I trained with Wren. The same long runs. The same hill sprints. The same time trials. But she always seemed to run with ease. I would be gasping, red-faced and sticky with sweat beside her, and listening to her breathing between my own gasps for air, each one a battle for oxygen. She was rhythmic. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Sure, she’d be rosy-cheeked, but Wren was the paragon of that old saying: “women don’t sweat; they glow.”
Grade twelve was the perfect year. We did fine in school, went to the movies every weekend, and spent hours wandering through town, hoping to immortalize every groove, crack, fissure and cranny in our memories. We snuck sips of coolers and light beers in musty basements and furtively traded notes on crumpled papers in class. We thought we were invincible. Nothing could touch us. Looking back on last year, we were really quite childish. Or, at least, I was.
I remember one of our last Friday evenings together, driving through town and listening to Bon Jovi. We sang “Living on a Prayer” at the top of our lungs out of our respective windows. Wren stuck her body so far out, I was afraid she would tumble from the car. She was laughing so hard when she crawled back in that tears were streaming down her face. We were beyond giddy with the idea that we were almost done high school. Soon, we’d be leaving our old selves beyond and starting our “real” lives.
I was truly happy in that moment and I’d like to think she was too. It was the kind of happiness that comes from a moment without worries and stress, a moment of carefree joy. We were young, spirited, and ready for anything.
We met in grade two. Our teacher’s name was Mrs. Pearson, and she was really big on icebreakers and team building activities. “Let’s build our classroom community,” she would trill with an overly-practiced smile. One of the first activities in her classroom involved asking a partner about their favourite animal, colour, and sport. With a name tag that shouted out “OLIVIA” in all capital letters, and a personality to match, I wandered over to Wren. I apparently later described her to my mom as “the quiet girl with big eyes.” I think I was always drawn to her, but then most people were.
“I’m Olivia Lee,” I said confidently. “You should be my partner.” I remember this distinctly because, at the time, I didn’t ask questions. I told people what I wanted and expected them to respond. My grandmother taught me that, though not on purpose. It was simply the way she lived her life and I tended to follow in her footsteps.
“Why?” Wren asked.
I was taken aback. Not only had she not acquiesced to my desires, but she was questioning me on why she should be my partner? I immediately liked her.
“I dunno…” I stammered, lost for words. She didn’t wait for me to continue.
“Well, I’m Wren Burke,” she said. “I like penguins, the colour green, and playing tag. What about you?”
Her pencil was poised, ready to take down my answers. To-the-point. That was her, right from the get-go.
“Olivia Lee,” I offered. “Lee with two Es. I like elephants, the colour red, and soccer.”
She wrote down my response, returned to her desk and raised her hand. When Mrs. Pearson came over, she pointed to her paper. “I’m done. What do I do now?”
As quickly as that, I wanted to be her friend more than anything in the world. I bothered her for two weeks straight on the playground, whining at her to play with me. I was used to being the center of attention – it comes part-and-parcel with being the only child of a single parent – and her lack of interest in me was fascinating. Eventually, I wore her down, because we were inseparable by the end of September. It was a rare day that we weren’t at her house after school, playing in her toy room. Wren had three siblings, and between the four of them, they had a lot of toys. She had two huge dollhouses her dad had built for her, and we spent countless hours making up stories about the dolls that lived in them. Her parents joked that I was their fifth child.
One of our favourite stories was one in which we lived together in a mansion with our husbands and multitude of animals.
“My husband’s name is Phillip. He’s allergic to dogs, so Barky and Sparky have to stay on your side of the mansion,” I would instruct.
“Well, Jeremy and I are allergic to cats, so you need to keep Puss-in-Boots and Barley on your side of the mansion,” she’d retort.
I think we spent more time making up the stories than actually playing, but it didn’t matter. As most seven year olds are apt to do, we more often played beside each other, than with each other. I would spend most of my time dressing and redressing the dolls in elaborate costumes. Wren would spend her time arranging and rearranging the placement of the furniture and props, making sure everything was in the perfect location to suit the day’s scenario. She brushed the stuffed animals’ fur, made up grocery lists to leave on the mini kitchen table, and smoothed the tiny bedspreads until they were immaculately wrinkle-free. We created flawless futures. Perfect potentials.
Part 2 – Wren
Sweat dripped down Wren’s forehead. Without breaking stride, she lifted her shirt to wipe her face. Today was a timed run, and she was feeling good. If she held race pace for one more kilometer, she’d be golden. Focusing on her breathing, Wren emptied her mind of everything except the beat of her heart.
Each stride was one step closer to being faster. Better. Wren thrived on challenging herself with every run. Hearing Olivia just behind her pushed her forward harder, driving her to exert any little store of energy she had left. It wasn’t that she didn’t want Olivia to beat her; it was that she couldn’t let Olivia beat her. As much as she loved her best friend, there was an unspoken competitive spark between the two of them. Forcing herself to breathe evenly, Wren almost smiled hearing Olivia’s ragged breathing getting a little further behind her with every stride.
Jacob met up with her after practice, reaching his hand out for hers. His gaze was sweet and admiring, as usual. It made her stomach flip.
He was her first and only boyfriend, the only guy she had ever let get close to her. Wren knew she had built a shield around herself, making people work to become part of her inner circle. It wasn’t like she did it on purpose; it just happened. She found it hard to get to know people, and didn’t really want people to get to know her unless she knew they were worth it. She’d read enough novels and seen enough movies to know what happened when you let yourself become overly vulnerable. Like an analyst, she did a cost-benefit breakdown of every relationship. She wouldn’t become one of those people, rocked by the never-ending drama in their lives caused by a so-called “best friend forever” or “true love.”
