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It was tradition to meet at Baker Park on the last day of summer.
It was stupid and it was childish, but it was tradition just the same, and we intended to honor it, seeing as how this may be the last time we’d be able to.
We started meeting at the swing set the last day of summer before our first grade year. That was the day we met. So long ago, it didn’t even feel like the same lifetime anymore.
We were twelve years older now, the four of us, about to head into our real lives, away from everything we thought we knew, and all of our dusty childhood memories.
I walked slowly tonight, kicking up pebbles on the little side street as I went along. I wasn’t in the mood to be the first one there. Not that it mattered anyway, Sean was always first.
He would arrive, pacing back and forth over a small patch of grass, mumbling to himself, until I arrived a few minutes later. Annie would show a few minutes after that.
The three of us would wait around for awhile, not speaking, not looking at each other. The space between us grew more and more each year. We all noticed. We all ignored it.
Time passed slowly, though it could never have been more than ten minutes or so. Then, just as we were about to give up and head home, there would be December.
She’d come strolling around the street corner, slow as you please, spinning in little dancer’s circles, and singing along to whatever song she had running through her head.
None of us ever bothered to ask her where she’d been, or what had taken her so long. We all knew, and it wasn’t something you just up and asked about. And besides, December could take care of herself. She’d always been the fighter, utter insanity guiding her. That was the way we liked her, and we relied on her to stay that way. As the years went by, and the rest of us began to change, she never did.
I kicked another pebble, a bigger one this time, and sent it skidding out over the road and down into the creek on the far side. The sun was setting up on the horizon, casting a pink and orange light all around the city. I could see the outline of the giant oak trees in the distance from where I walked. I could see the outline of the old steel swing set too, and beside it the silhouette of a tall person with broad shoulders.
“Sean?” I called, my voice ricocheting up in between the houses that lined the road.
“Yeah,” He called back.
I started to walk a little faster, suddenly eager to get on with tonight’s festivities. I wasn’t sure if I felt that way because I was excited about seeing everyone for the last time, or because I was dreading tomorrow.
I closed the short distance between us in a few quick steps, egged on by my sudden adrenaline rush.
“Anyone else here?” I asked, coming up alongside him, pushing my hands deep inside my jacket pockets.
Sean shook his head, a wry smile twisting his lips. He answered my question with another question, “Is anyone else ever here before us?”
He laughed to himself and sank down onto one of the wide black swings. A few minutes passed in a slow, comfortable silence. We had no problem not speaking because we had nothing to say. The sound of the crickets and the wind in the trees was enough. For now,
it was enough.
I turned and glanced over my shoulder in the direction of Annie’s quiet voice. She looked small tonight, smaller than usual, and subdued. Her tan skin looked too dark in the night, and her eyes were closed off, unreadable.
Sean was out of the swing, standing beside me, facing her. He was trying in vain to make out her expression.
“Are you okay?” I asked her, dropping my voice down to a whisper. It seemed appropriate.
Annie looked up at me, her expression still blank, and nodded, her blonde hair a beacon in the dark.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” She said, her voice matching mine. She glanced around, running her hands up and down her arms.
“This is weird.” She said after a moment, looking up at Sean and I, nervous agitation coloring her tone.
“I know.” Sean said.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“Why the hell is everyone being so quiet?”
The three of us spun around in tandem, knowing that voice, the voice like a music box.
I looked her up and down briefly, ghostly pale, coming towards us as if from out of a dream, just to make sure it was really December. It was, as bright and beautiful as ever.
Except for one thing.
“What happened to you?” I asked, rushing to her and catching her face between my hands, gripping tight so she couldn’t pull away. I knew she’d try. I grimaced, peering down at her. The blood dripping from the cut at her temple was staining my hand. I didn’t care.
“Nothing, I’m fine.” She assured me, placing her little hands on my chest and pushing against me. “Jake, please.”
I shook my head, staring angrily into her icy eyes. I didn’t loosen my grip.
“He did this.”
It wasn’t a question. December glared up at me, still straining against my arms. I countered easily. No matter how hard she struggled, I fought back, holding her tighter.
“I slipped.” She said.
Sean’s angry snarl came from behind us, low and furious. I threw a glance over my shoulder towards him, warning him, begging him to be quiet.
Annie was trying to calm him down, her hand on his arm, speaking low and fast
into his ear. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but she looked panicked.
“I did,” December hissed at me through clenched teeth. I turned back around to face her, disbelief the only expression I could muster. “It was an accident.”
I sighed, unable to be angry with her, but needing to be just the same.
“Don’t lie, Dez.” I growled, the fury in voice audibly fading, “Just don’t.”
