We ran across town, holding hands and laughing as we darted through yards. The warm summer night was sticky, the humidity heavy on our skin. Neighbors shouted over the crickets and the owls, yelling for us to get home. It was well past dinnertime, but we’d made each other a promise that we wouldn’t stop until it was safe. What exactly safe meant was another story.
We didn’t exactly have a plan. Who does when you’re ten and running away from home? The idea had formed after we’d read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler together at the library. We had packed the essentials, just like Claudia and Jamie from the book: clean underwear, our life savings of eighteen dollars and forty-seven cents, a change of clothes, and pajamas.
“I brought some LEGOs in case we get bored,” I told him, holding up a plastic bag filled with a few dozen random pieces.
The tips of his ears turned bright pink. “I brought, uh, some books. You know, in case of boredom.” He opened his backpack to reveal a small library inside.
“Some?” I teased, zipping it back up for him. “Come on, we’ve got to get moving.”
The streetlights flickered on one by one, almost as if they were following us, lighting the way for our families, who were by now surely trying to find us.
“Do you think Emma is mad we ducked out on her party? She hadn’t gotten to the presents yet, and you know how much she loves opening them with an audience,” he asked, rubbing the back of his neck nervously.
We’d skipped out on our friend Emma’s birthday party just after the cake had been served. It was the height of excitement, and no one except the birthday girl herself knew that we had scooted out the back door. But that was at least thirty minutes ago, and our dads would be at Emma’s to pick us up by now.
“I told her what we were doing. She was going to try to keep them distracted to give us more of a head start,” I explained.
“Was she mad?” he asked, wondering if our mutual best friend was upset that we were running away.
“Worried, I think. You know Emma.”
He nodded in agreement. Our friend was always looking out for us.
“I promised that we’d write to let her know once we arrived safely at your aunt’s house. Are you sure your aunt won’t tell your mom where we’re going?”
He nodded. “She hasn’t talked to my mom in years. They’re mad at each other for something.”
Dogs barked, nipping at our heels as we climbed the fence that spilled into the small backyard behind my grandmother’s office.
She wouldn’t come out and yell. Not at us.
Glancing behind me to the large brick building that sat in the fading darkness, I saw her cheering me on from the back window. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but I had a feeling what it was.
Run. Or maybe: I love you. At the moment, they both meant the same thing.
If this had been any other day, she might have stopped me, talked some sense into me, as all grandmothers enjoyed doing. Maybe she—Dr. Bishop to everyone else, but Gigi to me and my friends—would have suggested that I stay with her as an alternative, either tucked away safely in her big sprawling house or even hidden away inside the doctor’s office where my dad was staying during the divorce. Anything instead of leaving me to listen to my parents’ constant fighting.
But not today. I think she hoped we would get away with our plan, given the circumstances. Not many people urged two ten-year-olds to run away, but Gigi suggested it without actually saying it. Better than anyone, she understood why I was desperate to leave.
I needed to leave, so that I could stay.
We scaled the last fence, leaving the majority of the small town behind. All that was beyond that was the railroad tracks and the woods.
But as I jumped down from the fence, a strangled cry spilled from my lips. With a thud, he hit the ground beside me, but just far enough away from the prickly branches that grew behind the fence.
The ones that I had landed right on top of.
“That looks really bad, Charlotte,” he said worriedly, glancing down at the two long gashes that had appeared on my leg. Bits of spiky branches poked out from the wound in my pale skin.
“It’s okay. I’ll be fine,” I bit out, wincing when I tried to stand. “We have to keep going.” I wiped a muddy hand through the blood that slid down my leg.
“Maybe Gigi should look at it? Clean it up?” he asked, glancing down at the blood squeamishly. “She’s right there. I just saw her looking through the window when we cut through the yard behind her office.” He looked from my leg to the direction of the building over the fence behind us.
“No, they’ll look for us there,” I explained, trying to blink back the tears that welled up.
We both turned to look behind us. We’d heard the loud voices at the same time.
“If you’re sure.”
“I am. Promise.”
He nodded. “I can tie a tourniquet,” he offered, looking surprisingly steady as he examined my leg. “It’s how I got my first-aid merit badge,” he said proudly.
“Always a Boy Scout.” I smiled, but it faded quickly when we saw the telltale sign of a flashlight beam signaling above the fence.
Waving him off, I felt guilty not letting him show me his skills, but we didn’t have time. I rolled back my shoulders, wincing again through the shooting pain. “I’ll take care of it once we get to the river,” I said, limping away.
The sound of voices was getting louder. Shouts from our parents, concerned neighbors, and the—
We both looked back at the fence worriedly at the sound of the police siren.
“How did they get Birdy here already?” I asked, hearing the static from the walkie-talkie.
“Your dad probably called him as soon as he found the note you left. Between him and my parents, there’s no way that they wouldn’t get Birdy, if not all the police, involved.”
