I grew my best friend in my garden. Planted her between the tomatoes and the basil on a warm summer day. To grow her, I’d had to use some of my own blood, forced out of my big toe by a nail. We were born of the same messy material. When she sprouted, I set up my camping tent in the backyard so I could watch her slow journey to life. I’ll never forget when she took her first breath. She coughed up dirt on my ‘I Heart NY’ shirt and smeared it in with her fingers, scrambling to get her bearings in the harsh light.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
I smuggled her into the house while my mother was out shopping. She made a big mess of the bathroom, knocking over the shampoo bottles, snapping bristles from the brush. The mirror was the worst—she muddied it with dirt and soap until she couldn’t see herself. I calmed her by singing the alphabet, by running my pink comb through her hair.
That was the only time my best friend was clean. Her hair fluffy and smooth, her skin clear. She put on the pale blue sailor dress I’d rescued from the bottom of my closet. Later, when her strands knotted and frizzed, I taught her how to braid them and tuck them into a bun. I told her it made her look like a ballerina and showed her a picture I’d torn from a magazine. She taped the picture to the wall in her hideout.
My mother came home. I shoved my friend under my bed. She blinked at me, reached for my hand, but I promised I’d be back for her. I jogged down the stairs, my sneakers rattling the steps beneath me.
My mother was so tall she had to duck to get through the doorway. I hugged her and breathed in the cinnamon scent clinging to her sweater, building up courage with each inhale.
“My friend finally finished growing,” I said. She didn’t respond. Lifted her arms above
her head and bent forward like a broken tree. I helped her pull off her sweater. She couldn’t do it herself because of her back problems. That was why she’d switched to decorating rather than stocking at the bakery where she worked. She wouldn’t have to reach anymore. “Can she eat dinner with us?”
My mother shrugged. I followed her into the kitchen and repeated my question. She made us both cheese sandwiches, handed me mine, and saw the dirt under my nails. “Nelly, what’s this from?”
“My friend. I had to dig her up.”
She tugged me to the bathroom, flicked on the light. I couldn’t stop her. She saw the mirror and her jaw tightened to a sharp edge. Then the tears began to roll.
We scrubbed together, made the sponges turn brown, sweated through our shirts as we rinsed the room in hot water. Mother took my hand and made me promise my friend would stay outside from now on. “Animals belong outside,” she said. I swallowed, and nodded, “Understood.” I didn’t correct her. Before summer break, I’d learned at school that we were all animals, even humans. We’d just evolved to walk on two legs and pretend we didn’t want to tear each other apart.
My best friend sang songs in a language she invented. She claimed she was copying the birds, particularly the warblers that whirred overhead each time I visited her in the woods. I’d found a dense patch of trees that could conceal two undergrown girls. Dragged my tent and a heavy wool blanket for her.
After I taught her to speak, she thanked me and asked for a pillow. I snuck a beige one from our couch.
We laid in the tent all summer. Scrawled ‘X’s and ‘O’s on leftover graph paper, held spitting contests, baked mud pies and chocolate chip cookies on aluminum foil, watched birds, imitated their calls, gossiped about other girls in my grade. My mother was working six days a week at the bakery now because it was wedding season. She marked cans of Spaghetti-O’s for me to eat for lunch. I’d take the bowl still steaming from the microwave and set it in between me and my friend in the tent, two spoons ready so we could share. My mother said she ate lunch on her break at work. I didn’t believe her but I knew talking about it wouldn’t make either of us feel more full.
She offered to drive me to the park or the pool to see friends. “Why don’t you hang out with Kendra and Stacy?” I’d never told her that Kendra had spread a lie about me peeing my pants in the library. That Stacy hadn’t stuck up for me. That I hadn’t talked to either of them since way before the school year ended. My new friend would never do that to me. She’d never get the chance.
Sometimes, under the stars, she braided my hair and tucked flowers along the front like a crown. She told me I was the best thing that had ever happened to her. Those nights, I had to pry myself from her hands to go home. Once I had to trick her into the tent. She scratched at the door, made a hole in the screen.
