When Harper receives word of a childhood friend’s passing, her grief doesn’t behave the way she wants it to. Determined to force the tears, she revisits the girls’ shared playground to discover a long-ago fault and a here-and-now forgiveness.

The decision to revisit Pineville was made last night over a sink full of scalding dishwater with her hands covered in suds and tiny particles of spaghetti dinner. As always with bad news, Harper had gone into one of her cleaning sprees to process, so the steaming water also served to scrub cabinet faces, fridge shelves, and the very back of the oven.

She’d not even planned on doing the dishes last night. She’d planned on letting them sit. To see if one of her live-in adult children would take the mound of plates and casserole dishes as a cue to get busy and pull their weight. Some people dread the empty nest. Harper couldn’t seem to get her fledglings to take flight.

But the message had come mid-meal and Harper shewed everyone out of the kitchen. She needed the elbow room and mental space to process the death of her childhood friend. She and Deb had grown distant during middle school then didn’t speak after high school, as happens with many BFFs once life and love and pursuits carry people far and away.

Harper hadn’t been carried far and away. Her circumstances, and if she were honest with herself, her own choices, had pinned down any ideas of dreamy moves across the country with a load of steel I-beams. So she’d stayed put in her family’s home. Sometimes she imagined a black hooded figure with a can of spray paint dancing on top of the smothering I-Beam pile, splattering each long metal giant with their appropriate labels: guilt, obligation, duty, entrapment.

Not Deb though. Her dreams had taken her far.

Well, until now.

Harper had spent the night scouring and scrubbing. She’d disinfected light switches and doorknobs. She’d filled a black trash bag with general clutter from around the house and another two for the donation center. She refrained from running the vacuum because Jeremy was on a conference call with a client, but anything she could think to straighten or scrub without making too much noise, she did. Until his conference call ended and the kids had gone to bed and he forced her to take a breath.

“The dirt will be here tomorrow, Harp.”

“That’s the problem, though, isn’t it?”

He put his hands on her shoulders. Trapping her. Forcing her to face him. “Help me understand. I haven’t heard you talk about Deb in ages and—”

She’d shrugged him off and went to the garage where she packed bleach, mason jars, and scouring pads into a white five-gallon bucket. While she was out there, she gutted the SUV of its clutter and polished the interior. By the time she went inside at two a.m., she’d worn herself out. But her eyelids refused to close.

They also refused to shed tears. To give her that release that she needed to sleep. She neither slept nor cried, but she did make an ever-lengthening list of things to clean and purge and donate when the sun rose.

Now, with daylight and the kids at their part-time jobs and Jeremy off to the office, she lugged the five-gallon bucket toward the pine trees lining the back of the property. The trees she and Deb had taken refuge in as children thousands of times. Harper had grown up on this property, just a few doors down from Deb. A standing, revolving door of the longest play date ever, the pre-teen girls had preferred each other’s company to anything the 1970s had to offer. Until one little boy came along, that is.

The handle started to dig into Harper’s palm, and she switched the load to the opposite hand as she reached the pointed boughs of the droopy tree. Harper sat the bucket down and looked up, the brilliant September rays cut through the treetops. The longer she stared, the more pinecones she spotted dangling from the tips of the boughs. Some snug in tight clusters. Some alone, swaying gently from a faint breeze that didn’t quite reach Harper’s lower elevation. A ruckus in a few pines over caught her attention. A young gray squirrel, a little too frisky, had missed his intended branch and clung to the tip of another, bouncing as if on a bungee cord. He regained his footing and scampered toward the trunk out of sight.

Deb would’ve liked that. The squirrels were one of her favorites.

Harper looked for an opening. It was easier when her body had been a pre-teen and her knees weren’t as grumpy. The boughs of the pines swept all the way to the grass, causing much consternation between she and Jeremy over the years. He’d wanted to chop them down. He also wanted to stay married. So the trees stayed.

Harper used the bucket to separate an opening between two trees’ wispy branches. A few steps in, and she could stand up straight. Here, in the middle of the pines, a clearing in a near-perfect circle was formed by the space between eight trees. Just damp enough to support a rogue piece of vegetation here and there, but the ground was carpeted with pine needles and pinecone parts. The smell was heavenly. Fresh earth and pine sap.

The girls had used a couple of old quilts when they visited Pineville, the name of their make-believe land. Sometimes the quilts were just quilts, a place to relax and read and journal. Sometimes the quilts held other purposes: National boundaries, oceans, transportation in the form of boats and magic carpets. Harper wished she’d remembered a drop cloth as she sat the bucket down and then sat next to it, the pine needles pricking through her jean leg and the moist earth cooling her skin.

