My best friend’s name was, ironically, Serenity. The moment we met she looked up at me with wild eyes, daring me to say something about the clumps of cut grass she was gathering by the armload. I, the curious seven-year-old that I was, just asked, "So what are you making?"
Her grin was blinding.
"Ren, what are you doing?" I shouted across our shared apartment.
"Why do you ask?" she called back after a moment.
That was what confirmed it. "Because it's quiet and you're home, so there has to be something going on."
Ren appeared in the hall. The front of her shirt was damp, and her hair was wet and shiny. "What's that supposed to mean? That doesn't mean I'm up to something."
"You only get this defensive when you're definitely up to something."
There was a soft splash from down the hall and I froze. Ren glanced back toward the bathroom. "Okay, don't freak out."
Every time I thought I was immune to her antics, she managed to throw a wrench into my expectations. "Just tell me it's not a baby."
She twisted in on herself in the 'I'm telling the truth, but I expect you not to like it' way she usually did. "It's not a baby human." As if that made it better. Which it did, sort of. Without waiting for a response, she lunged for my hand and dragged me to the bathroom.
The door was mostly closed, which it usually wasn't, so she had been intending to hide this for as long as possible. Even after all this time, she underestimated my ability to understand and adapt to her antics.
She let go of my hand to push the door open with a grand flourish. "Mama's back, little ones!"
There were ducks in our bathtub. Well, ducklings, five of them with their fluffy little feathers. They peeped excitedly at Ren who sat down and immediately sank her arms in the water up to her elbows. They swarmed to her as if she was their mother, and I wish I could say I was surprised they seemed so taken with her.
That would have been a lie. I had seen her walk up to a dog who snarled and growled at everyone, only to see it positively melt under her touch. She emerged without a scratch and covered in dog drool. The only thing her brand of magic didn't work on was people, but I suppose that was why she kept me around. Not that I was particularly good with people either.
"Come on," she called, reaching blindly back to drag me down next to her. "They're the sweetest things ever!"
I shoved my sleeves up so I could twirl my fingers in the water. "They are cute," I admitted. "What happened to their mom?"
"I think she got hit by a car or something. They were just on the side of the road crying next to her body." Ren looked up at me imploringly. "I couldn't just leave them there."
"I'm not going to make you put them back or something. I wouldn't do that." I leaned into her, pressing my shoulder into hers like we had been doing since we were kids.
We sat in silence for a while, only interrupted by the quiet peeping of the ducklings.
"Why are you so dressed up again?"
I looked down at the blue blouse and black dress slacks. "Today was the funeral."
"Oh." Ren wilted ever so slightly. "I'm sorry, I forgot. You don't have to—"
"I want to be here. I don't want to think about that right now." I sighed. "But if I get a carton of ice cream and curl up on the couch later, you're more than welcome to join me."
"Erin." She put a hand on my shoulder, and the water started soaking through my shirt. I was desperate to change out of it anyway. "If you want to be alone—"
"I don't. God, I don't want to be alone right now."
Ren grinned, nodding at the ducklings. "We are definitely not alone."
One of them drifted closer to me and I couldn't help the small smile pulling at the corners of my mouth as it nibbled at my fingers. "No, I suppose not."
We were ten years old when Ren first slept over at my house. She looked at me after my parents left us alone in the living room with the TV.
"They don't love each other, do they?"
I froze. Neither of them had said anything around me, but it was obvious, and I hated it. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who could see it anymore. I hadn't told anyone about laying awake in my room, staring at the ceiling while they yelled at each other. I never mentioned the way I was both guilty and grateful when I came downstairs in the morning to find them both there. I certainly never said how I overheard them talking about me being the only reason they were still together.
"No," I whispered. I was speaking something forbidden into existence between us and had a horrible feeling that tomorrow would be the day I woke up to find one of them missing.
"Oh." Ren leaned over into me. "Then it's good you have enough love for both of them."
I didn't understand what she meant then, but it was easy to fall into her warmth, something I missed from Mom and Dad those days. It was easy to love them though, because Ren loved me and that was enough.