Late in July, after I’d been stuck at my grandma’s house for a week, I found my friend scraping sticks together in the clearing.
Her petite mouth was turned down in a frown. She didn’t bother to look at me, at the snacks I’d brought her.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
Sparks flew from the sticks, but nothing caught. She pressed harder.
“You’re going to burn the woods down.” I snatched the sticks and tossed them out of the clearing.
“I thought you weren’t coming back,” she said. Her lip quivered on the edge of a cry. I took her in my arms and hugged her. “I miss your house,” she said.
She didn’t know how much better it was outdoors. You could make a mess and splash in mud. Scrape your knees. Stay up counting stars. But her tears kept streaming.
I was desperate to see her smile again. She was my only friend. When she cried, I felt the same lurching ache in my belly. “C’mon. What do you want me to do?”
She put her scratched hand over mine, let me feel the trembling worry that had been
building up under her skin.
“Stay here. With me.” She squeezed my hand tight under hers. I couldn’t move it if I tried.
“You promise you won’t cry anymore?”
Before dinner, I washed my hands three times for luck.
At the table, I asked my mother if she’d ever thought about moving.
“Sometimes. After your father left, I was going to. With your grandma.”
“Why didn’t you?”
She’d overcooked the pork chops, and her knife against her plate made the whine of an off-key violin.
“I got my job. And I like it here. By the woods.”
“What if we moved into the woods?”
“My friend asked me to.”
“Which friend? The imaginary one?”
“The one I grew.”
Her grip faltered. The knife slipped, sliced. Red seeped out the tip of her thumb.
“I’m sorry.” I thrust out my napkin but she didn’t take it. She pushed her chair away and squeezed the base of her thumb tight. “Do you want me to get a Band-Aid?”
She shook her head. Gestured at the tablecloth, the speck of red stained beside her plate.
“Club soda. Quick, before it sets.”
I reached for the bottle above the fridge, tip-toed on a kitchen chair. I brought it to her,
watched her dab at the spot with a paper towel. I thought, “You should save that, and grow your own friend, one who likes to clean as much as you.” But I said nothing. She crumpled the pinkened towel and tossed it in the trash.
First went my school clothes, stuffed in neat rolls in my pink suitcase. Then the few keepsakes that lined the top of my dresser. One was a photograph of my father, still greased and dusty from a long day in the mines. He’s carrying me on his shoulders. We’re laughing. I think I’m two or three. My mother noticed this missing when she came to collect my laundry. Her lips pressed into a thin line. She ran her hand over the dust where it used to be. I lied that I’d tucked it in my drawer.
My drawings, my books, my comb, my deodorant, my stuffed animals, my nail polish, my posters, my CDs, my pencils, my alarm clock: they all went into the pink suitcase, took the short journey from our house to the hideaway. The tent became crowded. My friend had to move her blanket and pillow outside. But she told me she didn’t mind, that she could see the stars longer anyway.
Every time my mother came to collect the laundry, she’d survey the room. I’d stop whatever I was doing and anticipate her questions. Lies stockpiled, ready to leap from my tongue: I wanted to redecorate; I gave it to Stacy and Kendra; I lost it. When the only things left were my furniture, my dresses, and my blankets, she stopped the longest. Spun in the middle of my room like a jewelry box ballerina. The laundry basket managed to look graceful in her hands. I watched her set it down and come towards me, sit on the end of my bed.
“I’m proud of you,” she said. “Your room looks very nice.”
I hugged her goodbye, though she didn’t know it was goodbye. That night, I took the blankets. The furniture was too heavy. The dresses were too impractical. Plus, I liked the idea—if I ever did decide to come back—that there’d be something waiting for me.
It was early August. The suitcase glided over the baked dirt patches and the grass. A rare wind blew and I thought I could hear a bell in the distance. The blankets didn’t clatter and clang like the other objects, but they were heavy, so I had to walk slower. At the edge of the woods, I looked back. I stared at the house a long time, wondering what my mother was dreaming. If my father had died. In those days, these were the big mysteries, the ones I thought would never be solved. Unlike the afterlife, which I decided must be a waiting room where you sit and flip through magazines until a lonely girl plants a special garden, pricks her toe, tends to you. Then your soul is sucked through a root and you sprout into new life, raised from the earth: a burial in reverse.
