The antlered boy looked Icarus up and down and smirked. Icarus scowled and stuck his tongue out.
“Icarus!” His mum yanked his arm, casting a worried glance at the otherwise empty street. “Don’t look at people who aren’t there.”
Icarus pouted and looked back. The antlered boy was still there, and he was still there when they got to the park where other children ran and screamed and didn’t get told off for pulling tongues at non-imaginary imaginary friends. There was a big man outside, Icarus’s dad, who saw them coming, perhaps saw the way mum was dragging him along, and instantly hurried towards them.
“Roanna? Roanna, what’s wrong?”
“I saw someone who wasn’t there,” Icarus said, grinning as his dad glanced down at him and away, as if by looking at Icarus he’d done something he shouldn’t have. He’d once told Icarus that at seven his friends should be real, not make believe. Icarus had never quite been able to explain that they were real, even if no one else could see them.
Mum’s grip tightened. “Maybe we should go home.”
“Noooooo!” Icarus wailed and started to struggle. He liked the park, it was the best place to see the people who weren’t there, or at least, it was the best place to watch them. No one thought it strange to find a child staring at nothing in the park, and if asked Icarus could always point to some distant tree and claim to have seen a bird. Only mum might suspect that he was lying. He looked up at her now, lip wobbling perfectly, tears already forming, and as always she sighed and gave in. He ran for the park, the sandpit, and the girl surrounded by castles.
She wasn’t alone. There was an odd, squat creature that she couldn’t see, and it was poking her. It poked, and she squirmed. It pulled her hair, and she looked around. At last it pinched her and she started to cry. The creature cackled, Icarus grinned and the girl went running to her mum, who wouldn’t be able to understand the sudden tears. Icarus eyed the abandoned sandcastles, took a step towards them, and was unexpectedly tripped.
He spat out a mouthful of sand and scowled. It was the boy from earlier, the one who wasn’t supposed to be there, the one with antlers who was trying to look friendly but wasn’t doing a particularly good job of it. He was older than Icarus, though Icarus couldn’t have guessed by how much, like one of those ageless paintings that never really looked like real people. Icarus stared, and then did the thing his mum had always told him not to do. He spoke.
“You look funny.”
The boy laughed. “So you do have a tongue, we had begun to wonder.”
Icarus frowned. There were lots of people who weren’t supposed to be there, and certainly many of them had tried speaking to him, but Icarus didn’t remember ever seeing this one. The boy crouched. Even without the antlers it would’ve been obvious he wasn’t normal. He reminded Icarus of the monsters under the bed, even if he didn’t really look like a monster.
“Why can’t anyone else see you?”
“It is not their right,” the boy said. He’d spotted the sandcastles now, a funny smile playing across his lips as he reached for the nearest. Icarus watched, waiting for him to knock it over, which was what Icarus would’ve done, but he didn’t. Instead he touched it, lightly, and under his fingers sand turned to gold. “It is not their right, as it is yours, as this, too, is your right. You could turn sand to gold, and gold to sand. If you come with me, I can show you how. All this and more.”
Icarus touched the castle, and golden grains tumbled from his fingers. It wasn’t solid, Icarus could scoop it into his hands as easily as sand, except it wasn’t sand. It was gold. A castle of gold.
“All you need to do,” the boy was saying. “Is take that pretty pendant off.”
Icarus jerked and shook his head. “Mummy says not to.” He reached for the necklace, though he knew touching it would burn him. There were other things as well, dried herbs that made him sneeze and berries that made him itch, but the necklace was the worst.
“I thought mummy also told you not to talk to us, I thought mummy told you not to look at us, not to lie, to be a good boy and wear iron against your skin even though it hurts. I thought you wanted more, little Icarus, but I see that you are still a child who knows not how to make decisions for himself.”
“Icarus!” His mum grabbed him, or rather she grabbed his hand, her motions frantic as she scraped at his palm, at the sand, at the gold. Icarus squeaked, squirming and trying to protest because it hadn’t been him, he didn’t want her mad because it hadn’t been him it had been… Except she would be mad, because he wasn’t meant to speak to the invisible people. She was inspecting his palm now, looking for traces of gold. The castle was gone, and Icarus wasn’t sure if it had been kicked over or if the boy had turned it back. At last his mum looked at him. “Icarus, be honest now, is anyone here?”
Icarus stilled. It was the first time she’d ever asked, the first time she’d really acknowledged that what he saw might exist somewhere outside his head. He glanced sideways. The boy was straightening, brushing sand from his clothes, but as soon as he heard the question he looked at Icarus and placed one finger against his lips.
Icarus shook his head. “No.”
His mum let out a breath. “Good. That’s good. Now promise me you’ll never do that again.”
He flinched. Mum never shouted.
“I promise,” he said and his mum relaxed. Icarus watched her curiously as she let him go, ruffling his hair lightly, as if everything was suddenly better now, as if his words had actually meant something. Behind him the boy laughed.