around here. Only the distant hills hadn’t changed since her death.
Eventually I got tired of following Radha around. I went straight home after school and sat in the living room, cutting pictures out of the catalogues my mom let pile up on the coffee table. I cut out trees and animals and some people, but mostly other things. With a glue stick I pasted the images to my notebooks and folders, covering them completely. I liked the pictures.
My mom told me what to call what I had made: collage.
I stopped talking to Radha, but I don’t think she minded. She spent all her time with Xin. Sometimes I heard her in the hallway at school, speaking words from another language to the blankness in front of her. It weirded me out, and I stayed even further away.
The school has a rule: imaginaries are permitted in classes, but we can’t talk to them. Some imaginaries like to come back to school, remember what it was like when they were alive. They hear the familiar lessons and maybe they talk to each other. I actually don’t know if imaginaries can see other imaginaries. I know they can all see us. We just can’t see them. Except our imaginary, but I don’t have one yet.
Some of the imaginaries, like Fran’s Judith, are so old that being at school is new to them. The lessons are like magic, talking about things they never learned about when they were alive. I wondered what it would be like for them to see a college class. Maybe they would learn even more. But the imaginaries disappear before we’re old enough to go to college. They never stay past a twelfth birthday.
My mom said that this was because the imaginaries had to go before you got too old for them. Imaginaries had to stay close in age to us, and when we got too old they disappeared. I wondered where they went when they left. Did they come back for someone else? I’d never heard of them remembering other people. Maybe they just came once, and then went away.
One day when I walked home, Radha stayed at the school with Xin. She’d had her for a couple of months now. I turned eight yesterday.
Something was wrong when I got home. I could hear crying. When I followed the sound I found my sister Matilda in her room, lying across her bed. Her hair flopped around her head. She was lying on her stomach, her face buried in the covers.
I stood in the doorway, not sure what to do. Matilda never cried. She was tough, beating up other kids when they commented on how her body was bigger than theirs. She had started getting boobs, swelling from her chest to match her size, which made her look older than her classmates, and also made her angrier. My sister was eleven and a half. I loved Matilda, but sometimes she scared me.
Her imaginary scared me too. I couldn’t see him, of course, but Matilda talked to him a lot, especially at night. He made her do things. I didn’t like it.
“Matilda?” I said. I was still standing in the doorway, in case she yelled at me to go away. Or started talking to Klaus.
“H-he’s gone,” she mumbled into the bed. Her shoulders shook. I crossed my arms, holding tight.
“Who?” But I knew who.
“Klaus. He…he went away.”
Matilda went quiet, her face still hidden. I backed out of her room and went to my own. I wasn’t sure why her crying made me happy. Not really happy, just…
I didn’t have an imaginary. At least Matilda didn’t either.
Lots of imaginaries don’t remember how they died. Maybe it’s too scary for them to remember. Some are older than others, but they all died young. Sometimes it was illness, like with Judith. Fran said she was thin and pale and wore a white dress that looked like a wedding gown, or a shroud. Judith didn’t remember dying, Fran said, but she remembered being very sick.
Sometimes they killed themselves. I didn’t like those ones. Sometimes accidents happened, or didn’t. But imaginaries looked the way they remembered looking, so you never saw the blood. You didn’t see them like they were buried. Or not.
Everything I knew about imaginaries came from my friends. They talked about theirs all the time, comparing personalities and experiences. Xin was bubbly, but Judith was quiet and shy. Klaus was mean. I was glad he was gone. Maybe Matilda would be nicer.
The day after Matilda lost her imaginary, I got mine. I was at school, in the bathroom. I flushed the toilet and went to the sink and there was a girl standing next to it. She had eyes that seemed to droop on the ends, pulling at her face. Her skin was almost yellowish, her hair very short. I had never seen her before.
I glanced at her, then washed my hands. She didn’t seem to be in the bathroom for a reason. She wasn’t looking in the mirror or using the stalls. She was just standing there, looking at me.
I finished washing my hands and stuck them under the air blower. It roared to life and the girl flinched, her eyes widening at the sound. I pulled my hands away, guilty for scaring her. “Sorry,” I said, though the machine continued to blow air where my hands had just been.
She didn’t look at the blower, her gaze still fixed on me. It made my head itch.