I moved our bodies a step to the right, back towards the swing set, and told her to sit. After a long minute of complaining and protesting, she did, sinking down on to one of the swings. She crossed her arms over her chest and heaved an audible sigh. I rolled my eyes. She was pissed, but she’d get over it. I knew she would.
Annie was still speaking in hushed tones behind me. I heard Sean’s deep, whispered responses. He was calming down a little.
At least one of us was.
“Look at me,” I said, sighing. December shook her head, stubbornly looking away. From this angle, crouched down in front of her, I could easily see the long gash across her face, her black hair matted and sticking to the blood trickling down her left cheek. I gritted my teeth.
Reaching up as slowly as I could, I moved a strand of the hair aside to get a better look. December flinched, wincing instinctively away from me. I shook my head in frustration and kept brushing the hair back, strand by strand, ignoring her muttered protests.
“I’m fine, Jake,” She kept saying, over and over again. “Honest, I am.” But she didn’t push my hand away, so I never stopped examining her.
“This is so wrong, man.” Sean announced after a while, to no one in particular. I could sense him behind me, loud as he was, pacing back and forth across the worn patch of grass, his hands shoved into his jean pockets. He’d been carrying on like that for nearly an hour. Annie had given up trying to calm him all the way down. She was now sitting cross legged on the ground beside me. She had her head in her hands.
“It’s always been wrong,” I said, my voice flat. “What makes tonight worse than any of the others?”
“Because,” He yelled, lashing out, “we’ve never actually seen it before!”
I looked back at him, and Annie looked up from where she sat. He was pulling at his hair, his eyes squeezed shut.
I ignored him, turning forward again, re-focusing all my attention on December. She was the only one who seemed utterly unaffected by the problems her presence had caused.
“Oww,” She whined, putting two fingers up to the tender area I’d just pressed on.
“Checking for broken bones. Stop Fidgeting.”
My patience was wearing thin.
I was more sick and tired of all this than anyone else could ever be. December and I were closer then the others were. We all knew that, it wasn’t like it was a secret.
And I was so tired.
I was tired of seeing her lovely face covered in scrapes and big black bruises. I was tired of her ending up with broken fingers, small fractures in her wrists or ribs or nose. I was tired of her calling me in the middle of the night, sobbing, because he’d lost his temper again. I was tired of her lying about it. I was tired of her asking me to lie about it, covering it up.
I pushed on her temple a little harder than necessary and she gasped, slapping my hand away.
“Goddamnit, Jake!” She cried, pressing her hand protectively over the wound. I dropped my hands to my sides wordlessly and glanced away from her hurt face.
“Sorry,” I muttered, clearing my throat. I ran a hand shakily through my hair and inhaled through my nose. “Uh, you need stitches. We have to take you to the hospital.”
Before I could get up, December was off out of the swing and sprinting down the street as fast as she could go. She was tall but much too slender, and she couldn’t get anywhere near as fast as I could.
I motioned for Annie and Sean to stay put, then took off at a gallop down the empty sidewalk, overtaking December in just a few long strides.
“Whoa there,” I called, catching her around the waist and yanking her back against my chest. She flailed wildly in my arms for a good thirty seconds before succumbing to fatigue and collapsing against me. Her small frame shook violently. It took me a minute to realize she was crying, gasping for air.
“No!” She wailed, sobbing, her head laid back against my shoulder. I sighed.
“You need stitches, Dez. The cut could get infected if we don’t go soon -“
“No!” she gasped, pushing against me, “No hospitals! I can’t go back to the hospital!”
I gripped her tighter, looking at her in confusion.
“Why not?” I asked, careful to keep my voice quiet. The night breeze blew past us, taking the last of the smoldering Alabama heat with it. She relaxed against me again, her hair whipping into my face. I inhaled. It smelled like her. Sweet and cold, like juniper berries…and smoke.
The smoke from her dad’s cigarettes.
Her dad, Chief Bradley, head of the police department, the finest, most respectable man in the city…until he started drinking behind closed doors.
I spun December around to face me. She looked lost. Her face, usually so beautiful, was twisted into an unrecognizable mask of pain. I gripped her shoulders and bent down to look her dead in the eye.
“Dez,” I said, fighting hard to keep my voice level, “Is this about your dad?”
She bit her lip and looked away from me, considering. Her tears stilled and turned cold as ice in her eyes.
I shook her gently, just enough to make her shoulders quake.
“Dez,” I began, louder this time, less level headed, less calm, “is this about not getting your dad in trouble?”
I watched as December cleared her throat and looked back at me, her jaw set in what could have been either pride or foolishness. Maybe both.
