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Do You Still Recognize Your Friends?

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Thick morning fog hangs over Faraway, and if Aubrey had visited the town for the first time, she's sure she wouldn't have any idea where to go. Sometimes she wonders if she would be better off if that were true.

Things haven't been the same since Mari killed herself seven years ago. She still can't understand why the big sister she never had would do something like that. Nobody else did either. She always had good grades, she had family and friends that loved her and who she loved so fiercely. Nobody except for a few jealous classmates had a bad word to say about her.

Things haven't been the same since Basil killed himself three years ago. But unlike with Mari, Aubrey understands why he did it.

She swallows a stream of bile trying to fight its way up her throat. She understands perfectly.

The park sits empty. Too early for anyone to be out, she figures. An old swingset comes into view, and Aubrey takes a seat on hers.

She had been hanging out with her gang in the same park when she heard the whine of ambulance sirens. All of them (especially Angel) had some morbid curiosity, so they followed the sound. They followed it to Basil's house. They followed it to a woman she assumed was his caretaker, standing outside with her face red and tears rolling down her face, struggling to talk to a cop. They followed it to see paramedics rushing a gurney out, a body covered by a sheet but a familiar mess of blonde hair poking out from the front end.

Aubrey didn't feel anything when she saw it. She couldn't think anything. The voices of her new friends faded away as she watched. When the woman looked at her and the rest of her gang and said things not even her own mother dared not say, they ran away.

Few people attended his funeral. Hero and Kel were two of them. She didn't dare show her face.

Aubrey had always been afraid of her new friends abandoning her someday. Everyone abandons her at some point. When she yelled the truth about why they did what they did, Charlene and Vance did exactly that. Angel and Mikhail didn't leave at first; they tried to beat her up. They weren't a match as long as Kim stood with her, but it didn't make it hurt less.

Kim had stayed at first, but she never saw her confident smile again. Aubrey rarely saw her leave the house since that day, and when they locked eyes, they were always empty.

It was hard to look at her. Her best friend participated and never tried to put any sense into her. Even though Aubrey knew it was all her fault, she couldn't help that feeling, and it made her sick.

Kel didn't even fight with her anymore. He just avoided her as if she were a disease. No matter how much she apologized, he didn't accept it.

Hero went back to college. He never came back.

Eventually, Kel left for college. He never came back.

Sunny moved away the morning the ambulance came. She doesn't know what happened to him. Something tells her it's best not to.

All this over scribbled-out photos.

Now at nineteen, Aubrey finally understands why people abandon her. She's scum. All she knows how to do is hurt people. She takes and never gives, and pushes them away when she's done. She never tried to understand why Basil would do that to their memories together, yet she ended up doing the same thing when she threw the album away. She never reached out to Kel, except to pummel him with her fists when he tried to stick up for the flower boy. She never reached out to Hero, who had lost the love of his life. She never reached out to Sunny, who lost his big sister and locked himself in a bubble out of grief.

She killed Basil. Her very first friend.

Aubrey buries her face into her palms and screams. Sobs like powerful earthquakes wrack her body. She can't take this. She needs her friends. She would do anything to change things. you still can.

Something itches at the back of Aubrey's head, compelling her to look around until settling toward the trees behind the playground, barely visible through the fog in the air and the tears in her eyes. But she knows the path through the woods is there. can you hear them?

She knows she shouldn't, but she wants to see the hangout spot again. It's probably not healthy. But she can't help herself. you were always true to your feelings.

Wiping away tears, Aubrey shambles her way toward the woods.

A-aubrey. . . .

Although she's been down this path countless times, the fog and the silence makes her feel cold. She almost wishes she brought her old nailbat. But she feels compelled to keep going. There's nothing to be afraid of.

Aubrey remembers when she discovered this spot. She liked to explore things when she was a kid. Running through the woods, watching rabbits with stars in her eyes and thinking about how cute they looked when their noses twitched, giggling at that one tree where she found a heart with H + M carved into the wood and giggling again when she learned who it belonged too, skinning her knees as she tripped over tree limbs and becoming as familiar with bandaids and disinfectant spray as one would with a loving family. And when she met her old friend group, she soon found herself dragging an initially nervous Sunny by the hand along with her. The drawings in his sketchbook showed her that he had a strong imagination, and those moments pretending to be space pirates from the Spaceboy comics and hunting for treasure and undiscovered places had her bouncing up and down in excitement. She didn't find buried riches, but those memories were her own treasure. they were mine too. but they don't have to be memories anymore.

Sunny was with her when she found the hangout spot. Weaving past old barricades and emerging through the clearing, seeing the old statue and the aged brown wood of the pier and the stillness of the sparkling lake, it was like she found some place abandoned by time. When she turned to look at Sunny's face, a hung-open mouth and wide eyes replacing his normal blank expression, she could tell he felt the same way. She had been tempted to keep this spot to themselves, but decided it wouldn't be fair to their friends. You always cared about us, even when you pretended not to.

