Cassie and Sam walked along the tree-lined lane toward the elementary school, just as they did every afternoon. It was Sam’s responsibility to pick up his younger sister, Rebbekah, from school each afternoon, and Cassie, as his best friend, accompanied him on the task.
Cassie couldn’t sort out how or why they were best friends, it had always just kind of been that way. They had met in class four years ago, before Rebbekah had even been in school, and it had just stuck. They understood each other in ways nobody else seemed to, and trusted one another in a way that they could not even trust their respective parents. It was the way things were, and perhaps on some level, the way things had always been destined to be. It felt like that to Cassie, some days… there was a rightness to being around Sam that was comforting, that brought her peace even among the most chaotic teenage tantrums.
Cassie didn’t keep a lot of friends. She found that in middle school, it was difficult to know for sure who to trust. The other girls looked askance at her anyway, at her baggy overalls and dirty fingernails. They watched her trapping bugs in old pickle jars and walked away, giving her the eye and tittering among themselves. They were disgusted by her swearing and unimpressed by her short, untidy hair. That was fine; Cassie didn’t pay them no never mind. Cassie broke rules, and to those girls, that made her a threat. Because maybe, just maybe, her refusal to be bound by those rules meant that the game they’d been raised to play just didn’t really exist.
Sam, on the other hand, wavered between fascination and amusement at her use of crude language, and while he had no interest himself in catching bugs in old pickle jars, he had no problem waiting a few minutes while she did so. Sam had been there two years ago when she’d broken her arm climbing the big oak tree behind the school. Her parents couldn’t fathom why she’d do something so dangerous when there was an enrichment gym on the corner, complete with a tree analogue and plenty of safety features. They didn’t understand that it was different somehow to climb a real live tree than to scramble up an aluminum and foam structure that was built for climbing. One was the simple human use of a human tool; the other was a triumph over adversity.
Her arm had been in a cast and a sling for the rest of that summer.
“Do you want to come over for dinner tonight?” She asked him.
“Nah, I can’t. We have to go to the mausoleum tonight to see Dad.”
“Oh,” Cassie replied, stung suddenly with curiosity. She had no deceased loved ones, and had never had a reason to visit the mausoleum. She wondered what it was like.
Sam glanced down at her. This was a recent thing, this looking down. Prior to his most recent growth spurt, they had been the same height, more or less. “What, you want to come?”
She shook her head. “I wouldn’t impose on something that personal,” she answered.
“No, it’s not a big deal. Just let me check with my mom.”
Sam paused to dial his mother, but Cassie kept walking a few paces, and then stood, digging idly in the dirt along the sidewalk with the toe of her shoe. She never liked listening in on other people’s conversations, so much so that she preferred that it not even look like that was the case. She had grown up without any brothers or sisters, so it seemed strange to share space so closely with people that one couldn’t even have a conversation in private. So that one didn’t even expect to have a conversation in private.
“Hey,” Sam said, walking up to her. “Mom says it’s okay. So we’ll get the kid, and then head to my place?”
“Have you ever been there before?”
“No,” Cassie admitted. “What’s it like? Is it sad? Is it scary?”
“It’s not bad. It’s just lots of screens with people on them.”
“So why do you go?”
“My mom says that it’s a nicer way to remember dead people than visiting a pile of old bones in the ground. I don’t know, you can’t talk to them, they’re not really there. Mom seems to like it, though.”
“It sounds weird.”
“Yeah. I don’t know. I mostly go for mom’s sake.”
They had reached the elementary school, and Rebbekah came bounding up the driveway, a whirlwind of sticky hands and light brown curls.
“Sam! Sam! Sam!” She yelled as she ran, excited to see her older brother. She threw her arms around him and hugged his waist.
“Hello, Bekkah,” he said, “you’re going to have to get cleaned up before we visit dad tonight.”
Rebbekah sported grass stains on her dress, and dirt smeared across the white toes of her shoes.
“Why? He doesn’t care.”
“Because if you don’t, you’ll just fight with mom all evening and I don’t want to wait on you.”
She wormed her little hand into his, and Sam rolled his eyes, but didn’t pull his hand away. They were only a few blocks from the house, it was a small concession for him to make to his younger sister.
“Cass, you too!” she called out, thrusting her empty hand out to the side. Cassie obligingly switched sides, and took Rebbekah’s hand for the remainder of the walk home.