Comfort for My Corporeal Friend
It's difficult, being invisible to those you love. D'you know what I mean?
Or how about the feeling of not being needed? Of knowing that your best friend has other places to be, better things to do, and more interesting people to interact with than you?
If you know what I'm talking about, I sympathize from the bottom of my heart. Though, if you don't know, I'll admit I'm a bit jealous.
Anyways, I'm rambling. Let me tell you a bit about myself.
I'm not real. You see, it's kinda complicated. I'm a part of Sophie's mind. A fantasy. An imaginary friend, I guess you might call me. Sophie created me when she was four years old.
My name is Milo. I have red hair and blue eyes. That's because those are her two favorite colors. She made me a tall, handsome adult because she wanted me to look like a Prince Charming out of her favorite book. (Did I mention she loves to read?)
Pretty neat, huh? I mean, I'm luckier than Sophie's brother's imaginary friend, Flame, which he says is a toothless fire monster with floppy ears.
Or...was, I should say. Flame's not around anymore. Levi grew up.
And, eventually, Sophie grew up too.
I'm going to tell you how that happened. Thanks for listening this little monologue, it really does mean a lot to me, knowing you're there. You wouldn't believe how lonely it can get, just waiting for that day when you finally fizzle out of existence.
I mean, I had a beginning, out there in that field of flowers when Sophie gave me a face and a name. Can't I have an end, too?
"No, Milo, that's not right," Sophie had said on that warm September evening when she was six. Her tiny curls bounced as she threw her head back and laughed. "Silly. You're supposed to jump on the cracks, not over them."
I bent down and patted Sophie's head. "Of course I was. Sorry."
"Don't be sorry, silly! Just do it. It's Levi's turn when you're done."
I stood and did as she said, jumping on each crack in the sidewalk. When I reach the other side I turned and beamed at her and her brother. "Okay, now it's his turn. Come on, Levi!"
Levi couldn't see or hear me, of course. I was just a part of Sophie's imagination.
Sophie nudged her brother. "Hey! Milo said it's your turn."
"Okay." Levi, with his auburn hair and eyes the same amber hue as his sister's, leaped onto the first crack. "Come on, Flame," he said turning back to smirk at his imaginary friend. Even I couldn't see Flame, of course, because he was just a figment of Levi's imagination.
And, giving what I'd known at the time from Levi about Flame and his...violent personality, I didn't care to see him.
"No cheating, Flame! Step on the cracks only!"
A moment of silence, in which Levi teetered on one sandaled foot over a crack in the pavement, and then he spoke again. "No excuses, Flame! I know you've got stubby legs, get over it."
In hindsight, eight-year-old Levi had been a bit mean to that poor fire monster.
Levi and Flame reached where I stood at the finish line- marked with hot pink chalk- and he turned to Sophie. "There! I did it. Let's see if a girl can pass the challenge, eh?"
Sophie met my gaze and put on the most determined face I'd ever seen. "I will. Because girls are strong."
"Yeah, right." Levi rolled his weight onto one foot, still smirking. "Go ahead. Prove me wrong."
Sophie, the tiny, fragile little flower with a smile brighter than the sun, jumped. She gasped as she landed on the first crack, spreading her feet to keep her balance.
"You can do it!" I cheered. "Come on, teach your brother who's the strongest!"
My words had the desired effect. She took a deep breath and jumped again, landing with more grace on the second crack. Three more. She leaped, gaining confidence. Then again. And then a third time.
Too fast. She hadn't been paying attention, and her legs weren't steady enough for the jump. She skidded feet-first into the pink line, twisting her ankle backward. She fell, skinning her palms and left knee.
"Ow..." She struggled to a sitting position and gave her brother a thumbs-up with her good hand. "I did it."
Levi hadn't seemed to care that she'd 'done it'. He dropped to his knees next to her and cupped her wounded hand in his. "It's bleeding really bad," he said. "Ouch. Look at your knee! Can you stand?"
"Of course," Sophie said, but her voice wavered. She stood, one arm around Levi's shoulder. "I'm okay, really." She put weight on her right ankle and yelped. "Ow!"
"Uh-oh. Your ankle too?" Levi bit his lip. "I can't carry you, sis. But the house is just down across the street, can you walk at all?"
Now crying softly, Sophie nodded. She was trying to stay calm and steady, but each step she took only made her cry harder.
I did my very best- being imaginary can be a pain; I can't actually do anything. "You're gonna be okay," I'd said, my hand on her shoulder. "I'm proud of you. See how far you went? All the way to the finish line. I'll bet even Levi's a little bit proud."
And he was. I saw it later that night: Sophie and I had watched from the window as Levi went to pick up the chalk and bring it home. He'd pointed at that hot pink line and smiled proudly at her.
It was an image Sophie and I kept with us for many years after that: no matter how much he teased his baby sister, he loved her with all his heart.
