Teenage angst and bewilderment is kind of a new frontier for me, at least in speculative fiction. I’m not really expecting to be invested in a story that focuses on boy-girl relationships, but that’s exactly what I got with “Find Me” by Isabel Yap, published in Apex Magazine. And you know what? I’m glad for it.
“Find Me” is about a teenage girl named Chas as she tries to make up her mind about Roger, the on-and-off imaginary friend she’s had since she was young. It’s a refreshing piece of speculative fiction that doesn’t have world-shaking stakes – it’s a bit more grounded, more down to earth. It has a quiet beauty that contrasts the inner turmoil that young people feel, whether they are real or not.
Warning: Reading without having consumed story in its entirety will result in spoiler-induced anger and disappointment. Please read on responsibly.
Speculative fiction that tries to do Normal or Contemporary usually shows its true colors pretty quick. Sometimes the genre rubs shoulders with magic realism, but regardless of that, astute readers like you have been trained to sniff out this kind of stuff early on. Even so, you may have trouble identifying just where the magic is in “Find Me.” Not that there’s a steep learning curve involved in the idea of imaginary friends, but more that the story starts off so innocently – it’s Christmas in California around the house Chas lives in, her extended family’s flying in, and old familiar faces are popping up again, Roger’s chief among these. Chas can’t quite figure out why he’s here, especially when she hasn’t seen him in six years, and as she takes in his more grownup appearance I’m struck by the whole quaintness of it all. The setting almost feels too Hallmark-y; its references to Darth Vader and screaming goat YouTube videos go in hard on the syrupy-sweet quirkiness, like a Gilmore Girls episode in short fiction form. So when the speculative/magicky parts are finally realized, we aren’t smacked upside the head, heads spinning with a big revelation. Instead, our understanding that Roger is a figment of Chas’s imagination dawns on us.
The cutesy tone stays consistent, but we eventually realize the story has a darker side. Chas’s father was lost at sea when she was a child; this led to her imagining Roger to cope with the loss. She used to spend so much time with him instead of real people that she drew the concern of her mother and her doctor. Drugs were administered regularly to help bring Chas back to reality, which eventually led to Roger’s disappearance. Author Yap could have chosen to focus on the drug angle, but instead they’re the catalyst that causes Chas’s estrangement from Roger. I can only infer that her mother and doctor viewed Roger as a symptom of the harmful kind of schizophrenia, the one that turns violent in the face of all that imagined stimuli.
I think it’s important to note the treatment bit because of the timeless idea of imaginary friends. You can have them in any kind of story, speculative or not, provided you’ve got humans to think them up. How their existence is viewed by the characters that can’t see them is usually the more significant conflict, but in “Find Me” it’s better focused on the deeply personal relationship between the imagined and the one doing the imagining.
Characters you can connect with, even if they aren’t real – that’s the goal of “Find Me.” Actually, that’s kind of the goal of most fiction, isn’t it? But there’s an extra layer of meta-satisfaction for you to enjoy here. Chas and Roger and everybody else in the story aren’t actual people, sure, but that winds back to the primary question: What is Roger to Chas? She believes he is real, but his corporeality is the major issue here.
Chas is trying to be a normal high school girl, trying to worry about normal high school things. She didn’t want to take her meds anymore, and so stopped acknowledging Roger, which made him go away. The normal-ish life she had at the beginning of the story is thrown by his reappearance, but not in the boy-crazy-Bella-Swan way. Chas is a willful young woman, sure, but she defies that trope too. She’s less brazen, or at least less heavy-handed in her execution, a glimpse into a character who is straddling the boundary of girl and woman. That boundary may have an imaginary friend on one side and a mundane teenage life on the other, but it makes me wonder – or better yet, empathize – with how confusing growing up is. Figuring your shit out isn’t a trait that gets any easier with age and this story shows that.
As an ordinary piece of fiction, say, a girl with issues and her male friend, we certainly want him to be real because the chemistry between them is so endearing. They’re both presented in a way that plays off the “young teens who don’t know what they are doing or what they want,” but the added layer of ambiguity (courtesy of being a speculative piece) keeps their interactions from feeling stale. “Does he like me?” becomes far more fascinating when paired with “Does it matter if he’s imaginary?” for this story.
So not much actually happens in “Find Me.” Reading it didn’t shake me to my core, the landscape of my previously held beliefs and ideologies left scorched by this story’s fiery truths. But this isn’t a Character story; there’s no big, life-changing arc here. Instead we get what feels like the sweetest parts of a teenage romance – all the “figuring-stuff-out” bits without the awkward “making-it-work” that comes after. We get a couple flashbacks that show how taking Roger away is not the long-term solution anyone is looking for. We also get a sort of confession from Chas expressing her desire for Roger to “be here” for her, even though she’s not really sure what that means or why he keeps growing older with her. And although Roger tells her his commitment to be there from her when she needs him, and I’m inclined to believe him, it’s not a completely satisfying answer.
But the non-committal resolution of their feelings for each other kind of solidifies how truthful it comes across, for me at least. It’s less important to me that they figure things out and more that they’re having such trouble in the first place. Author Yap chooses to focus on the emotional journey, and the reward for reading is getting to see the gradual, crock pot simmer of wondering what Chas and Roger mean to each other.
It feels almost strange for me to have chosen a story with such an ambiguous message. The clear-cut stances on technology that previous Prose Dives have brought to light seem straight-up didactic in comparison to the important story bits in “Find Me.” Like, we were served giant portions of cultural questions in those other pieces, but in this one we only get crumbs.
But this story does have something to teach. I see Chas’s invention, treatment, and vague conclusions about Roger a suitable explanation for how people deal with tragedy. Not to draw too much meaning out of the meds, but that particular method of treatment gets results at a cost. I’m not saying thinking up your own Roger is the cost-effective solution to your mental health issues, but maybe we should consider the therapeutic benefits of our other options. That might not have been Yap’s intent, but in a story about making discoveries and not quite understanding them – well, that feels like something worth spending time on.
Yep’s prose doesn’t shout these answers, it suggests, it hints, directing our ocular organs and brain components toward the stuff we should be paying attention to. And what we derive from that should be as unique as the relationships we have, whether they’re imaginary or not.