Jenna and Benji spent their lifetime being friends. But forever takes on a much darker meaning without the one person she trusted most.
Benji tamps the dried leaf bits with his fingers, spreading them, but not quite to the ends of the paper. He scrubs the edges together, packing tightly, and starts to roll. I picture him repeating each step with lawn trimmings or basil or guppy flakes, fumbling when he has no audience until he’s confident he can serve up a real one without looking like an idiot.
“You’re good at that.” I hope I sound impressed. Fourteen, and he’s already mastered this skill. Me? I’ve never even smoked a cigarette.
He licks the short free edge of the paper and seals it down the length of the joint. His long fingers are steady, confident in their task. He looks down at what he’s doing, not at me. Not sure why I said anything. He won’t answer. Benji is Benji. Conversation isn’t volleyball to him. It’s baseball, when you wait for just the right pitch, and then swing as hard as you can.
I try again anyway. “Did you get that from Shai?”
This time he rewards my question with a glance. His eyes always catch me off guard, even after all these years. Dark hair, dark complexion—his irises should be brown. But they’re hazel, light and greenish-gray, like his mom’s.
“He owed me.” Benji twists the paper at one end into a tight little fuse and lights it with a Bic I’ve never seen him carry.
I stare at him until he keeps talking.
“We had a deal.” He takes a long drag on the joint. The fuse on the end burns to nothing and the leaves inside ignite. “I cleaned all those old boxes and shit out of the garage, and he hooked me up.” He holds the joint between us, pinched between his fingertips and thumb.
When I don’t reach for it, he takes another hard pull.
Even best friends don’t know everything about each other. Or do I just tell myself that? I like to think Benji is my soulmate, that I am Samwise to his Frodo. But times like these, I wonder about the life he lives that he doesn’t share with me. Is it because I’m a girl? Because he’s a Jew and I’m Methodist? Or because his older brother deals weed and this is just one of those things I should have seen coming?
I’ve known Benji Cohen for six years. After the first two, my parents quit worrying that I shunned the company of girls my age and hung out with a boy. By the third year, people had stopped teasing me about my “boyfriend.” He and I rode bikes together, built a fort with fallen trees together, and rode the bus to school together from the fourth grade onward. These days, he’s busy with track practice—our freshman year of high school starts in three weeks, and the track team has been running laps around Charis Park. I get bored a lot lately, spending time alone, but Benji likes to run and he wants to go to college, so an athletic program makes sense.
The first time I saw Benji was at Charis Park. Like now, it was summer. No school, hot as hell. Some of the older kids were splashing in the creek by the ball fields, but I was nine, and had to stay near the playground within sight of the grownups. Depending on the parents watching, sometimes the more intrepid of us would slip off to the train tracks and climb on the rocks below the trestle. We’d poke through the trash tossed down by teenagers who came out at night to smoke dope and play chicken with the trains. To do other things, too, judging by the broken beer bottles and used rubbers littering the embankment.
That day some middle schoolers had tucked in behind the trestle pilings, so well-hidden that nobody noticed them until one ducked underneath a long span of steel and stood watching us. I’d never seen him before. He looked older than the boys who emerged one by one to flank him, very tan and tall with Army-short black hair and dark eyes. He said nothing, just stared at me, and the three girls who’d come with me. And we understood. Stop walking, turn around, and go back to the playground with the other little kids.
“Go.” I turned and gave the girl following me a gentle push to get her headed in a better direction. “Just go.”
She scrambled back the way we’d come, and so did the two girls who’d been walking behind her. The four of us clambered and slipped across the rocks as fast as we could, but the sound of pursuing footsteps grew so close that I wasn’t even surprised to feel the sharp tug on my backpack.
“Let go!” I whipped around and got tangled up in the straps. The instant my backpack slipped over my head, I lost my balance and fell.
“Whatcha got in here?”
I recognized him from the bus. Wes Clemmons, eighth-grader, mean as shit. Always in a fight, or looking for a fight. I didn’t plan to give him one.
“Please give it back.” Not like I thought that would help.
Under the trestle, the dark-haired boy hadn’t moved. He just watched, silent and scary.
“Take it back,” Wes said. “Come on. I dare you.”
He could dare all day, and I wasn’t about to challenge him. So, I stayed down, and hoped my friends had gone for help.
“Let’s see what I can find.” He unzipped my backpack and dumped everything in it onto the rocks. My lunch—a peanut butter and jelly in a plastic sandwich bag, a Ziploc full of potato chips, and two Oreo cookies—went tumbling. Sunscreen that Mom made me bring. And my Game Boy. “Oh, hell.” He leaned down and picked it up. “What’s this?”
My cheeks flamed. I wanted to push him off the rocks into the creek at the base of the trestle.
“Shit.” He scowled down at it. “Not even the color version.”
“Hey!” A grownup’s voice, from the direction of the playground. “What are you doing?”
Wes looked up, toward the sound. His eyes went wide for a fraction of a second, then narrowed. He dropped the backpack and tossed my Game Boy down the embankment toward the creek.