I ventured into the woods, taking a different path than usual. I thought I would make myself harder to find. The suitcase rolled smooth behind me, until I reached the close-together trees. These were about sixty feet from the hideout. Many low branches curled around each other in a tight hug. I didn’t recognize the part I’d reached. None of the trees had holes in their bases like the ones I usually squeezed through. I walked left a little while, waiting for a gap. None came. I turned back, pushed further right. My legs ached with weariness.
I’d told my friend a week ago what day I’d be coming. She promised to stay up waiting for me. She’d started using my toothpaste, rubbing it on her teeth with her pointer finger after a feast of berries and peanut butter. Oh, her smile. It shone whiter than the moon above us. I visualized it floating in front of me, perched in the trees like the Cheshire Cat waiting to give me directions.
I stumbled. Pain shot through my right hand as the dirt caught me and I cried out. I didn’t want to look at it, told myself not to look at it. I looked. A small thorn had pierced my palm. There was a rustling from behind the trees. Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look. But I looked. I could never stop myself from looking. There was my friend, my knife in her hand, ready to pounce. Our eyes met. She recognized me.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” she said. Her voice held the same righteous anger as it had when I’d caught her trying to start the fire.
“I got lost.” I held out my hand. “Can you pull it out?”
She slipped between the trees, more agile than I was. Her cheeks were red. Maybe she’d been playing with my blush.
The thorn slid out of my palm. Blood dripped, but there was nothing to ruin out there. The ground swallowed the drops without protest. I squeezed my wrist tight like my mother had done with her thumb. My friend led me to the hollow trees, and I followed her through.
The tent was zipped shut. I lugged the suitcase in front of it and fumbled for the zipper.
“Wait.” My friend stuck my knife in front of me.
“What are you doing?”
“I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I told you I got lost.”
“Not just tonight,” she said. “I haven’t seen you in so long.”
“I couldn’t get away. My mother.” I put my hand on the straight edge of the knife and pressed it down, until her arm was at her side. She dropped it to the ground.
“You’re always talking about your mother.” Was I? I tried to think, but none of our conversations came to mind. I shrugged. A week didn’t seem like that much time to be on your own, but my friend had mood swings, she could cry for hours, she lost focus of all but one thing. Without me there to redirect her, she’d burrowed deeper in her head. I reached out and without words, I offered her a hug. But she backed away.
“Nelly,” she whispered. “Open the tent.”
“What is it? Did you break my stuff? I don’t care. I don’t need it. I just brought it to make you happy.”
“I thought you weren’t, I . . . I didn’t want to be all alone.”
She held her face in her hands, choking back sobs. I brought my fingers to the zipper and tugged it down, braced for a surprise. I peered in. There were my nail polishes, lined in a neat row. My clothes sat folded behind them. The keepsakes, the school supplies—it was all there. An open jar of peanut butter weighed down the center.
“What is it?” I stepped inside, felt along the ceiling, the walls. Nothing appeared. My friend continued to sob behind me. I knew what it meant to feel that lonely.
“I’m sorry,” she said. The wind picked up again, rippled the walls like a wave crashing over me. “I grew her last week. Pricked my toe, like you said. I never wanted to replace you, Nelly.”
My face flushed with heat worse than the day Kendra and Stacy spread the lie about me in the library. Stopped talking to me. Wouldn’t sit by me. Treated me like I had a plague. “You must have done something wrong,” I said. “There’s no one here.”
She didn’t respond. A twig snapped. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and stumbled back into the clearing. She’d bolted. I followed her footprints until I couldn’t see anything at all.
Bailey Bujnosek is a writer from Southern California. Her essays, articles, and interviews can be found in NYLON, Teen Vogue, The Adroit Journal, Girls’ Life, and elsewhere. Her fiction is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket.