Posted on: March 18, 2014

"Aren't you excited?" Steph's voice carries from the hallway. I do my best to ignore the bile churning in my stomach. My face is a mask of pain and anxiety, and a few shades paler than it should be. I nod at my reflection in the mirror, trying to convince myself of a lie before I tell it.

"Yeah," my voice wavers in response. Not convincing. "Totally."

Definitely not convincing.

"Alex," she draws out my name, each letter a syllable. The sharp points of her stiletto heels click in the hallway, drawing closer. She opens my door, not bothering to knock.

"You promised," Steph says.

"I just don't feel very well," I respond.

"Bullshit, you just don't want to go."

She isn't wrong. I don't want to go, even though I did promise Steph that 2014 would be the year I got out more. 'You can't just hang out at the house every night,' she'd told me.

"I don't want to go," I admit. I stare at the wall, willing it to somehow turn into a time machine. I imagine it shifting, the paint and boards peeling away to reveal a panel of buttons and bright colored lights.

Oh, or better yet, the boards slide open and illuminate a secret passageway that takes me to a Delorean. Run for it, Alex!

"It's just dinner," Steph says beside me. "It's like, the most low-key double-date ever because Garrett barely knows this guy so there's no pressure to like, ever hang out with him again. And I bet he's way better than those weird guys you met online last year."

I look at Steph but continue to think about my imaginary time machine. Where would I go to stop this double-date from happening?

I could go back to the train ride, when Steph first proposed it. Living in an old house away from the action of the city has its perks; I get tons of reading done on our morning commute. Steph plays Candy Crush, and apparently matchmaker.

The New Year's Eve promise is a strong contender, since I regret it more and more each day. It was a night that began with glitter, shots of tequila, and flirtatious boys; night yielded to residual liquid courage, adrenaline from going out and not hating it, and an impossible resolution I no longer want to pretend I'll keep.

"It'll be fun," Steph sing-songs as she twirls a perfect curl of blonde hair around a manicured finger.

There was the OKCupid debacle. I like vintage things, I'd written in my profile. My high standards were met by two different men, and to reward them I invited them back to my place. I caught Tim batting the old lanterns downstairs because he thought they were 'like touch lamps or something.'

Mike was a little better - he knew what the lamps were and admired them from a respectful distance. He was problematic in a different way. I didn't see it coming, but I should have – he got distracted by Steph whenever he saw her. Maybe distracted isn't the right word. He was obsessed with her. His eyes would linger on her, and it took too many instances of me staring at him staring at her to realize it could never work out.

I settle on a time, envision Doc Brown adjusting the date in the Delorean: May 22nd, 2013, the day Mom convinced me that Steph and I should once again live under the same roof.

'She's your baby sister,' Mom said. 'She wants to move to the city, but your father and I just don't think it's a good idea for her to use Craigslist to find roommates. You've already got a job, and that second bedroom was nowhere close to an office or a study or an exercise room when I visited a couple months ago.'

I agreed to this, but if I'd known the consequences -- men more interested in my little sister, coerced drunken promises, mandatory double-dates -- I would have put my foot down and refused my mother.

"You can't do this," Steph's eyes get serious. "I didn't believe Mom, but she’s right. You never do anything exciting."

Because what's happening in my head is almost always more exciting than what's happening in real life.

"You don't have any friends, Alex," Steph sounds sad and distant.

Imaginary ones. I have imaginary ones.

I look down at my feet and a trap door opens. It’s the same one I always imagine: my social escape hatch, a way to ignore everything around me and live comfortably inside my head.

I'm not sure who to expect this time. There have been hobbits and elves, superheroes and supervillains, boy wizards and talking paintings.

Her back is to me, but she has a trim, petite figure and long pale hair.

“Khaleesi?” I ask, confused. I'm not a huge fan, but it was a popular enough Halloween costume. The woman turns, and it's not the Mother of Dragons.

It's Steph.

I want to ask how she ended up in my imaginary panic room. I want to ask why Mom told her I never did anything, if our living together was as much about me as it was about my little sister. Questions pile up in my mind, but before I can articulate any of them she is gone and I am alone in the dark made-up space inside my own head.

I get off my bed and walk downstairs. My sister follows at my heels, radiating pain like a new blister.

“Alex?” Steph asks. I grab my purse from its hook and stop in front of the mirror. I don’t want answers to new questions - why I’d rather dream experiences than live them, why I wore my favorite outfit, why I envisioned my sister as part of my imaginary friend panoply. I say that I’m ready and smile when Steph yelps with glee. She darts back to her room, her stilettos tapping a percussive beat.

I see a shape move in the shadows, another flash of my overactive imagination. Maybe it’s just what I need to stay sane tonight, to blur reality enough to make it tolerable.

You can come, too, but keep it down, okay?

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

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