arah’s imaginary friend died at her ninth birthday party. Her mom had just sliced the cake and Sarah turned to hand the piece to Sage, but she was gone. Sarah paused, holding the cake, unsure if she should save it for Sage for later, but then she decided to just eat it herself. The gooey pink sugar roses were beginning to wilt and melt and Sarah scooped them up and licked them off her fingers while her friends and parents sang “Happy Birthday.” Her friends played with their paper hats and stared down at their slices, anxious for Sarah to eat her cake so that they might take their own first bites.
Sarah wasn’t worried by Sage’s disappearance. It was quite common for her to wander off now and the and pop up again hours or days later and make like she was never gone. Once, Sarah tried asking where she went when Sage wasn’t with Sarah. It wasn’t as if Sage could go anywhere without her, right? But Sage didn’t answer that, just turned her head away and drank her tea quietly, playing with a biscuit and squishing the crumbs into the tablecloth.
“Don’t do that,” Sarah said, pushing Sage’s hand away, “you’ll ruin Mom’s best linen.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Sage answered, “I can’t do any harm to it. Besides, this is just a plastic sheet we found in the pantry.”
Sage was right, of course. She was always right. Sarah acknowledged this, and swallowed her objections down with her tea, which really wasn’t tea, only water, and the cups weren’t really china, but plastic as well, and there were no biscuits or linen or crystal dishes or a table, or even Sage. Sarah was just sitting in her room on the floor, raising a cup to the air and making clinking noises and offering more sugar, one lump or two, to someone who wasn’t there.
But Sage was always there, really, locked away in Sarah’s mind. Sage was smart, very smart, wicked smart. Sage was the smartest person Sarah knew, and Sarah would often take Sage’s advice and follow her lead. Sage always had the best ideas about new games the two of them could play.
Sometimes Sage’s ideas and fancies would get the two of them into trouble, like when she suggested they go to the park, it was just down the road a bit, they could still see the house from there, and then they got lost and walked a little too far and forgot to tell a parent and caused quite a panic. But most of the time, Sage was the best friend Sarah could imagine. Sage always knew the best places to hide when playing games, how to scale a cabinet or dresser and find the goodies locked inside, and exactly what to say to get their way when she and Sarah wanted a new video or book from a store. Sarah couldn’t picture a world without Sage in it, and that was why it came as such a shock to her when she realized, days after the party, the piece of cake she had saved now stiff and dry on the counter, that something was terribly wrong.
“Mom,” she asked, staring down at the cake, “have you seen Sage anywhere lately?”
“No, sweetie, I thought you told me she had gone away for a bit?”
“I don’t know why she isn’t back yet, though,” Sarah said, poking at the sugar rose she’d saved, the biggest one, the one she’d made her mom take from the middle of the cake, sliding it off before cutting into the rest. “She’s never been away this long.” The outside of the rose was brittle and stiff but when her finger punctured the thin frosting the middle oozed out, grainy and buttery, and the rose collapsed. “I think she’s dead,” Sarah whispered.
“What was that, dear?” her mom called. Sarah didn’t answer.
- Twenty Years Later -
The air seemed heavier, the clouds lower, the whole world chilled, muted, subdued. That morning the dog on the corner didn’t bark as it normally did. The whole block was silent. Sarah couldn’t hear birds in the trees or even the whirr and buzz of traffic. On this morning, Sage reappeared.
Sarah was just passing around the corner when she felt a shift. It wasn’t a rumbling like from a stomach complaining for food, or even something deeper, like tectonic plates grumbling and shoving around, but something other. At the time, Sarah couldn’t have told you the difference between a shift and a shift, but she knew she felt the difference in the world now. She turned, and there was Sage.
“Hello, Sarah,” Sage said.
Even though some time had passed since last these two saw each other, both could remember exactly when and how it was that they were separated. Sarah stopped having parties after she turned ten because, even though she complained to her mom that she was old enough now for it to be silly, Sarah secretly hated birthday parties after what happened the year before. She politely refused attendance to any such function, though she did manage to remain civil and send a card or gift in response to invitations.
She recognized Sage in an instant; same long black hair, wide blue eyes, small puckered mouth with a smile lurking at its corners. Sarah couldn’t be sure, but it almost seemed as if Sage was even still wearing the same dress as before, longer now, the light cotton hem sweeping around her sandaled feet, but the same pattern and fit to it. It was as though Sage had grown up in an instant, popping from one time to another in a flash, while Sarah was left to trudge through the years alone, friendless.
