Scarlett Thomas has been my best friend for as long as I can remember. That's why I knew when she called me at Sisterhood Camp, during the worst week of my life, that something was wrong even before she said it. Just by her voice on the other end of the line. I knew.
"It's Michael," she said quietly. Her words crackled over distance. "Michael Sherwood."
"What about him?" The camp director, a woman named Ruth with short hair and Birkenstocks, shifted impatiently beside me. At Sisterhood Camp we were supposed to be Isolated from the Pressures of Society in order to Improve Ourselves as Women. We weren't supposed to get phone calls. Especially not at midnight on a Tuesday, rousing you out of your creaky camp bed and through the woods to a room too bright and a phone that weighed heavily in your hand.
Scarlett sighed. Something was up. "What about him?" I repeated. The camp director rolled her eyes this time, thinking, I was sure, that this was no emergency.
"He's dead." Scarlett's voice was flat, even, as if she were reciting multiplication tables. I could hear clinking and splashing in the background.
"Dead?" I said. The camp director looked up, suddenly concerned, and I turned away. "How?"
"A motorcycle accident. This afternoon. He got hit by a car on Shortcrest." More splashing, and suddenly I realized she was washing dishes. Scarlett, always capable, would do housework during a nuclear holocaust.
"He's dead," I repeated, and the room seemed very small suddenly, cramped, and as the camp director put her arm around me I shook her off, stepping away. I pictured Scarlett at the sink in cutoffs and a T-shirt, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, phone cocked between her ear and shoulder. "Oh, my God."
"I know," Scarlett said, and there was a great gurgling noise as water whooshed down her sink. She wasn't crying. "I know."
We sat there on the line for what seemed like the longest time, the buzzing in the background the only sound. I wanted to crawl through the phone right then, popping out on the other side in her kitchen, beside her. Michael Sherwood, a boy we'd grown up with, a boy one of us had loved. Gone.
"Halley?" she said softly, suddenly.
"Can you come home?"
I looked out the window at the dark and the lake beyond, the moon shimmering off of it. It was the end of August, the end of summer. School started in one week; we'd be juniors this year.
"Halley?" she said again, and I knew it was hard for her to even ask. She'd never been the one who needed me.
"Hold on," I said to her in that bright room, the night it all began. "I'm on my way."
Michael Alex Sherwood died at 3:55 P.M. on August thirteenth. He was turning left onto Morrisville Avenue from Shortcrest Drive when a businessman in a BMW hit him dead on, knocking him off the motorcycle he'd only had since June and sending him flying twenty feet. The paper said he died on impact, the bike a total loss. It wasn't his fault. Michael Sherwood was sixteen years old.
He was also the only boy Scarlett had ever truly loved. We'd known him since we were kids, almost as long as we'd known each other. Lakeview, our neighborhood, sprawled across several streets and cul-de-sacs, bracketed only by wooden posts and hand-carved signs, lined in yellow paint: Welcome to LakeviewA Neighborhood of Friends. One year some high-school students had gone around and crossed out the rs in Friends, leaving us A Neighborhood of Fiends, something my father found absolutely hysterical. It tickled him so much, my mother often wondered aloud if he'd done it himself.
The other distinguishing characteristic of Lakeview was the new airport three miles away, which meant a constant stream of airplanes taking off and landing. My father loved this, too; he spent most evenings out on the back porch, looking up excitedly at the sky as the distant rumblings got louder and louder, closer and closer, until the white nose of a plane would burst out overhead, lights blinking, seeming powerful and loud enough to sweep us all along with ut. It drove our neighbor Mr. Kramer to high blood pressure, but my father reveled in it. To me, it was something normal. I hardly stirred, even when I slept, as the glass in my windows shook with the house.
The first time I saw Scarlett was the day she and her mother, Marion, moved in. I was eleven. I was sitting by my window, watching the movers, when I saw a girl just my age, with red hair and blue tennis shoes. She was sitting on the front steps of her new house, watching them cart furniture in, her elbows propped on her knees, chin in her hands, wearing heart- shaped sunglasses with white plastic frames. And she completely ignored me as I came up her front walk, stood in the thrown shade of the awning, and waited for her to say something. I'd never been good at friendships; I was too quiet, too mousy, and tended to choose bossy, mean girls who pushed me around and sent me home crying to my mother. Lakeview, A Neighborhood of Friends, was full of little fiendettes on pink bicycles with Barbie carrying cases in their white, flower-appliqued baskets. I'd never had a best friend.
