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Fountain

Naomi and Oscar are best friends, and they do the same thing every day—or at least, they used to

Naomi Keith’s feet slapped the cracked pavement of the sidewalk. She scoured the streets of Cedar Key, their small Florida town, looking for any interesting people. Her best friend, Oscar Hernandez, walked next to her. Suddenly, she spotted a middle-aged woman wearing wrinkled khaki long pants, even in ninety-degree June weather, and a puffy black jacket. She had a baseball cap pulled low and her phone was shoved near her face. She looked rather cross. A perfect suspect.

Naomi nudged Oscar and pointed discreetly at the woman walking on the other side of the street. “That woman . . . is actually a certified genius. She attends an elite top college that almost nobody knows about, and she’s one of five people there. She’s working on designing an app like FaceTime but you only have to move your lips and the device you’re using will read your lips and what you’re saying will appear as text on the other person’s screen.” Naomi paused for a breath.

“She looks mad because the app isn’t working right. Also, she has been working day and night on it and hasn’t been able to get much sleep. She hasn’t been able to change clothes, so that’s why her pants are wrinkled. Her face is close to the screen because . . . the translator isn’t working and the other person is getting something like ‘Pig sit docking?’ instead of ‘Is this working?’ so she puts her mouth as close to the screen as possible.”

Naomi grinned. That was her best one for the day yet, by far. She looked to Oscar for feedback, but to her surprise, he was looking longingly at the posse of popular boys who were monkeying around on the nearby skate park.

“Oscar! Did you even listen to my story? It was the best one yet,” Naomi said, annoyed.

“What? Oh, yeah, it was good.” But Naomi could tell that he hadn’t really been listening.

“Um, hey, Naomi?” Oscar said suddenly, after a minute of awkward silence.

“Yeah?” Naomi said, thinking he meant to apologize.

“Um, would you mind if I join those guys over there?” He jerked his thumb over to the direction of the skate park, taking Naomi by surprise.

“But . . . you don’t skate,” was all Naomi could manage to get out.

“I’m sure I can borrow one of the guys’ boards. Please, Na? Just today. We’ll walk again tomorrow.”

“Sure . . .” Naomi replied uncertainly. But she wasn’t so certain she wanted Oscar to go.

“Thanks, Na. You’re the best,” Oscar called.

“Yeah,” Naomi mumbled once he was out of earshot. “But you still don’t want to hang out with me.”

Her feelings hurt, she trudged home, not even stopping for a mango smoothie to cool her down. After all, that was something she only did with Oscar. And clearly he didn’t want to hang out with her anymore. He was her best (and only) friend. They had been playing together since preschool and would go on walks every day. As they walked, they would look at passersby and imagine stories about them. It was her favorite time of the day. She looked forward to being with Oscar. But now, apparently, he was ditching her for those crazy skateboarding boys.

She sighed in relief when she reached her house. “How was your walk?” her mother asked, wiping perspiration from her forehead. She had been cleaning out the attic for a garage sale, which was a taxing task.

“Mmm,” Naomi mumbled, not wanting to talk about it. She shuffled up the stairs and into her room.

She closed her window, which was now just letting in the humid Florida summer air, and switched on her fan. It whirred to life and blew cold air at her sweaty face. She lined the fan up by her bed and flopped onto it to think, staring at the cracks and water stains in the ceiling as she did so.

Did I do something wrong? I don’t think so. I was just telling a story about that woman, which was perfectly okay because just moments earlier he had been telling a story about that guy in his fancy Lexus zooming down the street way too fast. That was a funny one. Although come to think of it . . . it didn’t have as much detail as Oscar’s stories usually have. And he was kinda distracted as he told it. I thought he was just thinking about what to say next, but apparently not. And why would he want to hang out with the posse of popular boys? They’re annoying and immature . . . and he doesn’t even skate!

Naomi sighed and rubbed her temples. It was all so confusing! Suddenly, a new thought occurred to her: is it possible that he thinks that being friends with a girl when we’re twelve is weird? She mulled this one over for quite some time, finally deciding that it was the most reasonable answer—but also the one that she liked the least. Why would it be weird? Everybody in their small Florida town knew that Oscar and Naomi were best friends. It was just a fact, like everyone knew little Mrs. White was widowed. It was just . . . a thing. Nobody acted weird if they saw Naomi and Oscar together.

