April 15, 2022

The Imaginary Friend

by Gwynne Garfinkle

“Gigi, how did you know my planet exploded? That’s not what happened in the film or in the book.”

How it begins: a human girl with brown braids finds me sprawled on my back in the weeds. She stares down at me, and her bespectacled freckle-face bursts into an astonished grin. “Niko? It is you! Are you all right?” She helps me to my feet. I’m about a head taller than her.

“I crashed,” I say. I remember hurtling towards a green and blue planet, then the impact. It should have killed me. “My space ship…” I look around. There’s no wreckage, though there should be. Just a little broken glass and some cigarette butts. How do I know what cigarette butts are? There are no cigarettes on my planet. I’m not wearing my space suit—just a close-fitting corduroy suit the color of goldenrod (I think inexplicably of a crayon in the girl’s small hand) and brown suede boots. The girl has on jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt with a rainbow on it.

“This is the vacant lot, in Van Nuys, on the planet Earth,” the girl says. “I’m glad you can breathe our air.”

“My planet…” I say, assailed by a terrible memory.

“Exploded,” she offers cheerfully. “I know. I’m sorry!” She looks me over. “You don’t seem to be wounded. Can you walk?”

I can.

“I’m Gigi,” she says. “I’ll take care of you, Niko. We’re going to be great friends.” She takes my hand and leads me past green lawns and one-story houses with cars parked at the curb and nestled in garages. She sneaks me into her house, into her room.

To my astonishment, there are pictures of me on her bedroom walls. I stare at them. It’s me, all right: the same gray fur and amber eyes, the same compact, slender frame in a goldenrod suit. “Where did you get these?” I ask.

She shrugs. “From a magazine.”

“How do you know who I am?”

She smiles broadly. “Oh, I’ve been wanting to meet you for a long time!”

* * *

Gigi is ten years old. She manages to keep me a secret from her parents. I sleep in her closet. It’s a large enough closet. I don’t seem to need food, although I enjoy it when she sneaks me pizza and sandwiches and sweet fizzy drinks.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Niko,” she says. She says it often. “The kids at school won’t talk to me, unless they’re making fun of me. I’m not good at sports, and I don’t care about the music or TV shows they like. But now none of that matters, because you’re here. They should be so lucky as to have a friend like you.”

“I can’t stay forever,” I tell her. “I need to build a new spacecraft. Perhaps I can travel back in time before my planet exploded and avert disaster.”

She nods. “I’ll help you any way I can. With supplies, or anything.”

“There are large gaps in my knowledge. I can’t remember how to fly a spacecraft, or how to build or repair one.”

“Maybe it’s amnesia, from the crash,” Gigi suggests. “If you want, I can check out some books about astronauts and stuff from the library. But we’re not as technologically advanced as you are.”

She brings me books about travel to this planet’s moon. Nothing jogs my memory. Another thing bothers me: I can speak only the English language, which is odd for someone from another planet.

* * *

The movie comes on the television about a month after I arrive, and we sit on the floor and watch it in the living room with the door shut. We even eat popcorn. It gets stuck between my teeth, which are pointed and sharp, but I like it. There is no popcorn on my planet.

I suck in my breath when I see my planet on the television screen—its purple skies and pink-flowered trees.

“But… that’s me,” I breathe. On the TV screen I wear the same suit of clothes I have on. It’s what I wear all the time. It never seems to get dirty.

“It’s an actor playing you,” Gigi says. “You’re the real you. He’s Malcolm Pierce. It took hours for them to get all that makeup and stuff on him—plus contact lenses to make his eyes look like yours.”

The door swings open. “Mom!” Gigi yells in two descending syllables. “I’m watching the movie!”

“Sorry, honey,” says her mother, a small, plump woman with short hair the same color as Gigi’s. I expect her to give a start at the sight of me, but she doesn’t even notice I’m there.

“Why didn’t your mother see me?” I ask when the door closes again.

Gigi shrugs. “There’s a novelization, too. I’ve read it five times. I’ll loan it to you if you want.”

A terrible suspicion begins to form—but something on the television screen distracts me. I creep towards the TV. “Aleen,” I whisper. It’s my wife. She has marmalade fur and bright blue eyes. On the television, she’s scribbling into a notebook. Aleen was a renowned philosopher. “Aleen,” I implore the TV, as if I can bring her back to life.

“That’s Ellen Light,” Gigi says. “She has blonde hair in real life.”

The actress who plays Aleen looks up at the actor who plays me. She pulls my whiskers. “Don’t you have anything better to do than look at me?” she teases, smiling. Then there’s an explosion outside our home, and she screams.

I brace for the ending of the movie, which surely will be my space flight and the explosion of my planet. To my surprise, the war ends with me still on my planet with my wife. It’s the human man and woman (who crash-landed on my planet at the beginning of the movie) who fly back to Earth at the end of the film. For them, and for Aleen and me, a happy ending. How can that be?

