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Phantom

Delilah Courville
[dee_chan@hotmail.com]

Vesper could not remember when Auryn had been born. She sighed, glaring at him across their tiny dorm room while she slurped fake ramen, the Wal-Mart stuff. Sometime between being forced to mingle with other kids, then finding that she could get along with none of them, she thought. About, what, third grade? That was when her parents had finally let her go to school with other kids. Somewhere during that fantastic innocent time, Auryn had slowly stepped forward as her best friend. She met his concerned eyes, forcing herself to think of how he had come about.

           She chose his name from the relic in The Never Ending Story that was supposed to grant any wish one asked of it. Auryn was also a boy, because she could not stand the stupid girls at school. Besides, she was a girl. Who needed another one? She had grudgingly played with the idea of making him a girl at first, in the interest of experimentation, but that hadn't worked. Auryn the girl acted like girls at school, who always talked about other people and cried when they skinned their knees. Everything was much better when he was a boy. As a result of his few days as a girl, he had a long, honey-brown braid instead of short hair like a boy should have. She had tried to make a game of cutting off his hair once, but he had only disappeared. It had left her satisfied for some reason. He played with the end of his braid as she watched him. It was a nervous habit he'd picked up somewhere. She couldn't remember where. He could be so weird sometimes.

           Auryn was never the same as other kids' friends. Sometimes, when Vesper would sit beside another child on the bus, he/she would have a generic, simple-named friend. Those types of friends were completely imaginary. They had no personalities, and the real children didn't mind when she sat in the space where their friend was supposed to be.

           Auryn never liked being sat on. Every time it happened, he would be in a bad mood for the rest of the day. Being on a hot, suffocating bus was never fun, much less being sat on during the trip. Auryn was much more real than other kids' friends. Plus, she knew more about him than other kids knew about their friends. What food he hated, what movies he liked, what made him sick. Sometimes, the other kids would have a new friend every day, innocent faces saying that the old one died or left forever. Auryn never left. He had asked her when they were both eight where his parents were, and she told him that he was an orphan. It seemed right to her, but he had not been the same for a week, which left her feeling vaguely guilty, though she couldn't explain why. He took to wearing black a lot after that day. Vesper suspected that he stayed with her because he had nowhere to go. Her parents had happily watched her play with her friend, most likely relieved that their child hadn't become addicted to the TV, Nintendo or any other such brain-rotting device. They let her be, shamefully smug in the knowledge that their daughter was superior to other children. Morality and goodness were always important to them, in action as well as thought. Vesper, being an only child and quite impressionable, took these values for her own. Rare values, as it turned out, but values which Auryn always embraced to an eerie capacity that she was incapable of. She was resigned to this aspect of him, and was always forced to attempt to be as good as he. Even now, though they were both much older, things hadn't changed at all.

           As the years passed, Vesper had carefully developed Auryn's voice within her. Sometimes it was hard work, because she realized that he had to grow as well, and that when he did, his voice would change like hers did. She borrowed from voices on the radio, cartoons, even her father's voice, reading Marcus Aurelius. She always found the right voice, the one that she finally settled on was somewhat like her fathers, but Auryn's voice was more delicate and sometimes held an Irish lilt. His features had to change. Her adorable little boy grew into a golden and slender teen with bright violet-blue eyes and cute baby-cheeks. His clothes had to change every day, just like anyone else's. He was a real responsibility. When her parents told her to stop playing with Auryn in the fifth grade, that he wasn't real (now concerned that their child was crazy, more than likely), such a thought was inexcusable. She wished now (she did) that she had stopped then.

           Somewhere in the back of her mind, she realized that Auryn had almost always done what she wanted him to do. That is, except for when she got tired of that and decided to let him argue with her. When she told him that they couldn't play anymore, he was very angry, much to her satisfaction. Since he didnt feel like leaving, she had kept him a secret from then on. That way, he could keep her happy until she found people that she liked. He had always smirked when she talked of finding people that she liked. She found his smirk to be disturbing, but did not comment.

