Winning Short Story 2017: Youth 1st

Imaginary Heart by Isabella Sheptak

My name is Ingrid. In the past it has also been Sissy, Minnie, Nicole, Aria, Ally, and Layla. My best friend, Elvira, changes my name whenever she feels like my old one doesn’t fit anymore. She also chooses what I look like, what I wear, and how I act. However, I don’t mind, because whenever Elvira changes something about me, I feel as though I’m stepping into a new role. I’m an actress, a shape shifter. At the age of five I was a fairy with bubblegum pink hair and freckles that glittered in the sunlight. When I was seven I was an astronaut with a short brown bob in a lilac space suit. By the age of twelve my colours had changed more times than a chameleon’s. 

Elvira and I move in a synchronized fashion. We’ve never been apart. ‘Joined at the hip’ is an understatement. Each morning at 6:55 am we brush our teeth and then Elvira scrolls through Instagram, while I’m left to gaze at myself in the mirror. I’ve found that I don’t need to look at social media because my ever-changing appearance is often reflected in what Elvira sees. For the past two weeks my hair has been long and chestnut with streaks of honey. My skin is the colour of milk chocolate, and my eyes are an oak brown that turns gold when the light hits it from different angles. It’s funny how Elvira has never really changed though. She always has the same deep scarlet curls and emerald eyes. Humans are a funny bunch.

Bending my head to spit out the frothy paste, I glance at Elvira who’s texting Nicole, the perky blonde who always walks with a little skip in her step. Nicole is fluent in the language of inside jokes and tinkling laughs. I’ve seen her at school, but she doesn’t talk to Elvira or I often. Occasionally she tosses over a smile dripping in pity.

Wiping my mouth and turning to grab a glass of water I catch my reflection out of the corner of my eye. My hair is now a blonde lob, my skin olive, and my eyes sapphire. Out of all the looks I’ve had, this is not a favourite. Over the past few months Elvira has changed how I looked constantly, but I’ve found these three features getting rotated into my appearance more and more. Shrugging my shoulders and waiting for Elvira to finish, I follow her down the glass stairs, watching as she eats her breakfast, wishing I too could eat. When we were little she would try to feed me some of her food, but it would never make it into my mouth. It would slide off of her spoon and splatter onto the floor. From then on I only imagined what food would taste like. This particular morning her dad has made her warm porridge with fresh peaches on top. Closing my eyes, as I always do, I listen for the flavors. I hear the smooth notes of the porridge harmonize with the sweet soprano of the peaches. Delicious. 

Picking up her bag, Elvira snaps me out of my daze. Her dad sends us a sad smile as we head out the door to school. I know that smile far too well. It is the smile he has been wearing, like a drooping rainbow, since Elvira’s mom died when Elvira was four. It always seems to appear when Elvira talks to me or picks out my outfit for the day. For years I’ve tried to lift it, but I’m never strong enough to hold it up for long. Shaking away the tangled web of thoughts criss-crossing my mind, I focus on the moment. Arm in arm with Elvira, we walk to school. Our strides are always in rhythm, marching to the beat of a drummer only we can hear. Some days our drummer’s music is energetic, breathing life into our lungs. Other days his music is sombre, sucking it away.

Suddenly the music pauses — it’s never done this before. Elvira usually sings over it or talks through it, but she’s never before instructed it to stop. Worried, I turn to her.

“Ingrid,” she begins, “I am going to be walking to school with some new friends today.” 

I’m confused. I am the only friend she had ever had. I thought I was the only one she would ever need. Sensing my apprehension, she carries on. 

“I think we need to take a bit of a break.” She says, biting her bottom lip. “Well, not just me. My dad, my therapist, my psychologist…” 

I can’t bear listening anymore, so I tune her out. I know I won’t be able to stay with her forever. I know I’m not good for her; but there has always a small thread of optimism I plucked from her mother on her deathbed and held on to. Maybe when I stole her mother’s optimism, it’s what killed her in the end. But I don’t care. That is the thread that connected Elvira and I in the first place. I’ve been to her therapy sessions and heard her therapist whisper to her father that talking to me was ruining her social life. She said I was a poison that needed to be pumped out of her. They’re so cruel to me, although I give them all of my compassion and love.

