by Michael H. Payne
Staring at the computer screen, I blink, but the picture there doesn’t change. I give it a few more blinks just to be sure, then I shift my gaze over to Meredith, sitting on the edge of the bed and tying her shiny black shoes. “Mare! This doesn’t make any sense!”
“It’s the internet,” she says, her nimble fingers not slowing in their lace knotting. “It’s not supposed to make sense.”
“But look!” My feathers rustle as I wave a wing. “The contest this week on the WriteEm website is supposed to be for original fiction instead of fanfic, but all the artists in the group submitted prompt images with characters from the My Little Mythos cartoon series in them!”
That gets her to look up, a few creases wrinkling her usually immaculate forehead. “All the artists?”
“OK, three of the eleven.” I’m trying to cut down on my exaggerating. Which is to say that Meredith is trying to get me to cut down on my exaggerating…
Still, I jump and flap and poke the screen with a claw. “This one, though! It’s a parody of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, that painting of a pipe with the words ‘This is not a pipe’ written below it in French? But the artist’s got Ploomy, the odd little pegasus from My Little Mythos, standing on a cloud, and along the bottom, it says ‘Ceci n’est pas une ploom’!”
Meredith’s on her feet, taking the couple of steps to her dresser. “Ploomy the pegasus?”
My wings nearly freeze and drop me to the floor. “Do you look at none of the YouTube links I send you?”
“Sammy?” She’s combing her hair now, short and brown and draping straight down to almost touch her shoulders, so her attention’s on the mirror. “Are you screeching?”
I am, of course. I’m also hopping up and down on the back of her desk chair, something else she doesn’t like and something else I usually avoid because I love Meredith and would do anything for her.
Anything within reason, I mean. But right now, reason seems about as distant as the freaking Outer Hebrides.
Still, I’m not screeching — not screeching at all! — when I go on. “It’s such a great image, funny and clever and well-done and everything! But this isn’t a My Little Mythos fanfiction round, so how can I possibly write a story based on it, huh? How?”
The arched eyebrow she turns toward me makes me realize not just that I’m screeching and not just that I’m hopping up and down on the back of her chair, but at this point I’ve started whining as well. So I take a breath, gently undo my claws from the fabric, settle my wings, and hardly even croak when I say, “I simply can’t be expected to work under these conditions. That’s all.”
“Uh-huh.” She brushes her sleeves — it’s one of her white, billowy blouses with the little ruffles at the wrists that make her look like a pirate and usually make me pretend I’m a parrot. I don’t this time because she’s going on: “Unfortunately, some of us have actual work to do, so I’ll see you later.”
“What?” I leap into a hover above her desk like a real crow could never do. “You’re leaving me here? Alone? With this horrible conundrum?”
The tiniest of smiles pulls at her lips. “Sammy, I go to Montaine’s at this same time every afternoon Wednesday through Sunday. Or haven’t you noticed that in the three months we’ve been together?”
“No!” I quickly transform myself into a little crow-shaped brooch. “Here! You can pin me to your lapel and take me with you!” Another pop and puff, and I’m nothing but a single downy black feather. “Or here! You can tuck me into your bra! No one’ll know, and I can snuggle all night against your beautiful, beautiful—”
“Sammy!” She screeches it, but I don’t point out this little factoid when I notice the unhappy blush enflaming her pale cheeks.
Swirling back to my regular corvine form, I collapse to the top of the desk and wish I could blush, too.
“There’s a time,” she says after a long, long minute, her voice tight and her eyes clenched, “and a place for that sort of stuff between us. This isn’t it.”
“I know, Meredith.” I can barely form the words. “I’m sorry, Meredith.”
She pulls in a deep breath, then blows it out. “It’s a good thing you’re just a figment of my imagination.” With another breath, she grabs her purse, unlocks the apartment door, steps out into the hall, and closes the door behind herself.
* * *
Of course, I’m not a figment of her imagination. Or at least I’m not just a figment of her imagination. After all, could a figment of someone’s imagination be typing this story and entering it in the WriteEm contest?
