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Erik is in the grocery store, following Emma mostly by the clack of her high heels on the dingy tile floor, his eyes fixed firmly on the shelves and shelves of food he knows they can’t afford.

Emma tosses another can into her cart and Erik winces, gaze straying back to the produce aisle and the rows upon rows of fresh fruit. His mouth waters slightly.

“Erik!” she snaps. “Keep up.”

She stops to drop a packet of hot dogs on top of the stack of cans in her cart and Erik sighs, stretching his legs to close the distance between them.

As he nears his foster mother, he catches sight of a familiar head of brown hair out of the corner of his eyes.

Charles stands in the cookie aisle, staring contemplatively at the stacks of brightly coloured boxes.

Erik would almost laugh at how serious his expression is as he looks at the sweets, except that seeing Charles in public always unnerves him.

The way people’s eyes sweep over and through him, seeing nothing but the shelf of food he stands in front of, is unsettling to Erik still.

The first time he and Charles had run into another person, a neighbour walking down the street past where they played, Erik had cried afterwards, confused and upset by the way the man looked only at him, asking him why he was out playing all by himself. It stung that everyone thought he spent all his time alone, unable to find another child to play with.

Two years later he had come to accept the way adults and even other children looked at him, the weird kid with no friends.

But he hadn’t quite been able to get used to the way Charles was invisible to everyone but him.

A woman reaches right over Charles’ head to pull a box of Oreos off the shelf, the sleeve of her sweater ruffling his friend’s wavy hair, making it stand on end as she pulls away.

She doesn’t feel the touch, though.

Erik throws a quick glance at Emma, busy comparing the prices on cuts of meat, and sidles closer. “What are you doing here?” he hisses.

Charles turns around with a sunny grin. “I got bored.”

Erik doesn’t know how it’s possible for an imaginary boy to get bored just because he’s alone.

But then again, Charles always insists that he’s not imaginary, that he remembers everything he does when Erik isn’t around.

The evidence isn’t in his favour, though.

“I was going to come play with you later,” Erik offers under his breath.

“I know.” Charles shrugs. “I just thought I’d see what you were doing.”

“Emma’s making hot dogs and baked beans tonight,” Erik tells him with a grimace, making Charles laugh.

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“Maybe if I didn’t have to eat it all the time,” Erik laments. That, and pre-made, frozen lasagne.

Charles makes a sympathetic face. “We can look for apples in the orchard when you get done here,” he offers.

Erik grins. Charles always knows how to cheer him up.

“Who are you talking to?” Emma’s voice is sharp behind him.

Erik spins to see his foster mother looming over him, hands planted on her rounded hips.

“No one?”

“Oops,” Charles says.

“Then why did I see your lips moving?” She demands.

Erik shrugs helplessly. “I wasn’t doing anything.”

Emma looks around them quickly and then stoops, bringing her face close to his. “You were pretending Charles was here again, weren’t you?”

“No.”

“Don’t lie to me,” she frowns. “I saw you talking to thin air.” She huffs out a breath, her platinum blonde hair swaying in the breeze of it. “I can’t believe you’d do this in public! I’ve told you again and again, people are going to think you’re crazy, they’re going to think we’re bad parents. They’re going to talk.”

Erik fights the urge to roll his eyes. Charles doesn’t. Emma can’t see him anyway.

They both know she’s not worried that Erik is crazy—not really. She’s only worried that people will look down on her for having a crazy kid living in her house. Erik may only be seven, but he listens when people talk.

He knows what the neighbors have said about him, every time they see him sneak off to play ‘by himself.’ He knows what they say to Shaw and Emma, the way they laugh, and the way his foster parents grimace.

“I told you, I wasn’t doing anything,” he says stubbornly, folding his arms across his narrow chest.

Charles pouts in sympathy. “I’m sorry,” he says from beside Emma. Erik struggles not to let his eyes stray to his friend.

Emma would notice for sure.

Emma narrows her eyes at him and grabs him by the arm. “Come on,” she snaps. “We’re done here.”

Erik shifts uncomfortably as they stand in line at the checkout. He can practically feel how annoyed Emma is, even though she refuses to look his way.

Charles hovers by the cashier, looking apologetic.

“You’re staying in today,” Emma says decisively, piling her purchases onto the conveyor belt.

“What?” Erik’s eyes go wide.

“I don’t want you running around talking to yourself in that cow field. It’s bad enough if anyone saw you today, pretending your imaginary friend was in the store.” She sighs. “Honestly. You were supposed to grow out of this.”