           It was true that she had never been interested in other boys. They had wanted her, but she'd always come home from dates to Auryn with the sad satisfaction that he was ten times better than them. Auryn didn't curse. He didn't drink. He talked too much and was stubborn sometimes, but he had lots of charm. Auryn had dreams and ideas, and even an original name. He wouldn't be around forever, though. She had always known that someday, she would leave her little town and go to college, and then she'd show him. He wouldn't have to be around anymore. She wouldn't need him, wouldn't have him smiling while she asked God to forgive her for her creation.

           She threw her ramen in the trash. Nasty stuff, with about twenty grams of fat anyway. She could feel his gaze on her back, asking her what was wrong. She willed him away, but felt guilty for it.

           Where are you going?

           His thought came to her, unbidden, as much her own as his. She gripped the doorframe, determined not to answer him, but failing already. He was the only thing she ever failed at.

           "I'm going out, Auryn. Go find something to do."

           Like what?

           "Hell, I don't know." She upbraided herself momentarily for the minor vulgarity, and then, guiltily, for snapping at him.

           What's your problem today?

           "You're my problem, Auryn."

           What did I do?

           She rolled her eyes. He sounded and felt genuinely hurt within her, but that just couldn't be. How could he be hurt? She winced at her own insensitivity.

           Going to see John?

           "Yes, I'm going to see him, and we have a date Saturday night. You stay here."

           Vesper, why don't you talk to me anymore?

           "Why should I? You can't hear me."

           You know you're lying to yourself.

           Her eyes widened, but he was suddenly gone. Sad disappointment and hurt had been reflected in his eyes.

           "What would I be lying about?" she mumbled, closing the door behind herself.

           She had met John at some of that forced bonding that everyone has to do on the first day of college even though they only feel like sleeping. He was a little skinny, but he looked good enough. Auryn was skinny too, but he made up for it in a thousand ways. John smoked, "of all the sick and stupid non---"

           She cut off that thought and shook her head as she locked the door. All she had ever felt was a sort of disgust for everyone. People who smiled at her weren't really happy to see her, they simply saw something wrong with her. Too short, not athletic enough, not social enough. They all seemed evil behind their smiles, as though they would talk about her shortcomings as soon as her back was turned. Their faults were not excusable in her eyes, either. But, she knew that she couldn't afford to be choosy this year. She had to meet people, people other than Auryn and be satisfied with them. She smirked. John. There's only, what, ten million Johns in the U.S.? And half of them in booze-up frats like her John.

           Vesper grit her teeth as she trudged to her Neon, to go and meet him. I'm not going to be judgmental of people anymore, she thought.

           She convinced herself that she was going to have a good time with John, but when she got back past midnight and still had lots of homework to do, she realized that she'd wasted her time and hadn't any fun at all. She sighed as she flicked on the lights. She'd mostly spent time with John and his buddies, watching football and drinking Coors. The other guys' girlfriends were there, drinking tropical wine coolers, laughing and gossiping about their sex lives. They had looked like they were having lots of fun.

           As she closed the door behind her, she was only somewhat surprised to be greeted by Auryn's sunny smile.

           So, did you have fun?

           There was not even a hint of sarcasm. She was impressed, if only slightly.

           "You know I didn't." She grabbed a Sunny D from the fridge, trying to make it conquer the rotten stale beer taste she had obtained, mostly from Johns kisses.

           Did you do your homework?

           "No, Auryn. When would I have time?"

           He didn't answer her, and she was glad for his quiet. It was unusual.

           With a sigh, she plopped down on the beanbag and cracked open her Chaos Theory book. "Wouldn't ever have procrastinated like this in high school. Damn math." She couldn't remember what had possessed her to take something so hard in her first year. "Only gonna get five hours of sleep, now." She could feel him within her, trying to find some other avenue to take so that she'd talk to him. She quickly opened her binder and tried to bury herself in her work, which was useless because she didn't understand a thing. He knelt down beside her, and she groaned inwardly. When she turned to him, he smiled hopefully, putting all of the charm that she didn't have into it.

           "I'm sorry for being mean to you," she said through grit teeth.

           He smiled a little more, beautiful eyes shining, then looked at her book. I'm really good at math, you know. Need help?

           "You cant help me with my math, Auryn."

           He gave her a puzzled look, and she wanted to cry. "It's not enough that I'm late to get this done. Now I have to explain to him why he cant help. Don't I?" "Auryn, you can't help me because you can't tell me anything that I don't know." She said it out loud to him, hoping to take any sting from her words.

           He finally sat back. Why not? You always said that I teach you valuable lessons. He looked so dismal that she closed her book, a part of her alarmed that she'd done so. "Valuable lessons, things that I need to better my soul. But since you're within me, you can't know more than me, you see?"

           "Things to better my soul he's wearing black again today." She saw his disappointment and felt like crying again, or throwing the book at him, one.

           You've been saying some pretty weird stuff lately. And, I think I'm sick. I can't pick stuff up like I used to. I'm having trouble eating. He twisted the end of his braid absently. Why can't I, Vesper? Do you know?

           "It's because I'm older, Auryn."

           So am I. What's your point?

           She frowned, then decided to humor him and explain.

           "Auryn, I was little when you were born. When I was little, I had time to think only of you. When I was little, I was imaginative and I had time to think of things for you to do and pick up and stuff. I'm older now. I'm at college. Why don't you go to college somewhere?"

           She knew that it wouldn't be that easy to get rid of him. It never was.

           I want to go to college here, with you. Do you have time to think up a college for me?

           "No, Auryn. I just mean, you shouldn't be with me anymore. You're making me feel stupid. Crazy. I don't know. Sometimes I wonder why I even talk to you now." She shifted in her beanbag, uncomfortable about saying such a thing.

           Do you want me to leave?

           She turned to him, facing his wide eyes that asked how she could possibly do this to him. "Got to think of something, got to be sure this time."

           "Yes, Auryn. I want you to leave." She said it out loud, trying to make herself want it with all of her heart. Part of her wanted to turn her back on him forever, get away from him and his black clothes, beautiful looks, sweet charm, and perfect goodness.

           He stared at her, hurt, but he was still there. Still there. He'd been with her for as long as she could remember, playing games and talking about life, philosophy, and God. She stared back silently, wishing for his death as much as to hold him. Neither was truly of any use.

           Suddenly, he reached out and tried to hold her hands in his. His hands passed through hers like airy nothing. He looked more hurt than she'd ever seen him, but that quickly mixed with anger as he stood up.

           So, I'm just supposed to starve to death because you don't feel like taking the time out of your day for me to eat? You don't even want me alive? I've stayed with you so long, and you don't even want me touching you? What did I ever do to you, Vesper? You've done everything to yourself!

           His voice in her mind was trembling, angry, accusing. Never been that mad before.

           She glanced at the black t-shirt he was wearing, then the angelic face above it. Her stomach rolled at the sight; her heart felt like iron bands had surrounded it.

           "Auryn, I have never once in my life felt your touch. I've always had to use a pillow or a teddy bear! I've never heard your voice. I have to create it myself! I need someone that I can feel and hear!"

           He stepped back from her, his disbelief rolling through her. She stared at him for a moment, appalled at herself for such weakness. Auryn would never do such a thing.

           He glared at her, more hurt than anything else. Then, he turned and stalked to the door. She watched bitterly as he found no phantom door there for him to slam and had to settle for walking through it instead. For some reason, she thought to him, "I'm going downtown this weekend with some friends. I have to buy clothes for my date with John. You can come if you want to."

