After our high school graduation ceremony, my two best friends and I squished three-in-a-row into our favorite booth at Hilda’s Diner. Enveloped by a thick security blanket of salt and grease in the air, we ordered our usual. Brooke separated the servings of cheese fries equally, while I poured root beer from a glass pitcher into our frosted mugs, and Anastasia whispered a quick prayer, blessing our food and our futures.
As we stuffed our faces, we reminisced about our favorite hangouts over the years: sleepovers at Anastasia’s family’s mansion, birthday parties at the roller rink, and all-day trips to Hunter Park. The local amusement park was where we learned to swim, flirt, ride a rollercoaster without squeezing our eyes shut, and discreetly carve our initials into trees without getting caught.
In between alternating fits of weeping and giggling, Anastasia insisted we link glistening pinky fingers and swear an oath:
To always be best friends. But it felt like unnecessary theatrics.
I held my vintage polaroid camera, a graduation present from my grandparents, at arms’ length, and snapped a selfie of the three of us.
* * *
But I didn’t want shiny new toys. I didn’t want new anything. I wanted everything to return to normal now that my best friends were in town.
The first month of college, our group chat was busier than ever:
Me: I’m so lonely here. :( Why didn’t we go to the same school?
Brooke: These honors classes are kicking my arse.
Anastasia: I miss you dolls SO MUCH. Xoxoxo
But despite their complaints, at least Anastasia and Brooke had some direction in their lives. In fact, Anastasia had known she wanted to be an English teacher ever since second grade when she turned her gigantic playroom into a classroom and ordered Brooke and me to sit in desks as she re-taught us everything we just learned at school.
And Brooke had known she wanted to be a lawyer ever since she discovered the thrill of calmly presenting her case for a new puppy to her parents, complete with diagrams and spreadsheets. By ninth grade, she had convinced all our parents to extend our curfews slightly past midnight, so we could stay at Hunter Park up until closing. That’s when all the cute teenage boys came around to show off their loud sports cars and motorcycles, and Anastasia and I would practice flirting, while Brooke mostly rolled her eyes.
I always thought that my purpose in life would just come to me one day—the way it had happened to my friends. But when college began, I couldn’t even decide on a major.
Without Brooke or Anastasia around to lead me, I drifted from club to club, class to class, party to party, hoping something would stick. Instead, I felt like a shadow of a person hanging on the outskirts, never really belonging. One thing was becoming clear: I wasn’t sure who I was without my friends.
“It’s just so busy here. I forget to even look at my phone, doll,” said Anastasia as we Facetimed, her hair looking blonder than usual.
“Hurry up!” prodded an unfamiliar voice in a thick Southern accent. “We’ve gotta get ready.”
Anastasia giggled. “Sorry, lovely, Sarah Elizabeth is going to do my hair in hot rollers.” Her voice suddenly picked up a subtle twang from her new friend. “We’ve got to impress these Delta Nu girls.”
“Sarah Elizabeth?” I caught my ugly scowl in the camera. How was that a real name? Anastasia raised a perfectly manicured brow and mouthed, “Be nice.”
I forced myself to smile. “Let me know how it goes,” I said, trying to sound perkier, knowing I was just setting myself up for disappointment when Anastasia would inevitably forget to call me back.
By the second month, the group chat died down after Anastasia joined a sorority and a Bible study group, and Brooke joined the student government and a feminist book club.
I continued to drift and eventually developed hollow friendships out of proximity. There was my chatterbox roommate from Alaska who spent hours doing her hair and makeup in the mornings. And that guy that sat next to me in Psychology who wouldn’t shut up about Ted Bundy. People to walk and smile with in between classes. But they didn’t satisfy the hunger inside me for greasy fries, interlocked pinkies, and friends who knew me better than I knew myself.
Winter break arrived and I was giddy with excitement, like a child who couldn’t sleep because she’s too excited about the thought of Santa tiptoeing around her home with a bag full of presents. But I didn’t want shiny new toys. I didn’t want new anything. I wanted everything to return to normal now that my best friends were in town.