“Um,” I waited, but she didn’t seem to want to say anything. I almost walked out of the bathroom, left her there. But there are ways to introduce yourself, even when you’re not sure whether you should.
“I’m Jenna. What’s your name?”
She blinked, her face lightening. “Moira.”
When she said it, I heard it somewhere other than my ears. It was like she was speaking more from her eyes than her mouth, and I was hearing through my eyes, too.
“Are…are you an imaginary? I mean,” my heart beating, “are you my imaginary?”
Shyly, she nodded. She looked real enough, not fuzzy or anything that told me she wasn’t really there. I reached out, wondering if I could touch her. My hand passed over her shoulder, and I almost twitched back. She felt like a leaf on a tree, smooth and hard but thin. When I tried to hold on, her smoothness slipped away from my hand, like trying to grab hold of a leaf when you couldn’t find the edge.
“How old are you?”
Moira’s sloping eyes drifted, thoughts or memories pulling her away before she returned. I heard that it could feel weird for imaginaries when they first appeared after their death. They didn’t know how the world had changed, or how much time had gone by.
“I’m ten,” Moira said with her gaze.
I brought her back to class with me, but I couldn’t talk to her. I sat at my desk and she stood beside me, watching our teacher with no particular interest. For the rest of the history lesson I never once looked at Mr Williams. I examined Moira, her strangely sad face and her shorn hair. Her clothes were old-fashioned, not really old. She wore a faded red dress that looked like cotton, with tiny yellow flowers all over it. Her shoes were scuffed, little brown boots that would be too small for me, even though she was older.
When class finally ended I jumped up and rushed over to Radha. She was already talking to Xin, and when she saw me surprise dotted her face. We hadn’t spoken in weeks.
“Radha, I met my imaginary.”
Her eyes widened. She looked around the classroom, even though she wouldn’t be able to see Moira any more than I could see Xin. “Where are they? What’s their name?”
I looked at Moira. She’d followed me over to Radha. “Her name is Moira. She’s ten.”
Radha grinned. “Hi, Moira!” she said to the space next to me, almost exactly where Moira was standing. “I’m Radha. This,” she gestured to the space to the left of her, “is Xin. She’s six.”
Moira stared at the space. From her expression, I couldn’t really tell if she could see Xin or not. “How did you die?” she asked, her voice almost a whisper, almost asking no one. But I knew then that she was talking to Xin. She could see her, just like Radha.
I looked at the space, then at Radha. Radha was looking at the space where Xin stood, her brow rumpled in confusion. “What?” she said.
“Moira asked how Xin died,” I felt compelled to explain, though I didn’t know if Radha was confused by Xin’s silent reply or something else her imaginary had said, something unrelated to Moira or death.
Radha looked at me, sharp and cold. “It’s not nice to make her remember. Moira should know better.”
She grabbed her backpack and left the classroom. I stayed behind, staring at the space that almost definitely no longer held Xin, who surely followed Radha everywhere. Was it rude to ask? Imaginaries appeared right after they died. It was the last thing they experienced before they came to us. Why shouldn’t they talk about it? It’s what they all had in common.
I wanted to know how Moira died. But maybe she didn’t remember.
Instead, I said, “Let’s go home. You can see my house.”
Moira liked my room, I think. She wandered around looking at the pictures and the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. I showed her my notebooks and folders with the collages I’d made, and she even smiled. After that, I wasn’t sure what to do with her.
“Do you need somewhere to sleep?”
She seemed confused. “I don’t.”
She shook her head, a jerky motion. I sat on my bed, cross-legged and holding my feet. She stood by the window. She looked just like anybody else. The light didn’t go through her, but she didn’t cast a shadow, either. It was like she was a paper doll pasted to a background with only the illusion of light. She looked real, but didn’t really touch anything. The light didn’t know she was there, so it didn’t make a shadow for her.
“What happened to your hair?” I asked.
Moira touched her head, her face taking on that thin, confused look again. Maybe there was more that she couldn’t remember, besides her death. “It got shaved off,” she said.
I touched my own hair. “How? Who did it?”
She didn’t answer.
Matilda didn’t come to dinner that night, so I didn’t introduce her to Moira. She must have been sulking. Matilda would hate finding out that I had an imaginary now, so soon after she lost Klaus. I didn’t really care. I told my parents about Moira and my mom was happy that I’d finally gotten an imaginary.