Jacob was different. Back when they first started dating, he’d been patient. Never pushing. He had taken each morsel of information she’d give him and savoured it, enjoying each moment she had opened up and never pushing for more. He was one of the few people who could sit with her in silence. It was a trait she valued above most others.
When Wren had felt comfortable enough with Jacob, she had let him meet her parents. They sat at their formal dining table, decked out with a white table cloth and pastel-green candles. Jacob had been “an absolute delight” in the eyes of her mother. He laughed and teased her little brothers and sister. He answered “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” in a way that seemed so stuffy and false, Wren had to cover her mouth with a napkin to keep from laughing out loud.
Jacob wore blue dress pants and a crisp white dress shirt for the occasion. He admitted later that he had fussed over the ironing of that shirt for nearly an hour. That was Jacob, through-and-through, thought Wren later. Have to play the part.
It was a beautiful scene – a real-life Rockwell portrait if there ever was one. Her parents, enchanted by her dashing beau. Her siblings, giggling gleefully and (almost) well-behaved. It felt as though she was observing a perfect moment in time.
After dinner, they had quietly gone upstairs to her room, avoiding the pandemonium of the clean-up crew in the kitchen. Her room was, as per usual, cleaned and organized. Everything in its place. Jacob had admired her photographs and awkwardly wandered her room, hands in his pockets, cheeks red with anticipation.
Besides her huge, ergonomic desk chair, which she had adjusted to her exact requirements, there was just the bed to sit on. Hesitating for just a moment, Wren sat down.
“You want to sit down?” she had asked quietly.
He had sat down, keeping a foot-width buffer between the two of them, though his hand trailed expectantly into the space.
“That was nice,” he offered up, after a few moments of silence.
“Yeah,” she said softly. “It was.”
Then, her hand was on his. Just as quickly, he leaned towards her, kissing her cheek. Feeling his breath, hot on her face, Wren tensed up. This was it.
Then, they kissed. Short. Sweet. Nice. Wren would later refer to these as “Jacob kisses” when talking to Olivia. He paused, waiting for her to respond. She leaned in, and pushed her mouth against his a bit harder. Wanting to feel more.
He pushed his hand up her shirt, and she froze under his touch. She was too nervous to feel anything more than uncomfortable.
“What if my parents walk in on us?” she asked, pushing his hand forcefully away.
“They won’t,” he pleaded. “They’re too busy with your brothers and sister.”
They stopped anyway. The spell of the moment was broken. He wrapped her in his arms and held her for a while, just breathing together. Then, he went home in his only slightly rumpled white dress shirt.
That was then. Now, she found herself giving in to his touch instead of responding with genuine excitement. Being with Jacob felt familiar. Comfortable. She’d never been with anyone else and wasn’t prepared to tumble into the unknown.
It wasn’t that she didn’t care about Jacob. She did. But sometimes she worried she was supposed to feel more. As much as she enjoyed spending time with him, sometimes she just wanted to be alone. He was her first love, and she wanted that to mean something. But it didn’t. Not really.
Now, as he held his hand out to her, she paused. Shaking her head, she tried to ignore the growing feeling in the pit of her stomach that this just wasn’t what she wanted anymore.
“I’m all sweaty,” she said, trying to ignore the anxiety sitting heavily on her chest.
“That’s okay,” he replied, smiling. “I don’t mind.”
He reached out and grabbed her hand anyway. His hand felt heavy on hers. Like a vice.
Part 3 – Anger and Apples
It was the worst way to lose someone.
Afterwards I listened to Bon Jovi on repeat for a day, clutching Wren’s photograph in white-knuckled fists. Tears, hot on my cheeks, came fast and steady.
They found Wren on the bathroom floor. And, as though there had ever been any question, newspapers across the province reported that no foul play was suspected.
They printed pictures of Wren from graduation, smiling and dancing – twirling and laughing on the dance floor.
Always there was the question: Why?
Was I only one who noticed the panic and fear behind her dark eyes? How had no one else noticed it? How could I not notice it sooner?
My mom made me start going to this therapist named Dr. Nancy. Of course, I hated her. She was overly friendly and enthusiastic, in a nauseatingly fake kind of way. I refused to talk to her. She was the most ridiculous woman, and I spent many of our first sessions glaring at her and barking answers to her banal questions. In hindsight, I treated the poor woman pretty terribly. But who could blame me, really? She was dredging up a lot of stuff that I was quite happy to leave buried deep inside, thank-you-very-much.
In September of grade eleven, Wren had the idea that we should go apple picking. Neither of us had gone apple picking in our lives, but it seemed a romantic notion and it was something to do. So, we packed a picnic lunch – Wren making sure we had all the major food groups covered – and headed out to the nearest apple picking orchard we could find.
The first thing they did was crowd us like farm animals onto a cart pulled by an ancient piece of farm equipment, too rusted to tell what it used to be. The machine was loud and sounded like it was going to break down any minute. The hay scratched my legs and made my throat itch. Children, for the most part, were complaining or crying. But Wren was smiling like this was the greatest excursion in the world, and when Wren smiled, I smiled. It was contagious. Before I knew it, I was grinning like a mad-woman and singing along with the cheesy songs someone crowded at the front started belting out.
