WINNER, Fall 2016
The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
Leslie Lawrenson “The Imaginary Friend”
BY JL SCHNEIDER
You’re at the very edge of your territory in a run-down vinyl bar called The Memory Lane Lounge. You’ve just spent the day visiting a client, Lezel Meeks, whom you have to check on every couple of months. You don’t like Lezel or his badly run store or his incessant talking. But times are hard, and you need his business. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is playing on the juke box, and you’re washing the taste of this rust bowl town out of your mouth with a couple scotches before going back to your motel room for the night.
At the end of the bar two men about your age but more worn in the face sit drinking boilermakers. They’re whispering to each other and looking at you and snickering like children. The bartender, the only other person in the bar, has his nose buried in the sports pages.
The two men laugh louder. You know they’re laughing at you, though you’re sure you’ve never seen them before. Then you hear something clearly meant for your ears, something about your manhood, and you finally get up and walk over to them.
“Do I know you?” you ask.
They’re unwashed and rheumy-eyed and fully cooked on a whiskey drunk. They burst out laughing.
“Know us!” the near one shouts.
You say, “If there’s a problem—”
“Problem!” the other one screams between gulps of laughter.
They double over their drinks and pound the bar and laugh till they cough. You turn to leave. But the man nearest you finally calms down and holds up his hand, stopping you.
He says, “I guess you could say you know us.” His voice carries an anger that seems to come all the way up from the cuffs of his pants. “Let me introduce ourselves. My name’s Bubs. This is Johns.”
The names are spoken with full authority on a razor line back to your earliest childhood.
“Who told you those names?” you ask.
“No one had to tell us our own names, Billy-boy. And we’re the only three who know, aren’t we?”
You stare at them, subtracting the years from their faces—they look like men just out of prison—and after a moment you begin to nod in recognition. No one, not even your stepmother, knew their real names.
“This is a dream,” you say.
“That’s what the imagination is, Billy-boy,” Bubs says, “waking or sleeping.”
Bubs, the older of the two—stockier, bolder when it came to adventure—pushes his face close to yours, forcing you to keep looking at him. Johns, the thin, quiet one, eyes you with a grin, his youthful shyness replaced by a quiet, bitter line at one corner of his mouth.
You say absently, as if they’re not there, “I haven’t thought about them . . . ”
“Us!” Bubs yells. “And that—” he points his finger at you like a gun “—is exactly the point.” Now Bubs’ anger seems to come all the way up from Hell itself.
“Thirty years, Billy-boy. Thirty years without a word. But we never forgot you, did we, Johns?”
Johns downs his shot. “Nope.”
You check the bartender still reading his paper. He hasn’t moved or made any indication that there is anyone in the bar but you. Your impulse is to flee from these angry men. But . . . you feel connected to them—although you are also repulsed by them, the way you would be repulsed by a dark, hidden part of your heart unwittingly revealed in a dream.
And you have to remember something, you tell yourself: No matter how real they appear—no matter if you’ve had two scotches or twenty—they must be now, as they were then, your imaginary friends.
“Have a seat.” Bubs says. “Let me tell you where we been for the last thirty years, Billy-boy.”
“People call me William now,” you say without sitting down.
“Oh, do they? He wants to be called William now, Johns.”
Johns looks at you with eyes leaking bile and whiskey, and says, “Aren’t we the queen of the fucking court.”
Bubs leans into you, his eyes narrowing.
“Where do you think we went when you stopped imagining us, Billy-boy?” He spits your childhood name at you like a piece of gristle. “Rio?”
Johns coughs up a laugh. He refills his shot glass from a pint bottle he draws from his back pocket, then silently stares at the tumbler, turning it around on the bar with two fingers.
“It ain’t a pretty place where we been,” Bubs continues. “It’s a place of too much hope and no hope at all. Where everyone is alive yet dead. Alive with nothing but memories. Waiting. Constantly waiting to be imagined again.”
Bubs looks away and stares straight ahead at a spot a thousand miles away. You then reach for your drink, and when the bartender comes to refill your glass you whisper to him, “Do you see them?” indicating the seats next to you.
The bartender glances toward Bubs and Johns and says, “See who?” pulling away the bottle before your glass is full. He’s unfazed by the question, as if he’s asked every night if imaginary people exist.
He goes back to his stool in the far corner of the bar, and you yell after him, “Can you at least turn off that fucking song!”
“I didn’t play it,” the bartender says, and snaps the paper open in front of his face.
You turn back to the men. “I don’t care where you’ve—”
“Old women,” Bubs cuts you off. “Old, broken women in pigtails holding one end of a jump rope, waiting for someone to pick up the other end. Pathetic, middle-age men with slingshots in their back pockets, skimming stones over ponds, waiting for the sun to shine on their faces again. Fat, balding pirates looking to the horizon for ships that never come. Alive but dead, waiting, always waiting. Most of them just shells, millions of them, walking aimlessly around sandboxes remembering the joy they once had. They stumble around muttering to themselves, insane, their bodies curling up with age, just like yours, waiting to die.”