Is it possible that he thinks that being friends with a girl when we’re twelve is weird?

She puzzled a little more until dinner, where she was unusually quiet. She focused on picking at her food, cold soba noodles with cabbage and pork, and keeping a bite in her mouth at all times.

That night, sleep did not come easily. Naomi tossed and turned, the events of the afternoon replaying themselves over and over in her mind. Eventually, at 11:30, she managed to fall into a light and fitful slumber.

The next morning, Naomi was in a foul mood. She had woken up early, at 6:00, and all in all got less than seven hours of sleep. Which, for a growing girl, was not much at all. At breakfast, she snapped at her younger twin brothers, talked back to her mom, and ignored her dad completely.

She moped around all day until 3:00, the hottest time of the day, and when she usually saw Oscar. Naomi trudged out of the house and walked a few houses down to Oscar’s. Surely he’d have seen that those boys were nothing more than a rowdy, immature bunch not worth hanging out with. And anyway, he’d promised her that they’d walk today. Her hopes up, she rapped her fingers against the fading wood of the door to Oscar’s house.

But while usually a smiling Oscar would greet her, now Mrs. Hernandez came to the door. This in and of itself was not a good sign.

“Hello, Naomi. And what brings you here today?” Mrs. Hernandez smiled.

“Um, actually, I was wondering where Oscar was? We usually go on walks this time of day, so . . .” Naomi trailed off uncertainly.

Mrs. Hernandez’s face fell. “I’m sorry, Naomi. Oscar went to hang out with Aaron and Juan and their crew. He just left. He’ll be back in an hour or two. Sorry.” And with that, Mrs. Hernandez shut the door quietly, but firmly, in Naomi’s face.

Naomi couldn’t decide whether to be mad or sad. Oscar had promised her. He had said, “We’ll walk again tomorrow.”

She decided that even if Oscar was being a pill and not his usual self, that shouldn’t stop her from walking and getting a smoothie. She started out on their usual route.

At first, walking without Oscar made her feel strange and a little guilty. But she soon shook the feelings off, deciding that she was more mad than sad.

Feeling adventurous, Naomi even took a detour from their usual route. Another thing about Oscar was that he was set in his ways. They had walked the exact same route every single day without fail, except when one of them was sick. Which wasn’t very often. They knew the owner of the smoothie shack, Luis Marquez, and his son, Rodrigo, like old friends. They always ordered the same thing. So Naomi realized that it was very unlike Oscar to go hang with the posse. They had deemed those boys not worthy of their company and, well, they just weren’t Naomi and Oscar’s type.

Naomi realized that she had reached the smoothie shack. Rodrigo was lazing around by the counter— there were no other customers—and his dad was nowhere in sight.

A surprised look flickered across Rodrigo’s face, but quickly dissipated. Naomi tried her best to ignore it, but it was hard.

“No Oscar today?” Rodrigo asked, as casually as possible.

“No, he’s . . . sick,” Naomi replied. She couldn’t bring herself to tell Rodrigo the real truth.

He nodded. “Uh-huh.” But there was a note of skepticism in his voice. Naomi brushed it off. “Your usual?” Rodrigo asked, even though it wasn’t really a question anymore.

Naomi surprised herself by saying, “Nah, I’ll try a raspberry-lime shake.”

This time Rodrigo didn’t even try to hide his surprise. “You sure?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Naomi answered, sounding more confident than she really was.

“All right.” Rodrigo turned around and whipped it up. When he handed it to her, Naomi regarded it with interest. It was pinkish red in color, with a bubbly lime-green top, and a thick straw stuck in the middle. Naomi picked it up from the counter, thanked Rodrigo, and walked coolly out the door, even though inside she was nearly shaking. Had she really just ordered a different thing than what she had ordered for three years straight? Yes, she told herself. She had.

She sipped at the raspberry-lime shake, delighted by the cool, slightly tangy but also sweet flavor. Naomi decided that she would order this from now on. It didn’t matter what Oscar thought or did; she was her own person.

