Ella’s imaginary friend was back. After twenty-three years, six failed relationships, two graduations, one pregnancy scare, and a stable but boring job she just showed up in the corner of the scantly furnished studio apartment Ella called home.
Chloe. That had been her name. Chloe the six year old film actress, veterinarian, and occasional boat captain. Who had a pet unicorn.
The unicorn hadn’t shown up.
Somehow it would be better if the unicorn would show up.
Maybe this was all just the result of a mental breakdown from stress at work. The company wasn’t doing well and the panicked management had seen fit to respond with cutting half the staff and doubling the workload for the remaining employees. Ella had been operating in a state of more or less constant burnout for six months. Even video games and mindless sitcoms weren’t helping anymore. Really, some kind of hallucination was only to be expected.
Chloe stared at her from the corner where her sewing machine sat, gathering dust. Ella tried to focus on the television and the pint of brownie-laden ice cream, but having your childhood pretend friend staring unblinking at you takes all the joy out of any formulaic punchline, no matter how charismatic the actor who delivers it might be.
Ice cream spoon in her mouth, Ella returned the stare in equal measure. They locked eyes for a full minute before Ella yanked the spoon from her mouth.
“Go away.” Her demand was petulant in tone and she was immediately embarrassed. “Go away,” she repeated in the stern parental voice she remembered from her mother.
Chloe marched to a corner and plopped herself in time-out on top of a pile of fabric and unfinished projects. Ella sighed and tried to laugh at her television, but it was pointless. She clicked off the TV, returned the remains of the ice cream to the freezer, and collapsed into bed without bothering to brush her teeth.
The next morning, Ella shuffled into her office and headed straight to the boss to hand him the folder of reports he’d wanted printed. He didn’t bother to look at her as he grabbed the folder, and she turned away from him with her mind already occupied with coffee and eventual lunch.
“Ella!” he barked, making her stop in his doorway. “What the hell is this?” He held up the reports, which were now covered in crayon drawings of Ella and Chloe playing together with a unicorn. There was a rainbow. It was smiling. Ella flushed red and thought fast. She didn’t even know where Chloe could have gotten the crayons.
“I am so sorry. I was babysitting my niece and she must have gotten into the folder when I wasn’t looking-” He held up a hand to cut her off.
“I need these reprinted before eleven. The client is coming in for a meeting today, and I can’t risk losing this account.”
“And I expect normal levels of productivity. Skip lunch if you have to.”
She seethed. “Yes, sir.” He waved her off and she left, checking her purse for the thumb drive with the files and sighing with relief to find it still in there. Management had recently wasted a lot of money on a man to come in and tell them where they were wasting a lot of money, and he’d apparently determined that it was cheaper to source their few printing jobs to a local service than to maintain their own huge office printer. They took “source” to mean “send employees to do it” and sold the old printer immediately.
Why they couldn’t just buy a cheap home printer, Ella didn’t know. She jammed her keys in the ignition and started the drive to FedEx. She suspected the reason was related to the fact that the reimbursement forms kept shifting around in the shared folders, to the point that it was usually easier for employees to just pay for printing out of pocket than to fight with the forms.
It was with a short temper that she waited for the FedEx printer to spit out the pages. Then, Chloe showed up.
“Do you see what you did?” Ella hissed, trying to avoid attention from the other people in the store. “You just made my day so much harder than it had to be. Why did you even have to show up?”
Chloe looked crestfallen and began crying.
“Oh knock it off. You’re not even real.”
Chloe stuck out her tongue, wiping her eyes, and Ella stuck her own out in return. This earned her some odd looks from the people around her. She willed the printer to hurry.
Racing back to the office, she got pulled over for a speeding ticket. The officer, perhaps noting the haunted and harried look in her eyes, was at least kind to her. He still wrote her a ticket. He had his own quota to fill.
She rushed back into the office and thrust the new-printed files into the boss’s hands before returning to her own desk to begin her actual work for the day. 10:30 already… it was going to be yet another late night.
After a few hours, she ordered a sandwich delivered to her desk. She ate it with one hand and continued typing with the other. Behind her, Chloe started humming. It was irritatingly distracting.
Her supervisor popped his head over the half wall that separated their desks. She jumped.
“Sorry!” he said. He lowered his voice. “Look, I just wanted to give you a heads-up. Management wants to see faster performance from us by the end of the month. Like… double faster.”
“What?” She collapsed her head into her hands. “I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain.”
“I know, Skipper. I’ll try to push back, but we all know how that’s gonna go.”
“Yeah…” She stared glumly at her monitor as he sank back down to his chair. After a moment she pulled out her phone and began typing a text message to her therapist.
“ELLA!” Her boss’s shout startled her into dropping the phone. She jumped to her feet and scurried to his office. He had all the papers she’d printed spread about his desk. There were no drawings on any of them.
“Maybe if you didn’t spend your work hours playing on your phone, things like THIS wouldn’t happen!” He jabbed his finger at a sheet and she bent down to look. It took a moment to see the problem, but then her heart dropped. She had mixed up information between two clients, revealing sensitive data to the client her boss had met. They had almost certainly seen it.
“I’m so sorry… I don’t know what happened…” She did know. She had been in the middle of working on one client when the order had come in to drop everything and start on this one. At 5 PM. On a Friday.
The boss launched into a tirade. She barely listened, only catching the occasional “integrity of our business” and “great risk.” She nodded dutifully through it and when he was done he walked her back to her desk, listing instructions.
They both stopped in horror when they arrived. The walls and part of the desk where entirely covered in childish drawings of Chloe and Ella and the unicorn. The most prominent, however, was clearly meant to be an unflattering representation of her boss, complete with pointy teeth and thick, angry eyebrows. Chloe stood in the corner looking proud of herself, then collapsed into a pout when she caught Ella’s enraged eye.
“What is this!?” Her boss’s face turned bright red.
“I didn’t do it! Chl-” she cut herself off before she sounded insane or six years old or both.
“I have had it up to here with your dallying and excuses, and now you disrespect me and damage company property? Pack up your desk, Ella.”
“And hand me your key card. I’ll have someone escort you out of the building.”
Red-faced and holding back tears, she threw her few knickknacks and personal items into a box brought with a sad smile by her supervisor. Chloe grinned and skipped beside her as she was escorted to her car. She hummed merrily the whole drive home while Ella cried.
Once through her door, Ella threw the box hard across the room and screamed. A sheaf of papers, client notes she’d taken home for reference one late night, caught her eye. She grabbed them and tore into them, tossing the pieces into the air like confetti. Chloe danced.
A laugh escaped her, and then another.
“I don’t have to go back!”
She ripped off the professional blazer she’d sewn with such pride for this job, still laughing.
“I don’t ever have to go back!”
She dragged the forgotten dress form from her closet and started pinning the blazer to it with a wide grin.
She turned to Chloe. “I’m never stepping foot in that place again!” Chloe smiled and ran to her. She hugged her hard around the waist and vanished. Still grinning, Ella grabbed her seam ripper and pincushion and set to work.