The first time I saw Sara-Beth Carter she was roller skating down Ruskin Drive with a black cat cradled in her arms. Her wavy blonde locks tangled in the summer breeze, and she wore a large t-shirt that hung midway down her lean thighs like a dress, stopping above her bare knees. Sara-Beth never wore a helmet.
A week later we played together for the first time. I was next door with Mrs. Jones’ grandson, Cameron, a chubby boy with a bowl haircut and a nose that seemed to perpetually run. He came up to Charlotte every summer from Rock Hill to visit his grandmother. Sara-Beth walked up the driveway and announced that she was going to play with us. At first Cameron said she couldn’t. After all, Cameron was supposed to be the Sheriff since he had the silver star badge, cowboy hat, and plastic pistols. But Sara-Beth always walked as if she had spurs on her heels. It was only after I pleaded with him that he finally nodded. I was glad to have someone join our game because I hated being cast as the bad guy. Cameron would lasso me and then tie me to the rail on his grandmother’s front porch steps. Sara-Beth was willing to play the villain though; she could play any role.
“These ropes won’t hold me,” she said, nodding her head toward her bound wrists. Cameron and I exchanged looks. He was a Boy Scout and knot tying was no joking matter.
“Mimi has never escaped,” he said. I nodded. It was true.
With minimal effort she managed to wiggle and slip her hands free. Cameron went inside to look for a better means of restraint and reemerged with a shiny metal pair of handcuffs.
“I know how to get out of these too,” Sara-Beth said as he snapped the metal cuff around her wrist. “You gotta handcuff Mimi too,” she said, glancing my way. “She’s my sidekick.” Her eyes were a cloudy cornflower blue, the color of my favorite crayon.
I held out my wrist without hesitation. Cameron shrugged, pulled the cuffs through the railing, and click-click-clicked the metal bracelet around my wrist. I smiled at Sara-Beth and she smiled right back.
“Hey…” said Sara-Beth as she examined the handcuffs. “Where’s the release latch?”
That was how I found myself bound to Sara-Beth. We sat handcuffed together for the next three hours and got to know each other. She knew all there was to know about the neighborhood and told us stories like how a house had caught fire last winter or about the murderer who used to live in the nearby cul-de-sac. Cameron’s dad was a police officer and we had to wait for him to get off duty and drive up from Rock Hill to unlock the handcuffs. Cameron had run off to hide in the woods behind my house for fear of the inevitable spanking to follow. Sara-Beth’s cat, Pokey, did a figure eight through our legs and the wrought iron banister as we talked. Sara-Beth told me her name was Pokey because she poked her nose into ashtrays. Wherever Sara-Beth went in the neighborhood, the slinky old black cat was right behind her.
A few weeks later Cameron dared Sara-Beth to ride my bike down Darwin Street while standing on the seat, and when she flew through the air and her body collided with the pavement, it was Pokey that was the first one by her side. I had begged Sara-Beth not to do it, but it was a hopeless case. Sara-Beth never turned down a dare. I preferred truth myself, it was safer and I had no secrets to hide. As always, she refused to wear my helmet.
“Sara-Beth!” I screamed as I ran to her still body. I knelt by her side and touched her shoulder. She sat up, a curtain of golden blond hair shielding her face. I exhaled. Long bloody scrapes were present on her tanned arms and legs. I watched a trail of thick bright blood navigate its way through the light golden hairs of her calf and then seep into the white cuff of her sock. Pokey nuzzled her sleek dark head against Sara-Beth’s side. At first she didn’t say anything. The only sound that came from behind her hair was a series of rapid uneven breaths.
“Is she crying?” Cameron asked. He stood over us, eclipsing the bright summer sun.
“I’m…n-not…crying.” Sara-Beth stood up abruptly, and flipped her blonde tangles out of her face. She was taller than Cameron by two whole inches. Her eyes were shiny with unshed tears, and I knew we were about to see the actual tears of Sara-Beth Carter. But then she did something neither of us expected— she laughed. The laughter consumed her body, and she seemed to be hiccupping between desperate gulps of air as she wrapped her scraped arms around her ribcage. The tears remained there in the window sills of her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. After a moment she walked off to her house without a word.
I followed her. I had never been to Sara-Beth’s house before. My parents had forbidden it, and Sara-Beth never asked us over to play. She was always the first one outside during the day and the very last one to go home at night. We usually played in Mrs. Jones’ backyard or in the woods behind my house. I followed Sara-Beth through the tall grass and stepped over an old tire to her back porch. She stood on the top step and turned to look at me. After a moment’s hesitation she held the creaky rusted screen door open for me.
“Is it okay?” I asked, looking past Sara-Beth into the dark interior of her house.
