"I know it's a weird fear to have Emmie. You don't understand," I told her in an angry voice.
She was sitting in her green PT Cruiser at the edge of my driveway. The keys were still in the ignition. Her bright red nails tapped against the steering wheel in an impatient manner. Her blond hair twisted in perfect ringlets around her cheeks. Her blue eyes raged with fire.
"If you don't want to go. That's all you have to say," her face scrunched with anger.
I wanted to go with her. That wasn't the question. The question was how? How could I survive? I looked at her empty passenger seat and my stomach dipped in fear. She didn't understand what she was asking me to do, and I didn't know how to explain it to her.
"Please don't be angry," I pleaded.
She was my best friend. I couldn't stand the thought of her fiery temper directed toward me. Yet, I couldn't get in the car with her. My feet wouldn't move even if I willed them to.
"Sure," she said with a bright smile, "If you get in the fucking car Rue. How long are you going to let fear dictate your life?"
What an easy question to ask. She didn't eat panic for breakfast or snack on anxiety between meals the way I did. I drank in her tiny frame and wondered how such a small person could be so fearless.
"Fine," I told her.
A sick feeling pounded in my gut. It begged me not to do this. Every hair stood on my arm when I put my hand on the cold handle of her car door. Fear whispered down my neck. Would I be able to pull this off? We used to do this every year. It was an Emmie and Rue tradition.
Emmie was backing down the drive before I had a chance to convince myself to get out of the car. My fingers gripped the door handle with white knuckles. I couldn't release my fingers even with the door locked. Irrational thoughts paraded around in my head. Thoughts like jumping out of her moving car or grabbing the steering wheel and steering us off the road.
"Oh Rue, isn't this wonderful? I love this time of year!" She exclaimed.
I tried to relate and failed a miserable failure. The Christmas lights were blinding. The music pouring from her stereo promised holiday cheer. The only cheer I felt inside was a small voice cheering me on for making it further than I ever had before. It was hard to hear over a louder voice. That voice screamed for me to get out of the car before something terrible happened.
"I don't get it. I wish you would talk to me the way you used to. What happened to the Rue who loved Christmas?" Emmie asked.
The reason burned hot in my throat. Words, however, often took bravery to speak. It didn't matter how close you were with someone. Sometimes, the words still wouldn't come.
"I love Christmas," I explained in a voice that would fail a lie detector test. "It's just not what it used to be. I grew up, Emmie. I changed."
"Hey," she said in a low voice, "Things can always go back the way they were before. All you have to do is let me back in." She dropped a hand on my thigh and squeezed.
No, they could never go back. I didn't want to be the one who ruined the meaning behind this time of year for her. I didn't want to color her bright world with the dark colors that painted mine. It wasn't fair.
Her car flashed down the street in our neighborhood the way it did when we were teenagers. The earlier days when we were both wild and free. For a moment, I let myself become caught in the nostalgia of it all. A person could almost forget in the face of familiar things, the truth which laid underneath.
"Rue. I’ve missed this!" She bounced up and down in her seat.
My face felt hot. I pressed it against the icy window and watched snow-covered houses pass us in a forty-mile-per-hour blur. It wouldn't be much longer. We were almost to the annual Christmas tree lighting. After that, I would be trapped with a Christmas shopping feign. We hadn't done this sort of thing in years. The thought of doing it now made my heart squeeze.
"Showtime," Emmie promised.
The car stopped moving and we were staring at a large crowd of people. A twenty-five-foot tree stood proud in the town square. Panic coated the walls of my throat. Fingers intertwined with mine and I looked to see the person they belonged to. They were Emmie's fingers, and she had the widest grin on her face.
"Thank you for coming. This means the world to me,” she whispered.
That much was obvious. She didn't drag me with her to the front of the crowd the way she used to. I was grateful. It gave me a few moments to get my shaking hands under control. It took everything I had in me to stand there. I stood and watched smiling faces when the lights lit up the tree and cheers rang out. Tears stung the corners of my eyes. I averted my face so Emmie couldn't see.
"Are you ready for this?” She asked. "I'm ready to spend every dime I have in my pocket.
It was funny how things changed over time as people grew older. Then, it was funny how things didn't seem to change at all. She was ageless as I watched her struggle to contain her excitement. I looked into her hopeful eyes and felt crushing despair in my chest.
"Please don't make me do this, Emmie. I can't." I whispered, "I can't."
"You can," she promised.
Like the Emmie I grew up with, she threaded her fingers tighter through mine. She charged toward the first store window and she took me with her. She wasn't the type of girl who could take no for an answer.