For once, I was the first to arrive at Hilda’s Diner. Brooke showed up shortly after. I scooted over—our shiny red bench had been ripped and taped up since the last time we were there, but she took the seat across from me.
Brooke’s hair had been snipped into a neat angled bob, which made her look sophisticated and much older. I hated it.
“I love your hair,” I said.
“Anastasia isn’t coming,” she said calmly, slowly pronouncing each word. It was a trick she used on her parents to keep them calm when she told them bad news. It was supposed to slow down their cortisol production and their heart rates or something. “She wanted me to let you know. She was worried you’d be upset.”
My heart quickened. Apparently, the trick didn’t work on me. “Why would I be upset?” I could hear my voice squeaking in the embarrassing way it did whenever my emotions were getting the best of me. “I mean, one of my best friends just ghosted me. Who would be upset about that?” My eyes flickered towards the door as if Anastasia might still swoop in.
She bit her lip. “It’s not ghosting, Katie. Let’s not turn this into a bigger thing than it is.” Still calm, still slow. I wasn’t sure how this worked so well on her parents. Her calmness made me want to deck her right in her unfeeling face. “She decided to go home with a new friend from Alabama for break. Sarah Elizabeth was having a rough time with her parents’ divorce.”
“Oh! Of course,” I squeaked. “Why wouldn’t a near stranger’s parents’ divorce outrank a meeting with your closest friends?” I stuffed a fry in my mouth to force myself to shut up. It felt soggier than usual, the cheese too salty. I chewed and cleared my throat. “Anyway, what’s new with you?”
“Actually…” She set her hands in front of her, interlocking her fingers like a gate. “I’m kind of seeing someone.”
“What?” This was certainly unexpected news. Brooke was always scolding Anastasia and me for being boy crazy. “Why haven’t you mentioned him?”
Her cheeks colored as she lowered her eyes. “Her name is Mandy.”
“Oh.” I felt stupid for being so clueless. “Well, I hope we get to meet her soon.” I tried to act nonchalant as I pushed the overflowing plate of fries her way, but inside I was screaming. How long did she know? How could she keep something like this from me?
She ignored the fries and took a sip of water. “Maybe. It’s still so new. I’m not sure I want to share it yet.”
“Oh.” I stuffed another soggy fry in my mouth. All the times guys in our class said something was “gay” or “queer” and I didn’t say anything flashed before me. I should have said something.
“I haven’t told Anastasia,” she continued. “I’m not sure I’m going to. Her family can be judgmental about that sort of thing.”
“But we’re best friends, Brooke.” I sounded so childish. Like a whiny preschooler with my snot-coated hand clenching a friendship necklace sitting across from an actual adult.
Sure, Anastasia came from a conservative family. But being best friends meant we softened our edges and made room for our differences. “We don’t keep secrets from each other,” I said.
“She’s changed,” said Brooke. “We all have. We’re becoming more… us.”
“It’s only been a few months. We’re not that different.” At least, I wasn’t different.
As I sat alone on the bench, tracing the tape with my greasy finger, I couldn’t argue anymore. I never knew I could feel so lonely staring at one of my best friends.
After the break, I stalked my best friends on social media, like a jilted, obsessive ex-lover. Every time Anastasia posted a selfie with another preppy blonde friend, or Brooke posted an inside joke that I didn’t get, I felt lonelier and lonelier. I continued to go through the dance of trying to make new friends, but my heart wasn’t into it. Our group chat sped up occasionally here and there, and sometimes it felt like nothing had changed, but then it would halt completely, and I’d remember how lonely I was.
Between my classes, I’d walk around campus and snap pictures of the people around me, chatting and laughing and doing standard friend stuff that people took for granted. Stuff I used to take for granted.
But then Anastasia called me one day sobbing. “Hun—” She gasped for breath. “It’s gone.”
“What’s gone?” My heart thumped in my chest. Was someone hurt? “Slow down. I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“Hun-ter. Park.” She managed to choke out. “Gone.”
I switched to speakerphone so I could Google and console her at the same time. Sure enough, our local amusement park had been bought out by a much bigger, international park. But instead of fixing it up and making it bigger, as the new owners initially vowed to do, they were now planning on shutting it down after Spring.
