On a Friendship

November 13, 2010
Why are you outside, in the fetid city air and the grimy city darkness, shadows like thumb-smudges of soot, when there are thirty minutes to midnight?

There is a whimper and there is a lump.

There is a black lump slouched against the gritty alleyway wall next to your apartment. You approach it cautiously, a hand outstretched as if to brush away the shadows from the figure like spider webs.

“Are you…”

The lump stirs and from it rises a muffled sob. You crouch, slowly, and rest a hand on what could be shoulder. It’s trembling.

“Are you alright?”

The shoulder muscle shudders under your palm. “Please… I need your help.”

This voice is familiar – you’ve heard it a thousand times, a million, perhaps. The sound, static over the phone lines, echoes through the school halls, a jumble of words bouncing and compassionate and vibrant. The sound rubs your body like sunlight streaming through a thin-paned window, making you feel warm even in the bitter October air. You are a child again, the one full of needless fantasies and callow, youthful energy. The child that once lost something.

“I can’t believe it,” you say. Every conduit of your brain is flooded with images. Faded, sepia-toned.

“What if…?” She asks. She has no patience. “Answer me!”

“Why are you here?” you say.

The shape finally raises its head. It’s a young woman, brown curls spilling from her black hood. Her pale face is streaked with black mascara tears. “I need you,” she says.

You gather the woman in your arms and hug her close.

“Where have you been?” you whisper. “I had begun to think you were ignoring me.”

“No. You are still my best friend, even if…” She trails into quiet as a tear runs down her cheek, and then buries her face into your shoulder.

“We’ve been apart for a long time,” you say.

“I missed you so much.”

“So did I.” Your fingers are growing cold.

She pulls back and looks straight at you, her blue eyes glistening. “Do you remember when we used to play the ‘What if’ game?”

Once… Yes, you remember. She always asked the question – you always answered.

“What if you were to move away? Would you write me letters?”

“I’d try,” you respond, but you are only in first grade, and so you frown. “But I’m not so good at writing.”

“So you would call me?”

“Of course,” you say. “We would still be friends even if you had to go away.”

“Of course I remember.”

She looks you straight in the eye. “What if: I was assigned a mission that I didn’t want to act out?”

You pause. Always will you have an answer, no matter how recondite the question. And if your intuition is correct, you know exactly what kind of ‘mission’ she is on. “Can you run?”

“I can’t run from this one,” she whispers. “They’ve got me hooked to the system.”

“Then execute the mission as they ordered.”

She shakes her head, brown curls bouncing. “It’s impossible.”

“Explain,” you say.

After a shuddering breath, she speaks: “They need me to kill someone… a child of a powerful politician, as a warning. But… I care deeply about this person.”

Since she was a young child she had been training as an assassin. Yes, a strange profession, but she belongs to an entire family of killers, pinned under the thumb of the government. The news broken to you once at recess, swirling around on the tire swing, you have been the only non-family member to know the secret.

“What if I was training to kill people? Would you still be friends with me?”

Her worried face swings by as you pushed the tire. It takes a moment of though before you answer.


“But you might be put in danger.”

“You’d still be my friend, no matter what.”

“You love this friend a lot, I assume.”

“More than anything,” she replies, and jealousy stabs you in the chest.
But she asks the question, you give an answer.

“You have to run away, then. Escape this.”

A tear trickles down her cheek. Your thumb acts on its own, wiping it away.

“I can’t run,” she finally says quietly. “They have me in the system.” She tilts her head to the side and taps a finger on the temple. “In my brain, implanted, so I can never get away.”

“It tracks your movement.”

“That’s right. A GPS.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“I have about twenty minutes.”

You blink. “Before what?”

“Before the GPS self-destructs and kills me.” Another tear drips down her cheek. The stale, shadowed moon creeps along the horizon.

Gaping, you ask, “Why would they do that? You’re their most prized gun.”

“In this profession any sympathy or love is seen as weakness. I’m not allowed to be weak.”

“But how can you stop it?”

“I have to kill my friend. Then the action will re-program the wiring instantly, and I’ll be safe,” she whispers. “So that’s why I need your help.”

