Authors: Lurlene McDaniel
Chelsea squeezed Amanda’s hand. “See you soon.”
Katie started to follow her out, but Amanda caught her arm. “Don’t leave yet.” Katie paused. “What is it?”
“I need to say some things to you.” Amanda’s voice was so weak, Katie had to place her ear next to Amanda’s mouth in order to hear her. “You were my very best friend, Katie. More than a friend. A sister. Remember how we both always wanted a sister?”
Katie’s throat was clogged with tears, and all she could do was nod.
“Thank you for giving me the best summer ever.”
“I didn’t do anything—”
“Thank you for Jeff too.”
Katie waited while Amanda struggled for air. “I always knew he wanted Lacey,” she whispered.
Katie straightened, feeling flustered. “That’s not so, Mandy. He likes you. He really does.
his girlfriend. You’ve seen how he and Lacey get on together. It’s like World War Three between them. They positively hate—”
Amanda tugged on Katie’s arm to halt her flow of words. “It’s okay. I didn’t mind pretending I was his real girlfriend. It helped when I was alone. When I hurt so much. I thought of him and how wonderful it was to have him near me. Love is good medicine.” For an instant, the bright, impish smile that belonged uniquely to Amanda flashed across her face. “Don’t tell them I knew.”
Katie returned her smile. The pretense was gone between them. So, Amanda had known the truth all along.… Yet, the charade had been something Jeff and Lacey had wanted to give to Amanda, so Amanda allowed them to believe they had given it. Katie nodded. “It’ll be our secret. And I know what you mean about love. Sometimes I think Josh pulled me through by sheer force of his will.”
Amanda’s eyelids drooped. “This medicine makes me so sleepy.”
“I’ll let you sleep, then.”
“I don’t really want to. I want to stay awake.”
“It’s all right. We’ll be back tomorrow.”
“If tomorrow comes,” she whispered as her eyes closed and she drifted away into the twilight land Katie had visited herself one summer. When, like Amanda’s,
life had been hanging by a thread.
Early the next morning, Amanda slipped into a coma, where she hovered for days. Mr. Holloway personally took Katie and her friends to visit each day, then brought them back to Jenny House for meals and sleeping.
Each day, Katie eased into Amanda’s room to see her stretched out on her bed as if she were only asleep. Katie listened to the hum of machines, the hiss of a respirator, the beep of a heart monitor. She spun the colorful mobile still hanging on the IV stand, now holding bags of saline solution and nutrients. She willed Amanda to open her eyes. To grace them with her sunny smile. She talked to her, knowing that hearing was the last of the five senses to leave a person.
“Dying’s hard work,”
Amanda had told Chelsea. “Live!” Katie whispered to her friend.
When Katie returned to Jenny House, she began packing up her things for her return trip to Ann Arbor, now less than three days away. Her parents had called to say they were driving down to North Carolina to pick her up. But understanding her involvement with Amanda, they’d rented a hotel room and promised to wait “until your friend wakes up,” as her
father had put it. She thought his choice of words touching.
Josh called her to say he was wrapping up his job and would be waiting in her driveway when she returned. “Gramps is going to cook us dinner,” he said. “And he’s not a bad cook either.”
Josh’s enthusiasm reminded her that life went on in spite of what was happening at the hospital to Amanda. She continued to pack slowly, moving around Chelsea and Lacey like a sleepwalker. Each of them seemed to be in a state of suspended animation, trapped between staying and going. Caught, like insects in some elaborate cosmic web.
After lunch that same afternoon, Richard Holloway appeared at their doorway. Katie stopped her packing. Lacey dropped an armful of already folded clothes. Chelsea eased herself down on her bed. “What is it?” Katie asked, her heart thudding with dread. “What’s wrong?”
“Amanda died less than thirty minutes ago,” he said with a catch in his voice. “She’s with my Jenny now.”
nausea passed through Katie. She heard Chelsea start to cry. Lacey said not a single word. She simply brushed past Mr. Holloway and left the room.
“I’m sorry,” Richard said. “I wish there had been some other way to tell you. I wish I hadn’t had to tell you at all.”
“How are her mom and dad?” Katie asked.
