The bright mid-morning sun shone down on the happy children playing in the Miskins' front yard.
Mally proudly stood at the helm of his spaceship jungle gym, pretending to pilot his way past planets and galaxies at near-light speed, Meanwhile, his bizarre, blue-skinned best friend manned the laser gun behind him, ready to shoot any alien invaders that dare to come near - protecting the person he cared for most.
The Miskin heir was a curious, intelligent child: a prodigy, without any doubt. He possessed an inquisitive but logical mind, taking great interest in how the world works, and treating the majority of the things he did like a science experiment: following processes and monitoring the outcomes. Indeed, science was a great interest of his, and he spent a lot of his free time either making concoctions with his chemistry set, or with his head buried in a textbook - unless his parents were able to basically force him outside to play in the fresh air. Even then, he favoured pretend games - often with a scientific or space-related theme.
Even something as simple as playing a board game was, to Mally, an opportunity to learn something new, and he'd focus on the activity intensely, refusing to rush - much to the chagrin of his fellow players.
However, Mally's great genius had come at a cost. Like his ancient ancestors before him, his brilliant brain was burdened with the hallmarks of insanity: a genetic family trait, long-suppressed, that had now finally re-emerged.
This insanity was something the child vehemently denied publicly, fearing disgrace - but in his heart, he was all too aware of it. His reading had given him an introduction to the weirder side of scientific experimentation, which intrigued him, and he knew that he saw the world very differently to other people - sensing research and learning potential in absolutely everything. Indeed, like Montague had witnessed the Reaper, Mally could see things that no-one else could: most notably, his best friend.
Although his entire presence in this world depended on Mally, Jackdory Knickerbocker Glory - as Max had unintentionally christened him - had a very different personality to his eternal companion. He was an excitable jokester who oozed confidence, and had little interest in studying, often teasing Mally about his bookwormish nature. Instead, Jackdory sought out every possible opportunity to play, have fun, and use up his seemingly endless supply of energy. Mally often struggled to keep up with Jackdory during his high-paced games... but he did his best.
To Mally, Jackdory's dislike of learning was understandable. Although he had to be wherever Mally was, and as such, had to attend school, the outer world didn't acknowledge his existence, and so, there was never any chance he could graduate or get a job. Besides, by some strange osmosis - possibly due to their special bond - Jackdory seemed to automatically acquire any knowledge that Mally did, no work required.
Yes, the two's personalities clashed somewhat - but like all good friends, the pair respected each other's differences, and it had little effect on their relationship.
That morning, as he raced around the rocket ship, taking commands from Captain Mally, Jackdory's eyes fell on the younger Miskin sibling, who was swinging to and fro on the monkey bars.
Unlike her brother, Morgan Miskin was a boisterous child, who loved being active. She was very sociable, and had many friends in her class as school - whilst Mally could only consider Jackdory such a companion.
Whilst Morgan's intelligence was far more average, she had inherited one special trait from her father: creativity, which she channelled into art and music. Whenever she was finally tuckered out from playing, she could sit for hours drawing, or rehearsing the violin or piano - favouring a more classic style of music to her rockstar sire.
As he watched Morgan jump down from the monkey bars, landing perfectly, Jackdory found himself smiling. In an ideal world, Morgan would have been the friend he was bound to, as their personalities complimented each other far more. That said, he was grateful that his existence via Mally had given him the chance to encounter her in the first place, and he knew that the bookwormish boy truly cared for him - which he appreciated, and didn't take for granted.
"Hey!" Mally called, bringing Jackdory out of his thoughts. "We've landed on Tylek 7. Want to go and explore the surface with me?"
"Sure!" Jackdory replied, clambering down from the rear of their spaceship.
As the pair took stealthy, timid strides along the grass, looking around for unwelcome company, Jackdory scurried up behind Mally, tapping him on the shoulder.
"You... you won't let the aliens get me, will you?" he whispered nervously.
"Of course I won't!" Mally replied. "You're my best friend in the world!"
Smiling, the two boys hugged each other tightly.
As they continued to chat away, making plans about how they were going to enter General Zyloburb's secret base, Morgan watched from a distance. All she could hear was her brother talking away to himself, having half of a conversation. At first, she had found it rather disturbing, but as time went on, she'd gotten used to it.
Sensing her presence, Mally turned to her.
"Hey, Morgan," he said, "Me and Jackdory are going to invade the General's base! Want to help us?"