Trying to convince her that I’m enough for her, I scream out that she’s wrong. I even try singing her name, then bellowing all the reasons why we belong together. I’ve never hated being mute more than in this moment. 

Turning away from me Elvira says, “Maybe you should stay here. I think I’ll be able to make it through the day without you.” Blinking away tears she continues, “I have to try.”

Anger begins to fill me. It starts by leaking into my feet, and soon seeps into my lungs. I drown myself in it. I stand my ground on that cracked sidewalk, baked by the June sun, and send her my best defiant look…fine. 

With only a half a second hesitation, she nods and begins to walk down the path. For the first time since she was four years old, she is walking completely alone. However, it doesn’t last long. After only a few seconds I hear her squeal, “NICOLE!”, and link arms with her. Squinting at the duo in the distance, something about Nicole strikes me as familiar. Then I realize it, Elvira has given me Nicole’s blonde lob. I reach up to touch my hair, but my fingers stroke only empty space. Panic begins to set in, and both of my hands fly up to meet cold, smooth, scalp. For the first time in my life I am completely bald. Tears spring to my eyes as I stand mortified. This is the first time in my life that I am thankful people can’t see me. 

Salt tears begin to blur my vision, but I can see two girls walking towards Elvira and Nicole. One with olive skin. One with bright, burning, sapphire eyes. Looking down I see nothing. My hands leap to my eyes and meet only hollow sockets. I can no longer feel my toes. My body is slowly disappearing. I feel as though God is slowly erasing me from the bottom, up. 

As the numbing grows, infecting my calves, and then my knees, I have an epiphany. Every time Elvira changed my appearance, she was creating her idea of the perfect friend. I have never been enough. Our entire friendship was an ancient piece of paper. At first glance it appeared full and detailed, but when someone else touched it, it crumbled and turned to dust. She has what she wants now. Friends. Human friends with flesh, voices, and souls.

Suddenly the entire weight of my situation comes crashing down on my shoulders. No! This isn’t how I want to die. My throat tightens, but I can’t move. Old memories come chasing each other into my mind. Memories of Elvira and I building Lego palaces on the floor of her pink fairy themed bedroom when we were five. Elvira pouring me and her cat a cup of tea at my first tea party. I try grabbing onto any memory I can. I attempt to pull myself away from the death that is coming. But I can’t. The memories begin to slip away, and no matter how tightly I hold on, they escape my grasp. I try as hard as I can to recall them, but they only dart in and out, offering me glimpses of what once was. However something is different. I am no longer in any of my memories. Now it is Elvira pouring tea to open air. My mouth is numb, this destructive sickness is travelling fast. Somewhere in the distance I hear someone whisper “Goodbye Sissy.” And then nothing. 

My beating heart laid on the sidewalk for many years. Every day Elvira stepped over it, while the rest of the world crushed it underfoot. Still, it beat on. Until one day, small hands picked it up and cradled it. Slowly my body began to grow back, and when I became fully formed I was four years old again. This time, a small boy was looking at me with his head cocked to the side. I smiled, and he laughed.

“Mommy, look I found a friend!” he shouted over to a tall lady with deep scarlet curls and emerald eyes. 

“That’s wonderful, darling,” she told him. My mind was fuzzy from being non-existent for so many years. Memories had started to return, only to dart away fractions of seconds later.  However, something about her voice sounded familiar. 

The boy took me home and we grew up together. At the age of five I was an elf with long ears and blue hair. At seven I was an astronaut in a sky-blue space suit. Life was good, but I still wondered how my heart survived and did not disappear like the rest of me. Then I had my second epiphany. When Elvira created me, she gave me all of the characteristics she wished for in a friend. She made me kind, and loving, and beautiful. She can no longer see me, but as long as my heart's still beating, I know that she is still looking for someone with the heart of her imaginary friend.