We don’t always get to keep our best friends. I learned that when Claire realized she wouldn’t need me anymore. We were something special, her and I; it seemed as if no power in the world could separate the two of us. She would wake up in a frenzy each morning, her short, fiery hair burning the air around her. This was a sign that she had discovered an adventure for us to go on. Her azure eyes glistened under the light of the sun as they eagerly painted a whimsical world for us to explore. The far off places that she created could only be seen through our eyes. At one time, chiseled palace walls emerged from the earth, breaking through the crust, and scraped against the clouds. At another, vast fields of turquoise carnations bloomed under a violet sky. We visited those realms whenever her imagination conjured them up, and that’s where I came from, too.
I met Claire shortly after her second birthday. It wasn’t long after that I began to fall in love with her. Now, this is not the kind of love that teenage girls have for their vampire boyfriends or the love that a little boy has for his puppy. It’s something deeper. It’s the kind of love that a painter has for their masterpiece, an author has for their first novel, or a surfer has for their largest wave. It was the feeling in my chest that caught ablaze when I heard her call my name, or the loss of gravity that stemmed from below my feet when she stared into my eyes. When I looked back at her it was almost as if I could peer right into her mind: the place I was born.
Just like the moments she erected massive castles or populated expansive fields, she created me. I have always thought that her imagination was something exceptional, especially for someone so young. Every world she created, either from the seat of a couch or a swing on the playground, was boundless. Her creativity saw us slaying immense dragons, travelling to the moon, and speaking to various forms of wildlife. Considering all of her creations, though, I knew that I was the most intricate.
Modeled after her favorite animal, my body takes the shape of a giant, fluffy rabbit. Claire only grew to be as tall as my belly, on which I have a bottomless pouch that allows the two of us to retrieve anything that we may need for our journeys. I’ve fished swords, jetpacks, and, rather painfully, entire yachts out of my gut upon her request. My fur is a deep violet, speckled with spots of green; it’s as soft as a lamb’s butt, which I personally imagine to be quite divine. I grew tired of always being naked, though, so she and I rummaged through her father’s closet and stole one of his striped bow ties. During her first year of preschool, Claire had to wear the ugliest pair of glasses we had ever seen, so to make her feel better, I started wearing a hideous set of my own. That’s just what we did for each other: we were there for one another. No matter what.
I guess I was cursed with a sense of naiveté, though, because as she continued to grow up, we stopped adventuring together. Our daily routine faded into a rare, biweekly occasion, and no matter what I did to entertain her, she slowly grew bored of me. It all started when her younger brother, Aiden, was born. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t jealous of him. It was him, afterall, who took my best friend from me. I could feel Claire’s mind lose interest in me as she fantasized about the games that the two of them would play. Soon enough, I stopped hearing from her all together, and she began to forget about me. The worst part of my life wasn’t the moment I realized that she had forgotten about me; it was when I realized that despite it all, I couldn’t forget about her.
As the days turned into months without her, I maintained the hope that I would be given a few seconds of borrowed time to say goodbye. She stopped calling upon me to play with her after Aiden’s first birthday. After that, I was abandoned to the darkness of her mind without consciousness or concept of where I went. I imagine it to be the same place that the human brain goes when there aren’t any dreams to be had.
I guess I could be considered one of the lucky ones, really. One who was remembered. Though, if I had known why she needed me, I might’ve preferred to remain forgotten. The sound of her singsong voice beckoning me back to her instilled life in my body as I raced toward it. I appeared to her almost instantly, taking shape in a dimly lit hospital hallway.
“Claire!” I beamed, floating through the air. My heart was a feather.
“He’s sick, Jongo, and I don’t know what to do.” She looked up at me with tears plastered against her freckled face. She was so much bigger than I recalled. Her hair now tickled the surface of her shoulders and her once vibrant eyes were dulled. I didn’t realize how much damage two years without me could do.
I did what I always used to when she would cry: I reached into my pouch and retrieved the biggest balloon I could find. I heaved three breaths into it, nearly passing out, and rubbed it against my conditioned fur. Static emerged from its rubber surface and I applied it to my lengthy, cat-like tail. I proceeded to tickle her with it, hoping to force a smile onto her face. She was left unfazed.
