Fiction Friendship Mystery

 “I think you should come live with me, and we can be pirates.

  The short but gorgeous Taylor Swift song hit my ears through my earbuds as I pushed on against the bitter Illinois wind. I was walking alone back to my barracks on the Great Lakes Naval Station base from having dinner at the galley on a cold December evening. Even though I was bundled up with my fleece liner inside my uniform parka and my black knit cap covering my ears, the wind coming off of Lake Michigan bit and tore at my exposed skin.

  “Seven" was one of my favorite Taylor Swift songs, but I was still tempted to skip it. That one particular song had been haunting me for the past twelve months and I couldn’t shake the eerie feeling it gave me every time I heard it. Just like all my other favorite Taylor Swift songs, I could relate personally to this one. It always made me think of my childhood friend who I'd known from the day before pre-school all the way through college. We'd lost contact after that, but we didn’t have a reason why.

  And just like every other time I heard the song, I got lost in old memories of the longest friendship I’d ever had. I’d had my first sleepover with her, we danced and rode horses together, took years of Spanish classes together, attended school dances together, and even discovered boys together. She liked Orlando Bloom; I liked Eminem. We'd had an exuberant amount of ridiculous fights, joined each other for big events and activities, and, probably most importantly, we discovered a passion for writing with one another. Yet, when I published my first book the year before, I didn’t hear a single word from her.

  That shit hurt.

  Shaking off my gloom, I entered my barracks and hurried up to my room. Neither of my roommates were present, so I took my cellphone out and dialed my best friend's number as I shed my winter outerwear. Lauren answered almost immediately.

  “Hello!” my best friend answered with excitement.

  “Hey! I am so glad I can call you whenever I want again,” I said with a huge sigh of relief. I'd only been able to talk to her three times during my ten weeks of bootcamp.

  “Aren't you coming home soon?” Lauren asked, a hint of skepticism in her voice.

  “Yes! In two weeks, I swear.”

  “Okay, good. I can’t wait! I've already made a list of things for us to do while you’re here.”

  “As long as breakfast at Shady Maple and shopping are on that list.”

  “Well, duh!”

  We both shared a laugh before catching up on our day's events and dramas. The memory of my old friend weighed heavy on my mind, but I didn’t feel the need to mention it.

  “I was high in the sky, with Pennsylvania under me.

  This time I pressed the skip button and the Spotify playlist moved on to the next song just as my plane began to descend over the Philadelphia Airport. Flying was stressful enough without having to worry about my haunting memories coming after me. Two weeks had passed since I’d last listened to that song and I wanted to go another two weeks without it.

  It was about five o'clock in the afternoon in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by the time I exited the plane and made my way through the crowded gate. I already had the only bags I brought from Illinois, so I checked my text messages to see if my mom had told me where to meet her. But she hadn’t.

  As I broke through the crowd, I spotted a few stragglers who appeared to be waiting. One woman held a sign that said “WELCOME HOME" and I couldn’t help but think how cute that was. Then I noticed the person next to her was holding a US Navy flag, so I looked up and realized it was my step-dad and my mom. I dropped my bags where I was and ran to hug my mom, who I hadn’t seen in three and a half months.

  Thirty minutes later, I sat in the back of my step-dad's car while he drove and my mom sat in the passenger seat. They had so many questions, asking me all about bootcamp and A-school during the ride home. After awhile, my throat started to hurt from talking so much, so my mom turned on the radio.

  “Any requests?” my step-dad asked.

  “Anything metal,” I told him, not wanting to feel any more sentimental than I already was.

  “Please, picture me in the trees. I hit my peak at seven feet.

  Lauren and I were on a two-hour drive to Lancaster for the greatest breakfast buffet in Pennsylvania. It was only six o’clock in the morning, so we were armed with cans of Red Bull and keeping our energy high with belting out Taylor Swift songs.

  “Ugh, I don’t know this one either,” Lauren complained and immediately hit the skip button from the driver seat of her SUV.

  “It's actually really good,” I told her, only half-relieved that she skipped it. “But I might be biased because I relate to it…like, in a terrifying way.”

  That was it. That was my attempt to let somebody know how much this song pained me and how badly it was freaking me out. But Lauren didn’t catch on to my desperation and changed the subject without even acknowledging what I said.

  Over three plates of eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, and waffles an hour later, Lauren and I discussed how we wanted to spend the rest of the day. Shady Maple was literally in the middle of Amish farm country, so we had another two-hour trip ahead of us to return to civilization. We wanted to go shopping, but all the malls that we knew were so far away.

  King of Prussia, which was the furthest mall from our homes, was our usual go-to, especially when we were already out-and-about for the day because it was the largest. But for some reason that day, we decided to go to the Montgomery Mall, which was the mall I’d gone to growing up. It was a lot smaller than King of Prussia and had a lot of empty stores, so there was no logical reason for us to choose that one.

  “Oooh, this is creepy,” Lauren said as we stepped foot in a completely abandoned side entrance of the Montgomery Mall.

  “And why did we come here?” I asked loudly.

  “I don’t know. There’s gotta be something around here.”

  We rounded the corner and were hit with an unnerving scene. All but three stores on the first floor were completely empty with their gates down and lights off. And not a single other person could be seen walking the vast corridor.

  My heart ached at the sight of such an important landmark from my childhood falling to shambles. I remembered going there with my high school friend and challenging ourselves with stepping foot in every single store while also keeping an eye out for cute boys. And I remembered going there with my oldest friend and trying on formal dresses, even though we were in college and school dances were behind us.

  “Pack your dolls and a sweater…

  Where was that music coming from?

  “…we’ll move to India forever…

  It sounded like it was coming from my left, so I looked and saw Macy's at the very end of the corridor. Being one of the only stores still open, it made sense that the music would be coming from there. I started walking in that direction, as if a magnet was pulling me in.

  “…passed down like folk songs…

  The music got louder the closer I got to Macy's. But even after I entered the department store, the invisible magnet continued to draw me in a specific direction.

  “…our love lasts so long.

  I was in the prom dress area, and the music was the loudest yet. The gravitational force had released me and I looked around in confusion. Standing between a rack of purple dresses and a rack of red dresses was the girl I'd known since the day before pre-school.

  “Vikki!” I yelled and ran to the girl with long brown hair and lightly tanned, olive skin.

  “Oh my God!” Vikki squealed the phrase I’d gotten her to start saying despite her whole family being extraordinarily religious. They always accused me of being a bad influence. Maybe that’s why we lost touch?

  I threw my arms around my oldest friend's neck and we hugged like we’d done so many times in our seventeen years of friendship. And our embrace felt exactly as it had ten years ago, her smooth skin feeling cool against my cheek.

  Suddenly, somebody cleared their throat loudly next to us. Vikki and I released our embrace and turned to find that Lauren had caught up to me.

  “Oh, Lauren! I want you to meet my oldest friend, Vikki,” I announced excitedly.

  Lauren looked between me and Vikki, her eyebrow raising with skepticism. I watched her look all around, her entire face getting tighter with judgement.

  “Uh, Justine, there’s nobody here,” Lauren finally said, her voice riddled with worry.

  I glanced back in Vikki's direction and she was gone.

  “And I’ve been meaning to tell you, I think your house is haunted…

November 27, 2022 01:44

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