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Fiction

Drowned Best Friend

The clatter of rain against the window draws Lesley close.

“Hey,” she hisses from across the kitchen. She calls me by my old name and I don’t even flinch. It’s morning, and I’m trying to get breakfast done before Mom comes down, because a perfectly fried egg makes her more likely to say yes to what I’m about to ask. The light was coming through the windows over the sink all yellow and golden, but the storm blew in fast, and now there’s electricity prickling in the air and everything smells damp. I left the window open, hoping she’d show, despite the water pushing through the screen into Mom’s flowerboxes above the sink.

“Hey, Les,” I say, flipping eggs in the pan. “I missed you.”

It’s been a while since I’ve seen her, because we’ve had a dry couple of weeks and I haven’t been to the lake in thirty-five days. She’s dressed in the same clothes as when she died—pink swim shorts and a blue rash guard. She was always taller than me when we were little, but death’s stopped her from growing. She’s got her arms crossed over her scrawny chest, and she’s shivering. Rivulets of lake water run out of her curly dark hair, down her body, and onto the floor.

“I missed you, too. How’s school? Cohen still giving you a hard time?”

“It’s not all bad; he’s just been weird,” I say. Mom says that it’s because he likes me and doesn’t know how to show it, and he resents me for making him feel uncomfortable with my good looks and charm. But she has to say corny stuff like that—she’s my mom.

Things have gotten awkward between Cohen and me since I came out. He can be outright mean to the other boys, but I don’t mind his bluster because I know he won’t do anything worse than trash talk me. I won’t get pushed into a dumpster or punched in the parking lot after class or anything, because Cohen doesn’t see me as a boy, and Cohen doesn’t hurt girls. At least he talks to me at all, unlike most of the kids in our year.

There is this cloud of silence that comes with death, I think—no one wants to talk to the bereaved for fear of saying the wrong thing. People say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and not much else. Four years later, that cloud still hangs around me, and it’s partly my own fault. I talk about Lesley too much, and as if she were still here—except for me, she is.

There is a similarly silent fog hanging around transition—the effect of people not knowing what to say. Two weeks ago the dean sent an email out to the student body saying that I’m a boy, and that I’m called Joseph now. Not much else about me has changed, aside from my name and pronouns, but people act confused and scared around me. They say “Congratulations, I guess,” or, “How nice,” and not much else.

“When are you coming back to the lake?” Lesley asks.

“Next weekend, I hope. I have to ask my mom. We can go kayaking?”

“I’d love that,” Lesley says, then cocks her head, hearing my mom on the stairs a moment before I do. A droplet of water falls from her earlobe to the floor.

“Smells like a feast in here, Joseph!” Mom calls.

“Gotta go; bye!” Leslie whispers. She leaves a puddle on the floor by the fridge, water settling into the cracks between the kitchen tiles, and disappears just as Mom comes downstairs. Mom passes right through where Lesley was standing, then makes a face as she notices the water seeping through her gray socks.

“What’s with that water on the floor?” She peels her socks off and lays them over the arm of a kitchen chair, then gets a plate down from the cabinet.

“I must have spilled,” I say. “I’ll get it in a second.”

“You’ll get it now,” Mom says. Never mind that the water is brackish, gray-green, and smells like the lake. Sometimes I’m sure Mom knows about Lesley and chooses to ignore her.

I drop a handful of paper towels into the puddle, then bend over to wipe it up. Mom drags a butter knife through the half-set yolk of an egg and watches it run over her toast.

I ask the question I am always afraid to ask, because the worst thing she can say is no: “Can you take me to the lake next weekend?”

It’s Sunday. We used to go to the lake every Sunday, if the weather allowed it—an hour’s drive in my mom’s car or Lesley’s dad’s minivan. The two of us would splash around or paddle out in our big yellow kayaks while our parents drank beers and watched, ready with towels to rub us dry once we were exhausted from the water.

Mom doesn’t let me go out as far onto the water now as she used to. Mom doesn’t like to take me to the lake at all, anymore—not since what happened to Lesley.

Not since what I let happen to Lesley.

