Emily was nine years old when she met the what-if imp. She was rereading her favorite book when the thing she loved turned sour. Something had its hooks in her mind. It worried her like a dog’s teeth as she sat motionless on her bed. “What if you ran away?” the what-if imp asked. “What if you ran away from home, like the girl in the book?”
It made no sense. Emily didn’t want to run away from home. She had no museum to run to, no little brother to travel with. She had two older brothers, but she knew they wouldn’t want to go with her. Still, the what-if imp said, “You must want to run away.”
Days passed. At school and in her room Emily pondered running away from home, though she couldn’t imagine going farther than a few blocks. It would not be an adventure like in the book. It would be no fun at all. She tried to figure out what to pack. She only had a few dollars. She grew more and more miserable.
Finally she told her mother. “But why do you want to run away from home?” her mother asked.
“I don’t want to!” Emily said. “I just can’t stop thinking about it. It’s like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.”
Her mother smiled and patted her shoulder. “You don’t have to run away. It’s okay.” After that, she teased Emily about how she’d liked a book so much, it made her think she had to run away. Her brothers found out and teased her too. No one understood. Still, telling her mother had broken the spell. Emily thought the what-if imp was gone. Instead it curled up inside her and slept.
It slept a long time. Ten years later it sprang forth fully grown. “You’re reading about a woman who stabbed her lover with a knife,” the imp said. “What if you wanted to stab your boyfriend, or maybe one of your friends?”
Emily looked up from the paperback she was reading on her dorm room bed. “But I don’t want to do that. I know I don’t.”
“But what if, what if, what if?” the imp sang.
“I don’t, I don’t, I don’t!” The more she protested, the more agitated she became. Was there a way to prove she wasn’t a danger to those she loved?
“There is a way,” the imp said. “If you ponder for a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
Emily pondered. Her mind filled with squiggles of misery. She felt sick inside with counterfeit danger and genuine shame. Deep down, she knew none of this was real, but by now she had spent so much time thinking about it, surely it had to mean something? She had to be a horrible person to think such things.
“That’s true,” the imp said with a smirk, as it tied her into cobwebs of nonsense that tightened when she struggled. “You must be a horrible person.”
Finally the imp fell asleep and left Emily in peace. She thought it was gone. Months later it popped up again, stronger than before. Traitorous what-if imp, ugly twin of her imagination! Emily knew she had to do something.
Dr. W. gave Emily pills and told her to think of the imp as a brain burp, which Emily found vaguely comforting and made the imp feel insulted. The pills didn’t help, and the imp returned after flouncing off and sulking for a few days.
Dr. X. thought the imp came from Emily’s repressed anger. The imp preened at its increased importance. Emily didn’t think she had any repressed anger, and the imp never showed up when she felt angry.
Emily read in a book by Dr. Y. that she could get rid of the imp by snapping a rubber band on her wrist whenever it appeared. Her smarting wrist only made the imp more lively. It played jump rope with the rubber band and sang “What if, what if?” in time to its skips.
Then Emily found Dr. Z’s website, which described another tactic. She resolved to try it. One day the imp was doing a wild dance, juggling knives and chanting, “What if you used these, what if, what if?” The knives flashed and glittered in the air.
Emily lunged for one of the knives. It vanished before she could catch it, and the imp, startled, dropped the others, which disappeared before they hit the ground. Emily took a step forward. “More, more!” she said. “More phantom knives, more hypothetical horrors, give me more!”
The imp stood frozen, as if it had stage fright. Then it crept back inside her so quietly she couldn’t detect its presence. “I know you’re in there,” Emily yelled. “Come out and show me what you’ve got!” But the imp hid.
The next time it issued forth with its what ifs, Emily laughed. “Is that all?” she jeered. The imp spun faster with its knives and its terrible visions. It was trying so hard to impress her. It all seemed a little pathetic. The imp began to shrink. Emily loomed over it. Out of breath, the imp retreated inside her once more.
Now that the imp was so small, Emily had more room in her mind to spin words and stories, even the convoluted plot of a novel—although she suspected that the imp, bored with nothing else to do, was helping her to juggle plot threads. Still, Emily knew the imp was lying in wait, hoping to batten and unfurl at the first sign of weakness.
Emily and the what-if imp coexisted more or less peacefully. She knew she would never be rid of it. From time to time she had to dance with it until it grew tired. They whirled together amid the phantom knives. Then the imp curled up inside her and slept, and Emily went on with her life, until the next time.
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