As her eyes adjusted to the dim, she drew her knees up to her chest and tried to remember. Tried to cry. Tried to get that release she was so desperately seeking. The rays cut through the trees in dainty lace patterns, bobbles of light dancing all around her as the trees swayed gently above. As the traffic on the street passed, no one could see her. She knew because for years, she tried to peer into the trees from the road to see if she could tell anything was in here. The branches were too thick. From the outside, this circle didn’t exist.

She picked up a pinecone and twirled it in her hand. Deb had loved taking apart each segment and constructing roads, rooftops, and magical wells for fairies and unicorns to drink from all through Pineville. She’d bring her mother’s butter knives and scrape dripping sap from the trunks to glue the pieces together. Some of Deb’s creations could’ve won blue ribbons at the State Fair if the girls had cared to join 4H.

But they hadn’t cared. Who needed all that when entire universes could be manufactured with a little sap, cones, and needles?

Harper had tried to introduce this magical space to her own children, but they much preferred the antiseptic flashes of screen time and fluffy couches to padded-down, needle-caked earth. And, after the day they’d found the six-foot rat snake slithering his way through the pinecones, the hope of passing the natural playhouse on to her children slithered away with him.

She didn’t see any snakes today. The occasional rabbit would hop into the boughs as Harper stood at the sink to do the dishes. Squirrels, of course. Occasionally, a murder of crows would hang for a few days then move on. But no snakes.

Toadstools, though. Harper had forgotten how enamored they’d been with them. The red caps with bumpy white dots on the tops and bright white gills that marched in perfect unison under the caps. How the girls had loved when they’d pop up. And how magical it had been when these fungi made their appearances in their own perfect fairy ring, spores spread and nurtured in just the right timing, right temperature, right moisture to provide a succinct space for their imaginations to take flight.

Several of them dotted the perimeter of the clearing, the light bouncing off their tops. Fly agaric, they’re called. Deb had been furious when Harper had checked out a library book on fungus and brought it into the pines one afternoon.

“Don’t you want to know what they’re called?”

“Doesn’t matter what they’re called. All that stuff takes the fun out of it. Toadstools make fairy rings. That’s all I need to know.” And she’d brought out the little fairy figurines and unicorns and Breyer horses with pine needles caked to their sides and ignored Harper’s ramblings of fly agaric facts.

Deb was always the dreamer.

Harper stood and reached into the bucket for the glass jars and set them in the clearing. She poured each half-full with bleach and began shuffling her feet through the pine needles and earth. She searched under the boughs that lined the inner part of the clearing. After a few minutes, she started to find the trinkets.

Those fairies and gnomes and little teddy bears from the vending machines. She plopped them into the jars to let them soak. Long ago, the plastic had given up the vibrant colors to the elements. She just wanted them clean before she packed them up. The unicorn was next. It was larger by far and stuck further near the base of a tree than near the clearing. Harper wondered how many of their toys had been abducted by curious squirrels and raccoons. She was quite surprised she’d found as many as she did.

Nothing was to scale as the toys now are. Deb and Harper had added a bric-a-brac of oddities into their playtime. No worries that the unicorn was three times bigger than the castle or that the little green army men Harper’d stolen from her brother’s closet didn’t fit the theme.

“The castle is just far away and hard to get to. It’s perspective.” Harper had said one day after they learned this concept in Mr. Black’s art class.

“I didn’t think about it. It is what we say it is.”

The castle was a gift from Harper’s grandmother before she’d passed away. It was about five inches in all directions and held a secret compartment on the base. Harper looked for the castle now, hoping beyond hope that it was still somewhere here under the pines. After searching under poking branches and near the bases of four trees, she finally spotted it sticking up from a pile of dirt and weeds near the base of the furthest trunk. She dislodged it from its resting place and brought it back to the clearing.

She turned the toy over in her hands. The part that had been buried near the trunk kept some of its pink and purple hues, though more pastel now than the vivid colors Harper remembered. She pried opened the bottom compartment, and along with a few pine needles, a tiny square wrapped in brittle plastic toppled to the ground and rested near one of the red-capped toadstools. Harper stared down at the square leaning on the chunky cap of the mushroom.

A note.

And she couldn’t remember who’d been the last one in the clearing. Had she left Deb a message after that awful fight? Or had Deb left Harper one?