“I remember mine,” she said, smiling. “His name was Yves.”
“What was he like?” My mom had talked a little about her imaginary before, but I never paid a lot of attention. I was always thinking about Klaus, the only other boy imaginary I knew. I was afraid all boy imaginaries were like him. It wasn’t until I got my own imaginary that I wanted to know more.
“He was quiet. I think he was around your age. He liked to read, a lot. I used to open books for him and flip the pages so he could learn all sorts of things. I got him when I was five, and he would read aloud to me, if I would flip the pages.” Her eyes shone with the memory.
“How did he die?”
Mom shook her head. “I don’t know.”
We finished dinner, my dad talking about other things. He had to wait to meet his imaginary. Boys didn’t get them until they were old. Their imaginaries came when their own memories started fading, when they needed help walking and seeing and using the bathroom. Before my grandfather died, he had an imaginary named Helen. He used to talk to her all the time, even when we came to visit. I don’t think he knew she wasn’t alive. She stayed with him right until he died. The nurse said he was talking to Helen at the end. It made my mom feel happy, that he hadn’t been alone.
But it didn’t always happen that way. Some of the kids at school were born boys but weren’t meant to be. They met imaginaries when they were young, like girls.
My mom had a friend who wasn’t a boy or a girl. I asked them if they ever got an imaginary. They said that they got more than one, that they had one when they were little, then it left and they grew older and met one again, one who had died as an adult. They said that when they got really old, they were sure they would meet another, one who was old like them.
I thought about this, about being able to see imaginaries who hadn’t died when they were little. What was it like when they’d died in college, or after having kids of their own? Men had imaginaries who had lived entire lives. Did they still not remember how they died? Could they still have killed themselves, like some of the young imaginaries did?
After dinner I went upstairs, Moira following. She didn’t say anything, didn’t ask me anything. I wished she’d talk more. Radha talked a lot. I wondered how Xin had died.
When I got in bed Moira stayed standing by the window, neither blocking nor letting the moonlight past.
On my first weekend with Moira, we walked to the ice cream shop from my house. It wasn’t really a shop, just a little cart parked in a lot that sold ice cream in the summer and closed up every October, boxed in by used cars. I got strawberry and Moira watched me eat it, sitting in the sandy grass. Chewing the sweet, soggy tip of the sugar cone, I asked her how she died.
“Someone pushed me,” she said, her voice thin and wavering as always. “I fell and hit my head.” Her hand touched the side of her head. I thought that it looked a little flattened, but I was probably imagining it.
“Did it hurt?”
Moira frowned, her face drooping. “I don’t think so.”
“Who pushed you?”
I imagined Matilda pushing that girl Hattie for calling her fat, Matilda kicking Joey in between his legs because he grabbed her, Matilda waiting for our mom to come pick her up because she punched a white girl at recess.
Moira twisted her fingers through the laces of her shoes. “My sister,” she said.
My ice cream was gone, leaving my hands cold and sticky. I stared at my own shoes, battered sneakers with peeling glittery red plastic bits. For a few seconds I picked at them, pulling off pieces and dropping them in the grass. I wanted to ask Moira why her sister pushed her, whether she meant to kill her (some imaginaries were murdered). After a while, though, I got up, and she followed me home.
Matilda was out with friends. I showed Moira her room and talked about Klaus. I told Moira that I never liked him, didn’t like how he made Matilda act. When she was younger she would use him as an excuse, telling Mom that he told her to do this, to say that. Whether he did or not, I hated him for it. He made her hard before she had to be.
We were still in Matilda’s room when she came home. I rolled off her bed and went to the top of the stairs, Moira following. Matilda was taking off her shoes, her t-shirt darkened with sweat. She looked up at us—at me.
“You better not have been in my room,” she said. I shrugged. Moira moved back from the stairs, retreating almost to the wall. She distracted me, pulled my gaze from Matilda.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Moira’s eyes were wide, her face stuck in fear.
Matilda came up the stairs. As she passed, she gave me a shove. “Quit talking to people who aren’t there,” Matilda said. I stumbled, catching myself on the railing before I slipped down the stairs. Matilda didn’t notice. She shut the door to her room with a snap.
When I looked at Moira, she was trembling. I walked over to her, tried to grasp her again. My hand slid away.
“What was your sister’s name?”
