It had been 24 years since she had seen it, but the place looked the same. She, my mother, would’ve been happy to see me here, outside in the fresh air. I walked against the rough pavement, running my long fingertips against the cold marble siding of a fountain, a large statue towering over my small frame. Rubbing my hands together to keep warm, I pulled a bag of chips from the shopping bag I’d been carrying and bit into a chip silently. The cold embrace of the wind eventually guided me to a waste bin, the chip bag still half-full. It had been 24 years since I had tossed pennies in the fountain, an eager child leaning over to see her reflection, and met with another girl’s face.
As I sat on the edge of the fountain, I threw crumbs to the pigeons, avoiding the water pooling inside the fountain. After a few days of seeing this girl wherever I went, my parents assumed it was another imaginary friend, someone to confide in when I was alone. The wind whipped through my hair, sending the birds back into the ashen sky. She didn’t help me though. The girl was my mirror image, just like me, a girl destined to be alone.
The cold grew more intense, and people began to leave, carrying on with their regular lives, leaving me biting the inside of my cheek, letting the cold wrap itself around me like a blanket. Throughout my 4 years on campus, there wasn’t any girl running in the shadows to greet me, no hidden reflection bouncing into view.
“Dedri.” My father had said that laboriously hot afternoon. “Dedri, it’s your mother.”And I was all alone at the duck pond the next year, the soft ‘plink’ of my penny against the marble fountain, a harsh reminder.
Rain splattered onto my glasses’ frames, and I yanked my hoodie over my head to keep my hair dry. Despite my frustration at the world, I smiled, shrugging my shoulders from side-to-side. Maybe, if I jogged a half-mile to the subway station I would make it on time; but the rain was coming down in sticky sheets. I shivered, now regretting that my umbrella was still stuck underneath the driver’s seat of my father’s old car. Slowly, I got up to wait the rain out in a shop, but I twisted in shock at the sight of my reflection in the overflowing fountain.
“Hello.” The reflection spoke, eyeing me suspiciously, a wild glint in her eye. I touched my palm to my cheek, watching as the girl in the fountain kept her hands at her sides. “I said, hello.” I swallowed my questions and whispered a silent hello to the girl, trying to touch the water where the girl rippled.
“I’m not going anywhere if you were wondering. Best to head over to the museum over there past 5th avenue if you want to make sure.”
With that, the girl winked and her reflection in the water disappeared. I considered forgetting that this ever happened and walk to the subway-rain or not- or call my friend to pick me up, but despite my thoughts, my feet were suddenly walking towards the museum. Some sort of imaginary friend.
The museum wasn’t far from the duck pond, even in the sticky sheets of rain. Everything was clustered around one area in these parts, the familiar street signs flashing into view. Father would often guide me through the sea of people and buy us a VIP pass for the museum and the day would be spent on learning, milkshakes, and exhibits with a free piggyback ride out the back door. Today, the museum wasn’t too crowded, and only a few people were in line for tickets. I waited my turn and calmly wandered through the nearly empty halls, half-hoping that the girl wouldn’t show.
Touring the museum was kind of like checking off items on a grocery list. Each aisle held a new exhibit with looming statues peering downward with glazed eyes. Carefully, I read every plaque in the mammal section, wondering how to contact an imaginary girl from my youth. Aimlessly, I found myself staring into a cracked mirror, washing my face in the bathroom when I heard a voice.
“Hello, again friend.”
Shuddering, I pulled away from the mirror to see the girl on the other side, waving her hand. Though it had slipped my notice before, the girl wasn’t exactly like me. She shared my freckles, bony shoulders, and a slight gap in her teeth, but her hair was neatly plaited down her back. Sighing, I tugged at my own frizzy mess and frowned at the girl in the mirror.
“What do you want from me?”
The girl clapped her hands as if she were calling us to order. I sheepishly hung my head and checked the bottom of each stall, hoping somebody would be there to see us. The bathroom was empty.
“Now, now my sweet Dedri. That’s no way to start a conversation.”
Her voice rang out in sweet melodies, causing me to lean against the bathroom sink.
“Well, if we want to ‘start this properly’, what’s your name?”
The girl rolled her eyes around and around over and over until I thought her eyes might pop out of their sockets.
“Children. Tsk, tsk. Of course, you wouldn’t remember-but my name’s Aja if you would like to call me such.”
