They’re showing it again. The 10 o’clock news. It’s news for the middle-aged, for tired parents who’ve just gotten the kids to bed, who can’t wait to fall into their own.
The story has a tagline now. POOL TRAGEDY. That clouded, clotted pool water, like coffee standing too long with cream. Blue police lights, red ambulance bubble. Why an ambulance now? They say the body was in the pool for three days.
But not “the body.” That’s the breaking news. She has a name now. They keep showing the same picture, grainy, badly cropped. The kind of picture you get when someone dies who had no one in her life to tend her memory. No one to notice when she didn’t come home. She’s at a party, maybe. She might be holding a drink, or someone’s hand. Her hair’s in tight braids, frazzled, like they’ve been slept on too many nights. Her eyes slide to one side. Only the smile invites us in. I saw that smile and I knew that what I’d been dreading since the first news reports, when they only said the name of the town, was true.
It’s been twenty-six years since I saw Raychelle. But I knew right away it was her.
We were eleven the summer we met, going on twelve. I was the new girl. My mom and I had just moved to the dead-end street we would call Single Mother Row. It was a neighborhood where little kids rode Big Wheels in the dusty road, carelessly attended by older siblings who might, if they noticed, yell “Car!” when one came tearing by. A neighborhood of houses with chipped paint or grass-stained vinyl siding, of broken bikes and sagging swingsets. A neighborhood of fathers who weren’t there to fix them because they had left, like mine, or never been there, like Raychelle’s. I was angry about my father leaving us, angry about having to move to an ugly shabby house in an ugly shabby town. I was afraid of starting all over again in a new school. A middle school, not like the small Catholic school I’d gone to before, where I never had to worry about what to wear or who would sit with me at lunch. I won’t know anybody, I told Raychelle.
Just because they know you doesn’t mean they’re nice to you, she said.
She promised we would ride the bus together, wait for each other outside the cafeteria, and the stomach aches and sleepless nights I’d been having got better, because I wouldn’t be alone. I would have Raychelle. We were neighbors, not sisters, but we were closer than sisters that summer, sitting on her front stoop sipping Windex-blue slurpees, painting each other’s nails colors we picked out at the dollar store. Rock Me Red, Paint the Town Peony, Marilyn Merlot. We made up parodies of theme songs for cartoons we swore we were too old for but watched anyway: Gummy Bears, bouncing here and there and everywhere, even bouncing in your underwear! We collected Babysitters Club books but knew that when we got to middle school we’d have to pretend not to like them anymore. We never wore anything on our feet but jelly sandals, clear so our toenail polish showed through. We’d ask her older brother for rides to the town pool, where I’d practice dives and Raychelle would wade, only up to her waist. She didn’t want to get her hair wet, she said.
So put it up, Princess, I’d tell her. It’ll dry. And she’d laugh.
You so don’t know black hair, she’d say.
There’s a picture of us I still have. It’s from the photo booth at Rocky Point Park, where my mom took us the last night of summer vacation. Seventh grade loomed before us like a medieval dungeon, but that’s not in our laughing faces pressed close together. We’re both wearing crazy sunglasses, mine houndstooth, punkish, Raychelle’s huge and neon green. In that picture, we look like we can’t wait for the future to find us. We’re smiling like middle school is the start of the best road trip in the world, and both of us are going to make it out of Single Mother Row.
By the time I started high school, my mom got a better job. We moved to a town where the schools were known for their high SAT scores, a town where streets were wide and lawns were green, and the only lawn furniture to be found was Adirondack chairs, tucked discreetly in backyards. Raychelle and I promised to stay in touch. We wrote letters for a while, called sometimes, but then I started spending more time online. Raychelle didn’t have a computer. I joined swim team and debating club, got a part in the sophomore spring play. But telling Raychelle these things felt like bragging. The last time we talked, she said her brother had been arrested for parole violation, and she was thinking of leaving school and getting a job to help out her mom. The next time I called, a message said the number was no longer in service.
Time passed, and I let it pass. I went to college, got married, had kids. Became someone who watches the 10 o’clock news. I never knew what became of Raychelle.
In the picture, we’re still best friends. In the picture, we always will be. Sisters who look nothing alike but sisters just the same, bonded by Babysitters Club books and Disney Channel songs. We’re holding up our hands to show off friendship bracelets and bright nail polish. We are not alone, is what the picture promises. Raychelle’s smile is wide and fearless. Her hair is perfect.