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art by Shannon N. Kelly

Nilly

The Numbers Quartet is a collaboration between Aliette de Bodard, Nancy Fulda, Stephen Gaskell, & Benjamin Rosenbaum

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a Computer Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction--she is the author of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, and her writing has been nominated for a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award and the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Visit aliettedebodard.com for more information.

Nancy Fulda is a Phobos Award winner, a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient, and a two-time Writers of the Future finalist. Her near-future space exploration story, "That Undiscovered Country," was jointly honored by Baen Books and the National Space Society. Nancy's writing has appeared in Asimov's, Apex Digest, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and many others. Her web site is nancyfulda.com.

Stephen Gaskell has published fiction in Interzone, Nature, and Clarkesworld, amongst other places. His SF novella, "Strata", a high-tech thriller set in the sun's chromosphere, co-written with Bradley P. Beaulieu, author of The Winds of Khalakovo, has just been released through Amazon and B & N. He is currently working on his first novel, a near-future SF tale set in Lagos, Nigeria. More of his work and thoughts can be found at stephengaskell.com.

Benjamin Rosenbaum lives near Basel, Switzerland with his wife Esther and his children, Aviva and Noah, who demand logic puzzles, classic rock, and childrens' suffrage . He's recently become Swiss, which means of course that he is on the board of a club (in his case, a little synagogue). The Swiss have a deep reverence for clubs; they consider them the backbones of democracy, and the constitutional "right to assemble" actually translates to "the right to form clubs". No lie. His website is benjaminrosenbaum.com.
j: in quaternion theory, a meta-imaginary number, orthogonal to both the real number line (1, 2, 3...) and the imaginary number line (i, 2i, 3i...)--symbol j, formalized by Sir William Rowan Hamilton in 1843 AD.
Usually, when a boy dies, his imaginary friend goes with him, to gambol in fields of light... or something. Or, at least, it imagines that it does.
But in Nilly's case, the boy's little sister Meg had met him ("See? He's hiding behind that shelf--come out, Nilly.") and Nilly thought he might become her imaginary friend.
Meg wanted to forget that game. She broke the toys the dead boy had given her. She threw a framed 8"x11" family portrait out the window into the muddy garden.
Her parents sent her to her room without supper. They yelled, "How could you do that?" locked her door, and slammed cupboards in the kitchen. This suited Meg far better than if they'd said awful things like, "I know you miss him, honey." Meg's bed was a glacier a thousand miles high, her carpet a thousand miles of impassible desert sand, and a red storm rose in the night. She hugged her stuffed animals and smelled lightning.
Nilly, however, kept trying to stand in her line of vision. Perhaps they could play. He was lonely.
She kept turning her face away, and he kept following.
If I cannot be your imaginary friend, he thought in a rush of anger, I'll be your imaginary enemy. But then she squeezed her eyes shut, and he felt a stab of terror and remorse. "Wait," he said, as aloud as he could. Too late. Meg opened her eyes, and sure enough, she'd mastered the trick, her cultural patrimony, the crown jewel of her civilization, that invigorating willful ignorance--the unseeing of spirits. She looked where he'd been, and only saw the books on the shelf.
Now Nilly was really stuck.
There had been others--Dally, Sandra, Foop, Mango Mango, and the Super Trash Robot Queen. They'd all gone with the boy. There was a land, too, Nillydallyland, and Nilly could slip into it: but it wasn't away. It was just interleaved with the dead boy's house. Its dense, sticky jungles were contiguous with the underside of the dining room table, its dark reaches of loud night nestled between the washer and the dryer, its snowblinding tundra beneath the blank ceramic tiles of the kitchen floor. After days of wandering through the jungle, you'd emerge onto the yellow carpet of the dining room. A deserted, empty land, with no adventures left to it.
The house across the street had a plastic castle in its yard. Turrets, and a slide. There must be a child there. Only a very desperate imaginary friend would try to claim a strange child who'd never seen it, but Nilly would have tried, if he could have crossed the lawn.
Grass and sky--it was mixed up in Nilly's mind with the bad camping trip. Grass under his feet, the oaks above him: he could last a minute or two before he heard the thunder of the white water, and felt the pressure in the boy's lungs.
He had been the one there at the end. Not Sandra, not Dally, not the Queen.
"Hey, you're killing me here," someone said.
Nilly started as if he'd fallen into cold rapids. There was a woman next to him on the living room sofa. In the first instant he'd thought it was the Mom--that she could suddenly see him. But it was another woman, in a bathrobe, with tousled black hair and incandescent blue eyes, wet and steaming, droplets beaded on impossibly smooth skin.
"Who are you?" Nilly asked.
"Nora Mathesson, about twenty years ago--his freshman year of college." She jerked her head towards the master bedroom, where the shower was running.
"The--the Dad?" Nilly said.
Nora grinned, all teeth. "He wasn't anyone's dad then. Listen, you can't keep doing this, skulking around trying to get their attention. You--"
"How are you here?" Nilly asked, perplexed.
"I'm offstage, so I can walk in on him with my roommate." She smirked. "And change history. But listen to me. They're not the only ones with imaginations. Are you listening, ah--what's your name?"
"Nilly," Nilly said.
"Oops, there's my cue," she said, and she was gone.
Nilly tried to imagine her back, but he couldn't. Nora Mathesson--a strange wet grownup in a bathrobe who could change history? He hadn't the slightest idea what she would say or do. If she could change history, why didn't she change the only important mistake that had happened in it?
The one he could imagine, of course--the one he knew better than anyone, better than he knew himself--was the boy.
But he was afraid of imagining the boy. He was afraid that it was wrong, to have the boy back here, and not gamboling in fields of light.
And he was afraid that he couldn't help but imagine the boy's terror. He was afraid that he would drown the boy again.
Perhaps the Dad could see Nora Mathesson? but he couldn't see Nilly. Nilly sat with him in the kitchen while he cried. The Dad's hands were coated with bread dough. Meg would be coming home soon on the yellow bus. The Dad sat and cried softly and looked at the refrigerator door.
Along with Meg's new bright pictures, affixed by magnets, there were three of the boy's. One was a dragon; one was a Hemulen; and one was a picture of a blue door in a brick wall. And on the third picture--Nilly had never noticed this before--the boy had written, "Nilly drew this."
Nilly's heart leapt at the boy's lie. He walked across the blank ceramic tiles to the fridge and put his hand on the drawing.
The boy had imagined him drawing. The boy had imagined him imagining.
Nilly reached in and opened that blue door in that brick wall. And went through it.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012


My son Noah's imaginary friends live in Guk Guk Land, and include Guk Guk, Polly Put the Kettle On, Bolorel, Sally, and Semi-Robot (who is half princess, half robot). I guess at this point in my life my principal imaginary friends--beyond the fleeting occupants of brief daydreams and fancies, and the characters of my stories--are the God of Israel (and/or The Goddess), and Prappy, a soft green stuffed animal who arrived on this planet in 1973 and usually resides on my bed. He looks superficially like a turtle, but he is not: he is an alien. You may notice, he has no shell.

- Benjamin Rosenbaum

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