The hollow feeling in my stomach slowly spread through my chest, and my throat tightened until I could no longer speak. The early winter drizzle even made the sky seem to weep as Amanda crept toward the car, her steps painful and faltering.
“I’ll get that,” I blurted, my mind jolted from numbness by her fumbling with the door handle. I opened the car door and watched in embarrassed silence as she maneuvered her body into the car. I shut the door after making sure her brace was completely inside. She looked at me through the rain-spattered window. “Thanks, Sara,” she mouthed. I nodded my reply and got in the other side.
My thoughts drifted back to another day. Summer sunlight had washed over the neighborhood that morning, soaking its warmth into our shoulders and the tops of our heads as Amanda and I rode our horses to the shopping center by our apartment. Well, they weren’t real horses. At least, they weren’t alive and you couldn’t see them. But they were real to us, and we rode them everywhere, always careful to tie them up before going inside. If we rode in a car, we tied them to the bumper and they followed behind. We even named them after our favorite ice-cream dishes at Gabby’s Ice-Cream Parlor: Starlight and Anastasia.
Amanda’s dad had picked us up later that afternoon in his car and dropped me off at home. It was the next morning before I learned that they had been in an accident and that Amanda had been severely burned.
The car jostled as it turned into the parking lot of Gabby’s Ice-Cream Parlor, bringing me back to the present. I had promised Amanda while she was still in the hospital that we would go to Gabby’s to celebrate her recovery. Now I wondered if I’d made the right decision.
Mom let us out in front of the plate-glass window that framed a row of booths. Amanda emerged from the car slowly. There were still some bandages on her arms, and one leg was encased in a metal brace. The spattering of freckles I had been jealous of was gone. In its place was whitish skin that stretched and pulled, as if there wasn’t enough to cover her face.
Heads turned and peered around the huge yellow and blue letters painted on the window. One little girl pointed at us. Her mouth moved in silent conversation. The woman beside her looked embarrassed and moved her away from the window. I squared my shoulders and returned their stares for Amanda’s sake. Defiance turned to surprise as I saw that their sad-eyed looks were directed at me too. I walked a few steps ahead of Amanda, my arms and legs swinging in exaggerated rhythm. Can’t you see there’s nothing wrong with me, I thought, my surprise turning to anger.
Finally we were inside and seated at a table. I studied the menu intently, as if it were directions to unearthing a million dollars in gold. I just about had everything memorized by the time our waitress got there. “I’ll have the Starlight Sundae,” I said, without looking up.
“I’ll have the Anastasia,” Amanda said quietly.
The waitress collected the menus. I counted the flowers in the pink flocked wallpaper and traced the marbled pattern in the tabletop with my finger until the sundaes arrived.
I usually lingered over every bite, enjoying the contrast of the smooth mint ice cream against the sharp bits of chocolate on my tongue. But today I only wanted to finish as quickly as possible. As soon as Amanda had taken her last bite, I wadded up my paper napkin and tossed it on the table.
“We’d better go,” I announced and added lamely, “I’m sure Mom’s outside by now.” Amanda offered no resistance.
I walked ahead to get the door. Amanda shuffled through, but instead of turning to the left, where Mom was waiting, she turned to the right and raised her burned hand slightly. I heard the familiar soft clicking noise that we used to call our horses.
“Come on, Anastasia,” she said softly. “Let’s go, girl”—her whisper was punctuated by a great, deep sob—“far away from here.” Her shoulders shook; her breath came in gasps. Tears dropped from her nose and chin onto the scarred hands she clasped tightly in front of her.
The hollow feeling in my stomach returned, and my throat tightened again. I felt helpless. I wanted to make people stop staring. I wanted to smooth her lumpy skin and give her back her freckles. I wanted to go back and change what happened that summer day and erase her pain.
I looked long into Amanda’s eyes for the first time since her accident. They shared the pain her physical body had endured. But there was more. Behind the pain were the eyes of the friend I had always known. Burned and scarred skin may have changed the outside, but Amanda would always be Amanda on the inside.
I put my arm around her shoulder. The rain had stopped. Despite the chilly air, the sunshine warmed the tops of our heads and our shoulders as we walked side by side to the car, oblivious to anyone else. Things would be different—and yet the same. I held on to Amanda’s hands and gently helped her onto the car seat. Then I picked up her leg by the steel bars that supported it and helped her position it in the car.
A smile appeared through her tears. “Thanks,” she said.
Our eyes met again, and I returned her smile. “Sure,” I replied. Then I added quietly so that only Amanda could hear, “I’ll tie the horses’ reins to the bumper so we can ride them when we get home.”