“What do you mean?”

“You are the only one who can make decisions for me,” she murmurs. “I ask you a question, you tell me the answer. So I ask you the question; Do I kill someone I care about, or do I die?”

You take a breath. “You know my answer.”

“I need to hear it from you.”

“I don’t want to be responsible for anything.”

“No, that’s not how it works!” she says angrily. Impatient as always. “You respond with a good answer immediately, always.”

“What if I died? Do you think I’d go to Heaven?” she asks. Her eyes have that familiar glaze.

You look up from your scribbles of algebra homework and without hesitation reply, “Look, you kill people, but that’s your job. You’re just following the rules they laid out, and if you disobey they will harm you and your family. So I believe you’re actually being as perfectly behaved as an angel. With no doubt you’ll end up in Heaven.”

“But would you miss me?”

“More than anything.”
“What would you do?”
You pause. “If you aren’t living-” you say softly, your eyes focused on the pencil chicken-scratch dancing on your paper. “-I’m not either.”

“Well, I’ve changed in the last few years. I need some more time to think.”

“Please. I’m running out of time!”

You rub your freezing fingers across your face. Freezing face. “Can’t you just hide your friend? Is he close?”

Her gaze flickered down the alleyway, then back to you. “Close enough. I can hide him at the cost of my life, and possibly my family’s lives as well.”

You shake your head as if you could send your thoughts flying away like water off a dog’s pelt. “I can’t let you die.”

“Then what is your choice?”

“Why do I have to decide for you?” you almost scream. Midnight is freezing as it is approaching and the moon is tilting along the horizon and the stale city night is grimy and full of shadows like soot stains.

“I know you will pick correctly.”

“Why can’t I just have my father hide both you and your friend?”

“It’s too late,” she whispers, then looks at her sleek black watch. “I have eight minutes.”

“I can help you,” you want to offer, because that is what you are there for. But this time your words would be: “I can not help you. I’m so sorry.”

But you don’t speak them; instead you pull her close. The cold midnight wind whips down the alley and rustles your jackets.

“Please choose,” she whispers after a quiet moment. Her face brushes your neck and you can feel her tears.

“I can’t loose you,” you mutter. “I can’t choose wrong.”

Her hands curl into fists, clenching the fabric of your coat. Don’t leave me.
“I know you won’t choose wrong,” she says softly. “You’ve never given me a wrong answer.” Then she squeezes her eyes shut and awaits the decision that she will act on.

“Kill the friend,” you say. She releases you as if the words shoved her backwards.

There is silence in the alley as the two of you stare at each other. Her hood falls back and her brown curls flutter in the cold wind, released from their imprisonment.

“That is your decision,” she says, more as a statement then a question. “So that is also mine.”

“You have to hurry. It’s five minutes to midnight!”

“I have enough time,” she murmurs. Now she has stopped crying. As the wind whisks past she takes a step towards you quickly. Pulling you forcefully into a one-armed hug, she holds you tightly. (You might not be seeing her for a while – after each mission she has to hide for a period of time.)

“Goodbye,” you whisper. “Good luck.”

Her grip tightens on your back. “You know,” she says softly, “You’ve been a great friend.” She pauses, and her left hand is moving at her side. She takes a deep breath. “The best friend I could ever have in my life.”

And then something cold is pressed into the front of your shirt, colder than the October midnight wind, and a flash of silver. The moon tilts dangerously on the grimy city horizon.

A thought splits through your mind, spiraling down into the emptiness of the last moment.

Did I pick the right choice? Did I…?

The afternoon sun has a strange sort of passiveness as it slides through your window. Your room is yellow, faded, sepia-toned. Outside the world is white, snow. Her voice is echoing from the phone pressed to your ear.

“What if I were about to die? …Would you sacrifice yourself to save me?”

You twist your fingers around in the phone cord. “Don’t talk like that.”

“Would you?” she persists. "Would you?"

“I would give anything for you,” you say. “If it be my life, so be it.”

You can see her smile from across the telephone wires, across the country. “That’s what friends are for.”

“And we’ll always be friends,” you say. “Forever and ever. To the death.”

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