           She had only been met with angry silence. That night, for the first time, he didn't come in to sleep with her, didn't even get in the car to be taken downtown. Now she was stuck with her new friends, who happened to need a ride. She drove uncomfortably as they chatted, feeling somewhat lonely. She'd never been willingly surrounded by so many people. It felt quiet within, like someone had died. She searched for Auryn, and there was dead flat nothing. No mutual affection, no one promising her a great story or suggesting that she chill and get some ice cream. She shook her head and tried to concentrate on the conversation.

           "...and you cant imagine what he said then! I can't believe that he did that to me. All I did was smoke weed once, and now he thinks I'm a drughead. You know I can't be doing drugs while I'm working at Waffle House. I have my whole spiel laid out for him when I get back. He's gonna get told off. Listen, here's how it goes...."

           Vesper turned her attention back to her own thoughts, gripping at the wheel, her knuckles, white. "Oh, the vast interest of the hierarchy at Waffle House. Only smoked it once, huh? Why even do that? Is it so hard to resist such things?"

           "Vesper. Hey, Vesper! What do you think?" Janie asked.

           Vesper did her best to look at her friend without feeling superior or disgusted. Can't be judgmental, anymore. "I think that there are better ways to handle such things," she said quietly.

           Janie raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, maybe. Hey, there's a party over at Alex's place tonight. Wanna go? They've got a whole fridge full of beer, plus rum and coke. Um, I think they've got Absolut too. Can't beat that."

           Vesper grit her teeth, but smiled. "No thanks, I don't drink. I'm always tired after a drive anyway. Besides, I'll be out all day tomorrow, for my date with John." "Well, whatever. You're so lucky! I wish I could date him. He went for you the first day, though." She sounded amazed.

           Vesper concentrated on the road. "Am I supposed to feel lucky? Is this what it is, what it takes to be lucky?" She knew herself to be well off, was proud of her loving family. John. He was an awful lot like Janie, come to think of it. Really, though, no one can be perfect. No one.

           "Mm. Ill tell you about our date when it's over," Vesper said. "Id tell you about my job, but I haven't had one yet."

           There was a collective gasp. God, the experience of working forty hours at a fast-food stop, missed!

           "Really? You've never worked anywhere?"

           "No. Don't lie, Vesper." -- "Well, I worked at the community cemetery. No one else wanted to, so I got paid ten bucks an hour. Not bad for a starting job."

           "Wow! But at a cemetery? Weren't you scared?"

           "Of what? Really, what was frightening about a cemetery? People die every day."

           Her friends didn't answer. She sighed. Probably have to go and work at a McDonald's or something, now. Working at the cemetery had been fun. It had certainly kept her contemplative. Besides, Auryn had always kept her company while she worked.

           For some reason, the purity that she'd hoped to feel hadn't come with his disappearance. She only felt worse. Auryn, the nicest person she'd ever known, surely he couldn't be that bad. Surely God would forgive her this one transgression. No, that's not the way to think. Think about John. He can't be that bad. Maybe he just doesn't realize what he's doing wrong. She remembered commenting on her mothers bad sense of decoration, how the couches in their house didn't match the floor. She hadn't realized that the girl she was talking to didn't have a floor to walk on, that her house was rotting down. Yeah. I probably insulted her, but it was only because I didn't know her well enough. If I'd have known her, I wouldn't have made such a rich-brat comment. Maybe John just doesn't know me well enough yet and he's making stupid mistakes. I can't criticize him.

           Even so, a small voice persisted, saying that the only one who did know her, who could know her, was Auryn. She worried about him all night, her stomach turning with visions of him alone. Not being able to eat anything, wondering what in the world he'd done to deserve such treatment. It wormed within her even as she dragged herself to the mall to find something suitable to wear to a nightclub. So, she wasn't really surprised to see him waiting for her at the front door. What did surprise her was that his hair was undone. He'd always insisted on keeping it braided, always said that he looked too much like a girl with it down. For all of her trying, she had never been able to see him with his hair down before. It was long, very beautiful and healthy, shining like gold in the sun. Absently, she twisted her short brown hair around a finger. His eyes brightened as she approached.

