Alison is eight when the new girl shows up in her Brownie troop, unsmiling and uninterested in earning a single badge. Everyone assumes she’s snobby but Alison accidentally catches her eye during the craft and there’s a melancholy there that strikes her even then.
She learned that word a few weeks ago. Melancholy: a feeling of pensive sadness with no obvious cause. Of course then she had to look up pensive, and then wondered if she ever looked pensive, deciding it was something to aspire to, and her mother told her off for pouting all week. She only wanted people to think she was deep in thought all the time.
Like Beth. She learns her name at school a couple days later, when she sees her on the playground and hangs around until Beth introduces herself.
You’re in my Brownies, Alison says stupidly.
And Beth smiles.
Alison doesn’t know what to do but give into the warmth it spreads in her chest and then they find each other every recess just to walk around together.
It’s a good thing Beth was put in the other third grade class, Alison tells herself. Otherwise she’d stop doing all her work and fail everything and have her mother be so disappointed in her because she ruined her academic career over a new friend. Even if their desks weren’t near each other Alison is sure they’d find a way to communicate, through looks and tiny gestures, given how the only time they seem to bump into each other while walking around the muddy yard is when Beth makes it mean something.
Alison was reading about spy codes the other day, after Beth brought it up. And then it felt like a code in itself.
Who are you? she keeps wanting to ask.
But what she should be asking is: how long will you stay? She knows this a month into it. She knows Beth will leave one day, and actually every day Beth seems to be just a tiny bit farther away.
One day you’re going to be a speck of dust in the distance.
At least let me be one too.
Alison talks to Beth’s parents like a grownup, she’s pretty sure. She has the pamphlet, of course, but every word in it has already come out of her mouth, so she just sits there primly on the couch and holds her smile until it’s painful and in an armchair Beth rolls her eyes while her parents deliberate.
They were patronizing you, Beth says later.
If it were anyone else Alison would pretend to know that word and then look it up when she got home, not wanting to seem stupid. Somehow she finds herself asking Beth what it means. And then frowning in disagreement, and smiling in spite of herself when she notices Beth’s little smirk.
Maybe they were. But they say yes anyway, and in July Beth comes to camp with Alison and sits next to her on the big yellow bus and Alison can’t explain the pleasant queasiness she feels the entire drive.
Like… nibbling. A soft, odd little nibbling. All deep in her stomach every time she looks over.
It doesn’t subside until everyone’s asleep in the cabin that night, Beth’s even breathing from the bunk below smoothing it out in what she always imagined mercury to feel like in those old poison thermometers her dad collects. Like moonlight. And she wonders if this is happiness and why it’s so heavy.
She really likes camp. It’s her second summer and first time staying for the full two months, but the idea of being away from home that long feels more like freedom with Beth here. She has a friend built right in so she won’t have to awkwardly join conversations that end as soon as she speaks and there’s never anything to think about when they have to pick a partner. Beth’s hand just finds hers.
People even seem to find her tolerable when Beth’s around.
(Tolerable: able to be endured. Endure: suffer patiently. Beth taught her both of those words. Beth’s always reading, always handing out new information like notes in the middle of class. Sometimes Alison tries to find the secret meaning just for fun. Just to feel, for a minute, like Beth isn’t always one step ahead.)
Her favourite thing that comes of the summer is what Beth calls her. Ali. She hated it when her cousin tried it out, but Beth makes it sound… sweet. Like another little secret.
Her favourite thing that comes of the summer is the god’s eye Beth makes her. All knotted up and twisted, the worst, darkest colours wrapped around popsicle sticks. Beth smirks when she hands it over. For you, madame.
People don’t seem to get that she’s joking all the time, with all her sour smiles and dry accents, but Alison sort of likes it like that. If they knew how great she was they’d steal her away. And then Alison wouldn’t be twirling a hurricane of a god’s eye between her fingers in the thin light of dawn, listening to Beth sleep below her and wanting nothing more than to stay like this forever.
Her favourite thing that comes of the summer is the quiet. It matches Beth here, somehow.
