It is a beautiful, warm day in October. The sun peaks through the trees, projecting yellow, red, and orange hues of the leaves onto your wall. It’s nearly time for the picnic. You and your best friend [[Amanda->Amanda]] make the hike to the pond about a mile behind her house every nice Saturday of the month. The two of you think of it as an adventure, while your parents think of it as the untightening the leash. But not too much. Amanda’s father calls every few hours to check in, and the two of you know that one missed call will result in his embarking to your spot of play and the loss of the privilege to go. You haven’t been feeling well, and your mother says she has a bad feeling about you venturing out today.
“You’re already coming down with the sniffles, baby. It will only get worse out there near the water.”
“We won’t be out for long, and its not like we will go swimming.” You argue, with a brief hug to your mom’s torso to settle the dispute. “I will even wear my hat!”
Your mother sighs and turns her head to look out the window. The sun is still shining as bright as ever, and only a gentle breeze blows through the dying branches.
“Okay, but put on the wool hat, you hear?”
And you’re off.
Amanda has been your best friend since you were six. The two of you met in the schoolyard when you noticed her playing with a blonde Barbie doll. Well, not really playing, but rather taking pebbles and bashing the Barbie’s head. You approached cautiously, but without lacking any enthusiasm.
“Hi!” You said, shocking your soon-to-be best friend into dropping the pebble. You gave her your name. “Why are you doing that to your doll?”
Amanda looks down at the doll, whose head is now mushed and blackened by the pebbles. “She was itching me.”
You drop to your knees in front of Amanda and her doll and gently grab it from her hands. “Bad doll. You shouldn’t itch your friend. It hurts.”
Amanda cracks a smile and so do you. It’s humble and takes many days before the two of you start to play by yourselves on the playground, but you are nothing short of inseparable.
[[back->opening]] Amanda is waiting on her front porch when you arrive at her house. Her fiery red hair is pulled back into a pony-tail with all the hairs sticking out and up like a lion’s mane. Her expression is weird, you notice. Amanda is a smiler by no means, but she never looks sad. There is always a kind of curiosity in those green eyes of hers, but this time they hold a dead stare at the ground in front of her.
“What’s the matter, Red?”
A few heartbeats pass before she speaks again. “Do you know the easiest way to kill a group of ants?”
You follow her eyes and watch as an army of big, black ants march by with little leaves, pebbles, anything they can carry, on their backs. You purse your lips. “No, not really. Do you?”
Amanda shakes her head. “I’ve tried sticking a match down their ant holes. Water, too. But they keep coming back.”
“What’s your obsession with killing these ants?”
She shrugs her shoulders, finally standing to her full height. You had forgotten that Amanda hit her growth spurt well before you; you were always the taller friend, but not she was well over a foot taller than you.
“An itch, I guess.”
The trek to the pond takes about 2,000 steps. You like to count your steps each time you go to the pond, it’s calming. It’s also nice to hear a voice, even if it’s your own because Amanda never speaks. She likes the calmness of the quiet, while you find solace in the noise. Amanda knows this, but one thing she doesn’t know, or notice, is that you drop breadcrumbs on the path. Hansel and Gretel taught you that no matter what adventure you’re on, you should be able to find your way back home in one piece.
There is a fork in the road that the two of you pass every trek, but this time, she stops, and so abruptly, you bump into her dropping your stale piece of bread.
“I came out here the other day while dad was at the hospital and took the other path.”
“With who else? You were at chess practice.”
“That’s dangerous, Amanda.”
She shrugs her shoulders. Something she had been doing more than usual, you noticed. “There is a really pretty water well. Want to check it out?”
[[pond->right]] or [[well->left]]?
You make up a lie. You trust your friend, but today she’s been a little off. The last thing you want is for the both of you to end up lost in the woods.
“Some other day, maybe? My mom wants me home a little early today so she can re-twist my hair.”
“Oh come on! It won’t be long. It will still take us to the pond, but we will get to pass through the meadow first. It’s very Twilight-ish.”
You shake your head. “Next weekend, okay? My mom will kill me if I’m late.”
