Her cheeks were real red and the curls in her hair were messier than usual and I looked down and saw that she was barefoot, her feet covered in little specks of mud and with bits of wet grass sticking to her toes and her left ankle. I guessed that she had run over here pretty fast, maybe incredibly fast, and I asked her why and she told me that it was her eleventh birthday. She held out her hand and it was clenched in a fist and then she was off running again, right past me and headed towards somewhere in my house. I heard her footsteps on the stairs, thumpthumpthump, and I followed her, but not too fast. A door slammed and the door to my parents’ bathroom was closed, so I opened it and there she was, staring at that thing in her hand.
“What is it?” I stayed right outside the door, in case it was a toad or maybe something dangerous.
She held out her hand and I couldn’t see. But I moved closer, inch by inch and then I could. It wasn’t a toad and it didn’t look too dangerous, just like a little metal something that couldn’t hurt anyone all that much, unless it was maybe dropped from the tallest building ever. Then it might be able to crack a head open, but only if the tallest building ever was tall enough. I didn’t know how tall that would be, but I guessed that it would be pretty high “I’m going to do it,” she said. “I really am. I took these from my mum’s special drawer in the bathroom and I’ve watched what she does with them. I know how. I’ve watched her loads of times.”
“What are they for?” I tried to imagine an answer, but I couldn’t come up with almost anything.
“Watch.” She climbed up onto the bathroom counter and I walked further in and shut the door behind me and she put her feet in the sink. “Are you watching?” I nodded and she took the metal thing and held it up to her eyebrow and closed her eyes tight. I closed mine too because I was scared that maybe this was a little bit dangerous, though not as dangerous as a toad. But then I felt bad about lying to her and I opened them and held my hand right in front of my face, so I could only see through the cracks between my fingers.
When she pulled the metal thing away, I could tell that she wanted to scream and I could also tell that she was biting her tongue real hard to keep from screaming. It took her maybe twenty seconds to open her eyes up again and when she did, she examined the object in her hand and a grin slid onto her face. “I did it.”
“Did what, exactly?” I asked.
“Pulled out a hair.”
I walked closer and then I could see it too, a single hair trapped between the two pieces that made up the metal thing. “Well, what was the point of that? It looked like it hurt a whole lot and I can’t even see a difference.” I stared at her eyebrows with my eyes wide open and then with my eyes squinted and I moved my face closer and pulled it away and I couldn’t even tell where that hair had been before.
“Because,” and she sighed, like she was actually a lot older me and not just seven months, “if you pull out enough, you get beautiful.”
“You’re beautiful.” I laughed and blushed and wondered if I was supposed to say that to a girl who was maybe my best friend. She laughed too and I decided that it didn’t matter that I just called her beautiful because we could still laugh together and we could still go for walks together and still do everything we always did together. Even if I maybe found her beautiful, which I wasn’t completely sure about. At least, not the kind of sure where I would swear it on almost anything. And anyway, my mum always told me not to swear.
She laughed one more time and then she stopped and she got serious and she looked back into the mirror. “Stop laughing. I still have to pull out maybe hundreds of pieces of hair and it’s going to be a long, painful process and I didn’t run all the way to your house so you could just sit there and laugh at me. That’s not why I ran here at all.”
“Why’d you run here?”
“I didn’t want to do it alone.”
I asked her why she hadn’t gone to Marjorie’s house because Marjorie was her best girl friend and I was a boy and I couldn’t help her with her eyebrows as much as a girl could because boys weren’t as good at that kind of stuff. All I could do was call her beautiful and watch her while she did it, but I didn’t know about what shape eyebrows were supposed to be and which hairs should go and which should stay. But she just laughed and said that she wanted all of her firsts to be with me and I pointed out that I hadn’t been there for her first word or her first step. She told me that we could go back in time together and I didn’t know how that would work, but I trusted her and she pulled out another hair.
With each piece of hair she plucked from her eyebrows, a year went by and soon, so many years had gone by that I no longer knew her and she no longer knew my bathroom counter and all I knew was that expression she made with each pull, that cringe and the shudder and the biting of her tongue. I still knew it when I saw her six years later, sitting on the front step of her house on that first day of summer. I couldn’t remember much about my childhood, but that expression was so crystal clear in my mind, even more so than the girl sitting on the step right in front of me.
I wondered if I should go up to her and I wondered if I should say something and I wondered if things would be the same and we’d laugh and laugh until we collapsed and then laugh some more, barefooted and chubby-cheeked and full of hope. I wondered if I could still call her beautiful and have it mean just that, beautiful and nothing more. I wondered that the whole time I walked down the street and I wondered if she would notice me, but I didn’t have to wonder for too long. There were still five houses in between us, five mailboxes, five yards, five whole worlds, but she saw me and she waved and I waved back.
