"So you did come back. I hoped you would." She sounded contented, like a happy child who has acquired a new toy.
"Yes." I said, without turning round. "Though I'm not quite sure why." I'd been waiting for her for ten minutes, fooling myself into thinking I was tired and needed to rest. I just wanted to see of she was there again. I had been about to leave when she appeared.
"Well," said Araera, wading across the stream to me as she had the previous day. "You just sat in the corner on your own at school, so you might as well talk to someone now."
"Thanks for the reminder." I muttered. The girl was right of course, that was exactly why I was here. Lacking in friends, I'd come to the river to talk to a girl who claimed to be my brains reproduction of myself, because it wasn't as if I had anyone else.
"I never said I was you." Araera interjected. "I said I probably was because that is what most people make up when they think of imaginary friends. Themselves. You on the other hand have done something different. I've decided, I'm not you at all." Surprisingly, the first thing that made me feel was disappointment. The girl seemed quite nice, in her own special way.
"Well," she said, "at least that means you have an original mind. Do you want to try stone skimming again?" The delicate stalk of a daisy snapped between my fingers as I plucked it from its hiding place in the grass. Concentrating on the daisy, I pulled its petals from it one by one, ignoring the girl as far as I could.
"Hey, it's not so bad." She said softly. "You don't even like the girls at school, so what if the feeling's mutual? It doesn't matter. Talking to me about, well, whatever it is we're talking about, has got to better than clothes shopping, right? At least you exist, so you're one up on me." She draped an arm around me and squeezed my shoulder. She had very long fingers, thin too. They looked almost like you could snap them if you tapped them with a feather. Her hands were cold, ice cold. My palms were sweating in the heat. Hers were so dry, not even slightly moist.
Her hands. I could feel her hands, but if that was the case. That meant she wasn't made up, she couldn't be. That also meant that it became weird again that she could read my thoughts and seemed not to feel pain. When she hadn't actually existed, that hadn't been a problem. If she came from my head, anything was possible, but she didn't come from my head. I could feel her hand on my shoulder. You can't feel imagination; but real people don't read minds.
"I must seem like a paradox to you, Olivia. I'm sorry, I would love to explain, really." So she knew my name now. Well she's saved me having to make introductions.
"Where do you come from, Araera?" It was a good question. I'd only seen her twice and both times here, sitting by the river. She looked to be the same age as me. Whoever she was, she had to belong somewhere.
"I belong somewhere." She assured. "I have a home. Just not in the way you might understand it."
"Where do you live is what I mean." She looked at me as if I was stupid.
She didn't live here. She was well dressed, fed, rested. She couldn't really expect me to believe she was sleeping rough. "You can't live here. I'm sure you don't." She just smiled. That girl would have me banging my head against that bridge soon, instead of her and for all the lack of pain she seemed to feel it would hurt me.
"I might live here. There's fresh water. I could drink it and wash in it. Let's see. I suppose I would have to eat grass like a cow, but I don't have four stomachs. Maybe I could eat nettles, people eat nettle soup after all." She allowed her feet to slip into the water and let them dangle there. A small fish, tiny mouth agape, cautiously approached her big toe. She splashed at it absently with one hand until it diverted its course away from her foot.
"Wouldn't work." I found myself saying. "You can't live on plants alone. You'd die of nutrient deficiencies. No protein, no carbohydrates." I'd already started ticking nutrients off on my fingers when I caught myself. "You're just distracting me again.You don't want to tell me where you live, fine. Your mother probably just told you telling strangers where you live is a bad idea. Well it is I suppose, I'm sorry for asking. I suppose that's why you won't tell me your real name, you're afraid." Of course, I didn't know why I hadn't thought of it before. A thought struck me. Perhaps she wasn't very bright. Maybe that was why she told all these silly stories. Poor kid. A few magic tricks would explain the mind reading phenomenon.
I knelt down in front of her and looked into those light blue eyes. "Araera, I think you should go home, have a rest and eat something. Go talk to your parents. they wouldn't want you out here all alone." I dropped my voice and tried to sound kindly, but she didn't respond. She just looked straight back at me, without blinking once.
In the end, it was me who had to turn away and then look back, under the strength of her gaze. There was something wrong with her eyes. I had expected denial, sadness, confusion. Not pity. Why would she pity me?
"I'm not stupid." She whispered. "People often make that mistake, it's their way of dealing with things they don't understand. I don't blame you. You'll come to understand, eventually."
"Why do say people make you up?" I asked, turning around so I was facing the water again and not her. "Because they wouldn't do that really, would they."
Everyone needs friends, you didn't have any." Ouch.
"I'm too old for imaginary friends." I told her. I looked down at the river, down at our reflections, sitting side by side, light distorting us so we zigzagged across the water. She looked so normal, but she wasn't.
This time, it was me that left first. I felt her eyes on me as I went, but forced myself not to turn around. I wouldn't come back. Poor girl. I wondered what was wrong with her. I would never know.
I wish you all the best, I thought.
"Thank you." She called, as I trudged guiltily away.