It was early September, and the sun was still warm. I closed my eyes for a minute, trying not to breathe too deeply for fear of irritating my throat any further. I could feel Wren’s elbow digging into my ribcage and shifted, trying to get comfortable. Wren, noticing my movement, tried unsuccessfully to shuffle over.
“Sorry,” she said quietly, her voice cutting under the rambunctious song around us.
“S’okay,” I murmured, suddenly feeling acutely aware of all the bodies pressed against me.
When we finally hopped off the cart in the middle of the orchard, it was a relief. Launching myself away from the hay and crowd, I breathed deep. The man who’d driven us gave Wren and me a large basket to share. He talked a bit about the kinds of apples grown in the region – boring stuff that I tuned out. Wren listened with what seemed like rapt attention, but you never really knew with her. I can’t imagine she found it all that engaging. I mean, the least the guy could have done was thrown in a joke here or there. And then we were sent off to pluck round, red apples. I obviously don’t know what kind they were. I got into a rhythm. Starting to enjoy the activity a little more, I felt a kind of peace wash over me. It was quiet. Meditative. Wren’s voice cut through my silent reflection.
“Is that Jacob Berry?” Wren asked, pointing across the orchard at a slim figure dressed in jeans and a light blue t-shirt. I squinted and nodded, smiling. I had never met Jacob, but had listened to Wren talk non-stop about him. We’d watched him from afar in the hallways, and analyzed his every move. He seemed to enjoy peach yogurt and, judging by the amount of time he spent in the library, had a work ethic almost parallel to Wren’s. Almost. He’d been in her math class the year before, and Wren seemed drawn to his quiet intelligence. He exuded confidence and moved with a comfort in his body that few teenage boys possessed. And he was moving towards us, away from what I assumed (and later confirmed) was his family.
“Hey! Wren, right?” Jacob was speaking to her! I could almost hear her silent squeal of glee.
“Yeah. Jacob, right?” Wren asked, as if there was any doubt.
Nodding, he stood before her, fidgeting slightly. Their eyes were locked. She blushed and smiled up at him. The tenderness and honesty in their gaze felt almost tangible; it held me captivated in their world. Just standing there, I felt myself blush. Excusing myself quietly, I kept picking apples, a few prickly, lonely tears brimming in my eyes.
For most of our lives, it had been Olivia and Wren versus the world. Suddenly, it became Olivia and Wren+Jacob versus the world, and I had a hard time adjusting.
Part 4 – Wren
Wren was feeling tipsy, having chugged a couple of beers she snuck out of her parents’ basement fridge before going out. She wanted to feel numb, worried she would otherwise break her careful façade in front of Olivia. When Bon Jovi came on the car radio she welcomed the distraction of singing until her throat hurt.
She stuck her head out the window, feeling the cool evening air hit her face. It was dark, and they were roaming their neighbourhood. It was a study in suburbia, your typical cookie-cutter houses sitting side-by-side with their typical cookie-cutter lawns and cookie-cutter minivans in the driveways. Wren closed her eyes, sang, and felt the air rushing around her. On impulse, she stuck her shoulders out the window, then her chest. Then, she was hanging out, her hips resting against the door. The sill bit into her hip bones, but she ignored it. With her eyes closed and her voice loudly echoing inside her head, she could imagine the outside world had faded away. She felt tears on her cheeks. Tears. She began to laugh. Unable to stop, overwhelmed with emotion, she pulled herself back into the car, and she laughed and laughed.
When she could finally breathe again, she turned to Olivia.
“Are you happy?”
The question came out unintentionally. But there it was.
She could feel Olivia’s careful gaze on her, and tried to keep her expression light and neutral.
“Right now? Yes.” Olivia lived her life in a very in-the-moment kind of way. Unlike Wren, she didn’t live in constant anxiety of past or future failures. In a car with her best friend? Check. Singing songs until her throat was raw? Check. Happy? Check.
“Me too,” said Wren, plastering a smile across her face. It was the first time she had ever lied to Olivia.
“Do you want to go for ice cream?” Olivia asked eagerly. Now that summer was practically upon them, Olivia felt that every day was the perfect day for ice cream. Her particular favourite was Tiger Tail, when it was available. Wren usually went for strawberry or chocolate.
At the thought of ice cream, Wren felt the beer roiling around her stomach. It sounded like a horrible idea. Still, though, she didn’t want to bring Olivia down with her.
Ten minutes after the ice cream, when she was finished throwing up in the bushes outside the ice cream shop, she regretted not making up some kind of excuse. Note to self, she thought: beer and ice cream is a terrible, terrible idea.
Olivia was rubbing her back in smooth, gentle circles and making soothing comments.
Wren allowed herself to close her eyes for a second and relax into Olivia’s touch.
“You all right?” Olivia sounded startlingly worried. “Is there anything I can do?”
“It’s okay,” mumbled Wren, pulling away gently, so as not to upset Olivia. “It must have been something I ate at dinner.”
“Shitty,” said Olivia. “Do you want to go home?”
Olivia’s concern made Wren feel uncomfortable.
“Nah,” she shrugged. “I think I got it all out of my system. Do you still want to go to the movies?”
At least in the theatre it would be dark and she wouldn’t have to talk or focus on anything.
“If you’re okay, then, yeah. But if you feel like crap, don’t try to tough it out. We can always leave.”
They went and Wren toughed it out.
