• “Ugh, this week is gonna be so busy!” Ella flipped her hair as we exited middle school, weaving through classmates to make the trek to our neighborhood. “Eddie wants to take me to the movies, and Joey wants to take me to his brother’s high school football game on Friday- not to mention the high school party David is planning to take me to Saturday night!”

    We came up to the cross walk, pausing as the shrill whistle from the crossing guard rung out; his neon orange vest and bright red stop sign glared brightly at us. The tarmac below was scalding, making the bottom of my tennis shoes squelch from sticking, and the clip-clop of Ella's flip-flops on the ground aggravated my ears as we crossed. Ella stepped only on the white lines as my own stride landed me onto the black sections in-between.

    “Ella, don’t you think you should wait to go to high school parties until you’re actually in high school?” My eyes scanned left to right as the crossing guard waved us on.

    “Oh, Emily, don’t be such a party-pooper!” her voice scolded me like a naughty child. “I’m not going to pass up such a good opportunity- a high school party has high school boys at it!”

    She smiled as we ambled along the side-walk, her near-empty satchel bag bouncing with her light-hearted steps; my own book bag weighed down on my back, heavy and unforgiving in its weight, as the straps dug into the tingling and sore flesh of my shoulders. I hunched over in hopes of alleviating my back pain.

    “I can’t help that I prefer to focus on my studies.” My bumbling excuse for not dating sounded stupid and unrealistic to my ears. I refused to tell her the real reason I focused on my studies was because no one would date me. Ella bounced a few steps ahead and spun gracefully on one foot to face me.

    “You know, you should try to date that Billy kid- he’s kinda cute; he has some hot guy friends too.”

    Unfortunately for me, I had tried to date him, and was openly rejected with a ‘date you?’ and pig-like snorts of laughter. Not that I wanted to date him anyways- studies would have gotten in the way.

    “Nah, I’m alright Ella- besides, I don’t need some guy to validate myself.” My smile was forced like pulling teeth, not that she noticed. I felt like digging out my Biology text book- the largest of them all- to beat her upside the head with. The cute little angel on my right pleaded on hands and knees not to do it, but the devilish little demon on my left egged me on with one raised eyebrow.

    Before they could convince me one way or the other, a beat up, blazing red sunfire crept to a halt beside us; the window rolled down as we stopped.

    “Ella! Babe!” The man in the vehicle peered out at us with his beady little eyes all lit up. They skipped over me, easily eyeing up my supposed best friend standing next to me on the sidewalk.

    “David!” Ella squealed out, high-pitched and overly dramatic. It reminded me of a cat whose tail had been trodden on one too many times. She gracefully stepped up to the open window, opting to lean on it to play her part as coquet. I stood in the background, kicking the dirt at my feet, as awkward as a shy toddler meeting a stranger.

    Ella made some hand motions over her shoulder in my direction, and I could feel his beady eyes on me for the first time- I became conscious of my grungy, tomboy appearance; the sweat running down between my shoulder blades, the burn in my calf muscles, the sweat-stuck hair on my forehead. I cringed, wishing to disappear from the face of the earth; knowing that my visage was anything but pretty.

    “Emily, come on! David’s offering to give us a lift!” She waved me over with the air of a princess, while I waited for measly scraps and leftovers to be thrown my way like a pauper.

    “No.” I rubbed the palms of my hands on my jeans. My heart leapt into my throat as Ella's eyes narrowed. Her hands found purchase on her hips.

    “And why not?” Once again her voice chided me like a naughty child. I crossed my arms, and looked out towards the road; my blatant act of defiance. If she wanted to give me a haughty attitude, I’d give it right back- best friend or not.

    “Because I don’t know him, that’s why.” My gaze burned into the mustard yellow line centered on the black tarmac. My fingers itched to yank her back onto the path and continue homeward. The corner of her lips tugged downward as she turned back to David.

    “Maybe some other time, Dave, I can’t leave her side.” The words bit out like a snake and I recoiled, knowing she would give me hell when she turned back. My shaky legs carried me forward as I tried to leave her behind. My legs successfully moved 10 yards away from her, before she stomped up to my side.

    “You could have gone with him, you know. I don’t need you to baby me.” I aimed for venom to drip from my words, but her rigid posture told me I wasn’t getting out of this conversation that easily.

    “What the hell was that all about?” I could hear her teeth grind as her flip-flops smacked angrily against the poor, unsuspecting ground.

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I hiked my book bag up and hunched over, attempting to alleviate the weight on my shoulders as it barred down like Sisyphus’ boulder.

    “The hell you don’t!” Her finger jabbed angrily in my direction, halting me from moving forward. “I don’t understand why you have to be such a prude! Honestly! Why can’t you just learn to have a bit of fun for once!”

    Her hands waved about angrily, as she gestured towards me and the sky before her eyes narrowed in distaste. “I know about your attempt to date Billy, you know.”

    My world spun off its hinges like a ballerina who forgot to spot herself before she spun. My head whipped towards Ella, something popped in my neck.

    “You’re too much of a tight-wad; a prude! That's why he wouldn't date you!” She jabbed her finger in my face again, I fought the sudden urge to bite it off.

    “At least I’m not a whore.” The words flew out my mouth before I could stop them. “All you do anymore is date everybody and their brother! It makes me wonder where my best friend has gone to!” I hissed out as her arms reached out and grabbed my shoulders, shoving me enough to lose my balance. The ground rushed up to meet me; a text book jarred my spine. I grunted in pain.

    “You just wish the boys liked you instead of me!” She looked down her nose triumphantly as I pushed myself up on my hands, shaky legs burned with my unsteady attempt to stand with my bag still on. I teetered slightly to the right before gaining my footing. “Admit it! You wish you were like me! That's what you want!” She screeched.

    She was right, of course.

    “I do not!” I replied. I refused to let her know she was right. “Why would I want to be anything like you? You’re just a wannabe middle school girl who validates herself with stupid boys, and buying stupid in-fad clothes!” My finger jabbed out in her direction.

    “What-ever.” She replied. Her arm reached out towards me again, and I shoved her arm away with a vicious slap.

    “Don’t touch me, Ella!” I stepped around her form as she stood on the sidewalk glaring daggers at me. “In fact, don’t talk to me ever again! Walk home by yourself from now on!” Her eyes went wide and glassy, and I reveled in it. The truth seeped through my bones and pumped through my veins like a drug; I did want to be like her, and I was fed up with it. I refused to feel like second-rate goods any longer.

    “You don’t really mean that, Emmie…” I didn’t turn as her voice cracked. I ignored the shaken gasps for breaths coming from behind me, and the loud sounds of sniffling.

    “I do.” I replied. I left her standing there, watching my back as my foot-steps echoed off the grey sidewalk, through the mottled shade of the oak trees along the path. I walked the last half mile home, alone.

    My hands run over grey and white marble, fingers tracing black lettering etched into the stone. Grey and black storm clouds stall overhead; the stench of freshly turned dirt tickles my nose, but I refuse to leave. The shades of black sour my eyes as I tug on the hem of my bright pink shirt- her favorite color. Five years it's been since I left her standing on the sidewalk begging me not to leave her, one year since one drunken party too many, and in three weeks I'll walk across the stage at graduation without her.

    I visit her grave to honor her; to bask in the lessons she taught me about boys and relationships in the days we spent together. I carry a piece of her with me in my soul- it's the piece that isn't afraid to try new things, to say yes when asked out by a boy, and can flirt like a pro. But she's also the piece of me that's learned to say no when it's important, and mean it.