The gravel driveway made it hard to start pedaling, but I pushed hard with my left foot, slicing the tires to the right through the deep pile of stones. I was free, my headband sliding back through my hair as I tore down the street, chasing nothing save the taste of summer dust on my tongue.
Brooke peddled along behind, her strong legs catching up to me effortlessly. A wide grin stretched across her broad face, her boyish black hair flapping in the breeze. She was a swimmer, a soccer player — broad-shouldered in her red T-shirt, denim cut-offs revealing skinned knees.
We careened around the neighborhood, tires spitting gravel on tight turns, riding until the breath caught heavy in our lungs. Then we coasted back home to splash in the pool and slurp homemade raspberry popsicles.
It was always this way with Brooke, the endless movement of limbs, laughing and climbing, running and talking. Playing with Barbies until we were too worn out to push the pink Camaro across the carpet even one more time.
Brooke disappeared from my life as suddenly as she had entered it. We met in daycare, a friendship forged while snacking surreptitiously on glue-covered Honeycomb cereal from art projects left to dry in the nap room.
Our parents forged their own friendships in the court battle when the woman who ran the daycare was arrested and charged with abusing us, the little Honeycomb-stealing darlings. I remember a morning spent in a little room full of lawyers and other grown-ups who asked me what happened; my parents bought me mozzarella sticks for lunch afterward. I never connected that day with the many afternoons Brooke and her mom drove half an hour to my house, leaving Brooke and me to tear around the neighborhood while our moms talked. But after the trial, after the newspaper reports died down, our parents went their separate ways, and Brooke, always bubbling with life, vanished.
While I went on, climbing trees and catching fireflies, Brooke was growing quieter and quieter. She ran away from home, she tried drugs, she was committed to a mental institution. Nearly 10 years after we last played together, her mom called my mom to ask about me, and to tell Brooke’s story.
I have only one photograph of Brooke, from before she began withdrawing into her own silence. In the snapshot, we are frozen, squinting into the sun, her arm around my shoulder, yellow rosebushes in full bloom behind us. I’m holding the handlebars of my bike, a 1976 banana-seated wonder with red, white, and blue streamers. She’s puffing out her chest proudly, the white letters of her T-shirt proclaiming her a member of the Howard County Rec Department.
Right after that photo was taken, we climbed the pine trees on the corner of the lot, and spent the afternoon pretending we were hiding from pirates, Swiss Family Robinson-style. Brooke swung a pine-branch sword to defend our hideout from marauding blue-jays, laughing as they dive-bombed us to protect their nest.
She is different, that girl in the tree. Different and brilliant and alive — so far from the one I heard about from my mother, the faded girl, locked inside her own memories. I want to remember her always with the sun in her hair, and roses at her back.