But I can understand why she thinks I am. I mean, look at it from her point of view: a talking crow that can change into a variety of shapes as long as they’re somewhat crow-related? I’d think it was a figment of my imagination, too, if a big black bird swooped down onto my shoulder late one night as I was walking home from my mind-numbing job as hostess at what Meredith tells me is actually a fairly nice little bistro just on the other side of the park from our apartment here.
She didn’t scream, I remember, her hand coming up to stroke one of my wings while she pressed her cheek into the feathers of the other. When we got back to her apartment, she curled up into bed and started cuddling me like a teddy bear, too. I’ve even taken my most humanoid form a few times when she’s asked, and we’ve done more than cuddle…
Except that this isn’t that kind of story, so forget about any details. The only important thing is that she’s beautiful and I love her and I never, ever, ever want to be without her the way I was, floating and shapeless and lost for so many long, excruciating centuries.
I lift my forlorn birdie head at the click-n-latch of the door lock. She’ll forgive me for being an idiot. She always does. That doesn’t stop me from feeling as torn up and stinky as carrion, though.
However, ‘carry on’ is one of my mottos — what a segue! I shake myself, hop back to the computer, and sigh at the image of Ploomy as the pipe from Magritte’s painting. “What was the artist thinking?” I mutter.
On the screen, Ploomy’s eyes swing toward me. “Just a darn mystery, all right,” she says.
And yes, OK, maybe it’s stupid for a thing like me — whatever that is — to be surprised by a thing like this — whatever this is. But I’m pretty sure I’ve demonstrated my stupidity well enough in the first thousand words of this little opus. So I stare back at her, my tongue flicking around inside my beak like half a worm for a good second or two before I manage to ask, “Are you talking to me?”
“Yep!” She leaps from the screen, her little gray wings flitting her around my head like a fair-sized moth. “Us figments of the imagination gotta stick together, y’know!”
“But…” It takes me another few seconds to assemble some words. “Can a figment of the imagination have a figment of the imagination?”
“Well, sure!” Settling on the top edge of the monitor, she gives a grin that seems almost bigger than she is. “Who better, right?”
“Ummm,” I reply, and while it’s not clever, it is heartfelt.
Ploomy giggles. “That must be why I’m here: to teach you how to be a better figment!” She leaps from her perch and resumes her fluttering. “First thing, then! You shouldn’t be cooped up inside some apartment! You should be out on the town, spreading your wings, making dreams come true for yourself, for your lady friend, and for anyone else who’s lucky enough to run across you! Imagination: that’s the key word!”
“Look at me!” She rears back and spreads her front hooves. “I’ve got no business being part of the prompt image for an original fiction contest! No business at all! And yet? Here I am!” One front hoof curls down to rest on her hip while the other jabs the air between us in time with her next words. “And here you ought to be, too!”
Glancing from side to side just to be sure, I say, “I am here.”
“Exactly!” The air whooshes as she swoops past me. “So c’mon! We’ll go be here somewhere else!”
I swivel my neck and watch her slam face first into the apartment door with the sort of sound I imagine a sock full of toothpaste would make: not a squish and not a splash but something distinctly related to both.
She just bounces back, though, shakes her head, and turns a lop-sided grin toward me. “The thing is, you’ve gotta come with me since you’re the one imagining me.”
Again, parts of me start to stammer. But then a selection of her words from a few seconds ago actually seeps into the mulch I call my brain, finds a little seed there, and sets it to sprouting.
Making dreams come true for my lady friend, she said. Because, yes, I’ve been doing everything I can think of to make Meredith’s life better — or at least more interesting — ever since she summoned me or I appeared or whatever it was that happened. And if a little imaginary Ploomy the pegasus wants to show me more ways to help Meredith?
Then never mind who’s imaginary and who isn’t. “Let’s do this,” I say, and I flap toward the door.
Why I can pass through when Ploomy couldn’t, I don’t know. For that matter, I don’t know why I’m still aware of the world without Meredith’s presence. All I know is: thinking about it would be a bad idea.