           "Auryn. You came to make fun of me?" she whispered, so that the crowd of regular people couldn't hear her. He quit leaning against the wall and stood up. He didn't seem too angry anymore. She resisted the urge to say that she missed him.

           I came to help you find clothes. You've always said I have a better fashion sense than you.

           She bit her lip. That was true.

           "Oh. If you want to." She felt the twinge of hurt coming from him. As she opened the glass door, she noticed an old bum sitting on the other side of the street, holding what appeared to be an amusing conversation with absolutely nothing. He suddenly looked at her. Gasping, she rushed into the relative safety of the mall. Snobby children, materialistic parents, kids out to spend money, business women in tennis shoes and dresses, important-looking men, women in ridiculously high stiletto heels, mall walkers. All normal people. For some reason, the idea that the same thing could be seen in every mall in the United States made her feel tired.

           I found a good store for what you want.

           She didn't have to ask where he was taking her. It would be the Kilowatt, where everyone got their nightclub clothes. If you want to get noticed, get it from the Kilowatt.

           "We used to look down on people who shopped here, Auryn," she whispered, warily crossing onto the hot pink carpet of the highly perfumed store.

           He didn't say anything, but walked straight to the display. How about this? He picked up a black leather number with a lace up cleavage, though it remained on the rack. She gave him a disgusted look, but she wasn't sure what he was up to. His blue eyes didn't suggest any wrong, though sometimes it was hard to tell what he meant. No? Hmm. He bounced over to a shelf and picked up a very short skirt, its dyed spiral designed to draw the eye where it should not be.

           "I've never worn anything like that in my life, Auryn!"

           He frowned at her, as though she were being difficult, and threw up his hands.

           Why ask me to come if you aren't going to listen to me?

           "I can't wear that, Auryn!" she whispered, blushing with shame.

           "Can I help you?" a woman who looked like she'd been poured into her clothes asked.

           Vesper shook her head. "No, thanks. I'm just looking," she said softly.

           The woman gave her a dismissive look, scoffed at Vesper's long, pale-blue skirt, then went on to another person. When she could look up from the floor again, Auryn was smiling at her.

           Come on, Vesper. Lets go get some ice cream. She let him take her hand and lead her out towards their favorite ice cream shop, McConnols. He had won. She gritted her teeth, trying to find it in her heart to hate him. "So close. If only I'd gotten a little further."

           Suddenly, his attention was drawn to Charles S. Nacol, the jewelry store. Hey, Vesper, let's go over there. As they walked into the store, she vaguely wondered if she'd really wanted to go there as well. She couldn't imagine why she'd want to. She'd never felt like it before. Jewelry wasn't really her thing.

           He headed right across the store to one of the glass display boxes. She followed him, curious as to what he meant. Usually she could predict him, but every once in a while he'd take on qualities and thoughts completely his own. She always felt a sense of awe for him then. She peered down into the glass at the ridiculously expensive gems that could pay for a poor child to eat for several months, at least.

           Think they're pretty?

           "They're okay, Auryn, you know I don't wear jewelry much. That blue topaz is nice, though."

           I thought you'd like it. I wanna buy something for you, Vesper. I never bought you anything. His face was wistful as he looked down at the sparkly ring, standing out among diamonds twice as expensive.

           "You can't buy me things, Auryn. I'd have to spend my own money."

           He leaned over the display some, tracing out around the ring with his finger.

           I really love you, Vesper.

           Her eyes widened. "Don't say that, Auryn! God forbid, I fall in love with you!"

           He turned to face her then, unshed tears in his eyes, his face completely world weary.

           She stepped back, never subjected to this very real Auryn before.

           "Auryn, am I as difficult for you as you are for me?"