I felt defeated, wishing I hadn’t left the note stuck with a magnet on my dad’s refrigerator. “I hoped we would have had more of a head start,” I explained, trying to keep the weight off my injured leg.
Seeing my struggle, he frowned. “Here, hop on,” he offered quickly, turning so his back was to me.
I looked at him, then down at me. I had a couple of inches and at least ten pounds on him. “I’m so much bigger than you! You can’t carry me!” I said, just as another shooting pain radiated through my leg.
“I can do it. Trust me, Charlotte,” he insisted. “We have to hurry.”
His sky-blue eyes shone with kindness and compassion, the sentiment that I knew in my heart was honest and real. That’s what best friends did—they helped when you needed it. And this might be our only chance of getting out of Hope Lake.
I hopped on, wrapping my arms around him. “Are you okay?”
In response, he gently squeezed my legs and took off as fast as he could toward the river, the chorus of voices fading behind us.
When we finally made it to the train tracks, he helped me slide down to sit on one of the large rocks that lay between the tracks and the river.
Our tracks. Our parents and the others searching for us wouldn’t know to look for us here. It was our secret spot. Sure, it was an odd place for a couple of kids to run away to, but in a small town you’re limited to where you can disappear.
That was the first lesson I remembered clearly from my decade in Hope Lake: you can’t keep many secrets; everyone knows everyone’s business.
We would escape here when my parents fought. Or if he was getting picked on at school. Anytime we needed a friend, we knew to head here. Because that’s what best friends did.
“Are you okay?” I asked, swiping the hem of my shirt across his sweaty forehead. He was breathing heavily and collapsed beside the rock I was sitting on.
He nodded, his dark hair slicked with sweat. “I can’t believe how hot it is,” he said, still panting.
It was unseasonably warm for the end of September. “It feels more like the middle of summer,” I groaned, wiping the sweat from my forehead.
School had barely started, which brought up another sad realization. “I won’t be here this winter.” I felt the tears well up. “No snow tubing or sledding through the woods. I won’t even get to be in the Christmas pageant this year.”
“That sucks. It’s our year to be Charlie Brown and Lucy,” he said, reminding me of the parts that we should be performing in this year’s play, A Charlie Brown Christmas.
“Your mom can’t just let you stay until June when school’s done?” he asked hopefully.
I shook my head. “She said her new job in New York starts next week. We have to get settled, so that’s why we’re leaving tomorrow.”
He hung his head, keeping his eyes down. “And she won’t let you stay with your dad?”
“He won’t be here. He’s going on a mission trip to Ghana for the next four months.” I couldn’t keep the tears from plopping onto my hands. “And before you ask, there’s no way she’ll let me stay with Gigi. I already asked. So did Gigi. It’s hopeless.”
“What about Emma? The Peronis would let you stay with them. They’d love it. Or, me. You can come stay with us!”
The hopefulness in his tone was heartbreaking. We had been best friends for as long as either of us could remember, walking into kindergarten holding hands and being virtually inseparable ever since.
He sighed, long and hard. “We should have brought food and water.” He rubbed his stomach. I heard it growl when he leaned over to check on my leg.
Blowing out a shaky breath, he looked up, worried. “You’ve got to clean this, Charlotte. It’s going to get infected. I knew we should have stopped at Gigi’s,” he mumbled.
I dug around in my pack for napkins or tissues but came up empty. Sliding off the rock, I hobbled over to the river to splash water on my leg. “It burns.” I watched the diluted blood slide down and color my white socks pink. “I don’t know if it’s supposed to sting like this.”
When I looked up, he was beside me, handing me a shirt from his backpack. “Use this.” His face was pulled tight, expressionless.
“No way,” I said, pushing the Transformers shirt back to him. “That’s your favorite.”
He shrugged, tipping his head back toward the rock I was on.
“It’s what best friends do.” With the shirt balled up in his hand, he bent down and soaked it in the river. Then, with careful hands, he blotted the white shirt against the cuts on my leg, careful not to rub too hard.
“I’m sorry,” he said with a sympathetic voice when I winced from the sting. I couldn’t imagine how sad he was using that shirt. He’d saved his own money to buy it from the mall in Barreton.
Now it was streaked with blood and dirt because of me.
It’s what best friends do. There was a sticker on the pole beside my makeshift seat that read BEST FRIENDS. We had put it there last year when we had coincidentally taken off from another birthday party. That time, it was mine. “I remember that,” I said, pointing up to it. Seeing the sticker brought back the drama my mother had caused at my tenth birthday party.
My father and Gigi had planned all of it: the invites, the food, securing the location and getting a copy of the movie The Goonies for all of us to enjoy. My mother’s only job was to get me a cake. It should have been simple, but she arrived late and forgot to pick it up. When she ran to the bakery to get it, she insisted someone else had bought it—with my name on it—which was unlikely.