Just like me.
There are too many memories to bring to light in the short amount of time I have left. But I'll think of a few more before it's over.
Sophie was ten. Levi was twelve, and Flame was gone- he'd decided he was too mature for an imaginary friend at that point.
I was at the lake with some of their friends. The weather was calm, and the sun was slightly overcast- perfect for boating.
They were getting into canoes- Sophie with her two best friends, and Levi with three of his.
"Shove off!" One of Levi's friends- a loud boy named Clint- bellowed at the top of his lungs. A loon near the shore ducked under the water, startled.
The boys were perhaps ten yards out when the girls finally got their boat into the water.
"Wait!" Sophie had cried. She pointed at me. "What about Milo? Is there room for him on the boat?"
Her blonde friend Larissa snorted. "You still have that imaginary friend? Why don't you grow up?"
Sophie wavered, glancing desperately between me and Larissa.
This is it, I'd thought. She's growing up, just like Levi did. She doesn't need me anymore.
Then Sophie reached out her hand. "You can sit with me, Milo," she'd said. "I'm not leaving you behind. You'd get lonely."
I wasn't sure what would happen when she finally dismissed me- would I fall out of existence? Would I float around like a ghost, invisible even to Sophie, as I waited for her to call me back?
I got my answer sooner than I would have hoped.
Her friends continued to wear away her resolve. They told her that she had real friends and that she didn't need someone like me to talk to.
For a while, Sophie just laughed them off. "You can never have too many friends," she'd say.
But then she started to change. She'd look at me and blush, as if ashamed to see me there, waiting to play. To talk. To listen to her when she was having a bad day. To laugh with her when Daddy said something funny.
It started with small things. Sophie's friends told her to leave me outside when they went to the movie theater one day. "You're old enough," they'd said. "You don't need an escort."
I'd stood by the doors patiently, knowing she'd be there when the movie was over.
Which was true. She came bounding out ahead of her friends, rambling on and on about how fun the movie had been. "I wish you could have seen it, Milo! The dogs were so cute. Oooh, but that bad guy was scary. Maybe next time Larissa and Kate will let you come with so you can hold my hand."
A few months later, things got more serious. Her friends insisted one winter morning over the phone that she leave me at home whenever they hung out together.
So I'd wait on her bed patiently, knowing she'd come back and talk to me.
Which she did. She'd talk about the music they'd listened to, and the food they'd eaten, and the dresses they'd seen in the windows of those quaint shops downtown.
Life was good. For her, at least. And that's what mattered, right? I mean, I never had a life to begin with, so what did my feelings matter?
Sophie's thirteenth birthday. A joyous day for her, a terrible one for me. She was finally a teenager. Puberty and mood swings were just around the bend...
...and I was left behind.
I followed her around as she, her friends, and her family laughed, played, and celebrated in the way that humans did.
She didn't speak to me. Not as much as a peek in my direction the whole day. Not that I minded; she often forgot about me nowadays, only speaking to me when we were in private and she was bored.
It wasn't until the guests had left and she was slipping into her pajamas that I realized the horrible truth.
"What a day," I'd said, gesturing to the pile of gifts she'd carried up in a big box. Articles of clothing, books, jewelry...the list went on. "Happy birthday, Sophie. You're growing up so fast."
Sophie kept right on humming with her radio as she brushed her hair in front of her full-length mirror.
"You're beautiful today," I'd said, gauging her expression. Had she even heard me? "You're starting to look like a woman. Isn't that great? I remember, that's what you'd always wanted. To be a grown-up and...stuff."
Still no response.
I don't care to recall the feelings I felt then as I slumped to the floor next to her closet door. I suppose they were terribly human emotions related to grief and loneliness and depression.
I didn't get up for a long time. She'd long since gone to sleep, and I'd stared at her in the darkness, contemplating my sad existence.
I no longer existed. She'd finally grown up and forgotten about me. I was invisible to her.
So this was it, then? Was I doomed to be like this until she finally died? Or would I continue on until the end of time?
I guess only time would tell.
It had been three years. She was sixteen, and still I followed her everywhere. I guess it was just a madman's hope, thinking that maybe if I just waited long enough she'd remember me.
Levi lived on his own, nearly thirty minutes from where Sophie and their parents lived. However, at that time their parents had been across the country at a coastal retreat, and Sophie was alone.
Sophie had been painting her nails at the kitchen table when the call came. It was Levi, voice cracking as he gave her the news.
Mom and Dad had died in a boating accident.
"I'll be there in an hour," Levi had said. "I love you, sis."
Sophie didn't say a word. She dropped the receiver, turned on her heels, and ran to her room, leaving the bottle of blue nail polish tipped over on the table.
In her room, she curled on the floor and sobbed. "Why us?" she asked, hugging her knees to her chest. "Why them? Why..." Every sentence after that came broken and unintelligible.