“Hello, Sarah,” Sage repeated, taking her hand off the bench. She stepped forward. “It’s been a long time.” She smiled, pink lips curling back over white, straight teeth. Sarah felt like she’d been punched in the gut.
Sage standing there in the street brought back so many memories for Sarah. She felt exhilarated, scared, angry, broken, the emotions pulsing through her, bumping into each other, flaring up, dying down, then fizzing out entirely, leaving her numb and nauseous. Mostly she just felt like she’d been punched. It was hard to breathe, and there was a buzzing starting in her head.
“Sage? What is this, why are you here?”
“I’m back, Sarah. I came back for you.”
Her head was pulsing with pain and she had to fight back the bile creeping up her throat. Before, even a few years before, she may have welcomed Sage’s presence back in her life. Now, though, she did not need or want any reminders of her childhood or the life that was. She had enough ghosts haunting her; she did not need Sage there as well.
“Go away, Sage. Please. I don’t want you here. You left, remember? You can’t just show up again whenever you please.” Head ringing, Sarah tried to turn away. Her eyes threatened to spill over with hot, angry tears. Sage reached out and caught her arm. Her touch was electric.
“Wait! Wait, please, Sarah, just wait. I’m here. I’m real. Listen to me. You see?” Sage paused, rubbing her thumb along the inside of Sarah’s arm. “I’m real.”
Sarah puked. Sage came up and gently stroked circles on her back, holding Sarah’s hair for her as she bent over the garbage bin. But that just made it all the worse until Sarah was crying too, tears welling up and spilling down her face and she couldn’t tell if she just wanted Sage to stop touching her, or to hold her even tighter. As children Sage and Sarah had never touched. They didn’t discuss why not or even think on it consciously; it was just the way things were with imaginary friends. They couldn’t touch that of the solid, real world, especially not people. But Sage was touching her now.
Sage handed her a bundle of thin paper napkins she pulled from the backpack resting on the bench. Sarah took them and began wiping off her tongue.
“What is happening?” she croaked. She could barely choke the words past her dry, cottony tongue. “How is this possible?”
“Why don’t you sit down,” Sage suggested, “and we can talk about this?” Her blue eyes were full of pleading. Sarah wanted to. And yet she didn’t. She was frightened of this new impossibility but she couldn’t help the longing she felt, too, seeing Sage in front of her again.
They sat, but neither seemed to know where to start, how to begin sorting through the twenty years apart that lay, shadowed and murky, between them. Memories buffeted them like waves from all sides. The pressure in Sarah’s head would soon be unbearable. She couldn’t take her eyes off Sage. She was afraid to turn her head and turn back to find her gone, again.
Instead, she tried to look at Sage out of only the corner of her eye, like when they were younger and they were told you could see right through Illusion that way, and look right through what you thought you could see and into what was actually there. Sage’s image didn’t flicker, though, or reveal her as some strange beast. She was actually there. It was really her.
“But where did you go?” Sarah blurted. “I turned around and you were gone. And how is it that you’re back now?”
Sage sighed and looked down. Her forehead crinkled as she picked her words carefully, slowly. “I’m not sure,” she finally said. “I was there at your party one second, gone the next. And then it’s like I just woke up again, here, now. Somehow I knew if I waited here long enough you would come.” Sage reached out her hand as she spoke, moving to brush a curl back from Sarah’s face, but she stopped herself, arm falling limp into her lap. “I’m sorry I ever left you, Sarah. I really am. But I’m back, here, now. I don’t ever have to leave you again.” Her voice was just as Sarah remembered it: buttery, silky, smooth. “I love you, Sarah. I’m sorry I left.”
Sage’s calm words wrapped around her, as did her arms. “You’re so cold,” Sage whispered as she clutched Sarah’s trembling form. “Let me warm you.” She took Sarah’s chin in her hand and gently tilted her head back, placing her warm, soft mouth over Sarah’s. The kiss was a passion rekindled after almost smothered by the dust of time. But now there was nothing between them, nothing separating them. Whatever had been keeping them from one another was gone, dead. The infinite possibilities of the moment shattered, the links broke, and there was only one possibility, one fate, one moment.
The obituary in the paper was short; young woman, 29, died on her way to work Thursday morning. Cause of death was an untreated brain tumor present since early childhood. Her mother passed away three years prior from similar condition. She had no other relatives to succeed her. Sage Johnson died on her birthday.