“No.” She said finally.
She was lying. If I hadn’t known her so well she might have fooled me, probably would have, but we’d been best friends for too long. Her acting talent was wasted on me.
I gripped her shoulders tighter.
“Please, December.” I begged, searching her ice blue eyes, “Tell me the truth.”
We stood in the middle of the street for what seemed like an eternity, just staring at each other. We didn’t move, and neither of us wanted to be the one to break the carefully cultivated silence. I dimly remembered we’d left Annie and Sean back by the swings, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.
Finally, she sighed and leaned her forehead onto my shoulder.
“I’ve been to the hospital more times in my life than I care to remember,” she mumbled against my jacket. “I don’t want to spend our last night together in the E.R.”
I nodded, not because I really understood…but because it was the only thing I could do. I knew that wasn’t the real reason. I knew there was something she was hiding from me, which bothered me a great deal. But her answer made sense, and as much as I wanted to ask her what it was that she was so afraid of, I let it drop.
“Do you want to go back to the swings?” I asked, rubbing slow circles on her back. She shivered as another gust of wind blew by us, and nodded. She laughed then, flashing me her brightest smile. It was the smile she used when she was trying to hide something.
We were normally out there at the park until five or six on our last night before school started up again.
“Oh, man.” Sean yawned, looking down at his watch. “It’s almost three.”
I looked at him, one eyebrow raised.
“So?” I asked.
“I have a six o’clock flight.” He said, shrugging and pushing himself up onto his feet, dusting the grass stains off of his jeans.
Sean was heading to a big University in Kansas this fall, planning on red shirting for the football team. They were supposed to be a good team, and it was a good opportunity for him. He wasn’t smart, not like December or me, so it was sort of his claim to fame. It was his dream, and we were all happy for him.
“I’d better head in, too.” Annie said, leeching onto Sean’s hand and yanking herself up to a standing position. “My flight leaves at 7:30.”
Annie, also not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed academically, was a wonderful actress. Instead of going off to college like the rest of us, she was heading for New York City and the Broadway stage. We supported her because it was her passion, but the truth was none of us were sure how long she’d last. She was talented, but so were a lot of other people in New York. We wished her the best, and that was all we could do.
“Oh,” I managed, my voice lifeless again. It had come too soon. Snuck up on us from behind. Leaving, all at once, going to different places. We didn’t need to speak the words to know the truth. This was probably the last time we’d ever all be together in the same place. Just us, and no one else. This was the end of this chapter in our lives. I looked down at the grass beneath my legs and plucked a weed growing there.
“Maybe we should say goodnight now, then.” I suggested after a minute, pushing myself into a standing position and shoving my hands inside my jean pockets.
“You mean goodbye.” December corrected me, her voice so soft I could barely hear it. I glanced down at her. She looked very frail and very small sitting there on the grass by herself.
“Come on, Dez.” Sean said, smiling, offering his hand. “Let’s just say goodnight. Goodbye is too final.”
December stared at his hand for a minute. She was debating something, fighting with herself inside her head. I could see it written on her face, she was unsure of something. I bit my bottom lip.
“It is final, though.” She murmured, taking his hand, pulling herself up. “This is it, and you know it.”
“Don’t say that,” Annie whispered, wrapping her arms around herself. “It’s too sad.”
December stood still. She looked at each of us in turn, raking our faces with her eyes, memorizing. She smiled after a bit, shaking her head. She reached out and took Annie’s hands in her own.
“Not sad,” she said, squeezing her hands once before letting go,” Just different.”
And we all knew she was right. Besides which, December didn’t look sad. She looked happy. Happy but distant.
I smiled faintly, watching the way she looked at Annie. Finding myself needing her to look at me the same way.
“It’s time.” I said, whispered, knowing it would make sense. December turned and looked at me, and I could see the fresh tears in her eyes.
“It’s time.” She agreed, nodding, letting go of Annie’s hands, turning to walk back down the street. Away from us, and away from our childhood.
We stood and we watched her go, unable to call out to her. Unable to muster up the words we knew would make it better.
Just like always.
I sighed and tossed my head back. The sky was wide and black tonight. No stars. No moon.
For the rest of us it symbolized a new beginning.
For December, it only symbolized a cage.
I followed the same path home I always did. It should have felt different tonight, but it didn’t. The street was the same, the houses the same. A mourning dove called out in the distance and I realized how I couldn’t believe I was leaving for the other side of the country in just a few hours.
The sidewalk wound its way into the curve of three or four houses that was my “neighborhood”, and I slowed my walk. I was in no hurry to be home yet. Nothing was waiting for me at home but an empty bedroom and a packed suitcase. I frowned.