I stopped in my tracks, “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Aiden,” she sniffled, “He’s really sick and I’m really scared.”
“Hey, hey, look at me,” I started, coiling my tail around the side of my body and using it to press her chin skyward. Her eyes locked with mine. “Let’s talk this through, okay?”
Her voice was weak, but deeper than I recalled. The words spilled from her mouth as she recounted her three-year-old brother’s constant fevers and bouts of blood pouring from his nose and mouth. She was trembling between breaths.
“Mom was super scared, but Dad said it would be okay,” she said. “The doctors did a bunch of weird stuff to Aiden and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to make everyone feel better again but Mom and Dad say it’s serious. It’s like, a-cute-lim-blast-loo-keem-ya, or something.”
“That’s a big word, and you know that my brain is only the size of a carrot,” I giggled, trying to make her laugh. It didn’t work. What was wrong with me?
“Mom says it’s like what happened to Grandma when she got sick with cancer.”
My ears deflated. “It’s going to be okay,” I reassured her.
“Is Aiden going to die, too?”
“Of course not! He’s your best friend. We never really lose our best friends.”
“Promise?” She looked at me with little confidence.
“Super-Claire-Pinky-Swear,” I said, extending my paw.
Just as she was with all of our adventures, Claire was fearless. She took me by the arm and led me through the hall, decorated in posters that could make even the healthiest people fear for their wellbeing. From an open window, a river of moonlight poured across the floor. She stamped her feet around a series of corners until we came upon a small room, glowing in a warm, golden hue. Sounds of hushed conversations traveled out of the doorway.
“JoAnn, what do you want me to say?” The voice of Claire’s father reverberated through the room.
Her mother groaned, “Damn it, Roger, I want you to prioritize your family.”
“I haven’t worked—we haven’t worked—in over a week. Someone needs to go back or we’re never going to be able to afford to keep our son alive.”
“You and I both know that this isn’t about keeping Aiden healthy.” She started weeping between heavy gasps for air. Something was wrong. I’ve never heard anyone talk like this before.
As her mother continued her lament, Claire turned back to me with a stone face, “They keep fighting, Jongo. They scream at each other every night before bed.”
“Are you scared?”
“It’s okay. I’m here now, and nothing is going to hurt you anymore, all right?” I wrapped my fuzzy arms around her, stuffing her face into my bulbous stomach. I coursed my paws through the waves of her amber hair and clenched my eyes shut. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t convinced that I would be able to protect her. “Okay. Let’s go in together.”
Her eyes were irritated behind the tears. “Will you keep me safe?”
“I may have been gone for a bit, but nothing has changed. I’ll make sure nothing happens to you. We’ll get through this together!” I clutched her hand in mine and marched into the room.
Her parents dropped their voices upon our entrance. Claire’s mother was shaking, her face pale and wrinkled under stress; her father’s complexion was contorted and red as he bit his tongue. Each of their bodies relaxed slightly as I led Claire to the corner of the room to sit with me.
I nodded my head at her, encouraging her to speak. She lifted her eyes to them and spoke softly, “I don’t think Aiden likes to hear you fight all the time.” Claire looked back to me and I squeezed her hand in reassurance.
“Oh, God.” Her mother looked over her shoulder, acknowledging her son, and collapsed against a wall. She buried her face in her palms.
“Claire,” her father started, advancing cautiously toward her, “I am so sorry. We never meant to hurt you, or your little brother. Your mother and I love both of you—and each other—very much.” He knelt down next to his daughter and placed his hand on her knee. I released my grip of Claire’s hand and allowed her to hold her father’s.
“We won’t upset Aiden anymore. We promise,” Her mother croaked, glancing at her husband and joining the two on the floor.
Claire leaned her head against her mother’s shoulder and closed her eyes. I felt my presence in the room begin to fade as she drifted off to sleep. For a moment, I feared that I may never be needed again. I grappled onto my surroundings in an attempt to remain by her side, but my consciousness dissipated with hers.