The next morning, Wren woke up with a headache throbbing behind her right eye and a tongue that felt like sandpaper. She peeled herself out of her sweaty sheets and tossed on a pair of shorts, a sports bra, and a tank top. After pulling on her worn running shoes, she got herself to the kitchen on autopilot. Although queasy and uncomfortable, she grabbed a bag of rye bread out of the bread drawer and went through the motions of making breakfast. Toast with peanut butter, an orange, a hardboiled egg, and green tea with honey. She waited thirty minutes to digest a bit, and make sure she was going to keep it all down. She thumbed absent-mindedly through the morning’s paper.
Then, she was running.
Part 5 – Bargaining and Babysitting
In grade seven, we got a job babysitting two kids in Wren’s neighbourhood. The Milligans had a little terror of a boy, five years old, dark-eyed, and mischievous, and a little girl, seven years old and passionately devoted to her stuffed animal collection.
We would babysit every Friday night, and sometimes on the weekends if the parents went away. It didn’t pay much, but they let us eat whatever we wanted from the fridge and pantry, and gave us the code for ordering movies on their TV. When the kids went to bed, we would sit side-by-side on the sofa, stuffing ourselves with popcorn and chips. Well, I would stuff myself with popcorn and chips. Wren would eat her fair share of popcorn, sure, but she never was a binge eater.
Sometimes we would watch comedies and laugh ourselves sick. Sometimes we would watch dramas and cry as though the characters were our own flesh and blood. Wren had this incredible ability to put herself in someone else’s shoes. Her empathy was extraordinary. After the movie or show, she always had incredibly astute observations.
“That wasn’t love,” she’d say quietly, “it was a power struggle.”
Or: “I don’t believe he fully thought through the consequences of his actions. How selfish.” That one said with a slightly condescending air.
On more than a few occasions, Mica and Fiona refused to go to bed on time. On those days, we’d build a nest of blankets and pillows. The munchkins would curl up, Mica passively sucking on his ratty green blanket (a nasty habit his parents were trying to curb though we definitely didn’t help it along). Fiona had a particular fondness for Wren. Even at seven years old, she wanted nothing more than to be cuddled in Wren’s lap.
With Mica and his blanket, Fiona snuggled tight against Wren, and our own little nest, sometimes I could imagine we were a strange little family. Sooner or later, Mica and Fiona would nod off, despite their best efforts and protests that they were “not tired!” We would carry them to their respective bedrooms and tuck them in, as though they hadn’t just beaten their bedtime by over an hour.
One time, Wren and I had the not-so-ingenious idea to make milkshakes. Mr. and Mrs. Milligan had this supremely fancy and, I’m sure, extraordinarily expensive blender that sat, shining, on the countertop. Mica and Fiona were in bed and had been for about an hour at that point. Wren and I couldn’t agree on a movie when we somehow both got to the point that milkshakes seemed like the best idea in the world.
Into the blender we placed strawberries, vanilla ice cream, milk, a blob of chocolate syrup and a heap of ice cubes. I put the lid on tightly; Wren plugged it in. I say this to emphasize that we were both responsible for what happened next.
That blender started and made the noise of a thousand airplanes taking off. The noise was actually so painful, I immediately clapped my hands over my ears in an unconscious attempt to protect my, assuredly, damaged eardrums.
Wren, admittedly, was the one who turned it off.
There were two horrible outcomes of our misadventure. One: Mica and Fiona both woke up. Both terrified. Fiona was eventually coaxed back to bed, but Mica was up until his parents got home. This would prove to be the first and only occasion on which we couldn’t lie about getting them to bed on time. Two: Because we didn’t put the blender on the right setting, we had irreparably damaged the blades of the machine with the mound of ice cubes we’d plopped in so haphazardly. The Milligans got four Fridays of free babysitting out of the whole debacle, and I’m still not convinced that they didn’t get the short end of that stick.
Eventually, we could laugh about it. It became an on-going joke.
“What do you feel like making for snack?”
“I dunno. Milkshakes?”
Lame. I know. But it was an inside joke. Our inside joke. I hold onto things like that. Her death made me think back to my memories of our years as friends, and I started to analyze and re-examine them. Were her smiles and laughter real?
It breaks my heart to think that she couldn’t talk to me. If she had just talked to me – if I had just talked to her – maybe, just maybe, things would be different. If I could go back and be more attentive, more supportive, I would. I would give anything to change what happened. I really would.
Part 6 – Wren
It was hard for Wren to concentrate on her math homework with Jacob inching closer and closer across the floor towards where she was lying with her textbook and notes spread out in front of her. It was the beginning of January, and nearing the end of the first term of grade twelve. Exams were coming up, and she felt a familiar panic growing in the pit of her stomach. While she’d never done poorly in school, the threat of anything less than near perfection made her anxious. Finally, she looked up and sighed.
“Do you want something?” she asked, a bit sharper than intended.
“What do you think?” he grinned, and gave up on his “subtle” shuffle. Scooting himself beside her, his hand on the small of her back, he lightly brushed his fingers up and down her spine.
Wren shivered a little under his touch and peered up at him, cocking her head to the side.
“Come on, Jacob. I have a lot of work to do,” she scolded, annoyed.
“All you’ve done this year is work,” he said, kissing her shoulder, then her neck. “We should focus on the things that are really important.” His mouth was inches from her ear, and she could feel his hot breath on her cheek.
“Jacob. School is important. I want to go away to university. I want to go away from this city. I’ve lived here my whole life, and I want to experience other places,” she said. “At least for a while,” she clarified, noting the look in Jacob’s eyes.