“Better than I expected. It’s hard waiting for someone to die. You feel helpless.”
Katie realized that he was telling her as much about Jenny’s death as about Amanda’s. “What happens now?”
“Her parents are having her body flown back to Kansas for burial. They’ve asked the staff to pack her
things and send them along. Unless, of course, you all would rather do it.”
Katie shook her head. She could barely stand to look at Amanda’s corner of the room as it was. She knew she’d never be able to touch Amanda’s possessions and store them away in boxes. She tried to imagine which was going to be harder: to see Amanda’s things where her hands had last placed them, or to see her space empty, as if she’d never existed at all.
Once Richard had gone, Katie sat beside Chelsea, who continued to weep. “I’ve never known anybody who died before, Katie. I mean, Mandy was only thirteen. It isn’t fair.”
Katie cried right along with Chelsea, feeling anger mix with her sorrow. It
fair. “But aren’t we glad we got to know her? She was pretty special.”
Chelsea reached for a tissue. “Where did Lacey go?”
“I wish she were here. I want us all to be together.”
Irritation toward Lacey allowed Katie to curb her grief. Why did that girl always run off? Didn’t she realize this was hard on all of them? “Maybe she went to tell Jeff,” Katie suggested.
“Jeff! Do you think he knows?” Chelsea twisted her soggy tissue. “I really think he cared a lot for Amanda in the end.”
“I know he did.” Katie moved off the bed. “I better go look for him. If Lacey’s with him, I’ll bring her back.”
“You won’t leave me for long, will you?”
“Not too long,” Katie promised.
She splashed cold water on her face, grabbed some tissues, and went downstairs. She found Jeff in the game room, playing Ping-Pong with one of the younger boys. He took one look at Katie, dropped the paddle, and walked over to her.
“What’s happened?” She told him about Amanda and saw his eyes fill with moisture. “We knew it was coming, but I wasn’t ready for it. When I saw her yesterday, I thought I felt her squeeze my hand. I guess it was just my imagination.” He put his arms around Katie and let her cry on his shoulder. “You know, Katie, I really did love her.”
Katie blew her nose. “We all did.” She took a long, shuddering breath and pulled away from Jeff. “I came looking for Lacey. Have you seen her?”
“Not today. But then Miss Keep Away hasn’t been exactly available to me. I don’t know why she hates me so much.”
“She doesn’t,” Katie said. “She’s all mixed up inside. And she took Amanda’s sickness pretty hard. Harder than any of us in a way. I think Lacey likes to forget she’s got a health problem, whereas we all realize we do.”
“I think Lacey’s a snob, and I’ll be glad to be rid of her.”
“Why don’t I believe you?”
Jeff offered a rueful smile. “ ’Cause I’ve always been a lousy liar.” He tugged gently on Katie’s hair. “You going to be okay?”
“I don’t know. For a while, I was hating the
thought of leaving this place, but now, I can’t wait to go. This place is making me depressed.”
Jeff lifted her chin. “You’re Jenny House’s biggest fan. Don’t change.”
She shrugged. “I better get back to Chelsea. She didn’t want to be alone too long. If you see Lacey—”
“I’ll drag her up to your room bodily,” Jeff finished.
When Katie returned, Chelsea had no news to report about the missing Lacey. By suppertime, she still hadn’t returned. Katie didn’t want to alarm Mr. Holloway, but she was worried about Lacey.
Chelsea lay down, yet Katie knew she didn’t nap. Her breathing sounded shallow, and Katie thought she looked especially tired. Her lips had a pale bluish cast. “It’s just as well that I’m going home tomorrow,” Chelsea said. “I’m not feeling good.”
“Should I tell someone?”
“I’ll be all right until I get home, but I’ll bet my doctor puts me in the hospital.”
Katie’s throat tightened. “Round-the-clock oxygen will be the next thing they do for you,” she said.
“I don’t care. I wouldn’t have traded this summer here for anything.” Chelsea shut her eyes. “Why doesn’t Lacey come back?”
Katie longed to get her hands around Lacey’s throat. No matter how Amanda’s death had affected her, didn’t she realize that they all needed each other? How could she have spent the entire summer at Jenny House and not have picked up that message?