That night while Gigi sleeps, I sit in the closet with a flashlight and read the paperback with a picture of me—no, of Malcolm Pierce—on the cover. The book of my life before Gigi. The book too has a happy ending. My suspicions cannot be dismissed.

I open the closet door and sit pondering until the room grows light. Then I steal up to the bed and touch Gigi’s shoulder. “I’m not asleep,” she says, and opens her eyes.

“Gigi, how did you know my planet exploded? That’s not what happened in the film or in the book.”

She rubs her eyes and sits up. “How did I know?”

“I suppose I should ask, how did you make it happen?”

Her mouth drops open. “I didn’t! Not really. I just… I thought about you and the movie. I thought about meeting you. I made up a story about you blasting off from your planet and coming here, and your planet blowing up. I thought it would be so tragic, and I would comfort you.”

My head swims. “You thought it would be tragic…”

“I didn’t think it would really happen, Niko!” she whispers. “It was just a story I told myself.”

For a long moment rage fills me. I press my lips tight together. I shouldn’t really have lips, the way humans do—but now I realize that I resemble a human male made cat-like by makeup, foam rubber, and glued-on hair. I let out a great sigh. “It didn’t really happen, Gigi. I had no planet. You didn’t destroy it, didn’t kill my wife. None of it was real, and neither am I. All you did was bring me to life, of a sort.”

* * *

It isn’t much of a life. I come to despise myself for how much I enjoy the girl’s company. She made me this way—the perfect friend, visible only to her. It would be cruel if she had done it on purpose. One day we watch an old black-and-white TV program in which a small, all-powerful boy terrorizes his town. Gigi holds my hand tightly while we watch. “It was so scary,” she says afterwards, eyes shining with delight.

“You’re not like that boy, are you?” I ask.

Her lip trembles as if I’d struck her. “You think I’m evil? You think I’d wish anyone into a cornfield?”

“That’s not what I meant. I mean, you don’t have the power to wish my wife into existence, or to wish me back to my planet. To wish my planet into existence.”

“I don’t know how! I’m sorry, Niko. I don’t know how I did it—I just wished for you, that’s all. I wished to meet you, and my wish came true.”

“I believe you.”

She begins to cry. “I’m sorry if you’re unhappy here. Nothing else I’ve ever wished for has come true. Ever.” I place my hand on her small shoulder and pat gently. Her weeping briefly intensifies, then subsides, and she regards me with watery gratitude.

* * *

I roam the neighborhood when Gigi is at school. There’s not much to see—squirrels and tricycles, Magnolia trees and smoggy blue skies. Occasionally a supercilious Siamese with eyes like Aleen’s wanders by. “Hello? Do you see me?” I always ask, but she looks right through me.

One day I try striking out on my own. I walk for an hour along Ventura Blvd. At a certain point—too far outside the range of Gigi’s influence? —I feel myself start to fade. I sink to the pavement. A bus trundles past, exhaust filling my nose. A bicyclist rides right through me. I’m afraid I will cease to exist there and then. I get up and run on all fours towards home.

* * *

Time passes, more quickly than I would have thought possible. Gigi turns thirteen.

“What do you want from me?” I ask one day as we lounge on her bed.

“What do you mean? You’re my friend.”

“But you have a best friend now. It’s not like when I first arrived. Why am I still here?”

“I want…” she says. “I can’t explain it!” She strokes my wrist, making me purr. I can’t help it. She giggles and redoubles her petting. “You have the prettiest, softest fur, Niko.”

Sometimes when she’s at school, or at her best friend’s house, I seem to wink out of existence for minutes, perhaps hours at a time.

* * *

Posters of sneering musicians have long since replaced the magazine photos of the actor playing me on Gigi’s bedroom walls. Some nights Gigi goes to clubs with her friends and comes home with her clothes smelling of cigarettes and her parents yelling at her for breaking curfew. I keep losing time. It seems likely I’ll wink out of existence entirely unless I can wrest back her attention. She’s infatuated with a twenty-year-old guitarist, skinny and pale and floppy-haired. She spends hours upon hours on the phone with her best friend, analyzing the guitarist’s every word and move. “What do you think it means?” she asks, lying on her back on the bed. I prowl the narrow room, pacing as her girlfriend’s voice on the other end of the line prattles on: I think Johnny loves you, Gigi! It’s so great!

“He doesn’t have beautiful fur like mine,” I grumble when she finally gets off the phone.

“What?” she asks, as if she’s surprised I’m still here. Why am I still here? She has on jeans and a tight orange New York Dolls t-shirt. She wears contact lenses instead of glasses. Her hair is long and loose. I lie alongside her on the bed. Her parents are out to dinner. I butt my head against her chin and purr insistently. “Hey, your whiskers tickle,” she says, giggling, but she wriggles closer. She strokes the side of my face.