Frowning, he pulled away from her. “And what’s so wrong with this place? I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’m perfectly happy. I thought you were too.”
“So did I.” She sighed.
“There’s a great university here,” he said, not for the first time. “You’re just poo-pooing it because you seem to have this romantic notion of the great ‘out there.’”
Despite herself, Wren was acutely aware of the stereotype they were currently playing out. The oh-so-typical story of the relationship strain that inevitably occurs when one party “has to get away” and one is satisfied with the status quo. The “I’m-17-and-I-need-to-go-and-figure-out-who-I-am” cliché versus the “we-love-each-other-and-are-meant-to-be-together” cliché. She couldn’t help but analyze her own feelings. Did she want to get out because she truly felt the desire to move away, or did she just feel the pressure to want it?
“I just need to figure out what I want. Who I am. Maybe by myself…”
Oh god, she thought, I can’t believe I actually just said that. Can you edit-undo disgusting platitudes?
“I love you,” he whispered. His passion and sincerity almost took her breath away.
“I know you do.” She smiled and kissed him lightly through the tears that flowed, unbidden, from her eyes.
“We’re high school sweethearts.” His voice was getting increasingly high pitched as he spoke through the knot of emotion in the back of this throat.
“Maybe that’s it, Jacob. We’re high school sweethearts.” Wren could feel her heart beating a mile a minute. Was this it? Was this how it was going to end?
“What do you mean?” As he asked, his voice quivered.
Wren shrugged, unable to express all the thoughts bouncing through her mind. Trying to distract herself, she looked over question five in her math book repeatedly, not absorbing any of it. She could feel Jacob’s gaze, but didn’t know how to respond.
“So that’s it then?” Now, it was his voice that was sharp. Cutting.
“I don’t know,” she said. Then, “I guess so.” She couldn’t look at him. Biting her lip, she willed herself to let go of her first relationship.
Without another word, Jacob gathered his books and, chancing one backwards glance, walked out of the room. It was just enough time for Wren to see tears brimming at the edges of his red eyes.
She felt like she’d taken Jacob’s heart out of his body and stomped all over it. It left a sour taste in her mouth. The expected relief didn’t come. She just felt drained.
“I’m sorry, Jacob,” she whispered to the silence in her room.
A week later, Wren bumped into Mr. Rabast on her way out of the change room after practice.
“Good work today, Wren,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning in calculus. Don’t forget to finish your homework tonight. And remind Jacob too! He’s been missing work the last couple of homework checks. That boy, huh?” He grinned and tsked, teasingly.
“Yeah, ok…” Before she knew it, her bottom lip was trembling. Trying to compose herself, she looked down at the checked pattern on the floor.
Caught off guard, Mr. Rabast dropped his playful demeanour.
“Is everything okay, Wren?” His voice was soft and supportive. Reaching across to where she stood in front of him, he placed one hand protectively on her shoulder.
She took a deep breath, prepared to lie, and then didn’t.
“We broke up,” she said flatly, then shook her head, as if to clear it. “It’s okay. I’m okay. We’re okay. It’s not a big deal. People break up all the time.”
“Yeah, and it’s a difficult thing for each and every one of them,” Mr. Rabast said, giving her arm a gentle squeeze before dropping his hand. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Wren shook her head and forced a smile.
“No. It’s okay.” She hazarded a glimpse of his face. “I should go. I’ve got homework to do.”
She hesitated before adding: “But, thanks, Mr. Rabast.”
He smiled with a warmth and kindness that almost made Wren cry.
“Call me John,” he said, adding quickly, “outside of class.”
Wren could feel a smile almost forming on her lips.
Part 7 – Depression and Dissection
“How do you think they killed these guys?” Wren murmured to me, prodding her fetal pig in a semi-fascinated, semi-disgusted state.
“I don’t know,” I swallowed hard and looked away from the porcine corpse in front of me. “Wilbur…” I pouted.
“Oh, come on, Olivia.” Wren moved matter-of-factly towards the creature who would forever be Wilbur in my heart. She peered at her lab sheet and her face changed subtly into her all-work-no-play expression.
First up was to determine the gender of the pig. Actually, to be accurate, it was determining the “sex” of the pig, but the boys in our class had decided that the word “sex” was hilarious and, after a couple of class-disrupting bouts of laughter and hoots, Mr. Paulson switched to the term “gender” for the rest of the semester.
Today’s handout instructed us to first locate the umbilical cord between the rows of nipples on the pig’s belly (cue giggling at “nipples”). If it was a boy, it would have a “urogenital opening” below the cord. If it was a girl, we would see “urogenital papilla” by the bum. After a quick once-over, I re-named our piglet Wilburina.
“Good grief.” Wren sighed good-naturedly.
Wren recorded our findings on the form. (“What is the gender of your pig? How do you know? Provide detailed observation notes.”) We moved on to the digestive system.
Her notes could have been printed off a computer, and no one would know the difference. Each letter was lined up neatly and ever-so-precisely. My notes always looked like some kind of alien language and teachers were forever telling me to slow down and “take care.” On more than one occasion, I had been asked to completely re-do an assignment because it was “unreadable.” For this reason, and because Wren was a massive control freak, she was one hundred percent in charge of recording our observations. I happily took on my usual role of hapless sidekick.
“So, how’s Jacob?” It was an attempt to get Wren to stop being so single-minded about the task. Wren outside of school was significantly more fun than school-mode Wren.