Sara-Beth’s eyes flicked toward the driveway before returning back to my face. “We’ll only be a minute.”
I reached out my hand and my fingertips trailed across the abrasive screen before letting the door slam shut behind my heels. The only source of light in the kitchen came from the dingy window above the sink. My stomach lurched at the stench of rotten eggs. Sara-Beth was watching me and somehow I knew it was important to resist the urge to cover my nose. I stayed close to her side as she removed a bottle of peroxide and a box of band-aids from a cabinet.
“Would you like a glass of water?” she asked in a voice quieter than usual. I shook my head at the sight of the sink. The dishes were stacked high above the faucet. On the counter were plastic bags from various stores, all of which contained boxes of cold medicine. Through the doorway I could see a thin blonde woman bathed in the eerie blue light of the TV as she reclined on the couch. Her eyes seemed distant and glassy. She never once looked our way.
“Is your mom sick?” I whispered.
Sara-Beth grabbed my wrist and pulled me out the backdoor. She sat on the back steps and I poured the peroxide over her scrapes. Sara-Beth let out a string of obscenities under her breath as each wound foamed and fizzed snowy white. I had to hold Pokey in my lap to keep the cat from rubbing fur into each sticky, bubbling wound. These injuries, like so many others, would eventually fade from eyesight. There was hardly a time when Sara-Beth didn’t have some kind of bruise, scrape, or cut. She wore them proudly as if each one was earned in battle.
We had just finished putting on the last of the band-aids when we heard the sound of a car on the gravel driveway. Sara-Beth squeezed my hand.
“Sara-Beth!” A deep masculine voice came from around the side of the house. A thin man with a gaunt face and large furious eyes rounded the corner. “Why the hell is there a bike in the driveway?” He looked first at Sara-Beth, but after his gaze found my face that was where it stayed.
“I’m sorry, Dad. It’s my friend Mimi’s. She stopped by for a few minutes-”
“Do you always leave your stuff in people’s way, Mimi?”
“Dad, she didn’t even leave it there. Our friend must have dropped it off.” I stared directly at the back of Sara-Beth’s head, my eyes tracing the complicated loops and waves of her hair, so different from my own dark, straight, short-cropped strands.
“Well, it isn’t my fault that I ran it over either.” He seemed to soften slightly. “Sorry, kid,” he said to me as he went up the stairs. He stopped at the door and turned back to Sara-Beth. “You didn’t let her inside, did you?”
“Of course not,” she lied.
Sara-Beth helped me carry the mangled remains of my bike back home.
Mom and Dad were furious when they discovered my bike. I told them that I had left it in the street. I cannot remember ever lying to my parents before that moment. They grounded me for a month, but after a week of quietly moping around the house I was allowed to go out and play again. Still, that week felt like a month and I couldn’t wait to go outside and spend the rest of my lazy summer days lying under the dogwood tree in Mrs. Jones’ backyard with Sara-Beth and Cameron.
Eating blackberries from the bushes in Cameron’s grandmother’s backyard was an everyday occurrence for us that summer. Sometimes we would pick a bunch of them and sit on the low hanging limbs of the dogwood tree and try to toss them underhanded into one another´s mouths. Other times we would lie lazily on the small hill beneath the white flower blossoms and eat the blackberries until we felt like we would burst.
Sara-Beth showed us how to drink honeysuckle nectar. With nimble fingers she pinched the end of the petals and slowly removed the sticky stamen from its center. To our amazement there was a tiny ball of honey at the end, which she then dropped onto her pink tongue. It was a breezy day, which was the best kind during that humid summer, when the three of us were lying on the grassy hill beneath the dogwood tree and Sara-Beth turned her head toward us and asked if we had ever kissed anyone before. We hadn’t. The blades of grass bent and swayed in the breeze tickling my cheek. I wondered if my lips were as purple as Sara-Beth’s were.
“I’ll kiss you, Mimi,” said Cameron from my other side. He had raised himself up on his elbow and I couldn’t help but notice the glistening wet beneath one of his nostrils. Sara-Beth giggled. She pressed a tube of strawberry Lip Smackers to her stained lips with one hand and stroked Pokey’s back with the other. I had been with Sara-Beth earlier that week when she stole the lip balm from the drugstore. The key to stealing, Sara-Beth had explained, was confidence. I could never do it.
“She’s not going to let you kiss her,” she said.
“Okay,” I said to Cameron. I shut my eyes and listened to the soft clicking of the branches colliding and the stirring of the leaves overhead with each caress of the breeze. The scent of honeysuckle filled my nose. I waited. Pokey rubbed her head against my bare arm, making the hairs stand on end. Then I felt lips on mine. The taste of blackberry was expected, but my eye lids fluttered open at the taste of artificial strawberry. Her cloudy blue eyes met my dark ones.
