Old Friends (A Short Story)

The game was Two Truths and a Lie. The players, my best friend, Michelle, and me. The stakes: one bag of tropical-flavored Skittles.

We’d settled into the old back yard treehouse at a little after 10:00, just after peak lightning bug hour, and just before the moon crested the treetops.

It was after midnight now. We were down two bottles of Coke, one slice of the coconut cake we’d made together earlier in the day, and one shoe, which had fallen just after we’d climbed up, and which we were too lazy to retrieve. I’d never minded going barefoot.

Between bites of barbecue chips, I said, “You know I know everything about you, right? Like, this will not be a challenge.”

“Then you know I am full of surprises,” she answered.

That was true.

“You also know that I am allergic to bananas, and that I am secretly a pop star living a double life because I am super talented but also crave normalcy.”

“Too easy,” I laughed. “You’re allergic to strawberries.”

“So you acknowledge my superstardom, then?” She held her chin high, and then she laughed, too.

“That, my friend, is the plot of Hannah Montana, which we are much too old for, and I’m claiming all the Skittles for myself, since you don’t want to play fair.”

We sat in silence after that, listening to the rhythmic sounds of a summer night. Crickets, little frogs, and somewhere in the distance, revving engines and a police siren.

“That’ll be the kids racing down Main Street again,” Michelle said. “Jeez, how many of them are there?”

My mother had told us last night that racing had only recently become a problem in town, but that there also seemed to be an endless supply of foolhardy teenagers with an irrational need to win a stupid game with no actual prizes. Except maybe an arrest record.

“Can’t be that many. There aren’t that many kids in this town.”

That was also true.

“When did we get old?”

“You shut your mouth,” Michelle snorted, and punched the side of my arm. “I have never looked better.”

“Yes, the gray really brings out your eyes,” I told her.

“And the laugh lines make you look like Emma Thompson,” she told me, “but better.”

“Well, that’s good, because Botox terrifies me.”

“And I’m way too lazy for hair dye.”

Thirty-five years we’d been friends. Since elementary school, when Michelle had decided she liked me because of the unicorn on my shirt. I’d liked her because she had pink, hand-drawn scribbles on her tennis shoes. Our friendship had developed from there, mostly against the backdrop of the treehouse. It was our refuge, our secret base, and occasionally, where we’d stashed the beer and cigarettes and other sneaky teenager things. I was certain if we looked now, we’d probably find something tucked away, waiting for us.  

Michelle’s father was a doctor, and her parents had put her through an ugly, acrimonious divorce when we were in high school. It was around that time she’d started spending most of her nights at my house, and we’d gone from best friends to near sisters.

“I feel safe here,” she’d told me, one night around Christmas when we were seventeen, standing in the bathroom taking off our makeup. “This feels like what life should be.”

“This house?” I’d asked.

“No, dummy. This friendship.”

We’d slept that night in the treehouse, under a heavy blanket my parents had brought home from Greece before I was born. Michelle stole that blanket a year later, when we left for college.

“Your mom would want me to have it,” she’d said.

And she was probably right, because my mother hadn’t even mentioned it was missing.

As we’d gotten older, we’d left town, we’d left boyfriends, she’d left college early to paint and I’d left a string of unfulfilling jobs, but we’d never left each other.

“You’re stuck with me and my wrinkles,” I told her, back in the moment. “And I’m stuck with heartburn.” I rubbed four fingers flat against my chest. I could almost feel the acid bubbling. “God, why did we think this was a good idea?”

Michelle pulled a couple of Tums out of her pocket and handed them to me.

“Do you just carry those with you?”

“Yep,” she said. “You don’t?”

“I will now,” I said.

“We thought this was a good idea,” she said, “because tomorrow you turn forty-five, which means you’re practically fifty, which means you’re 75% on your way to death, which means you should eat the damn cake.”

“I think you did your math wrong,” I said.

“I still think you should eat the cake.”

“Noted,” I said. “Consider it done. Tomorrow. I’m not crawling down that ladder in the dark.”

We made a point of celebrating our birthdays together, mine in summer and Michelle’s in October. We hadn’t spent a birthday apart in years. Last year, for Michelle’s, we’d gone to Vegas. This year, for mine, I wanted something a little more simple.

“Fiji,” she’d complained. “We could have gone to Fiji, or anywhere else.”

“I know,” I’d replied, “but it’ll be nice to see my parents and just relax. Low-key doesn’t mean bad.”

“You just wait,” she’d warned me. “You’ll wish you’d done something bigger.”

“We can go to Fiji next year,” I’d said. “Or when I turn fifty. Or when you turn fifty.”

“I claim Fiji, then” she’d said.

And knowing Michelle, she was already making plans.

“I broke my arm in third grade,” I said, as I popped open the Skittles and poured a generous helping into my palm. “And I don’t really like people most of the time.”

“I think both of those things are true,” Michelle said. “Or did you actually break you arm in second grade?”

“Thanks for coming,” I said to her, “even though it’s boring.”

“Well, thanks for existing,” she answered, “even though you probably have better things to do.”

I looked around the treehouse, at our blanket nest and the pile of wrappers and bottles we were in the process of creating, just like old times, and at Michelle.

“Nah,” I said. “I don’t think there’s anything better than this, right now.”

“That,” Michelle said, “is actually, surprisingly, very true.”

************

Thank you for reading! This is the sixth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here are the first five stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

Talk Out the Fire

Quiet Neighbors

The Return

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!

The next story will be posted at the end of July.

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