“Oh, you know,” she said, still focused. “He’s Jacob.”
Of course, that was that. She made a careful incision from the left armpit of the pig’s front leg to the right armpit. Sliding the blade down the center of the pig (between the – giggle – nipple rows) and in a careful loop around the pig’s umbilical cord, she frowned a little.
“Do you want to try?” she asked.
“Really?” I asked, looking up from the lab sheet to see if Mr. Paulson was nearby. There could only be one explanation of her sudden trust in me: a teacher had to be nearby and she needed to be a team player. But he was, as suspected, engrossed in something on the computer at the front of the lab, oblivious to what his AP class was doing. As childish as our humour was, he rightfully trusted us to be on task.
“Sure,” she said. “It’s your lab, too.”
Shrugging, I took the scalpel and, following the diagram carefully, finished the two incisions going down from the loop around the umbilical cord towards Wilburina’s hind legs.
“See, it’s not so bad.” Wren smiled. “Kind of feels weird, though, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “It wasn’t so bad at all. Thanks!”
“No worries. I know I can be kind of self-centered sometimes,” she said quietly. It was a peace offering.
“Nah,” I responded. “You’re just focused. It’s what I love about you.” I smiled and offered the scalpel back to her.
“No way,” she laughed. “Let’s see what you can do, Dr. Lee!”
We worked our way through the various body systems of Wilburina – circulatory system, respiratory system, blah blah blah – and, with Wren handing over the reins (with the obvious exception of our lab notes), we fell into a comfortable partnership.
It was the partnership of a lifetime. Without Wren, I’m half of whole.
The first few weeks were the worst. The smallest thing would cause me to cry. We were out of eggs? Tears. Sometimes I would lie on the couch and stare up at the ceiling, memories spinning through my thoughts. I got used to feeling numb. I moved around in a kind of haze. Sometimes I even curled up on the floor, in a cocoon of quilts. My mom, for the most part, let me feel sad for a while. She didn’t push or prod, or force me to talk or anything.
It was about three weeks after Wren’s death, when my personal hygiene standards were becoming alarmingly barbaric, that my mother start sending me to therapy. Despite my initial hostility, it began to help me in ways I am only now understanding. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being sad, but I’ve re-learned how to be happy too.
I’m still learning how to be me without Wren, though. It’s a work in progress.
Part 8 – Wren
Mr. Rabast got in the habit of checking in on her after practice. She appreciated the thought. It felt nice to have an adult really pay attention to her. God knows, her parents were too overwhelmed with her siblings to really focus on her. After all, she was the good one.
Somehow, she felt comfortable with him in a way she never had with most people in her life. Perhaps it was because she felt kind of honoured he was taking such notice of her. It made her feel special.
It started simply enough. But it didn’t end that way.
It started with a comforting hand on her arm. It ended with guilt.
Mr. Rabast offered to drive Wren home. It was April. She had just missed the bus and was standing, panting, at the bus stop after a 200-metre sprint (which the bus driver had chosen to ignore). Tired, and a bit angry, Wren was deciding whether she’d rather wait 40 minutes for the next bus, or do the 35 minute walk home.
“Need a lift, champ?” His voice broke into her train of thought.
There was a niggling in the back of her mind, but Wren quickly dismissed it.
She knew that Mr. Rabast lived somewhere in her neighbourhood, though she wasn’t exactly sure where. She’d seen his red car around, though, driving towards downtown or parked at the grocery store.
This was the first time she’d been in a teacher’s car. He asked her how her other classes were going (she was, of course, doing exceptionally in his) and made other small talk about running and her training schedule. As he dropped her off, Wren felt decidedly more mature for having had such a confident conversation without lapsing into her usual silence.
“Thanks for the ride,” she said appreciatively as she got out of the car. Then adding, “John.” She was testing it out.
“Any time,” he said, and pulled away from the curb.
Success, she thought.
She missed the bus the following day, though not entirely unintentionally. Fortunately, Mr. Rabast was there to bail her out again.
“Is this going to become a habit, Wren?”
In a gutsy move more worthy of Olivia than herself, Wren answered, “It could be.”
Everything seemed to accelerate after that moment. Exchanging phone numbers was the first step. Step two: text messages.
Don’t forget your assignment tomorrow, Miss Burke.
Leaving school late today. Don’t miss your bus!
Hill sprints tomorrow. Get motivated.
Every time she heard the tell-tale ding of a new text, Wren felt a rush of excitement unlike anything she’d ever felt before.
Step three came one day in the car on the way home. Mr. Rabast’s right hand came to rest on her left thigh. It felt warm and heavy. Strong. Blood rushed to her head and she felt herself blushing fiercely. She didn’t say anything, except her usual goodbye and thank you upon exiting the car.
The next day it happened again. Her heart beat faster than she thought possible. A sort of energy seemed to course through her and she turned her gaze toward Mr. Rabast.
“This okay?” He said it carefully, trying to gauge her response.
“It’s okay,” she said. She wasn’t really sure if it was, but it felt good and she was finding it hard to concentrate.
A few times, Wren thought about Mrs. Rabast. Vivienne Rabast. Where was she? Why wasn’t she in the passenger seat of Mr. Rabast’s – John’s – car? When she found her thoughts drifting to his wife, she made herself think of something else. More often than not, she focused on her breathing. Like when running: deep breaths in through her nose, and out through her mouth.
One Friday in May, Mr. Rabast had been driving her home somewhat frequently for about a month. Their conversation turned to weekend plans.