We did eventually end up in front of the TV. I put on Matilda, a movie that always made me feel a bit better about things. Mostly because Matilda always reminded me of Ren.
Instead of ice cream, though, we both had a lap full of ducklings. Ren took the cheese grater to a cucumber after googling what foods were safe for ducks to eat. It was calming but surreal holding them while they ate the small strips of vegetable out of my hand.
"Were your parents there?" Ren asked when kids on screen started throwing things at the Trunchbull's car.
"Did you talk to them?"
"No. They didn't try to talk to me. I think Grandma Spencer spent the whole time glaring at them to make them leave me alone."
"What about Grandpa and Grandma Cody?"
"Grandpa Cody actually took them to outside to talk to them. Dad didn't look all that happy about his father chewing him out."
Ren waited until the credits were rolling before she spoke again. "Did you want to talk to them?"
"I don't know." I petted one of the sleeping ducks in my lap. "Maybe? But I think the only thing they would want to talk about is the will reading."
"Is something going to happen there?"
"I don't know." My left foot was starting to fall asleep where it was sitting under my leg and I shifted position carefully, trying not to disturb the ducks. "I think they know more than I do."
Ren leaned her head on my shoulder. I had changed out of the stiff clothes in favor of soft pajama pants and a white camisole, so I could feel her hair pressing against my bare skin. I closed my eyes and focused on the warmth she radiated so freely. "I'm sorry I wasn't there."
"You were at work." I leaned my cheek into her hair. "You were missed."
"Grandpa Cody is nice like that."
"Grandma Spencer was asking about you, too. Said you should have been there because Grandpa Spencer liked you. I told her you couldn't get it off."
Ren had been over to both my grandparents' houses during the worst of my parents' divorce. They all liked her because she was the one person who could make me smile with everything else going on. She was with me when it came out in custody court that neither Mom nor Dad wanted to keep me. Grandma and Grandpa Spencer received custody of me—mostly because I asked to stay with them—but they became good friends with Grandpa and Grandma Cody so I wouldn’t lose touch with the rest of my family. I think they knew the only reason I asked to stay with Grandma and Grandpa Spencer was so I could stay with Ren.
"I don't think we can keep them."
I opened my eyes and looked down at Ren, who was reading something off her phone. "What?"
"I don't think we can keep the ducks. They don't do well indoors. And we don't exactly have the space for the things they would need."
"Oh." I glanced down at the sleeping ducklings in my lap and felt the stab of longing. "And we don't have the money to move. We need to find someone we can trust to take care of them."
"Would the Murphys be good? They have chickens,” Ren suggested. “Or the Petersons, since they have a farm."
"We can ask. The Petersons might be best, but we'll see." I shifted so I could see Ren’s face. "One night won't hurt, will it?"
"It shouldn't. And we could visit them, couldn't we?"
"Yeah, we could." I reached for the remote to turn off the TV. "But where do we keep them for tonight?"
"I have that all taken care of. Here." She handed me the two ducks from her lap. They peeped in protest as she ran off toward the bedroom and brought back one of the large plastic storage totes we had used moving in. "I figured if we put some towels in the bottom of this, they should be comfortable, and they won't be able to wander all over the place."
"That should work for tonight." I looked down at the collection of sleepy ducks in my lap, a soul-deep ache settling in already.
Ren put the storage tote down and hugged me, awkwardly trying not to squash the ducks between us. "It'll be okay."
It didn't matter what she was talking about, the ducks, my parents, or the loss of Grandpa Spencer. When she said it, I knew I could believe her.
We were fourteen when Ren first stayed over at Grandpa and Grandma Spencer's house after the custody hearing. I had been tiptoeing around the rules, trying to figure out where the edges were. But now everything was officially finalized between my parents and the only person I wanted near me that weekend was Ren.
She came over after school, red-cheeked and panting and grinning like a loon. There were a couple of twigs in her hair, probably from cutting through hedges to get to the house. I couldn't help smiling back. Her moods were usually infectious, but today was different. Ren only rushed for things she thought were important—the line for ice cream when our school offered it, rescuing an animal from the road before a car came, and finding the answer to a burning question.
And somehow, I had rated on that list.
