Michele skated along the sidewalk. “Come on Pauline, hurry up! They need us in Parnasus!” Pauline skated along with her, looking about. It was all familiar. The alley ran the length of a block and separated houses from the furniture factory on the other side. No one ever used it. Indeed, the only one who ever saw them was Mrs. Ramsey, whose house was next to the factory. Sometimes she spoke to Michele to say hello or be careful. She was elderly, stiff, and quite formal. The last time had been to tell her off. Michele had wandered from the alleyway onto her property. She then discovered a bathroom that was outside, she assumed, the garage. Not wanting to go home since there was a perfectly good toilet right there, she used it. Without permission, Pauline thought, as usual. Michele hated asking so sometimes she got around that by simply doing what she wanted. Mrs. Ramsey saw though.
“Don’t use that again,” she said, “it’s the maid’s”
Mrs. Ramsey probably ought to have been annoyed. After all Michele should have just said it won’t happen again. But she didn’t seem to be. She just said, “It’s for colored people.”
So who cares? Michele thought but didn’t say. And why can’t she use yours inside the house? She hadn’t realized the garage must be servants quarters, but Pauline knew. At least Michele knew better than to ask, even at eight years old. Then she did say sorry and skated away, puzzled. But other than her no one came here. No one saw them. And that was good. This was the gateway into an alternate universal that only Michele and Pauline knew about. On one end was St. John’s, Florida. The other end was Parnasus.
They argued, as sometimes they did. “You shouldn’t have told me to use that bathroom.”
“I didn’t,” said Pauline, “you decided that all by yourself. Stop blaming me for everything.”
“Well you didn’t stop me. And I don’t blame you anymore. But why? We’re all human right?”
“You used to. If your brother didn’t take all the cookies or spill the milk it was me. As for who can use a bathroom that’s not my idea. Stupid if you ask me.”
“Agreed but nothing we can do. We’ll just let her alone.” Michele started skating again.
“Agreed.” But she didn’t think Michele heard her. Pauline rushed to catch up. Michele wanted to get to Parnasus. Pauline couldn’t have cared one way or the other. Parnasus was just a bad reminder to her. Still, she would go with Michele.
Michele stopped so abruptly Pauline nearly ran into her. “We’re here. Now we have to find the centaur. The one who called us.”
“Over there,” said Pauline. Standing nearby was a beautiful horse, brown with white patches. He had a man’s body of course with a beautiful head of brown hair trailing back into a mane. He saw the two young girls and trotted over to them. “Greetings humans,” he said in a deep, rich voice. “We are glad you came. We have a witch to kill.”
Michele had taken a stick with her and the lid from a cardboard box. Or at least so they were in St. John’s. Here they had been transferred into a sword and shield. “We’re ready,” she said with a smile. With that she turned skated a block, turned again and skated down the hill, killing trolls and ghouls along the way. Pauline followed, with a wand, to kill whatever Michele couldn’t. It was halfheartedly but Michele didn’t notice. Pauline was thinking as she usually did.
Mostly she thought about how she arrived in this town. It was as if she had been called to this big two-story house that was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. One day there she was, watching this girl and a younger boy barely past toddler come down the stairs to sit next to the old kerosene heater in the living room. She had watched amused, as Michele and Michael fought over who would get to lie on the floor next to its warmth. Michele had seen her and told to come sit with her. Then she felt the heat herself, filling up her emptiness. Her arrival had been good for a little five-year-old who had come from New Jersey, a whole other world from here. This small rural town didn’t even have so much as a McDonald’s. It did have these people with strange accents and mild suspicion of Yankees. Catholic Yankees to boot. You’re not Baptists? Like that was the end of the world Michele’s mother complained. There weren’t too many children nearby. So, Michele began talking to Pauline. At first it had been to have someone to blame for spilled milk, seemed to her. She would have left except for two things. Where she would have to go if she did. The second thing was Michele learned to read. She read well too. She’s advanced, the teachers said. And with reading Michele’s imagination grew as she did. So did Pauline. She looked on as Michele read. Michele liked the stories of imaginary worlds, brave girls and women, mythical beasts. That caused more of a problem with the neighborhood children. The ones that were around liked to watch TV which Michele didn’t. So even when they were over, she would often go read while they played with her toys.
“I would rather read,” she told Pauline one day.
“Yes. Who wants to watch Gilligan’s Island? And I don’t want to play with Barbie anymore.”
Pauline looked at the book in her hands. “But why read? The characters aren’t real.”
“They can be in our imagination.”
Pauline shook her head. She didn’t like make-believe herself although she played it with Michele. “Why don’t we go down to the river instead? To a special place.”
“What special place?”
“I’ll show you. I saw it when we were there the other day.” Pauline took her hand and they walked across the road down to the river. Most of the land was wide-open field but alongside it was forest. Pauline led Michele to its outskirts. “Look,” she said. “Mulberry bushes.”