I didn’t really think about the question before it came out. Moira was still shaking, her faded dress jumping around her thin legs. “Ellie.”
“Hey,” I said, “that’s my mom’s name, too!”
She just looked at me.
Moira stopped talking whenever we were at home. I took walks so she would speak to me, but I didn’t ask her about her sister or her life. Sometimes she recognized places we went, but she never had much to say. She wasn’t like Xin, who taught Radha how to speak Mandarin.
My mom just smiled and said it was good that I’d finally gotten an imaginary, and to have fun with her before I grew up and she went away.
I tried. I tried to have fun. But Moira was sad, and scared, and quiet. I missed Radha.
On the day Matilda broke Joey’s nose, Mom came to pick her up and decided to get me too. We got into the car, ignoring the yells from Joey’s mom about how she would sue our family and have Matilda thrown out of the school. Mom tried to reason with Matilda, telling her that violence wasn’t the answer and she should always talk through her problems with people. Matilda snapped that Joey had no right to touch her and there was only one way to take things when boys didn’t listen to your words.
Moira and I sat in the back. I was looking out the window, watching the houses go past. Every time I looked over at Moira, she was watching Mom.
“Was your sister older or younger than you?”
I was asking Moira, but the car jerked. Mom’s hands gripped the wheel, her eyes piercing me through the rear view mirror. “What are you talking about, Jenna? I never had a sister.”
“You did,” Moira said.
I looked from Moira to Mom. “Did you?”
“Did I what, Jenna?”
I was going to ask if she did have a sister, after all. But looking at Moira, I began to see something in her eyes, something in her nose and mouth that reminded me of Matilda. And of Mom.
“Did you have a sister?” I said.
The car scraped to a stop. Mom turned around in her seat. Her face was twisted in anger like I’d never seen before. She was different, terrifying.
“Don’t you ever suggest such a rude, ridiculous thing!” she said, spluttering and tripping over her anger. “Will I have to start watching you, too? You and Matilda both?”
That set Matilda off. She uncrossed her arms, turning away from the window where she’d been sulking. “Joey deserved what he got! You wouldn’t know what it’s like, being Black in this damn school! You’re an entitled—”
She didn’t get any further, because Mom slapped her. Moira twitched beside me, and I shrank into my seat.
“I will not have my daughter speak to me like that—”
“You won’t ever understand,” Matilda interrupted. And before Mom could reply, Matilda opened the door, got out and stalked away from the car. She was heading away from home. She must’ve been going to a friend’s house.
Mom stared in shock at Matilda’s empty seat.
“Confess,” Moira said.
Mom looked back at us. She couldn’t have heard Moira, but there was something off in her eyes. “It was an accident,” she whispered, her voice cracking over the words. She wasn’t looking at me anymore, her gaze on the seat beside me, the seat that held Moira.
“I didn’t…it was just…I was a child!”
Through the windshield I watched Matilda jog across the street. She didn’t look before crossing.
“I was a child,” Moira said. I wondered if Mom heard her.
Matilda screamed. I looked out the window and saw her running to the other side of the road. A truck had come around the corner, speeding towards her. I could see her dashing in front of it, the headlights reflecting the sunlight and stinging my eyes. The truck braked, tires squealing as the driver tried to avoid Matilda. She just barely made it to the other side. I don’t think she got hurt.
Mom turned, tears on her cheeks. We both saw the truck swerve across the lane towards where we were parked on the other side of the road. We watched it wobble, and fall, and skid towards us.
What happens to an imaginary when their person dies? Do they disappear, or find someone else? Can they move without someone to follow?
I remember the screeching, the crash, but I suppose I don’t remember the exact way I died. From the moment the truck hit us until the time I appeared on the playground, there was nothing.
Some things had changed, though. The school was bigger, the kids different. I could see all of them; I could also see the imaginaries, their edges smooth and sharp. They looked less real now that I was one of them.
I didn’t know which one was mine, which I was meant to follow. Standing alone on the side of the playground, I waited for someone to ask me my name.
This story previously appeared in What One Wouldn’t Do, 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Marisca Pichette is a queer creator of monsters and magic. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Fireside Magazine, Fusion Fragment, Apparition Lit, Uncharted Magazine, PseudoPod, and PodCastle, among others. She lives in Western Massachusetts, collecting fragments.