Sara-Beth withdrew her stained lips from mine and said, “You’re supposed to keep your eyes closed when you kiss.”
“But yours were open,” I said.
“That’s because I wanted to make sure yours were closed,” said Sara-Beth.
Cameron stood up and climbed as far to the top of the dogwood tree as its frail branches would allow. I asked him what was wrong and he finally shouted, “I was about to kiss you and then she shoved me.” Sara-Beth shrugged. He refused to come down for a long time. That night he went home to Rock Hill and didn’t come back for almost a week. If he had stayed then maybe he would have been there to see Sara-Beth cry, but instead it was a moment I had all to myself.
The next day she tapped on my window in the late morning hours until I woke up. It was like Sara-Beth knew my parents’ opinion of her because she never once came to the front door. I opened the window and learned that Pokey was missing. We set out searching the neighborhood for the cat and we finally found her curled up at the base of a large pine tree in the woods. From a distance she looked like she was sleeping, and though it was the first time either of us had seen death, we knew it instantly for what it was. I watched Sara-Beth’s face contort in pain and then she clung to me, sobbing loudly into my shoulder. That night, and many nights after, Sara-Beth crawled through my bedroom window and curled up next to me in my bed.
I used to be afraid of the dark, but not after Sara-Beth started sleeping in my room. She said she couldn’t sleep without Pokey. She would crawl through my bedroom window usually in a pair of cotton shorts and a white tank top. Sometimes she wouldn’t bother to wear shoes and when I would wake up in the morning Sara-Beth would be gone and there would be blades of green grass left in her place.
One night in late July my mom knocked on my door. Sara-Beth slipped under the bed. She had long ago evicted the monsters and claimed the territory as her own for occasions such as this. My mom had found the muddy clothes that I had worn to play in the creek that day. I had stuffed the white and pink floral top in the trash can, shoving it all the way to the bottom to hide the evidence.
“You were playing in the creek again, weren’t you?” she asked.
I lowered my eyes and nodded. She never missed an opportunity to warn me of the dangers that lurked in the woods behind our house; the snakes, ticks, and sharp jagged cliffs that all were conspiring to hurt me.
“You were with that Sara-Beth girl again,” my mom said, not even bothering to make it a question. “You know how I feel about her. Her parents let her run wild around this neighborhood.”
“She’s nice,” I managed to whisper.
“I’m not saying that she isn’t,” my mom said. “But nice or not, she just isn’t the type of person you should be hanging around. There is a lot of talk in the neighborhood lately about her family and I just don’t want you associated with a girl like her.”
I could feel Sara-Beth’s presence beneath me, as if the mattress was gone and we had merged into one person. I felt her indignation. I felt her hurt.
My mom sighed. “One day you’ll understand what I mean.” She leaned over and kissed my forehead and closed the door behind her.
I lowered my hand beneath the mattress, and after a few seconds I felt Sara-Beth’s cool hand in mine. Long minutes passed until she finally emerged from underneath the bed. She said she was going home despite my whispered pleas for her to stay. I watched her swing her legs over my window sill.
I didn’t see her again until three days later. Cameron and I were sitting on his grandmother’s front porch drinking the instant lemonade she had made us. Sara-Beth skated up his driveway and along the curve of the sidewalk. She approached us too fast and collided with the wrought iron railing. She never was very good at stopping. In fact, the stoppers were the only part of her blue Holly Hobby roller skates that weren’t worn down.
That afternoon we decided to play down by the creek again. Sara-Beth let me borrow her clothes so I wouldn’t get mine muddy again. Sara-Beth stuffed her dad’s old work boots with socks and I laced them tightly around her ankles for her. She put on a small back pack, and Cameron wore his cowboy hat. It wasn’t until we were standing on the thick red clay banks of the creek that Sara-Beth explained our mission: to find the waterfall. She said she had heard that there was a waterfall about a mile up the creek behind The Falls Apartments. The creek water lapped excitedly at the toes of my sneakers.
Cameron crossed his arms. “How do we know you aren’t lying again?” he asked.
The question made me lose my footing and I took a step backward, plunging my right sneaker into the creek.
“I don’t lie,” said Sara-Beth.
“Oh yeah? My dad said he’d never heard of a murderer living on Tranquility Court.”
“You think your dad knows everything just ‘cause he’s a cop,” Sara-Beth said.
“At least my dad has a job,” replied Cameron. The words had barely left his mouth before she lunged forward and shoved him down. He landed on the bank, and his clothes were smeared with red clay. He rose and picked up his hat.
