The day I abandoned my best friend was the day I lost myself. With her I was everything, and without her I was nothing.
It was a rainy day, and I was lying on a fluffy pink mat in Ashley’s room. There she was, standing, legs crossed, but not enough to hide the trembling. There she was, long dark hair tied back in a messy ponytail, unwashed and uncombed. There she was, biting her nails. Ashley never bit her nails. I had a hard time believing this creature was my best friend. And yet here she was, reduced to a nervous wreck, awaiting my reaction to her unbelievable announcement, “I’m moving away.”
My reaction was stalking out of that room without a backward glance. She did not try to stop me.
It turned out I never entered that room again while Ashley lived out her few remaining months there. The very next day during lunch I made a beeline straight for Jennifer and Tiffany’s table. I avoided catching Ashley’s eye. Instead I focused on laughing to Tiffany’s incredibly stupid jokes. Ashley was much funnier.
I called my mom on my cell after school.
“Mom, can you drive me home?”
“Honey, don’t you want to walk home with Ashley?”
“Well… I want you to drive me to Tiffany’s house. She invited me over.”
“None. Mom, I always finish my math. It’s easy.”
I could hear a sigh on the other end. “Coming.” Then she hung up.
So that’s how my life became—going over to Tiffany’s house and watching horror movies with her and Jennifer, eating junk food, and making Tiffany’s mother angry. It wasn’t ideal, but I thought I handled it really well, until the day Ashley moved away. That day I spent sitting on my bed, clutching a bowl in my lap in case I threw up. It was a good excuse for staying home. After all, I had thrown up more than once as a result of eating too much junk food at Tiffany’s. Though that day I don’t think my nausea was caused from an upset stomach.
* * *
At dinner a month later Dad mentioned he’d be coaching cross-country at school. I had already signed up and when I told him he was delighted. “But Dad,” I said, “I’m short. I won’t be very fast.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “You’re very athletic. I’m sure you’ll have a medal in no time.”
That’s when I knew I had to get first place. Otherwise no one would ever treat me like a thirteen-year-old girl again. No girl my age was as short as I was, although Ashley had been pretty close.
My mom broke into my thoughts. “Pass the potatoes, dear,” she said. “And oh, that reminds me, a new family is moving next door. The Reeds. And, June,” she turned to me triumphantly, “they have a daughter your age!”
I sunk into my chair. Great, I thought. A new girl. I will have to walk her to school and be her friend and listen to her sniveling. “What’s her name?”
I hated Melissa Reed.
* * *
It was the day before cross-country was to begin and I decided to go for a run. I pulled on black running capris and a neon-green T-shirt. I used an athletic headband to keep my hair out of my face, then tied my black ponytail with a hairband. Bronze skin, shoulder-length black hair, short but strong. That was me.
I ran out the front door into the crisp, fall air, heading down the sidewalk. Suddenly I stopped short. There was a moving truck in the driveway of Ashley’s house. A door opened and a tall, slender girl with a dark brown ponytail came out. She turned and looked at me.
Her eyes. They were cold, cold blue eyes. Under her gaze I felt vulnerable. Turning, I sprinted up the street, rounded a corner, and slowed into a jog. Her eyes were still there, imprinted in my mind. I couldn’t shake them away.
Without meaning to, I took the route to the park Ashley and I always used to go to if we had anything serious to talk about. I crept underneath the willow tree next to the lake where we used to conceal ourselves. We could tell each other anything there.
I got up and ran away from that place. Tears blurred my vision. I tripped and fell on the pavement, lay there, sobbing. Ashley. Ashley. Why don’t you come back?
I heard footsteps behind me and turned, still crying. For one stupidly hopeful moment I thought it was Ashley, but then the cold blue eyes made themselves known and hatred consumed me.
“Go away!” I shouted. “Go away, go away, go away!”
She stared at me with wide eyes, then sprinted away. I watched her fade into the blurry background of birdsong and swaying trees. Then I laid my head down on the hard pavement and knew no more.