Bubs’ hands are shaking as he reaches for his shot glass, his eyes wide and glazed. “That’s where we been for the last thirty years.” He drinks. “Now it’s payback time.”
“It doesn’t sound very pleasant,” you say, trying to be sympathetic, feeling more annoyed than responsible. Still, the ominous tone of Bubs’ warning makes you order another scotch. “What do you mean, payback?”
“We been watching you, Billy-boy. We know all about you. So we’re just going to hang around for the next, oh, let’s say thirty years. We’re gonna to be there for you. But it ain’t gonna to be like the old days. This time we’re in control, and for starters we’re gonna to remind you of every shortcoming you have.”
“Shortcoming,” Johns repeats, and the two of them chuckle.
Although there are some areas of your life you’d like to improve—like not having to come all the way out here to deal with Lezel Meeks, or not having to spend so much time on the road alone—you don’t believe there’s much you’d like to change. Things are pretty good, and you begin to wonder if this whole episode isn’t merely the result of bad scotch.
“I don’t think you have much of a case, gentlemen,” you say confidently.
Bubs and Johns look at each other, as if deciding which one should speak.
“How’s your wife?” Bubs finally asks.
“Fine,” you respond.
“She doesn’t mind that your pistol goes off quicker than a zit-faced teenager’s?”
“Minuteman!” Johns shouts, and the two of them lean into each other and giggle.
Your palms begin to sweat. No matter how drunk you’ve gotten, this is a problem you have never confessed to anyone—in fact until now, you haven’t fully acknowledged it to yourself. And suddenly you feel like a child caught in a lie, one you were sure would never be discovered, the fear of retribution making you tremble. Then the desperate attempt to cover it up.
“I’ll just stop imagining you,” you say.
They look at you, no trace of fear in their faces, Johns leaning around Bubs so you have a full view of both of them.
“Who could forget these pretty faces?” Johns smiles broadly, for the first time peeling his lips back to the gums. Several teeth are missing. “Too many sweets when I was a kid,” he says.
Now you sit down. They’ve been watching you in your own bedroom, your imaginary friends spying on you while you were having sex, laughing. You shudder.
“How the hell did you find me?” you ask, resignation muffling your question to a whisper.
“You finally slipped up,” Bubs says, now calm, the tone of a conqueror in his voice. “Just for a second. That’s all it took.”
“That’s all it took,” Johns pipes in, and he and Bubs toast each other.
“Remember when you were in Meeks’ store this afternoon?” Bubs says. “You were barely listening to him. But you heard enough. He said something about his imaginary friend from childhood, a pirate named Felix. He was trying to confess something to you, Billy-boy. He was trying to tell you something from his heart. But, as usual, you looked at him like he was a moron. So he shut up.
“But that’s all it took. Even if it wasn’t a wholly conscious memory, you were transported back to your room on a lonely Saturday afternoon—you were there, and so were we, and it was real. And now we’re free.”
You spit out, “Asshole Meeks.”
“Ahh,” Bubs sighs. “You underestimate Lezel, my childhood friend. He may not run his business well. He may ramble on a bit. And he may be ugly as a stump. But he’s got a good imagination. A lot of childhood left in that man. You could learn something from him. He keeps Felix alive in his heart. We know Felix—good guy, Spaniard, excellent swordplay. Still robust with life. One of the lucky ones.”
You remember those lonely Saturday afternoons and the countless days after school when no one would play with you. Missing your mother. Your stepmother always busy with something else. Your father never home. The hours spent with Bubs and Johns, playing, talking, going on adventures. You try to stop thinking about them, fearing an increase in their power if you give them too much light in your mind. But in your heart you know it’s too late.
“We did have some good times,” you say. Perhaps if you molify them, they might reconsider. “Remember that time I let you win at Chutes & Ladders?”
Bubs brings one cold eye and an arched brow to bear on you.
“Childhood’s over, Billy-boy. But what is it they say these days, Johns? It’s never too late—”
“—for a second childhood,” Johns cackles to himself.
“Only this time,” the eye is like an auger, “it ain’t gonna to be pretty. We got plans for you, Billy-boy. And all the time in the world.”
For a long time you sit without speaking. Bubs and Johns are humming along with “Imagine” and downing their whiskies. You wonder if they can read your heart, if they know how much you hate them now. How much you wish you’d never conjured them in the first place, that you had been a stronger child, that you could have endured the loneliness. You know them better than anyone on earth. They have cold hearts, forged by bitterness and abandonment—the same depth of abandonment that brought them into existence in the first place—and they will never leave you alone. And you know, finding that dark spot in your own heart that must be flowering in theirs, that you would probably do the same thing if you were them.
You wife comes to mind. Does she hate you, too? What’s it going to be like, now, knowing they’ll be watching when you’re with her? It was bad enough before. But now, even your fantasies won’t help. Your fantasies . . .
