We climb the old maple tree and sit, legs swinging, as our parents push cautious hands together and file inside, their faces flushed with the guilt of secretly saying things they know we already know. She climbs a branch higher than me and perches there, like a white-faced bird about to fly away. I sit low. Closer to the ground. Solid and heavy and breathless with fear.
It’s August. I can feel the spiders of sweat down my back, her blue bangs stick like warm plastic to her forehead. She wipes her hand across her eyes. Eyeshadow smears, a gory effect on her pale skin.
The universe is not for us this summer. I am back in the thick black clothes I said I threw away, safety pins in my ears, a hood over my head, hiding behind the dark and the strange. She’s started drawing on her hands for the first time since her grandma died, swoops of ink curving off her nails, striping her fingers, dangling loose-ended over her wrists. Looking at us, an uninformed stranger would shake his head. Mutter rude remarks. Might even go so far as to call us ungrateful teenagers, emo for no reason. No one could tell that the skinny girl with fake tattoos is dying from the inside out.
She talks too fast, telling me what has happened since we were last together. We don’t see each other much anymore. I have always known that happens, that the people you are friends with as a kid will move and marry and make families so big there is no room for you left in their hearts. I never thought of dying, but I’m sure that is included.
Looking at her and the smeary eyeshadow war paint, the staticy strands of hair, the way you can see her heartbeat in her neck, I feel a sudden ache, like a gap in my chest is filling too fast with water. I can’t lose her.
I don’t have a choice.
Last year, when she told me everything, I climbed to the top of the maple and tried to make myself fall. Tried to pretend that my death was unavoidable, that I had to live every moment knowing it was soon to come. It was no use. I am a coward. My hands knotted around the tree. My feet were stubborn. Climbing down, I knew for a certainty that I am selfish; selfish for my inability to jump, selfish for my health, selfish because every inch of me is glad that I am not her.
“What if we fall?” I ask her. My voice is a sudden rasp in the quiet. It almost frightens me.
She looks from her inky hands to the ground to my white knuckles around the branches. I can’t meet her stare. Instead, I squint, counting rocks on the earth below. In the corner of my eye, I see her smile, reach to her head. Her blue wig drops past my sneakered toe and lands sprawled and crooked on the ground. She laughs like she’s crying, bitter and hard.
Winter comes. One night I go to sleep with an angry wind outside my window, the next morning the old maple is twisted and cracked and fallen.
She comes over to wish it well before it gets hauled away. We go and stand over what was the highest spot. I don’t know about her, but I am picturing the tree upright again, us still in the top, two stars caught in the branches.
She’s traded in her blue wig for one of those baby-blanket-pink cancer caps she swore she’d never wear. Her hands are gray, like she washed them but never redrew the lines. I wonder when was the last time she traced over the spikes and spirals, the elaborate curves that meant nothing and everything.
It has been two entire months since I’ve seen her. The thought of that makes me feel hollow. What did she do in those two months? What far away members of her family came and stroked her hair and said Sorry? How many times did she have to go to the hospital? Did she ever think of me and our big old tree, the way we thought of her?
I would ask her, but her lips part, and she speaks before I can.
“So,” she says.
“So?” I repeat. Please God, don’t let that be all we can say today.
She shakes her head. Her cheekbones are as sharp as the tree’s broken branches.
“I need to ask you.” She says it as a complete sentence. Her lips draw in against her teeth like she’s chewing lemons.
She pulls her coat closer around her. Her eyes are a faraway gray. I reach out, close my hand around hers.
“Who will be your friend?” She blurts. “After I …”
Looking at her eyes, I see a miniature glassy me. I am pulling away. I am crying. I am shaking my head. I don’t feel anything, but I am saying “no no no.”
“You will,” she says. “You will.”
I shake my head again, pressing my folded arms against my body. Her eyes gloss over and she looks away.
“You better,” she says. “Someone needs to take care of you.”
She hugs me, and again, all I can think of is how much she reminds me of a bird. Her skinny arms wrap around me, and I could swear her bones are hollow.
“My poor friend,” she laugh-cries into my shoulder. “Everything will be okay.”
And now we’re hugging and laughing, and neither of us will say it: Everything will be okay.
But only for me.
Then it’s just us talking again, and then her mom is pulling up, and then it’s too cold for you out here sweetie, and then she’s gone.
I see her one more time. It’s March now, and winter is already fading into a thought. Mud squishes against my boots as I walk into the funeral parlor, and I feel a flush spread over my face, thinking of the footprints I must be leaving.
She looks pretty. I’d forgotten that, the prettiness of her face. They put a blond wig on her, curly and long the way her hair used to be, and her eyebrows are drawn in dark the way she liked them. It doesn’t look like the her she has been, but I can forgive them that.
It’s something else.
Her hands. They are bone white, blank, every inch of them wiped clean from every place where she drew and redrew her soul. I feel a wave of vomit lurch up my throat, and I clap my hands over my mouth.
I need to leave. I need home. I need the old maple to cradle me. But my parents are crying with her’s, and so I don’t know how to get home, and the tree is gone anyway. Same as her. Both to be carted away and burned and gone, leaving me alone. Nothing left.
I wish I could have drawn those lines back on her, for her parents. I would have, if they had asked me to. I saw them so many times, they were a part of me too. I think it’s impossible to love something that fiercely without it becoming part of you, growing off you, smaller than your original self, but there. Splitting apart, simultaneously new and old. Like branches.
I dig in my purse. Pull out a pen. Uncap it.
Then I press the tip to my skin and close my eyes.
Everything will be okay.