I had sat next to her, of course, and tried to touch her cheek. My hand went straight through her, and I pulled it away.
"I'm sorry," I'd said. "I'm so sorry, Sophie."
We sat in silence until Levi arrived. He let himself in and came straight to her room, then knelt and put his arms around her. They cried together for some time.
Is Flame still here? I'd found myself wondering. Is he standing next to Levi, wishing with all his strength he would be seen so he could offer comfort?
I never would know.
The days passed at a snail's pace. The funeral came and went. Levi and Sophie went to the family house afterward and continued packing, still in their black suit and dress.
Sophie was working on the living room as Levi did their parents' bedroom. She worked slowly and tearfully; her eyes were rarely dry now. She packed up lamps and books and little china figurines on shelves. Then she uncovered a thick album, and she hesitantly flipped it open.
There she was as a baby, wearing a frilly pink dress, sitting on her dad's lap on the porch of their first home. Her dad was much younger; his auburn hair less gray, his blue eyes surrounded by fewer wrinkles.
Further down was a picture of toddler-Levi holding little Sophie on his lap, kissing her nose.
Sophie flipped a few more pages, each one bringing forth fresh tears. She smiled sadly as she looked at each picture. Such bittersweet memories of Dad taking them fishing, and Mom teaching them how to make scrambled eggs, and all four of them putting on a puppet show...
She stopped for a long time at a page depicting a time when they had been camping near the river. There were pictures of Levi- seven years old, with hair that hadn't been combed once that week- standing over a fire with a stick.
I remembered that! Levi and Flame had been doing a dance around the fire, trying to make it bigger. "You're a fire monster," he'd said, "why can't you do anything with your powers? You're so dumb."
But it was the picture next to this one that had caught Sophie's attention: Five-year-old Sophie sitting on a log, making two s'mores. One for her, and one for me.
Sophie fingered the image. "Milo," she whispered. "I'm so lonely."
She was talking to me.
"I know," I'd said. Excitement buzzed through my imaginary chest, mingling with the sorrow. "Me too."
"I'm sorry," she'd continued. "Really, I am. I want to see you. I want to know if you're still around, or if you've moved on to...other places."
"Then see me. Please, see me!"
"My imagination isn't what it used to be. I'm not a child, living in a fairy tale where everything is rosy and beautiful anymore. I can't picture you. I know because I've tried. I try every day, Milo. But my mind tells me that you're not real and that I can't actually see you, so...I don't."
"It's...okay," I'd said. Honestly, I was just so relieved that she was actually talking to me. It didn't matter that she still couldn't see or hear me. "Don't ever stop talking to me, please? I'm lonely. I want to know how you're feeling."
That was the best thing that had happened to me in a long time. Because after she'd admitted her feelings, she seemed a little less sad.
And that had made me happy.
So now we've reached the end. Thank you for sticking with me through this, just as I have stuck with my best- and only- friend. It gives me comfort in this time of grief, knowing that someone out there cares.
I guess I should tell you where I am right now. We're at the hospital with Sophie. She got in a car accident. Levi sits in the seat next to me, holding her hand.
She's only twenty-four. That's way too young to die.
Despite the bloody mess three hours ago when she’d first been rushed into the ER, everything is clean and sterile. Each beep of the monitor comes a little slower than the last. Her broken body lies on the bed, twisted in a way that I know isn't right. There's too much internal bleeding; despite their efforts, the doctors were unable to fix her.
Levi fondles her bruised hand as though it were made of the most delicate tissue paper. "It's going to be okay,” he says, his mien heavy like stone. "Zane’s on his way. He caught the first flight back up, he should be here in an hour."
"Zane?" Sophie repeats, voice breathy and weak. She wears an oxygen mask, which fogs with every breath. "No, no. I... Zane's not supposed to be back until next week! This was an important business trip. I'm fine, tell him to go back."
“There’s no way I could stop Zane from coming," Levi says. “You know him. First sign of trouble- be it a splinter in your thumb or a sprained ankle- and he’s skipping work to come home and help you recover. Geez, I’m a terrible husband in comparison.”
Silence settles over them like a dark cloud. She blinks up at the ceiling, and he fingers the lines in her palm. Neither knows what to say.
Finally, I ask the question that’s been hammering away at my mind for hours. “What’s going to happen to us?” I swallow. "I’m just a part of your mind. If you die, will I disappear?”
Sophie, of course, does not hear my voice.
I continue anyway. "It wasn't supposed to be this way. You were supposed to live a long life. Have kids.” I lean forward in my seat and put my hands on the bed near her face. "Who knows? Maybe they would have had imaginary friends of their own. Imaginary friends that are eventually...well, discarded. Imaginary friends that follow them like spirits until the end.”
"I want to follow you, Sophie,” I say. "Can I do that? Follow you to wherever you’re going next?"
