Your best friend died in grade 9.
They tucked her under crisp white sheets, clear tubes and wires protruding from her flesh, attaching her body to shining machine as doctors read the graphs and print-outs tracking the disease that riddled her fourteen-year-old body’s network and bloodstreams. Nurses watched her solemnly as they attended her needs and avoid attempts at friendly conversation. Teachers sent her homework in sealed envelopes to help her pass the time, and she chewed off the end of half a dozen pencils in six months. Her classmates brought cards and chocolate, and three girls visited every day until her fine downy-soft blonde hair began to father against the white of the bed sheets and collected on the cold floor. She stopped smiling when the last strands of hair were swept away with the used tissues and candy wrappers by a janitor during the night; her mother taught her to wear shawls the shades of the sea at dawn.
When the doctors released her from the hospital the first time, she started to take walks by the ocean in the salty spray. Her small form would sway and, as her shawl caught the breeze, she felt one with the wind. She would sit on the wharf in the early morning, dreaming of the possibilities of tomorrow while she watched the sunrise.
One day, she stopped writing to you.
You collected her letters in chronological order and placed them with her photos in an envelope. The possessions she’d left you were placed neatly in a shoe box. You put them on the top shelf of the closet, at the very back where you’d forget. Then you cried yourself to sleep.
You didn’t attend the funeral.
“What do you wanna be when older?” Paige asked you. Her legs were hooked over fire-red monkey-bars, supporting her weight as she hung upside down. You sat cross-legged in the sand below her, one hand shielding your eyes from the glare of the sun. Her face was inches above yours as she examined you.
“A writer,” you reply confidently.
“Use a pen name.”
“I like my name.”
“All the best writers do,” she added in a matter-of-fact tone.
“You could be Paige Turner,” you suggested half-heartedly. Your attention fell to the pink lunch-bag she’d left in your care as she snorted. Grabbing hold of the bar above her, she let her legs slip down and landed gracefully next to you. She knelt to retrieve a couple homemade cookies from the bag in your lap and offered you one.
“It’s caramel and oatmeal,” she said with a full mouth.
You grimaced but tried it anyway to appease her. It stuck to the root of your mouth and almost made you gag. You decided you didn’t like caramel afterwards.
“Pluto is the ninth planet form the sun.” Paige’s fingers tapped away quickly at a keyboard, her eyes locked on the bright glare of the computer screen. “It’s 2.7 billion miles away from Earth.”
“How far is that?” you asked, fidgeting in a chair behind her.
“Lots of zeros,” she replied distractedly.
You tried counting on your fingers, but ran out of digits. “Lend me your hands,” you request.
“Use your toes.”
You contemplated this for a moment while she consulted a website. “The planet’s temperature varies between -210 and -235 degrees Celsius.”
“How cold is that?” you ask, giving up on counting zeroes.
“It’s made of a type of ice because it’s too far away to feel any warmth from the sun.”
“I feel sorry for the people who live there!”
Paige gave you an odd look over her shoulder briefly then turned back to the screen. “It’s about 1,413 miles in diamter… that’s one-fifth of the Earth-“
“What if you fall off?” you interrupt.
“What?” Paige spun in her chair to face you, incredulous.
“You made it’s made of ice. What if you slide right off into space?”
She stared at you, completely baffled for the notion. She ignored your questions for the rest of the day.
The heavy-set girl by Paige’s side always glared at you. In class, at lunch, in the hallway, outside in the yard; but she never spoke. You didn’t know where she was from or how Paige knew her, but you two had to compete for Paige’s attention on a daily basis. The only common ground you seemed to share was your affection for Paige, and disdain for each other.
“Try not to hate, please?” Paige had requested the first day you met the glaring brunette. You smiled back meekly, but her expression never changed. “Her name’s Jerilyn,” Paige offered, “and I promise she’s not as scary as she looks.”
“Sure she isn’t,” you mumbled to yourself.
When Paige was out sick, Jerilyn insulted you and you kicked her with all the strength your stick-thin legs could muster. You got into a fight that sparked another month-long feud before finally making up.
On the playground, Paige taught you to play ‘War’.
1) Draw a large ‘landmass’ in the sand and divide it into equal portions for the number of participants.
2) Every player picks a country name: Brazil, Canada, China, France, Japan, USA – sometimes Africa and Australia as none of you knew the difference between a country and continent.
3) The countries then throw stones at each other to ‘claim land from their enemies’. By hitting another player with a pebble, you have ‘conquered their territory’ and change the border lines to reflect your new country borders.
You first learned about war by being willingly pelted with stones on a daily basis; Jerilyn always threw rocks the hardest.
When you were twelve, Jerilyn helped you watch over the grade 4 class’ lunch block. You read ‘Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes’ to the students to keep them entertained, and they listened in rapt attention to the story of a girl who had dreamed big while succumbing to her illness. You would tell them of life and death and about the friend you knew lying alone in a hospital bed, fighting for her life.
When the girls started to bring you scrap paper, you sat with them at a short table with yellow plastic chairs and taught their small fingers how to make intricate and accurate folds until the delicate curve of a neck and wings spanned into rainbow birds. They strung the paper cranes up in the entrance foyer and long corridors, bearing the names of loved ones on the wings’ tips. In the coming years, you learned that you had sparked a campaign among the student body to rise up and fight against poverty in Africa – all simply because you had made origami birds while eating your lunch.
You wrote Paige’s name on every wing.
Into your adulthood, you often sit on the bank of the river on weekends with Jerilyn at your side. You come to contemplate or get something off your mind – a personal therapy. Jerilyn turns flat stones in her hand, examining their smooth surface before skipping them across the water, widening ripples in her reflection.
“You think spirits watch over us?” you ask her one time, counting seven skips on the water.
“Will says that’s stupid,” she declares. You pause to watch her jump out onto a rock, leaning over to find more stones in the shallow current. When she was thrown out of her home, you let Jerilyn move into your apartment. She’d lost her job because of her last boyfriend, Will, and she was doing very little to look for a new one so she hardly had any money and always borrowed from your closet without asking.
She looks up to meet your gaze when you remain silent. “Who are you worried about?” she asks, casting one last stone.
You slip down from the ridge to reach her side. “I don’t remember anymore.”
In the early spring, Jerilyn rearranges the furniture and clears out all the closet shelves without asking. At least she was helping with the dishes, vacuuming the rugs, watering the plants, and trying to learn how to cook – even though she could still only follow directions off cans and boxes. So you forgive her any way.
Besides, she still throws rocks harder than you.
“Do you believe in spirits?” Paige asked as she stared beyond the hospital’s wide windows, lost in the distantly roaring ocean to the east. You frowned, following her gaze.
“Why do you ask?”
“I don’t want to believe that everything just goes dark.”
“What about Heaven?” Your question makes her grow silent, brow knit together in careful consideration. She looks downed, turning an orgiami bird over in her hands.
“But then I’ll miss you.”
R.I.P. my old friend.