“But—”

“No ‘buts’, sugar,” Emma cuts him off. Out of her mouth, a pet name can sound vicious. Everyone is always ‘sugar’ or ‘honey’ or ‘darling,’ but Erik is pretty sure Emma doesn’t actually like anyone.

Especially not him.

“You can stay in and watch T.V. with your father and act like a normal kid for a change.”

Erik bites his lip. A whole night in with Shaw? Even Emma doesn’t want to spend that much time with him, and she married the guy.

“Emma,” he whines.

“I told you,” she hisses, leaning close. “You’re supposed to call me ‘mom’ when we’re in public.”

Erik closes his eyes, breathing deep the way Charles taught him. Don’t get angry. Don’t cry. Never in front of Shaw and Emma.

Still, he wishes he had a real mom. Someone who wanted to be called that all the time. Not just so the neighbors would think she was a good person.

Charles drifts close as Emma loads the bags back into the grocery cart.

“I’m sorry,” he says again, eyes sad. “You can’t play at all today?”

Erik shakes his head minutely.

Charles’ shoulders slump. “I wish they could see me.”

It’s something they both wish for, all the time.

“Then we’d be able to play all the time.”

Erik just shrugs, a tiny motion of his shoulders.

Charles understands, though, why Erik can’t even glance his way as he follows Emma out to the car. Just before he gets in, Charles grabs his hand and gives his fingers a squeeze. “I’ll see you later, okay Erik?”

Emma’s watching, so he can’t even nod. But he feels better as he slides into the car.


_______________________________________________



Emma can’t wait to tell Shaw what Erik’s done.

“He was talking to himself again. In the store,” she tells her husband the moment they walk in the door. Erik’s shoulders slump.

Shaw sits up from where he was sprawled on the couch, a game show blaring in the background, and narrows his eyes at Erik. “Is that true, boy?”

“No,” Erik denies.

“Yes,” Emma snaps, cuffing him on the back of the head. It doesn’t hurt, but Erik still glares.

“Were you playing at that friend of yours again?” Shaw asks, eyes alight with something Erik can’t quite identify. But he knows it’s not good. At least his foster father hasn’t been drinking, he thinks, eyes scanning the room for bottles. Not yet. “What’s his name?”

Erik refuses to rise to the bait. He stands mute under his foster parents’ scrutiny.

“Charles,” Emma supplies after a long moment. She curls her lip in anger. “’Charles’ this and ‘Charles’ that. Charles in the cow pasture, Charles at school. Charles in the damn grocery store!”

Erik winces, hunching in on himself.

“So, you’re still crazy then? Haven’t ‘grown out of it’ the way the school said?”

Erik flinches. “I’m not crazy!”

“No? Then what do you call seeing people no one else can see? Talking to yourself in the store? Making up lies about your wonderful, smart, funny friend, just because you can’t make any real ones?”

That’s the worst part, maybe, Erik thinks. The fact that no one thinks he has any friends. Everyone thinks he’s weird, spending all his time by himself.

But why would he spend time with other kids when Charles is so great?

Not to mention lonely, whenever Erik isn’t there.

“I wasn’t talking to anyone. Emma was seeing things.”

“Oh, so I’m the crazy one?” Emma asks, stalking over to him. She turns to her husband. “Maybe we should have sent him back.”

Something inside Erik clenches, even though he hates these people. There’s worse out there, so they tell him over and over again. He’s lucky to have a stable home. He’s lucky he’s not being bumped from murderers to drug dealers to worse, so they say.

But more than that, he doesn’t want to leave here, and move away from Charles.

Who would keep the boy company, when no one but Erik can see him?

“We still can, if you’re so desperate to get rid of him,” Shaw says. “But then you’ll have to get a job to cover expenses.”

Emma blanches, turning away. “I didn’t say we should,” she says, heading to the kitchen to begin unpacking the meagre groceries.

Shaw gives him a hard look. “Kid, I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re nuts or not. You can talk to yourself, or your imaginary friend, or Santa Claus for all I care. Just don’t do it where people can see you. And don’t do it where I can see you. It creeps me out.” Shaw turns back to the T.V.

Erik waits, unsure of where that leaves him.

After a moment, Shaw realizes he’s still standing there. “God dammit, go to your room, or something.”

Erik scurries off before he can say anything more.

He hears Emma and Shaw begin to talk the moment he’s out of the room.

Emma’s upset, and Shaw is tired of dealing with it. And it’s all Erik’s fault.

He wonders when they’ll break down and send him back. They don’t want to be his real parents, he knows that much. They just want the check the government sends them for keeping him.

He knows he’s going to have to be more careful, if he wants to stay.

But what can he do, he wonders? Ignore Charles?

What’s the point of staying with the Shaws if not to get to spend time with his friend?

Erik slumps onto his bed, dejected.

He wishes, sometimes, that he could make a real friend. Someone everyone could see. Someone who didn’t make him wonder if he was as crazy as his foster parents say he is.


____________________________________________________



“Erik! Erik!”

Erik blinks awake at the sound of an insistent knocking. “Hmm?” he struggles up, wondering why he’s in bed in all his clothes. “Emma?”

“Erik!” the noise repeats, coming from his bedroom window. Through the darkness he can just make out Charles’ pale little face, practically pressed against the glass. “Erik!” the boy says again, raising his hand to knock.

Erik glances at the door, wondering what time it is. Where his foster parents are.

But Charles gives him a pleading look and he sighs.

“What are you doing here?” he asks, as he struggles to raise the window. It sticks in its casing, the wood rotting all around it. He wrinkles his nose as paint flakes down on the sill.

“I wanted to make sure you were okay,” Charles says, leaning into the room once the window is open. He frowns. “That I didn’t get you into trouble.”

Erik wants to tell him that he most certainly did get him into trouble, that Charles has to be more careful. But he can’t, not when his friend looks so sad already. “I’m fine.”

“Can I come in?” Charles whispers, even though it doesn’t matter. He could scream at the top of his lungs, and still no one would hear him.

It’s Erik who needs to worry.

“I guess,” he says, anyway.

It’s easier said than done, Erik realizes. Charles is still little, scrawnier than Erik by far, and he doesn’t have the strength to pull himself up on the window, though Erik’s sure that he could do it just fine. He laughs as he grabs hold of Charles’ shirt, hauling his friend up when he jumps, leaning back to pull him into the room. They land in a heap at the foot of the window, giggling helplessly.

“I could totally have done that,” Erik boasts, rolling to his back.

“No way! It’s harder than it look,” Charles pouts, panting to catch his breath.

They lie there for a minute before Charles rolls to his side to look at Erik. “I’m sorry I got you into trouble. I just got lonely sitting around by myself all day.”

Erik sighs. It’s stuff like that that makes him wonder if Charles really is imaginary. “Why can you remember all the time I’m not around, but not where you came from?” he asks uselessly.

Charles frowns, giving him one of his usual shrugs. Charles knows his name is ‘Charles’ but nothing else. He thinks he has parents—Doesn’t everyone, Erik?—but doesn’t remember anything about them. He lingers near the cow pasture all day, but doesn’t remember if he has a home. At night, he just wanders the woods, or, increasingly, hovers near Erik’s house, waiting for him to wake up.

He doesn’t think he sleeps.

Real people sleep, Erik tells him.

“You know that I’ve tried to remember,” Charles says, annoyed.

Erik frowns. He knows. “Why is it only me, Charles?” he asks helplessly. “Why can’t other people see you?”

If just one other person saw the boy, it would make all the difference, Erik knows.

“Because you’re special,” Charles tells him now, smiling.

Despite himself, Erik smiles back.

“Sometimes I like being the only one,” he admits in a whisper.

Charles’s smile brightens. “Really?”

Erik nods. “I don’t really want to share you.”

Charles scrambles up on his knees, leaning over to hug Erik awkwardly. “I don’t want to share you, either!” he says. “Can we play a game?”

Erik doesn’t have a lot of games, but, he supposes, he has a pretty good imagination.

“Sure.”


_______________________________________________



“One, two, tie my shoe! Three, four, shut the door!” Charles sings as he skips. “Five, six, pick up sticks!”

Erik hops after him, jumping along the makeshift obstacle course.

“Come on, Erik!” Charles teases, grinning at him over his shoulder. “Jump higher!”

Erik jumps over the fallen log that Charles has just scrambled over, grinning triumphantly.

Charles huffs, but smiles back.

“You think you can do it better than me?” he challenges, eyes sparkling.

“I know I can,” Erik boasts.

“Yeah?” Charles’ lips turn up mischievously. “Then, tag! You’re it!” he darts forward, whacking Erik on the arm before taking off in the other direction.

For a second Erik just gapes before giving a primal yell and tearing after his friend. Charles scampers ahead of him, laughing.

“I’m going to get you!” Erik threatens breathlessly.

Erik has longer legs, but Charles is fast, and is making the most of his head start. He ducks under branches that Erik has to slow for, and runs flat out for the cow pasture.

He jumps the fence effortlessly, turning to throw a smile back over his shoulder as Erik closes in on him.

“Better run faster!” Erik taunts.

“I’m already running too fast for you,” Charles throws back, his voice caught on the wind.

Even as Erik pumps his arms and legs, pushing himself as fast as he can, he has to admire how free and careless his friend looks, pelting across the field, the wind whipping through his curls.

Charles can be quiet and reserved, but when he and Erik play he lets that all go, laughing and shouting and running just like any other boy.

Even if Erik is the only one who can see it.

“You’ll never catch me,” Charles boasts, looking back over his shoulder to check on Erik’s progress.

He’s still got a good lead but Erik is closing in, his long legs giving him an advantage in the open field, with no obstacles to slow him down. He grins toothily, imagining his victory as he tackles Charles to the ground.

And then Charles goes down without Erik touching him, yelping high in his throat as his legs tangle under him.

Erik gasps as his friend hits the ground with a heavy thump. “Charles!” he yells, sprinting harder than he had during their game, racing to his friends’ side.

Charles lays in the grass, looking dazed, his ankle twisted under him. “I think it was the bunnies,” he says absently.

“What?” Has Charles hit his head, Erik wonders? People in Emma’s daytime shows did that all the time, and then they got confused and said funny things and forgot who they were, and always seemed to end up accidentally marrying their brother.

He hopes nothing like that was going to happen to Charles.

“I think I stepped in a bunny nest,” Charles says again, propping himself up on his elbows, eyes wide. “Are they okay?”

Erik glances down and sees that yes, in fact, Charles had tripped over a burrow in the field. Erik bites his lip. He’s been fond of the rabbits ever since his first day playing with Charles two years before. Even so, “Who cares about them?” he huffs, sinking down to kneel beside his friend. “Are you okay?”

Charles and Erik both look down at his ankle. Erik knows it’s not supposed to be at that angle.

Sean Cassidy broke his arm the previous year falling out of a window—the idiot thought he could fly—and it had looked something like this, twisted and wrong the way it hung from his body. Erik winces. Sean had had a cast for what felt like forever, unable to play in all but the tamest games.

Erik frowns as another thought occurs to him. “Charles, who will take care of you if you’re hurt?”

Charles turns from his contemplation of his own leg and gives Erik a small smile. “You will.”

It’s true, of course, but also not what he meant. When Sean broke his arm, they yelled for the teacher, who called his mom, who took him to a doctor.

“Doctors won’t be able to see you, will they?”

Charles shrugs. “No, I guess not. But I think I’m fine.” He turns his eyes back to his leg.

“No you’re not,” Erik says weakly. He can see that he’s not.

“Yeah,” Charles sighs. He gingerly lifts his leg and shakes it out, and the ankle miraculously goes back to looking exactly the way it should. “Yeah, I am.”

“What?” Erik gapes.

Charles’ ankle had twisted under him, but now it looks like he never fell at all.

Erik is relieved and horrified, all at the same time. “Is this because you’re—?”

“Imaginary?” Charles asks, and now tears well up in his eyes. “Erik,” he shifts to sit up, tucking his perfectly-intact legs underneath himself as he leans forward. “I still don’t feel imaginary.”

“I don’t guess you would,” Erik says after a moment.

And then Charles starts to cry for real, big tears rolling down his face. Erik looks at them, the way they glisten on Charles’ cheeks, and wonders if he’s making them up in his head right now.

Is he really sitting alone in this field, talking to himself?

“Erik?” Charles asks, voice thick. “You don’t care if I’m not real, do you?”

Erik thinks about it; really thinks about it for a minute, even though it makes Charles cry harder. He thinks about how angry Emma and Shaw get and how the kids tease him at school. He thinks about how the neighbors look at him, and how he doesn’t have any other friends.

But the memory of Charles running through the field, laughing breathlessly, is still fresh in his mind.

He doesn’t want to have to worry about what Shaw thinks, or even the kids at school. He just wants to go out and play and have fun. And Charles is the most fun person he knows.

He thinks they’re a lot a like, even if Charles isn’t real. Neither one of them has anyone else—no family, no friends, no one who cares but each other. The only difference is that, unlike Charles, other people can see Erik. They just don’t care to look.

“You feel pretty real to me,” he finally says with a shrug.

A wide grin breaks out across Charles’ wet face and Erik smiles back.

What’s real, anyway, he wonders?

__________________________________

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