I realized I wouldn’t see December again until Christmas. I pushed the thought out of my head, banishing it absolutely. That was not a thought for tonight. That was for tomorrow. That was for the plane ride.
When I got home I didn’t waste any time. Heading straight for the staircase, I made a b-line for the second floor landing, taking the steps two at a time. My bedroom door stood slightly ajar, the way I’d left it. Mom and Dad were still sound asleep.
I didn’t bother glancing around the room as I stepped inside. I didn’t bother to turn on the lights. I walked in, shut the door behind me, and climbed into bed. I tried my best to ignore the nagging sensation in my gut, and waited.
I’m not sure how much time passed then. Minutes, though it could have been hours. It could have been only seconds, I don’t know. But pretty soon I heard it. The lullaby, the familiar tinkling voice humming just outside my window. I smiled.
“And it’s been so long since I’ve seen the ocean…I guess I should.”
She was singing the words now, just outside the window. I pushed the covers off of my legs and fumbled toward the wall, pushing the lock aside and lifting the pane. There she was. My December, standing there, looking up at me. She smiled.
Her porcelain skin glowed and her hair shimmered in the moonlight.
She’d always resembled somewhat of a mythical creature, and now with her willowy arms wrapped tight about her slender waist and her head tilted to the side showing just the edge of her delicate features…she looked just like a fairy tale.
“Come on.” I whispered, offering her my hand. She took it, and together we hoisted her up onto the window ledge. She landed noiselessly on the wooden floor, bare foot, and delicate as an angel.
“I thought you might forget this year.” She whispered, moving to me and wrapping her arms around my neck, pressing her cheek to my chest. I rubbed her back, unspeaking. She knew I would never forget. She knew I couldn’t forget. I stayed still, barely moving. She was listening to my heart beat.
When she finally sighed and lifted her head, she was looking up at me with an unclear expression. Her eyes were brighter than usual.
“When is your flight?” She asked, loosening her hold on my neck. I looked down at her, unsmiling.
“At ten.” I said.
She nodded, sliding her hands down from my shoulders to my wrists.
She didn’t speak.
I didn’t speak. It wasn’t necessary.
Still unsmiling, still not willing to make a sound, I slipped my hands into hers and pulled her toward my bed. She complied, allowing me to lead her, allowing me to pull the covers back and slide underneath them. She slid in after me, wrapping the blankets up to her chin and turning to face me.
We lay like that for an eternity. Staring at each other, too many words unspoken for it to be considered normal…but too many secret meetings shared for it be awkward. I spent the time memorizing her face, knowing a photograph could never do it justice when I was a million miles away. I memorized her face, that flawless face, and I refused to look away. She kept her hands held tight in mine, and that was all we needed.
“You’re leaving.” She said after a long while, gazing at me. Her eyes were veiled in shadow. I nodded.
“It’s not fair.”
She pushed herself up onto her elbow, her hair falling down across her shoulder. She looked angry now. I sighed and turned my eyes to the ceiling.
“No, it’s not fair.” I murmured, running a hand haphazardly through my hair. This was the conversation I had hoped to keep stalling. I knew it was coming, all night I’d been preparing myself for it. The thought still hit me like a ton of bricks.
I was leaving.
I was leaving and December was staying here. It wasn’t fair at all. Not to her, not to me, not to the hundreds of promises we’d made to one another.
“I don’t know what to do, Jake.” She sighed, looking down at our hands intertwined together. I followed her gaze, marveling at how small and pale her hand was in mine. It looked unreal.
“I won’t be gone forever.” I tried to soothe her, keeping my eyes lowered.
Her voice was almost inaudible. It was weak, and shaking, like she was about to cry. And maybe she was. I hoped to God she wouldn’t. I wasn’t sure how to handle that.
“I’ll come back.” I tried again, noticing my voice was also weak. I cleared my throat, annoyed with myself.
December shook her head, letting her hair whip out at me from every direction.
“No,” she said, “You won’t.”
She knew I wasn’t really planning on coming back.
She knew because she understood my need to get out of this hell hole. My need to escape from the life I knew here. She also knew the only reason I’d stuck around for so long was because of her. She needed me, so I was there.
And now I wasn’t going to be.
I suddenly understood the tears that were brimming her eyes. I understood why she’d gone crazy at the though of a hospital. I understood her petulance and her whining and her shaking. All summer the signs had been there and I’d just refused to notice. I felt sick to my stomach. For a moment I though I might actually be sick, but it passed.
Throwing off the covers I reached for her, catching her around the shoulders with my arm. I crushed her to me, trying to stop the tears from falling down. Trying to stop her body from coming apart.