[[next->boxes]]“It’s magical. I wished for a beautiful Saturday today and it came true.” She knows I am a sucker for making wishes.
“Okay, as long as we are back by sundown.”
Amanda smiles for the first time that day and takes your hand. Odd, but welcomed, nonetheless. She walks you down the path for five-hundred more steps until you reach a meadow. The opening is magical, indeed. Butterflies flutter around, their wings shimmering in the light of the sun. The grass is wild and long, and tickles the bareness of your legs as you make your way over to the mystical wishing well. Amanda was quick and excited, more than you had ever seen her, as she bounded toward the well. You didn’t peg her a wishful spirit, but anything other than a blank stare was good for you.
She waves you over. “Come on!” You pick up your pace and run over to your best friend. She’s already begun climbing up to sit on the edge. You hesitate, but after heartbeat, you climb up, too. Amanda won’t let you fall. The stones of the wishing well are hard against your butt. You shift to get more comfortable.
“Any coins?” Amanda asks.
You reach into your pocket, but come out empty. “Didn’t think I would need them.”
“No biggie. We can close our eyes and wish instead. On the count of three?”
One…you close your eyes and take a deep breath.
Two…Amanda’s hand is on your back. A reassuring rub? A push.
Three…your eyes are open now. You’re falling…falling…falling
Amanda is found later, sleeping on her hoodie on the bank of the pond; it had been six hours since the girl had left the house. The police officers hoist her up and walk her back through the woods. Her father is compliant in letting them take her off for questioning. The investigator who sits her down is new. She has fresh brown eyes and a look that says she’s just there to help. Amanda finds this funny, but she keeps it to herself, maintaining her mute expression.
Hours of questioning with only a few breaks to pee or eat a snack. Amanda rests her head on her arms and closes her eyes. Maybe, she thinks, when she wakes up it will all have just been a dream. Then again, would she want it to be?
The investigator gently asks Amanda to focus on her before popping the golden question.
“Why did you do it?”
Amanda shifts her gaze from her arms, to the two-way mirror, where is she is sure her father and her best friend’s mother stand.
“An itch, I guess.”
Amanda is back to being quiet again, but this time, there is a prominent scowl on her face. You slow down behind her, playing with your fingers. If you had known that she would be this hurt about not going to the well, you might have gone.
“You’re quiet, Amanda. What’s wrong?”
She kicks a rock in front of her and it goes flying into the trunk of a tree with a crack. “I just get bored of going on the same path every weekend. Don't you ever want to stray?”
“Not really.” You answer earnestly. “I like monotony.”
Amanda has no response to this. The two of you finish the trek in silence once again. You’re itching for a snack when you finally reach the edge of the pond. You untie your hoodie from my waist and smooth it out on the grass before plopping down. Amanda takes her time, meticulously clearing her hoodie of wrinkles before settling.
She pulls two lunchboxes from her bag: one yellow, one purple. Your favorite color. She extends the purple one in her hand out to you, but you pause before grabbing it. “Any difference between the two?”
Amanda’s eyebrows knit together. “Both peanut butter and jelly. Crusts torn off just as we like. I think one might have a watermelon fruit roll-up, though." She extends her hands, holding the boxes.
"[[Yellow->yellow]] or [[purple->purple]]?"
“I want the yellow this time. I think I might change that to my new favorite color.”
A shadow of disappointment crosses Amanda’s face, but it’s gone as soon as it comes. She passes you the lunchbox.
You are quick to tear into your lunchbox. You eat everything out of order: first the juice, then the fruit roll-up, and finally the sandwich.
“Oh is this honey?” You had never had honey on a PB&J before, but it was certainly welcomed.
“Just makes it sweeter.” Amanda said, her voice detached and faraway. She and yet to touch her lunchbox.
“Are you not hungry?” You asked.
“Not really. I think I’m gonna go for a swim.”
“Isn’t it a little too chilly for that?”
Amanda whipped her head around at you, eyes ablaze. “Look, you have been questioning my every move all day. First you didn’t want to go to the wishing well, then you just HAD to have the yellow lunch box and now you’re questioning why I want to swim? Either join me or leave!”
Go [[swim->swim]] or go [[home->home]]?