So I don’t think about it. I bank right, zoom down the hallway, and dive through the closed window at the end as easily as someone might dive through a waterfall.
* * *
“Whoo-hoo!” Ploomy crows beside me, and I, being the closest thing available to an actual crow, do some cawing of my own. It echoes from the buildings behind us and goes shooting off into the late afternoon sky, traffic flowing on Woodward Avenue below, humans strolling along the winding little walkways in the park ahead. I angle my wings to slice through the spring air and do some more cawing just to let the world know that I’m enjoying everything it has to offer.
The tingling from the tips of my pinions to their bases! The exhilaration of the open air! Have I actually not been out of Meredith’s apartment in the past three months?
“See?” Her wings buzzing like a hummingbird’s, Ploomy somehow manages to get out in front of me and fly backwards. “You need to keep fresh, to keep alert, to keep—”
The canopy of the tree we’re skimming over rises up in the breeze and swallows her with barely a rustle. I luff my wings, land on an upper branch, and watch her wriggle back onto her hooves among the leaves. “OK!” she announces. “D’you wanna start with something small, or d’you wanna blow yourself up to the size of City Hall and stomp through the streets demanding couscous?”
“Not that second one!” I say as decisively as I know how.
“Small it is!” When she nods her head, I swear I can hear metal clattering, but her gaze seems to catch on something in the park under and around us. “There!” She points off to my left.
I look down through the branches, but all I see in the growing shadows cast by the descending sun is grass and leaves. Except—
Something of a not-quite-natural color and shape is lying half buried by a pile of cut branches at the base of the next tree. I lean forward, and the something resolves into a little doll of some sort.
“C’mon!” Ploomy calls, and she darts away toward the doll. I follow.
When we alight next to it, I see that it’s a rag doll not even as big as a human hand, yellow and creased with age but smiling from its round cloth face. “OK,” Ploomy says more softly than just about anything she’s said so far. “Now all you hafta do is find the little girl who belongs to this doll and reunite them.” With one tiny hoof, she smooths down the doll’s threadbare yarn hair.
“Uh-huh.” Another look around shows me no humans of the proper age nearby. “How do I do that?”
She shrugs, still patting the doll.
This rankles me a bit. And because I’m a natural-born malcontent, I can’t leave my next thought unexpressed. “And this is gonna help Meredith somehow?”
Ploomy cranes her head around and blinks at me. “It is? Wow! What a coincidence!”
“No, I mean—” If I had fingers and the bridge of a nose, I’d be employing one to pinch the other. As it is, though, I settle for spreading my wings and flapping a little. “You said you’d teach me how to be a better figment of Meredith’s imagination, didn’t you?”
“Hmmm…” She taps her chin. “Yep, that sounds like something I’d say, all right.” Then she goes back to petting the doll.
I wait for her to continue, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that she’s done. So I consider my options.
Storming off in a huff, of course, sits right at the top of the list. But Meredith doesn’t like it when I get all grouchy that way…
More than that, though, well, I’ve got an imaginary pegasus spirit guide, don’t I? And if I’ve learned anything from the internet — and boy howdy, have I! — it’s that spirit guides are supposed to exasperate, are supposed to drive those who pick them up toward questioning their assumptions, delving through their psyches, discovering insights into who knows what all, and stuff like that.
So sure, I can’t imagine how finding this doll’s owner is going to help me help Meredith. But that doesn’t mean it won’t.
Which pretty much decides it. I jump forward, grab the doll in my talons, and flap up into the getting-on-toward-twilight sky.
* * *
Several hours later, full night has fallen, and I’ve gone from one end of the park to the other more than once without meeting any weeping children, any distraught parents, anybody who could be searching for a missing doll. Fortunately, the thing’s light and soft and easily gripped, or I would’ve dropped it in the lake by now.
Ploomy’s kept with me the whole time, though I’ve found her calls of cheerful encouragement — “Great going, Sammy!” is a frequent one, followed closely by “Almost there, I’ll bet!” and “That’s the way!” — to be less encouraging and more frustrating the later it’s gotten. I’ve actually been spending more time perched than flying recently, and I’ve ended up in a tree on the other side of the park from our apartment building, the doll draped over the branch beside me and Ploomy cuddled up to it.
