“Come out to play, Jenny,” I’d say when she answered the door. My best friend Jenny. We used to climb on the rocks in the empty lot, exploring. Eating crabapples out of the old wizened tree. Finding our way into locked barns like rats to discover treasures.
“Come out to play, Jenny. Will ya?”
“I can’t. My dad won’t let me. He wants me to clean my room before I go out. How will I ever do it, Megan? It’s such a mess.” And she’d sigh. “I guess I’ll be locked in my house forever.”
And she was, you know. Not then, but later. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me go back again.
Her father answered the door this time.
“Can Jenny come out to play?”
“No. She has to stay inside. She was naughty.”
Yes, she was. We both were. We’d have so much fun. Spying on the teenagers necking in the alleyway near the high school. Rigging the sugar container so it would pour out on the table when anyone picked it up in the cafeteria. We were very naughty.
And sometimes we were nice, playing house together. She’d be the mother and I’d come home from work and Jenny would make me supper.
Then we grew out of our childish games as we grew older. I’d call her up on the phone.
“Jenny, I’m having a party. Can you come over?”
“I can’t. My dad’s afraid there’ll be boys there, and beer there.”
“Yeah, Jenny. That’s the point. Sneak out if you can.”
“All right. I will.”
And she would sometimes.
But the best times were just the two of us, sitting on the bench at the beach, sharing our pathetic dream—that we’d meet someone magical who would steal our hearts and take us away—it didn’t matter where—but far away from this boring town.
But we never did, of course.
I dated lots of boys and soon discovered none of them was magical. There were none I’d have given my heart to. It had already been stolen. And the magic times were long ago when we were mates, and the town was golden, not boring at all. When did it change?
Jenny only ever dated one boy and then she settled.
“Settled” is the right word all right. She settled for him, and she settled down. And “down” is the right word too. Jenny’s been down ever since and she never comes out to play any more. Ever.
Until one day, in the middle of an ordinary day, when Jenny called.
“Ya wanna meet me for coffee?”
So we did.
It’s been ten years since she married and I’ve seen her once in a rare while. She’s been locked away by her husband Pete and when I see her it is only a ghost of Jenny—limp, wandering eyes, spirit beaten down.
I look at her.
She looks away.
“Jenny, come out to play?”
She looks at me. “What did you say?”
“Nothing. What did you want to talk to me about, Jenny?”
“Oh. I don’t know. Just shoot the breeze. Talk about old times. How ya bin? What you doing these days? Keep in touch, you know?”
She’s sliding all over the ice like a novice skater. Shall I grab her, hold her up?
“Jenny, what’s wrong?”
“Wrong? Who said anything’s wrong? What gives you that idea?”
“Ten years we never talk and today, out of the blue, you call.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry. I should have kept in touch. But Pete didn’t like you and it was hard to get out.”
“So what’s changed now? Does he like me all of a sudden?”
Jenny laughs. A laugh with no center to it, like an echo of a laugh.
“So what’s changed?”
“I want to try harder, to get out more.”
“That’s good. Just know I’m here for you.”
She looks at me directly for the first time. Her eyes do not waver. “Is that true? Are you really?”
“Honest,” I say. “I’m your friend. Always have been, always will be.”
Some of the tightness in her slackens. I wonder, will she start to cry?
Jenny masters herself but does not speak for a moment. “Thanks,” comes out like a little puff of breath.
“Now, will you tell me what’s wrong?”
The tightness returns. A nervous giggle. “Nothing.”
“Liar,” I say.
“What do want me to tell you? You know the truth. I married a man who hates me. I’m not good enough. Never have been. Can’t do anything right.”
“First you want me to talk. Then you tell me to shut up.”
“I’m not buying that victim crap. You married a man who hates you. That’s all. The rest is all lies he’s fed you and your father fed you before that and it’s all crap. He told you that cause he hates you because you’re far too good for him. So shut up.”
She looks at me for a minute as if she’s listening. “You really are a friend.”
“All I’m saying, if you want to talk with me, tell me the truth, not a load of lies.”
“I’m out of practice,” she says.
“Okay. Start now.”
“That’s it then.” I start to stand up to go home.
“Wait,” she says.
“He’s killed himself.”
“I came home from work and I found his body. He was lying in bed. Guess he took an overdose.”
“Did he leave a note?”
“No, he didn’t. Guess he didn’t even care enough to let me know why.”
“Did you call the police?”
“Oh,” she says, as if she never thought of that. “I called you instead.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“I wanted to get away from him.”
I think she’s in some kind of shock. “Let’s call them now, shall we?” I say, taking out my cell phone.
“We have to call the police, don’t we?”
“Let’s go back and find him together and then we can call the police.”
“Why? What difference would that make?”
“I’m afraid to find him alone.”
“But you already did, didn’t you?”
A little-girl look animates her face. “Let’s say we had coffee together after work. Then I invite you for supper and you come home with me and we find him together,” she says, like we’re playing house again.
“Why should we do that?”
“Because it’s a game we’re playing. Best friends.”
“Did you kill him, Jenny?”
Her eyes are wild, defiant for once. “Don’t forget. He killed me first.”
This is the truth and I know it. But there are deaths and then there are deaths that you don’t come back from.
Jenny is inviting me to see a dead body and I am sorely tempted.
She wants to make me an accomplice to murder.
But I promised to be a friend forever, even though she has left me all these years. Locked away in the prison of her mind.
Should we lock her up some more?
Jenny, come out to play.
“Sure, Jenny. I’ll come over to your place for supper. Are you sure Pete won’t mind?”
“He’ll be livid.”