"George," I heard Grandma whisper behind me. "She's smiling."
I didn't bother to retort or excuse myself. I didn't even have the chance as Ren stumbled forward the few steps between us and wrapped me in a hug as if we hadn't seen each other at school just an hour ago.
"Come on! I have to show you something!"
She dropped her bag beside my backpack and dragged me out the door. The Spencer house, though still within the boundaries of the same school zone, was sitting on a largely forested hill. I hadn't bothered to explore it yet because Ren was always so much better at that.
She led me through the underbrush until I had twigs in my hair, too. Then, almost too soon, we stepped out into a clearing overlooking the city.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Ren asked. I glanced at her and noted she was looking up to the clear blue sky. "It just goes on forever!"
I followed the sky with my eyes until I saw the mountains looming on the horizon, at once closer and further away than they had ever been before. "It makes you realize how small we are in comparison to everything."
Ren smiled at me. "I think it shows how much we can grow. We'll always be bigger than our bodies. We shape the world around us and the people around us. But at the end of the day, we shape ourselves most of all.” She stepped in front of me so I had to look at her or turn away. “As much as I want you to be happy, you're the one who has to make that decision."
"I'm always happier around you." I wasn't expecting the words—I never expect the things that come out of my mouth around her—but it didn't make them any less true.
When we returned to the house, I stopped trying to figure out the rules and tried to be myself instead. Some part of me owed that to her and to my grandparents.
And, like always, Ren was right.
The ducklings were safely settled at the Peterson's farm by the time the will reading was scheduled. Ren had managed to get the time off to attend. It had helped that she had been named in it.
I was holding her hand much too tight, white knuckles standing out against my skin, but she didn't say anything about it. She was holding on just as tightly. Ren was a storm, chaotic and bright and warm and mine. I clung to that familiarity amid the rest of the upheaval in my life and she had never driven me further than I wanted to go.
The reading itself passed quickly and easily, quiet voices in a quiet office. Sitting under the weight of my parents' eyes was the difficult part.
"Erin." I winced at my mother's voice. I wanted nothing more than to leave immediately, but I had decided to listen if they tried to talk to me.
Ren squeezed my hand gently as I turned to face them.
"Erin, we didn't want… Your father and I…"
I glanced past her at my father, who was hovering and listening. They had, over the past few years, ended up back together and split apart in cycles. This was apparently one of the together periods.
"You didn't want me." The words felt like vindication coming out of my mouth. It had been a battle to reach this point, to come to the understanding that none of what happened was my fault and to start believing it for myself. Sometimes having enough love for your parents means that you don’t have enough love for yourself.
Dad frowned. “That’s not what we—”
Grandma Spencer held up a hand. “Let her finish. It’s high time both of you heard this.”
Slowly, I dragged together the pieces of my composure and self-worth and looked at my parents, people I felt I hardly knew anymore. "You each wanted your lives and I didn't fit into it. It took me a while to realize it, but I did. I do.” I let my words settle on the room before I continued. “You can’t just step back into my life now as if nothing ever happened. It's about twelve years too late for that and I don’t want you to."
Ren stepped closer and her ambient energy washed over me, pushing away the remaining insecurities regarding my abandonment. She had told me that we shape ourselves, so I would shave down the parts I didn't want anymore, cut away the pain my parents had left me with. I had outgrown it and them a long time ago, and there was no use trying to fit into the mold I no longer wanted.
"I just wanted you to know that."
I let Ren guide me out of the building and towards home, finally feeling the pieces of my soul settle into place with hers.
"Are you okay?" Ren whispered when we were almost home.
"I think so. I needed that."
Ren and my parents were both sources of chaos in my life. Ren built something with that chaos, and I loved her for it. She made change and unexpected circumstances bearable, even enjoyable. My parents only ever managed to be a source of unmanageable stress in my life, and I’d had several counselors advise me to avoid that whenever possible. I had run out of things to feel for my mom and dad, so there was only one last step in that journey
When it came to choosing whether to reconnect with them or to continue on the path I was currently walking beside Ren, it was the easiest decision I ever had to make. I chose Ren.