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The Imagined Lives of Chelsea and Beatrice

I'm standing behind a bush, not sure of how I got here. Chelsea waves to me, and I wave back. I try to remember a time before standing behind the bush, a time before Chelsea is waving at me, but there is nothing. She motions for me to join her on a bench, and I'm there on the bench beside her.

She's a small thing, maybe three or four years old, curls framing a round face. Those big blue eyes make my heart hurt. All I can feel is love.

When someone walks by, she says, "Don't sit on Beatrice!" She pats me on the head. People stop and sit on me anyway, but I don't mind. Their bodies go through me, but I love Chelsea's consideration. She thinks of me when no one else will.

The people chat with Chelsea, asking her easy questions like, "Is she having fun?" or "Where is your mommy?" She makes funny faces at me between questions, and I laugh.

On this day at the park, fur covers my body and my ears stretch above my head, long and floppy. I can't remember looking any other way. Chelsea tells me I am cute like a bunny. This makes me smile even wider. She laughs and leaves the bench, running across the green grass. I follow closely. Occasionally, she turns, motioning for me to following her. "Come on, Beatrice!"

I hop instead of run after her.

Then she falls, starts to cry. Grownups swarm around her, cooing and making protests. "I'll hold her," the oldest one says.

"No, Mom, I've got her," a younger woman says. This is Chelsea's mom. Somehow, I know this.

Chelsea cries louder, and my body pulls away. I'm back behind the bush, watching from a distance. She doesn't see me. I'm sleepy. I try waving goodbye, but my arms are too heavy to lift.

The dolls are scattered around the floor, most of them naked, their hair matted, ruined. Chelsea sits in the middle of them. She looks different. She has the same round face, though her hair is less curly, as though each coil was stretched out and never quite returned to its former glory.

I'm different too. I'm not a bunny, as far as I can tell. My arms are normal girl arms. They look like Chelsea's. I don't know what my face looks like, but I suspect I look similar to her.

She motions for me to edge closer. "You're going to be Erica. She's the mommy, and she's mean." Erica is the redheaded doll and one of the few wearing clothing. Chelsea picks up Erica for me since I can't—my fingers slip through objects like smoke.

"I'm going to be Samantha. She's the prettiest," Chelsea says. The doll Chelsea holds wears clothing and its hair isn't matted. She forces the doll to prance around. She's singing a song with no words.

"All the girls are jealous of Samantha," Chelsea says. "She's prettier." She looks up expectantly. I have no idea of what Chelsea wants of me, but I want to please her. I want her to feel happiness.

She rolls her eyes. "Come on Beatrice! Erica is mad because she hates how pretty Samantha is."

"Oh, of course." I clear my throat and put on my meanest voice. "Samantha, I am very mad at you! You are too pretty!"

"Meaner!" Chelsea says, scowling.

I nod and growl, "I hate you! You're too pretty!"

"Chelsea," a woman's voice calls. Footsteps follow the sound of the voice and Chelsea puts a finger over her lips.

"Shhh." Her eyes are round circles. She's afraid. "You have to hide now. No one can know about my Beatrice."

The door opens. Chelsea's mom stands with her hands on her hips. I haven't had time to hide. I gaze up at the woman from the center of the room. For a moment, I think she might be able to see me. She looks directly at me, but I realize she's looking at the naked dolls scattered on the floor.

"Who are you talking to?" the mommy asks.

"No one," Chelsea answers, her eyes darting toward me.

"You're supposed to be cleaning your room. Not playing with dolls."

"No!" Chelsea stands, throws the naked dolls at her mother. Surely this mommy, this real life mommy, will be just as mean as the doll mommy of our game.

The real life mommy crosses her arms, smirks, and says, "Pick up these dolls and clean your room. You're not getting out of this room until you do."

The mommy leaves, closing the door behind her.

"You shouldn't have thrown those things," I say. Chelsea's still standing in the center of the room surrounded by the debris of her naked doll storm. She breathes heavily and has her hands on her hips.

"I hate cleaning my room!" she says.

"Maybe it won't be so bad," I say. Chelsea turns on me. I'm in trouble, but I'm not sure what I can do to make it better.

"You don't know what's bad!" she screams. "Leave me alone!"

I'm tired; my eyes shut.

When I awake, I'm in a schoolyard, sitting on the branch of a large tree. The tree's ancient roots stretch out across the yard, jutting from the earth in small humps.

I'm a boy this time. My arms and legs—the ragged jeans and the plaid shirt—seem masculine.

Chelsea peers at me from the ground, her back leaning against the massive tree trunk. I somehow know Chelsea is lonely and wants to have an adventure. So I say, "We're going to have so much fun today. More fun than any of the other kids." This, I know, is what she wants to hear.

On the playground, groups of children play together on the jungle gym and swing sets. Chelsea is alone.

"The other kids don't know how to have fun," she says. I can hear in her voice she's been crying.