My father drove me to Gigi’s with my presents, but the embarrassment was thick and heavy around me and I couldn’t enjoy anything. When we pulled up to her house, my friend was already there waiting. As if he knew that I would be upset and need to escape. We took off for our spot until the sounds of crickets told us it was time to go home.
This time, we were ignoring the crickets. We didn’t have a home for me to go back to.
I smiled up at the sticker, trying to shake off the overbearing sadness creeping in. The sticker looked as though it was brand-new. “I wonder if that sticker will look that good when I come back to visit.”
We both knew that running away wouldn’t work and that we would have to face the inevitable. But it was still worth a shot.
“Of course it will. You’ll be here next weekend,” he said, with his usual hopeful tone. “Your mom promised.”
“Of course,” I lied, hoping to spare him the pain that I was feeling. I didn’t know when I’d be back, but I was determined that it would be soon. I took out the Polaroid camera that was a gift from last year’s doomed party and snapped two pictures. One for each of us.
“What’s this for?”
“To help us remember the good times.” Even though I was leaving, I’d have people back here as an anchor.
We looked at each other as best we could under the darkening sky. “This place won’t be the same without you, Charlotte,” he said, taking my hand in his.
My belly erupted in flutters. My usual defense mechanism was humor, so I went that route, tamping down the nervous energy that I started to get when he looked at me. “Quite literally.” I laughed, pointing over his shoulder.
“They will be building houses over there soon,” he said, nodding his head toward a sign that was stuck in the wet ground. It read FUTURE SITE OF THE LOVE LANE COMMUNITY. The sign sat on the edge of a steep embankment that would be the location of a new housing development. All the houses would look over the rest of the town below, and a massive yellow dump truck was already parked there for when construction started.
“It’s a silly name, isn’t it?” I scoffed. “Love Lane.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess it’s nice, you know, if you like someone.”
My eyes swung to him, wide and curious. “What are you saying?”
“Nothing, nothing. I’m just saying it’s not that bad,” he mumbled, kicking the dirt. “It’s sad that people are going to be so close to this spot, though. It won’t be a secret anymore.” He looked up, and my heart plummeted when I saw the tears in his eyes. “This was supposed to be just for us.”
I nodded, holding back my own tears. “My dad said they’re not building up this far, but it’s only a matter of time before someone does,” I said, patting him on the knee.
“I’m going to miss this place.” I stared up at the chipped white railroad-crossing sign, my hand resting on the BEST FRIENDS sticker.
“Aren’t you going to miss anything else?” he asked, sitting beside me and stretching his legs out. Side by side the size difference between us was comical. His legs were bony, pale, and shorter than mine. My father said I’d had a growth spurt and that eventually he would have one, too, but there was also the chance that he was going to be slight in stature like his mom and not built broadly like his father, who was practically a giant.
It wasn’t just our height, though, that made us appear so different in age. He still looked like a little boy, whereas I—much to my dad’s dismay—was moving solidly toward preteenville. Doctor or not, my dad was jarred by the fact that his baby girl needed a training bra. My hair was growing faster, becoming more wayward with its curls, and my skin was starting to get the telltale signs that acne was going to be starting soon. Hormones were awful.
The only real similarity between us was the road map of scars, scabs, and black-and-blue marks that marred both of our limbs. It was thanks to hours of horseplay outside with friends. Friends I wouldn’t see every day anymore.
“Charlotte?” he said, bumping my leg with his.
“Oh, sorry, I was thinking. What did you ask?”
He sighed. “I asked if you were going to miss anything else.”
I smiled sadly. “I’ll miss my dad most of all. Three hours is a long way away to visit me, and he’s already so busy.”
“Are you going to miss anybody else? Teachers, classmates …” He paused, shrugging his shoulder. “Friends?” In hindsight, I should have realized what he was referring to.
“Of leaving? New York is so cool! And you’re going to be so close to the city. Just a train ride away! We went with Cooper and his parents. There are shows on Broadway that you’ll love and the park has a zoo!”
I smiled weakly. “I know that. Dad mentioned it when he was trying to cheer me up.”
I sniffed, wiping my tears away with my shirt. “I’m worried everyone’s going to forget about me.”
A lump in my throat prevented me from continuing.
Taking my hand, he held it gently between his. “I’ll remember you, Charlotte.”
“I think I see them!” someone shouted from behind us.
He looked at me; the look of sadness and heartbreak that must have mirrored my own was written over his face. We lunged at each other at the same time, and I held him in the tightest hug I could muster up.
My tears plopped onto his shoulder, and I felt a wall, brick by brick, form around my heart. Protecting it from the hurt that I was feeling. This wasn’t a pain I ever wanted to feel again. I wouldn’t allow it.
What I didn’t realize was that by shutting out the pain of leaving him, I pushed him away completely. And I wouldn’t know what I was missing until I returned to Hope Lake.