My mom came to get me later. She said nothing, only looked at me anxiously and wiped my tears with an old handkerchief. It was already wet, perhaps from her own tears. I was too sleepy, my face raw from crying and my head aching, to care. My last thought before I fell asleep was, cross-country tomorrow.
I woke up. Cross-country today.
I walked Melissa to school, sat with her in the classroom and at lunch, navigated her to her classes and to the bathroom, listened and answered her questions and was her all-out friend for an entire day. It was exhausting. I couldn’t look forward more to cross-country. No Melissa there.
How wrong I was.
I suppose through my haze of tears the day before I hadn’t noticed she was wearing running capris and tennis shoes just like me. But there she was, and quickly she sidled up to me. Groan.
My dad whistled piercingly. Everyone covered their ears.
“All right, cross-country! I’m Mr. Whitley and over there is my daughter, June.”
Everyone’s heads swivelled over to me. I glared at my dad. He grinned back, then said, “Run sixteen times around the soccer field. Go!”
Melissa was off like a bullet shot. She whizzed around the field faster than anyone. I was angry. The new girl couldn’t beat everyone else. I forced my legs to pump faster, harder. Several others began to do the same. I passed others and got in front. Then I was right behind Melissa. I ran up to her and shoved her, hard, then sprinted away. Only one more lap to go. Melissa hadn’t fallen. She was right behind me.
“Are you just doing this for your dad?”
Gosh, she didn’t even sound breathless. My breath caught in my chest and I wheezed. “Of course not. I love to run,” I said.
“So do I.” She paused a moment before saying, “But maybe you care more about winning.”
“Shut up,” I said before sprinting away. Only a hundred meters to go.
She was right behind me. And then she shoved me. Lightly, as if a reminder. Then she took off, ponytail flying in the wind. I was momentarily shocked before I started running again. Something was bothering me.
Who did she remind me of?
I slowed at the edge of the soccer field, deep in thought. Looked at her, shook my head. I didn’t know.
But I was to find out very soon.
* * *
It was the dull, rainy day of my first meet. I ran outside the school building while hail bit into my skin like mosquitoes. I scanned the after-school crowd anxiously. Where are you, Dad? I thought, biting my lip. Seconds from a nervous breakdown, I located the van, shiny with rain, in the parking lot. I climbed in and collapsed on the back seat.
“Hi, June,” my father said, while distractedly navigating through the busy parking lot. “Melissa’s parents didn’t want to drive her in this weather so I offered to take her. Hope you don’t mind.”
I glanced at the back seat. Melissa sat upright, legs crossed, hands folded in her lap. She looked very tense. Directing her piercing glare at me, she said, “My parents didn’t want me to go. But I came anyway. They need me, you know, if we’re going to get a decent shot at this thing.”
I regarded her coldly. I knew why she came. To beat me. I knew because it was the same reason I begged my mom to let me go to the meet. Even though we were only a few feet away, those few feet pulsed with constrained hatred. I pointedly turned to stare out the rain-spattered window. We’ll see who the better runner is, I thought decisively.
This meet was a big one. Middle school teams all across the state came to compete. There would be over 600 runners. The very thought made me feel cold. I remember what Dad had said yesterday. “Push yourself hard. Pass people. Keep in mind the first fifty runners get medals.”
I wanted to get a medal. But more than that I wanted to beat Melissa.
The meet was all sound and activity. Tents waved back and forth in the wind like brightly colored flags in a dull gray sky. Smells of hot dogs and popcorn permeated the air. Teenagers in uniforms stretched and ate and drank. Parents hugged and kissed their kids. Stressed coaches shouted out last-minute reminders. And finally, there we were, lined up in a perfect row. We were in box number seven. It’s considered a lucky number. Of course, I don’t believe in luck. Luck is a fantasy. I planned on winning this race, beating Melissa, not by chance but by skill.
