Beth and I became friends when we were nine. She moved to my school in December when the Illinois winter is doing it’s best to bury us alive. She was alone on the playground, watching the other children with her lips turned up in the sweetest smile I’d ever seen. A fur-trimmed purple hood surrounded a kind face, cheeks ruddy from the cold. Sparkling green eyes watched the merriment without envy or resentment over being left out. I was mesmerized. Something about her seemed to stand out, to make her different. Even then I knew it.
We became inseparable friends before we really knew it. We spent summers climbing the cherry tree in Old Man Wither’s yard. He would chase all the other kids, but only smiled as we sailed pirate ships or commanded our troops from the safety of those branches. There were two branches that grew very close together, forming a natural bench were we would sit for hours among the cherry blossoms. It was like sitting on a bus bench, one wide flat branch beneath us leaning back into another behind us. I still remember that tree fondly.
Not all our memories were tied to the tree, but it definitely held some of the best. We also swam in the various creeks and streams around town, played tag and hopscotch as much as any other kids. My dad often accused me of thinking he owned the phone company over the years. We had our fair share of snowball fights and played more games of Dead Man Rise in the fallen leaves than I care to count. We went through our phases, fought like cats and dogs and swore we’d never speak again more than once. One time, in the sixth grade, we went an entire month without saying a word, before simply striking up a conversation one day as if nothing had happened.
But the tree was the enduring symbol of our friendship. It is where we did all those things we didn’t want our parents to know about. She smuggled a copy of Playgirl and we both giggled as we laid eyes on our first penis. And our second, and our third…I snitched two of my dad’s Budweisers and we drank them, pulling faces and gagging at the taste, yet finishing a can each. The first time we lit up a cigarette was under that tree. I thought one of us would certainly cough up a lung, but for some reason we had another, and another, until it became a habit, one that I still struggle with to this day. We talked about boys and compared notes about sex until we were pretty sure we had it figured out. More than anything, I think it’s where I learned the true meaning of friendship.
Not everything I learned beneath those branches are recalled with a smile. It was sitting on our bench one day when we were thirteen that Beth told me about her gift.
“Sometimes I get this funny feeling deep down inside, like my belly is filled with lead. No matter how warm I was before, all of a sudden I get so chilled my teeth chatter. My arms get all goosebumpy. I feel like I have to cross them to hold myself together, and if anyone touches me I’ll shatter into a million pieces.” She sighed and looked sadder than I had ever seen her before. “Every time I get the feeling, someone nearby is going to die, and soon. And there’s nothing I can do about it. And it’s never wrong, not one single stumble or false alarm.”
I saw her gift in action sooner than I would have liked. It was the annual Snider family reunion, and since there were no kids my age, my parents had let me bring Beth along. My mom had wrestled me into a dress so I was confined to “ladylike” activities. We were playing Frisbee a short distance from the others when Grammy came over and sat on the glider nearby watching us with an amused smile. Suddenly Beth dropped the Frisbee and crossed her arms. I was confused by the tears in her eyes.
“I’m not feeling so hot, Ellen. I think I need to go home,” she said.
I chased after her, knowing something was up. It wasn’t until I caught up to her and noticed the goose bumps on her arms and the twisted expression on her face. I glanced back towards my family, struggling to force my mouth to ask the question I didn’t want to. “Who?”
“I don’t know, Ellen. It doesn’t work that way. The only people I was close to were you and…” she trailed off, her eyes flicking back to the swing where my Grammy sat. Only she wasn’t sitting there, she was lying on the ground in a circle of people. Beth gave a shattered sob and tore into the twilight as I watched my family try and save a woman I knew was beyond help. After the paramedics had taken her away, my dad sat me down and explained that Grammy had a bad heart and it had finally just given up.
I didn’t see Beth again for about a week and I was just starting to wonder if she was avoiding me when she showed up at my door. I shouted that I was leaving and we headed to our tree. Silence fell between us, that comfortable quiet where you simply don’t need words, just being together is enough. Finally she slid her fingers through mine and sighed.
“I’m sorry about Grammy.”
“You knew, didn’t you.”