“I’m going home.” His chubby cheeks were bright red. “Are you coming, Mimi?” he asked. The cool creek water had soaked my sneaker and I could feel my sock cling to my toes.
“C’mon Mimi. We don’t need him. We can find it on our own,” Sara-Beth said before turning and walking up the creek. Her feet splashed with each step.
I turned away from Cameron and followed Sara-Beth upstream. The water seeped into my other sneaker.
I was disappointed in its size, but it was still the first waterfall I had ever seen. It was about twice our height with only a modest flow of water, but that wasn’t what mattered. What mattered was its existence.
“I told him,” Sara-Beth muttered.
“I believed you,” I said.
She opened her back pack and pulled out a plastic cup. I watched her stick it under the flow of the waterfall until it ran over the brim. She raised it up for a minute and then brought the cup to her lips and took a sip. Sara-Beth held the cup out for me.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” I said.
“Trust me, it’s safe. Look how clear it is.”
I hesitated but Sara-Beth explained that it was our waterfall and that we deserved to drink it because we had found it.
“You trust me, don’t you?” she asked, holding out the cup.
I reached for the cup and downed the water. It had no taste. All I could taste was the strawberry residue left from Sara-Beth’s lips on the cup.
Sara-Beth asked if I could keep a secret. I nodded.
“Your mom and Cameron are wrong about my dad. He’s really smart. Even smarter than your dad," she said. Hidden waterfalls and serial killers were one thing, but this, this I just couldn’t believe.
“It’s true, “she continued. “He’s a scientist. We have a lab in our basement, but its top secret and you have to promise not to tell anybody.”
“I believe you,” I lied. “I promise I won’t tell," I said, earning her smile.
That night I was certain that I was dying. I couldn’t keep my food down. When I had nothing left to give, my body continued on with painful dry heaves. My parents took me to the emergency room. The pain made me break down and I told the doctor about our waterfall and how we drank it because it belonged to us. When I returned home I had to rest for a few days. My mom caught Sara-Beth outside my window and made her leave, then she drew the curtains and made the room dark. It was after I recovered that my parents told me I could never see Sara-Beth again.
“You don’t even know her,” I screamed. They didn’t seem to understand how badly she needed me. My dad responded with words like “discipline problem” and “consequences.” I repeated some choice words that I had learned from Sara-Beth and started for my bedroom. Then I said something that I still regret to this day.
“You’re wrong about Sara-Beth, and you’re wrong about her family. Her dad’s a scientist. He even has a lab in his basement. You think you know everything, but you don’t.”
I was confined to my yard and if Sara-Beth came anywhere near, my mother would call me inside. Still, she would roller skate by on the opposite of the street and we would lock eyes. I was in my front yard the day that the raid happened. I stood at my curb and watched the officers bring out Sara-Beth’s mom and dad. When Sara-Beth finally came skating around the corner she took in the sight before her. For once she managed to stop. She looked at her house and then at me. I watched her put together a puzzle that would take me much longer to figure out. Then she came at me.
I hit the grassy ground and felt the weight of her body crushing me. The blue worn wheels of her skates bruised my shins. She railed on me with loud open handed slaps across my face. My mom eventually managed to wrestle Sara-Beth off of me, but not before my lip started bleeding.
“Why?” Sara-Beth screamed at me. “I trusted you. You’re supposed to be my best friend.”
My mother told her to leave before she called the police over to the yard. Sara-Beth stood there glaring at me. There was a wild and frightening look in her blue eyes.
“I hate you,” she said.
Those were the last words Sara-Beth ever spoke to me. I didn’t leave the house for days after Sara-Beth went away; the outside world didn’t appeal to me anymore. At night my room seemed darker than usual and so I kept the light on. When I asked my parents why Sara-Beth and her family were taken away their answers were evasive. They told me that things were okay and that I had done the right thing. But how were things okay if Sara-Beth was gone?
A week later I went back to our waterfall. I knew that she wouldn’t be there, couldn’t possibly be, if the rumors were true about foster care, but there was still a small part of me that had hoped. The red clay banks of the creek had cracked and split apart, their edges curling inward and pulling away from one another. Our waterfall had become a mere trickle of water. I couldn’t help but somehow feel that this, too, was my fault. Later that day I sat under the dogwood tree with Cameron for the last time. The wilted brown petals littered the grass below. Cameron took great pride in being the one to finally explain to me why the police arrested the Carters, and only then did I understand the full extent of my betrayal to Sara-Beth. He did not miss Sara-Beth; in fact, his only regret was that he’d not been present to watch the police break down the Carter’s doors. I rolled a petal between my fingers and looked up at the naked branches above. My world looked different now that Sara-Beth had come and gone from it. The tree would bloom again next summer, and for many summers to come, but they wouldn’t be our blossoms.