She remembers the excitement of her friends when she showed them.

She remembers Kel yelling something like "this is so cool" right next to her ear and slugging him in the shoulder; not a real punch, like so many times after, but the kind you'd do among friends. Sorry about that.

She remembers Hero speculating that the lake would be perfect for swimming, and that he was proud of her and Sunny for discovering a place like this. Back when she could be someone a person could be proud of. I'm still proud of you.

She remembers Basil snapping pictures of the statue and the lake at different angles; none of those made it into their album, she always figured he kept them to himself. It was a good thing he did, after the things she did to him, and to their memories. I never hated you for it.

She remembers Sunny's quiet smile, something rare even back then. Something that made her blush every time. She wonders if he still remembers her. He probably does. He has the best memory out of all of them. She hopes he doesn't remember; someone like her is worth forgetting. i could never forget about you.

She remembers Mari talking about having picnics here, and saying embarrassing things like "my precious little explorer" to Sunny, and a delicate hand ruffling her hair and a sweet smile that said she was proud of her. She really was like a sister to her, but after everything Aubrey did, she knows Mari wouldn't even want to look at her. That's not true. I'm happy to be your sister.

Aubrey comes to the barricades, still standing after so long. The lake is as quiet as ever. She spots the statue in the distance, a dark obelisk in the fog looming over the still water. look closer.

At the base of the statue, there are things floating in the water. She can't tell what they are. Do you still recognize your friends?

She weaves past the barricades and comes to the edge of the lake. She squints her eyes.

They look back at her.

They. . . .

What are we?

Her mind clouds with noise.

auby?

It's them.

It's been so long, little sister .

It's her voice.

I m-m-missed you so much.

It's his voice.

She tries to back up. Something pulls her forward. Consequently, she doesn't move at all.

Are you trying to push us away again?

She can't understand. She's losing it. They're not supposed to be here.

It's okay, Aubrey. Don't be afraid. It's not as scary as you think.

Aubrey can practically feel her hand on her shoulder.

She has to run.

please don't leave me again.

She can't run.

i don't like being alone.

It hurts so much.

You still care about us, don't you, little sister?

      Even when you were angry, and hurt people you love.

           Even when you tried to replace us.

               even when you abandoned me.

                   Even when you killed me.

Aubrey sinks to her knees. She starts to cry again. She feels something crawling over her brain. "I . . . How . . ."

You have to help us.

      Friends are supposed to be there for each other!

           Everything is going to be okay.

                we can be together, just like before.

                     I can help you, little sister. All it costs is your love.

. . . All her friends. They're here, in the water.

We miss you.

After everything she did.

This time, we'll stick together.

After she hurt them.

We'll always be best friends.

After she bullied them.

We can make new memories together.

After she pushed them away.

i still love you.

Something breaks.

What is she doing? Her friends are in the lake. They need her, and she's just standing here like an idiot. Seven years of doing the wrong thing and she finally has a chance to make things right. To be there for her friends, as she should have done the whole time.

She wants to argue about stupid things with Kel. She wants to taste Hero's cooking again. She wants to talk about obscure plants with names she can't pronounce with Basil. She wants to grab Sunny's hand, whisking him away to places unknown and vent about all the things they could never tell anyone. She wants to dye Mari's hair and go on picnics together.

As Aubrey kicks off her sneakers, she promises herself that things will be different again. She'll make them different. She will save her friends. So she takes the first step; she pulls herself up and jumps into the lake.

The chill of the water pierces her skin, and she shudders violently. It's best not to stay long. Why?

In the back of her mind, she registers that the lake seems bigger than it did earlier. And her friends farther away. It doesn't matter. She has to keep swimming. They need her. She needs them. it's been so long.

It doesn't take long for her arms to grow sore. But she can't give up now. They're close now. So close. She can see their heads bobbing in the water, looking at her. Waiting. We waited for so long.

Aubrey makes it to one body. She looks at its face.

There is no face.

For a split second, her breath catches, and something deep in her mind screams at her to turn around right now.

Arms wrap around her a split second later, and the feeling vanishes.

it's okay. we're here now.

It's Sunny. His black eyes, a source of comfort so long ago, peer into hers.

More pairs of arms wrap around her. The lake, the statue, everything else vanishes from sight. All she can see is them. Her head feels fuzzy. It's been so long since they hugged like this. She doesn't want to leave.

She won't leave.

They won't leave.

They're together now.

They won't be abandoned again.

Abandoned. . . .

Many voices ring out in a jumbled mind, all saying the same thing.

Why did they abandon her?

Weren't they supposed to be friends?

How could they do that?

Don't they remember all the time they spent here at the lake?

Meeting up after school just to hang out together?How could her friends try to beat her up like that, after everything they've been through?

Kim . . . How could her best friend leave her behind?

The bodies hurt. They hurt so much.

They simply float in the water, hurting together.