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Her Face from Memory

Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. She has had over 150 short stories published in places like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex Magazine, and Escape Pod. Her debut novel, Left-Hand Gods, is available from Hadley Rille Books, and she has two short story collections available from Air and Nothingness Press. In addition to writing, she spends her time reading, playing tabletop RPGs, baking, and hiking. You can find her online at jamielackey.com.

Imogene was supposed to vanish before my fifth birthday. At 11:30 on what we thought was her last night, we sat together, cross-legged on my standard issue pink unicorn quilt, knees almost touching, waiting for her to pop like a soap bubble or dissolve like cotton candy in a thunderstorm. She did neither, as midnight came and went.
"Well," she said, looking down at her still very extant hands, "this could be a problem."
I nodded. Even at five, I understood that deviation was dangerous. But I was also secretly happy, because I loved her more than I feared being different. I was still very young.
My mother came in the next morning and sang happy birthday to wake me up. She ran her fingers through my hair and wrapped her arms around me. "Is Imogene gone?" she asked. The question was required. Ritual.
I buried my face in her shoulder and nodded. She smelled like powdered sugar and lemons. "You must answer out loud, love. You have to say the words."
"Yes," I said, the lie as easy as breathing. "Imogene is gone."
"Oh, darling. I know it's hard. It's okay to cry," she said. So I did. My tears soaked into her shirt and turned cold against my cheeks.
"It'll hurt less soon," my mother said. "I hardly even remember what my companion's name was, now."
"You forgot her?" I asked.
"Him," she said, her voice quiet and sad. Looking back, I know that she lied to me, too, that she remembered his name and his voice and the color of his eyes. That she could still sketch his face from memory.
But she never would.
Imogene stood in the corner and wiped away her own tears.
I always perceived Imogene as just a handful of years older than me, an older, wiser sister who knew things I can't guess at. Did she exist before I was born? Or did she just pop into existence as I drew my first breath?
What did she do while I slept? Did she ever wish she could dream?
Those weren't the questions that haunted her. She wanted to know where the others go when they vanish. She wanted to know why she was left behind.
From that moment on, I was always careful. I didn't know what would happen to me if they discovered her, but I knew it would not be good.
I would only talk to her when I was sure that we were alone. I didn't laugh at her jokes or tell her to stop when she pointed out that my father was wrong about things. It was no longer safe to leave books open for her to read at her own pace, turning pages for her when she nodded.
So, instead, she prowled around my classrooms, reading everyone else's homework and notes and passing choice info along to me.
"Lacy Evans draws pictures in her notebooks," Imogene said one sunny morning, her voice tight.
I didn't ask what kind of pictures. I didn't want to know.
But I wasn't surprised when they came and took her away, and that night, when I woke up with tears clinging to my eyelashes, I told myself that Lacy Evans knew the rules just as well as I did. That I had no reason to feel guilty. That if I had to choose between her and Imogene, it was a simple, simple decision.
When I had tests, Imogene would peer over the teacher's shoulder and read out the answers, even though I already knew all of the answers.
Most days, she'd sit on one of the empty desks next to the long rows of windows, and just stare up at the sky. I always wondered if she was looking at birds, or at clouds, or at nothing. But I never asked.
I was sometimes scolded for staring out the windows. I was always looking at Imogene.
She was bored, and I felt responsible, and I resented feeling responsible.
Still, I loved her. And I never told her that I sometimes wished that she had vanished. I was afraid that if I said it out loud, it would come true. I didn't want to let her go.
Then, when I was twelve, my mother came home with a new baby, and Imogene froze, staring at an empty space in the doorway. Her eyes darted between me and the empty space for a moment, then she looked squarely at it and raised her chin, as if daring it to judge her. "I'm Imogene," she said. "No, I'm not supposed to be here. I just didn't vanish on her fifth birthday."
A few moments of silence. Then, "I don't know why." Another pause. "It's nice to meet you too, Lucien."
When we were alone, she told me about him. About his kind voice and wry smile and warm brown eyes. About his promise to keep our secret.
I was jealous, of course. Jealous that she had someone else to care for. Jealous that someone else could care for her. She had always been mine, and mine alone.
But I was also grateful for the time they spent together. I luxuriated in my privacy. I listened to music and read and did my homework, all without any observation, without any threat of interruption.
Then my little brother turned five.
I waited up, fighting sleep and watching the clock hands creep forward. At midnight, Imogene screamed from my brother's room. I wanted to run to her, to throw my arms around her and hold her while she wept.
But I couldn't. I fell asleep before she came back to my room.
I walked in on two of my classmates in the bathroom holding hands. They were grinning at each other, flushed and happy, till they saw me.
The fear on their faces made me sick to my stomach.
I caught sight of Imogene's reflection in the mirror, and the ever-present misery on her face twisted the feeling in my stomach into anger.
I had a reputation for cold perfection. One I knew that I didn't deserve, but I couldn't do anything to change. I couldn't scream at the girls to be more careful. I couldn't punch the mirrors till they were a thousand shards too small to reflect a pair of empty eyes. I couldn't make Imogene happy again.
I pretended that I didn't see them.
Pretending to not see things was what I was best at, after all.
They lasted a few more months before they were taken.
"I can't do this anymore," Imogene said. "I want you to tell someone about me. I'm sure they can destroy me somehow."
I looked up from my book. "If they find out that I've been lying to them for twelve years, they'll take me away."
"I'm the reason you don't have any friends," Imogene said. "I'm ruining your life."
"I like my life," I said.
"I don't," Imogene said. "I hate it."
I closed my eyes, and let the pain from that settle in my bones.
I was what was holding her here, her only tether. Maybe, just maybe, I could release her. I tightened my hand into a fist, imagining a balloon string gripped between my fingers. I could almost feel its gentle upward pull. Its longing for the sky. Then I let it go.
Maybe at least one of us could be free.
When I opened my eyes, Imogene was gone.
I don't know if she popped like a soap bubble or dissolved like cotton candy in a thunderstorm. I don't know if she still exists, somewhere with Lucien. Somewhere I can never go. I hope she does.
I do know that I could sketch her face from memory. But I never will.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 4th, 2019
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