art by Seth Alan Bareiss
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
***Editor's Note: One incident of mature language in the following tale***
My best friend, Ben, is dead. We still hang. Not too many other people can see or hear him--just little kids and animals, and an occasional weirdo, so Ben is kind of stuck with me, which works for me. We do most things together.
I was walking to middle school on a brilliant blue fall day, the kind where the light was so sharp it almost cut, and the orange, red, and yellow leaves flamed like stained glass with the sun behind them.
In the grassy, tree-dotted park to my left, people played Frisbee golf. Chains clinked as they sunk their putts. On the road to my right, cars growled and snorted past. I crunched acorns under my feet on the sidewalk, like popping bubble wrap, and kicked up the spicy smell of downed leaves whenever I came to a wind-driven drift of them. I loved autumn.
But today was Halloween. Halloween, the one-year anniversary of Ben's death, when I'd held him in my arms after the hit-and-run driver drove away, leaving us in the dark in the middle of the street, candy scattered on the pavement, and Ben's body too smashed up to survive.
Today, Ben drifted from treetop to treetop, startling rafts of birds into flight. "Hey, I feel like I'm on a pirate ship," he called from the top of a bright yellow sycamore. "In the crow's nest!" Three black crows flapped away from him. "Everywhere I look there's an ocean of leaves, all colors. I wish you could see this, Rissa."
My nemesis, Ethan Arlen, jumped out from behind a white-trunked tree and grabbed my shoulders. "Aaaiiee!" I jerked.
Usually, Ben kept a lookout for Ethan and warned me to hide before I got caught. But not today. Today Ben was distracted by pirate ship trees.
"Gotcha," Ethan said, employing his masterful power of overstating the obvious.
I'd never been able to figure out why Ethan hated me. My fatness? My thrift store clothes? My loud mouth? My tortoise-shell cat's-eye glasses? There were lots of other kids he could torture more easily--I was no lightweight, and I knew how to punch.