We always believed we lived perfectly parallel lives. We went through the same phases at the same times; we both liked gory movies and sappy stuff, and we knew every word to every song on the old musical soundtracks my parents had. Scarlett was more confident, able to make friends fast, where I was shy and quiet, hanging back from the crowd. I was forever known as “Scarlett’s friend Halley.” But I didn’t mind. Without her I knew I’d be hanging out in the bus parking lot with the nerds and Noah Vaughn. That was, I was sure, the destiny in store for me until the day Scarlett looked up from behind those white sunglasses and made a spot for me next to her for the rest of my life. And I was grateful. Because life is an ugly, awful place to not have a best friend.
When I pictured myself, it was always like just an outline in a coloring book, with the inside not yet completed. All the standard features were there. But the colors, the zigzags and plaids, the bits and pieces that made up me, Halley, weren’t yet in place. Scarlett’s vibrant reds and golds helped some, but I was still waiting.
For most of high school, we hadn’t known Michael Sherwood that well, even though we’d grown up in the same neighborhood. He’d gone away the summer after middle school to California and returned transformed: tan, taller, and suddenly gorgeous. He was immediately the boy to date.
He went out with Ginny Tabor for about fifteen minutes, then Elizabeth Gunderson, the head cheerleader, for a few months. But he never seemed to fit in with that crowd of soccer-team captains and varsity jackets. He went back to his buddies from Lakeview, like his best friend Macon Faulkner. Sometimes we’d see them walking down our street, between our two houses, in the middle of the night, smoking cigarettes and laughing. They were different, and they fascinated us.
By leaving the popular crowd, Michael Sherwood became an enigma. No one was sure where he fit in, and he was friendly with everyone, sort of the great equalizer of our high school. He was famous for his pranks on substitute teachers and was always asking to borrow a dollar in exchange for a good story; he told outlandish tales, half true at best, but they were so funny you got your dollar’s worth. The one I remember he told me had to do with psychotic Girl Scouts who were stalking him. I didn’t believe him, but I gave him two dollars and skipped lunch that day. It was worth it.
Each of us had our own story about Michael, something he’d done or said or passed down. More than anything, it was the things he didn’t do that made Michael Sherwood so intriguing; he seemed so far from the rest of us and yet implicitly he belonged to everyone.
At the end of every school year there was the annual slide show, full of candid shots that hadn’t made the yearbook. We all piled into the auditorium and watched as our classmates’ faces filled the huge screen, everyone cheering for their friends and booing people they didn’t like. There was only one picture of Michael Sherwood, but it was a good one: he was sitting on the wall by himself, wearing this black baseball hat he always wore, laughing at something out of the frame, something we couldn’t see. The grass was so green behind him, and above that a clear stretch of blue sky. When the slide came up, the entire crowd in that auditorium cheered, clapping and hooting and craning their necks to look for Michael, who was sitting up in the balcony with Macon Faulkner, looking embarrassed. But that was what he was to us, always: the one thing that we all had in common.
The funeral was the next day, Thursday. I went across the street to Scarlett’s after breakfast, in bare feet and cutoffs, carrying two black dresses I couldn’t decide between. I’d only been to one funeral before, my grandfather’s in Buffalo, and I’d been so little someone had dressed me. This was different.
“Come in,” I heard Marion call out before I even had a chance to knock at the side door. She was sitting at the kitchen table, coffee cup in front of her, flipping through Vogue.
“Hey,” I said to her as she smiled at me. “Is she awake?”
“Practically all night,” she said quietly, turning the page and taking a sip of coffee. “She was on the couch when I got up. She really needs some rest, or she’s just gonna crash.”
I had to keep from smiling. These were the same words I heard from Scarlett about Marion on a regular basis; for as long as I’d known them their roles had been reversed. When Marion had been depressed and drinking heavily a few years back, it was Scarlett who came knocking at our front door in her nightgown at two A.M. because she’d found Marion passed out cold halfway up the front walk, her cheek imprinted with the ripples and cracks in the concrete. My father carried Marion into the house while my mother tried her best therapy schtick on Scarlett, who said nothing and curled up in the chair beside Marion’s bed, watching over her until morning. My father called Scarlett “solemn”; my mother said she was “in denial.”
“Hey.” I looked over to see Scarlett standing in the doorway in a red shirt and cutoff long johns, her hair still mussed up from sleeping. She nodded at the dresses in my hand. “Which one you gonna wear?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
She came closer, taking them from my hands, then held each up against me, squinting. “The short one,” she said quietly, laying the other on the counter next to the fruit bowl. “The one with the scoop neck always makes you look like you’re twelve.”
I looked down at the scoop-necked dress, trying to remember where I’d worn it before. It was always Scarlett who kept track of such things: dates, memories, lessons learned. I forgot everything, barely able to keep my head from one week to the next. But Scarlett knew it all, from what she was wearing when she got her first kiss to the name of the sister of the boy I’d met at the beach the summer before; she was our oracle, our common memory.
She opened the fridge and took out the milk, then crossed the room with a box of Rice Krispies under her arm, grabbing a bowl from the open dishwasher on her way. She sat at the head of the table, with Marion to her left, and I took my seat on the right. Even in their tiny family, with me as an honorary member, there were traditions.
Scarlett poured herself some cereal, adding sugar from the bowl between us. “Do you want some?”
“No,” I said. “I ate already.” My mother had made me French toast, after spending most of the early morning gossiping over the back fence with her best friend, Irma Trilby, who was known for her amazing azaleas and her mouth, the latter of which I’d heard all morning through my window. Apparently Mrs. Trilby had known Mrs. Sherwood well from PTA and had already been over with a chicken casserole to relay her regrets. Mrs. Trilby had also seen me and Michael and Scarlett more than once walking home from work together, and late one night she’d even caught a glimpse of Scarlett and Michael kissing under a streetlight. He was a sweet boy, she’d said in her nasal voice. He mowed their lawn after Arthur’s coronary and always got her the best bananas at Milton’s, even if he had to sneak some from the back. A nice boy.