She nodded, then picked up her purse and scooted down a bit on the step, brushing it off with her hand and leaving just enough space for someone else about the same size. And then she looked at me and smiled, and I crossed that short expanse of summer grass and sat beside her, facing my house. We didn’t talk right away, but that was okay; we had a whole lifetime of talking ahead of us. I just sat there with her, staring across the street at my house, my garage, my father pushing the mower past the rosebushes. All the things I’d spent my life learning by heart. But now, I had Scarlett. And from that day on, nothing ever looked the same.
The minute I hung up with Scarlett, I called my mother. She was a therapist, an expert on adolescent behavior. But even with her two books, dozens of seminars, and appearances on local talk shows advising parents on how to handle The Difficult Years, my mother hadn’t quite found the solution for dealing with me.
It was 1:15 A.M. when I called.
“Hello?” Strangely, my mother sounded wide awake. It was all part of that professional manner she cultivated: I’m capable. I’m strong. I’m awake.
“Halley? What’s wrong?” There was some mumbling in the background; my father, rousing himself.
“It’s Michael Sherwood, Mom.”
“Who’s dead?” More mumbling, this time louder. My father saying Who’s dead? Who?
“Michael Sherwood,” I said. “My friend.”
“Oh, goodness.” She sighed, and I heard her telling my father to go back to sleep, her hand cupping the receiver. “Honey, I know, it’s horrible. It’s awfully late—where are you calling from?”
“The camp office,” I said. “I need you to come get me.”
“Get you?” she said. She sounded surprised. “You’ve still got another week, Halley.”
“I know, but I want to come home.”
“Honey, you’re tired, it’s late—” and now she was lapsing into her therapist voice, a change I could recognize after all these years—“why don’t you call me back tomorrow, when you’ve had a chance to calm down. You don’t want to leave camp early.”
“Mom, he’s dead,” I said again. Each time I said the word Ruth, the camp director who was still standing beside me, put on her soothing face.
“I know, sweetie. It’s awful. But coming home isn’t going to change that. It will just disrupt your summer, and there’s no point—”
“I want to come home,” I said, talking over her. “I need to come home. Scarlett called to tell me. She needs me.” My throat was swelling up now, hurting with its ache. She didn’t understand. She never understood.
“Scarlett has her mother, Halley. She’ll be fine. Honey, it’s so late. Are you with someone? Is your counselor there?”
I took a deep breath, and all I could see in my mind was Michael, a boy I hardly knew, whose death now seemed to mean everything. I thought of Scarlett in her bright kitchen, waiting for me. This was crucial.
“Please,” I whispered over the line, hiding my face from Ruth, not wanting this strange woman to feel any sorrier for me. “Please come get me.”
“Halley.” She sounded tired now, almost irritated. “Go to sleep and I’ll call you tomorrow. We can discuss it then.”
“Say you’ll come,” I said, not wanting her to hang up. “Just say you’ll come. He was our friend, Mom.”
She was quiet then, and I could picture her sitting in bed next to the sleeping form of my father, probably in her blue nightgown, the light from Scarlett’s kitchen visible from the window over her shoulder. “Oh, Halley,” she said as if I always caused these kinds of problems; as if my friends died every day. “All right. I’ll come.”
“I just said I would,” she told me, and I knew this would strain us even further, a battle hard-won. “Let me talk to your counselor.”
“Okay.” I looked over at Ruth, who was close to dozing off. “Mom?”
Silence. I would pay for this one for a while, I could tell. “It’s all right. Let me talk to her.”
So I handed the phone over to Ruth, then stood outside the door listening as she reassured my mother that it was fine, I’d be packed and ready, and what a shame, how awful, so young. Then I went back to my cabin, creeping onto my cot in the dark, and closed my eyes.
I couldn’t sleep for a long time. I thought only of Michael Sherwood’s face, the one I’d cast sideways glances at through middle school, the one Scarlett and I had studied in yearbook after yearbook. And later, the one in the picture that was tucked in the mirror in her bedroom, of Scarlett and Michael at the lake just weeks earlier, water glittering behind them. The way her head rested on his shoulder, his hand on her knee. The way he looked at her, and not at the camera, when I pushed the red button, the flash lighting them up in front of me.
My mother didn’t look very happy when she pulled up at the front office the next afternoon. It was clear by this point that my experience at Sisterhood Camp had been a complete and utter disaster. Which was just what I’d predicted when I was dragged off against my will to spend the last two weeks of summer in the middle of the mountains with a bunch of other girls who had no say in the matter either. Sisterhood Camp, which was really called Camp Believe (my father coined the nickname), was something my mother had heard about at one of her seminars. She had come home with a brochure she tucked under my breakfast plate one morning, a yellow sticky note on it saying What do you think? My first reaction was Not much, thank you, as I stared down at the picture of two girls about my age running through a field together hand in hand. The basic gist was this: a camp with the usual swimming and horseback riding and lanyard making, but in the afternoons seminars and self-help groups on “Like Mother, Like Me” and “Peer Pressure: Where Do I Fit In?” There was a whole paragraph on self-esteem and values maintenance and other words I recognized only from the blurbs on the back of my mother’s own books. All I knew was that at fifteen, with my driver’s license less than three months away, I was too old for camp or values maintenance, not to mention lanyards.
“It will be such a valuable experience,” she said to me that evening over dinner. “Much more so than sitting around the pool at Scarlett’s getting a tan and talking about boys.”