Ah, yes. "Jackdory". That's what Mally called his imaginary friend. Morgan may not have been a genius, but she was no fool. She knew Jackdory wasn't real... but if "he" made her brother happy, then why should she object? After all, he wasn't hurting anyone. So, she humoured him - choosing to play along with his silly game.
Seeing that her brother was awaiting her reply, she nodded.
"Sure," she told him. "You go ahead, and I'll be right behind you."
Mally rushed up to her.
"OK," he continued, "but you'll need to take care of yourself. After all, I don't want my little sister getting hurt."
Morgan giggled as Mally embraced her too.
As Laura watched through the kitchen window, she felt a wave of pride wash over her, and she prayed her children would always get along so well.
Years went by. The siblings grew up, and blossomed into teenagers... but their characters very much remained the same.
As Jackdory lounged back on Mally's bed one Saturday afternoon, he let out a long, frustrated sigh.
"God, I'm bored," he moaned. "Can't we go somewhere? Do something? You've been on that computer all day!"
"I'm doing research," Mally called back, typing away furiously as he sat at his desk. "For an extra credit paper. Mrs. Simmonds said she might let me sit the Advanced Physics exam if I do well."
"Oh, to hell with research," Jackdory whined. "You'll pass it easy - no sweat. You're the smartest guy in school."
"That doesn't mean I don't need to work hard."
"It's Saturday! One day off won't make you flunk some paper!"
When Mally made no response, Jackdory sighed again.
"I still don't know why you don't want to go out with Morgan tonight," he added. "Her friend invited you to the party too, you know. You'll meet new people. It'll be fun."
"It's not really my sort of thing."
"How do you know? You never go to parties."
The bedroom door flew open, and in stepped a tall, slender young woman in a fashionable but casual outfit. Her entrance grabbed Jackdory's full attention. Swinging his legs around, he sat up on the bed, blushing slightly as he turned towards the doorway.
"Hi, Morgan," he whispered meekishly.
There was no response.
Of course, Jackdory thought to himself, frustrated. Idiot.
"Last chance, nerd boy," Morgan muttered to her brother, who didn't even look away from his computer. "Are you coming to Josie's party with me, or not?"
"I've already told you - no."
"You know, it's pretty rude to refuse an invitation for no reason."
"Well, tell her I'm sick, or something."
"I'm not lying for you. Besides, I really don't see why you're so adamant not to come along."
Rolling his eyes, Mally turned in his chair to face her.
"Did it ever occur to you," he said flatly, "that I may not want to spend an evening in the company of the people who call me crazy behind my back? Who mock me and gossip about me in school all day? The great nerd of Willow Creek? I struggle to talk to people as it is. Putting me in a room with them is like throwing me to the wolves."
"Josie's my best mate, and she's never been anything but nice to you."
"Josie's not going to be the problem. The others will. Look, I've made up my mind - I'm not going, and that's that, OK?"
Immediately, he went back to his research. Morgan sighed.
"So," she muttered, "you're just going to sit alone in your room all right instead, then?"
"I'm not alone. Jackdory's here."
Acting out of instinct, Jackdory smiled.
"Oh, right," Morgan hissed. "Him."
The smile was instantly replaced by a frown. Morgan had stopped acknowledging the imaginary friend's existence long ago - no longer willing to "play along" with Mally's "game". This rejection had hurt him greatly, as being around her for so many years, along with their shared interests, had caused him to develop some rather strong feelings towards her. Sadly, there was nothing he could do.
"Fine," Morgan told Mally, throwing up her hands. "Do what you want. But I'm going - right now."
She marched out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her.
As Jackdory threw himself back down onto the bed, Mally continued to type - now doing so all the more furiously. However, a few minutes later, he groaned as he heard a cry from downstairs.
"Mally?" Laura called. "Can you come down, please? Your father and I need to talk to you."
"God!" Mally snapped, rising from his chair. "It's impossible to get a moment alone in this house!"
"I know the feeling," Jackdory replied. "Mind if I come with you?"
"You may as well," Mally said, holding the door open so Jackdory could follow him. "I've nothing to hide from you. Hell - you used to follow me into the bathroom until I insisted you stop."
"We were six. Cut me some slack."
As Mally stepped into the living room, Max was stood at the front door, saying goodbye to Morgan as she kissed him on the cheek. As he saw her off and stepped away, he turned and noticed his son emerging from the kitchen.
