A story by pottedstu for The Blood is the Life: A Frightful Halloween Quest.

You'll all be sorry to hear about the failure of Sophie McGeegan's last business venture. Eighteen months ago she opened up a shop selling imaginary friends. It was a beautiful building, full of little booths and cubby holes, and almost entirely hidden from the street. The art of window display had little relevance to her line of work. Each friend was displayed in their favourite environment, with toys and sweeties that they liked, or for the older friends, electronic devices, books, and alcoholic drinks. Each friend had a nameplate on the wall and a chair to sit on.

When she started the shop, obtaining the imaginary friends proved to be easy. Some were delivered to her by children thanks to a few tiny advertisements hidden in the backs of comic books, on buses, and on broken swings in parks. Others were made by Sophie herself, either left over from her own childhood or created as new in the back of the shop.

Within a few months of opening, business was good. She wasn't buying holiday villas in the Caribbean or looking for franchisees, but she was earning enough to live comfortably and fulfil her passion for dolls. The clientele surprised her a little; some were children with pocket money in hand but there were also adults of all ages. Both men and women came, even someone she recognised from school as always popular.

She received one visit from a newspaper reporter, but Sophie did not want the publicity, questioned the reporter's sanity and sent her away bemused. She continued in prosperous obscurity for a few months thereafter until the problems started.

The origin of her difficulties may have been the sale of an imaginary companion to an abnormally huge and spectacularly obnoxious twelve-year-old girl called Ruth. A few days after the purchase, Ruth marched into the store in a foul mood, claiming there was a fault with her imaginary friend.

"How preposterous!" Sophie said. "In all my months running this store, I have never had a complaint."

"But! It says here, it says on the sign on your door - look at it - that all sales are fully guaranteed. I want a proper friend. I want my money back. Give me now." She rapped her little pink knuckles on the top of the cash register.

"First you really must tell me what is wrong with your friend," Sophie asked the girl.

"Cassandra is dull and stupid," Ruth said. She poked her imaginary playmate in the arm. "She's got no imagination, she's quite lifeless. I want to have fun. She never talks to me."

"Well, of course not, she's imaginary -" Sophie started to say before another interruption.

"She's useless. I wanted a girl to have fun with. But whenever I lie or steal or blame stuff on my brother, she's no help. She just stands there looking stupid like she's the most innocent girl in the world. She should be taking the blame herself. That's what she's for, right?"

Sophie was cowed by this onslaught and consented to the girl's refund. Swearing never to return, Ruth stormed out to spend the money on fizzy drinks and vomit on her parents' bed. The imaginary friend Cassandra was welcomed back to the salesfloor, and Sophie considered the matter to be dealt with.

However, in days to come she noticed things going wrong in the shop. The newly-returned Cassandra was awkward and unfriendly. She refused to be sold. Peter the imaginary 14-year-old boy destroyed his sales environment, smashing his model planes into each other envisaging terrorist apocalypses. He took to sitting on Sophie's counter passing sarcastic comment on her sales techniques. Even grandpa Jack started to play naughty pranks on the other invisible friends. Soon the store was a place of mayhem rather than companionship.

Luckily, the store was not busy with customers. It was September and most children had gone back to school while adults were occupied with adult business of their own. Sophie attempted to restore order, while covering up her deficiencies to the few customers who came in.

Troublesome Cassandra was pacified with imaginary chocolate and invisible designer clothes. For a few days she was downcast over a large zit on her nose that only Sophie could see. This weakened her fight, and Sophie offloaded her to the daughter of a diplomat bound for Japan. Sophie felt bad about this, but had little choice if she was to keep in business. Many of the other friends were only misbehaving in imitation of Cassandra's antics, and her departure calmed them.

All except Peter. He was impossible to control, despite Sophie's best explanations. Under threat of the imposition of parental controls on his internet access, he calmed down for a day or two. Soon he called Sophie's bluff and returned to his perch beside her cash register. "Business not so good?" he said. She wasn't bothered. "Or are you earning imaginary money?" he added. Something about his tone scared her.

That night he broke rules and followed her as she left the store. She lived upstairs in the attic, cramped beneath a slanted ceiling that sloped off like perspective drawings to a horizon three feet away. Peter ran up the stairs behind her, catching at her heels. He turned up the gas fire. "It's cosy up here, isn't it?" he said. "Homely. Shame you have to live here all alone. Nobody to share it with. Not even an imaginary friend for you." He was right; now she had a sales floor full of them, she had no need for fictitious companionship in her life. At the end of the day she wanted only to be alone.

Imaginary Peter paused in his monologue and looked around. "You're just like us, living in a box of your own. All neatly decorated with the signs of your personality, porcelain dolls and Wendy Cope poetry books. When was the last time you left the house?"

"Get out!" she shrieked.

"Catch me if you can," he replied, not moving.

Sophie turned her back and tried to ignore him all night.

The next day she went down to open up the shop. Peter had slipped out behind her back, and was waiting by the till as usual. Sophie opened the front door. On the doorstep there was a very unhappy little red-haired girl with a Hello Kitty backpack and banknotes clasped firmly in her fist. The girl walked sideways past Sophie into the shop.

"Hello, you poor thing, what's your name?" The girl didn't reply. Sophie was used to all the little mouse-like girls who came in desperate for company but too shy to say. She took her seat behind the cash register while the girl went around the room peering at each display in turn until she had seen them all.

"Would you like to make a purchase?" said a boy's voice. Sophie recognised it as Peter's and sighed to herself.

"Yes, thank you," the girl piped up.

"Is there anybody you have in mind? We are currently offering a sale. In fact, we will be pleased to offer any imaginary friend for any imaginary money, however large or small a sum you desire."

"I quite like, I think, her." The girl indicated Stephanie, a somewhat older friend hiding behind a copy of Jane Austen's Persuasion. "But who I really want, if I can possibly, is that one." She pointed to Sophie behind the counter.

"I don't think you can have Sophie," Peter said. "I don't think she's imaginary. Well, not quite as imaginary as you or I."

Sophie tried to open her mouth to make a sale, but her voice croaked into silence.

"They all look the same," the little girl said. "I don't know if I believe in any of them. Please give me Sophie."

"I think you'll have to pay real money for her," Peter said. The girl nodded and laid her crumpled notes on the counter. Carefully she smoothed them out.

"Peter, please don't," Sophie called out, but they didn't seem to notice her.

"It's been a pleasure serving you, Miss - I hope we see you again, Miss - what did you say your name was?"

"You can call me what you like. But she - " she roughly shoved her purchase - "called me Cassandra."

Then Cassandra led Sophie away. Sophie did not protest. But soon the little girl got bored and brought her back for a refund. Peter would only give her a credit note, which was never redeemed. I'm not certain, but if you're looking for Sophie, you could try and make Peter an offer. But he's a wily one, so keep your wits about you and be sure to haggle.

This is an original short story written by myself, pottedstu, submitted for The Blood is the Life: A Frightful Halloween Quest in 2003. (It was actually written a couple of weeks ago because I was bored at work, but it's happily finding a place here.)

Thanks to Jennifer, Camila and Jen for encouragement.

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