I‘m on my leadoff from second base when a girl shows up and leans against our dugout fence. I pause, trying to make out who it is, before I hear the scuffle of the backcatcher’s shin guards as she jumps up and my coach screams, “Morris! Down!” So I dive face-first under the sweeping glove and slap the tips of my fingers on the bag.
Our cleanup batter brings me home. Coach Jen hesitates, tells me to look, then run. She knows I have a good slide.
I scoop up the bat and hustle back to the dugout, grinning and dusting off my batting gloves on my shorts.
Annette is standing on the other side of the fence, behind my teammates, the fingers of her left hand hooked in the chain links. I shriek and jump on the bench. There’s a commotion by third and my teammates all rise. I reach her through the fence.
I’m shouting, “You’re back!”
She’s laughing and nodding, and then she looks over my shoulder. “They need you out there, Sarah.”
I look back. Everyone has taken the field. “Can you stay?”
“I’ll be here.”
I tuck my glove under my arm, tightening my ponytail as I run to short. I slip back into the game for the last three innings but I’m imagining I’m on the bleachers beside her, thinking of all the things that we would say to one another. Nothing short of a near-miss between my teeth and a line drive can make me focus.
Finally the game ends and I run up to the top of the bleachers and pounce on her. She stands and hugs me tightly, hard as though we’re afraid she’ll slip through the planks back to Australia.
“You didn’t tell me you were coming to visit,” I say.
“Dad got transferred back. We’re here for good.” Annette is bouncing on the balls of her feet, just her heels leaving the bench. Her hair is in twists down to her shoulders and she has a good four inches on me now.
“I gotta shut the lights out, Morris,” coach Jen calls from the utility shed. I tell her we’re fine and the overhead lights buzz and go dark. I look back at Annette. Before my eyes adjust I can just make out her silhouette, backlit and haloed in orange by the lights of the plaza across the street.
Her cheek reflects a crescent moon. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”
My mom picks me up and Annette comes home with us. She waits in my bedroom while I shower. When I towel off I find her in there, thumbing through the papers on my desk.
We lie on the bed, shoulders touching like we were watching the stars and talk. Even the stories I had heard before are new without the Skype call cutting in and out.
For the next few weeks, Annette and I become inseparable, closer than we’d been even before she moved. It’s good because I had this big blowout with Madison a few weeks before, so I have all the time in the world. Whether I’m helping her unpack her room, she’s sitting with the parents at my softball games, or we’re playing PS3 in my parents’ basement, we can’t seem to escape each other’s orbit.
We spend hours on the roof of the shed in Annette’s new backyard, the gritty shingles unbearably hot against our skin in the afternoons but radiating a delicious warmth long into the evening. She doesn’t wear white collared shirts under cat sweaters anymore but she still reads Charles Dickens.
I like her a lot more than any of the other girls I’d been best friends with. I can say stuff like “Etobicoke is so freaking boring,” and she’ll just smile and say, “Yeah, no foot-long centipedes here,” instead of telling me to just go to the movies or the mall or something. For a while, just the fact that she’s back makes it all exciting, everything she says, every time she touches my hand, or that time she smiled and said, “It’s good that we can make our own fun.”
Eventually, I begin using the shed as a step up into the branches of the overhanging maple tree, getting a bit higher every night coaxing Annette to come join me in my piece of the sky. She tells me to come down, that I’m going to fall and break my neck. I tell her to make me. She calls for me and I laugh, and I see her looking up at me through the leaves and shadows. I go too high this time and can’t quite see her.
She says “Fine,” and lies back down. She’s texting someone.
Her mom comes outside. “Sweetie, what is—Sarah, what on earth?”
Annette tells me her parents don’t want us hanging out on the shed anymore.
With the backyard out of the question, I turn my vertical exploration sideways. On our bikes, we roam like a search party stamping out an ever-expanding radius, seeing everything that had changed since we last saw it together. My mother stops driving me to my softball games. Instead, Annette and I bike across Etobicoke to the different fields. She stays and watches the game, befriending the spectators and my teammates, and then we bike around until my legs shake and I can’t pedal any further. We pull into some park, drinking Dr. Pepper and swinging like kids until it gets too dark and our parents text us.
I text Annette. It takes her twenty minutes, and that whole time I’m just watching the empty road. She’s out with her parents, she says, she’s busy.
My mom sees me flopped on the couch and tells me to call Madison and take the bus to the mall. It makes me wish even more that Annette was free, because at least she doesn’t try to pretend that there’s anything to do in the suburbs if you don’t have a license and don’t want to spend an hour on busses that smell like old burritos. Besides, I haven’t talked to Madison since we fought, and it’s not as though we have anything in common anymore, not like Annette.
