Just like I could rely on my older brother William to drink straight from the milk carton back then, I could count on Friend. At 3:00 sharp, Friend, as she told me to call her, would meet me after school to walk me home. After what happened with Eliot Peters, we were all on high alert. Eliot had been lured towards a blue Buick, driven by an older woman who offered him Starbursts and a pack of Big Red gum. When Eliot strolled towards the window, the driver flipped open the door and grabbed him by the wrist. He had one knee propped on the front seat before he managed to shake her off. In fact, he’d kicked off his left shoe, and then with one stockinged foot, teetered the remaining six blocks home.
After that our teachers taught us about Stranger Danger and to never accept a ride or candy. Nor to help locate a lost puppy, no matter how cute and furry the animal sounded.
Once the school bell rang, I’d elbow past the older kids guiding their ten-speeds to the bike path and the first graders dangling their superhero lunch boxes. I always found Friend behind the stone wall near the basketball court, far enough away that no one else could see her. I never knew if Friend was hiding from the same strangers I feared, or if she worried the other kids might mistake her for one. But she was never a stranger to me.
Friend appeared the day after “the incident” with Eliot, but then she kept showing up. In the late fall, I trailed behind Friend as she crunched a path through the crisping leaves. Together, we watched the vibrant reds and oranges cartwheel to the ground. Friend said we should collect them before the snow swallowed them whole. We could build our own forest, she said, far and away, where there were no strangers, no chance of danger.
In the winter, as Friend glided over the ice patches, she reminded me of one of those fancy tap dancers I’d seen on TV. She’d stretch out her arms, and sometimes flap them like a newborn robin learning to fly. Once when I tried to imitate her, I slipped and dropped my woolen scarf and one of my mittens. Before they could disappear into the fresh snow, Friend zipped them up in my backpack and helped me to my feet.
Each day, when I turned left onto Chestnut Road, Friend would go straight and stroll past the Catholic school that let their students out twenty minutes later. I figured she had more children to walk home.
After the thaw, Friend stopped coming around. One night, around dinnertime, my mother asked me about the single shoe in the bottom of my backpack. It was buried beneath crumpled loose leaf and emptied sandwich bags. I couldn’t remember if I’d found it by the side of the road, or if Friend had tucked it into my backpack along with my fallen mitten and scarf.
I didn’t know what to say when my mother spotted Starburst wrappers hidden beneath my pillow–the dazzling reds and oranges and yellows–like a trail of leaves leading to a diseased elm, and that telltale strangle of a red circle.
Susan holds an MA in Education and an MFA from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. She has been published or forthcoming in various print and online journals, most recently Ellipsis Zine, Gone Lawn and Serotonin.