So I walked up to this new girl, her sunglasses sending my own reflection back at me: white T-shirt, blue shorts, scuffed Keds with pink socks. And I waited for her to laugh at me or send me away or maybe just ignore me like all the bigger girls did.
"Scarlett?" a woman's voice came from inside the screen door, sounding tired and flustered. "What did I do with my checkbook?"
The girl on the steps turned her head. "On the kitchen counter," she called out in a clear voice. "In the box with the realtor's stuff."
"The box with" The voice came back, uneven, as if its owner was moving around. "the realtor's stuff, hmmm, honey I don't think it's here. Oh, wait. Yes. Here it is!" The woman sounded triumphant, as if she'd discovered the Northwest Passage, which we'd just learned about at the end of the school year.
The girl turned back and looked at me, kind of shaking her head. I remember thinking for the first time how she seemed old for her age, older than me. And I got that familiar fiendette pink bicycle feeling.
"Hey," she said to me suddenly, just as I was planning to turn back and head home. "My name's Scarlett."
"I'm Halley," I said, trying to sound as bold as she had. I'd never had a friend with an unusual name; all the girls in my classes were Lisas and Tammys, Carolines and Kimberlys. "I live over there." I pointed across the street, right to my bedroom window.
She nodded, then picked up her purse and scooted down a bit on the step, brushing it off with her hand and leaving just enough space for someone else about the same size. And then she looked at me and smiled, and I crossed that short expanse of summer grass and sat beside her, facing my house. We didn't talk right away, but that was okay; we had a whole lifetime of talking ahead of us. I just sat there with her, staring across the street at my house, my garage, my father pushing the mower past the rosebushes. All the things I'd spent my life learning by heart. But now, I had Scarlett. And from that day on, nothing ever looked the same.
The minute I hung up with Scarlett, I called my mother. She was a therapist, an expert on adolescent behavior. But even with her two books, dozens of seminars, and appearances on local talk shows advising parents on how to handle The Difficult Years, my mother hadn't quite found the solution for dealing with me.
It was 1:15 A.M. when I called.
"Hello?" Strangely, my mother sounded wide awake. It was all part of that professional manner she cultivated: I'm capable. I'm strong. I'm awake.
"Halley? What's wrong?" There was some mumbling in the background, my father rousing himself.
"It's Michael Sherwood, Mom."
"Who's dead?" More mumbling, this time louder. My father saying Who's dead? Who?
"Michael Sherwood," I said. "My friend."
"Oh, goodness." She sighed, and I heard her telling my father to go back to sleep, her hand cupping the receiver. "Honey, I know, it's horrible. It's awfully latewhere are you calling from?"
"The camp office," I said. "I need you to come get me."
"Get you?" She sounded surprised. "You've still got another week, Halley."
"I know, but I want to come home."
"Honey, you're tired, it's late" and now she was lapsing into her therapist voice, a change I could recognize after all these years "why don't you call me back tomorrow, when you've had a chance to calm down. You don't want to leave camp early."
"Mom, he's dead," I said again. Each time I said the word Ruth, the camp director who was still standing behind me, put on her soothing face.
"I know, sweetie. It's awful. But coming home isn't going to change that. It will just disrupt your summer, and there's no point"
"I want to come home," I said, talking over her. "I need to come home. Scarlett called to tell me. She needs me." My throat was swelling up now, hurting with its ache. She didn't understand. She never understood.
"Scarlett has her mother, Halley. She'll be fine. Honey, it's so late. Are you with someone? Is your counselor there?"
I took a deep breath, and all I could see in my mind was Michael, a boy I hardly knew, whose death now seemed to mean everything. I thought of Scarlett in her bright kitchen, waiting for me. This was crucial.
"Please." I whispered over the line, hiding my face from Ruth, not wanting this strange woman to feel any sorrier for me. "Please come get me."
"Halley." She sounded tired now, almost irritated. "Go to sleep and I'll call you tomorrow. We can discuss it then."
"Say you'll come," I said, not wanting her to hang up. "Just say you'll come. He was our friend, Mom."
She was quiet then, and I could picture her sitting in bed next to the sleeping form of my father, probably in her blue nightgown, the light from Scarlett's kitchen visible from the window over her shoulder. "Oh, Halley," she said as if I always caused these kinds of problems, as if my friends died every day. "All right. I'll come."
