My daughter’s imaginary friend most likely came about because of loneliness, I surmised. It was all my fault. Nevertheless, it didn’t seem to matter too much as she played under the slide on the eighth level of Kastak Island. She laughed and chattered away. So what if her friend wasn’t really there?

We’d been living on Kastak for two months. It was a research lab for robotics and analytics that towered above the sea off the coast of England, where it had been purpose-built away from all the overcrowding. Construction was not quite finished, but I’d pleaded for the chance to start my new data job early, along with some others who were more involved in the setup side of things. My daughter and I were among the first families to arrive, though I’d been told that many more were to follow.

The balcony Dana played on was half-way up the tower. Gardens were spread across the levels, but this was the only outside space aimed at the employees’ children. It was nothing special, with only a swing, slide and climbing frame, but we treasured being alone out there – no one else seemed to enjoy the brisk outdoors so early in the mornings. Dana played, while I leaned against the balcony wall, relishing the sea breeze.

The entire complex was a refuge as much as a home. Until the note came.

It had been slipped under my door that morning. “Your child is ill,” it read. “She talks to herself all the time. Find her some real friends or take her to see a doctor.” Somehow, they’d got past the security measures.

Imaginary friends are two-a-penny among the young. They’re normal. Why pick on my daughter? Especially when there were so few children on Kastak to make friends with.

I’d done nothing since getting the note because it seemed logical that Dana was reacting to changes in her life and that she’d soon recover. Losing contact with our entire family was hard on her. She loved them still. If she sought comfort from thin air, I didn’t want to take that too.

Damn that stupid note, calling everything I did into question. But I had no choice! I would’ve died for my daughter. Her grandfather, on the other hand, would rather die than admit he could be wrong. The first time he hit Dana instead of me, I moved out. The second time, I moved across the country. I would never let him hurt her again.

Dana claimed not to remember any of it and said she missed her grandad, who could be kind between his rages. She missed her whole extended family. Dozens of us, reduced to merely two.

At first I was red-hot angry with it all. On Kastak I found peace in the ice-cold.

“Mum!” Dana yelled from the top of the slide. “We’re looking for moon monsters!”

Letting her play was healing us both.

“Afterwards, we’re looking for pixies,” she shouted. That ‘we’ again.

The wristband on my left hand flashed red, which called for an immediate response. I had to throw Dana into the island’s holiday club (where the invisible friend was at least free of charge), because school hadn’t started up yet, and head to work.

“Got to dash,” I mouthed at her, and she frowned but slid down with a whoosh. She hopped off the slide, and I imagined a second whoosh as her friend came down too.

I pushed back against the wall for momentum, but instead of propelling me forwards, the wall cracked and crumbled, so quick I didn’t know what was happening until I felt air behind me instead of concrete.

There was no time to right myself. Beyond the wall, there was nothing but water, so far down that it would break my bones.

I was going to die as my daughter screamed.

But then something caught me. Something grabbed my ankle and pulled me back onto the balcony. Something much stronger than an eight-year-old girl.

I sobbed as Dana, her eyes wet with tears, rushed to my side.

“Who helped me?” I asked, holding Dana tight.

“My friend,” she said.

“Who? How?”

She stared at the floor. “He’s a robot. They’re all over the building if you know where to look. I found him in the apartment next door. Wasn’t even being used. You can shake hands if you want to say thank you.”

Bewildered, I held my hand out in the air and felt the cold handshake of an android in return. “Thank you,” I said very seriously.

It was never an imaginary friend, but an invisible robot all along.

“Why is he invisible?” I tried to sound light-hearted, but my voice shook.

She sighed. “He has to follow a bunch of rules. He’s not allowed to do anything that would hurt others. He’s not supposed to do anything that might get himself hurt, either. We decided it was best if he cloaked up.”

“How would seeing him hurt anyone? Is he grotesque?”

“No, nothing like that,” Dana said, with a laugh that soon turned to a frown. “I made a mistake, mum. I’m sorry. When we first met he asked who I missed most in the world, and I said Grandad. I showed him photos. He copied Grandad’s face onto his to cheer me up. Then I realized how sad that would make you. He said he couldn’t take it off once it was set.”

It was all my fault.

She’d been spending time with this robot for weeks, hiding him away because he looked like someone she loved, had denied herself comfort to keep me happy, even though I’d made us move.

I could never love her grandfather, but I could surely befriend this machine. It had already saved us both.

“I’m the one who’s sorry,” I said to Dana. “You don’t have to hide anymore,” I said to the robot.

And so the robot uncloaked, Dana’s friend became real, was always real, and the two of us became three.

© Helen French

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