They sit on the dock sometimes with their heels skimming the water, slapping mosquitoes on each other’s bare thighs and listening out for their counselor’s voice reeling everyone back in. Beth smiles funny at the horizon. Alison never asks no matter how much it itches at her fingertips. She gets that Beth has a whole other person inside of her, like a girl-sized Matryoshka doll. (She has one on her bookshelf; a gift from her aunt. All the painted smiles are red like blood.)
Except Beth would split at the middle and there’d be a big steel wall where another girl should be, and inside the wall would be a hole where something curled up small. But no one would ever find it because the wall is too strong and then Beth would just be split in two, her top half reaching for the bottom half but never being able to put itself back together again.
You’re an enigma, she tells her once, both of them treading water up to their chins.
(Enigma: a person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand. She looks this up on her own. She thinks of Beth immediately.)
Beth just smiles. Alison continues to gasp for air and wonders why they bother swimming all the way out here if they only ever end up trying not to drown.
It’s funny, because they come back to camp every year. But when Alison thinks about summer camp and Beth it’s always the first one that comes to mind: the electric buzz of her best friend at her side for the very first time, no one expecting them to be anything more than themselves.
Of course it changes.
She understands at ten that things will be different, and camp comes back like a given, Beth on the bus beside her, their suitcases equal in weight and Beth making it look like tugging along a little pull-toy.
(She understands a lot less at sixteen. A lot less. Mostly because she never thought Beth’s leaving would be for a boy. )
Beth comes into herself their second summer, Alison’s mother says, sizing them both up on pickup day and making Alison very aware of her dirty fingernails and the way Beth’s body seems to hold her now. She smiles a lot more. A few more people get to hear her jokes.
Alison really tells herself she’s okay with it, but on the last day when she’s breathing in the dry dust of the packed earth and still, stupidly, clutching Beth’s hand like it’s possible to keep this, like they’ll go back to school and be in the same class and giggle like they do over breakfast when their counselor sleeps with her face against the table, she realizes how quickly a person steps away from the best moments of their life.
It’s like one of those moving sidewalks from the airport and even if Alison stood still it wouldn’t make a difference; she’d be miles away before she had a chance to appreciate it.
You look… older, Beth says in the car, hugging her pillow.
It really doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with age at all.
Alison falls asleep with her feet in Beth’s lap somewhere in the middle of farmland and wakes up in the suburbs to Beth smiling, eyes shut, hands curled over Alison’s dirty socks as if they’re still picking partners and she doesn’t want anyone to come between them.
We’re home, Alison’s mother says from the front seat a few minutes later, pulling into the drive. Elizabeth, your mom should be on her way shortly, but you’re welcome to come in and have something to eat if you’re feeling peckish.
They wait in the driveway. On the hot tar, trying to convince themselves they’ll wake up in their bunks any minute now, bugle blaring. Alison doesn’t even watch as Beth’s car disappears down the street and around the corner. It feels too much like the truth.
Beth is present at all of Alison’s birthdays like there was never any other option, always quiet and rolling her eyes but still joining in the party games. Hot Potato and Freeze Dance when they’re younger, Would You Rather and Truth Or Dare when they get a bit older. Everything planned by Alison’s mother and always the last thing Alison would consider a good time.
She never admits that if it were up to her she’d spend her birthday with Beth at the movies or something, hating the games and the fussing as much as Beth. She’s always been aware of what they’re never supposed to talk about.
She’s invited to all of Beth’s birthdays too, but there’s a strange stillness to them and eventually Beth convinces her parents to let her do experience-based celebrations instead and goes to the museum or science centre with a few friends and a gaudy birthday crown. It isn’t any better.
Beth stops celebrating her birthday at fourteen. A year before she moves to Richmond Hill and Alison realizes that her mother was right about needing to expand her world beyond one friend because it won’t be like this forever. There were a thousand warnings that she missed. And then Beth’s in a different school and has new friends and Alison throws herself into cheerleading because it’s something Beth would really hate, the forced happiness and short skirts.
She still comes to Alison’s birthday, though. With a stupid card that Alison cherishes.
I met a boy, Beth tells her that night, after everyone else is gone.
It isn’t even in code this time.
