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A therapist tries to convince Madeline her only friend isn’t real

They tell me you’re not real.

I know that’s wrong.

If you weren’t real, I wouldn’t see you, hear you, feel you.

I didn’t want to go at first. It’s pointless. I know you’re there, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else does. But you tell me it does matter. You need help, and I need to help you.

On the first day, I have to mentally prepare myself for whatever is coming. My sister leads me into a room where a pretty lady in a pretty blue dress is waiting.

“Hello there,” she says. “I’m Dr. Amber. What’s your name?” She asks the question, but not like she actually wants to know. Just like something she’s saying. I glance at Emma, and she smiles encouragingly.

“Madeline,” I answer.

She nods. “So Madeline, your sister tells me you have a friend, is that right?” Her words are pretty. Her tone isn’t.


Obviously. How is this woman supposed to help you if she doesn’t even know who you are? You look at me, Emma, and raise one eyebrow. I never had to tell you what I was thinking. You always just knew. So maybe this will or won’t get better. But I’ll try anyway. For you. Because if I don’t want to help you, I must need fixing too.

“Can you fix us?” I ask the doctor, not knowing what the response will be, or what I want the response to be.

“Oh, honey,” she says, smiling sadly. “Of course I can fix you.” I grin. “All I need is for you to want to be fixed, and then it’ll be easy. I promise.” My smile falters. That wasn’t quite the response I was looking for.

“Now, Madeline, what’s your friend’s name?” The question takes me by surprise. “Oh, um, Emma.”

“And how long have you known Emma?”

“My entire life. She was there before my parents died.”

Dr. Amber nods. “I understand you’ve been through some things, but I’m going to ask you some questions, alright? And I need you to answer them honestly.”

“Okay,” I say in a small voice. You nod reassuringly.

“Madeline, do you think Emma is real?”

“When did they die?”

“I was three. They got in a car crash while my sister and I were at home.” “Has anyone seen Emma before?”

“Not that they’ve said.”

“Who’s been taking care of you?” “My sister.”

“Were you in any sort of foster program or home?”

“No, our parents had a lot of money, so my sister raised me off of that until she could start working to provide for us.” At this Dr. Amber frowns but nods and continues.

“How old is she?” “24.”

“Is Emma here right now? Has she been listening to our conversation?” “Yes.”

Dr. Amber stands up and leans across the table. “Madeline, do you think Emma is real?”

The concern on her face worries me, but I brush it aside. “Of course she is.”

*          *          *

The next time I visit (my sister makes weekly appointments), I am greeted by Dr. Amber and a tall man with unusually long fingers that wrap around mine when we shake hands.

“This is Dr. Smith. He’s more specialized in pediatric care.” We sit down on the couch, and you are there too, yet the doctors pay you no attention.

Dr. Smith clears his throat. “Ms. Madeline, I want you to understand that imaginary fr—”

“She’s real,” I argue. You’re here with me now, aren’t you, Emma? Dr. Amber takes out a clipboard and writes something down.

“Yes, of course,” he says quickly as if to cover up a mistake. Don’t worry, you aren’t a mistake. They’re wrong. They don’t understand how to fix you yet.

“However, for this purpose, we shall refer to them as imaginary.” I frown but say nothing. Arguing won’t get me anywhere.

“Now, when you’re younger, imaginary friends are the use of your creativity, if you’re lonely or need someone to talk to or play with. And that’s perfectly normal. Sometimes, they’re also from the effect of traumatic experiences, a way of coping. And based on what Dr. Amber here has told me, you have experienced some of these . . . experiences.”

“Madeline,” Dr. Amber butts in and looks up from her clipboard. “Do you want Emma to go away, or do you like talking with her?”

“I like her,” I say, smiling at you. More clipboard writing and pursing of lips.

“As I was saying,” Dr. Smith continues. “Imaginary friends are not a bad thing when you’re younger. In fact, it’s a great way of learning how to better socialize, especially for those who are shy. But as you start to get older, they tend to come in the way of things, and that’s not good. So I’m going to give you a task, Madeline. I want you to go out, leave your friend at home, and tell them you need some alone time. Then I want you to take a class, go to the park, or do things similar to that. I want you to make one new friend.”

“I have a friend. Emma.”

“I know, but I think it would be good for you to have two friends.” I smile and nod my head, even though I don’t understand. You told me that, Emma. That I should go to these sessions to help you, but if something strange happens or there’s something I can’t understand, just smile and nod and you’ll talk to me about it later. I don’t see how making a friend will help you, but I guess there’s no harm in trying.

“Oh, and,” Dr. Amber adds, “I presume it was just you and your sister at home?

No one else?”

“Just us,” I say. “She raised me. Goodbye.” I stand up to leave, but Dr. Smith stops me.

“Where are you going? We still have fifteen minutes.”

“Emma was making some stew for dinner, and if we don’t get home soon it’ll burn our apartment down.” I smile sweetly at them, not missing the exchange of glances. “Bye bye.”

*          *          *

The next few sessions pass in a blur, mostly the doctors asking about my life, my sister, and about my friends. They never tell me what’s wrong with me, even though it seems like they’re trying to. “Don’t worry,” I tell them. I know why. There is nothing wrong with me, even though they seem to think so. There’s something wrong with you. But I am not a judgy person, so you have no reason to worry.

*          *          *

I’m on my seventh visit now, and today I am only with Dr. Amber.

“Dr. Smith is out of town,” she explains. “It’s just you and me today.” She whips out her clipboard and asks me all the usual questions:

“What have you done today?”

“Well, I ate breakfast, read a book, and then came here.” “Is Emma here today?”

“Yes.” She always is.

“Have you made any new friends?”

“No.” Other kids aren’t very nice around here, not like Emma. “Have you missed your parents?”


“Have you talked to your sister?” “Every day.”

“Do you like coming here?”

“Well, I mean, it’s very important.” And then she asks me a new question.

“Do you think these sessions have changed you?”

My Sister

“Of course not,” I tell her. And I swear she almost looks surprised. “These aren’t for me. They’re for Emma. I’m just her translator. You guys can’t see or hear her, and that’s her problem.” I smile at you, and you give me a thumbs-up back.

“They’re for Emma,” Dr. Amber repeats, scribbling furiously. She turns a few pages and looks at her notes. You grimace and rest your head against me, Emma. Finally Dr. Amber looks up from her notes, a disbelieving expression on her face.

“Madeline, what is your sister’s name?”

I scoff. “You know her name. We’ve been talking about her all this time.” Dr. Amber shakes slightly.

“Just tell me. Once more.” I shrug and sigh.

“Her name is Emma.”