Friends ‘Til the End

In “Friends ’Til the End,” death isn’t the end for Emily Winstead, not even close. She died with a wrong to make right, and she’s been given a second chance to set things straight. The only problem: her memories are hazy, she doesn’t know who to trust or even why she’s back, but she does know something about how she died broke the course of fate and it’s her ghostly mission to mend it.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by FSG editor Janine O’Malley.

“Prick your finger, blood beads red. Forever and always, friends ‘til we’re dead.”

I winced as the pin pierced my left pinkie finger. My instinct was to bring the wound to my mouth and suck away the pain, but I knew my friends were counting on me. I was the last to go and the three of them had been waiting with bloody digits for me to complete the ritual.

Tonight we were to become blood siblings, inseparable friends ‘til the end.

Melanie raised her freshly manicured hand, a single deep crimson line tracing its way down her index finger, and continued. “Let our blood run as one.”

“Très morbid, don’t you think, Mel?” Lilly asked with her usual sarcastic amusement.

“This whole thing is morbid,” Reed said under his breath. I reached out my right hand to squeeze his. We exchanged a private eye roll then focused back on the small silver platter that Melanie had swiped from her mom’s prized collection, a relic of the days before Mr. Hill lost his cushy VP job. It held four friendship bracelets that each of us had helped braid into intricate patterns earlier in the day.

We’d been listening to music, sprawled out in various positions on the dock in front of Lilly’s family cottage, bored out of our skulls, as per the norm that summer after our senior year, when she pulled out her stash of embroidery floss. She insisted we make something to remember each other by since high school was finally over. Everyone was getting nostalgic, but as sad as the idea of being separated was, it was overshadowed by our impending freedom. We’d be liberated from the mindless trudge of small-town life and all the mistakes we’d made in the space between the years.

I glimpsed at Reed. He’d gained two new freckles on the tip of his nose while lying out today. When we were little I used to tease him with daily freckle inspections. Lately, I’d been keeping my count private.

He noticed me staring and pinched my arm with a crooked grin. He was practically vibrating with anticipation for his future. Lilly and Melanie were just as excited. I suddenly felt nauseous. I let go of Reed’s hand and covered my mouth as I swallowed back the sickness burning my throat.

“Are you okay?” he whispered as he tucked a lock of my hair behind my ear.

“It must be the smell of the blood.” I made an exaggerated frown then stepped forward to join Melanie. I could feel his eyes on me as the moonlight cooled my bare upper back. The thin fabric of my tank top clung to the moisture of my summer-soaked body. I was definitely coming down with something, but I couldn’t bring myself to dwell. The idea of Reed sneaking clandestine glances in my direction made my pulse race.

“This isn’t morbid,” I said loud enough for everyone to hear. “It’s how we’ll remember each other.”

“After this,” Melanie added, “come hell or high water, we’ll never be apart.”

I smiled at the wild expression that lightened her dark complexion even though I wasn’t into this Ouija board brand of mischief as much as she was—none of us were, but her excitement was, as always, contagious.

“Let our blood run as one,” I repeated.

Lilly followed suit, her broad hand raised with her red middle finger extended. She giggled to herself about that.

Reed lifted his hand, too, but he didn’t say the words. The blood from his pinprick hugged the knuckle of his third finger the way a ring might.

Melanie nudged him, and he stepped forward so the four of us could link thumbs over the platter. Together we made a single hand formed by individual fingers, deliberately scarred so they could heal as one.

As we touched fingertips, Reed recited the words. “Let our blood run as one.”

We separated, rubbed our mixed blood into our own bracelets, and tied them back onto our wrists. Then as a group we said, “Blood bonds us as friends in an oath made eternal.”

“In other words,” Lilly interjected, “B-F-F. Blood friends forever.” She gathered our hands together and lifted them skyward.

When I looked up, all I could see was the blood on our hands.

 

The pavement beneath my cheek feels cool and slightly moist. The prolonged thaw of spring has penetrated every inch of Crescent Valley, even the trees and the stones. Usually this kind of humid chill doesn’t arrive until May, but the weather, like most things this past year, has arrived without warning.

I try to lift my head, but every muscle in my body protests with a violent, almost audible ache that makes me wish I was back in the dream I just had. Was that a dream? It felt closer to a memory than the haphazard storylines I’m used to dreaming.

I open my mouth to call for help, but my voice is swallowed by the pain and the heat and the light. Where is that light coming from? I manage to crane my neck enough to see two headlights illuminating a path in the winding road.

Oh no, the road. I’m in the road!

I struggle to move out of the way before I’m run over, but something is obstructing my feet. As I stagger toward the gravel shoulder, I look around myself, trying to see what it is. Instead I see what I know is impossible: me. Another me. Lying in the middle of the deserted country road, cheek smashed against the asphalt.

I rub my eyes, blink, comb my fingers through my long, stringy hair—all the things I do in the morning to wake myself up—but the freakish dreamscape surrounding me doesn’t blur.

Instead, the lines of the road sharpen. Beside me I notice the remnants of a freshly roadkilled squirrel. Across the expanse of pavement, I see a lonely mile marker denoted with a white 127 and a limp pine branch waiting for a heavy rain to snap it from its trunk. I hear small animals rustling on all sides. The riotous assault on my senses comes to an abrupt halt when a crackle of lightning strikes somewhere in the distance.

My senses feel strangely heightened, but what I don’t pick up on is the only thing I should sense. How did I get here?

I remember coming home to spend our first collegiate spring break with my friends “like old times”—that was what Melanie had said—but the rest of the day and the night is blank.

My look-alike who’s on the ground is so pale it’s as if she’s been carved out of creamy blue marble. Her long brown hair is draped haphazardly over her face. I kneel beside her and reach out a tentative hand to move the strands, but the air inexplicably thickens the closer I get. When I thrust my hand forward, it’s pushed back, as if an invisible rubber sheet has been stretched taut around her body.

I press my hand to my cheek, brushing off nonexistent bits of gravel, staring at my morbid doppelgänger and wondering where she came from. She can’t be me.

Then why is she wearing an identical pair of blue shorts?

An answer stirs in the recesses of my mind. Before I can take hold of it, a sudden burst of light appears from around the nearest bend in the road, blinding me.

I tick a frantic look between the girl and the approaching headlights, then wave my arms, yelling, “Stop, stop! Please!”

The car slows and switches on its high beams before pulling over. As soon as the driver’s door opens, I begin explaining. “Please, I need your help. I don’t know how I got here, but there’s a girl in the road that—well, I think she’s hurt pretty badly and she looks like . . .” I stop talking when I see the driver’s familiar face. “Melanie!” I run to her, arms spread wide, relief coursing through me. “Mel, I was so scared. I thought I might be—”

I fling my arms around her narrow shoulders and a sudden, arresting shockwave of pain spreads through every inch of my being. My friend walks through me as if I’m made of nothing more than vapor. I thrust myself out of her path, hoping for relief, but my confusion deepens when my hands, my legs, my everything dissolve into glittering translucent dust.

I hysterically grasp at the floating wisps until they settle back into the form of my body. They reassemble like the pieces in a malleable puzzle. I twist my arms back and forth, marveling at what I just witnessed. In the glow of the car’s headlights, my new skin shimmers like the fine film of a dragonfly’s wings.

I have to be dreaming. This is too impossible to be real. Wake up, I yell at myself.

Melanie falls to her knees beside the girl and starts murmuring, “Oh no, no.” She tucks her chin into her shoulder, wiping tears, then stares up at the stars. “Oh, Em, you can’t be gone. You can’t.”

“I’m not gone,” I say desperately. “I’m here.” I reach out to touch her arm, but my hand slides straight through. As I wait for the pain and dust to settle, I realize: she isn’t talking to me. She’s talking to that girl.

Melanie bends her neck to listen for breathing from my unconscious look-alike. As she gingerly moves the girl’s hair, I wonder why she didn’t get blocked by whatever invisible barrier kept me away. Melanie exhales a heavy sigh and sits back on her heels.

“Is she okay?” I ask, suddenly feeling optimistic when I notice there isn’t any blood on the road. I can’t bring myself to look at the girl’s face.

Melanie gets to her feet and runs to the nearest driveway, about five yards past the mile marker. I stay with the girl, feeling eerily connected to her.

I look back at the mile marker: 127. That means we’re one mile south of the turnoff to Lilly’s family cottage. Melanie must have been on her way home from our spring break barbeque. But why would she leave in the middle of the night? Was she looking for me?

Melanie’s voice breaks my train of thought. “I think she was hit by a car,” she’s telling the man who’s following her. He doesn’t see me either. Her voice is shaky and thick with tears. “An attempted hit and run, maybe.”

The idea ignites a deep fiery anger in my stomach. I can feel the heat of it licking down my arms and legs like flames.

“Attempted?” the man asks Melanie. “What gave you that idea?”

Melanie points to the dark side of the road. The man lifts his flashlight, illuminating a black car sitting at an angle, half in the woods, half out, with its front end smashed like an accordion into a tree.

The man nods, and then covers his mouth when he sees the girl in the road. Through his fingers he says, “Did you see it happen?” Melanie shakes her head. The man assures her, “The police are on their way with an ambulance. Why don’t you wait inside?”

Melanie refuses to abandon the girl. After the man leaves to check on the driver of the black car, I move to stand in front of Melanie, careful not to get too close. That girl lies between us. “Mel,” I start slowly, “what is going on? Why can’t anybody hear or see me? Why was I out here alone at night?”

Melanie reaches under the girl’s torso and lays her limp arm flat across her waist. Melanie’s fingers graze the purple and yellow friendship bracelet on the girl’s pale wrist. I clutch the bracelet tied around my own wrist; the same faint brown-red smear is engrained in the fibers. Melanie yanks on her similar red and orange bracelet, trying to rip it off, but the knot is too tight. She bites her lip, refusing to cry.

When the paramedics arrive, they divide their efforts between that other me in the road and the driver of the crashed car. I feel bad about not checking on the driver, but I can’t pull my eyes away from the girl’s body. It’s depressing how little time it takes the paramedics to check her pulse at the wrist, then at the neck, and ultimately give up. They don’t even bother attempting to resuscitate her. They lift up her hair and examine a cut on the side of her head that I didn’t realize was there.

I move my own hair, searching for a matching cut, but all I feel is smooth scalp. For a whisper of a moment, that comforts me, gives me hope that I’m not her ghost or some otherworldly thing. Until I notice the speckle of yellow paint on the toe of the dead girl’s sandal. I have the exact stain on the shoe I’m wearing, from when I helped my little brother paint his bedroom. We even have the same chips out of our coral nail polish. And the same bracelet.

I finally meet her vacant gray eyes. She is me and I am her. There’s no use denying that anymore.

One of the paramedics tells the other that the girl is “unresponsive” and something inside my head clicks into place.

No breath. No pulse. No blood.

I’m dead.

“The four of us went for a drive along the river around one a.m.,” Melanie is explaining to a female police officer, “but we didn’t see this wreck on our way back.” She’s sitting on the bumper of a squad car with her elbows propped on her knobby knees. Tears have dried in chalky lines down her brown cheeks.

“Is that how the Jeep there got so dirty?” The officer points out the fresh layer of mud caked on Melanie’s white Jeep.

“We drove through the trails too . . . for old times’ sake,” Melanie responds mechanically.

It dislodges a piece of my memory, but I’m not sure how it fits into the big picture of what happened here on the road.

“We were spending the night at our friend’s cottage,” Melanie continues, “but I couldn’t sleep so I got up to see if Emily was awake and I couldn’t find her. That’s when I decided to go out looking.”

