The last month of school, Lexi and I were inseparable. But when I tried to get together with her outside of school, she always had some excuse for not being able to hang out.
When we left the grounds on the last day of school, summer and high school stretching out in front of us, I made it a point to say that I couldn’t wait for us to be able to hang out all summer.
Lexi didn’t respond.
We walked silently for a quarter of a mile before I spoke again. “Don’t you want to hang out this summer?” I glanced at her sideways to see her reaction.
She shrugged. Her thoughts were kind of muddled and difficult to read. I caught words like dangerous and risky just as they flashed quickly in and out of her mind.
“Okay, what’s going on?”
“Come on.” I grabbed her hand and turned abruptly down the street we were just crossing, in the opposite direction from the way we usually went.
“Wh – where are we going?”
“To talk.” I dragged her down the side street and up another, and stopped in front of the little ice cream shop that faced the main road in town. “Here.” I motioned to the door on the side of the old-fashioned building; the door swung open with the tinkle of a bell, and three kids a little older than us spilled out onto the wooden steps, talking and laughing. The high school started each morning and let out each afternoon twenty-five minutes earlier than the middle school, which explained why these students were already leaving the shop.
Lexi raised her eyebrows skeptically. “Here?”
“Sure, why not? Don’t you like ice cream?”
“Yeah, I – I just don’t get it very much.”
“Well then, it will taste especially good. Come on, my treat.”
We went in, and I bought us both a waffle bowl with caramel brownie soft-serve, then led the way to a little table in the corner farthest from the door. I planted her firmly in one chair and sat down across from her.
“Talk,” I ordered before taking a bit of my ice cream.
She sighed and started poking at her own ice cream with her spoon.
“Come on, Lexi, what’s going on. At school we’re best friends, but then outside of school it seems like you don’t want to have anything to do with me.”
“Oh… no… it’s not… it’s not that. It’s just…”
I waited patiently.
You wouldn’t understand.
I was rewarded with the look of utter disbelief that I was used to getting when I replied to people’s thoughts.
Then she sighed again. “It’s just that… my parents are… they’re kind of… strict.”
I tilted my head to the side and frowned. “Strict as in… you’re not allowed to have friends?” I let out a nervous chuckle like I hoped I was wrong but feared I was right.
Lexi swallowed, and I could see the effort she was putting into trying to speak. “They just… don’t want me to get into trouble.”
I frowned. That didn’t make any sense. “What do you mean?”
“I – I don’t really get out of the house… except to go to school.”
“Because… they’re afraid… you’ll get into trouble?” I was having a hard time understanding.
She nodded slowly. Please don’t guess, please don’t guess, please don’t guess.
I had no idea what it was she didn’t want me to guess, but I decided not to press it. The right time would come for us to share our secrets; I just needed to be patient.
“Do they… work?”
“My – my – ” She swallowed again and slowly lifted her eyes to meet mine.
“What is it?”
“My… uncle does.”
“I live with my aunt and uncle. I wasn’t going to tell you but… I just can’t call him my dad.” A tear trickled slowly down her cheek, and she quickly swiped it away with her hand.
I reached across the table and laid my hand on her forearm. She flinched, but didn’t pull away. “Why wouldn’t you tell me that you live with your aunt and uncle?”
She shrugged. I’m so ashamed.
I frowned. “Why?” Her head jerked up. I shook my head at myself. “Sorry. It… seems like you… didn’t want me to know. Why?”
She didn’t answer, but I didn’t sense that she didn’t want me to know.
“What happened to your parents?” I pressed.
“They… died. In a car accident.” It was my fault.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
She shrugged again. I could feel a sort of… conflict… inside her, like two parts of her mind were pulling in opposite directions. Tell her – don’t tell her – tell her – don’t tell her.
“When did it happen?”
“It will be four years next Friday.” My birthday.
“Sorry. How… how did it happen?”
Immediately her head became a blizzard of thoughts, words and phrases becoming entangled and twisting around each other so that I had a hard time reading any of them individually.
It was like a science fiction movie, trying to find my way through the jumble of words and figure which ones went together to form coherent thoughts. I could see it on Lexi’s face too, the way she looked like she was on the verge of a panic attack and might bolt for the door any second.
I rubbed my hand gently on her forearm, hoping to calm her.
“Just take deep breaths,” I said quietly. I could tell when she had begun to relax a little, because the flurry of thoughts settled and the phrases untangled, though they were still short and cryptic.
Hurt so terribly.
All my fault.
One thing I knew for certain was that she blamed herself for what had happened to her parents.
I waited patiently. I could feel that she was ready to talk.
“It was… my birthday. There was only one thing I wanted for my birthday, and that was to go to this pizza place with a huge arcade. My mom and dad had planned to go to this nice restaurant, but I kind of threw a fit about it and begged to go to the pizza place. So my parents let me have my way.”
She stabbed her ice cream with her spoon; it was starting to melt, and she swirled it around in the bowl a little. “While we were there… two teenagers came in and tried to rob the cashier.” Lexi’s breathing started to get shallow and short. She forced herself to take a long, slow breath; I could see the effort that it took. “My – my dad tried to stop them. They shot him. My mom rushed at them. She was screaming. They shot the cashier and emptied the drawer into a duffel bag, and then on their way out they shot my mom and a couple of other people.”
I blinked back the tears. I could feel the pain emanating from her.
She took a deep breath. “The police caught them not too far down the road. Social Services came and took me. I spent the afternoon with a Social Worker in her office, and then I spent the weekend with a foster family while they tried to find family for me to stay with.”
She finally lifted her head and locked eyes with me. “They found my mom’s sister and her husband. So I’ve… been living with them… since then.”
I nodded. “So they just… don’t like you to be out, or…?”
She shrugged and took her first bite of the ice cream.
“Well, so… your uncle works, right?”
“So… maybe you could talk your aunt into letting you hang out with me while he’s at work. I mean, she’s the one you’re really related to, right?”
“Yeah. Maybe.” She still sounded uncertain.
I thought of something. “What if I came to hang out at your house?”
“Oh, I – I think I can convince my aunt to let me hang out with you. It will be fine.” She flashed a nervous smile.
I nodded and returned the smile. “Okay.”
And that was how the wall between us began to break down.