“We’ll see,” she says, mouth full of food. I start assembling my own plate: two fried eggs, avocado slices, wheat toast. All of Mom’s favorites, because a good meal makes her softer, and on some subconscious level I’ve been trying to compensate for the ways that I have changed. Trying to make sure she still loves me as her son the way she loved me as her daughter. Trying to make sure she doesn’t see my transition as a kind of death.

“Please?”

“Joseph,” she says. She always calls me Joseph, and I like it that way, because I think nicknames sound too girly. And because Joseph is close enough to my birth name that she hardly ever messes up when she says it, not anymore. She’s only had a few months of practice, and only in private at first.

“It’s supposed to be a clear day. I can go out on the kayak while you read on the shore? It’ll be nice.” I almost say that it’ll be like old times, because it will be for me, with Lesley to keep me company. But we do not talk about Lesley.

“Maybe. I said we’ll see. Remind me later in the week, okay?”

“Okay.” I plunk down into my place at the table opposite her.

“Why don’t you focus on the mission for a bit, in the meantime?”

The mission. After Lesley died, I didn’t want any other friends, didn’t want to deal with the social pressure of being the weird kid with the drowned best friend. People treat you differently, when you’ve been that close to death, when you’ve seen someone die at twelve years old and everyone knows it. Mom thought it would help to make my social life out to be a secret operation, like something out of the spy movies we watch on Saturday nights.

“The mission is a critical failure,” I tell her.

“What about Cohen? He always seemed nice.” She doesn’t wink, but her tone implies it.

“I’ll try,” I say.

• • • •

After Pre-Calc on Monday I ask Cohen if he wants to maybe hang out sometime. He moves his mouth like he’s chewing, or maybe just turning over the words he’d like to say. He leans close to me, breathing close to my face. He’s a few inches taller than me, and when I look up at him all I see are the way his eyelashes jut out over his round eyes.

“Are you still pretending to be a boy?” he asks.

“I’m not pretending any more than you are,” I say.

“I’m not pretending at all,” he says. “I’m not some trans faggot.” He presses his index finger into the center of my chest. “Unlike you.”

I almost laugh. I’m never this clever. “Aren’t boys fags, Cohen? Does that mean you think I’m a boy?” And god, I am so excited to tell Lesley about this the next time I see her. Cohen has nothing on me.

“Whatever. I bet girls can be fags, too,” he sputters, and I can almost see the gears turning in his head as he thinks. He makes no move to walk away. He’s not done with me.

“Okay, so you don’t swing that way,” I say.

There is a look in his eyes like his brain is glitching. I think about him sitting next to me in Spanish class a few weeks ago—before I came out to the whole school—negging me while helping me with irregular conjugations. I think about him now, defending his heterosexuality against some imagined menace.

Well, I guess Mom was right.

I take a step back, so that his finger is no longer jabbing into my sternum. “I’m sorry I asked. No hard feelings.” He still looks like he’s thinking, his mouth still working silently, when I walk away.

I eat lunch in Mr. Moskowitz’s classroom, while he guzzles coffee and grades papers. He puts up with me because his best friend died when he was a kid, too. It was bone cancer, and he doesn’t talk about it with anyone, but he’s mentioned it to me a couple times. I told him a few weeks ago that I still talk to Lesley. “That’s sweet,” he said, but the next day I was called to the school counselor’s office to talk about coping with grief.

By the end of the day, Cohen’s written GIRL FAG on my locker in bold black Sharpie. I use the hand sanitizer from my backpack and a handful of paper towels from the bathroom to wipe it off.

• • • •

Mist settles over the city on Tuesday night, and I abandon my homework and go sit on the back porch with a glass of lemonade to see if Lesley shows. It’s damp enough outside to frizz my hair and make my face feel clammy. I can hear her, but I can’t quite see her.

“Les?”

She says something I can’t make out.

“Les? I miss you. I’m sorry.”

“It’s been over a month,” she says. Her voice sounds loud and far away. The air beside me feels warm and saturated with moisture. There’s a greenish puddle forming on the porch slats. The ice in my lemonade is melting.

“I know,” I tell her. “But soon I’ll be able to drive. I’ll get a job and I’ll buy a car and I’ll come up to the lake on my own. I’ll be able to see you all the time. Maybe even every day. Things will be like they were.”