“Any reason you can think of why she’d walk off on her own at night?”

Melanie’s chocolate eyes flicker with an unidentifiable emotion. “She was kind of picking fights with everyone toward the end of the night. Especially with our other friend Reed.”

“I was?” I voice my confusion.

“Was he one of the friends you two drove the trails with?” the officer asks. Melanie nods. “What were the fights about?”

Melanie clears her throat. “Mostly just that we’d all grown apart since we left for college, I guess, but Reed and Emily have a history. He wanted to be more than friends—she didn’t. It’s a routine for them—or was.” A new round of silent tears wets her face.

Reed. My heart aches for him. He’s lost his first love, and so have I, in more ways than I ever knew possible. I care deeply for him, but when we’re together he has a tendency to hold me so close that the rest of the world begins to pass us by. After high school I was thirsty to experience everything the world had to offer, and that meant loosening Reed’s hold on me.

But now I feel abandoned on a deserted island with no one to rescue me. Maybe that’s why I’m still here, to make things right with Reed. But how can I accomplish that if nobody can see me?

“She goes on long walks to clear her head when she’s upset.” Melanie swallows, blotting at tears with the sleeve of her loose-knit ivory sweater. “She used to, anyway.”

Another officer walks up. “Excuse me, Officer Egan. Is there a number for the girl’s parents that we can call to notify them?” He looks at Melanie when he asks.

“I know the number by heart,” Melanie mutters. Officer Egan offers her a small notebook and pen from her breast pocket. Melanie’s hand shakes as she writes down my home phone number.

The female officer tears off the sheet and passes it to her colleague then continues questioning. “You said you used Mr. Kelly’s house phone to call 9-1-1 a short time after you found your friend in the road. Why not use your cell phone to call right away?”

“I misplaced my phone,” Melanie answers, like it’s a reflex.

“You left it in your beach bag,” I tell her, surprising myself that I remember such an inconsequential detail about the day when nothing she’s saying triggers any other sort of memory. “Why can’t I remember how I died?” Nobody answers me. None of them can hear me.

As I turn to look at the wrecked black car near the edge of the woods, an unexpected surge of regret sears deep into my newly departed bones. I should be enraged by the sight of it, but something has me feeling inexplicably responsible. Something I can’t recall.

Officer Egan squints at Melanie, then adjusts her belt. “We’re done here for now.”

“Can I ask you a question?” Melanie says quietly. The officer gestures for her to continue. “Do you know—I mean, can you tell how that car ended up in the woods?”

“It’s likely he swerved to avoid hitting your friend but was too late and crashed into the tree.”

Melanie nods in a continuous bobbling motion. She looks almost relieved.

The officer clears her throat. “I think it would be best if you let Officer Duncan drive you home.”

Melanie gets to her feet as two more police cars pull up. “Can he drive me back to my friend’s cottage instead? So I can tell them what happened in person.”

Egan nods. “We’ll contact you if we have further questions.”

I close my eyes, thinking of Lilly lost in her usual deep sleep on the futon in the loft and of Reed lying outside in the hammock. Waiting for me.

When I open my eyes, I’m standing on a mosaic stepping stone that Lilly made in third grade. It has turquoise square tiles around the edge and a crude LS scratched into the corner. A path of store-bought stones stretches out in front of me, ending at the base of a hundred-year-old maple tree. A white hammock sways gently in the night air.

I vaguely wonder how I instantaneously arrived in this spot, but there are far more pressing matters before me.

“Reed?” I can’t resist trying to get him to hear me. If Melanie is right and he and I fought earlier, I don’t want that to be the last memory he has of me. I can’t remember why we fought, but I can easily connect the dots from the vague explanation Melanie gave the police. This is my last chance to explain. I step closer and say louder, “Reed.”

“Go away.”

It isn’t Reed’s voice that I hear. Lilly swings her long legs over the side of the hammock and stands. Her pink and yellow bracelet hangs loose around her wrist as she crosses arms. 