I try riding down the hill at the top of my street as fast as I can go. It’s okay, but it’s less fun without someone else watching to see how I can skid on the gravel shoulder, my back tire fishtailing, before I save myself. I end up just walking around, kicking this one rock ahead of me until it tumbles into a ditch.
We pass by the old plaza two streets down from my house where, when we were kids, Annette and I used to go to buy sour Warheads for 5 cents and watch the highschoolers fall off their skateboards trying to grind the concrete garden planters.
“Hey,” Annette calls from behind me. I usually bike in front. I look back, feeling my bike drift to the left. She’s stopped and is standing up against the chainlink fence surrounding the old parking lot. She always holds onto fences like she can’t believe they’re there.
“The plaza’s closed,” she says.
“Yeah, they said they were going to build townhouses.”
We both look at it. It’s L-shaped, anchored at the bottom by the large grocery store. The IGA where we used to buy candies and rent VHSes looks mostly the same except its big front windows are covered with plywood and the plastic sign has a baseball-sized hole through the G.
The sun is setting off behind us so the plaza is a sort of pink-orange-grey and our shadows stretch out into the lot, intersecting with the chainlink pattern. It looks like our shadows are locked into the pavement.
“It closed a little while after you left actually,” I say.
She sniffs and picks her bike back up from where it was leaning on the fence.
“Bet it’s cool inside,” I said.
“I bet it’s full of racoons or something.” She picked at a mosquito bite and a little bead of blood swelled up on her arm. “Let’s go.”
She started to ride off, then stops to make sure I’m coming too. I pull myself onto my bike, my legs feeling heavy. Once you stop and rest it is so much harder to get going again.
I catch up to Annette and pass her. I look back at the fence. It’s only 8 feet.
Annette never talks about her friends in Australia. She didn’t have many friends before she left. Actually, it was mostly just me. So I don’t know why she thinks it’s so weird that I’m not hanging out with Madison anymore.
“I don’t know,” I say. “She just never wanted to do anything.”
“What sort of anything?”
I pick at the hem of my shorts. The wisps of denim float away over the lawn. “I dunno. She always just wanted to do boring shit.”
“She wouldn’t climb trees?”
I flop back on the grass and pull her down with me and she’s laughing. Her hair is soft resting against my face.
We’re lying there, her arm across my stomach, my cheek resting on her shoulder, and I don’t say anything for a while. I’m can feel all the points where we’re touching separately, like a connect-the-dots where I’m the line, and I’m wondering if she’s thinking about that. Of course she’s not, because she says, “You know in middle school, I thought you only wanted to be my friend so you could fight people over it?”
When I laugh her forearm bounces against my torso. “Because I’m so tough?”
I sit up and I’m about to say something, but her hair’s spread in the grass like a halo, brown, watery eyes, lips shiny with watermelon chapstick open slightly like when she’s reading something sad. I’m paused there, and she starts to lean up and it’s like someone pressed fast-forward because I’m up and running, shouting at her to come on.
The plaza looks different at night. The streetlights’ faint glow doesn’t quite reach across the empty parking lot. Dead trees stick out of the planters like scarecrows. The scrubby brush and grasses are swaying and whispering in the night air to the hum of the sole security light illuminating a Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted sign. We hear the occasional car drive by on the surrounding streets.
I was buzzing with a good kind of excitement, straightforward. This would be the sort of story we could tell each other again and again, remembering the time we got away with breaking into the plaza. Annette was trying to talk me out of it the whole way over from the park. I know she’ll come around, though.
“You sure?” Annette’s voice sounds smaller in the night as though a sheet of glass has sprung up between us, muffling her.
“Nothing’s going to happen.”
She looks back at the plaza. She’s standing back from the fence. I take a step closer and as though pulled by a string, she shuffles tentatively.
“Well, I’m going. You can stay here. Text me if anyone comes.” I get the toe of my shoe in the chain link. I almost slip. Besides some awkwardness straddling the top, I land in the parking lot easily. I face Annette, the moon overhead and me on the asphalt with broken glass glinting like stars. “What d’you think, Annie?”
When she looks from the sign then back to me, I think for a moment that I’ve lost her. She tightens the straps on her backpack and pulls herself up. She’s a slow climber, but I’m in better shape anyways. She reels unsteadily when she jumps off the fence beside me.
I grasp her shoulder and steady her, then give her a little shake. “Awesome.” Her big eyes are bigger and wider and she has the hood of her sweater tightened around her face like it has almost finished swallowing her whole. I snort.
She looks back at the road and pulls at the strings of her hoodie, as though it could get any tighter. “Someone’s gonna see us.”