“Let’s eat them.”
“Later.” It was hot today. The house would be hot too but at least there were fans in there. Michele wished she could swim but the river wasn’t safe. It had alligators and besides it would be warm too. “Why don’t you eat some yourself if you want?”
Pauline ate one. But it had no taste. She handed her a berry. “Just do it.” Because if she didn’t-
“Okay, fine.” Michele ate it. Now Pauline smiled, eating one herself.
“I see now. It’s sweet and juicy.” They stood there picking mulberries until Pauline saw her pale fingers were blue with juice. She smiled. Blue. Color. There was the sharp sweet taste of ripe mulberries and blue stains on her fingers. And it was good.
Soon the sun was overhead and even hotter. “Now we can go back to the house,” Michele said.
“Not yet. Look.” Pauline pushed past the bushes. Not far in there was a clearing amid some trees. The ground wasn’t hard. Indeed, the grass had grown high but was trampled down. They could lay on it as if lying on a pillow, even if it was a bit prickly. So, they did. Even the prickliness Pauline didn’t mind. She was feeling. So, while Michele’s parents were at work they’d go down to the river and walk along the shoreline, looking for crabs. Pauline enjoyed that. She didn’t mind the heat of a summer day. She felt alive doing these things. If Michele’s little brother Michael begged to go to the creek down the street, they went with him while he looked for turtles he never found. And the year they moved daylight savings time up two hours instead of one Pauline, Michele, and Michael went to school while it was still night out, carrying flashlights. Brother and sister got their pictures in the local newspaper. Pauline was there to make sure Michele wasn’t afraid of the dark. “I can’t be afraid if you’re around,” she said. Pauline nodded, feeling a big afraid herself. It was dark and not easy to see. Michele looked up. “Look,” she said, “Look at all the stars.”
Pauline looked up. They sparkled and shone. “So many,” she said. “They’re beautiful.” But the sky’s emptiness was a reminder. She shuddered and looked back down at the sidewalk.
“Think of all those other worlds out there.” Michele looked at Pauline. “What’s wrong?”
“Are you afraid of the dark? It’s okay you know. We’re almost at the school. And I’m here, right? You’re not alone.”
Pauline laughed. Oh, how it felt good to laugh! “You’re right. We’re friends so what is there to fear?”
Pauline was always there. The day that Michele was afraid to ask the teacher to use the bathroom and so wet her pants, to everyone’s laughter Pauline was there to console her.
“What will the teacher do?” she said. “Next time, just ask.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Why not? I’m with you. Do it.” And when Michele did, Pauline smiled.
“See? I told you it would be fine.”
When the kids wouldn’t stop teasing her about the incident Pauline told her hold your head up high. It’s all right. When she had to have her tonsils out and the pain was terrible, Pauline felt it too. And the taste of the vanilla ice cream soothing it if only for a minute or two. And so, they played and grew together. They even played the imaginary games that Michele wanted to because who else would? Pauline didn’t want to lose this friend. But soon children did move into the neighborhood. Tim, who was a foster child and liked playing make believe superhero games. Tammy, who also had long black hair and didn’t own a TV because her family was just making ends meet with that gas station. And Janie, whose mother worked with Michele’s mother. She was the one that Michele played with the most. And Pauline found herself becoming something she never felt before. Jealous. These children had what she did not. She tried her best to distract Michele.
“Why are you playing with them? They’re not going to play Parnasus with you! And that Tim always wants to be a stronger superhero than a girl. Forget him.”
“He is annoying, but he’ll listen, or I’ll go home.” Michele laughed.
“See him tomorrow. Play Parnasus now. Please.”
Pauline also told Michele the piano she practiced on was the controls of a spaceship. This worked and for a long time. But for how much longer, thought Pauline. She’s getting older.
Don’t be silly, she told herself. She’s young yet and still wants you around.
“Only if there’s no one else!” It shocked her, the anger.
Better than nothing. Besides, this holding her back isn’t a good idea. Not for either you or her. She won’t live and neither will you.
One day they went to the pool around the time of Michele’s tenth birthday, a June day. The water was always cold, colder than any other pool. Spring-fed, Michele’s mother said. It felt so good in the heat of the summer. But that day Pauline realized she couldn’t feel the cold of the water like she used to. It was-lukewarm. At first, she figured they stopped using the spring water or warmed it somehow. She ignored the fact the sunlight seemed dimmer. Well, it’s clouding up, she thought. That’s it. Soon there was a thunderstorm. I was right, see? Yet afterwards there was no smell of rain. One day they went to the Ravines. It was a park and as the name suggested there was a big ravine with trails and a bridge from one end to the other. They climbed down to the spring at the bottom. Pauline couldn’t smell the sulfur water that bubbled up anymore. She knew how it was supposed to smell. Like eggs left out too long. But now she was like someone with a bad cold. She couldn’t smell anything anymore. And that rosebush she brushed up against no longer pricked her. She wanted to cry.
