I first met Jessica Taylor at the bus stop. We were in third grade at the time, waiting with a load of other neighborhood kids for the Kensington-Spy Run bus to pick us up and take us to Forest Park Elementary School. It was November, I think, because it was pretty cold - an icy breeze was blowing off the Maumee River across the street - and I was wearing the hand-me-down coat my mother had given me the year before. It was obviously a boy's coat, brown and slippery, but she'd sewn a cloth flower to the lapel just to make things nice.
Jessica was new to the neighborhood, but she'd somehow convinced all the kids to stand around her in a tight circle, blocking the wind so she could stay warm. She was wearing a fake fur jacket - short, the kind of thing my mother would've called impractical - and the wind had whipped through her stringy black hair, turning it into a mess of snarls that trailed down her back. She could also burp her name back then. I thought she was beautiful. We all did.
Even now, she's the kind of person who, if you're running down the riverbank in the middle of the night in just your underwear, will give you the sweatpants off her back. (They say "brat" across the behind. She says it stands for "bratwurst.") And somehow - and I really don't know how she does it - you'll forget how you ended up without pants in the first place. That it was all her fault, really.
Jessica and I made it back to Loree Street by 2 a.m. that night, after much creeping around and several whispered arguments about which one of us should get to wear Jessica's shoes. (We each ended up wearing just one.)
"Wearing both will do you no good," she'd said. "I happen to know one of your feet is wa-a-ay bigger than the other one. Only my left shoe would fit you."
It was late, and things looked calm on the block, but we were still a little too shaken up to go home. Jaime - up late working tirelessly to collect points for his daughters' Webkinz - welcomed us into his living room and gave us each a cup of chamomile tea.
"I'm hittin' this stuff pretty hard tonight," he said, toasting us, completely unfazed by the sight of Jessica pantless.
Jaime had heard the gunfire that night, and like a good neighbor, he'd called the police. But there was no trace of any crazy gun-toting meth addicts by the time the cops arrived. Shots fired, the police report would say. Not much else.
"Too bad you weren't here to talk to the police," he said, still staring at the computer screen. "Also, Jessica, do you realize you're not wearing pants? Do you want some pajamas or something?"
"No," she said. "This is my punishment for pulling Martha's pants down and saving her life."
Jaime whipped around and stared at me - eyes wide, like he just couldn't believe such a thing could happen. And then there was this little awkward pause.
"Oh," he said, looking mildly amused.
Things change as you get older, everyone knows that. The first time Jaime ever spoke to me, he had water balloons shoved down his shirt - you know, parading around like some busty chick from a Western. He was older than me, probably a freshman in high school by then, but still not above torturing the neighborhood girls.
I was no exception. At one point during his little water balloon show, he gave a crowd of neighborhood boys a shake-shake and said in a really high voice, "I'm Martha Wolf!"
I was only about 12, so I didn't know whether I was supposed to be flattered or insulted by this. Too confused to make a decision, I did what I always did in situations like this. I started crying.
It was only in our 20s that Jaime and I relaxed into the kind of casual friendship you can only have with the people you've known since you were a kid. I don't have to explain much about myself to Jaime, and that makes our relationship pretty easy. Or it did until recently. But I'll explain that later.
"So, your neighbor goes missing. Your garage is trashed and a crazy dude no one else actually saw tries to shoot you. All because of a box," Jaime turned back to his computer. "What's inside this mystery box, anyway?"
Jessica and I looked at each other with these sort of empty, dumb expressions on our faces, like two dogs that just discovered the kitchen floor feels cold in the summertime. Opening the box - probably the first thing any normal person would've done - hadn't occurred to us.
Immediately, we tumbled over each other to get out of there - Jaime yelling (by instinct), "No running in the house!" - and scrambled down the outdoor steps to the street. Jessica, lumbering on uneven feet, frantically kicked off her remaining shoe - flung it, really - and it skidded (rather neatly, I thought) under my car.
"Did you see that?" I panted as we rounded the stairs to our porch. "Your shoe? I'm not getting that for you in the morning, you know!"
I don't know what made me stop. I can only say there was something about that shoe that seemed strange. The way it slid, I guess. It was like bad special effects in a movie, the kind that make you point at the screen and yell "Fake! Soooo fake!" Without thinking too much about it, I walked over to my car and there, near the curb, was Jessica's shoe, right in the middle of a pretty substantial puddle of blood.
Jessica was already in the house, tearing open Darleen's box.