Arianne gave Ben a sidelong glance as they walked on the grass embankment running parallel to the road. Weeds tugged at his baggy jeans. The setting sun dyed his foul ball t-shirt orange. He’d picked up a stick and some pebbles and played “pitch and hit.” The bill of his Braves baseball cap smiled upside down over his boy-next-door face. Every properly timed whack plucked at Arianne’s nerves. The whole day she’d imagined how her conversation with Ben would go. One scenario ended with her running away in tears. Another involved Ben never speaking to her again. And in the last one, her personal favorite, an asteroid would end the world before she could confess everything.
“Did you change your hair?” he asked after his third imaginary homerun.
Arianne jumped at the sound of his voice.
“Boy, you’re nervous.”
“Mom decided to trim some off the tips.” Arianne twirled a length of the red strands, attempting to act natural and failing when she didn’t notice a protruding root and stumbled over it. She righted herself and said, “Split ends and all that.”
“It looks nice.” Doubt invaded Ben’s grin. He loved to smile. Even when he didn’t feel like it, he smiled. Sometimes, as exampled by this moment, other emotions would creep in and the result looked less than natural. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah.” Arianne laughed away her uncertainty, and failed in that too, managing to come off more awkward than before. She returned to the topic of her hair. “In this heat, I want to chop it all off. My hair, I mean.”
“Don’t!” Ben paused and checked himself. “I mean, you’ll regret it. Remember the time you decided you wanted to look like Marilyn Monroe and your hair turned orange instead of blond?”
She shuddered. “Don’t remind me.”
“What are best friends for if not to warn you away from potentially devastating actions? Remember, you’d have to live with whatever you do to yourself, no one else.”
She considered what Ben said. Maybe telling him isn’t such a good idea.
“So,” he continued, tearing her away from her hesitation, “what are you going to tell me?”
Arianne scratched an itch on her arm that wasn’t there. “Who said I wanted to talk about anything?”
This time, Ben let go of his grin entirely and regarded her with full on skepticism. “I’m insulted. We’ve known each other since kindergarten and you still think I don’t know when you want to tell me something?” He grimaced. “Normally, we’d take the bus, but when you want to talk, you always suggest we walk the three miles home.” Just as Ben emphasized the distance, the school bus carrying their rambunctious classmates passed them, adding to his point. “Not that I mind the exercise.”
“Am I really that transparent?” Arianne shuffled her sneakers and adjusted the strap of the bag on her shoulder.
“I just know you better than anyone else.”
She smiled a small, shy smile. “You’re right. I have to tell you something.” She collected her thoughts like scattered clothes on her bedroom floor then said, “There’s no easy way to tell you this…”
All signs of life drained from Ben’s face. Eyes wild, he grabbed her shoulders. “Is it Carrie? Did something happen to her?”
At the mention of her sister, she held on to his wrists like she was about to fall off a cliff. “What? No! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you have to chill. No more coffee for you, mister.” She extricated herself from Ben’s death grip. “This has nothing to do with her.”
He took off his cap and ran his fingers through his sandy hair before jamming it back on. “Don’t scare me like that.” He huffed and strode away. “And I don’t drink coffee!”
Arianne pulled on her earlobe before scrambling to catch up. “You’re the one who jumped to conclusions. And if anything happened to Carrie, you’d be the first to know.” She came up to him until her steps matched his. “I’m trying to tell you that I see dead people. Well…technically, I see their souls.”
Ben kept marching on.
“Hey, did you hear me?”
“Happy April Fool’s to you, too,” said Ben.
“It’s September, you ninny.”
“Well, it sure sounds like April to me.”
Arianne grabbed his sleeve. Ben searched her face, and her gaze fell. An afternoon breeze ruffled the leaves of the trees lining both sides of the road. The sunset stabbed shadow knives all around them.
“As in M. Night Shyamalan ‘I see dead people’?”
Reluctantly, Arianne nodded. “It sounds crazy — ”
“You bet your ass it sounds crazy.” Ben paused. He heaved a long and weighty sigh. “Look at me when you’re revealing freaky things about yourself.”
She lifted her gaze. “I’m sorry I haven’t — ”
“Since when?” he interrupted.
It felt like melted ice dotted her brow. “What?”
“Since when can you ‘see dead people’?”
“A couple of years back.”
“A couple of years.” He took off his cap, ran his hand through his hair again, then replaced it on his head — his helmet against all things freaky. “Jesus, Ari. I thought we promised to tell each other everything.”
“Okay, not the reaction I was looking for.” Disbelief exploded in her head. “You mean to tell me you’re pissed because I took so long to tell you?”
“We’re best friends. That has to count for something. Isn’t listening to each other’s secrets what best friends are supposed to do?”
“So, you’re saying you believe me?”4
“Why would you lie about something like that?” He engulfed her with his body, strong arms securely around her waist, his Dial scent coating her lungs. “Ari, you should have told me sooner. I’m sure you were scared the moment you saw the first ghost.”
She giggled. “On the contrary, it wasn’t scary at all. I was visiting Pops at the nursing home when I saw the woman. I pointed her out and Pops told me there was no one there. I did some research — ”
“Of course you did.” Ben broke the hug. “So, what are you? Psychic or something?”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Arianne dug her nails into the strap of her bag. “I don’t see the future or anything. My research says I’m more like a Medium, although I can’t speak to the dead. Or I haven’t tried. I don’t think I will, FYI. And I see them only for a second or two. They disappear pretty fast.”
“You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”
“Wouldn’t you?” She rubbed her forehead. “I mean, it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s like having extra people walking around, you know? Well… they’re naked — ”
“Whoa!” Ben surrendered. “Too much information.”
“But it’s true!” she insisted.
“I’ll take your word for it,” he said. Then he crossed his arms. “Why tell me now? Why wait so many years?”
Arianne challenged the tangerine sun to a staring contest until the fading light made her close her eyes. A yellow orb still floated at the center of the darkness. She breathed in the post-summer air and said, “Seeing dead people, you know? I guess I’m just tired of keeping it all to myself.”
Ben wrapped his hand around hers. “Come on, I want to get home some time before dinner starts.”
Arianne thought she must have had an aneurism between the time she’d told Ben her secret and when he’d accepted it as nothing special, because it seemed so surreal that all the scenarios she’d played out hadn’t happened. Especially her favorite one.
“Thanks,” she said as Ben tugged her toward home.