"I just said I would," she told me, and I knew this would strain us even further, a battle hard-won. "Let me talk to your counselor."
"Okay." I looked over at Ruth, who was close to dozing off. "Mom?"
Silence. I would pay for this one for a while, I could tell. "It's all right. Let me talk to her."
So I handed the phone over to Ruth, then stood outside the door listening as she reassured my mother that it was fine, I'd be packed and ready, and what a shame, how awful, so young. Then I went back to my cabin, creeping onto my cot in the dark, and closed my eyes.
I couldn't sleep for a long time. I thought only of Michael Sherwood's face, the one Scarlett and I had studied in yearbook after yearbook. And later, the one in the picture that was tucked in the mirror in her bedroom, of Scarlett and Michael at the lake just weeks earlier, water glittering behind them. The way her head rested on his shoulder, his hand on her knee. The way he looked at her, and not at the camera, when I pushed the red button, the flash lighting them up in front of me.
My mother didn't look very happy when she pulled up at the front office the next afternoon. It was clear by this point that my experience at Sisterhood Camp had been a complete and utter disaster. Which was just what I'd predicted when I was dragged off against my will to spend the last two weeks of summer in the middle of the mountains with a bunch of other girls who had no say in the matter either. Sisterhood Camp, which was really called Camp Believe (my father coined the nickname) was something my mother had heard about at one of her seminars. She had come home with a brochure she tucked under my breakfast plate one morning, a yellow sticky note on it saying What do you think? My first reaction was Not much, thank you, as I stared down at the picture of two girls about my age running through a field together hand in hand. The basic gist was this: a camp with the usual swimming and horseback riding and lanyard making, but in the afternoons seminars and self-help groups on "Like Mother, Like Me" and "Peer Pressure: Where Do I Fit In?" There was a whole paragraph on self-esteem and values maintenance and other words I recognized only from the blurbs on the back of my mother's own books. All I knew was that at fifteen, with my driver's license less than three months away, I was too old for camp or values maintenance, not to mention lanyards.
"It will be such a valuable experience," she said to me that evening over dinner. "Much more so than sitting around the pool at Scarlett's getting a tan and talking about boys."
"Mom, it's summer," I said. "And anyway it's almost over. School starts in two weeks."
"You'll be back just in time for school," she said, flipping through the brochure again.
"I have a job," I told her, my last-ditch attempt at an excuse. Scarlett and I were both cashiers at Milton's Market, the grocery store at the mall down the street from our neighborhood. "I can't just take two weeks off."
"Mr. Averby says it's slow enough that he can get your shifts covered," she said simply.
"You called Mr. Averby?" I put down my fork. My father, who up until this point had been eating quietly and staying out of it, shot her a look. Even he knew how uncool it was for your mother to call your boss. "God, Mom."
"I just wanted to know if it was possible," she said, more to my father than to me, but he just shook his head mildly and kept eating. "I knew she'd think of every reason not to go."
"Why should I go waste the last two weeks of summer with a bunch of people I don't know?" I said. "Scarlett and I have plans, Mom. We're working extra shifts to make money for the beach, and we"
"Halley." She was getting irritated now. "Scarlett will be here when you get back. And I don't ask very much of you, right? This is something I really want you to do. For me, and also, I think you'll find, for yourself. It's only for two weeks."
"I don't want to go," I said, looking at my father for some kind of support, but he just smiled at me apologetically and said nothing, helping himself to more bread. He never got involved anymore; his job was to placate, to smooth, once it was all over. My father was always the one who crept to my doorway after I'd been grounded, sneaking me one of his special Brain Freeze Chocolate Milkshakes, which he believed could solve any problem. After the yelling and slamming of doors, after my mother and I stalked to our separate corners, I could always count on hearing the whirring of the blender in the kitchen, and then him appearing at my doorway presenting me with the thickest, coldest milkshake as a peace offering. But all of the milkshakes in the world weren't going to get me out of this.
So, just like that, I lost the rest of my summer. By that Sunday I was packed and riding three hours into the mountains with my mother, who spent the entire ride reminiscing about her own golden camp years and promising me I'd thank her when it was over. She dropped me at the registration desk, kissed me on the forehead and told me she loved me, then drove off waving into the sunset. I stood there with my duffel bag and glowered after her, surrounded by a bunch of other girls who clearly didn't want to spend two weeks "bonding" either.