Six years later and she was still beautiful and her feet were still bare and I was at a loss for words because I had gotten shyer over the years. Four houses between us and then three and when it was only two, I searched desperately for something to say. There was so much I wanted to say, but only so little that I could say. “Nice weather,” I said and I nodded in her direction.
“Yeah? I think it’s too damn hot. I’m boiling. I’d probably like to take off my shirt and my shorts and my bra and my underwear and maybe even the whole first layer of my skin, but I can’t imagine what the neighbors would say if they saw me with one less layer of skin and my private parts exposed to a boy. But god, it’s really hot out here.” She moved her curls to the side and wiped the sweat from the back of her neck.
I shrugged. “I don’t think it’s that bad.”
“You’re crazy,” she said. “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to last out here.”
When she sighed, I recognized the sigh and she was eleven again and older than me by seven months and sighing at the immaturity of my ten-year-old self and wishing that her friends could all be as wise as she was because it would save so much time. It took a good thirty seconds for the present to resurface, the house and the girl and the neighborhood reappearing only with the sound of her voice. “I can’t go inside. Do you really think I’m so stupid that I wouldn’t think of that on my own? My mum tells me that I look stupid because I don’t wear a lot of clothes and girls who don’t wear a lot of clothes don’t have loads of intelligence. But I say that anyone can be smart, even if they like short skirts,” she said.
I wasn’t sure what to think, but I looked at her skirt and it was awfully short and I blushed and looked away. “Why can’t you go inside?”
“They found a dead body in there two days ago and it’s making the whole place stink.”
“A dead body? Really?”
She nodded. “Hey, do you mind coming up here, up to my steps? I don’t want the whole neighborhood to know. Imagine what people would say if they heard that we found a real dead body in our basement. They might start thinking that we murder people and chop them up and hide them underneath our staircases and then we wouldn’t get any visitors, ever. I’d die a friendless widow and I wouldn’t even have cats because I’m allergic.”
I walked towards her and kept my eyes on her the whole time and there might have been rocks hiding in the grass and I wouldn’t have seen them because I was so focused on her. Even if I tripped, I wanted to keep my eyes on her the whole time I was falling because it had been six years and what if this girl, this house, everything was all a mirage? She was right; it was a hot day, a damn hot day, and I liked it alright, but heat could do funny things to the mind.
I didn’t trip. “Tell me about the dead body.” There was room on the step next to her and I sat.
“We noticed this funny smell and we thought it might be some rotten food or some animal, something normal. Right? That’s what anyone would think. Maybe we had left the milk open or a mouse had crawled under a bed and died and that’s what was stinking up the place. But we couldn’t find anything, so my mum went down to the basement and all we heard was this loud scream. That’s how we found it.”
“Why was it there?”
“Our house was empty until two days ago because we were off at the shore and the police think that the murderer must have known and he decided that it would be the most perfect spot to drop off the body. Because then people would blame us for the dead body and not him.”
“Wow,” I said and I didn’t know what else to say to that.
“I know. Wow. That’s what everyone says when they hear this story at first. It’s just that type of story, you know? The kind where all you can say is, ‘Wow!’ because what else do you say when someone tells you that there was a dead body in the basement of a suburban house? It’s terrible. But it really spices up the neighborhood, I think. Nothing has happened here for seventeen years or maybe more. That’s how long I’ve been here, seventeen years. My whole life, just in this one little house in maybe the safest neighborhood in all of Europe. So this whole dead body thing was kind of a relief to me because it meant that there was at least something to put us on the map. Hey, how long have you been living here?”
She turned and looked at me and I felt like I was burning under her stare and she was a magnifying glass and I was just an ant. If she stared for two long, I would curl up and die and then they’d have two dead bodies making their house smell. “Do I know you? I have the worst memory for faces, maybe the worst of anyone, ever. I once had this whole long conversation with an old friend and the entire time, I was trying to think of who the person was. I still don’t know! It drives me crazy.”
I laughed and I smiled that I was here with her now and frowned that she didn’t remember me and laughed some more. “It’s Peter,” I said. The staring continued and I leaned backwards, out of her line of vision. She blinked. Her concentration was broken and the ant won against the magnifying glass, but maybe only this time and maybe it would lose to something else instead, the human or an animal or a thunderstorm.
“No kidding,” and she laughed along with me. “It’s been almost forever, hasn’t it?”