fiction

Imaginary Friends

It took me 489 miles to realize that leaving California might not be the best way to deal with everything.

And it only took me driving one mile back towards home to realize I didn’t actually give a shit that it was a bad idea.

My plan was sound: get out of Oakland and just go live in some rural town in some other state. Or country. I really didn’t care which. Rent a room. Work as a waitress for a year or two. Then pick up and start over in the the next unplugged rural town over. And as long as I kept doing that… maybe if I just kept a move on… maybe if I went somewhere without a lot of people to begin with… I could trick myself into thinking that those people on the street were just people. Maybe I could pretend they were just like everyone else, just with weird, pale complexions and out-of-place clothes. Yeah. That makes, sense right? That’s a reasonably sane plan, right?

Well, whatever. It sounds a hell of a lot more sane than “I can see dead people.”

I looked down at my gas gage and found it hovering just above Empty so I decided that the next town I saw would be the one I stayed in. I wasn’t sure where I was, just that I was in Nevada. And I only knew that because driving at 95 miles an hour still felt like driving at 40.

I pulled off the road into a little town called Elko. I guess this is where I would make my life for the next year or so. Because why not? I mean, besides the fact that I had no job or place to live or money to live off of. Okay, so I didn’t think it out. Sue me. But I had to do something.

Tomorrow, I would look for jobs but it was almost one in the morning by the time I rolled up so I didn’t really have time to do it right then. And since this whole thing had been pretty impulsive, I didn’t have a whole lot of food, either, so I went to the nearest gas station. I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay in my car all night and never leave. Especially not at night, because that’s when I see them the most. I guess you don’t have to sleep at night when you’re dead. But I needed gas and I was hungry.

I looked around. It was a little jarring seeing an am/pm with a card table and slot machines. I saw an old guy playing at one of the slot machines, over and over again. I mean, it was like he was glued to the seat. For a moment, I thought nothing of it, but then I noticed his his opaque skin and ’50s style clothing.

Was this what it’d be like when I died? Would I just sit around and use my eternity in limbo to play slot machines?

I felt a strange urge to go talk to him and tell him break a gambling addiction he probably developed in life and go see the world. But I knew he wouldn’t talk to me. He wouldn’t notice me. He would just stare at his slot machine no matter how many times I yelled at him and then he would turn around and I’d think it was because he could hear me but it wouldn’t be. He’d just be going about his night as a miserable ghost, and I’d be going about my night as a miserable 18 year-old girl, marching towards the same fate.

You see, we can’t see them. And they can’t see us. That’s how it’s supposed to be, at least. Not for me. It started when I was little and kept telling my mom there was a little two year old boy who liked to hang out in my room and he just wouldn’t leave. I told her I didn’t like the way that the kid cried so much. It annoyed me. I didn’t like how he would never respond when I tried to tell him to go. After all, Mommy had told me that that was rude. She had told me you should listen to other people when they talk, and this little boy would never listen to me. And did I mention how much he cried?

I think my mom was convinced I’d suffered some kind of massive trauma. She kept poking around like she was trying to get me to say something and tried to get me to go see counselors. But I kept telling her I hadn’t had anything like that. I said that everything was fine except for not being able to sleep because of that kid’s crying and I couldn’t understand why she was so bothered by this. I just wanted her to get this kid to pay attention to me and shut up.

But instead, I was the one who learned to shut up. I learned how to lie, to my parents, to my friends, to myself. I told them that I didn’t see anything, that it was just my imaginary friends. I mean, in my own defense, that’s kind of what I assumed they were when I was that little. But my imaginary friends were mean. They never listened to me.

I picked up a pack of cheap granola bars and walked over to the counter. The cashier looked about 15 years old and was definitely not in a cheery mood. But then again, I probably wouldn’t be too cheery if I was working graveyard shift, either.

“That’ll be $5.25,” she said. She was looking somewhere past me, though. She looked… scared? That was kind of weird.

I turned around to see what she was looking at and she quickly darted her eyes down.

She had been looking at the ghost at the slot machine.

No. No she couldn’t have been. That wouldn’t make any sense. She was looking at the slot machine. Because they can’t see us. We can’t see them. Except for me.

But something held me there. Slowly, I got some cash out of my wallet. Her eyes kept darting back and forth between me and the slot machine behind me.

I mean… she couldn’t possibly. She couldn’t… that wouldn’t make any sense…

“Slot machines are fascinating,” I don’t know what compelled me to say that… but… I had to. If there was even a hope – even a chance –

She went bright red. “Oh it’s… it’s nothing… sorry, I’m just exhausted. 75 cents is your change,” she shoved it into my hands like she was trying to get me to go away. But the thought had seized me and I could not stop until I knew for sure. 

“You know, we don’t have slot machines in our gas stations in California.”

She nodded, again seeming as if she wanted me to go away.

“Can I ask you a weird question?” I said. I never would have done it. But I supposed that, if I wanted to, if I came off sounding like a nutjob, I could just leave Elko and head to a different town. This place seemed pretty miserable anyway.

She looked confused. “Um, yeah I guess.”

“Do you…” But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth. The last time I had asked anything like that was when I was little. My throat tightened and I felt my heart beat faster. This was bullshit. I was crazy. It was nothing. She saw nothing. Just like everyone else. I had to be overanalyzing the situation.

Then her eyes darted back to the ghost at the slot machine.

“You… you can see too?” I whispered, still afraid of sounding like a crazy person (and believe me, I’ve wondered on more than a few occasions if I actually am crazy).

Her eyes widened. “I… I don’t know what you mean…” But all the while, she tapped her fingers on the counter at an alarming rate.

We just stood there in suspended silence for awhile, neither of us really knowing how to keep the conversation going. Thankfully, aside from the ghost, there was only one other person in the gas station, an employee who was just shuffling stuff around on the shelves, not paying us any attention.

“Can… can you…?” She stuttered, seeming unable to continue.

“Old guy?” I finally forced out, quickly so I didn’t stop myself. “With ’50s clothes?”

Her eyes were so wide I thought they might pop out of their sockets. She nodded almost imperceptibly. I thought I might cry. But I don’t do that, so instead, I gave an awkward kind of laugh.

There was something crazy about it. Something crazy about, for the first time, knowing that there someone else, someone else who understood, someone else to validate that I actually wasn’t totally insane.

“I’m Emma,” I said, smiling.

“Sarah,” she replied, sounding shaky.

“Hey, when do you get off your shift?” I asked.

“20 minutes,” she said excitedly. “There’s a Denny’s a little ways up the road.”

I looked around. Elko wasn’t going to be such a bad place to live, after all.

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