"They don't," I say, agreeing. I don't want to go to sleep again. I don't want to sleep for so long ever again. She's a big girl now. Her curls have fallen out. Her eyes are smaller on her face, which has lost much of its roundness.

"Let's play," I say, and I jump from the limb, landing on my feet. I search in my mind for some way to make Chelsea love me, and then I have it. The world around us changes. The playground is an ocean, an angry sea. The tree is a massive wooden ship that creaks as the waves push it.

"We're pirates," I say and as I say it, I am Chelsea's idea of a pirate with a hooked hand and some flamboyant hat. Chelsea is a pirate too, her clothes ragged from years at sea. On her shoulder, a foul-mouthed parrot squawks something cruel to whoever will listen. 

"ARR!" She picks up a stick from the ground. Instantly, it changes into a shining sword. "We're pirates, matey!"

We spend some time moving about the ship, searching for an island with treasure. I can see Chelsea is happy and this makes me happy. Then a blaring ringing sounds in the distance. Our pirate ship fades. The sea becomes a playground.

"I have to go inside now," Chelsea says. "Recess is over."

"No, let me stay. I'll go to class with you."

Chelsea looks around as other kids rush past her. "You can't," she says. "You're not for school time. I'll see you later."

"No!" I call out, but the world around me is already dark.

I hear Chelsea's voice in the distance. "I won't forget you."

Chelsea calls for me almost every day. Each time I arrive, she seems sad. We play different things: pirates, bank robbers, or knights in battle. When I leave her, she is happy. I'm not afraid to go to sleep anymore. I know Chelsea will wake me up.

We're playing space ship invaders on the playground when the other girl shows up. I don't like her at our game, but Chelsea doesn't seem to mind.

"What are you doing?" the other girl asks.

"Playing space invaders," Chelsea says.

"Can I play?" the other girl asks and Chelsea shrugs.

"Chelsea," I say. "she can't play with me." Chelsea ignores this and point out the gauges and dials on our spaceship to the other girl. 

I'm moving backward from Chelsea, the distance between us growing. Then I'm on the other side of the playground, listening to her words, unable to speak my own.

The longer she and the other girl play, the heavier my eyes.

Sometimes I dream. I know they're dreams because Chelsea is not there.

I dream of living my own life in my own house with someone that loves me and not only the other way around.

Chelsea is crying this time. We're in a room I don't recognize. There's a couch and a TV. She is a teenager now with a tall and lanky body.

"Why are you crying?" I ask. I wonder if she'll know me after so many years for he.

"Beatrice?" she asks.

"You remember me?"

"I've known you my whole life. You're my best friend."

My heart warms, if I have a heart.

"Why are you crying?" I repeat.

"It's not important." She wipes her face with her palms. "When I was little, we would go places. Those places seemed real. Can you make us go to those places again?"

"Of course," I say. Then room is the wooden deck of a ship and around us is water, deep and blue. The gentle humming of waves—whooshing followed by distant crashing—is comforting to me, and I hope to Chelsea too.

"Is this better?"

She's smiling and reaches out and holds my hand. I look down and realize I'm a big bunny again, just like the first time.

"It's much better."

"Are you going to tell me what made you sad?" I ask. "It's all right. You can tell me."

She lowers her head, and I see she's crying small tears. "Like I said before. It's nothing important. It's just sometimes life's so complicated and hurtful. I get overwhelmed. I just needed to go away and be a pirate again."

"Sometimes I feel those things. Sadness, confusion, and hurt."

Chelsea squeezes my hand. "I'm sorry your life has been that way. You've done so much for me to make me happy. How can I make you happy?"

I have never really thought of what would make me happy other than simply being. "I just want to stay. I want to be alive."

Chelsea looks to the sea and closes her eye. The world becomes dark, and I'm in my dream place again.

More time passes. Chelsea's dressed in a black gown identical to everyone around her. Somehow, I spot her immediately in the sea of graduates. She looks out into the audience when she walks across the stage to get her diploma. She sees me and smiles. My heart swells.

Years pass, and I am lost in good dreams. Chelsea's life is warm and beautiful and I can feel it even in my sleeping state. I awake briefly and sporadically over what must be a lifetime—dates and heartbreak, new jobs and new cars, houses and apartments, and strange cats I'm afraid of. She marries and has children. She allows me to appear when the first is born. I'm beside her while she holds the tiny thing for the first time.

"I'm a mommy, Beatrice," she whispers. I lean over and realize I'm in the shape of a little girl again. I have curls. I'm Chelsea's twin.

"You are," I say. "And only a moment ago I was chasing you through a field."

Chelsea holds the baby against her cheek. She inhales deeply. "I think I remember that," Chelsea says. "I must have been very small."

Darkness comes. When I appear, Chelsea is alone in some house. She has short gray hair and wrinkled hands. I only know she is my Chelsea because of the feeling, the connection between.

