I want to tell you about my best friend. My ex best friend. Her name’s Leslie, and we’ve known each other since we toddled and drooled, repeating one syllable words in frustration. Leslie was a normal kid. We’d collect lightning bugs in the summer, tell ghost stories in the fall, sing Christmas carols in the winter, and pick flowers in the spring. Once upon a time, the strangest thing about Leslie was her father.
Leslie’s dad used to drink a lot. Everyone on our street knew it. What everyone didn’t know was that he blamed Leslie for her mother’s death. Leslie was alone with her mom when it happened. Her mom had an allergic reaction, and Leslie panicked. Instead of picking up the phone and dialing 911, she just stood there and watched her mother fade away. She was 8 years old, and her dad never forgave her for it.
Before his drinking got to be a problem, my mom would sometimes let me stay the night at Leslie’s. As she helped slip my backpack over my shoulders before I left for the evening, she’d say, “Now, there’s a lot of heartbreak at Leslie’s house. And what does heartbreak do to people, Cameron?”
“It makes them act funny.”
“How so?” she’d ask, eyeing me carefully.
“It makes them say and do things they don’t mean.”
“What sort of things do they say?”
“Hurtful things that don’t feel good to listen to or repeat.”
“Right. And what do you do if this happens?”
“Shut my ears.”
“And if it gets really bad? Or if someone does something bad?”
“Call you, and you’ll come get me.”
“That’s my girl. Now, have fun and be good to Leslie.”
Leslie’s dad had no qualms about shouting cruel things at his daughter in the presence of company, but back then it wasn’t a day-to-day occurrence.
When we turned thirteen, Leslie shifted into this sullen girl whose anger had become an entity all of its own. She’d lash out at any perceived notion of a slight or abandonment. Her behavior drove a wedge between us. A couple months shy of my fourteenth birthday, I started avoiding my childhood best friend altogether. My mom smartened up to her absence and eventually asked about Leslie. I denied that anything had happened between us, but moms always know.
“Why don’t you have Leslie sleepover on your birthday? I know you may think that you can find another Leslie, but best friends aren’t disposable, Cameron. There are many years put into your relationship with her. Do you really want to throw all of that away because she’s having issues? You and I both know her home life’s awful.”
With a guilty conscience, I phoned Leslie and invited her to spend the night on my birthday. We hung out sporadically in the days leading up to the slumber party, but it was kind of awkward, almost like hanging out with a stranger. When the day I turned fourteen arrived, I drifted class to class in a state of constant dread.
At home, my mom stocked the pantry with popcorn, candy bars, and soda. On the counter, she stuck candles into my birthday cake.
“I can cook or order pizza. Your choice, birthday girl.”
“You know what I’m going to pick.”
“Pizza it is. Hey, how have you and Leslie been? Any better?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I feel like I’m walking into a wall, trying to make things normal.”
“I’m proud of you for fighting for your friendship. At least you can say you made an honest effort.”
The doorbell rang. I felt nervous, like I’d invited the captain of the cheerleading squad to stay the night instead of a girl I’d known pretty much all my life. I fluttered to the front door and pulled it open. Leslie balanced a birthday present and a pumpkin in her arms.
“Happy birthday…again, I mean.” We had two classes together, so she’d already told me happy birthday.
“Thanks,” I said awkwardly and moved aside, so she could squeeze through the door.
We marched into the kitchen, where my mom was on the phone with the pizza place. “Supreme’s good, Cam? Hi, Leslie.”
“Yeah,” I answered.
“Hey, Ms. Roche,” Leslie said as she placed her things on the counter. “Supreme, Leslie?” my mom asked. Leslie nodded.
“Uh, I guess we can head upstairs. Mom’ll call us down when the pizza’s here.”
Single file, we climbed the stairs and entered my bedroom.
“I brought the pumpkin for carving later,” Leslie said after a few tense seconds. “Uh, it was a stupid idea. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“No, not stupid at all!” I exclaimed, overcompensating with emotion. “I mean, my birthday’s in October, so it makes perfect sense.”
“I’m sorry, Cameron,” Leslie whispered out of the blue. “I just…my dad…I don’t know.”
Warmth flooded my body. The wall was crumbling. We could make this work again.
“I know, Les. Your dad…he’s a dick. I’m sorry, too. I’m a selfish asshole. You needed me, and I ran for the hills.”
Leslie smiled weakly as she pulled her backpack off. “I’m so happy I came.”
We spent the next hour gossiping and playing Mario Kart. We laughed and fed off each other’s energy like there was never a lull in our friendship. When the pizza arrived, we raced down the stairs and planted ourselves on the sofa.
While we ate, my aunt and baby cousin arrived. Stuffed to the gills with carbs a little later, everyone encircled me and belted out a severely out of tune version of “Happy Birthday.” Once we’d devoured some cake, my mom passed out my gifts. I ripped each open until none were left, content with the book, video game, and sweater I’d collected.