Anything, everything, all I could do was sit there and hold her to me and hate myself for not seeing it before.
She was afraid of being alone.
Fearless as she was, as she always seemed to be, she was more vulnerable then she ever let on. And she was afraid of being left here, alone.
I bit my lip hard in an effort to push back the tears that threatened to spill over. It worked. The sharp pain brought me back to the now, the reality of the situation. I squeezed her tighter.
“I’m so sorry,” I breathed, not trusting my voice.
December shuddered in my arms, then sighed.
“It’s not up to you, Jake.” She croaked, her voice muffled against my shoulder.
I shook my head. A mixture of anger and self hatred coursed through my veins like poison. I couldn’t believe I was leaving her here. I was sick with myself for not thinking of it before. I was sick with myself for being so damn selfish.
“I…I won’t go,” I stammered, clearing my throat. “I’ll stay here and go to the U of A downtown. It’s not a big deal. I can just get all my classes transferred and –“
“Chris, shut up.” She growled, laying a cool finger to my lips to stop them moving. She looked up at me now, silent. Her eyes were like the ocean. Startlingly blue, and wild. “You’re dream is to make something of yourself, isn’t it?” She kept her voice level despite the tears pooling and trickling down her alabaster cheeks.
I nodded, merely unable to speak. My throat was tight and dry and I would only embarrass myself if I tried to talk now. December smiled.
“Then you have to leave.” She announced, wrapping her hand around the back of my neck and pulling my forehead down against hers. She kept her eyes on mine the entire time. I shuddered, unable to look away. She rubbed her nose against mine in an Eskimo kiss.
“I can’t…” I managed, my voice breaking off.
“You can. You will.” December assured me, a sad smile on her lips.
She drew my hand up then, from under the covers and pressed it to her chest, on the left side. I stopped breathing for a minute, unsure of what to do.
“Feel that?” she asked, her voice dropping to a whisper.
I closed my eyes. I did feel it. Her heart beat, pulsing in strong, steady beats beneath my palm. I smiled and opened my eyes again.
“Yeah, Dez,” I said, “I feel it.”
She released my hand then so abruptly that I almost fell backwards. I would have if she hadn’t leaned forward right then and secured my head in between her hands. She was gazing at me with such an intense fire in her eyes that for a minute I was almost frightened.
“Live for me.” She said, her voice low and unsettling. “Live for me. I can’t do it for myself.”
I stared at her. Her words didn’t make sense, and I found myself horribly confused. I was ready to open my mouth to ask what she meant when she cut me off.
“Don’t forget, Jake.” She murmured in my ear. Then, quick as lightening she kissed my jaw, threw the covers off of us, and hopped out of bed and on to the floor.
She was at the window in another flash, swinging one leg over the pane.
“Wait!” I hissed, jumping up after her and crossing the room in two quick strides. I grabbed her by the arm, just above the elbow, and yanked her back to face me. There was anger on her lovely face. Well, there was anger on mine too. We stared at each other for a minute before she finally ripped her arms free and stood up in front of me.
“I’ll miss you,” I said, truthfully. I was still angry with her, but my voice was gentle enough.
December frowned and shook her head. There were still tears running down her face, but I couldn’t tell if they were sad tears or angry tears. She cried both, and very often.
“Don’t.” She snapped, turning back to the window. I flipped my hand out again and caught her around the wrist this time.
“You can’t go without a proper goodbye.” I reminded her, using her own words to manipulate the situation. She scowled at me. She relaxed after a minute, her wrist going limp in my hand.
“Bye, Jake.” She whispered, leaning in and wrapping her little arms around my waist. I sighed and wrapped my arms around her thin shoulders. She was so frail. She was so breakable. I bit my lip again.
“Bye, Dez.” I mumbled into her hair, trying to inhale the last bit of her scent to take with me. It would have to last me awhile.
“Now,” she said, tilting her head up so her lips were pressed to my ear. “Fly away.”
I smiled in spite of myself, giving her shoulders one last comforting squeeze.
“I’ll be back.” I promised, releasing her and helping her down onto the window ledge. She looked up at me, smiling.
It’s that image of her I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life. Sitting there on my window ledge, looking up at me, smiling, black curls whipping in front of her face, twisting around her waist. Her eyes alight with that wild, fiery glaze. Her skin like silk, gleaming in the moonlight. Always as beautiful as she was broken.
“So leave,” she said, “Leave so you can come back to me.” She laughed then, the sound like a wind chime, and snatched my hand down, pressing it to her lips. And then she was gone. Jumping down from the window and running fast across the grass, and out into the street.