* * *
There were moments in my absence that I wished I could see her, but I knew that if I didn’t, it meant that she was okay. When I was ripped from her side with no guarantee that I’d ever be with her again, a piece of my heart tore with me. Selfishly, I considered myself lucky when she called my name nearly a year after our meeting in the hospital. Pieces of me materialized before her, linking together and taking shape in her eyes. I found myself positioned in their home’s foyer. It still smelled of apples.
I grinned eagerly down at her, “Claire Bear!”
Her rosy cheeks turned a dozen shades of red, but it wasn’t enough to make her smile back. I just wanted to see her face light up one last time. “Jongo,” she started, reaching for my paw, “I don’t know how to help him.”
My heart plummeted. “Aiden?”
“Uh-huh, the doctors said he was better, but they were just a bunch of liars!” Claire’s grip tightened around me.
“What happened?” I asked, feeling the bitterness boil under her skin.
Her throat constricted in an attempt to withhold the words from leaving her mouth. She began talking about the assessment of Aiden’s condition. There were gleams of her mother’s personality and vocabulary in Claire’s description of her younger brother. It was as if she relinquished her autonomy to confront the truth. She spoke about the doctor’s attempts to target the malignant cells and their ultimate failure to do so.
“They said it would help him, Jongo. But they lied.” She started to quiver in my arms. “The poppa-toe-sis didn’t work and now he’s even worse. I don’t want him to die.” Tears puddled in her eyes and splattered against the linoleum floor.
“It’s okay, Claire. I promise it’ll be okay,” I told her, feeling my fur become damp under her sobs.
“That’s what Mom said, too. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, remember?”
A sudden throb of irritation came over me. All I wanted to do was comfort her, but I didn’t know how to do that anymore. I knew that if I could only get her to play with me, then everything would go back to the way it used to be. Maybe then she and I could be happy again. That’s all I wanted. “Claire, let’s go outside.”
“I don’t wanna.”
“Please?” She deflected my request with an icy gaze. “Let’s go on an adventure.”
“There’s nowhere to go,” she protested.
“There’s everywhere to go! Come on, follow me,” I said, dragging her resisting heels behind me.
Refusing to release her hands, I paraded us to the backyard. This was it. This was the place that she would smile again. The world around us was oddly silent; the only sounds came from a subtle breeze that harmonized with a lonely cricket’s song. I released her hands and sprung about the yard, feeling the wondrous liberty of the open atmosphere. I even attempted to scale a tree, but I forgot that I let myself go once Claire had stopped playing with me. I really needed to work out more.
“Where are we going first?” I mused.
“Back inside,” she said, starting to turn away.
“No, wait, Claire, let’s figure something out,” I begged, watching as she started off. Without warning, a mass of gloomy clouds began to roll above our heads.
“Mom said it was going to rain.”
“Come on,” I started, leaping in front of her, “we’ve played in the rain before!”
“I don’t want to play anymore, Jongo,” Claire’s voice was cold. She walked briskly past me.
“But if we play—”
“Then what?” She shouted. “‘Then all of our problems will go away?’ Mom and Dad said that’s not true. No one listens to me. No one cares about me.” She dug her toes into the dirt. A brisk wind swept beneath her arms and uprooted her from the earth, wisping her into the air. She was flying.
“Claire, look! You—you have wings!” I hollered, watching as magnificent feathered appendages emerged from her back and launched her skyward. She was an angel. There was still a piece of her imagination left, afterall.
“I made them to get away,” she announced.
“From what?” I called back, watching her retreat further into the foreboding clouds.
“Everything! Mom and Dad and Aiden and the doctors and you.” Her voice shred through me mercilessly. This was worse than being unneeded. I was unwanted.
The clouds around us condensed and raindrops cascaded from above. In the distance, a bolt of lightning was etched into the sky in a fury, splitting through the incoming storm. I looked up once more, unable to see Claire. I knew that I wouldn’t disappear no matter how badly she wanted to forget me; that was when she would remember me the most. My body trembled above the waning support of my weak knees. I loathed the thought of surviving without her love.
I reached into my pouch, hopeful to find something that would take me to her, but nothing transpired within me. Without Claire’s imagination, I had nothing. I toppled backwards against the damp grass. I lied wondering, for what seemed like hours, what I did wrong. I knew that I would do anything to have her back. My heart did something that was worse than ache. It stopped. And for a moment, I felt nothing.
My ears perked up at the sound of a car approaching the driveway. Its headlights glared in my eyes and the wheels squealed to a stop just outside the garage. “Oh, for God’s sake, she left the door open again. Claire!” Her mother shouted as she emerged from the vehicle. She anxiously extended her umbrella under the pouring rain.
“Mom?” I heard Claire’s voice chime from overhead. She glided effortlessly back to the earth, paying me no attention. Upon contact with the ground, her wings decayed in an instant. The feathers expelled from their position and danced in the air, scattering in all directions.
Her mother walked frantically toward her, “What are you doing out here? I told you it was going to storm today. Did you even tell Grandpa that you would be out here? And you’re not even wearing a jacket! You’re going to catch a cold, Claire,” she scolded.
“I’m sorry, Mom, I just—”
“We don’t have time to play, it’s—”
“We never have time to play anymore. We never have time to do anything but worry about Aiden. It’s not fair!” Claire snapped. Her teeth grinded against one another like a cinder block against concrete.
“Life isn’t—,” her mother started, but stopped as Claire’s father planted his hand on her shoulder.
“We think we can make Aiden better this time,” he smiled. The rain shimmied from upon his beard. “The doctors have a solution for us. And it’s not going to be easy, but—”
“That’s what you said last time. You promised he would get better. You promised that he and I could play again after the doctors did the popping toes thing,” Claire cried. I motioned to comfort her, but she dismissed my open arms.
“Popping toes?” Her father muttered. “Oh, apoptosis, Claire, and you’re right. I did promise, and I shouldn’t have done that. I want you to look at me.” She stuck her nose indignantly away from him. He grabbed her hand and caressed her fingers between his. “The last thing the doctors did was not the only option. There are a bunch of things they can do to make Aiden all better. They told us that they’re going to do this thing called Chemotherapy.”
Claire fell into his extended hands. “What does that mean?”
“Let’s get you inside and all dried up. Then, I’ll tell you.” As he lifted her into his arms, she looked back at me and waved.
“Goodbye, Jongo,” she whispered. I felt my presence wane from her mind. I needed another chance to be with her.
* * *
Several months elapsed before she called for me again. I appeared in the hospital once more to a lonesome Claire, swinging her feet from a waiting room chair. Relief flooded over me; I couldn’t believe that she wanted to see me again.
I approached her with my tail between my legs. “Hi, Claire.”
“Hey, Jongo. I don’t want to play. I just want to talk.”
“I always want to talk to you, Claire, you’re my best friend,” I said reproachfully.
“I used to think Aiden was just pretending to be sick to get attention,” she professed, acting a little too wise for her days. She keeps growing up. I just want her to stop and stay with me. “When Mom and Dad brought him home from the doctors who said he has cancer, I told Mom and Dad that they were lying to us. They didn’t believe me. But now Aiden doesn’t look like Aiden anymore. He doesn’t have hair, he has red and blue and black marks all over his body, and he says he hurts all the time. I wish that the doctors lied.”
I didn’t know how to respond. It was as if her body was emanating contagious waves of fear. I wanted to take away all of her concerns. I wanted to bring back the faith that she had in the world.
“I think that lying is easier than telling the truth. Lies, somehow, make things easier to bear,” I said. “The last time we were in the hospital together, you asked me if I could keep you safe. I told you that I would make sure that nothing would happen to you. The truth is, I had no idea if I would be able to do that. It was easier for me to lie than to admit that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t admit to something that terrified me.”
She paused. “They lied when they said that the apoptosis would work, so how can I believe that they aren’t lying again?”
“I don’t know much about being a doctor,” I confessed. “Unless, of course, you count the time when we nursed all of your stuffed animals back to health.” I looked to her in hopes that I had inspired a nostalgic smile. There was nothing. “I think that the doctors are telling the truth. Aiden is sick. But, he’s going to come back home healthy.”