Sophie tries to turn her neck to look at her brother, but a brace keeps her still. She lets out a little sob that makes her chest spasm, then seize from the pain in her broken ribs. “Zane won’t make it in time,” she whimpers.
“Don’t say that,” Levi says, shaking his head. “You’re going to be fine, and you know it. Shh, shh, don’t cry.”
Sophie breathes noisily through her damaged lungs, trying to calm herself. She squeezes her eyes shut, clinging to Levi’s hand like a lifeline.
“No, don’t cry, please.” Worry lines dance across Levi’s face as he smoothes Sophie's hair. “Shh, shh, shh."
"You created me to be your companion forever," I whisper. "Does forever end today?”
“Tell Zane I love him,” Sophie says tearfully. “P-Please, can you do that?”
“Don’t you dare even think about that!” Levi says firmly. “You’re going to tell him yourself when he gets here, okay?"
"Don't leave me here alone," I say.
Don’t leave me like this, without a proper good-bye, I almost add, but the words are too big, too full of emotion. They get stuck before my tongue can form them.
Sophie manages a soft, conflicted smile. “Okay.”
I stare at her, mouth still open a crack as I try to find my voice. Surely she was replying to her brother. That has to be it. She can't see me!
Sophie opens her eyes again and stares back at me. "I guess even mature people like me can dream, eh?" She pulls her hand out of Levi’s grasp. "Twenty years, Milo. Have you followed me all that time?"
Still too stunned for words, I nod.
"Milo?" Levi frowns at the empty chair I'm occupying in Sophie's mind. "Wasn't Milo your..."
"Thank you, Milo," Sophie says. "I...I guess I'm dying now. Will you do me a favor?"
Too stunned for words, I nod.
"Take care of Levi. He'll be all alone when I leave. I mean, he had Flame, but that monster was a lousy friend. I want Levi to have you instead."
I process what she's said with horror. "You...want me to stay behind?"
"Follow me if you want, Milo. But Levi needs you." She stretches her arm over the side of the bed.
Not daring to believe it might be true, I reach for her hand. My skin touches hers, and I squeeze as tight as I dare without hurting her.
I begin to weep.
"You're gonna be okay," Sophie says. "I'm proud of you. See how far you went? All the way to the finish line." She squeezes back weakly. "Will you run another race for me?"
Am I willing to do this again, but with a different corporeal friend?
"Yes," I say. "I'll do anything for you."
I kiss her hand. "Promise."
"Levi?" Tears stream onto her pillow through closed eyes.
"I love you."
"I love you too, sis."
"You remember what Milo looks like?"
Levi frowns. “I...think so?"
"Good... He's yours. Don't...forget him, he's going to take care of you now."
"Take care of me?" Levi repeats. "How can he? He's not real!" He stands, cupping Sophie's cold cheeks in his palms. "Sophie! Don't... No, please don't leave me here alone! Don’t…don’t..."
Sophie's hand slips from my grasp, falling to the bed. I'm invisible again.
For a long moment, there is silence. Dead silence in which no one breathes, no birds sings outside the open window, and no footsteps clatter past our room.
And then the monitor sings in a long, mournful, flat tone.
Levi stands still as stone, eyes wide and streaming tears that plunge down onto his sister’s already wet cheeks. “…don’t go…”
I start to slip away. I can feel my body disintegrating as Sophie's mind dies. It's slow, I guess because the mind can hold onto life for a few minutes after the heart has stopped beating.
Nurses enter the room and begin to detach Sophie from their equipment. They offer Levi condolences. I can barely hear or see any of it; I'm almost gone.
"Levi!" I say as loud as I can. As if shouting could ever help him to hear me, a ghost of Sophie's fading conscious. I reach out to him. "What about her? She wanted you to take me! I can't-"
In one sudden, jerking moment, Levi reaches out and grabs me. I begin to change; not a lot, but enough that I know Levi is trying to picture me: my image, my personality. He interprets it as best he can, never letting go of my wrist. I feel myself become a part of his mind. I begin to reappear.
Levi examines me, jaw set in a grim line. "You'll stay with me?" he asks, apparently not caring that he looks like a madman in front of all the nurses, talking to an empty chair. "Even if I come back to my senses and let you disappear? You'll always stay with me?"
It's difficult, being invisible to those you love.
But it's impossibly heartbreaking to feel unneeded.
So...maybe that's why I'm here. I need to simply be.
"I...I'll be there in those moments when things are at their worst," I say. "And though you may not always see or hear me, I'll always be there to comfort you. I'll laugh with you, and I'll cry with you. And for as long as you live- be it twenty more years or a hundred- I'll follow you. I won't leave."
I had a beginning, out there in that field of flowers when Sophie gave me a name. Can't I have an end, too?
No. Because I have an important job to do.
I'm a comforter for my corporeal friend.