It was well past my cousin’s bedtime now, and she vocalized this point with loud, unhappy screams. My aunt gathered their things and kissed me goodnight, wishing me happy birthday one more time before she left. Leslie and I helped my mom clean up the mess in the living room. We attempted to help her clean up the kitchen, too, but she shooed us away. “Go have fun – it’s your birthday, for crying out loud.”
Back upstairs, we giggled as I popped Indigo Prophecy into the X-Box. An hour into the game, Leslie’s carefree attitude dissolved into a pensive mood.
“Yeah, I, uh…well, I forgot to give you your birthday present.”
“Oh. I guess I forgot, too.”
“I’ll be right back.” She scurried out of the room, wearing a worried look.
Why’s she so worried over a birthday present? She knows me better than my own family does; surely she picked out something awesome. Even if she didn’t, who cares? I’ll still appreciate it.
A minute later, Leslie returned, juggling the square box covered in balloon wrapping paper and the pumpkin.
“I wonder how Mom overlooked it,” I said.
“Oh, I moved it before we had cake. I wanted to give it to you when we were alone, so I hid it in the hall closet. But then we got side-tracked with the game, and…” Leslie sniffed and straightened out her slightly curled up lips. Something was off about her. A minute ago she seemed worried, but now she seemed…excited? Why was she acting so weird?
“I want to say a couple things before you open it,” she said as she handed me my present.
I shrugged. “Sure, go ahead.”
She drew a deep breath and hugged the pumpkin. “Like I started to say earlier, things have been really bad with my dad lately. Worse than usual.”
I tingled with guilt. How could I have left Leslie to deal on her own?
“He’s been drinking nothing but liquor lately, and he’s started to…do other things. New things.”
A jolt of anger tore through me. “What things? What are you saying, Leslie?”
Leslie’s cheeks reddened. I suddenly felt ill, like I was going to puke.
“I…forget it. It doesn’t matter.”
I gritted my teeth. “You have to tell me. If he’s…hurting you, you have to tell me. We can fix this, I promise – you aren’t alone.”
Leslie leered. “But I was alone. For months.”
I hung my head in shame. “I know.”
Neither of us spoke. My head was reeling. I’d have to tell my mom. Her dad had never gotten physical in any way before. This was where my mom would have to draw the line. She should’ve drawn it long before now, but she’d been scared of what would happen to Leslie if she became a ward of the state.
Leslie’s red face brightened. “It’s your birthday. Let’s just focus on that for now.” How could she say that with the bomb she’d just dropped? “When I got home from school today, I had this idea that I’d create an experience we could share together…just go ahead and open it; I can’t stand the suspense.” She gnawed on her lip and drummed the pumpkin with her fingernails.
“Leslie, I’m not trying to be rude, but this present is kinda the last thing on my mind right now. I know you don’t want to, but we need to tell my m-”
“No. I want you to open your gift.” Her eyes flashed angrily.
I sighed. Reluctantly, I peeled away the wrapping paper. Leslie’s leg jiggled in anticipation as she watched me open the box. Inside was something hairy. And wet.
“What – ?” As my brain caught up with my eyes, my body jerked, flinging the box out of my hands. It sailed into the air momentarily before spilling its contents onto the floor.
It took another few seconds for it to register who it was I was seeing. Leslie’s dad’s head lay on the floor, his mutilated face dramatically different. His eyes and nose were gouged out and carved into triangles. His mouth was slit from ear to ear, sawed into jagged flaps of shredded flesh. The top portion of his head had flopped off in the tumble to the floor, leaving a gaping hole in place of his scalp and forehead.
“See? First, I cut the top off. Then, I pulled out all the goopy stuff. Those were the hard parts, the work no one really enjoys doing. But then came the fun part, the actual carving.” Leslie was grinning wildly, her voice oddly giddy. “That’s when it came to me to bring you my surprise. I had this pumpkin out on the doorstep, so I brought it, too, that way we’d both get to carve something on your special day.”
I’d lost the ability to speak. I couldn’t understand what I was hearing, what was happening in my bedroom with the girl I’d known all my life.
“Do you like it, Cam?” she asked. There was a fire in her eyes that was fueled by cruelty.
I clutched at my throat. I couldn’t take my focus off her dad’s head, no matter how disgusted I was. Leslie bent over and picked it up, offering me a close-up view of the interior of his hollow skull. My teeth chattered as I pushed her arms away and ran to the door.
“Cam – wait! You still have to do yours!”
I was gone, though. When I reached my mom, I fainted at her feet.
Leslie’s locked up in a mental institution an hour away. Motivated by guilt, I went to see her once before deciding I’d never go again. The administration almost refused to let me visit, but in the end, begrudgingly allowed it.
She was seated on a couch in front of a TV. She was sedated, I think, because she barely reacted when I stepped into her line of vision.
“Hey, Leslie,” I mumbled. I was afraid to sit next to her, so I remained standing.
She didn’t seem surprised or angry or anything as she blinked at me.
“I j-just…I don’t know. This was a bad idea, nevermind.”
She said nothing mean, happy, or neutral as I began to walk away. Right as I rounded the corner to enter the hallway, I heard her call, “I almost carved you instead. But it was your birthday…”