Suddenly Chelsea bolted upright. “Katie! I think I know where to find Lacey.”
“Help me, and we’ll go find her together.” Chelsea’s legs wobbled, and Katie put her arm around her for support.
“Do you think you should try to go anywhere?”
“Please, Katie, hurry. I’m sure I’m right.”
The horses plodded up the mountain trail, with Katie leading Chelsea’s mount. She continually glanced over her shoulder, anxious for her friend. Chelsea looked bad, but she’d been so determined to come, Katie had agreed to the journey. At the stables, they learned that Lacey had indeed checked out a horse around noon. Now, with the sun sinking lower in the sky, Katie felt a sense of urgency about getting to the plateau as quickly as possible.
She followed the scraps of material that Amanda had tied to the trees and found her way easily. At the crest of the ridge, she saw Lacey’s horse grazing, reins tied to a tree. Katie helped Chelsea dismount, and together, they walked the rest of the way. The earth was wet, signaling that it had rained atop the mountain. The pungent smell of damp earth mingled with the scent of summer flowers.
At the very top of the ridge, the ground flattened and they discovered Lacey sitting cross-legged, staring out over the slope of mountains that nestled the waning sun. Lacey turned when she heard them approaching, but she didn’t look surprised.
Katie felt a burst of angry words bubble on her
tongue, but when she and Chelsea stood beside Lacey, the words died and her anger fled. “I knew you’d
“You didn’t leave us many clues. Chelsea figured it out.”
Chelsea sat on the moist ground and reached for Lacey’s hand. “It wasn’t very hard once I started thinking about it.”
“What’s that?” Katie asked, pointing. For the first time, she noticed a pile of rocks laid out in the shape of a cross. At the head, there were three tall sticks standing upright and meeting at the top to form a tepee. Around the tepee, Lacey had placed a hand-twisted garland of wildflowers—wisteria and violets, Queen Anne’s lace and frothy cascades of small yellow and orange blossoms. In the center, she had stuck her copy of the photo Mr. Holloway had given them.
“Everyone should have a memorial,” Lacey said matter-of-factly. “This is Mandy’s.”
“It’s beautiful,” Chelsea said. “You’ve been planning it, haven’t you?”
“I stashed my picture in the barn last week. I knew this day was coming. I’m going to leave it here.”
Katie felt overwhelmed. Odd that Lacey would be the one to have thought of such a thing. “It might get ruined when it rains,” she said. “Are you sure you want to leave it?”
“Of course. How else can Mandy look out over the mountains?”
Chelsea fingered the petals of the flowers. She took a tube of lipstick from her pocket and drew a bright
red heart around Amanda’s gamin face. “So all the fairies and elves who come here at night will know who this is for,” she explained.
“I wish Amanda were here,” Katie said, unable to contain her sadness any longer. “I miss her …”
Lacey turned to her. “We’ve got to make a pact with each other.”
“What kind of pact?” Katie asked against the lump in her throat.
“That we’ll all come here next summer and visit the memorial.” Lacey’s expression was one of dogged determination as she stared hard at Chelsea.
Chelsea glanced away. “That’s a long way off—”
“You’ve got to promise me.” Lacey’s voice grew insistent, and her gaze shifted to Katie, her eyes glittering like blue jewels.
Katie held out her hand, palm up. “I promise,” she said.
Immediately, Lacey placed her hand, palm down, on top of Katie’s. Both of them looked to Chelsea. The brown-haired girl slowly inched out her hand, and Katie saw that her nail beds were blue from lack of oxygen. Silently, she begged Chelsea to be brave enough to seal the pact with her touch.
Chelsea’s hand slid over Lacey’s and Katie’s and held firm. “I promise,” she whispered.
“Then it’s a deal,” Lacey declared, scrambling to her feet, without sentiment. “Now, let’s watch the sun set.”
Katie rose beside her, and they both helped Chelsea to her feet. They stood shoulder to shoulder, facing west, where crimson rays blanketed the sky,
bathing the world in red-gold splendor. The air smelled fresh and new, washed clean and scented with the sharp aroma of pine needles.