All Alison can think to say in reply is remember when we were twelve and you told me you love me so she says nothing at all, just sits on her bed, and runs her fingers over her new necklace, already knowing how this will change things.
Their fifth summer at camp together, when they were thirteen, Beth spent an entire ropes course session flirting with a boy from their rival cabin who had a soft accent and a scar on his knuckles. She treated it like a joke later - did you see how nervous he was? - and laughed like Alison was in on it too, like she wasn’t sitting there with her heart in her throat because Beth kept playing with her fingers.
It was the first glimpse of a future Alison didn’t want to be a part of, Beth dangling herself in front of boys for the fun of it while Alison stumbled miserably behind her. Later, after Beth has Paul, after she gets sad, Alison wishes it had gone like that after all. At least Beth would be there.
The worst birthday gift Beth ever gives her is _____.
She thinks about it for a long time, after Beth goes home and she’s still sitting on her bed with Beth’s perfume poisoning the air. (It would be petty to say fair warning. Still, she keeps thinking of the funny smile on Beth’s lips when she described him.)
She can’t think of a best gift either, so maybe it’s just that Beth’s consistent.
Laughing at the ridiculousness of that is the first time she’s felt good all day.
Paul comes to camp that summer. Like, Paul somehow becomes the greatest counselor known to mankind, wows the director into accepting his application over some returning staff, taking up space that really should belong to someone else but seems to receive him eagerly.
Alison resents him even though her own application was accepted over another staff and the pettiness is surprisingly comfortable.
Beth is the only one who fills an absence. Alison tries not to think about it.
Beth makes him laugh, in that genuine way that puts lead in Alison’s stomach. Maybe, mostly, Alison was hoping he wouldn’t get her. Or that she wouldn’t try so hard to make him stay.
(That’s the worst part: Alison can see a thousand miles away that he’ll always have one foot out the door.)
(No. The worst part is she says nothing.)
Unfortunately, the kids love him.
The kids love Beth too, like a favourite aunt they only get to see once a year even though she’s with them every day. Alison gets it. She’s had Beth for eight years and it still feels like something she might put her hand through if she’s not careful. (Intangible. Thirteen year-old Alison stuck that word to Beth instantly.)
This is the only place I’ve ever felt like I’m really… real, Beth says at a campfire one night, a rare occasion when Paul is elsewhere and Beth’s had enough to drink to look Alison in the eye.
I know, Alison says. She means to add me too but realizes it’s a lie; it’s only the Beth part of camp that’s ever made her feel this way.
In the mornings, Alison listens for the sound of Beth sneaking out to go for a run before the first bugle. In a perfect world Alison would be with her. Running. They do laps for cheerleading anyway, and she knows she hasn’t been doing her best to stay fit, but… But it isn’t her moment to take.
(It isn’t Paul’s either. Maybe this is why Alison doesn’t mind.)
In the evenings she can hear Beth moving around on her side of the shared cabin wall like they’re kids again on a sleepover and she’s changing in the washroom because it’s always been different with them. Alison just never really considered why that was, until it wasn’t even happening anymore.
It would change everything, wouldn’t it?
No. They’d still be exactly who they are now.
The last thing Alison means to do is cry when Beth tells her.
There’s forest debris in Beth’s beautiful hair, sticking up like a joke of a crown. There’s a mark on Beth’s neck. A hickey.
Of all the places to lose it, Alison means to say, but she opens her mouth and a sob comes out, and somehow Beth’s on her knees comforting her and making it about that stupid chastity club Alison only joined because she’s never known how to make a joke and Beth still has that look in her eyes. The melancholy.
I hope you’re happy, she does her best to spit.
Anger is, at least, easier to wear than heartbreak.
Beth sees right through her anyway.
Ali, she says. Playing with her fingers. It’s how it’s supposed to go.
And I love him, she says much, much later. When the two of them have almost forgotten why they’re curled up in Alison’s tiny bed, whispering so they don’t disturb the kids in the other room. It comes out serrated. Hollow.
If it’s a code Alison’s too tired to try and figure it out.
