My best friend that year was Mindy Cosgrove. Ten years later, her car would get into a collision with a drunk driver and she’d be dead, and someone would tell me and I’d have to ask to be reminded who she was, but that year, when we were 14, she was my best friend. She’d been in our school for two years, but we weren’t friends, until we were in study hall together and she leaned over one day and said, “I like that you spin your pencil when you’re thinking.”
It was a habit I never really thought about, how I twirled the pencil between each finger like some fancy baton routine the cheerleaders did, how occasionally I’d flip it into the air and catch it in the other hand to do it on a different side—because sometimes my mind got crisscrossed and I needed to work some other part of it until my thoughts untangled—and the only thing people had ever said about it before was stop it. But Mindy said she liked it, and she smiled.
Her smile was the kind that showed too much gum, but I liked it more because of that, because it didn’t keep her from smiling. I had a chipped tooth for a while, before my parents could afford to get it fixed at the dentist, and I didn’t smile for two years because I knew, I just knew, that people’s eyes would see that chipped tooth and put two and two together that my mom wasn’t working and that my dad was pulling doubles but it still wasn’t enough and then, maybe, the person would feel bad for me, would wonder if I’d even go to college. My mind was always grabbing my heart like a hand and pulling me down foolish alleys. But when Mindy smiled, my mind slowed down.
After that day, we passed notes in study hall or made those fortune tellers out of notebook paper. Mindy always filled the insides with the strangest things: one day the stars will fall out of the sky, the lake is going to swallow this whole town, if you eat pine needles you’ll understand what you need. I told her that it was supposed to be like yes, no, maybe, on the inside. She laughed and said those weren’t fortunes, those were just facts, and she didn’t like facts because it was so hard for her to get around them. Though, sometimes, she said, she could just trick them enough.
We ate our lunch together every day and, after school, we’d latchkey-kid it up and swap between each other’s houses—she liked coming to mine because we ate Cocoa Puffs in the yard and we’d give each other makeovers in my bedroom. My older sister got bored of her makeup quick, so she’d pass it on to me: I had every color lipstick and eye shadow on the planet. We’d sit facing each other on the bed, knees touching, and Mindy would remake my face into something other than what it was. Her fingers were light, she’d use them on me like she was a toddler painting. After she was done, I always looked beautiful, and it was strange because before I wasn’t even pretty—so it was more than just one step for a girl, it was a giant leap for girlkind. She never let me put makeup on her—she didn’t like it—but she let me brush her hair. She’d lean back into me as I stroked the brush through.
When we went to Mindy’s house, we always took long walks in the trees behind it instead of going inside. She’d tell me the names of each tree. Not like the scientific names, but the names she’d given them. I asked her why she named them and she answered me, as if it was the silliest question in the world, “don’t you like to say the names of your friends?” Her favorite was a pine that had been struck by lightning—an arc of scarring went down its side. She’d put her hand against the mark and just hold it there, eyes closed, as if she was trying to heal it.
It was in the forest, on the last day we were best friends, that she kissed me. Something had bitten me, a spider maybe, and I hadn’t known I was allergic. I remembered feeling weird, seeing spots flickering across my vision until it went black. And then I opened my eyes, on my back on the forest floor to Mindy kissing my lips, like the Prince waking Snow White. And I gasped in a gulp of air, and it felt so cold in my lungs, as if it had been years since I’d breathed last. Mindy smiled at me, flashing the pink of her gums, and said, “now you’ll live.”
At home that night I couldn’t sleep. I thought of how Mindy had looked at me, so happy and so sad like her mind was doing the crisscross, for once instead of mine, and couldn’t decide on an emotion. The next day she wasn’t in school, and I found out her family had moved. That the day before had been her last one in town. She never told me, didn’t tell anybody from what I heard later. Only our teacher and the school knew. Her dad had gotten a job somewhere south. They’d been planning the move for a long time.
I never saw her again. Never heard from her. I walked in the forest alone and couldn’t find the lightning tree anymore. None of them seemed scarred. They were all just trees I couldn’t name.
When an old friend called me up about Mindy’s death, all those years later, I paused, said, “remind me who she was again?” I waited for my friend to be wrong, to have gotten the name confused. I tasted pine needles on my tongue. The taste was so strong it stung.