Carefully, so as not to hurt her with my teeth, I press my lips to hers. For a moment she is perfectly still. Then she responds with volcanic surprise. “Oh, Niko,” she whispers between kisses. “I’ve always dreamed…”

This, I think, this is why I’m still here. I knead her stomach and scratch at her jeans. Her eyes are half-closed, her face flushed. Then she looks at me. “Niko…what about Johnny?”

I growl low in my throat.

“I guess it wouldn’t be cheating,” she says. “I mean, you’re not even real.”

I sit up in bed. It’s only true. Why then does it hurt?

“Where are you going?” Her arms wind around me. “You are real,” she croons. “You’re real to me.” She pulls me down.

I still long for my wife, though she isn’t real. But neither am I. Just a girl’s plaything. I love Gigi the way some humans love their God, with anger and bargaining and endless yearning. Has she ever loved me, really?

* * *

“But Johnny…” She’s weeping on the phone, her eyes red and puffy. Begging him not to leave her. The real one, the unpredictable one, the one who’s visible to the world and not just to her.

She didn’t create him.

“Please, Johnny… I love you… please…

She hangs up the phone and hurls herself into the pillow. She sobs again and again. I don’t like to see her hurt—but if Johnny has broken things off, it will be just her and me again, and my existence will be safe. I touch her shoulder, and she flinches. “Go away! You can’t help me. I’m nothing without Johnny!”

“That’s not true. You’re… everything.” She doesn’t look up. I don’t think she hears me. I feel lightheaded, unreal. I realize how wrong I was. Heartbreak shrinks her world to a tiny, dense blackness. Her grief is obliterating me. “Please, Gigi…”

“I’m nothing without him. Nothing!” More sobs, blotting me out.

I try to pat her shoulder, but my hand is fading before my eyes. I don’t want to die. “I’m nothing,” I whisper. “Nothing without you.” Then I cease to be.

* * *

When I come back, it’s to a different bedroom. The walls are plain and off-white. I’m sitting on the carpeted floor. Gigi blinks down at me, then smiles. She’s wearing glasses again—orange-framed wire-rims—and her freckles have faded. Her hair is cut short. She is a small, plump woman in gray drawstring pants and a purple t-shirt. She pleasantly resembles her mother.

“Niko! It’s really you.” She gives me her hand and pulls me to my feet.

“It’s clearly been a long time since you’ve spared a thought for me. I should hate you. But you created me to be your willing puppet.” Then I see myself—no, that actor Malcolm Pierce—on the TV at the foot of the bed.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I was an idiot. Look, I’ve been watching your movie on DVD. I hadn’t seen it in so long. A new version just came out, and I saw it in the theater last week. It sucks.”

She sounds the same and different.

“Is Malcolm Pierce in the new version?” I ask.

She stops the movie with the remote control and sits on the edge of the bed. “He died a few years ago. No one good is in the new version. It’s so slick and full of CGI, but it has no soul. Not like the original.”

Somehow I feel flattered. I sit beside her.

“I was a fool to ever forget you,” she says. “You were so beautiful. You made me so happy.”

She strokes my wrist. I try not to purr, but I do, softly. “I’ll stay as long as you like,” I say, though I really have no choice in the matter.

She shakes her head. “I figured it out, Niko. It’ll be different this time.”

“What did you figure out?”

She scoots back until she’s sitting against the headboard. She reaches for something on the bed—a small black laptop computer. “How to give you a new story. Because you deserve a fantastic one.”

I move up the bed and sit beside her. I peer at the screen—blank whiteness and a blinking cursor.

“Any requests?” Gigi asks. “You should see some of the stuff fans have been dreaming up for you. In this one story I just read—based on the new movie, not the original—you had wild sex with Larren. It was pretty hot.”

“With my wife’s father?” I splutter, and she laughs.

“I was thinking you could go home, through a time rift, and save your planet. I mean, it was in my version that your planet blew up in the first place, so it seems only fair.”

It seems a shame to leave so soon. “I’d like that,” I say. “But perhaps first we could brainstorm a bit.”

She smiles. “Absolutely! Tell me what you think of this.” She begins to type. Her fingers on the keys sound like the falling rain in the pink-flowered forests of my planet.


* * *

Originally published in Postscripts to Darkness

About the Author

Gwynne Garfinkle lives in Los Angeles. Her debut novel, Can’t Find My Way Home, was published in January 2022 by Aqueduct Press. Her work has appeared in such publications as Fantasy, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Mermaids Monthly, The Deadlands, Apex, and Not One of Us. Her collection of short fiction and poetry, People Change, is available from Aqueduct Press.


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