           He didn't answer. She bit her lip, trying to see through a blur of tears.

           "Would you like to look at something?" a salesman asked her.

           To her complete horror, she nodded. Her words didn't sound forced, though she was sure that they were being ripped from her throat.

           "I want that blue topaz ring. In size seven."

           The salesman smiled, looking quite pleased with himself. "Well, that's no problem, Miss. Ill get it for you now."

           She watched silently, furiously, as he took it from the display and began polishing it. Mechanically, she whipped out her credit card and paid for it.

           You, you bought it! The thought expressed utter disbelief.

           "Yes, I bought it."

           Why?

           "How could I not, Auryn?" she whispered angrily.

           He stepped back. What's gotten into you? I was thinking that maybe you were just having a bad week.

           She watched furiously as her ring was polished to a shine, reflecting dazzling light from clear blue depths, pure silver band glowing at her instead of gaudy gold. "You're what's wrong with me Auryn! You're everything that I do and don't need!

           How, what have I done?

           The fact that she knew it was not his fault was the last straw.

           "Auryn, you are not and never were a real person. I created you in the first grade because I was lonely! I'm too big for an imaginary friend, and you wont go away! You ruin my prayers and my life, because all I do is lie to myself when I'm with you!"

           There. She'd said it, and they'd both heard it. It took years to say that. Auryn wasn't born. He was created. He could never truly love her. And there that salesman was, polishing up half her savings.

           Auryn did not disappear.

           I'm the most important person that you've ever met in your entire life, and I think you know it!

           With that, he was gone. She gasped. Suddenly, she felt quite empty again.

           "Here you are, Miss. Miss? You look pale."

           She shook her head as he placed the grey velvet box in her hand. "I'm fine."

           Slowly, she turned her back on the concerned man and walked to a bench, where old ladies who were too tired to walk sat. There, she popped open the lid and took out the ring. It was simple, really. Exactly what she liked. Swallowing, she slid it onto her right ring finger. Mall lights made it glitter so beautifully.

           As it turned out, so did nightclub lights, though the glittering was more of a pulsing throb than radiant sunlight. She tried not to look at the ring as John danced with her, half drunk from one too many margaritas and rubbing himself on her leg. The music blared obscenities painfully, until Vesper couldn't think any longer and the world was floating in a dreamy rhythm.

           "How can I be doing this?"

           Her head hurt, and she barely felt it when some idiot spilled beer all over the black number she'd gone back and bought. Most of it beaded and ran off the leather, anyway.

           Leather that John was trying to untie while they danced.

           "God, Auryn, where are you right now?"

           She watched with a sort of detached horror as John got further and further down, revealing her pale skin to everyone at the nightclub. A drunk whistled at her, and John knocked him down. Some topless teenager with fake blonde hair and bright red lipstick laughed.

           She wasn't at all surprised when Janie danced over and joined her. "Isn't this great, Vesper?" she asked, happily dancing on some guys leg.

           John jerked Vesper forward and kissed her, old rum and Jack reeking on his breath. She pulled back with a gasp, resisting an urge to spit out the rotten flavor as he slid his hand down her cleavage. She bit her lip, trying to prevent the bile she felt from surfacing.

           Suddenly, there was Auryn again, looking at her sadly, hopefully, from the outside the floor. One last time, Vesper. One last time.

           She looked at her ring, then at John.

           "That's enough. No more. Never again."

           She stepped aside as John tried once more to grab her, which sent him stumbling into the fringe dancers. Her gaze followed him with utter contempt as drunken, senseless people laughed.

           Deliberately, she made her way to where Auryn stood, twisting his braid around his fingers. Vesper?

           Without a word, they walked out into the parking lot, where there was at least some meager view of the stars.

           Staring into his eyes the whole time, oblivious to the sounds of the city, she removed the ring and placed it on her left ring finger. His eyes widened.

           "You win, my Auryn, forever."



© 2000 Delilah Courville, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission



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