Beth Just nodded. She stared off into the distance and I figured the conversation was over when she started speaking again in a quiet voice. “It started when I was five and my dad was real sick. Cancer. Everyone kept telling me he was going to be fine, that he was getting better. But every time I was around him I felt so cold and my stomach felt so heavy. I knew he was going to die. And he did.”
I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. Her head rested on my shoulder in the way that only girls seem to do with their friends. I felt hot tears soaking through my tee shirt, but after a minute she started talking again.
“The next couple years were a nightmare. I kept hoping to wake up, but in time I came to accept it as my reality. I knew when people were going to die. If I said anything, the grownups would just give me a sad look and whisper behind their hands that I was crazy. I knew the night my mom was going to die, even before the house caught fire. There was nothing I could do to change it. If I tried to warn her she’d just shake and me and demand to know why I insisted on telling stories. So I kept it to myself and a week later I was living with my Aunt Cathy.”
Holy ray of sunshine, that girl could carry a load. I still don’t understand how she stayed so chipper most the time, carrying such a heavy burden. I tried my best to never let it show, but sometimes being around her creeped me. We didn’t talk about it, and she tried to keep quiet about when it happened, though I soon learned to recognize the signs. We were still close friends, and we did everything together.
It was a hot summer day shortly after my sixteenth birthday. We were walking down the alley that shortened the walk from my house to hers. We used to spend an hour or more walking each other home before my mom put her foot down and told me I could only walk her halfway. So we stood at the invisible line along the route, talking as we both lit a cigarette. We smoked a movement in companionable silence. We smiled and waved and promised to meet up the following morning and head to the town pool. Taking one long drag, Beth blew out the smoke and said goodbye. I stood watching as she jogged across the street to the second half of the alley. Soon the darkness had swallowed all but the glow of her cigarette. I was about to turn around she walked under a streetlight and I noticed her arms were crossed and she was shaking like she’d caught a sudden chill.
I never made a sound as the car lurched into motion, backing out of the driveway without looking. Silence was interrupted by the heavy thud as her body was struck, flying through the air to land in a pile of garbage about fifty feet away. Not a sound escaped me as I watched the driver get out of his car, tearing at his hair before grabbing his cell phone and dialing 911. My lips were sealed as I numbly walked to the scene, kneeling beside her and silently stroking her blond hair. The paramedics came and since I refused to leave her, I rode beside the stretcher to the hospital. I couldn’t seem to make my mouth work, and was only able to cling to my mother and shed silent tears as my best friend in the whole world was pronounced dead.
I didn’t speak again for over a week. One night I was sitting in my window with my knees drawn up to my chest, blankly staring into the stormy night. As soon as I saw the lightning bolt, I knew where it had struck.
“No!” I shrieked as I bolted out of the house into the pouring rain. I ran the entire way to Old Man Wither’s, repeating that one word over and over as I ran three blocks. I’m surprised I didn’t wake the entire neighborhood. I fell to my knees in the mud that had once been a lawn when I saw the damage. A smoking hole in the ground or licking flames I could have handled. But not this. But the only casualty was our branch, lying on the ground next to the tree.
I felt as if someone was kicking me while I was down. I wept as rain plastered my dark hair to my head, staring at the broken limbs as if they were a corpse. I wasn’t sure I would ever have the strength to get back up again, but somehow I did. I managed to put one foot in front of the other and slowly plodded home, and on with my life.
No one ever climbed that tree again. I bought a rag doll and dressed her in a purple coat, draping blond braids over her shoulders. Her arms were sewn across her chest in a gesture I’d grown to dread. Lying her in a shoebox, I gave her a funeral beneath our tree, placing a pressed cherry blossom branch I had broken off our branch. I figured all corpses needed a proper burial, even a memory. I buried with her all the anger and resentment that had been building inside me since her arms had crossed that night.
I never figured out how or why Beth always knew death was coming. It almost seemed like she was a doorbell Death rang to announce his arrival, even when it was her time to go. My life has changed for having known her, for having been allowed to share in her gift for a time. But every night I pray I never hear that doorbell again.