Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2018 finalist, Lily Wang! Lily finished 8th grade this past school year. The story she submitted is called “Imaginary Brother.” One of our judges described the story like this: “Kristi’s love for her brother comes through beautifully, and transforms what at first feels creepy—a hand emerging from the wall—into something unexpected and sweet. Then, [Lily takes] the story further, giving Kristy an opportunity to grow by losing what she thinks is important, her reputation for never getting into trouble, and finding that what’s truly important is her love for family, specifically for her lost brother.” Enjoy!
A trill. Triplets. A quick chromatic scale. Forte! Piano. Accent! Repeated notes. An ascending note, a harmonic, a chord – the song ends with a flourish. My bow hovers in the air for two seconds before I bring my violin down.
I gaze half-heartedly at my music. I know I rushed the part before the end, and I’d accidentally left out the grace notes there – again. I’ll be lucky if anyone applauds my performance.
I whirl around. Not so much because there is no one in my room, but because someone had clapped just when I’d thought nobody would bother.
“Mom? Dad?” I yell.
“What is it, pumpkin?” my mother says as she peers into my room, concerned. I smile fleetingly at the word pumpkin.
“Did you clap?” I ask.
I groan and collapse supine on my bed, careful not to damage my violin and bow. If I’m hearing things three days before Halloween, that can’t be good.
My ceiling ripples.
I bolt upright, staring at the ripple as it moves down the wall and stops in front of me. It has a wispy shape, bigger at the top and narrowing at the bottom. The ripple stops, and I lose view of it. Motionless, it blends in with the wall.
Tentatively, I set my violin down. I reach towards the ripple.
There! It looks like it’s getting smaller. I realize now that whatever the ripple is, it’s moving in the air and not along the wall. The ripple moves away. Stops. Disappears.
I stare at the spot where the ripple has just vanished. Suddenly, I discern a faint glowing blue outline of the ripple. It’s revealing itself to me.
The ripple bobs and a new shape emerges from its side – a hand with lanky fingers. It reaches towards me and stops as if waiting to help me up.
I reach for the hand.
“Pumpkin?” My mom looks in. The ripple withdraws its hand and vanishes completely.
“Pumpkin, are you okay?”
I’m still sitting on my bed, hand stretched out, gazing at the spot where the ripple had vanished.
“Pumpkin? Is everything alright, dear?”
“Oh – yeah, I’m fine.”
“Kristy,” the teacher calls. I wait with bated breath as he hands me my paper. The sweat on my hands turns my fingers liquid, slipping on the final test. Hurrying back to my seat, I glance at the top of the sheet to find a beautiful, apple-red A.
I exhale, a grin lighting up my face.
Something catches my eye, and I look up. My smile slides onto the floor as the ripple on the wall becomes more defined. The period bell rings, shaking me out of my contemplation of the wall.
I turn to find Hannah grinning up at me. She leans in conspiratorially.
“We’re having a Rubik’s cube tournament later this afternoon. Wanna join?”
“You know that’s against the rules.” I instantly regret my words. My face kindles orange.
“Kriiissty!” Hannah bleats. “It’s just a game.”
Reaching for my bag, I shake my head.
“Alright. But please don’t tell?”
I start to say no, but one look at her face and I know I could never tell. Hannah’s small stature and big eyes make her the pet of all the students, even me.
Sighing, I make my way to the door.
Whispers follow me. Teacher’s pet. Goody-two-shoes. I heard she actually cared about her final.
I slam the door behind me.
I trudge up the bus aisle, tripping over a third grader’s shoes. People snicker as I lunge to save my violin. I hit my nose hard against the case.
Rubbing my throbbing nose, I sit down pink-faced in my usual seat.
The bus trundles away from school, shouldering its way through traffic. I lean back on the worn leather seat. The air stinks, either from somebody’s fart or a rotting mouse. I stare at the ceiling. I can see a ripple outlined in the scratched metal.
When I finally throw my backpack onto the floor in my bedroom, I flop onto the bed and say to the ceiling, “You’re stalking me.”
No, I’m not.
The voice rolls through the room and into my mind like waves over the sand. Startled, I fall off the bed and pop back up in a defensive stance. I hadn’t expected a reply.
“What do you mean, you’re not? Like that wasn’t you on the ceiling yesterday? Or the library? Or the bus? Or the girl’s bathroom? What were you doing in the girl’s bathroom?”
I didn’t even go into the bathroom stall! I was waiting for you outside the bathroom!
“Oh, thanks, that’s so much better,” I growl. “Now, out with your explanation. I didn’t endure a whole day of looking over my shoulder without saying anything for nothing. Who are you?”
Don’t you know me, pumpkin?