“It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. We’ll go one last time together for Spring break, alright?” My stomach felt sour and heavy, a few steps away from nausea, but part of me was relieved that she was this upset, that she still cared this much. “We’ll ride all our favorites one last time, and then we can renew our pact.”
Our group chat perked up after that. We rambled on about our memories and our plans for Spring break.
This time, when the chat began to trickle down again, I realized that my shallow friendships with my new school friends were slowly deepening into something different.
Otis, the guy obsessed with Bundy, was actually an aspiring forensic psychologist and not just a serial killer enthusiast. Our perfect test scores always set the curve for the rest of the class, so we became study partners, binging true crime documentaries in between our cram sessions.
And Anna, my roommate, was a fashion design student and an aspiring pinup model. She taught me how to wing out my eyeliner and apply smudge-proof lipstick. When she saw the photos I took around campus, she persuaded me to join the school photography club with her. We began organizing experimental photoshoots on the weekends in abandoned warehouses with her fashion school classmates.
It wasn’t the same as having childhood besties, but it wasn’t altogether horrible either. And sometimes, although it felt awful to admit, these new friendships felt easier, as if they were falling naturally into place instead of constantly needing tending to—like a finicky plant.
At first, I buried myself in my studies and new friendships to forget the gnawing pain of being away from my childhood friends. But eventually, there were days that I was so wrapped up in my new life that I’d forget to be sad. When I caught myself forgetting, instead of feeling relieved, I’d panic and feel guilty. I’d stare at old pictures, play sad songs, and conjure up old memories, comforted when the familiar ache in my chest returned, reassuring myself that as long as it still hurt, it wasn’t completely over. Our friendships still mattered.
Before break, I met with a guidance counselor, and finally, after much discussion and debate, I decided to declare a psychology major with a photography minor.
“Don’t worry,” the counselor reassured me. “None of this is set in stone. You’re still in a stage of discovery.”
When my friends and I arrived back home for Spring break, Brooke met me at my house, so we could bike up to Hunter Park together. I appreciated the gesture since Anastasia and Brooke lived on the opposite side of town. Anastasia was running late, so she offered to meet us there.
But when Brooke and I arrived at the amusement park, we found it boarded up and abandoned. Tears welled up in my eyes. We were too late.
“They closed it early,” said Brooke, hopping off her bicycle behind me. “They’re selling off the parts and going to turn it—”
“You knew?” I said, flinging my bike to the ground with a dramatic clunk, my sadness quickly channeling into hot rage. I knew I was acting crazy, but I couldn’t help it. How could the things that were once so important to all of us mean absolutely nothing to her now?
She flinched, no longer looking like the confident lawyer-in-training. “Just found out from my parents before heading here. But I didn’t really believe it until—”
We were distracted by the sound of gravel crunching as a red convertible with two blondes pulled up beside us. Out popped Anastasia and a girl that could be her twin with matching sunglasses and spray tans.
Anastasia lowered her designer shades, her eyes widening in horror as she took in the scene in front of her. “Oh my! What in the world happened?”
The other girl overtook her into a hug. “There, there,” she said in a heavy Southern drawl. “Y’all will still have your memories.”
Brooke’s face stiffened, but she politely held out her hand. “You must be Sara Charlotte.”
“Sara Elizabeth,” she corrected, enveloping Brooke and me into a group hug. “I’ve heard so much about both of y’all.”
I shrugged away from the forced intimacy and pulled my camera out of my bookbag, snapping some pictures of the closed-off entrance as I surveyed the fence.
“What are you doing?” asked Anastasia.
But I ignored her, not entirely sure of the answer yet. Instead, I jumped up onto the brick ledge and peered over the fence. “Brooke, give me a boost.”
Brooke scowled but didn’t argue. As the others looked on with open-mouthed stares, she helped me scale the fence. Immediately I regretted my decision. Inside, the gardens were overrun with weeds. The brick path that we used to hop down singing, “Follow the yellow brick road,” was covered in moss. How did things get so bad so quickly?
“Anyone else coming?” I called out.