“Viv is away this weekend,” he said. “Do you want to have dinner with me?”
It was a line she wasn’t sure she was willing to cross. But she did. Later, it was hard to really figure out why. In part, she was lonely. In part, she liked how she felt with him: important, desirable, clandestine. In part, she liked having a secret just for her own. It was a secret she hadn’t even shared with Olivia. And, in part, she didn’t know how to say no. She didn’t want to hurt Mr. Rabast the way she had hurt Jacob. She didn’t want to disappoint him. Disappointment was tantamount to failure.
When dinner ended, Mr. Rabast offered her a glass of wine. She allowed herself the indulgence, being almost eighteen. It was her first drink. It wasn’t her last.
Wren sat with Mr. Rabast on the couch, his arm resting on her thigh, the way it did on their car rides. Everything felt a bit fuzzy around the edges. Then, his body was pressed against hers. Closing her eyes, she gave up her control.
It was easy for the self-loathing to come. It started with one thought, and before she knew it, she was surrounding herself in a cloud of dark judgments. The only thing she felt within her whole body was the ache of regret. It consumed her. Utterly. Painfully.
“Invisibility suits you,” said a voice in her head. She stared at her outline in the bathroom mirror and gazed until she began to blur into the background. She watched herself fade until all that was left of her was a dark shadow.
Part 9 – Acceptance and Aliens
We were huddled beneath a cocoon of sleeping bags in a tent in Wren’s backyard. It was the summer after grade four and we were both ten years old. That year we had developed a rather unusual fascination with aliens and had spent the evening combing over books about hoaxes, conspiracies and cover-ups. Not surprisingly, the most recent acquisition to our extraterrestrial book collection was a small text that delved into exacting details about Area 51 and the alien which, we were sure, had been autopsied there.
“I bet he, or she, was scared,” Wren murmured, her long fingers thoughtfully stroking the full-page “authentic” photograph of the purported alien. “To be all alone in a world you probably don’t even fully understand…”
I had never really thought of it that way. I was more fascinated with the blurry insides of the being I had dubbed “Frank,” despite Wren’s assertions that we had no way of knowing whether it was a male or female or something else entirely.
“Do you think it was painful?” I wondered aloud. “I wonder what colour its blood was. Do you think it had a heart and a brain like us, or some weird alien insides?”
“Why don’t you read it?” This was Wren’s matter-of-fact reply. “I’m sure it gives some of the autopsy results in there.”
I wasn’t really interested in reading the tiny text that accompanied the striking photographs. I yawned.
“I’m tired,” I answered. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Wren, responsive and undemanding as always, clicked off the lantern and we snuggled down into our beds. As we lay side-by-side, staring up at the dim lights outside through the tent, I became increasingly aware of every shadow and flash of light outside the flimsy shelter.
“Do you believe that aliens abduct humans for experiments?” I asked. The thought was suddenly at the forefront of my mind, lying in the dark with only a thin membrane of fabric separating us from the outside world.
“My mom says that’s ridiculous,” said Wren, though I could hear in her voice that she wasn’t entirely convinced.
“Do you think they’re watching us?” I couldn’t help myself. Now that I was on this dark and twisty thought path, I couldn’t stop. “Like, do you think because we’re doing all this research into them they’d be more interested in us?”
“C’mon, Olivia.” Despite her calm-and-cool words, Wren’s eyes were wide open and darting from the top of the tent to the entrance, and back. “As if they’d care about a couple of kids like us.”
I looked at my watch. It was about 11 pm, and much too late for us to be up. Despite that, I knew I wasn’t going to get much sleep. All I could think about was how my mom would respond if I suddenly disappeared with no explanation. Would she know it was the aliens?
I could hear Wren breathing beside me.
“Can we go inside?”
Thank God Wren had said it before me.
“I guess so,” I answered. “If you want to, I’ll come in too.” This was said with false bravado.
“Let’s go in.” She decided. “Thanks, Olivia. Sorry I’m such a baby.”
We grabbed our sleeping bags and pile of books, dragged them across the lawn to the back door, and, in hindsight unsurprisingly, found it unlocked. On the floor in the living room was a blown-up air mattress.
Without a word, but with slightly sheepish smiles, we set up a new cocoon under the safety of her parents’ roof, and fell asleep shortly thereafter.
I woke up the next morning to the smell of Mr. and Mrs. Burke making chocolate chip pancakes in the kitchen. Shaking Wren awake, I dragged her out of bed for my favourite morning meal.
“Morning,” Mrs. Burke said when we entered the kitchen. “I see you migrated last night.”
Rubbing sleep out of my eyes, I nodded.
“We were scared of the aliens,” said Wren, honestly.
“Only kind of,” I added.
“Girls,” Mr. Burke answered, laughing. “Do you honestly think that of all the people on earth to abduct, they would take a couple of ten year olds in pajamas?”
“And that’s if there are aliens who care enough about earthlings to abduct us in our sleep,” Mrs. Burke continued, shooting Mr. Burke a look. “Which, as we’ve talked about, Wren, is pretty unlikely.”
Wren nodded. “Yeah, I know,” she said.
“Me too,” I echoed.
“It’s just easy to believe stuff that’s not true when it’s so dark,” she mumbled.
It was a statement rhymed off without thought by a ten-year-old in plaid, flannel pajamas. It’s easy to believe stuff that’s not true when it’s so dark. There were dark days after Wren’s death that I second-guessed everything. I second-guessed our friendship. I thought that I remembered everything wrong and we had never, truly, been as close as I imagined.