“That’ll take years,” she whines.

“Hey! I’m already in driver’s ed. That’s better than nothing.”

“You don’t know how it feels,” she says, volume bordering on a tantrum. “How it feels to be stuck at the bottom of the lake all the time. To only be able to go where there’s water. No one can see me!”

“I’m so sorry, Les. I know it’s hard.” I’m pretty sure I know why I’m the only person who can see her: it’s because I killed her. Kind-of.

This must be so much worse for her than it is for me, so much worse than I could ever even know. The knowledge hits me in the center of my chest like an echo of Cohen’s finger, and the guilt hits even harder.

“I’m really trying to get to the lake this weekend. I want to come spend time with you.” I sip my lemonade. “Can I tell you something good, though?”

“What could possibly be good about any of this?”

“I totally owned Cohen yesterday. You should’ve seen me. You’d have been so proud.”

“Tell me all about it,” Lesley says. The puddle beside me only grows. I give her the short version of the story: his finger digging into my chest, his jaw moving silently, the words written on my locker.

“Why did he even start with you?” she asks when I’m done, and it’s suddenly clear to me how much of the story has gone over her head. She’s still so young.

“Oh, because I kind of asked him out.”

“And he turned you down?” When I nod, she whines, “But you’re so pretty. No one should say no to you. You should have any boyfriend you want.”

She still thinks of love like a twelve-year-old, like it’s something that you deserve in exchange for good looks and a half-decent personality. She still thinks I’m pretty, despite my efforts to look closer to handsome. I can’t tell how I feel about any of this, not anymore.

“And he was your friend,” she says.

Another thing she still sees in black and white. “You can be someone’s friend and still hurt their feelings.”

She shrugs. “A good friend wouldn’t.”

She asks if I told Mr. Moskowitz about the slurs. “I’m the one who started it,” I say. I’ve already forgiven Cohen—so what? He felt threatened, he lashed out. “It’s not like he’ll do it again.”

• • • •

Mr. Moskowitz is out sick on Wednesday. His substitute locks the classroom door during lunch hour, so I take my sandwich out to the courtyard behind the school’s main building and scope out a place to sit. One of the boys skateboarding on the back steps takes a mean fall. I imagine bruises unfurling under his skin. I know he’s one of Cohen’s friends, but I can’t remember his name.

There’s an open picnic table on the edge of the courtyard, near a poorly maintained flowerbed. I make towards it at the same time as Cohen’s friend does. He sits down, unbuckling his helmet.

“Is it alright if I sit?” I ask. He makes an assenting sound, so I settle in and start eating. I look around the courtyard: The leaking sprinkler in the flowerbed spraying a thin stream of water over the scraggly blooms. Tables of students finishing last-minute homework or making each other laugh or doing a bit of both. The boys skating on the steps, who all look the same under their black helmets plastered with vinyl stickers.

For once I’m not thinking about Lesley, so it’s strangely jarring when I think I catch a glimpse of her familiar swimsuit, dripping. There she is, standing in the flowerbed with weeds around her ankles, lake water seeping off of her and into the dirt. It must be the leaky sprinkler head, but I’d never have thought that was enough water to call her. Over the years we’d deduced that it took a natural source of water, too, but I guess we were wrong about that.

“Hey,” she says. She calls me by the wrong name and that’s how it feels: wrong, like an itch or a splinter. I keep chewing. I dart my eyes towards the boy sitting across from me—he’s got headphones in, his buzzed head bobbing to whatever he’s listening to. I wonder if he’d notice if I said something to Lesley, if it’s worth the risk.

“Hey.”

“Hmm?” The skater boy perks up.

I wave my hand. “I just said ‘hey,’” I say. “I never caught your name.”

He points to his chest, his voice coming out a bit too loud to compensate for the sound pumping into his ears. “I’m Tommy,” he says.

“I’m Joseph.”

“I know,” Tommy says, and yeah, I guess he would. Coming out to the entire school with an email blast would do that.

“Nice to meet you,” I say, and go back to my sandwich. Lesley inches closer, standing on the brick edge of the flowerbed. I don’t know how to signal to her that I can’t do this right now, and I sure as hell can’t say it outright—Tommy would notice, or she’d have a tantrum and go off in a huff. There is no way to spare both my already marginal social standing and her fragile feelings.