“It’s just not fair. Aiden hasn’t done anything wrong in his whole life. It must be someone’s fault that he’s stuck here.”
“Sometimes there isn’t anyone to blame when awful things happen.”
“Then what am I supposed to do, Jongo?” Claire asked.
“Well, I know that being with you always helps me. Maybe you could help him, too. I think that you should play with Aiden and show him all of the magic that’s stored within your imagination.” It was hard telling her to play with someone else. I couldn’t believe that I let those words leave my mouth; they felt foreign.
“He’s not ready to play yet, Mom says.” She looked at the floor in discouragement.
“Then I guess you’ll just have to wait a little bit longer until he is.”
“How do you know that he’ll get better?”
“We did a Super-Claire-Pinky-Swear, remember? Nothing comes in the way of those.”
“You’re right,” she nodded, building up courage. She leapt up from her seat and embraced me. “Thank you, Jongo, you’re the best bunny ever.”
I watched her hurry off without me, rounding the corner of the hall. As my body faded away, I thought of her. I thought of her, years back, when nothing could defeat her. When it was just the two of us. When we were always happy. She didn’t deserve to have that taken away, and I didn’t either. I wanted to blame someone, or something, for robbing Claire of her smile. For robbing me of it, too. Instead, I thought about the memories we shared in her imagination. I knew that we would make it through this, just as we did countless times before. Together.
* * *
I rested alone for half a year. Part of me convinced myself that I was content with not returning to her. I became sure that she wouldn’t need me anymore; that it would be better for both of us if I were gone. Apparently that wasn’t true. There was a faint ringing in the back of my ears, calling me toward her. At first, I dismissed it, assuming that I was just hearing things again. Only after it continued to call my name did I feel a burst of warmth erupt within me. It was Claire, but she sounded different. A hint of joy radiated from within her, reminiscent of the time we shared daily adventures.
I chased after the echoes of her voice, craving to see her a final time. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to come back to her. I needed to. She needed me.
“Careful, Jongo!” She exclaimed as I appeared before her, nearly stumbling into the wall. I scanned my surroundings slowly, taking note of the popstar postered walls, haphazardly displaced toys, unkempt bed, and fourth-grade homework assignments littered about. I was back in her bedroom. Oh, how I longed to see this place again.
“Where’s Aiden?” I asked anxiously.
“He’s coming home today.”
“Is he all better?”
Her eyes sparkled for an instant, just like they used to. “Almost, but Mom says that he and I will get to play today.”
I sprung into the air, “Claire! That’s so exciting! When will he get here?” There were two honks of a car horn from the driveway, seemingly answering my question.
“Mom probably needs my help,” Claire mumbled, looking down at her feet.
I put a paw on each of her shoulders and knelt down to her. Her eyes wandered into contact with mine as a tear rolled down her cheek. She wiped her face vigorously with her sleeve. “It’s okay to cry, you know,” I said.
“Thank you for helping me, Jongo,” she sniffled, resting her forehead against mine. “I want to take Aiden on all of the adventures that you and I went on.”
“He’ll love that, Claire.” I paused for a moment and gathered my thoughts. “And I don’t think you need my help with that anymore.”
“But I don’t want to say goodbye to you.”
“Then we won’t.” I offered her the happiest expression I could muster. “You’ll always have a piece of me with you.”
“Okay,” she forced a layer of confidence across her face. The car honked again. “Okay,” she repeated, mustering more strength. “Thank you for being my best friend.” With that, she ran off, leaving me in her room.
Moments later, I could see Claire from the window, gently holding Aiden’s hands, leading him to the backyard. She fell back against the lush grass, giggling like nothing else in the whole world mattered. Her smile was back. Her brother lowered himself to his hands and knees, then sat next to her, laughing all the same. For an instant, Claire sat upright and looked to her bedroom window where I watched from afar. She put on a big toothy grin and waved at me.
Thank you for being my best friend.
I smiled back, knowing that I got to keep mine.
Oh, My Word! Jacob would love to hear from you after reading this story. If you happen to remember any of your imaginary friends, feel free to introduce and describe them in the comments!
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