Her face is as passive as usual. She hands you the lunchbox, and you shake it for the contents. The tell-tale sound of a sandwich container and juice box rattling around inside. You grab the juice box first, then the fruit roll-up. It was strawberry. Amanda eats her food in order the way it should be: sandwich, juice, fruit roll-up. For someone who lectured you about straying from the norm, she sure was sticking to the status quo.
“My dad made the sandwich just the way you like it,” she said. “I added some honey, though.”
“I’ve never had honey on a PB&J before.” You open up the sandwich and inspect the contents. The sticky sweetness unpeels before rejoining again when you smash the bread slices back together.
“Just makes it sweeter.” She says. You feel her eyes on you as you finally take a bite. It’s delicious, you think. Warm, sticky, and sweet. She’s still watching. You take another bite. She’s on sitting up on her knees now, watching. She must really want to know what you think of the addition. You open your mouth to tell her its delicious, but you can’t. There is a sharp pain in your stomach, like you are being stabbed. You drop the sandwich and clutch your belly, tumbling over onto your side. Amanda is hovering over you now.
She blurs in and out of your vision. The red you see, you’re not sure if it’s her hair or blood. The pain in unbearable in your stomach. You try to wretch, but you can’t. You catch a single glimpse of your best friend before the world descends into darkness. A detached voice whispers in your ear.
“It makes it sweeter.”
“God, okay! You don’t have to be so whiny about it.” You toss the sandwich on the ground and pull off your shirt and jeans. There is a little chill, but its bearable. You really don’t want to deal with Amanda’s whining anymore, and if swimming will shut her up then so be it. For the first time, Amanda smiles. It’s like a mime changing their face expression: creepy and out of place.
She strips herself of her clothes and dashes into the pond. Soon enough she is descending lower and lower and all you see is her red hair floating above her like a giant leaf. You know your mom will kill you for getting wet in the cold, but it’s a risk worth taking. Amanda has been weird all day, and you would die to have your best friend back. Just as you move through the water, the red of Amanda’s hair disappears beneath the surface. She’s gone for more than thirty seconds when you get worried.
“Amanda? Come up now. I know you can hold your breath longer than me but this isn’t a competition.”
Nothing. You wade deeper into the water. Your feet are no longer buried in the soft, mushy, mud. The water is past your chin, at your nose. You kick your legs and waves your arms to stay afloat.
“Amanda? Please come up.” A smart person would dip their head below to look for her, but you were only taught how to float. Going beneath the water, frankly, terrifies you. You look up at the sky and close your eyes in prayer.
“Please be okay. Please be okay.”
There is a tickle at your foot that startles you and suddenly the sky above you is turned upside down as you are pulled under.
You kick and scream out. Water enters your mouth, you emerge from the water and cough out before being pulled under again. It’s a hand. Two hands. They drag you deeper, deeper, deeper. Your chest hurts. Your lungs burn. There is water in your nose now. You open your eyes one last time as your vision starts to fade. A swirl of red hair flows by you and up toward the sun that peeking through the murky water.
“Fine!” You slam the sandwich down on the ground and grab your jacket, stomping off into the woods. At first you feel bad about leaving Amanda, but she had clearly come to your spot alone once before, so she could find her way back.
You can’t help the angry tears that well in your eyes as you follow your breadcrumbs back home. You emerge from the woods without looking back. Amanda’s father along with your mother are waiting in the yard.
There are two policemen, too. Your mother screams when she sees you emerge and races toward you, swooping you into her arms.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
You knit your brow. “My feelings are, but nothing else. Why are the policemen here?”
Amanda’s father runs over to you and bends down onto his knees. He’s still in his stark white hospital uniform.
“Where is Amanda? Is she still in the woods?”
“I left her by the pond. She was mad that I didn’t want to swim with her.”
Your mother and Amanda’s father share a look before he calls over the police officers. There is a lot of whispering. One is holding a note. The same flowery paper you had given Amanda for her last birthday.
“What’s going on?” you ask your mother as she leads you to the car. She licks her lips, her hands shaking on the wheel.
“I’m just glad you’re safe, baby. Let’s keep it at that.”