"Oh Beatrice, I didn't think you would come. I shouldn't have even thought of you. It's silly. I'm an old woman now. Imaginary friends aren't for old women."

"Is that what I am? Imaginary?"

"What else? I imagined you here. I'm imagining you now. This is really a conversation with myself."

"No. You may have imagined me here, but I feel real. I have memories. I dream!"

Chelsea laughs. "I have some imagination," she says. "Who would have thought some old housewife would have an imaginary friend her whole life?"

"I wouldn't know."

She pulls her mouth to one side and sighs. "I'm just lonely. The kids are gone."

"Where did they go?" I ask.

"Living their lives like they should be. I shouldn't be sad, but I am."

The last time I had seen the children they were tiny, only babies. I slept for so long. "Chelsea, you forgot about me."

"I didn't forget you. Things just got in the way. Life leaves little room for playing. But we can play now, if you like. Let's go out to sea again."

And so we do. We stayed at sea for hours, letting the waves crash around us.

"I feel better now," Chelsea says. She closes her eyes, and I sleep.

The last time I see Chelsea she's in the hospital. She's unbelievably old. I can't see any of the round-faced girl in her. She raises a hand and motions for me to come over. Her wave is weak, her fingers shaking.

"Beatrice," she whispers.

"You're old."

"Yes. I'm going to die."

My heart breaks. I've never hurt so much before. "No," I say. "You can't die."

"Everyone dies," she says. "I wanted to see my old friend one last time."

"What will become of me?" I ask, feeling selfish and stupid as the words escape my lips. "I mean, you are my world. My life. How will I go on?"

Chelsea pats my furry, bunny hand. "You'll be no more. I'm sorry."

I wait for the sadness from this revelation to come, but it doesn't I can't seem to care about my own existence, only Chelsea's. "Is it okay with you if I die?" I ask, feeling feeble.

"I think maybe if you die, we'll be together later on. That's what they say about dying. You go someplace and are with the people you love."

"That would be wonderful."

"I'm sorry you didn't get to live more," she says. 

"I lived the best life anyone could live. With you."

This makes Chelsea laugh. "When I was very little, I knew you were real, but as I got older, I think I forgot. I thought you were just some made up thing. You're so much more, aren't you? I was lucky enough to have you in my life. You deserve a full life, a real one. I gave you some life before. Maybe I can give you even more now?"

 She pats my hand again, and I am in the shape of the little girl. Then she stops and falls asleep, but for some reason I remain. I watch her sleep for what seems like hours. Then someone comes into the room and touches Chelsea's wrist. It's a nurse dressed in green scrubs. She doesn't see me and doesn't seem to worry Chelsea hasn't moved in so long. She picks up a phone and calls someone.

More people come into the room. They stand beside Chelsea, making protests about her. Finally, someone covers her face with a sheet.

"What's happening?" I ask but no one hears me.

People come in and take Chelsea. I try to follow, but I lose her when they take her body into an elevator. I'm suddenly lost and scared. I've never been awake and away from Chelsea, but I'm stuck.

I slowly begin to notice—to feel—everything around me—the brightness of the lights, the beeping from rooms, and the strange smell of the hospital. I'm not sure I've ever smelled anything before.

I return to the room where Chelsea died. I think maybe I am a ghost now, but do ghosts smell things?

A woman comes into the room. At first, she is a stranger to me, but then I see so much of Chelsea's face her. I saw this woman's birth so long ago, though it doesn't feel like long ago to me. 

"Who are you?" she asks. I'm stunned. No one has spoken to me except Chelsea. 

"You can see me?" I ask. 

"What are you doing here?" She says this sharply, almost angrily. "This was my mother's room. You shouldn't be here."

"I'm Beatrice," I answer. "I don't know where to go."

"Beatrice?" Chelsea's daughter takes a step back and then touches a hand to her face. "I know that name. My mother's best friend. No, that's not right." She chuckles. "My mother's imaginary friend. She was Beatrice. My mom," she looks up, smiling, tears streaming, "she told us stories of her and her imaginary friend when we were children. She'd tell us stories when we were scared or lonely. I loved those stories."

"I am Beatrice," I repeat. "Those were my stories." Saying this aloud, frightens me, as though I'm giving up everything I ever had with Chelsea.

The woman, Chelsea named her Samantha, looks at me with her brow furrowed, as though trying to see through me. Then a smile appears. She reaches out a hand to me. 

"So you are. So they were." She's laughing as she says this, wiping tears with her other hand. "But you're not imaginary, are you?"

About the Author
Megan Neumann is a speculative fiction writer living in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her stories have appeared in such publications as Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and Luna Station Quarterly. She is a member of the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers' Group and is particularly appreciative of their loving support and scathing critiques. Check out her website at wordsandstuff.net or follow her tweets at @ickyblahh.