I have the memories, though. I have Wren, young and carefree, creating a future in miniature. Wren, singing songs on a hayride and falling in love. Milkshakes and movies. Thoughtful Wren, hunched over a lab bench. Wren, curled up beside me, sleeping the sleep of a ten-year-old safe from the unknown terrors of the outside world.
And Wren running. Always two steps ahead of me.
Part 10 - Wren
It happened more than once. Mr. Rabast would hold her afterwards, telling her how special she was, how important she was to him. He would make up stories about an imaginary future together – a future after graduation when they could be together for real. He’d get a divorce. He could teach anywhere. He would follow her to the ends of the earth. He’d smile, and Wren would tuck her head into his chest to hide the tears that brimmed, hot and salty, from the corners of her eyes. When she’d get home, she’d shower – long, hot showers she’d claim she needed to wash off the sweat and relax her muscles from practice. She never felt clean. Embarrassed and ashamed, she never told anyone. She locked her secret deep inside and pasted on a smile. No one noticed the way her clear, dark eyes began to dim. Wren lost herself. And the world lost Wren.
The day it happened was a particularly dark day. She’d had a bad run, and Mrs. Rabast had been horribly consoling and supportive, which only served to fuel the guilt that seemed to be eating through her stomach lining at an alarming pace. Mr. Rabast had given her some kind of awkward wink that she supposed meant he wanted to meet up, though she chose to ignore it. Enough was enough.
She couldn’t stand the pain. Her body, her heart, her entire being ached, and she didn’t want to feel that way anymore. She just wanted it all to end. But that wasn’t going to happen. She’d have to take matters into her own hands.
She thought it would be hard, but, standing in the bathroom that day, it became just one more challenge to overcome. One more target to reach. One more objective to fulfill.
She felt numb. Suddenly, she understood what people meant when they described an out-of-body experience. Like an observer to a play, she watched her hands move, as though on their own. She thought she felt a tear roll down her cheek.
When her actions were taken, all there was left to do was wait. She played through the last few months in her mind and wondered where it all started to go off the rails. Wren thought about Jacob: the way she’d broken his heart because his love just wasn’t enough for her. She thought about Olivia: the way she’d have to drink to get through their time together because Olivia’s care-free attitude only served as a reminder that she was carrying the weight of the world upon her shoulders. She thought about Mr. Rabast. He was a cheater and he was abusing his position of power over her to get his kicks. If she was being honest with herself, she knew that. She knew that she was young, vulnerable, and emotionally immature. She knew what their relationship was. And she let it happen. She let it happen. Somehow she could look past everything because he was attractive, and kind, and intelligent, and for some reason he chose her. How shallow. She shuddered. She was a terrible person.
She held her knees to her chest and rocked herself back and forth.
Waiting. Waiting for darkness.
Part 11 – Rebuilding
I still don’t get it. I guess I never will. They tell me that despite what the movies show, some people leave notes and some people don’t. Wren didn’t. I guess that speaks to who she was: never someone to seek the spotlight. Always private and thoughtful. I could make a million guesses. Maybe her breakup with Jacob was harder than I thought. But I doubt it. Maybe she just had some secrets that were too big for her. Maybe I didn’t know her as well as I thought I did.
I started a fundraising campaign for a local suicide prevention hotline. I volunteer there a couple of times a week, and I’d like to think I’m making a difference in someone’s life in a way I couldn’t for Wren. In honour of her life, I started selling wren pins – little birds that peer out of lapels and pockets with startlingly dark eyes. The money goes right back into the operating budget for the hotline and it’s putting a decent amount of extra cash into the program, allowing it to operate on a 24/7 basis instead of six days a week from 3 pm to 2 am.
A few weeks ago, the hotline’s umbrella organization asked me to travel to different schools and talk about Wren for a province-wide youth mental health initiative. I figured it would be a good opportunity for me. I agreed, although I hadn’t really talked about my best friend in any depth to anyone except Dr. Nancy since Wren’s death last year. We agreed that, perhaps, as long as I was comfortable with it, this was an important step for me to really accept what happened. My hope was that Wren’s story could speak to someone who was struggling and make a difference in their life.
It was hard for me the first time. Speaking about her again dredges up a lot of memories and feelings. I’m starting to understand that maybe I loved her. I mean, I was in love with her. How weird is it to come to a realization like that? It’s a hard thing to cope with: the recognition that not only did you lose the person you love, but they will never know, and never had, or ever would, feel the same way about you. The “what ifs” have been hard to push out of my mind. But that’s the way it is. There are a million could-have, should-have, would-have moments in life, and you just have to push forward with the dids.
The first presentation was a big one in Toronto. The school’s principal was an immaculately-dressed man in a sharp navy blue suit and red tie. He introduced me as someone who had recently lost a friend to suicide, and I almost broke down right there. Standing up, smoothing my long, black skirt, I swallowed hard and shook my head to clear it. I marched up to the microphone with the same confidence with which I had once said, “You should be my partner,” so many years ago.
I took a deep breath, and started.
“Wren. She fit her name perfectly. Small. Shy. Quiet. Quick-witted. Mousy-brown hair and sharp, dark eyes completed her almost anthropomorphic quality – as though she were an animal trapped in a human body and persistently perplexed by her state of affairs. She melted into the background if you weren’t looking for her. And she was my best friend….”