Poised on the starting line, I was full of electricity and aware of everything around me. Melissa’s rapid breathing. The blister on my right toe. A drop of rainwater (or was it sweat?) that trickled down my neck. My dad’s warm, damp palm on my back. The encouraging whisper of a teammate. Wind in my ears. Rain. Conversation. Silence. And finally, the shrill note of a whistle.
I shot off the starting line like a wild animal from a cage. I was free. Free. I flew like a bird toward open skies. The labored breathing and scuffling of shoes of those around me was muted by my emotions. Everything else seemed to fall away, it was only me, me running. But suddenly I heard someone approaching behind me. Not just anyone. I’d practiced with that girl too long not to know the sound of those rhythmic breaths by my ear. My hair stood on end. Ran, ran, adrenaline coursing through my bloodstream, pushing ahead through the vast crowd of ponytailed runners. Ran because I hated her. Hated her for coming and taking Ashley’s place. For being a better runner. For being her, Melissa.
In my frenzy of anger and loathing I almost didn’t hear the strangled sound behind me. I was running up a very steep hill and my breaths were becoming louder until I heard almost nothing else. But I heard. And I turned, just for a second. What I saw made my heart stop.
In the blinding blur of moving bodies I saw a prone figure lying on the pavement. Long gangly legs. A leg twisted behind her. Blood oozing off her elbow. Brown hair falling over her face. Something froze within me. The brown hair. That was the person Melissa reminded me of. Ashley. The shade of brown was very similar. And now, looking at her motionless on the ground, a memory of Ashley and me popped into my head, unbidden. She and I were seven, learning how to ride bikes. I was pedaling faster and faster in my eagerness. Ashley struggled to keep up with me. Suddenly her bike crashed into a tree. She fell on the sidewalk and started bawling, the hair falling over her face. Just like Melissa. And what was the difference, really? I hadn’t liked Ashley right away. Why hadn’t I given Melissa a chance? And Ashley? Why had I abandoned her? This was my fault, all my fault.
I took off down the hill against the tide of runners. Several gave me startled looks. I pushed past them all and reached Melissa. Kneeling by her side, I realized I had no idea what to do. Comfort her? Heal her wounds? Impossible. Help her back to the starting line? I decided to do that.
“Melissa.” My voice sounded weak, trembling. I started again. “Melissa.”
She made no response.
“Melissa.” I shook her gently. She opened her eyes. They were not cold eyes. They were eyes full of pain. “Melissa, do you think you could make it back to the starting line if I helped you?” Dazed, she nodded. I took hold of her by the arm—careful not to touch her bleeding elbow—and heaved her to her feet. As she leaned against me, we slowly hobbled away from the river of runners and back to the starting line.
My dad carried Melissa over to a bench while her parents hovered nearby, dabbing her wounds with tissues and cheering her up. I was standing slightly aside, watching them, as my dad came up to me.
“She only has a sprained ankle and some bleeding on her arm and knee. Nothing major,” he told me. Then he lowered his voice and said, “June, I’m very proud of you. You did the right thing. If you had gotten first place I still wouldn’t have been as proud.”
I didn’t know what to say to this. I was relieved. He wasn’t angry at me for not completing the race. Even though we wouldn’t win this meet (Melissa was right about her being crucial for the team), he didn’t look frustrated, disappointed, or cross. Instead he put his arm around me and I leaned into his tall frame. Perhaps someday I’d be as tall as him. It was a cheering thought.
Turning now to the sound of cheering, I saw a girl cross the finish. She accepted a medal with breathless joy. Fiftieth place. And it wasn’t me, but her, who had gotten it.
But then I realized something about winning. You can’t win by being mean to your best friend, or to the new kid whom you have no reason to hate. I realize now she had been right: I cared more about winning that medal than running, or being kind to her, or remaining friends with Ashley despite the distance that separated us. I didn’t realize that what I needed to win was not a medal, but a friend. A friend that could help you be a better person. And I, June Whitley, needed help being a better person.
I reached in my pocket and pulled out my cell phone. Dialing her number, I smiled.
“Hey, Ashley? This is June. I’m so sorry about everything…”