I heard them argue for a moment. “But what if we get in trouble?” asked Anastasia.
“This is so illegal,” agreed Sara Elizabeth. “We could go to jail.”
“I’m following her. You with me or not?” said Brooke.
And three jumps later, we were all in. We stared blankly at the overgrown mess in front of us. The ticket office was boarded up. The statues of friendly forest critters were knocked over and missing heads and limbs. In the distance, the rides were in the process of being torn down.
I felt queasy. Part of me wanted to turn back, but I couldn’t look away. My camera was my shield. Hiding behind it made everything feel slightly less real, like I was watching a movie instead of the massacre of my own childhood.
Numbly, as if on autopilot, I snapped more pictures of the carnage as I walked deeper into our dying childhood, past the boarded-up concession stands where we’d all order matching swirly ice cream cones with sprinkles and candy eyeballs, even though I always secretly preferred hot fudge sundaes. Back then, being part of the group always felt like the most important thing.
Sara Elizabeth stood back like she was at a funeral for a person she didn’t know and wasn’t sure whether to gawk or pay her respects. “Maybe I’ll just wait here,” she said.
“Oh no! You don’t have to—” Anastasia started.
“Sure. That’ll work,” Brooke interrupted with a fake smile plastered on her face.
Clearly unbothered, Sara Elizabeth sat down on a deserted bench and pulled out her cell phone.
We were barely out of earshot when Anastasia hissed at Brooke, “You didn’t need to be so freaking rude!”
“Me? You’re the one that just brought her along without asking Katie and me how we felt,” said Brooke.
“Guys, come on.” I tried Brooke’s trick of speaking slow and calm, but they ignored me.
“You were the one that made us take the stupid oath!” Brooke said, her chin clenching up. “You were the one that should care the most about this stuff!”
“Did you just want me to sit around and cry every night?” Anastasia asked in choked sobs as her face turned red and streaky. “I ha-hate that things are different now. But there isn’t anything we can do to-to stop this.”
Their reactions shocked me. I had thought they didn’t care. “Stop what?” I asked.
“This!” Anastasia said, her arms waving wildly like a malfunctioning ride. “It’s never going to be the same with us.”
Before I could decide whether I wanted to yell at them or comfort them, something caught my attention. I pulled my camera back out and snapped a picture of a familiar tree in front of us.
“Would you stop taking freaking pictures!” screamed Anastasia.
“But look.” I pointed to the single oak tree between piles of bricks and rubble. “What if that’s our tree?”
“That’s impossible,” said Brooke with a wave of her hand.
But as I walked closer, they followed and, sure enough, our initials were carved into the trunk: B+A+K Always Best Friends. “It’s still here, despite everything.”
Anastasia sniffled and traced her fingers over the letters before plopping down under the tree like a limp rag doll. I sat beside her, tucking my camera back into my bag. After a moment, Brooke joined us.
For a long time, we didn’t say anything.
“I thought you guys didn’t care anymore.” I finally blurted out the words I’d been too afraid to admit out loud. My words hung in the thick Spring air, making me feel vulnerable and exposed.
That’s when the confessions rolled in. Anastasia admitted she cried herself to sleep every night for the first week. “I missed y’all so much, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Even when I was at parties surrounded by other people, I never felt so alone. I just kept forcing myself to fake it until it stopped feeling like faking.”
Brooke admitted to deleting the app for our group chat from her phone, so she would stop staring at it all day. “When I buried myself in my work, it distracted me from missing you both so much.”
While I was attempting to cling onto the bits we had left, they were trying to bury them away so it wouldn’t hurt as much.
I offered up my pinkies. They hooked on to them.
My heart ached for our lost childhood, but underneath that ache was a small sense of calmness. We were going to be alright.
“To the best childhood friends anyone could ask for,” I said, surprised at the strength and steadiness of my voice. “As we change and grow and make new friends, our friendship will also change and grow and become different. But we will always be there for each other. And we will always have our memories.”
“Always,” they echoed.
“Now, let’s go grab a plate of Hilda’s fries,” I said, releasing their pinkies. “But first, let’s make sure nobody arrested Sarah Elizabeth.”