I was on what they called "scholarship" at Sisterhood Camp, which meant I had my way paid free, just like the four other girls I met whose parents just happened to be therapists. I made friends with my cabinmates, and we complained to each other, mocked all the seminar leaders, and worked on our tans, talking about boys.
But now I was leaving early, drawn home by the loss of a boy I'd hardly known. I put my stuff in the trunk of the car and climbed in beside my mother, who said hello and then not much else for the first fifteen minutes of the drive. As far as I was concerned, we'd come to a draw: I hadn't wanted to come, and she didn't want me to leave. We were even. But I knew my mother wouldn't see it that way. Lately, we didn't seem to see anything the same.
"So how was it?" she asked me once we got on the highway. She'd set the cruise control, adjusted the air- conditioning, and now seemed ready to make peace. "Or what you saw of it, that is."
"It was okay," I said. "The seminars were kind of boring."
"Hmmm," she said, and I figured that I was pushing it. I knew my mother, though. She'd push back. "Well, maybe if you'd stayed the whole time you might have gotten more out of it."
"Maybe," I said. In the side mirror, I could see the mountains retreating behind us, bit by bit.
I knew there were a lot of things she probably wanted to say to me. Maybe she wanted to ask me why I cared about Michael Sherwood, since she'd hardly heard me mention him. Or why I'd hated the idea of camp right from the start, without even giving it a chance. Or maybe it was more, like why in just the last few months even the sight of her coming toward me was enough to get my guard up. Why we'd gone from best friends to something neither of us could rightly define. But she didn't say anything.
She turned to look at me, and I could almost hear her take a breath, readying herself for whatever I might try next. "Yes?"
"Thanks for letting me come home."
She turned back to the road. "It's all right, Halley," she said to me softly as I leaned back in my seat. "It's all right."
My mother and I had always been close. She knew everything about me, from the boys I liked to the girls I envied; after school I always sat in the kitchen eating my snack and doing homework while I listened for her car to pull up. I always had something to tell her. After my first school dance she sat with me eating ice cream out of the carton while I detailed every single thing that had happened from first song to last. One Saturdays, when my dad pulled morning shift at the radio station, we had Girls' Lunch Out so we could keep up with each other. She loved fancy pasta places, and I only liked fast food and pizza, so we alternated. She made me eat snails, and I watched her gulp down (enjoying it more than she would ever admit) countless Big Macs. We had one rule: we always ordered two desserts and shared. Afterwards we'd hit the mall looking for sales, competing to see who could find the best bargain. She usually won.
She wrote articles in journals and magazines about our successful relationship and how we'd weathered my first year of high school together, and spoke at schools and parents' meetings about Staying in Touch with Your Teen. Whenever her friends came over for coffee and complained about their kids running wild or doing drugs, she'd just shake her head when they asked how she and I did so well.
"I don't know," she'd say. "Halley and I are just so close. We talk about everything."
But suddenly, at the beginning of that summer, something changed. I can't say when it started exactly. But it happened after the Grand Canyon.
Each summer, my parents and I took a vacation. It was our big splurge of the year, and we always went someplace cool like Mexico or Europe. This year, we took a cross-country road trip to California and then the Grand Canyon, stopping here and there, sucking up scenery and visiting relatives. My mother and I had a great time; my father did most of the driving, and the two of us hung out, talking and listening to the radio, sharing clothes, making up songs and jokes as state lines and landmarks passed by. My father and I forced her to eat fast food almost every day as a payback for a year's worth of arugula salad and prosciutto tortellini. We spent two weeks together, bickering sometimes but mostly just having fun, me and my parents, on the road.
As soon as I got home, though, three very big things happened. First, I started my job at Milton's. Scarlett and I had spent the end of the school year going around filling out applications, and it was the only place with enough positions to hire us both. By the time I got home from the trip, Scarlett had already been there two weeks, so she taught me the ropes. Second, she introduced me to Ginny Tabor, whom she'd met at the pool while I'd been gone. Ginny was a cheerleader with a wild streak a mile wide and a reputation among the football team for more than her cheers and famous midair splits. She lived a few miles away in the Arbors, a fancy development of Tudor houses with a country club, pool, and golf course. Ginny Tabor's father was a dentist, and her mother weighed about eighty pounds, chain- smoked Benson and Hedges 100's, and had skin that was as leathery as the ottoman in our living room. She threw money at Ginny and left us alone to prowl the streets of the Arbors on our way to the pool, or sneak out across the golf course at night to meet boys.