“I dunno, Ploomy,” I finally say. Looking at her, I can’t tell if she’s asleep or not. “Whoever lost this doll’s probably not even in the park anymore.”
“Can’t give up,” she mumbles without opening her eyes. “Do it for your lady friend.”
“Do what for her?” I’ve been trying to hold down my growing annoyance, but it’s just overtopped its banks. “Fly around like an idiot all night? She’ll probably be getting off work soon!” I’ll admit that Meredith’s very true comment earlier about me not knowing her schedule even after all these months has been nettling me just a bit. “And I’ve done nothing, learned nothing, made exactly no amount of different to anyone or anything!”
She’s blinking up at me now. “And why do you think that is?”
“Because I’m nothing!” I shout, waving my wings. “Because I’m just a figment of her imagination, and not even a very good figment at that! I screech when she doesn’t want me to screech, claw up the back of her desk chair, spend all my time doing useless things on the internet, and just generally upset her all the freaking time! I’m the worst thing that could’ve happened to her! The absolute worst!” My screeches rattle off into the darkness above the lights lining the park’s pathways, but even if the sounds I made were real, they’d likely be drowned out by the rattle and whoosh of the cars along Glennis Avenue.
Ploomy just keeps blinking. “No,” she says. “Not that. I meant, why do you think you spent all this time flying around like an idiot?”
Now it’s my turn to do some blinking. “Uhh, because you told me to? Because you said I needed to find this stupid doll’s stupid owner if I was gonna learn how to better help Meredith?”
“And why’s that important?”
“Why?” The air slices in and out of my nostrils as sharp as razor blades. “Because she’s beautiful and perfect and I love her and she deserves everything to be wonderful in her life even if I can’t ever do that for her!” My wings droop from my sides like Spanish moss. “I have to keep trying, though, because she believes in me. And I mean that literally: I’m a figment of her imagination, right?”
“I don’t know.” Ploomy cocks her head. “Sounds to me more like you’re a figment of your own imagination than hers. ‘Cause if you were really as awful as you just said, I can’t imagine Meredith would keep you around.” The corners of her mouth turn up. “Hey! Now I’m imagining stuff, too! It’s some kinda epizootic!”
I’m staring at her so hard, I couldn’t blink if I wanted to. I’ve never let myself even think the question, I guess, never let myself wonder the simple, basic ‘why’ of it all.
Why does Meredith keep me around?
And the instant that thought starts settling its roots into my cranial mulch, that’s when the screaming starts.
“Thieves!” someone high-pitched and creaky is shouting. “Villains! I’ll sue you all to oblivion! Just see if I won’t!”
It’s coming from across Glennis Avenue, from a nice little bistro with tables out front nestled among the tall buildings. There’s an old lady standing in the bistro’s doorway, her long black coat trimmed with some sort of silvery fur, and she’s shouting at—
She’s shouting at Meredith. My eyes go wide and my heart freezes.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Jameson,” Meredith is saying from behind a little lectern just to the left of the door, “but Luis didn’t find anything at your table when he—”
“That’s because you’re all thieves!” Folks sitting at the outside tables are looking at the old lady now and wrinkling their brows at Meredith — at my Meredith!
A chubby, balding man wearing a three-piece suit and a concerned expression comes out of the restaurant. “If you could just tell us what you’ve lost, Mrs. Jameson, we could—”
“I didn’t lose anything!” Mrs. Jameson jabs a finger at the man. “Snookums has been with me for seventy years, Mr. Montaine, since before your grandparents opened this establishment! The only way she’d be parted from me is by force, and I’ll have your entire staff arrested, searched, and deported if she’s not back in my arms within the next three minutes!”
The man smiles a smile that hasn’t a gram of humor in it and rushes back inside leaving Meredith alone with the crazy lady and an uneasiness that I can smell over four lanes of traffic and two sidewalks.