I remind myself that this is so much harder for her than it could ever be for me. I turn my head slightly towards her, raising my sandwich to block the movement of my mouth. “Les, I’ll see you later,” I mumble.

She leans towards me. “What?”

It’s then that Tommy says something I don’t catch, but I can tell by his jubilant tone that he’s not talking to me. I turn back to the other end of the table. Cohen’s sliding onto the bench seat opposite me, his board tucked under his arm. He’s accompanied by two other guys, who sit on my side of the picnic table.

“Hey, Cohen.” I nod at him.

He does that thing with his mouth again. I think about just packing up my lunch and walking away. Lesley is still canted towards me, watching with big eyes. She whines my old name and I try to hold down a flinch.

Cohen brings his hand down on the sun-bleached wooden table, his palm wide open. “Joseph,” he says, exaggerated. “Oh, Joseph, what are we going to do with you?” He looks around at his friends. “I could tell you a thing or two about Joseph.”

I should have just gotten up and left, but I’m in it now, and the best thing I can do is play it cool. I lean towards him with my elbows on the table. “Like what?”

“Well, first of all, he and his drowned best friend were a couple of girl fags,” he says.

And there goes all effort at remaining unbothered. “Don’t talk about Lesley like that.”

Cohen makes a face—I’ve reacted exactly as he wanted me to. Tommy’s eyes go big like he’s surprised. He toys with the headphones looped around his neck for a moment before he begins to laugh. The laughter spreads like something catching, like there’s a joke buried somewhere in the exchange.

“That’s why he’s so obsessed with her,” Cohen continues. “You know why they called her Les? Because she was a little lesbian.” He draws the word out like it’s the filthiest slur.

“Whatever,” I say, but my shoulders are up by my ears. I scoot out of the bench seat. “You know what, Cohen? Fuck you.”

Tommy laughs at that, too, because that’s why Cohen is doing it—to make his boys laugh. I don’t see any honesty in the words he’s saying, and that makes it all sting even worse: he’s not doing this for the sake of cruelty; he’s hurting me to make his stupid friends like him. It’s not about me at all.

I’m all the way up the steps when I realize I left half my sandwich behind on the picnic table. I look back and see Lesley, outline faint, still standing on the edge of the flower bed. She looks like she’s crying.

• • • •

I’m in the shower on Wednesday night when I think I see her right as I close my eyes to rinse the lather off my face. The way I parse the situation, there are two options: peek and risk an eyeful of suds, or keep my eyes closed and risk missing her altogether. And yeah, I’m naked and I’m shy as all hell about my body, but Lesley is Lesley, and I miss her, and I probably owe her an apology for earlier.

I blink my eyes open. The medicated acne wash stings. I blink again and again. Lesley is here, arms down at her sides, cold lake water running off her swim shorts. I’m nearly a foot taller than her, and she’s rail-thin and long-limbed, and I remember when I used to look like that. Lately my body feels like something I can’t control, growing in ways I’ve never wanted, and there’s not much I can do about it. I cover my chest with my hands.

“I’m lonely,” she says. “I never want to be this lonely again.”

I splash water onto my face. We are both soaked through and dripping. “I’ll be there soon, Les. Promise.”

“Please?” she says.

“Pinky swear.” I hold my hand out towards her, and she scowls. I know she can’t touch me, not really, but offering seemed like the right thing to do. I return my hand to my chest, smashing the extra flesh down.

“You were so mean earlier,” she says.

“I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t want to talk to me. You ignored me.”

“I’m sorry,” I repeat.

“Why were you so— Why were you like that?”

“Because everyone was around.” I don’t know why I sound so desperate. I wish I wasn’t naked. A smaller part of me wishes she wasn’t here, not right now. “And you heard how Cohen talks about you! It’s hard enough to be the kid who keeps talking about his dead best friend. Imagine how bad it would be if they knew I was talking to you.”

She blinks like what I’ve said makes absolutely no sense. Her lower lip wobbles like something in a cartoon. “You don’t want me,” she wails.

“Les, that’s not what I said—”

She flickers, then disappears. I turn the water off, but it’s hard to stop looking for her in the droplets clinging to the tile walls.

• • • •

On Thursday morning I set my alarm for a half hour earlier than usual, and try to get my teeth brushed and make it downstairs without waking Mom. I make all her favorites—sliced avocado, fried eggs with lots of salt, whole wheat toast. I watch the horizon for clouds as I wash the dishes, both hoping for rain and fearing it.

I think, for the first time, I am afraid of Lesley. I am afraid of how much I miss her. I am afraid of how she makes me feel.

“Joseph?” Mom sounds half asleep, but she must smell all the food from upstairs.

“Yeah, Mom?”

She comes down in her bathrobe and slippers. “I know what you’re gonna ask,” she says. She holds her arms out. “Come here.” When I hug her, she has that smell—the way people smell when they’ve just woken up.

“Mom, I really miss her,” I say, because it’s true and because I know what she’ll say next.

“I’ll take you on Sunday,” she says. I smile into her chest. “I love you, kiddo. I know you know that.”

“I love you too.”

“Just …”

“Just what?” I pull away from the hug, but she places her hand on the back of my head and pulls me back into her chest.

“Mrs. Parsons called earlier this week,” she says. The school counselor, again. Shit. “I worry about you, not getting along with the other kids. You need friends, Joseph. Focus on the mission.”

“I have friends,” I say, though I hate how petulant I sound.

“You have Lesley,” Mom says. “I know you still talk to her. Mrs. Parsons stressed that it might not be the healthiest coping mechanism, this many years since the accident. She wants you to try therapy.” Mom says therapy like the word will burn her tongue. “I know it was always just the two of you, when you were little. But it can’t be like that anymore.”

Yes it can, I think. School gets lonely, but maybe that’s because I don’t try hard enough to be with Lesley. I only see her when the weather’s wet, or at the lake. Her appearance in the leaking sprinkler and again in the shower makes me think that I can find her in the smallest water sources—in faucets, in puddles, in a drinking glass. She will always be with me, and I will never want for companionship.

I’m not sure if that’s what I really want, but it’s the easy thing to want, and that makes it feel like the right thing to want.

“Okay, Mom,” I say. “I’ll do better.” I can’t tell if I’m lying.

• • • •

When I get to school on Friday, Cohen has written GIRL FAG on my locker again.

I wonder if he ever gets bored of this, if he honestly doesn’t have anything better to do. I killed my best friend. I killed my best friend, and all Cohen can do is take cheap shots at a dead girl for her presumed sexuality, at me for my gender. All because he thinks the part of me that he has a stupid crush on died. All because he thinks that change is the same as loss.

I’m not mad. I’m not hurt. I am just so utterly over him and his shit.

I slather the black Sharpie letters with hand sanitizer to break down the ink, then go into the bathroom for paper towels to wipe it away. The bathroom is completely silent, save for my sneakers scuffing against the linoleum floor. No one at the urinals, and all the stalls are empty. I go to the bank of sinks and start the tap. I clear my throat.

“Lesley?” I try.

Nothing.

I pass my hand under the running faucet and toss a spray of water in an arc through the air. “Lesley?”

I swear I hear her heartbeat.

I try it again, another spray of water through the air. “Les? You there?”

Her reflection flickers into focus beside mine in the mirror. When I turn my head, she’s gone. I splash more water, with the ferocious disregard of a kid fooling around in a bathtub. The counter and floor are soaked, and there are droplets clinging to the mirror.

“Lesley!”

Her reflection waves at me. She mouths something I can’t make out. I can smell the lake.

“Oh, god, Les. I miss you. I’m sorry. Lesley, I miss you so much.” I’m babbling. I don’t know what to say. I feel like I should say something.

Lesley is in the mirror, watching me with her eyes wide and her mouth cracked open. I am looking at her when the bathroom door opens and Cohen comes in. She turns towards him before I do.

Cohen steps far enough into the bathroom to let the door close behind him. He stops short and says, “What in the entire fuck.”

I don’t know how to answer that.

“So now you’re in the bathroom talking to your dead bestie?” he asks. I can’t tell what flavor of upset he is, but he’s doing that thing with his mouth again. I look from him to Lesley, still hovering in the mirror. There is a puddle of lake water forming beside me, blending in with the tap water I’ve scattered all over the place.

“No, I’m not,” I say.

“Why would you go to all the trouble . . . ” Lesley starts.

“I heard you say her name.”

“ . . . if you don’t even want me here,” she finishes.

“No you didn’t,” I lie. When I look to Lesley, my eyes are an apology.

“Do you even want me here?” she asks.

“Yes you did! Right before I came in. You’re totally in here talking to her, you fucking weird-ass sadsack.”

“You don’t fucking want me,” Lesley says, and the language sounds wrong in her childish mouth. She goes hazy around the edges, and then disappears.

“No! Wait!” I yell before I can stop myself, reaching for the mirror as if I can climb through it. I am on the bathroom counter and the knees of my jeans are soaked through. My nails scrabble at the pane of glass. Cohen drops his backpack and steps into the mirror’s range, so I see his face go from anger to confusion to what honestly might be concern. I’ve seen him make a lot of faces, and pity is by far the worst.

He slings an arm around my waist and easily pulls me down off the counter, then lets go of me so suddenly that I fall forward to the tile floor. “I hope you know that something is seriously wrong with you.” He goes and picks his backpack back up, slinging it across one shoulder. I climb up off the floor and look in the mirror again. Cohen stands behind me so that, in the reflection, he’s where Lesley was.

“I mean, goddamn,” he says. “What, you can talk to your lesbian lover’s ghost in mirrors now? Like, make it make sense! Spell it out for me—” And then he does the worst thing that he has ever done. Cohen calls me by my birth name.

I don’t think about it at all before I swing at him. My fist barely connects with his cheek, but he’s off balance with his backpack on one shoulder and he stumbles backwards, fetching up against the flimsy stall dividers.

I expect him to hit me back but he goes still, then brings his hands up like he’s defending himself. His expression shifts, his eyes going big, and it can’t have been the punch that did it—I probably hurt myself worse than I hurt him.

“I’m—” He pauses like the words are being dragged out of him. “Joseph. I’m sorry.”

He doesn’t wait for me to answer before he leaves the bathroom, the door thumping shut behind him.

I start a countdown in an app on my phone. Fifty hours until I’ll be at the lake.

• • • •

I spend Saturday wishing for rain.

I lie in bed with the duvet over my face and let my guilt drive me in circles. I keep doing the wrong thing, but it feels like there is no right thing to do. I take a long shower—long enough for Mom to knock on the bathroom door and holler something about the water bill—and wonder if Lesley will show up. If I can make her show up, like whatever I did in the bathroom at school. I wish she were here so I could tell her how sorry I am, even though I’ve apologized to her almost every time I’ve seen her since the accident. At the bottom of my guilt is the knowledge that it’s worse for her than it is for me. Which makes me even guiltier, because I feel sorry for feeling sorry for myself. I’m even too upset to watch a spy movie with Mom, and she’s chosen the original Casino Royale, so I know things must be bad. I wish I could forget it all—not forget her, but forget how she died, so I could stop replaying it.

Here is how it happened:

We were on twin yellow kayaks, making lazy circles about fifty yards from shore and flicking water at each other off of the blades of our black paddles. We were twelve. The lake was deep. We knew how to swim. We were a couple of kids goofing off. Everything was perfect, sunlight and lake water all over our bodies. Lesley in her pink swim shorts and blue rash guard. The smell of waterproof sunscreen on my skin. Lesley’s dad laid out drunk on the shore, my mom reading a cheap romance novel beside him.

Lesley was paddling along behind me, following me, and I didn’t see her come up beside me. So when she called out my name across the water, I turned towards her with my whole body, careless of where my paddle swung, and caught her full in the face, hard enough that the impact jolted even me. Blood started streaming out of her nose immediately, in the moment of contact. She went overboard and splashed like a stone.

Les gasped when she hit the water, and then her whole body went slack. I saw her suck the lake into her round pink mouth, down into her lungs. It only took a second for me to dive in after her, but the lake pulled her down fast.

She was sinking down deep, limbs splayed towards the surface like something out of a movie. I had lungs full of air, and she had lungs full of water, and the lake forced me back up as it sucked her farther in. I finally got down deep enough to touch the hem of her shorts, but my lungs were prickling with pain and I needed air. The edges of my vision were going soft and black.

I had to choose—keep swimming down, or surface.

I chose wrong.

I let her sink.

I treaded water and waved my arms over my head and yelled for our parents on the shore. Neither of them were paying attention. I flipped my kayak trying to get back in it, then wasted nearly a minute flipping it back over when I could have just taken Lesley’s. I paddled back to shore as fast as I could. There was no lifeguard on this stretch of beach. No tourists here either, in the off season. Just me and Lesley and my mom and Lesley’s drunk father. My mom couldn’t swim.

I knocked her overboard, I watched her breathe in water, and I let her sink.

That is how I killed my best friend.

I don’t remember much of what came next. I know the paramedics came and wrapped me in a silver blanket. They said she’d must have lost consciousness when I hit her, that she would have surely made it otherwise. Someone dove down and came back up hauling her body, which they then zipped into an opaque plastic bag. When it was all over, when it was time for us to leave, Lesley’s ghost was standing knee deep in the lake, gesturing for me to be quiet.

Water has drawn her to me, ever since.

• • • •

On Sunday we tie my kayak to the roof of Mom’s car and drive out to the lake. She sings along to the radio for most of the drive, and I bob my head as I drum on the dashboard. She asks me about school. I tell her about Cohen writing on my locker—not the exact words, just that it was something rude, something to do with me and Lesley. She can put the rest together on her own.

She nods, her mouth pressed tight. “Looks like the mission needs a new target,” she says.

“That’s an understatement.”

It’s sunny and a bit breezy, but it’s late enough in the year that all the surrounding counties have gone back to school. Hardly anyone makes day trips out to the lake after September. Soon it’ll get rainy, then snowy, then the lake will ice over, and Mom will stop wanting to drive me altogether. I’ll go months without seeing Lesley except for in brief moments, her shivering with her arms crossed over her chest, leaving puddles behind wherever she goes.

I carry my kayak over my shoulder. Mom has a backpack with sunscreen, water bottles for both of us, a book for herself, towels, and a blanket to sit on. We walk through the tall and trampled grass, down to where the shore gets sandy. There are a few swimmers just down the coast from us. I rest my kayak on the shallow water.

I wear a life vest now, because you never know. Sometimes the strongest swimmers don’t make it back to shore. Mom double checks that all the buckles are fastened before she lets me go. She warns me not to go out too far—which is useless, because I never do. I don’t want her to get too scared and stop bringing me to the lake at all.

I paddle out a bit and then let myself drift, looking at the sky. I hear the tiniest splash. When I look down, Lesley is treading water next to me.

“Climb up,” I say. She is weightless. She maneuvers herself up onto the bow of the kayak without causing even a wobble, and sits with her legs to either side, feet dragging in the water.

“I’m happy you’re here,” she says. She squeezes water out of the dark curls of her hair. She calls me by my old name and something jumps in my chest. When Cohen said it, it felt like a weapon. When Lesley says it, why should it be any different? She means no harm, but it digs in under my skin just the same.

“Me too.” I smile at her, in spite of my uncertainty. “How have you been?”

“More of the same, you know. There’s not much going on at the bottom of a lake.”

“Lesley—”

“You’re sorry. I know. You say it every time.”

“I really am.”

“I know,” she says. She touches my hand—she can touch me, when I’m here. Her skin is clammy and cold. She inspects my knuckles hard, eyes locked on the barest hint of a bruise.

“Did you hit Cohen?”

“Yeah, after— Well, you were there.”

Les sighs. I can tell she’s disappointed, but I don’t know what else I could have done.

I paddle out a bit farther, Lesley still balanced on the bow, then turn and look back at Mom on the shore. She waves to me. I wave back. I’m close enough to shore that if I yelled, she would hear me. She gives me a thumbs up.

“I owe you an apology, too,” Lesley says.

“What? No,” I answer on instinct alone. She’s dead, and I killed her. How could she possibly wrong me? Even when she misgenders me, even when she behaves in ways that are off-putting—it’s all so much worse for her than it is for me. If this is what I have to bear, then I’ll bear it.

I feel a flare of guilt at even thinking that her friendship is something to be borne.

“I’ve just been lonely,” she says.

“I’m sorry.” I don’t have to wonder if I mean it.

“Don’t you think—Maybe you would be better if I left you alone.”

“What? No,” I repeat. I know I’m creasing up my forehead in the way that makes me look like Mom. “You’re my best friend. I want you here.”

She looks up with just her eyes, then tilts her head back, the way she does when she’s trying not to cry. I wonder if she cries real tears, or lake water.

“You don’t want me,” she says. “Not really. Listen to me. I don’t know how long I can keep just showing up and bothering you and haunting you and—”

“Les, you don’t bother me,” I say, but it’s the kind of meaningless reassurance someone would offer a kid sibling.

“I don’t want you to spend the whole rest of your life wishing that you didn’t—”

She lets the rest of the sentence hang. She has never said that I killed her. No one has.

The thing is, no one has to say it. I know what I did, and I will spend the rest of my life wishing I could undo it anyway. There is nothing she can do to take that guilt away.

“I am going to stop haunting you,” she says, voice resolute.

“You’ve spent all week trying to get me to the lake, and for what? For this? To tell me that you’re done being my friend?”

“I will always be your friend,” she says. “I’m just saying that I would like to stop haunting you.”

I think a past version of myself would feel unmoored in this moment, but I feel almost okay, like maybe this isn’t the worst thing. I’m surprised and a bit disgusted with myself for my easy acceptance.

“It’ll be easy. I’m going down to the bottom of the lake, to sleep. It’s just like sleeping, only I won’t wake up, ever again.”

“Will it hurt?” I ask her. I smell sunscreen where tears make tracks down my face, and I realize I’ve been crying.

She shakes her head. She’s crying too. “Not at all,” she says. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I’ll always worry about you.” It’s not a part of my brain I can just turn off. It’ll live in me, along with the guilt and the sorrow. But maybe parts of the guilt can start to ease up, now. Maybe things can be a little different. Not necessarily better or easier, but different.

She shifts her weight, but the kayak is steady beneath her. “Wait!” I grip her hand as hard as I can. My best friend is a ghost and she is about to die again, forever this time. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do. It feels like I should do something.

She smiles at me, but there’s no joy in it. I smile back and try to mean it.

“I love you, Joseph,” she says. She squeezes my bruised hand, and then she falls backwards into the water.

When I look over the edge of the kayak she is drifting down fast, limbs floating up behind her, hair forming a cloud around her face. I watch her sink.

• • • •

Cohen stops me at lunch on Monday—I’m on my way into Mr. Moscowitz’s room and he’s on his way out of it, and I’m hoping he’ll ignore me but his hand closes around my upper arm.

“Hey, look,” he says, and for once his mouth isn’t doing that thing it always does. “I’m sorry.”

I’m almost hoping he’ll say more—Mom always says that an apology is useless without specificity—but for now, this is enough. “Thanks,” I say.

“Truce?” He holds out his hand to shake, and I take it. I don’t even make a smartass comment about how a truce implies that the conflict was two-sided. He squints down at me, then halfway smiles. “Do you know how to skateboard?” he asks.

“Not even a little bit,” I say. The truth is that I’ve always been afraid to try.

“Meet me in the parking lot after school tomorrow,” he says. “I’ll teach you.”

Dominique Dickey

Dominique Dickey. A Black nonbinary person in a white collared shirt and floral tie, smiling at the camera.

Dominique Dickey is a writer, editor, and cultural consultant working in RPGs and fiction. In addition to creating TRIAL, a narrative courtroom tabletop role-playing game about race in the criminal justice system, and co-creating Tomorrow on Revelation III, a tabletop role-playing game about surviving and building community on a hyper-capitalist space station, Dominique has written for Thirsty Sword Lesbians, Sea of Legends, and Monte Cook Games. Their fiction has also appeared in Anathema Magazine and Fantasy Magazine. You can find them on Twitter at @DomSDickey or at dominiquedickey.com.