Naomi took the long route back home, wanting to savor her drink as much as she could. When she got home, her mom gave her a friendly nod and didn’t ask how her walk was. Naomi nodded courteously back.

Her mom noticed the change in beverage. “Trying something new?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Naomi replied. “It’s really good. Do you want to try?”

Her mom nodded and took a sip, then smiled.

“Good, right?” Naomi asked.

“Yes, very. I’m glad to see you branching out.”

Naomi just shrugged and smiled.

She spent the rest of the day reading in her room. She was a lot more civil at dinner and talked and laughed with her family. Her dad worked at the local hospital as a pediatrician. He usually had funny stories, and today was no exception.

“You know,” he started, and Naomi and her two little brothers, Noah and Nate, perked up their ears and leaned forward. “You know how little kids are sometimes scared of the weirdest of things?” he continued. Naomi nodded and shot a meaningful glance at her two brothers. Noah was scared of butterflies and Nate was terrified of straws. Mr. Keith laughed and kept talking.

“Well, today, I had a five-year-old in the waiting room. Just as I was calling her and her mother into the office, in comes a lady with a big white lab, barking up a storm. He has on a vest—he’s an emotional support dog. So this huge white lab starts barking at the five-year-old. Turns out she’s terrified—and I mean TERRIFIED— of dogs. She climbs, literally climbs, up her mother’s leg and into her arms. The mom has explained to me beforehand that her daughter is also terrified of shots. But when that dog comes in, the five-year-old asks, ‘Can I  get my shots now?’ The mom is super surprised, but I say, ‘Sure.’ So I lead her to the room and we get her shots done. Turns out that dog traumatized her into getting her shots.” Naomi’s dad finished his story, and crossed his arms across his chest, a big grin on his face.

Naomi decided that she would order this from now on. It didn’t matter what Oscar thought or did; she was her own person.

Naomi burst into laughter. Noah and Nate didn’t really get the story, but when they saw their older sister laughing, they quickly started laughing too. It was a fun night, and Naomi slept better than she had yesterday. Still, the thought of Oscar ditching her for those boys hung in the air around her no matter how many times she tried to brush it away.

The next day passed the same way. Naomi was sort of hoping that Oscar would be back to his usual self, but she got the same response as last time from Mrs. Hernandez.

It was the same every time. Each time, Naomi felt a little sadder and a little worse, but she tried to brush it off.

She settled into a new routine. In the morning, she would open her window until it started to get humid and read. Then she would help make lunch, play with her brothers a bit, and go for a walk. She used her new route and now every time tried a new smoothie—although raspberry-lime was still her favorite.

She missed Oscar, but in a way it felt better not to have his routines weighing on her when she wanted to try something new. She saw him a few times monkeying around at the skate park but didn’t make eye contact when he tried to.

At the end of the week, though, there was an unexpected knock at the door. Nobody ever knocked at the Keith household, not even Oscar. Naomi was the one who knocked on Oscar’s door, always. Which was why she was surprised when there was a sharp rapping on the wood. Naomi sprang up from the kitchen table where she had been rereading one of her favorite series, The Land of Stories.

When she opened it, she was even more surprised to see Oscar standing there. Seeing him there made her feel mad all of a sudden, and she made a move to shut the door, but Oscar stopped it with his foot. “We need to talk, Naomi. Let’s go for a walk.” Naomi shrugged but reluctantly complied.

Silently, they made their way down the streets of their small town. After a minute, Oscar began to talk. “Look, Naomi, I really like hanging out with the guys. I mean, you’re still my friend—”

“Friend? Friend? You said that first day that you would walk the next day and you haven’t walked with me all week! You’re never home, and you act like you hardly even know me!” Naomi cut him off, her voice rising to a shriek. Oscar hung his head, but Naomi refused to succumb to the gesture.

Instead, she led him on her new route.

“What? Since when do we go this way?” he asked, confused and distraught.

“Since you stopped hanging out with me,” Naomi answered testily.

When they ended up at the smoothie shack, after another few minutes of awkward silence, Naomi ordered raspberry-lime.

“But I thought you ordered mango. Always,” Oscar said meekly.