The mocking tone is so alien, but somehow I recognize the slight liftings and fallings of the voice. Somehow…
The ripple pauses. Finally, the familiar blue glow reemerges. It slides down onto the floor and takes the form of a boy, much taller than me, flickering and transparent.
But the thing that strikes me most is his face. His hair is swept carelessly over his forehead, just like my dad’s, and his mouth is puckered in a frown, just like my mom’s. And his eyes, enchanting and mischievous…
I’m your brother.
The yellow crayon wobbles across the thick drawing pad. I clutch it with both hands, careful not to let my chubby 5-year-old hands ruin the picture.
Mom looks over my shoulder and laughs, surprising me. A yellow streak suddenly worms its way out of the figure’s face.
“Oh!” Mom says. “I’m so sorry!”
Instead of responding, I smile and carefully thicken one end of the yellow streak and add a box below.
“Trumpet,” I said triumphantly.
A car horn sounds outside the house. I carefully pick up the picture and run to my older brother as he hurries down the stairs, backpack in hand.
“Kay!” I call. I smooth the picture and show it to him. His eyes rove over the two yellow figures, one taller than the other and holding a trumpet. Big bold words proclaim at the top of the page, “My Brother and Me.”
Kevin laughs and kisses my forehead.
“Gotta go now,” he says. “Can’t be late for my first summer camp. Here, I have something for you.”
He rummages in his pack and brings out a wind-up toy. It’s shaped oddly, a big curvy box with a long handle and a stick on it.
“This is a violin,” Kevin explains. He smiles and winds it up. I listen, entranced, at the plinking melody.
“I’m only going to be gone for three weeks. Okay, pumpkin? Listen to the violin tune carefully so you can start studying music with me when I get back. Someday, you’ll be a great musician.”
“Coming!” Kevin yells and bounds out the door.
I hug the toy, listening to the plinking tune it emits, carrying it carefully to the bedroom and climbing onto the bed.
The violin melody grinds to a halt.
It’s only a few minutes before the telephone rings.
The next few hours are a blur. My mom rushes out the door – I can hear the vroom of her little car. Then she’s back, with police officers crowding around, asking questions. People shout and wave their arms in the air. My mom sits down and cries.
I’m no longer smiling.
I know what they are saying.
And I can’t help myself – the tears spill out, snot runs down to my mouth, and I’m bawling, because my brother is gone, my brother is gone, my brother is gone.
“ARGH!” I throw my pillow at the ripple – no, Kevin. Of course, due to the physics of ghostliness, the pillow passes right through him.
He frowns. That wasn’t very nice.
“All these years since that car accident!” I yell. “All these years, and you choose this moment to show up?”
Well, considering Clause 29 of Apparitional Acts Section 12 Part 3 –
Let’s just say that I wasn’t allowed to visit you until you were 9 years old – if it had been earlier, you might have blabbed.
I sit down hard on my desk chair.
I ignore him and stare at the ripple-free ceiling.
Pumpkin, I –
Kevin throws back his head and laughs, his chuckles loud in my mind. I see you’ve kept up with your squash species.
At the sound of his laugh, carefree and impish, I lose whatever restraint I hold and throw myself at him. Miraculously, my arms wrap around him, saving me the disgrace of falling through him. I hug him tight, squeezing his strong frame close because my brother is back, my brother is back, my brother is back.
I sit in the library during lunch hour, trying to read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as Kevin flits around the bookshelves – he’s invisible for now.
Ooh, Great Expectations! I was never able to finish that, but I hope Pip turned out okay. Hey, they have two copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – boy, they look old…
“Kevin,” I whisper through gritted teeth. “I’m trying to finish a book here!”
“What was that, Kristy?” the librarian asks, glancing up at me.
“Sorry, nothing,” I mutter, my face heating up.
Your cheeks are orange.
“Kevin, I swear…”
You look like a pumpkin.
Before I have a chance to chuck my bookmark at him, the librarian hastily stands up from her desk and tells me I have to leave for a moment – she has an errand to run. I place the bookmark in my book instead and walk out of the library, knowing Kevin is following. My cheeks are probably still burning orange – hence my nickname.
“Hey! Crusty! Goody-two-shoes!” Jane, the school bully, saunters over. I flinch. Her tone is friendly enough, but nothing can hide the sinister smirk that spreads from her cold eyes to her sneering smile.
“What’s that you’re reading?”
“Twelfth Night,” I mutter.
She snatches the book from me. “How is it?” she asks, her voice dripping with fake interest.
“Delightful?” Jane snickers and throws a glance at her “friends,” who are already doubled over laughing. “What kind of person uses the word delightful? Tell me, what else is delightful?”