“Lilly?” I say, astonished. “You can hear me?”

“Can you hear me?” she counters with unexpected sharpness in her voice. “I told you you weren’t welcome here anymore.”

I shake my head. The words she’s saying to me don’t make sense. My name is carved into the dock next to hers and Melanie’s and Reed’s. I have my own drawer in the loft dresser. For the past three summers, I’ve had my own key to this place. I’ve always been welcome here.

“What are you talking about?” I ask her.

 “Reed doesn’t want you here either,” she says in an obnoxious, catty girl-fight tone. It reminds me of high school, of senior year . . .

I close the space between us and reach out to touch her to determine whether her seeing me is real or a very specifically torturous sector of Hell. She swats my hand away the instant I make contact with her shoulder. I smile at the simple joy of being able to feel her warm, breathing skin.

She grimaces at my reaction and shoves me. A laugh bubbles out of my mouth. I’m so relieved that I can’t help it. 

“I told Melanie not to go after you.” Lilly tilts her head, giving me a skeptical once-over. “What’d she do? Tell you that I’m sorry?”

“No,” I answer vacantly as the acrid smell of burnt rubber stings my nostrils.

“Well, good. Because I’m not.” She tugs on the delicate strap of her cotton dress.

She always fidgets with her outfit when she’s worked up, but what has her so worked up now? She obviously doesn’t know I died. But she can see me . . . Why?

She moves to stand between me and the cottage. Between me and Reed. She turns her back on me and murmurs, “I thought you’d left for good this time.”

An overwhelming sense of anger blazes inside me again, more intense than before. It burns so fiercely that I look down and see my skin cracking and flaking into pearlescent ash.

“No—what’s happening to me?” I pat my arms to extinguish the flames, but there’s nothing left of them except a smoldering halo of smoke. My feet and legs are quick to follow.

I open my mouth to plead with Lilly to help, but the only thing that comes out is a puff of cinders as my memory of last night consumes me.

 

“It was an accident,” Melanie said as she skirted a squirrel carcass on the side of the country road, coiling a lock of her thick black hair around her finger. “He swerved in front of us. We all saw that.”

“I didn’t see him swerve,” Reed said, clutching the keys to Melanie’s Jeep.

Lilly added quietly, “Neither did I.” Her arms were wrapped tight around her stomach. Her heart-shaped face was flushed and ashen at once.

“What are they teaching you two up at State?” Melanie asked. “Reverse Recounting 101?”

“None of us saw him coming,” I yelled. “That’s how this happened.” I pointed to the wrecked black car at the edge of the woods, then looked at Melanie and Lilly. “If you guys hadn’t been standing up in the back of the Jeep, Reed wouldn’t have lost control.”

“Or maybe if you two weren’t giving each other googly eyes he would’ve been looking at the road instead of at you.”

Lilly’s eyebrows knitted together in half-drunken confusion. “Reed doesn’t see the three of us like that.” Her eyes flared when she looked at him. “Right, Reed?”

“Yeah, right,” Melanie scoffed. “Like they haven’t been stupid for each other since seventh grade.”

I glared at her. We both knew Lilly secretly wished Reed would wake up and smell her crush on him, and Melanie was the only person I’d told about what happened between me and him last year before we left for college. She knew my one night with him and the miscarriage that followed wasn’t something I wanted to broadcast. It was bad enough that she’d told Reed.

He and I’d been three states apart for the entire school year so far except the two holiday breaks. I’d hung out with other guys and he’d most definitely hung out with other girls, according to Lilly’s updates from State. It wasn’t like we could just pick up where we left off after everything we’d been through. No matter how comfortable it felt.

Lilly asked Reed, “Is that why you punched Hiram Burk over Thanksgiving break? Because you were jealous that Emily went out with him last semester?”