“No!” I shrieked and started to leap up, but fell again and banged my knee hard on a rock. “Ow!”
Wes was halfway back to the trestle when I looked up, scrambling across the rocks like a goat. The dark-haired boy had disappeared, and the others had scattered. Nobody on the embankment now but me, and Stacey Powers’ dad, who was climbing on all fours to reach me.
“Jenna,” he said before he reached me. “Are you okay?”
I nodded, throat too tight to speak. I could’ve cried over the pain in my knee, but losing my Game Boy like that hurt far worse.
“Come on.” He stopped before he got all the way to me. “Let’s go back down and get that knee cleaned up.”
I tottered to my feet and followed him back toward the playground. At the bottom of the embankment, I glanced once more time toward the spot where Wes had flung my Game Boy. And that’s when I saw him—a kid about my age, picking his way down the rocks from the trestle. Skinny, nothing but deeply tanned arms and legs and a mop of curly black hair that stuck out in every direction. As I watched, he slipped over the edge of the creek bank, sliding downward through the alder bushes until I couldn’t see him at all.
Mr. Powers didn’t seem to notice. He stood under the picnic pavilion beckoning for me to join the small throng that had gathered around the other three girls. I had the only injury of the group, so all attention turned to me. I suffered through it, endured the sting of peroxide on my scraped knee, and the rough but well-meaning hands that pressed two Band-Aid strips across the wound. My eyes constantly scanned the creek bank, and I watched with growing concern for signs of the mop-haired boy who never came back through the alder bushes. Where had he gone? Was he in trouble down there in the water, out of sight and unnoticed by everyone but me?
Finally, I saw him, by the ballfields. He came from the direction of the creek, where the older kids still splashed in the shallows. He didn’t look wet, and I puzzled over that for a bit. Puzzled even harder when he stopped by the dugouts and just stood there, alone, keeping to the shade of the overhang like he was part of the shadows themselves. But the thing that really got my attention was the thing he held in his hands—from where I sat under the pavilion, it looked like he was playing with my Game Boy.
I waited until the grownups lost interest in my knee and narrowed all their focus on other kids who might get maimed on the playground. Then I headed straight for the dugout, expecting the boy to bolt at any second. But he didn’t. He sat on one of the benches with my Game Boy in plain sight, like he was baiting me.
“That’s mine.” I stopped just outside the dugout with my fists on my hips.
“I know.” He turned it off and held it out to me. “It’s fine. It didn’t land in the water.”
Stunned, I took my Game Boy from him and inspected it. A couple of new scratches, but the screen was intact and it definitely hadn’t taken a dunk.
“How did…?” I held it up. “Why is it not—”
“There’s a sandbar at the bottom. It’s been dry all summer. I figured that’s where it landed.”
“And you knew about the sandbar because…?” I trailed off, inviting him to finish the sentence.
“We live right up there.” He pointed toward the woods across the tracks, on the park side of the trestle. “In the cul-de-sac.”
“On Grant Street?”
“Yeah. The big gray house, with the driveway on the side.”
I almost gasped, but caught it just in time. “That house is haunted.”
He laughed out loud, pale gray-green eyes lighting up with humor. “No, it isn’t. It’s just old. My folks are restoring it.”
“I’d be scared to sleep there.”
“Good thing you don’t have to, then.” His laughter had dialed back to a grin, but his eyes still twinkled. He pointed to my Game Boy, clutched tightly in both of my hands. “I got you up to thirteen in Rocky-Valley. My brother has a Nintendo—he’d probably let us use it if you aren’t afraid of the ghosts.”
“I thought you said the house isn't haunted.”
He shrugged. “It will be if Shai finds out you think it is.”
The boy under the trestle—same coloring as this kid, just older, with shorter hair and darker eyes. Ah. Okay. I got it.
“He didn’t seem very friendly,” I said.
“He was pissed at Wes. Then after all that happened with you—he’ll take care of it. They won’t bother you again.”
Something about the way he said it—the utter calm, total confidence—more than just the admiration of a kid brother living in an older one’s shadow. This was absolute certainty, quiet acknowledgement, not wishful thinking.
Now, today, I look at Benji with his long legs stretched out on the concrete footing of the trestle, older than Shai had been when we first met. And Wes—his injuries have long healed, but he'd started the eighth grade that year with a broken nose and a few missing teeth.
I smile, remembering.
“What’s it like?” I wrap my arms around my knees and watch him smoke. “Getting high?”
He pulls his own knees up and rests his elbows on them. No longer all arms and legs, Benji has filled out his frame. He’s still not as tall as Shai, but he’s solid. Like a grown-up. Dark hair covers his legs, and looking at it makes me feel squirmy inside. We’re becoming more different every day. Sometimes that makes me scared, even though I can’t figure out what I’m actually afraid of.
Like before, he holds out the joint, pinched between his fingers. He exhales slowly, and the smoke smells weird. Earthy, and pungent.
Benji is going one direction, and I’m standing still. Pretty soon, if I don’t keep up, he’ll find some new friends who do.
I reach for the joint he rolled, bring it to my mouth, and inhale.