"Ah - Mally. There you are. Please, sit down."
Mally did so - whilst Max, with a heavy sigh, settled down beside Laura on the opposite couch. As he struggled to find the words to say, he hung his head, letting his hands rest in his lap.
"God, I dreaded having to have this conversation with you..."
"Look, Dad, if it's about... well, "WooHoo", we learnt all that in Science class -"
"No, no... it's about something else."
He lifted his head to look Mally in the eyes.
"What about him?" Mally asked.
"Honey," Laura replied, intervening, "you're not a little boy anymore. Having an imaginary friend was all very sweet when you were little, but now - well, you're almost a grown man. You'll be at university in a couple of years. Your father and I think that... it would be best for you if you stop pretending that Jackdory exists... that you get used to socialising with real people."
"But Jackdory is real!" Mally protested.
"Son," Max went on, "I know this may not be easy for you. They... they do say that insanity can pass down the line in this family -"
"So now you're saying I'm crazy?!" Mally yelled, shocked. "God, you're worse than the kids at school!"
"W-well," stammered Laura, "we - we need to face facts. You must admit, you've always been a bit on the eccentric side. Look, it's nothing to be ashamed of. Your ancestors Myron and Montague were both insane, in their own ways, and look at all they achieved. Usually, it's harmless enough, but, in your case... well, your belief in Jackdory is affecting your life in a bad way. Unless it stops now, you may never make any real friends... or... or meet a partner -"
"Partner?!" Mally gasped in puzzlement.
"Look," Max told him firmly, "you are the heir to a great legacy -"
"I'm tenth generation," Mally snapped back. "I know the law - the legacy dies with me. I'm under no obligation to have an heir of my own, if that's what you're hinting at. And you know - maybe I don't want to get married and have babies. Maybe I want to focus on becoming a great scientist, instead."
"All right," Max answered. "If that's what will make you happy, we'll support you. Of course we will. All the same, we still think this silly Jackdory game might hold you back: stop you from doing everything you want to do. We... we think it might be time for you to get some treatment..."
"Treatment? What kind of treatment?"
"You know... psychiatric stuff. Counselling - that sort of thing."
He clasped his hands together in a pleading gesture.
"Please, son... we just want to help you. I don't want you to keep acting in a way that might destroy your life someday."
"Big talk," Mally muttered, "from an ex-junkie and alcoholic."
Laura gasped in horror, as Max turned a ghostly shade of pale. Even Mally's face fell as he realised the true bitterness of what he had just said.
As for Jackdory, his own expression was very grave as he watched the whole argument from the sidelines. It was pointless saying anything, since Max and Laura wouldn't hear him... and even if it wasn't, he had no clue what he'd say in the first place.
"Dad," Mally continued, now speaking in softer tones, "I... I'm sorry. That... that was uncalled for."
"Yes," Max replied flatly. "It was."
"But still - you're wrong about Jackdory. I can't just make him go away... because he is real, and one day, I'll prove it. He's not going to stop me from achieving my dreams - even if he wanted to, which he doesn't. You just wait and see."
Slowly, he stood up.
"Now, if you'll excuse me... I've an assignment to finish."
As Mally headed out, Jackdory stayed put on the carpet - sadly turning towards the couple.
"I'm sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Miskin," he whispered - his remorseful words unheard. "It's not like I chose to exist."
Turning, he followed Mally back up the stairs.
"Well," Laura said to Max after a moment, "that could have gone better."
"Do you think that..." Max asked, "that Mally... might have had a point? About me?"
"I'm not with you."
"Look, I didn't appreciate his phrasing any more than you did, but - maybe I am the reason he is why he is. All the booze I drank, all the pills I took. Maybe... maybe they affected the way he turned out. What if... what if all this is my fault?"
Laura shook her head slowly.
"No, darling," she said reassuringly. "Like you yourself said before - this is genetics. Something that came into your bloodline long before you were born. You have been nothing but a wonderful father to Mally - and to Morgan, who's about as sociable and level-headed as can be. That proves that you didn't cause any of this. If we can't force Mally to give up Jackdory now, then perhaps he'll do it later on, of his own accord... once he enters his adult years, for instance. I know we worry about him a lot, but - at the end of the day, he's a clever, gifted boy. This is just one thing he still needs to wise up about."
Max wrapped his arm around Laura's shoulders, pulling her towards him and into a tender embrace.
"I hope you're right."