I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, Rachel says, teetering on the edge of the porch. But Beth’s at the hospital. She… attempted suicide. Sarah was the one who-
The worst part is Alison had convinced herself it wouldn’t come to this.
(No. The worst part is that she knew.)
Beth shows up to Alison’s first cheerleading competition of the school year with a sign painted in the wrong colours.
She reams her out later, still in her uniform, clashing horribly with the sign tucked under her arm, but all Beth does is smirk, eyes trailing the length of Alison’s pleated skirt and then down to her impossibly white sneakers.
Of course it was on purpose. Alison figured that much the moment she spotted it on the bleachers, trying to stop her cheeks from heating up as she caught Beth’s eye. Mostly she yells at her because she wants to see that smirk; that little look that says you love it, don’t lie.
You deserved that third place, Beth tells her, straight-faced.
Alison smacks her arm. And smiles.
I didn’t think you’d come.
You asked me to.
She brings Paul the next time, and they both wear Alison’s school colours like the perfect couple they are, cheering so loud it has Alison chomping down on her nausea. Paul tells her she was great. Full of pep. They laugh like it’s an inside joke and Alison doesn’t invite Beth again.
She still ends up at Beth’s soccer matches, though. Sitting in a camping chair next to Beth’s dad, trying to feel superior about Paul’s absence but mostly feeling incredibly out of place.
She’s good, Beth’s dad says, like it’s a surprise after ten years.
Alison does her best to smile.
On the field, Beth’s a blur of red and her dark hair slipping out of its braid. No one even comes close. No one ever has.
Fragmentation, Beth teaches her at eleven.
It’s for a grade-wide project. They’re on Beth’s bed. She’s holding the dictionary in her lap, tenderly, and Alison doesn’t know why but she holds her breath.
The process or state of breaking or being broken into small or separate parts.
She looks up at Alison. Her eyes are soft.
Beth tries to apologize when she comes back, wrists bandaged and her hair pinned by some awful glittery thing Alison’s fairly certain she gave her for her ninth birthday.
(Before she knew her, but- well.)
There isn’t anything for Alison to say in response. There’s a pile of cards on Beth’s bed, just waiting for her to burn. I’m sorry we all lied about it, Alison should tell her, but then if she’s going to apologize it should really be for pretending not to notice it had gotten this bad.
Ali, Beth’s saying one second before she’s crying, and all Alison can do is let her sink into her arms. I don’t think anything’s changed.
Don’t be ridiculous, Alison says. Of course it has.
It has to have changed. Beth won’t… Beth won’t survive a world that stagnates. There’s too much that might catch up with her.
I love you, Alison whispers when Beth’s no longer trembling.
Beth says nothing. Her face is still wet against Alison’s neck, warm and forgiving.
They’re in the same class once, and it’s an accident, in the one year of high school they have together before Beth leaves and tries to find herself in some stupid boy.
Alison knew, as a kid, that their parents kept them apart for a reason. She didn’t love secrets until Beth taught her to but she’d always been good at collecting them, overhearing private conversations and sitting at the top of the stairs when she should have been asleep. An unhealthy codependency, they’d said, and she’d repeated to Beth the next day, on the playground with their coats undone. She didn’t even look it up; she knew Beth would tell her what it meant.
They’re scared we need each other too much, Beth said like it was ridiculous, emphasizing with an eye roll.
Alison dropped her granola bar. But… don’t we?
Like, the right amount, Beth said. A normal amount.
It really isn’t funny that they get put in parenting class together. It isn’t, and Beth’s mother calls the school and has Beth transferred into something appropriate a month into it, but for four weeks Alison feels dangerously happy, skirting too close to what her parents said.
Beth cooks their egg baby anyway.
What’s the point in pretending to care if I know I’ll be gone soon?
The point is that she leaves people behind.
Alison’s not sure if she ever really learns that.
The first word that Beth teaches her, at Brownies, is cipher.
A system for disguising a message.
You’ll figure it out, Beth says after Alison fails to unscramble the third one, eyes stinging in frustration.
Eventually, Beth figures out that Alison can only ever guess.
M’i yrros. I thguoht ti dluow eb tnereffid siht emit.