Stupidly, I pressed my palm to the mirror, waiting for her to disappear unlike the fountain incident, but she stayed rooted in position.
“You know, you’re quite a rookie for making acquaintances.” Gracefully, the girl flipped out of the mirror and landed in front of me on the tiled floor, her appearance just like that of a human. “ And don’t touch me, please. Your hand will go right through.”
Aja guided me out of the bathroom and twirled to one side. I lowered my hoodie, giving quick glances to inspect the hallways. There was hardly anyone in the big brick building, but I had to be certain. Aja leaned against one of the stone pillars, sizing me up and down.
“My my, it’s been a long time.”
Trying to squeeze the water out of my socks, I only took one glance at Aja.
“I’m not a child anymore.”
“And I can see that.” Those days by the fountain were so long ago; it felt like centuries.
My phone was clammy in my hands, sopping wet, but either way, it wasn’t of much use here. The reception wasn’t all too great, and there wasn’t anyone to call. Crispen and Wendy weren’t going to know I was at the museum; my closest friends were lagging back at the university before the break to catch one of those ‘break parties’ everyone was talking about on campus.
“So, now that we’ve made acquaintances, what do you want from me?”
Aja stood in front of a sculpture, seeming lost in thought.
“What is it that I want? No, I have nothing to want really. It’s more about what you want I’m afraid.”
I rubbed the sculpture, resisting the urge to snort in public. “There’s always something to want.”
Wistfully, the girl attempted to touch the sculpture, only to see her hand come out from the other side.
“Have you ever been to the harbor, or Ferry Heights annual festival? I heard the views were breathtaking.”
Her voice sounded hollow as she peered at another painting somberly. And the ironic thing was; that I had stared into the water from the harbor after our first fishing trip, and won a stuffed bear at Ferry Heights festival when I was younger, my parents nearly losing me to the sea after the fishing line had yanked me forward, a rosy-cheeked bubbling child. The girl’s wanting nearly wanted me to lie, ease her pains of being-whatever she was-but I spoke to the ground softly instead.
“Yes. And the views were quite breathtaking.”
“Did you know that spirits are bound to the one they care for, through life and death until they are set free?”
“No, not really. I still don’t know who you are, actually.” To me, this was all a game, a mind illusion that had finally driven me insane, but I still thought of Aja as an imaginary friend, just an invisible friend to offer soft turf to stand on- a comforting pillow to rest your head upon.
“I’m your imaginary friend, so you can clearly see you didn’t have much of an imagination in your early years.”
I scoffed, wondering why I was taking this to heart. “Well, I searched for you when I was younger, but you just vanished.”
“No, I was simply not needed anymore.You realize that imaginary friends have a life when they’re not with their owners-right?”
She summoned a book and started to read, not letting me get a peek at the cover. “So what? You were needed now?” The museum suddenly felt like a jail cell where time passed quicker than my father’s stopwatch. How long had I been here hallucinating? What time was it?
Aja didn’t seem so surprised at my outburst of panic.
“When you search, I have to come. You wanted me here, so now I’m here-kind of like an alarm clock always going off randomly.”
I pictured an annoyed Aja sleeping in her bed or sipping some morning coffee when all those alarm bells began ringing. Suddenly, I felt a pang of guilt, remembering all those times I had searched for her in my younger years, including some of my older ones. But I wasn’t so sure that I was still looking for the same person.
“So, you want to head outside?” I counter. “ It’s getting a little depressing out here.” I pulled at Aja, my hand barely skimming her ghostly frame, but she didn’t budge.
“No, it’d be best if we stay away from other people.”
My phone buzzed in my pocket. I flipped it over to find my dad’s number on the front. He had sent me a text that he was coming to pick me up from the break party so we could have cupcakes together. Slowly, I put the phone back in my pocket and saw Aja, still leaning against the pillar, talking to me.
“ Tomorrow at 7, preferably AM, but PM works too, at the museum here.” She spoke without looking at me, eyes fixed on her watch. I nodded in approval, but not to what she was saying.
“No, not tomorrow, or next week. It’s about time, 24 years and all.”
Aja’s book clattered to the floor, and her feet started to rise through the roof.
Those were the last words that came out of her mouth; and I completed them myself.
“But I’ll never be alone anymore”
...And that was all that mattered.