“No. Not yet.” But there was a voice inside her.
This happens. You know it does. Everyone dies, eventually.
“But it’s too soon. To feel, even though it’s painful. I don’t want the emptiness anymore.”
Not too soon for Michele apparently. She’s much older than most. You know that right?
“I could stay. Get her to play with me more often.”
Push her into what? Insanity?
“She can have both me and her friends without that.”
Unfortunately, it’s her choice and to force it would be to destroy her. Do you want that?
Pauline didn’t answer that because to do so would be to look straight into darkness. She didn’t want to do that. No one ever does, no matter a person’s origins or reality and Pauline was no exception to that.
You’ll have to, one day.
The reckoning came a few weeks after that.
“I’m getting too old for Parnasus,” Michele said one day. “It has to stop.”
Pauline rose from the table she was at and walked over to Michele. Her hands clenched and relaxed. “What do you mean?”
“I am getting too old for pretend. I’m going into sixth grade soon. So that world has to go away.”
“Wait. Just like that?” Pauline waved her hand. “You’re going to just forget it?”
“Yes. Except I really won’t. I’ll show you.”
Michele went up into the attic. It was a full-size one. Recently she had started oil painting up there. Her paints were in a small box with a lid. She dumped them out onto an old table next to her easel and climbed down the old wooden ladder. Then she took the stairs, walked through the living room and into to the conservatory. It was really a bedroom with a fireplace. Michele lived in a two-family house, but she liked conservatory better. She had gotten the name from a Clue game and thought it fit, especially when the room had the piano in it and her father’s wooden recorders. She put the box on the piano.
“Now watch.” She banged a few notes on the keyboard. “See? I just put the world in this box. For safekeeping.” She closed the lid and set it aside. “That’s it,” she said. “If I need it, I’ll have it. But I don’t think I will.”
Pauline stared. Michele wasn’t sad. In fact, she seemed calm. Resolute. It had to be done. So be it. Maybe she was even happy, thought Pauline. I don’t need this anymore. I’m growing up. Pauline slammed her hand on the piano keys. Her hands went through the keyboard.
"And me too?”
“I wish it didn’t have to be this way. But I think it does.” At that moment the phone rang. “I have to go. But I won’t forget you.”
Pauline screamed. “No!”
But Michele had answered it, “Janie! Hi. Yes, I can come over.”
In anger and in bitterness Pauline said, “I’ll make sure you don’t forget me.”
But there was a voice inside her saying stop. You’ve got this all wrong.
She couldn’t stop. “Michele. You’re not real either.”
Michele hung up the phone, having finished talking to her friend. She turned around frowning. “What do you mean I’m not real?”
Pauline slammed her hands down on the piano again and again they went through the keyboard. “You’re-not-real-either!” Although no breath came her chest heaved up and down as if she was panting. “You’re just a ghost of a memory! Your name isn’t even Michele!”
“What are you talking about? This is real.” But Michele realized something. Is it? Did I name it Parnasus? And did Mrs. Ramsey really tell us the bathroom was for colored people or just for the servants who I knew were black? Is that real?
What’s real here?
Pauline said, “This is déjà vu.”
What else is wrong? Michele tried to take Pauline’s hands. But her hands slipped through them. She felt as if she didn’t have her glasses on, everything blurry. “Why are you doing this? Why are you trying so much to hurt me?”
“Because you made me go away. I don’t want to do that. Now I’m going to change everything.”
The calmness in Pauline’s voice scared Michele. “This happens, you know. It must. Every kid does this. It’s not like I’m going to forget you.”
Pauline cried. “I just wanted to be alive! Can’t you understand that? Do you know what I'm going back too? Emptiness.”
“No. You’ll always be a part of me.”
A voice was inside Pauline. You’re making a bad mistake. I’m telling you; you’ve got this all wrong. For your own sake, apologize!
But she wasn’t listening. “You want me to go away but I won’t. You’re going to be the one to go away.” Pauline reached for Michele’s head and sank her hand in. She smiled coldly and pushed her hand in further. With the other she clawed into her chest, to her heart.
“Didn’t you want to be Pauline anyway?”
“Y-yes. I like the name.”
“Now you will be. I’ll be.”
Michele coughed hard. “But you-this isn’t true. The make-believe games I played are.” Michele hit her hard. It connected. She pushed Pauline away. “You’re not! I never had a make-believe friend!” Pauline fell back. Michele said, “This may be déjà vu. But I don’t remember you.”
“How can you not?”
“Simple.” Michele grinned. “If I don’t remember then it never happened.” With that she watched Pauline fade away. Then she got her bike and rode to Janie’s house. The wind blew, sounding like “Nooooo.” Then nothing.