“He punched Hiram because the creep lied and told everyone who came home for break that I was the easy lay on campus,” I retorted. The whole reason I’d gone to college out of state was to avoid seeing hometown guys like Hiram, but the first month away was lonely and I’d had one moment of weakness in the presence of his chapped lips. 

Things were finally semi-cool between me and Reed. Bringing up Hiram would set us back another four months. Why did Lilly always have to ask so many questions? Why did that black car have to be driving on this road on this night? Why didn’t we see it in time?

“Reed never does anything like that for me,” Lilly pouted.

“You’re lucky he doesn’t feel the need to.” 

“Stop!” Reed pushed between me and Lilly with raised arms. Lilly staggered backwards on wobbly legs. “This one’s on me, okay? I’m the sober one. I was driving. I’ll tell the police it was an accident, like Mel said.”

Melanie shook her head. “It’s my car. They won’t believe you were driving. If I get a DUI or worse . . . I’ll lose my scholarship.”

Lilly turned to Reed, panicked. “And I’ll be suspended from the softball team. You might never play lacrosse again. State has a strict zero-tolerance policy for their athletes.” She was close to tears.

Reed slammed the Jeep door shut and raked his hands through his red hair.

“Freaking out isn’t going to make things better.” Melanie paced the road. “Let’s use our brains here. We’ll make an anonymous 9-1-1 call and—”

“No way,” Lilly interrupted. “Anonymous calls are, like, the number one reason detectives suspect foul play. They know something’s up if you don’t leave your name. I’ve seen it a hundred times on CSI.”

“Okay,” Melanie started, “then we walk away. Simple as that.”

“Are you crazy?” I asked. “What about the driver?”

“Reed already checked his vitals. He’s dead, Em. There’s nothing we can do for him. We have to think about our lives and how effed up they’ll become if we turn ourselves in.”

“You’re acting deplorable, you know that, Mel?”

“No,” Melanie said smoothly, “I’m acting practical and saving all of our butts in the process—including yours.”

Reed spoke up. “What about the Jeep? There could be evidence on the front grille.”

“We’ll go through the trails on the way back for an excuse to give it a good wash,” Melanie suggested without missing a beat.

“That could work,” Reed said pensively.

My eyes widened. I couldn’t believe he was actually considering relinquishing his responsibility. He wasn’t the person I thought I loved last summer. “We can’t just go back to the cottage and pretend nothing happened. You guys, we killed someone.”

“No, we didn’t,” Melanie said very slowly as she stepped inside my comfort zone. “We spent the night at the cottage after we went through the trails for old times’ sake. Just the four of us. All night. That’s our story. Got it?” Melanie made eye contact with Lilly then Reed until they agreed.

When she got to me, I shook my head. I walked toward Lilly. “Come on, Lill. You’re on my side, right?”

Lilly bowed her head, silent.

Reed appeared beside me and hugged my shoulders. “Come on, Emily. Mel’s right. This is the best way to handle this.”

“Lying is never the best way,” I retorted.

He dropped his arms and gave me the same disgusted look that he did back in September when I told him I thought we worked better as friends. He muttered, “You’ve certainly changed since last summer.”

I narrowed my eyes at him and said, “Seems we all have.” I strode away from the group. “I won’t go along with this plan.”

“Oh, you will,” Melanie called after me. “One way or another.”

 

As the memory fades, a lingering sense of horror and betrayal stabs me. The pain is so visceral that I’m not sure whether my physical transition back into the present is causing it or the knowledge that my friends turned on me so swiftly.

Terrible thoughts fill my head. Did my friends leave me in the road to take sole blame for the accident? Did a third car hit me? Did something else strike me down—an animal? A friend?

As distinctively disturbing as each of those possibilities is, they all produce the same result: me facedown in the road.

“Melanie told me.”

Through a smoky film covering my eyes, I make out Lilly’s athletic shape, her fair hair stark against the inky blanket of the lake. She’s standing at the end of her family’s dock. The rope railing that scallops the edge swings when a breeze blows in off the water. I inhale, expecting to smell the stirring moisture of an approaching storm, but my sense of smell has gone the way of my pulse. 