It’s not just her uneasiness, I realize then. Mrs. Jameson’s giving it off, too, like she’s really lost something precious, like a child or a friend or a pet or—
“No,” I say out loud, turning to Ploomy and the doll. “You don’t think…?”
“I try not to.” Ploomy gives a little shrug. “It usually doesn’t turn out well.”
With a snort, I leap up, grab the doll in my talons, and swoop across the street.
Meredith’s voice comes clear to me, and it’s like everything slows down except for her, the cars creeping along Glennis Avenue, their grinding and growling muffled and distant, the air thick and cold as ice cream, my swoop becoming a leisurely glide. “I know what it’s like, Mrs. Jameson,” Meredith is saying. “I’ve never been good at making friends, but I have one now, someone precious and very secret. It’s the best feeling in the world sometimes, and sometimes it’s the worst, cradling so much sweetness in your arms when no one can see it but you. I can’t imagine how terrible it would be if I ever lost my friend, though, so please believe me when I say we’ll do everything we can to get yours back.”
Mrs. Jameson’s head turns slowly, a rusty weather vane finally noticing a shift in the wind, and her eyes go wide like she’s noticing Meredith for the first time. Meredith gives her a little smile and a little nod—
* * *
And the world crashes to full speed and volume, my flight carrying me to the sidewalk a few paces from Meredith and Mrs. Jameson. Not sure what to do — I haven’t really thought this out, have I? — I wave my wings to catch Meredith’s attention and give as gentle a regular crow croak as I can.
Unadulterated alarm floods Meredith’s face. “Sammy?” she asks, her voice cracking.
I croak again, bend down, and take the little doll in my beak.
Mrs. Jameson has turned now, and delight is the only word for what floods her face. “Snookums!” she cries.
With the silent giggling of the universe tickling my brain, I flap my way to Meredith’s shoulder, lean forward, and drop Snookums into Mrs. Jameson’s outstretched hands. For an instant, I swear I can see the child she must’ve been at some point in the previous century; then Snookums is swaddled away into the giant handbag hanging from her arm, and her eyes are narrowing in a completely different way than they were earlier. “Young lady,” she says, “you know it’s illegal to keep a crow as a pet, I assume?”
“Pet?” The word pops from Meredith’s mouth like a cough. “Oh, no, ma’am! We’re just good friends!”
The smile that creaks across Mrs. Jameson’s lips has nuances in it that I’m not sure I want to understand, and then the man in the suit is pushing out the door, his smile even unhappier than before. “Please, Mrs. Jameson,” he says, “won’t you come into my office so we can—”
“All is well, Mr. Montaine.” She’s pulling on a pair of white, lacey gloves. “Your young hostess and her friend reminded me that I’d been enjoying an afternoon in the park before wending my way to your enchanting bistro for a bit of sustenance. Snookums at that time evidently decided to take a stroll without informing me, but all has again been set right.”
I want to take another look at Snookums, see if he shows any more liveliness now that he’s with Mrs. Jameson than he did in the hours I was carrying him around. I maybe see some shifting and bulging in her purse, but I can’t really take too close a look…
Mrs. Jameson strokes the purse like she might a kitten and nods to Mr. Montaine. “I apologize for my histrionics, sir, and please convey my apology to your excellent staff. I shall be adding an extra twenty percent to my tips for the rest of the year in the hope of making some sort of amends for my actions this evening, and I shall see you all tomorrow night.” That same knowing look tugs her face when her gaze grazes mine; then she’s marching away up the street.
“Meredith?” It’s the man’s voice behind us; when Meredith turns, I find myself looking up into Mr. Montaine’s confused face. “Is that… a crow?”
“He’s, umm…” Meredith’s shoulder tightens beneath me. “He’s one of the flock that lives in the park, sir; I’ve kind of gotten to know them since I moved to town.”
For an instant, I’m sure that I’ve done the stupidest thing ever, that I’m about to get Meredith fired, that she’ll hate me forever and will disperse me back into whatever aether I congealed out of. But—
“Huh.” Mr. Montaine’s smile becomes real for the first time that I know about. “Well, it’s good to see you making some friends. Just remember: we’re all one big, happy family here at Montaine’s.” He lowers his voice. “And you’ve just done an exemplary job dealing with one of our craziest aunts.”
