Excerpt: Imaginary

Aaron is five the first time he sees James.

His foster father’s drunk again, and even as young as Aaron is, he knows to get himself out of his house when Shaw starts cursing at everything that moves, eyes glazed and smelling like an overturned bucket of paint thinner.

Aaron kicks at the dirt under his feet, walking in the street just because he knows his foster parents don’t care.

He’s been living with them for six months, and sometimes his foster mother still forgets his name. He wants to like Tiffany—she’s so pretty—but every time he looks at her she looks away, cold and uncaring.

Shaw pays attention, sometimes. Aaron frowns. But not the kind of attention he wants.

Aaron wishes he had real parents, like the other kids in school. They look at him funny. They don’t quite know what being a “foster kid” means, but they know he lives in the poor part of town, and they know he doesn’t have any parents.

They don’t know that the Whites could kick him out whenever they get tired of him, booting him back into the system. But Aaron knows. Shaw reminds him of it nearly every day. Reminds him how “lucky” he is, to have a roof over his head and food on the table.

Aaron doesn’t feel lucky.

He sighs, scuffing his shoes in the dirt and knowing it doesn’t matter. His clothes are dirty, too.

He wishes he had a brother or sister. Someone to talk to, to hide with when things got bad. But it’s just Aaron; there aren’t really even any other kids in the neighborhood.

Then Aaron sees him. Sitting on the broken down fence that separates the road from the cow pasture at its side, there’s a little kid.

A kid just Aaron’s age.

His steps speed up as he squints at the little boy. He’s not someone Aaron recognizes from kindergarten, and thank goodness for that. Normally Aaron is pretty quiet around other kids. He’s been moved around a lot—three foster homes, and he’s only five. He had siblings at the second one, and now they’re gone. He’s had other kids in the neighborhood, or in his class. They’re gone too. Aaron figures it’s best not to get attached.

But this kid looks just as sad as Aaron feels, shoulders slumped and little feet kicking at the splintered wood he sits on.

“Hi,” Aaron says, coming to a stop right in front of him. The kid doesn’t look up, just keeps kicking, his heels drumming on the wood with a steady thump thump.

“Hey!” Aaron says, louder. Is the kid deaf, or something?

The boy looks up, eyes widening in surprise. They’re very big, and very blue. “Hi?” he responds tentatively.

Aaron nods, satisfied. “I’m Aaron,” he pronounces, dropping down on the fence beside the other boy, looking him over.

He’s smaller than Aaron, but Aaron still guesses he must be five or six. His wavy brown hair falls into his eyes, and a burst of freckles partially covers his nose and cheeks. The boy’s clothes are nice—much nicer than Aaron’s. His trousers are clean and pressed, his shirt glaringly white and neatly tucked in.

The boy still looks surprised to see Aaron, but after a moment, he holds out a small hand. “I’m James.”

“Do you live around here?” Aaron asks eagerly, shaking the kid’s hand the way he’s seen adults do.

The boy just shrugs. “Do you?”

“Just down the road.” Aaron makes a face. “With the Whites.”

“That’s what you call your mom and dad?”

Aaron bites his lip. He hadn’t meant to tell James that he was a loser foster kid so soon. Maybe now James won’t want to play with him. “My mom and dad are dead,” Aaron says after a long moment, looking away. “Now I live with the Whites.”

“Oh.” One of James small, smooth hands lands on Aaron’s arm. “I’m sorry.”

When Aaron looks up, James is looking back at him with those big blue eyes, not a hint of mockery in them. Aaron offers him a small smile. “Do you want to play a game?”

“Sure. What game?”

“Hide and seek?”

Alarm crosses James’s face. “No, not when I just found you!”

“Oh.” Aaron is puzzled. “We could go exploring?” he suggests instead. He wishes he had a ball or a Frisbee or something, but James’s eyes light up anyway.

“Okay!”

“Great.” Aaron clambers down off the fence, his eyes widening as James hops down beside him and take his hand. His hand is soft and his fingernails are clean, and Aaron wants to pull his own hand away and shove it in his pocket, to hide the dirt and calluses.

James doesn’t seem to notice, however, just swings their joined hands between their bodies. “Let’s go see what’s in the woods over there,” he suggests, pointing across the road.

Aaron knows what’s over there—a tiny stream and a lot of junk—but he’s happy to follow his new friend, marvelling at how pleased James looks to be walking beside him.

“Do you go to school around here?”

“No.” James shrugs.

“Oh.” Aaron sighs. Too bad. He would have liked to have James in his class. James who doesn’t seem to care at all that Aaron doesn’t have parents, or nice clothes, or fancy toys.

James who tightens his grip on Aaron’s hand as they clamber down the bank to the little stream, who exclaims joyfully over the shallow splash of water, like it’s the most wonderful thing he’s ever seen.

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