Which, in turn, led to the third big event that summer, when two weeks after coming home I broke off my dull, one-year romance with Noah Vaughn.
Noah was my first "boyfriend," which meant that we called each other on the phone and kissed sometimes. He was tall and skinny, with thick black hair and a bit of acne. His parents were best friends with mine, and we'd spent Friday night together, at our house or theirs, for most of my lifetime. He'd been all right for a start. But when I was inducted into the new crazy world of Ginny Tabor, he had to go.
He didn't take it well. He sulked around, glowered at me, and still came over every Friday with his little sister and his parents, sitting stony-faced on the couch as I slipped out the door, yelling good-bye. I always said I was going to Scarlett's, but instead we were usually meeting boys at the pool or hanging out with Ginny. My mother was more sad about our breakup than anyone; I think she'd half expected I'd marry him. But this was the New Me, someone I was evolving into with every hot and humid long summer day. I learned to smoke cigarettes, drank my first beer, and double-pierced my ears as I began to drift, almost imperceptibly at first, from my mother.
There's a picture on our mantel that always reminds me of what my mother and I were then. We're at the Grand Canyon, at one of those overlook sites, with it spread out huge and gaping behind us. We have on matching T-shirts, sunglasses, and big smiles as we pose, our arms around each other. We have never, in any picture before or since, looked more alike. We have the same small nose, the same stance, the same goofy smile. We look happy, standing there in the sunshine, the sky spread out blue and forever in the distance. My mother framed that picture when we got home, sticking it front and center on the mantel where you couldn't help but se it. It was like she knew, somehow, that it would be a relic just months later, proof of another time and place neither of us could imagine had existed: my mother and I, best friends, posing at the Grand Canyon.
Scarlett was sitting on her front steps when we pulled up. It was early evening, just getting dark, and all up and down our street, lights were on in the houses, people out walking their dogs or children. Someone a few streets over was barbecuing, the smell mingling in the air with cut grass and recent rain.
I got out of the car and put my bag on the front walk, looking across the street at Scarlett's house, the only light coming from her kitchen and spilling out into the empty carport. She lifted one hand and waved at me from the stoop.
"Mom, I'm going to Scarlett's," I said.
"Fine." I still wasn't totally forgiven for this, not yet. But it was late, she was tired, and these days, we had to pick our battles.
I knew the way across the street and up Scarlett's walk by heart; I could have done it with every sense lost. The dip in the street halfway across, the two prickly bushes on either end of her walk that left tiny scratches on your skin when you brushed against them. It was eighteen steps from the beginning of the walk to the front stoop; we'd measured it when we were in sixth grade and obsessed with facts and details. We'd spent months calculating distances and counting steps, trying to organize the world into manageable bits and pieces.
Now I just walked toward her in the half-darkness, aware only of the sound of my own footfalls and the air conditioner humming softly under the side window.
"Hey," I said, and she scooted over to make room for me. "How's it going?"
It seemed like the stupidest thing to ask once I'd said it, but there really weren't any right words. I looked over at her as she sat beside me, barefoot, her hair pulled away from her face in a loose ponytail. She'd been crying.
I wasn't used to seeing her this way. Scarlett had always been the stronger of us, the livelier, the braver. The girl who punched our Missy Lassiter, the meanest, most fiendish of the pink-bike girls that first summer when she moved in, on a day when they surrounded us and tried to make us cry. The girl who kept a house, and her mother, up and running since she was five, now playing mother to a thirty-five-year-old child. The girl who had kept the world from swallowing me whole, or so I'd always believed.
"Scarlett?" I said, there in the dark, and as she turned to me, I saw her face was streaked with tears. For a minute, I didn't know what to do. I thought again of that picture tucked in her mirror, of her and Michael just weeks ago, the water so bright and shiny behind them. And I thought of what she had done all the millions of times I'd cried to her, collapsing at even the slightest wounding of my heart or pride.
So I reached over and pulled her to me, wrapping my arms around her, and held my best friend close, returning so many favors all at once. We sat there for a long time, Scarlett and me, with her house looming over us and mine right across the street, staring back with its bright windows. It was the end of summer; it was the end of a lot of things. I sat there with her, feeling her shoulders shake under my hands. I had no idea what to do or what came next. All I knew was that she needed me and I was here. And for now, that was about the best we could do.