We hustle towards the old Dominion, glass crunching under our feet like snow.
“How are we going to get in?” Annette asks. She looks interested, or at least like she wants to get into the shadows. Actually, she looks a little ill. We hear a car rolling by and Annette grabs my wrist.
I’m suddenly warm. “Chill, it’s two streets down at least,” I say.
We try the grocery store. The windows are boarded and the double doors were chained and padlocked. The rest of the stores are closed the same way. Annette looks relieved but I want to try around back.
There are more cans and broken bottles there. The handle has been broken off the back door of the IGA and the door is hanging slightly ajar.
Annette’s not happy. “What if someone’s in there?”
“Stay here then.”
I pull the door open. The metal creaks heavily and it’s dark inside, darker than I am used to seeing, a big black rectangle of nothing. I walk in and accidentally set my foot down on a can. From outside, Annette swears. She follows me, her pocket flashlight casting a little spotlight on the ground.
“It smells like rat shit,” she says. I know she’s mad because she’s swearing so much. I don’t need to turn around to know how she’s pulling her chin in towards her neck and scrunching her lips up to her nose.
We walk in further. The storeroom is relatively small, about the size of my bathroom. The door on the opposite wall leads to the main store. I step in and Annette peeks in behind me, sweeping the flashlight beam over the empty shelving units like ribs in the skeleton of the IGA. I crack something plastic beneath my shoe. I lift my foot. Some of the broken shards of the syringe stick to the sole and with the needle lying there at such a funny angle it looks like I crushed a hummingbird.
Annette snaps around to look at the door. “What was that?”
I gesture to the needle.
“No, I heard someone,” she hisses.
We freeze. There it was. Something is moving in the storeroom. Someone, someones, I correct myself; two voices, a man and a woman.
“Annette,” I whisper. “Turn off the flashlight.”
She’s paralyzed, staring towards the storeroom door, the flashlight beam pointing at my feet.
I back up slowly, making my way towards the front door. My heel hits a bottle and it skitters across the floor.
“The hell?” a woman said.
I turn around and grope for the door. Nothing. It’s boarded up. Annette screams.
“Shit, Annie.” In two steps, I have her hand. In two more I slip on glass or gravel and go halfway down, pulling Annette with me. It digs into my palm. I push myself up and pull Annette behind me, my elbow blocking my face as I barrel past the figures and into the back alley. I feel her stumbling behind me as I drag her across the parking lot.
“Come on, climb.” She can’t get a grip on the fence. I laugh. I give her a boost; it doesn’t help much.
I jump onto the fence after her and am over in seconds, still laughing. We get on our bikes and the whole time we’re riding I could hear her swearing. I lead us into a park.
She dismounts. Suddenly I want more than anything to hug her. She pushes me and stumbles back. She’s making these weird choking sobs like she’s drowning. “They-touched-me-they-fucking-touched-me-they” she’s saying. “I probably caught something.”
“Annie, what the hell?”
She’s shaking. “I heard cop cars. We’re dead, we’re so dead, oh god my parents.”
I almost can’t keep down my laughter.
“We’re fine, Annie. No cops. It’s cool; we’re fine.”
She wipes her nose with her hand, from the tip of her index finger all the way to her wrist. “We are not fine, Sarah. Shit. Why do you always have to take things too far?” She gets back on her bike.
“Jesus, Annette, it was just some fun. Hey, where are you going? Wait.”
She’s peddling away. I wait for her to stop and look back. She doesn’t.
I hop on my bike and speed after her. She hears me coming and pedals faster. “Go home, Sarah.”
So I do.
I don’t talk to Annette for a couple days after that. I text her first. She doesn’t text back, so I leave her a couple messages and then give up, knowing she’ll get back to me sometime. Then a few more days pass. She’s still not texting me, which is crazy because we barely fought. It’s not my fault she freaked out. I start to worry something bad happened, but then her parents would have called me. So I wait.
It’s my last game before the playoffs, when we are still trying to cinch a good standing position. I try not to think about her and why she’s not here. I need to just focus on the game. She hasn’t missed a game in months. The game’s going fine, but it’s close.
Bottom of seven. It’s the last inning and I’m on first. One out, and we’re down by one run. A bad pop to right field means there’s two out, but I get to second on my tag up. Annette’s still not here. Our cleanup batter is up. I hear the hit, the solid pop and ting of a perfect connection on an aluminum bat, and I sprint to third. I glance back; the ball’s still deep in left. Coach Jen’s calling “Turn and look. Hold, Morris, back!” but I round third. I know have time and I have a good slide.
And it is a good slide, right until the catcher’s glove comes down between me and the plate. The umpire’s hand balls into a fist. “Out.”