Meredith shuffles her shoes against the matt under the lectern, and her blush this time is a happier sort than the one I saw in the apartment earlier.
“But now…” Mr. Montaine straightens his tie. “Perhaps you can promise your friend that you’ll give him an acorn or whatever as thanks on your way home tonight and then tell him toodle-oo?” He waggles a finger toward Glennis Avenue. “Before someone texts the city’s health inspectors?”
“Yes, sir.” The scent of Meredith’s relief is like fresh water flowing over rocks. “Thank you, sir.”
Mr. Montaine is already moving away to the patio tables. “Our apologies for the excitement, folks, but, well, that’s the spice of city life, isn’t it?”
Chuckles rise from the diners, but my attention is immediately focused on Meredith’s finger stroking my back. “Sammy,” she murmurs, “you are an angel. And you know what I was saying about there being a time and a place for us?” Her stroke becomes a caress. “I’ll see you when I get home tonight.”
The joy bursting through me makes me want to whoop, but I know that’ll just make things uncomfortable for everyone. So I touch my head to hers, click quietly deep in my throat, and take off into the night. Ploomy comes spinning up beside me as I pass over the tree, and her “Whoo-hoo!” is plenty loud enough for both of us.
Or… Wait. That’s more than one voice, ‘whoo-hoo’s ringing out all around. Figures flash against the night sky like afterimages of the ceiling lamp when Meredith gets home from work after midnight and wakes me blinking at her turning the lights on.
What am I seeing? Are they—?
“Yep!” Ploomy’s dancing with them, whirling away when one phantom partner vanishes to take up with another. “So many figments have been pulling for you, Sammy, and they’re all real happy now that you’ve made the Big Step!” The way she pronounces those last two words, I definitely hear the capital letters. “Having people see you when you’re somebody else’s figment? That’s huge!”
Swallowing, I glide through the shadowy smiling shapes appearing and disappearing on the thermals over Woodward Avenue. “Then I was… one of these… before?”
Ploomy nods, more serious than I’ve ever seen her. “It’s hard to remember once you start down the road to the Big Step. Me, since I got onto the cartoon show, I’m kind of a halfway case. So I help other figments when they need it.” She points a hoof at me. “You could help out, too, you and Meredith. You could start with Mrs. Jameson and Snookums!”
I have no idea what to say. Which usually doesn’t stop me, but this time, I’ve got too much tangling and growing in my head. Fortunately, I’m able to pass through the apartment window without leaving glass and feathers everywhere — I guess I’m not quite as real as that — and I land on the back of Meredith’s desk chair with my mind made up. “Okay,” I tell Ploomy. “If Meredith’s okay with it, I mean.”
She’s only just touched down on the top edge of the computer monitor, but at this, she leaps into the air again. “Hooray! You guys’ll be great!”
“But what exactly are we supposed to do?” I ask, but she’s already diving through the screen and freezing into place on the Magritte parody artwork still displayed there.
Things get a little loud after that for a while what with me flapping and yelling, trying to get an answer to my last question. But eventually I settle down and start typing this story. I need to finish before Meredith gets home so we can have a talk about figments of the imagination.
Or considering what she said at the restaurant, maybe the discussion can wait till tomorrow…
Still, I’ll run a spell check and post this, an entirely true story, I swear! I mean, it’s on the internet! How could it be anything but true?
* * *
About the Author
Michael H. Payne’s stories have appeared in places like Asimov’s Science Fiction, a half dozen collections from FurPlanet, and 11 of the last 12 annual Sword & Sorceress anthologies, a run that includes the Ursa Major Award winning short story “Familiars.” His novels have been published by Tor Books and Sofawolf Press, he’s only posting 4 pages of webcomics a week these days instead of the 11 pages he did for over 15 years, and his poems turn up pretty regularly on the Silver Blade website and in the Rhysling Award anthologies. Check hyniof.com for further particulars.