Lilly turns and takes a hesitant step toward me. Her voice wavers. “I know.”

I don’t answer right away. I’m not sure if she means she knows that I’m dead or that I broke the unspoken promise of our foursome by falling for Reed. Maybe she knows both distressing pieces of truth. Maybe she’s the reason I was dumped in that road.

“Say something,” she hisses.

“Melanie talked to the cops. They’re on their way right now.”

Lilly throws up her hands. “Well, you’ve screwed up everything just perfectly. How’d you get Mel on board? Guilt? Pity?”

My hand instinctively moves to the left side of my head where the cut was on the girl in the road. Images from my memory flash behind my eyes. Lilly’s eyes flaring when Melanie said Reed and I were stupid for each other. Her jealous streak shining through like a bright green beacon. A hard fist coming down on my head. “You hit me. After we got back from the trails . . . you hit me.”

“I pushed you. Don’t be dramatic.”

I meet her eyes. “I’m not being dramatic, Lilly, but I think you killed me.”

“I killed you?” she replies sardonically. “Right. You’re here, dummy. That’s impossible.”

I pull my hand away from my head to reveal fresh red blood. It glistens against my ethereal skin. The cut wasn’t there when I checked the first time back on the road. My head starts to throb too as if the aches of my death are returning one by one the closer I get to the truth.

We stare at the blood for a stunned moment, then Lilly’s eyes jump to mine. “I didn’t do that to you, Em. I promise.” She takes hold of my clean hand, pleading. I’ve known her since she was six years old, and I know when she’s telling the truth.

“Then who did?” I ask her.

Sirens echo through the dense pines that surround the lake. Within seconds, Reed appears on the back patio. He has on fresh clothes and his hair is wet and dripping down his face. He moves toward us like he’s drunk, like he’s lost with no idea how to find his way.

“Lilly,” he says with a thick tongue. He’s definitely drunk. “When did you wake up? I’ve been looking for you. Where’re Mel and Emily?”

Lilly mouths to me. “Why can’t he see you?”

I shrug apologetically. “I’m dead.”

She drops my cold hand and instinctively moves away. Her eyes well up and flick over to Reed. He puts his hand on her wrist; their bracelets touch.

He asks, “What’s going on?”

“I-I don’t know. I came out here last night when you and Mel and Em were arguing over what to do, and then I saw Em storm off . . .”

I hear gravel crunch in the driveway. Reed steps closer, tucking Lilly’s hair behind her ear the way he used to do with me.

Lilly’s voice shakes. “Where did you guys go?”

She’s looking at me, but Reed answers. “I’ve been here with you all night. We fell asleep in the hammock together like that time junior year, remember?”

“Is that why you can see me,” I ask her, “because you know I didn’t leave alone?”

Lilly’s expression tightens as she eases away from Reed.

He mirrors her movement. “Not surprised. We got pretty wasted when we returned last night.”

“What did you guys finally decide?” Lilly asks, still inching away from Reed.

“We didn’t. That’s why I got up so early. Hope I didn’t wake you, but we need to get in front of this.”

Raindrops pluck at the lake. Lilly’s eyes dart to Reed’s hands as they ball fists inside his pockets. She knows him as well as I do, and she can tell when he’s lying too. Beads of sweat dampen her forehead. I feel as if her nerves are sparking through me like a live wire.

She turns her head to ask me, “Is that why you’re still here?”

Before Reed has the opportunity to lie again, I nod. Thunder rumbles in from the south. The storm has arrived.

Reed runs one finger over Lilly’s bracelet. “I’ll always be here. Friends ’til the end, right?”

“Yeah, Reed,” I say even though he can’t hear me, “and this is your end.”

 

“Friends ‘Til the End” copyright © 2014 by Bethany Neal

Art copyright © 2014 by Ashley Mackenzie

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