Not you, I think.
“What?” Jane swoops down on me like a hungry vulture. Oops. Did I say that out loud?
Jane pulls a fist back. I throw up my arms, bracing myself for the punch.
It never comes. A bright flash illuminates the spaces between my arms. I hear a thud. Someone screams. I look up to see Jane on the ground, clutching her arm, which is bent the wrong way. Her eyes are wild with shock. Her friends cry out and edge away from me. I can see Hannah in the crowd, her eyes wide and fearful.
“That – that blue flash…” Jane stutters, staring at me.
Suddenly, I understand. Someone stopped the attack, causing Jane to fall on her arm, and I know who that someone is.
I whip around.
“Kevin?” I whisper. “Kevin, where are you?”
There is no reply.
The principal, my mom, and Jane’s parents all stare at me.
“For the last time, Kristy, please explain what happened.” The principal’s voice is full of restrained anger and impatience.
“I don’t know,” I repeat. “She was going to hit me, and I covered my face. When I looked up again, she was on the ground.”
Jane’s mom humphs. “You must have pushed her! She’s got a broken arm, for heaven’s sake!”
“What does Jane say happened?” my mom asks.
“Something about a blue flash. I told you, she was probably in too much pain to think clearly and she just conjured up that memory. Kristy must have hit her!” Jane’s father insists.
The principal sighs and says, “Kristy, we can’t prove that you hit her, but just in case, I’m going to suspend you for a few days. I know you understand what’s happened, and I’m sure a few days at home will help you think on your actions. Ok?”
I stare at my shoes.
“Kristy, I know you’re a good student. You’re a great student, in fact. But we can’t tolerate any fighting in school. Just think through it, and we can talk about it later. Alright? You’re welcome to leave now.”
My mom drives me home in silence, which is worse than any shouting session.
When I reach my room, I close the door and find Kevin standing behind it.
Well, I had to hide, he says sheepishly. Apparently, he had forgotten that he could turn invisible.
And suddenly, my anger boils and spills.
“Do you know what you’ve done?” I yell at him. “I’m suspended for three days! This is the first time I’ve gotten into any trouble at school. Now I’m stuck with you!”
Something shatters in his expression.
I was only trying to protect you –
“Oh, really? By kicking me out of class?”
I didn’t mean to do that!
“Look, Kevin, I have a concert tomorrow. I have to practice.”
I storm out the room, trying to ignore Kevin standing, struck dumb, behind me.
The violins tune. A, D, G, E – a chorus of fifths that has become so familiar over the five years I’ve studied violin. I quickly pluck my solo piece, hoping I won’t mess up, but I cringe at an out-of-tune chord. Kevin’s broken expression swims in front of me, keeping me from concentrating.
You big dummy, I think to myself. You have your brother back after seven years, and you manage to ruin your relationship just in a few days!
All too soon, I’m standing behind the curtains, watching the rest of the orchestra pile onto the stage. As the soloist, I’ll enter the stage after the conductor.
My hands are clammy and cold. I can see Kevin’s shocked face, his desperate words. I can feel my anger, my exasperation. Jane’s eyes bore into mine, more hatred in them than ever. Suddenly, I feel angry again. Kevin deserved that rebuke; he injured someone and everyone blamed me, and he acted like it was nothing! Firm defiance rises in me.
My head jerks up. The word echoes in my mind.
I’m so sorry.
Sorry, sorry, sorry. I can’t think. All I feel is an overwhelming sense of regret, invading every crevice of my mind as Kevin pours his apology into me.
I didn’t want to see you hurt.
I see the blue flash again, peeking in between my arms over my face.
I didn’t think I would hurt her either.
As if from a great distance, I hear a thud and a scream. Jane looks up, fear plain in her mean features.
Can you forgive me?
My feet are grounded to the floor. I look around wildly as the conductor enters the stage to wild applause. He’s saying something, introducing me, but I can’t hear anything he’s saying. He motions for me to enter.
I stumble on stage, my hands glued to the violin I’m carrying. Everything is too bright and too loud, people are clapping, but I cannot process it all.
I see him.
He stands half in the shadows. His blue form shimmers. No one else seems to notice him.
I love you.
Suddenly, the cloud of confusion disappears. I remember a snarky voice, a smiling face. I remember his arms hugging me close. I remember the wind-up violin, the confidence in my future.
I feel the fierce love he holds for me. I feel the protectiveness, the trust. I anchor myself on his words.
I love you.
My hands surge with warmth. I lift up my violin and my bow. I look directly at him.
I begin to play.
Kevin stares at me, at my hands. Then, gradually, the corners of his mouth lift up as he recognizes the melody from the wind-up toy so long ago.
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