She picked it up carefully. A vintage communication system between two best friends. Leave a note for the other. They’d learned to wrap the notes in plastic because the moisture would carry away ink pigments and make the paper hard to unfold. Sometimes they’d sneak out at night and leave a note in the castle if they’d gotten in trouble or if one of their families had decided to take a vacation. Or when Deb’s mom had cancer and had to spend days upon days in the hospital, taking Deb away from Pineville for an eternity.

A knot formed in Harper’s throat and slid down her esophagus. She toyed with the plastic wrap and it fell away in crisp pieces. She almost hoped the elements had reached the writing. That it would remain forever a mystery. Out of sight, out of mind.

Like Deb had been when she’d moved away over two decades ago.

When the girls hit middle school, the boy stuff started. Pineville was still important, but the friends didn’t visit as often. Then the boy. That one that catches both girls’ attention and hearts at the same time, even though thirteen is way too young to have a clue.

Harper caught Deb using his name in one of their fairyland creations. On the unicorn, no less. That poor creature, now soaking in bleach, had had dozens of names. None of them stuck. And when the playscape changed, so did his name and his purpose. But on that day, Deb, the dreamer, called him by Harper’s crush’s name as she planted a little green army guy atop his back and whisked the man off to the castle. Harper, detailed oriented, picked up on it and called her out.

And that’s what had started their riff.

By eighth grade, the girls only nodded to each other in the hallways, the boy still dangling between them, and then around sophomore year, Deb was gone. Moved off. Harper’d heard through town gossip and from the fringes of Facebook that she’d taken ill like her mother. But out of sight, out of mind. Harper felt sorry for Deb, but they weren’t really friends any longer. And Deb’s family, a couple of grown daughters, were perfectly capable of tending to their mother’s needs.

One of her daughters had been expecting. Harper’d lost track of time. Maybe Deb got to meet her grandchild. Maybe not.

Harper was disappointed that the thought of the family dynamics didn’t bring at least some dampness to her eyes. Disappointed in herself for being so coldhearted and so buried under with life that she never bothered to reach out. Out of sight…

Carefully, Harper unfolded the paper. The writing had stuck. Deb’s chunky printing. Ball point blue ink, most likely, not felt-tipped from Deb’s art supplies she’d gotten one of those last Christmases.

It’s not worth the fight. You can have the boy. Mom’s gonna die. Let’s just be friends.

Harper let the note fall to the ground and she fell to her knees as the note’s message punched her in the gut.

Floods of guilt and regret washed over her. Harper’d never returned to the pine clearing after that last tussle. What a little snot. What must Deb have thought of her?

And keep the boy.

Harper did keep the boy. Harper kept Jeremy.

Another load of I-beams fell into her soul. Heavy, labeled with betrayal and abandonment. More guilt.

And all this in the middle of Deb losing her mom to the same disease that would eventually take Deb from her own children years later.

On her knees, pine needles poking through both jean legs and hands sticky from sap, Harper began scrubbing the castle and unicorn and other figures with the scouring pad. No gloves. She felt the sting of the bleach in her nostrils, and though this made her eyes water, she still wasn’t crying, just in anguish from the buildup of stress and shame. She tossed everything into the bucket once she was done, stood, and left Pineville for the squirrels and rat snakes to do with as they pleased.

Back in the house, she rinsed the bleach from the figurines, laid them on a towel, and used her hair dryer to blow them dry. She wrapped each in bubble wrap and paper towels and dropped them into a shipping carton. These would be sent to Deb’s family. Maybe her new grandchild could learn more about Deb and begin a ‘ville of their own imagination.

Harper searched for Deb’s daughter’s information. From what Harper could gather, the daughter was due any day or had just given birth, but the family was keeping a quiet lid on things while they dealt with the bittersweet passing of one life and the joy of a new one.

As she searched, the little notification bell chimed, indicating someone had sent her a message. She clicked on it.

It was Deb’s daughter, Grace.

Greeting Harper. Telling her she’d had a baby daughter two days before her mom passed.

“Mom got to hold her firstborn grandchild. She was lucid enough to enjoy the moment. We let Mom name her. Without hesitation and with a huge grin on her face, Mom named our little girl Harper. Thought you should know. Let’s stay in touch.”

And Harper cried.

Thank you for hanging out for a bit. Check back on the first week of every month for a free fictional short, and be sure to visit my Amazon page.

Copyright © 2019 by B.A. Paul
This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed herein are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.