Seeking refuge in the depths of my backyard became a habitual form of escape that September. Almost nightly I could be found beneath the oak tree on the swing that my father built before he died. From this secluded spot, only echoes of my family's fights could be heard above the cacophony of chirping bugs, and I could sit and cry or laugh, but never anything in between.
That particular night I couldn't stop wondering what the next tragedy would be. Trouble, it was said, always came in threes, and although I wasn't particularly superstitious, I wanted to be prepared in case disaster struck again. My dad's heart attack had devastated my family, then my little sister Patty had been diagnosed with diabetes. I hoped that the next event wouldn't affect me, my emotions were worn thin.
The ropes of my swing creaked as I rocked back and forth, and it was this noise that always alerted Jeremy of my presence. His garage was just behind a row of tall bushes which formed only a physical barrier between our two yards. Through this "wall" I could always hear the music he played on his keyboards every night. I'd never been inside his garage but I had imagined what it looked like, all messy but comfortable, just like Jeremy. "'Night, Carly," he called out to me when the music stopped.
"Night, Jeremy," I answered. The crack of his screen door slamming was my usual cue to go inside; it had gotten late.
The next day, when the bell rang at ten after two, I began the long walk to my car. The slight drizzle had turned to a downpour during last period physics, but I didn't mind. Rain was one of my favorite things. From the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of Jeremy's green jacket, and turned to find him scurrying behind me with his large pointed hood covering half of his face. As usual, wet blonde hair spilled out in every possible direction; he spit it out of his mouth and swatted curls from his eyes when the wind blew. We got as far as his car when I realized how silly it was that we both drove to school when we were neighbors. It was also silly that as neighbors, we barely knew each other. "See ya later, Jeremy," I said, waving in his general direction.
"I'm not going anywhere yet. The traffic's blocked me in again," he said, smiling. Looking down the street I saw that my car was also blocked in, so I decided to take this opportunity to have my first real conversation alone with Jeremy. We sort of sauntered up to one another and stood there, not knowing what to say. I traced some nonsense into the rain on his station wagon, and as the words dripped away they took with them some of my nervousness.
"Jeremy," I said. This was it. I was going to tell him that I wished we were closer friends. "Um, your necklace is on backwards. Make a wish."
So I chickened out. Big deal, I thought. I grabbed the clasp and twisted it around to where it was supposed to be. My hand touched the back of his neck for a moment longer than necessary. His huge blue eyes gave me the chills; I even wondered for a moment if he had hypnotized me with those intense eyes. I chuckled when I realized what I was thinking. Looking somewhat embarrassed, he shoved his hands into his pockets and said, "Carly, does everybody lust after you the way I do?"
My jaw dropped. Blood rushed to my face. I was flattered but completely shocked. My best response was that of an idiot.
"Uh ... not to my face," I wittily responded. The rest of our encounter is only a pleasant blur. I splashed down the road to my car with a stupid grin on my face thinking luck could change after all.
That night I went out to my refuge with a new optimism. I plopped down on the wet swing and laughed out loud.
Oops, Jeremy might think I'm crazy, I thought, and muffled my laughter. For the first time, there was no music wafting from his garage; there was only the sound of Fatty Patty and Mom fighting about whose turn it was to feed Wally, our bulldog. Patty broke into tears, so Mom gave in again. Then it got really quiet. Dead silence, I guess. None of the usual noises were there to entertain me. I wondered who killed the grasshoppers. Maybe it was Jeremy, I thought. I'd better go check on him.
It was difficult to climb through the bushes, but I did it with only one mishap: a ripped t-shirt. Ah, I never liked it anyway. Peeking through a small dirty window I saw him sitting on an orange couch writing in a small notebook. It was probably song lyrics for his band or something intellectual. I really wanted to talk to him so I took a deep breath and headed for the door. But of course, it wasn't that simple. My shoelace got caught on something, and I made a crash landing into a row of garbage cans. Before I could make my escape, the outline of Jeremy was standing above me. He was shaking his head and smiling.
"You could've just knocked," he said playfully. I grunted at him. "Why don't you come on inside."
For two hours we sat on his couch and found out everything that we ever wanted to know about each other. He told me things about himself that no one knew, like the fact that to his friends, he made his life sound more interesting than it actually was. We both confessed that the other made us nervous, and I was surprised when he said that he couldn't believe that I was really there talking to him.
For the four years that we were neighbors I'd never known how smart, unique and funny Jeremy was, so I was thrilled when we finally started to develop a friendship. Previously, I had thought I'd known quite a bit about him, but it wasn't until this night that we began to grow close. The next day, however, my newfound happiness was numbed.
The seniors were told to meet in the auditorium second period to hear a guest speaker. It was to my surprise that the speaker who emerged from behind the dark velvet curtain was Jeremy. He looked scared as he cleared his throat. He then told an audience of nearly two hundred students that he was HIV positive. The boy at the podium was only a shell of the boy I had laughed with the previous night. He hardly looked up, his hair always sheltering his tearing blue eyes. As he talked about statistics, the seriousness of AIDS and how to prevent it, I cried. I cried because he was going to die and it wasn't fair. He was only seventeen. We had just become friends. I wanted to know him and now I couldn't.
After school I saw him trudging to his car. I ran to catch up to him. He must have heard me because he turned around and stood so still that I got chills. Only it wasn't like the chills from the day before. Hesitantly, I reached out and held him. I felt his warm tears melt into my shoulder. It was selfish but I was angry with him for contracting this disease and shortening our friendship. "Why now?" I asked, not letting go of him. He kept repeating, "I don't know."
We decided to walk home and once again, I couldn't think of anything to say to him. There seemed to be no life in his pale, withdrawn face. "You killed the grasshoppers," I said. He raised one eyebrow in confusion, then started laughing at me. This was annoying ... until I noticed him. The life was still there in Jeremy. He wasn't dead, and maybe our friendship wasn't either.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.