“Not anymore. And anyway, I only ordered mango because of you! I only went on that same route day after day because of you! I AM MY OWN PERSON!” Naomi faced him, her hands on her hips. “You . . . you . . . you . . . UGH!” And she stalked away, leaving Oscar staring at her retreating back and Rodrigo looking utterly confused.

Naomi started out walking and then broke into a run, ignoring the heat and humidity hanging over Florida like a cloud. How dare Oscar call her a friend when he himself had been ignoring her completely for the past five days! It made her broil.

She reached her small house and slammed the door behind her, collapsing at the kitchen table. Her mom, who had just finished cleaning out the attic, came down the stairs to find her daughter slumped on a chair with her forehead on the table, sobbing uncontrollably.

She sat down next to Naomi and waited until her sobs had subsided and she was only hiccupping occasionally to ask, “What’s the matter, my girl?”

“H-h-he-he said I was a friend.” And Naomi began to sob once more.

“Who said you were a friend? Why is that bad?” Her mother prodded, trying to get the full story.

“O-Oscar. He asked me one day if he could hang out with the popular boys at the skate park, saying we would walk tomorrow, but he kept hanging out with them and then . . .” The story poured out of Naomi, and her mother listened. At the end, her mother reached in for a hug and Naomi sank into her arms.

They continued to talk and eventually came to the conclusion that Naomi should apologize and voice her feelings reasonably. Even though what Naomi really wanted to do was yell at Oscar and never stop, she agreed that talking it out was probably the best idea.

When she saw him talking and laughing with them as they showed him a skateboard trick, she thought, Maybe those boys aren’t so bad after all. 

For now, though, Naomi went up to read and think things over. She helped her mother make dinner to clear her head. It was surprisingly fun. Naomi vowed to do it more. She went to bed easily and slept soundly that night.

At 3:00 sharp, Naomi arrived at Oscar’s house. She squared her shoulders and knocked. This time, when she asked Mrs. Hernandez for Oscar, he appeared instantly, as if he had been waiting for her. Maybe he had, thought Naomi.

She led Oscar on their new route and started talking. “Oscar . . . you’ve hurt my feelings. I didn’t like it when you started hanging out with Aaron and Juan and the boys and not keeping your promises. That first day you said, ‘We’ll walk again tomorrow.’ Did we? No. And not the next day or the next.”

Naomi kept talking. She didn’t stop until she was out of breath and Oscar finally had time to get a word in. “Naomi . . . I’m sorry. I just . . . maybe we shouldn’t have such a set schedule? I love being your friend, Naomi, and you’ll always be my best friend. But can you try to accept that Juan and Aaron are my friends now too?”

Naomi sighed. “Yes . . . it’s just, they’re immature and annoying and monkeying around. I thought we agreed they weren’t worth our time.”

“Naomi, they’re really nice once you get to know them. It’s fun hanging out with . . . different people sometimes.”

They kept up the talk like this until they had walked their usual loop twice. On the second time, they stopped at the smoothie shack. And Oscar tried raspberry-lime, at Naomi’s prompting. “Hmm,” he said, but a smile played at his lips and Naomi knew he liked it.

Once they reached Oscar’s house, he said, “Naomi, I know I haven’t been the best friend to you, and I’m sorry. I really am.” He turned to go in, but Naomi stopped him.

“Wait—don’t go. Maybe we can work out a compromise?” Naomi said.

“What kind of compromise?” Oscar asked.

“Like, maybe on Monday and Thursday and Saturday we can walk and on Tuesday and Friday and Sunday you can hang with the boys— Wednesday we can decide what to do? Something like that?”

“Sounds good,” Oscar replied. He popped her a thumbs up and Naomi knew that everything was all right.

When Naomi walked through the door with a grin on her face and a confident air about her, her mother knew that their strategy had gone all right and things were good. She smiled.

The next day, Naomi allowed Oscar to hang out with the boys. When she saw him talking and laughing with them as they showed him a skateboard trick, she thought, Maybe those boys aren’t so bad after all. And she knew that Oscar was having fun with them. She waved, a warm feeling settling in her stomach. It was all good.

Raya Ilieva
Raya Ilieva, 10
Belmont, CA

Oskar Cross
Oskar Cross, 10
Oakland, CA

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