After a few minutes of looking around the dark bar, trying to pick just the right spot, you finally see them sitting in a booth next to the door. Red-headed twins, late 20’s, peach skin, legs up to their necks. Almost as soon as they appear, Bubs and Johns see them too.
“Whoa!” Bubs says. Slowly he turns to you. “Well, well, well,” he says, a smile of appreciation, almost admiration, spreading into his face. “You little rascal. So that’s what you been thinking about while you’re doing the missus. No wonder you been short-fusing her. I got to hand it to you, Billy-boy, you got a good imagination. But then again, you created us.”
“Good imagination,” is all Johns can manage, eyeing the girls.
“You see them?” you ask.
“Damn straight we see them,” Bubs says.
“But you never saw them in that other place?”
“Johns and I are childhood fantasies, Billy-boy. Those girls are adult fantasies. More in this world than the other. But now that we’re here too . . . ”
The girls look at you, lick their lips, and cant their bottoms toward you when they cross their legs.
“Just to show there’s no hard feelings,” you say, trying to mask your relief when you see how narrowly focused on the girls Bubs and Johns are. “I know you’re pissed off, and I’m sorry. I guess there’s nothing I can do to make up for what I did to you. I just thought you’d like a little present. I’ve never been able to do much with them, of course, exept imagine. But maybe you guys . . . ”
Johns’ open mouth is leaking spittle onto his bottom lip, and Bubs is rubbing his thin beard, their eyes glued on the women.
“That’s mighty nice of you, Billy-boy,” Bubs says.
“Yeah, thanks, Fuck-wad,” Johns says. He’s talking to you, but staring at the women. “And you better keep them there, or there’ll be hell to pay. We can only do it with ones from your head. So no fuck-ups. Now scram.”
You take your motel room keys out of your pocket. “Do you need these?”
“No,” Bubs says. “We know how to get in. But—” He turns to you, the black fierceness returning to his eyes. “—We know where you live. And when we’re done with them, we’ll be seeing you.”
“Have fun,” you say.
You pay the tab and leave, just a little jealous when you walk past the twins, who are ready and willing as only you know they can be. You drive back to the motel, pack your things, leave the keys on the bureau, and get into your car. It’s a five hour drive home, the night is cool, and there’s no one on the highway. You open the window and tune in a Lite-rock radio station. You think about Bubs and Johns in your motel room.
You imagine they’re having a good time by now, each of them with one of the girls, grinning and swilling whiskey. You imgaine the girls straddling them. On their backs, Bubs and Johns are reaching up for the perfect, bouncing breasts, the twins’ long, strong legs expertly scissoring their tight rear ends onto your blissful imaginary friends like smooth-running pumps. You imagine Bubs and Johns almost delirious with pleasure, oblivious to everything except the women’s inexhaustible energy and bottomless desire to please.
You imagine Bubs and Johns so enraptured, in fact, that they don’t notice the subtle changes occurring in the wonders of flesh above them. It starts around the eyes. The doe-like innocence hardens. Their gazes sharpen, intent on the men below them. Their jaw bones thicken, the molars widen, and the incisors lengthen. Their cute noses sprout hard, distinctive ridges, then begin to elongate. Their perfectly trimmed triangles of pubic hair thicken and spread, and each woman constricts her silky grip until the man below her is locked within, unable to pull away even if he wanted to. The women begin exhaling gusts of foul air, accented by low growls coming from the backs of their throats. The lithe fingers of so much sexual expertise sprout claws.
Bubs and Johns are too engrossed in pleasure to notice any of this. Until it’s too late. The huge jaws of the women part and dive for their arched throats. You imagine your imaginary friends opening their eyes to find themselves under assault by red-furred wolves whose lips drip blood. You imagine the mens’ screams of terror as the women, grinning with the first taste of their victims, dig claws into their eye sockets. The she-wolves continue attacking in a frenzy, their snouts thrusting again and again, until the imaginary screams abruptly stop. And still it goes on, teeth shredding voice boxes, ripping jugulars, and closing on the cervical vertebrae to snap spinal cords like pencils.
You imagine the women pausing to lick their bloody lips, occasionally lapping the still bodies for more, sucking severed arteries like straws. They look at each other, their nakedness spattered with the red life of their prey, and they smile.
The wolf was your worst childhood nightmare—that pure, predatory beast. That ruthless killer without conscience whom your stepmother, looking somewhat wolflike herself as she stood at the end of your bed in the dark, told you was always nearby if you weren’t good. You recall the countless hours you spent in your bed at night, imagining the horror.
And now it’s alive. The cool wind blows in through the car window, and “Imagine” starts to play on the radio. A wry smile comes to your mouth. You imagine the women rising off the lifeless bodies of the men, starting for the door. They have one thought, one intent, one goal—you. You’ve conjured them, and now, just like Bubs and Johns, they want more from you. In fact, they want everything.
You see their clawed fingers reaching for the doorknob. You’re humming along with the song. Then, just as they’re about to step into the night, you put them back under the bed where they belong.