"You're remembering that day... aren't you," she asked.
I nodded my head since I couldn't produce words using my vocal cords. I hadn't stopped remembering that day since it happened. She had to know that. I didn't know why she needed me to confirm it out loud.
Emmie laid a pale hand on the door to Smithy's Candle Shop, "Oooh oh! Let's go in here first. I'm a sucker for candles."
It felt like Deja Vu. As if the day she brought up were happening all over again. Bile crept up my throat. I didn't want to be here.
"Emmie, you know I can't go into that store. I'm sorry you dragged me all the way here but...." I waved an arm at the storefront window. "The shelves are laughing at me. Look at them! They know I can't do this. Can I please wait in the car?"
She turned her face toward me. It was crestfallen. Anyone who walked by would have felt the disappointment that exuded from all five feet of her. Her eyes brimmed with furious tears. I had made her angry again.
"You got in the car," she hissed. "You can't quit. See this through!"
My back was against the red and grey bricks that made up the storefront of Smithy's. I slid down them when the weight of what she said hit me. I knew what she was trying to do. I knew she meant well. The thing was it didn’t matter. I couldn't bring myself to do it.
My feet hit the ground in a sprint before I even realized I wasn't collapsed on the sidewalk anymore. I heard Emmie shouting behind me. The stares of Christmas shoppers burned into my back. I'm sure they wondered why this crazy girl was running through the middle of the town square and ugly crying.
I ran until I spotted Emmie's green cruiser. My legs came to a full stop and I hit my fist against the hood of her car in frustration. The sadness and fear had turned into something much worse. It was rage.
"Dammit, Emmie. Why?" I cried.
A gentle hand laid a crossed my back. I looked up in surprise to see that Emmie had beaten me back to the car. Her eyes screamed she was sorry. How could I direct my anger at her? None of this was her fault, after all.
"Why did you leave me behind?” I asked.
She answered me in a quiet voice, "I'd do it all over again. You know it and I know it."
"It isn't fair. I can't do this without you," I whispered.
"Yes," she replied. "You can, Rue. That's why I am here. To show you that you can."
The memories were coming, and I couldn't stop them. They flooded my brain with image after image. There was one memory that played over all the rest. It was the culprit for the storm that down poured inside me.
It was an image of Emmie standing next to me. We were sixteen years old. It was our fourth year going to the tree lighting ceremony together. We hadn't watched the time. We were out way too late. Our parents would worry. It didn't matter that I warned her. Emmie didn't concern herself with things like that. She only cared about living her life to the fullest.
After that, came the memory of the hands. They grabbed me from behind without warning. Hot breath assaulted my neck. A foul-smelling voice whispered in my ear.
It said, "Drop all your bags and whatever money you have left on you."
Emmie turned around to face us. Her blue eyes grew wide when she realized what was happening. Before I could stop her, she rushed toward us. In a single moment, it was all over. I laid in an empty parking lot surrounded by shopping bags and Emmie... well. She laid on the sidewalk surrounded by blood.
The man ran before I could pull my cell phone from my pocket. I crawled to her and grabbed her with shaking hands. Her skin was warm. She wasn't breathing.
I pounded my fist harder against the car's hood until I could bring myself back to the present. It was the hood of the car her mom gave me after Emmie died. It was unfair. He grabbed me. He didn't grab her. She should be here shopping and spreading holiday cheer. I should have been the one who died.
"Why did you have to go and do that, Emmie? It should have been me," I told her.
"No Rue. You're still here for a reason," she said.
For Christmas shopping?" I asked, without being able to hide the sarcasm in my voice.
"No silly. To live your life. To live it to the fullest. You have to," she begged. "You have to do it for the both of us."
She smiled wide again. It wasn't the glowing smile she usually showered me with. Sadness tugged at its edges. Damn it all. It was like a sucker punch to the belly.
"You're right. I can't keep living in fear, can I?" I whispered.
She grabbed my face in her hands, "You can do anything. Anything you want to do." She assured me, "But I won't let you hide from this any longer."
She let go of me after that. Once I closed my eyes, I feared when they opened she would be gone. The kind of gone where she never came back. I kept them closed as long as I could before her heavy sigh tore my eyes open again.
"Go Rue... go and smell the candles. Buy one for me. Sit and watch the lights and the people while they're shopping. The way we used to. Know even when you can't see me or hear me. I'm here with you. Go ahead, I know you can do it," she said.
She was right. I walked back to Smithy's for the first time in ten years and turned the door handle. I couldn't live in the past anymore. I had to move on. I had to do it for both of us.