When Spencer Reid was ten years old, he had an imaginary friend named Susan. He knew she was imaginary because she told him so. They met in the park on April 27th. It was a Thursday.
She was sitting on the park bench with a big bag at her feet and she was watching the pigeons. She was tall and pretty, with long red hair and a sun dress on. It had purple flowers. Spencer thought she looked nice, like a teacher or somebody’s mom. She looked like the kind of person who would keep band-aids in her purse and so he asked if she had any.
“Sure, I’ve got a box of the shiny kind. My favorites,” she said, as she dug in her bag. She sounded foreign. Out of the bag she took five books. Spencer read the titles; three were science fiction, the other two were by Dickens. “Ah!” She had found the box.
He accepted a shiny silver band-aid and stuck it on his scraped knee. “Thank you very much,” he said, politely, like he’d been taught.
She smiled, then gestured at his knee. “What happened?”
“I tripped,” he lied.
“Sure,” she said, and patted the bench next to her. “My name’s Susan. What’s yours?”
He eyed her suspiciously. He wanted to trust her, but in the news the world was full of bad people and it was always the people who seemed trustworthy that really weren’t. “Spencer,” he said finally. “I’ve got to go home now.”
She laughed, unexpectedly. “Spencer? I should have known. You were a lot taller the last time we met.”
“You know me? I don’t know you.”
She smiled and he thought she looked a little sad. “Just…think of me as an imaginary friend.”
“Oh,” he said. That didn’t sound reassuring and he didn’t like the way she was looking at him. “Good-bye!”
He ran all the way home.
Susan was at the same bench on May 1st, a Monday. He knew it was her because she called his name. She looked like she might be wearing purple again. He stood across the sidewalk from her. If she tried anything, he would have a head start. He was a fast runner.
“Where are your glasses?” the woman who was probably Susan asked.
“In my pocket. We had soccer in gym today. I fell and they bent.” He took the twisted frames and held them so she could see.
“Sure,” Susan said. “Come over here. You look ridiculous squinting like that.”
After a moment’s hesitation, he came and stood by the bench. Now he was pretty sure it was Susan. He handed her the frames and she inspected them. Gently, she attempted to bend them back into shape, but they resisted. Suddenly, one of the ear pieces broke off with a snap that made Susan jump.
“Oh, no,” she sighed. “Spencer, I’m so sorry…” She handed the glasses back and he returned them to his pocket. “I didn’t mean to…”
“I know. It’s okay,” he said. He could tell she really hadn’t meant to. It was nice, in a way, to have someone break your things on accident.
Susan still looked very sad. Spencer thought that was odd because adults usually did a better job of hiding being sad around kids. He climbed up on the bench next to her. “Do you like reading? I saw your books last week.”
She brightened. “Yes, I love reading. I always have. When I was younger, I didn’t get much time and there weren’t many books, but now I have plenty of time and all the books in the world–and out of it.” She smiled like she’d let him in on a secret.
“I read David Copperfield last year,” he told her. It was one of the books she’d had before. “I didn’t like it much.”
Susan didn’t react like he must be lying about having read Dickens. “Why didn’t you like it?”
He shrugged. “It had a happy ending, but the rest was sad. Why can’t people write books where everyone is happy sooner?”
Susan watched the traffic passing by on the street. “Life is cruel, I’m afraid,” she murmured. Spencer watched her, wondering what she was thinking of.
After a moment, she shook herself out of it and smiled again. “I think people write books to remind us that bad days can always get better. Mine have. And I’ve lived a lot of days.”
May 16th was a Tuesday and Susan was watching the older boys at ball practice. She was wearing the same purple dress. It was clean. Spencer wondered where she lived.
“I played on a ball team when I was younger, I think,” he told her. “I could never hit the ball. I still don’t understand how you’re supposed to hit it without looking.”
Susan didn’t seem to be listening. She looked wistful. “David loved baseball. I miss him sometimes. Not as often as I should, perhaps, but sometimes.”
Instead of asking his real question, Spencer said, “Do you have any kids?”
“I used to.” She didn’t elaborate.
“Are they dead?” Spencer asked, even though he knew he shouldn’t.
“Actually,” said Susan, eyes tracing a fly ball, “they haven’t been born yet.”
On Friday, May 26th, Susan was wearing a red sweater and she didn’t have her bag.
“Hi, Spencer,” she said when he came past after school.
“Hi, Susan.” He eyed her with some confusion. There had to be some significance to the change of clothes, but he wasn’t sure what.
“I came to say good-bye,” she told him. “I’m sorry and I promise I’ll come back, but I’ve been here long enough. Call it a Vegas vacation. It’s cheered me up considerably.”
Spencer looked at his shoes.
“I brought you a book.” He took it and looked at the cover. Great Expectations. They’d talked about books enough for her to know he hadn’t read that one.
“I’m afraid it’s another story full of trials and tribulations before you get to the happy ending, but it’s one of my favorites. I’ve read it five times since I was a kid.”
“Why?” he frowned. “The words don’t change.”
“The person reading them does.”
He put the book in his backpack. “Where are you going to go?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I thought–World Exposition, Paris, 1889. I’ve never been.”
Spencer laughed. She couldn’t be serious. “How are you going to get there?”
“My grandfather sent me a time machine when he died. She’s old, but she works reasonably well.” Spencer almost told her she was crazy and to stop lying, but she had a sort of wild light in her eyes and he could believe, for a moment, that she was telling the truth. His mother was convinced of strange things sometimes, but she never looked so alive.
“There’s no such thing as time machines.” He couldn’t help himself.
Susan just laughed.”I’m just an imaginary friend. I can do whatever I want, even travel in time.” She turned towards the road. “See you around and take care of yourself, Spencer Reid.”
Spencer was halfway across the park before he realized that she shouldn’t have known his whole name. He turned around, but, of course, she was gone.
She didn’t come back. People never did.
Sometimes Spencer almost convinced himself that she had never existed and really was just an imaginary friend. Other times he believed she had been real and wanted to ask around and see if anyone knew her, but he didn’t know where to start. Maybe she had a family now. Maybe she really had gone to the 1889 Paris Exhibition and had liked it there. Maybe she was dead. He didn’t want to know. That way he could pretend she had a reason not to come back.
He didn’t read the book either.