"Mark, pass!" The small girl jumped up and down in the grass, her long blonde pigtails flying about. Across the lawn from her, a little boy shook his head and hugged the large rubber ball to his chest.
"I don't wanna," he frowned. Mark bounced the red ball once, twice on the pavement before turning and walking down the sidewalk with it.
"Mark! Come back!" she called, stopping her jumping and instead standing with her feet in the brown grass. "Why won't you play with me?" The dark-haired boy never turned around, but kept walking until he reached a small white house next door. He turned up the front walk and ran up to the front door, glancing over to where she still stood before disappearing through the large door.
"Mom!" Leah ran into her own house, door slamming behind her as she sprinted back to her mother's office. "Mommy!"
"What, sweetie, did you get hurt?" Her mother turned in her office chair and looked at her daughter standing in the doorway. Leah's bottom lip trembled.
"Well, what's wrong?"
"Mark wouldn't share his ball and ran inside without saying bye," Leah said crossly as she folded her arms in front of her, covering the dribbles of chocolate ice cream from lunch.
"Maybe he was in a hurry to go home," her mother gently suggested. Leah shook her head quickly.
"No, no he wasn't! He walked to his house and only ran when he reached the grass. He didn't want to say goodbye, I know it! He was just being a stupid meanie!"
"Leah! Don't call people stupid," she scolded. "It's not nice and hurts feelings. How would Mark feel if you called him stupid?"
"Not very good…" Leah looked down at her little white sneakers.
"That's right." The young girl looked back up at her mother.
"But Mommy, he was being stupid! He just looked at me and turned away like he was mad at me or something!" Leah's mother sighed.
"Now Leah, Mark is your best friend, right?"
"I'm sure he didn't mean to hurt your feelings, so you can talk to him about it tomorrow and I'm sure he'll explain everything."
"Okay," Leah relented and turned around, walking quietly out into the hall and up the stairs to her room. When she got there, she kicked her shoes off by her white door and knocked once, twice on the large pink flower Mark had helped her paint. For good luck, she would say. Reaching the window, she squinted into the falling dusk to see if her friend was in his room. The flashlight on the ground felt heavy in her hand as she picked it up and clicked the beam off and on. After five seconds of nothing, she tried again. This time the signal was returned. She cracked open the window and pressed the yellow walkie-talkie to her ear. She and Mark had combined allowances to buy them at the beginning of the summer.
"Leah?" a small voice said in her ear.
"Hi," she replied, almost shyly.
"What do you want?"
"Why were you being mean to me today?" The other end was silent, the only noise coming from the gentle breeze that brushed aside the lacy curtains of Leah's room. "Mark?" She squinted through the opening, saw nothing, and sat back on her knees.
"I have to go."
"No you don't! It's not your bedtime yet, dummy."
"Don't call me dummy!"
"You called me that yesterday."
"I have to go."
"Mark!" Leah peered over the windowsill to see if she could see into the adjacent window.
"Jason's coming over in a minute," Mark finally said.
"I thought you didn't like him."
"He's in cub scouts with me."
"But you told me you didn't like him!"
"I have to go."
"Fine, bye, have fun with your new best friend and your stupid red ball!"
"Okay," was the simple reply. Leah stared at the yellow plastic in disbelief, hand shaking and lower lip beginning to tremble. With a small snort of frustration, she slammed it into her carpet, smirking when she heard a small crunch. Then she opened the window a little further and threw it as hard as she could into the ground one story down.
The sun hurt her eyes, Leah decided as she rolled out of her bed. Picking Mr. Turtle off the ground, she hugged him tightly to her chest.
"You would never be mean to me, right?" She smiled at him and placed him back in her bed next to Muffy the rabbit. The walk to the window was a long one, and as she stared out into the new day, Leah bit her bottom lip as she saw a young boy with sandy hair climb into a blue minivan, Mark waving goodbye with his red ball under one arm. Anger suddenly washed over the small girl, and without changing out of her pajamas, she stormed downstairs and out the front door.
"Oh, hey, Leah," Mark turned towards her. "Nice pajamas." Leah looked down: they were her favorites.
"Um, thanks," she mumbled. "How was your sleepover?"
"Lots of fun." Silence descended upon the two, a driveway separating them.
"Why don't you like me anymore?" Leah suddenly asked. Mark looked surprised and looked down at his ball, hugging it close.
"I still like you lots, Leah," he told her.
"Doesn't feel like it. You never talk to me anymore."
"Sure I do!" Mark defended himself. Leah shook her head.
"Nuh uh! All you do is play with your ball by yourself or ignore me when your other friends come over or go to cub scouts or sit by yourself in your room! You never talk to me."
"S'not true! I talked to you last night on talkies!"
"Yeah, for like two seconds."
"No, like five whole minutes!"
"You like Jason more than you like me. Is he your new best friend?"
"So what if he is?" Leah felt her lungs empty into the cool morning air. A new best friend? She had only been joking last night when she said that! She didn't think he'd actually get a new best friend! What about her? She had been Mark's best friend since forever. They had been neighbors all their lives and friends for fifty billion years more. That's what Mark told her, and he was really smart. He could count all the way to one hundred without any help. And fifty billion came almost right after one hundred, so Leah knew Mark could count that high if he really wanted to, and he hadn't ever lied to her before. Fifty billion years of being friends. So, really, they should always be best friends forever, right?
Leah pursed her lips and stormed across the driveway into Mark's lawn, yanking the red ball from the shocked boy's arms.
"Well, then I guess we're not best friends anymore!" She yelled, backing away from him with his ball in her hands.
"Leah, give it back! That's not nice!"
"Well you're not nice!"
"That's my ball! It's mine!"
"Well then go get it you big, stupid, meanie!" Leah choked, tears beginning to roll down her cheeks. She hurled it with both arms towards the sidewalk, watching in satisfaction as it rolled across the street.
"Oh, no! I can't cross the street alone." Mark ran to the sidewalk. "I hate you! You're so mean, Leah! And you know why I don't talk to you? Because you're a girl! And girls are weird and dumb and boys shouldn't be friends with them and everyone makes fun of me because my best friend is a girl and I helped her paint a pink flower on her door and we have sleepovers and it's all so stupid because I can't be friends with a girl and so we're not friends anymore! Not ever!" Mark shouted. Leah wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
"Fine! I'll go find a new friend!"
"Good luck!" he shot back. Leah saw Mark step off the curb to run and get his ball and she turned around and started walking back to her house; she felt like she was about to throw up and her eyes hurt.
There was a loud screech behind her and a horn, followed by a thump. Leah spun around and began screaming. Her mother rushed out.
"Leah, what's— oh my God!" Her mother sprinted back into the house and came out with a phone pressed tightly to her ear. "Yes, there's been an accident, we live at 3428 Greentree, there was a car and a boy…" Leah didn't hear what her mother was saying. She just stared at the street, at the car, at her best friend. A man had leapt out of the silver car and was standing over a red puddle. Leah felt the morning dew seep through her pants as she flopped to the ground, eyes still wide and tears still flowing freely from her red eyes.
"Mark?" she said softly, watching the adults crowd around the car. Her mother stayed next to her, though. "Mark?" louder, now. His parents turned to look at her before turning away again. "Mark!?" Leah was screaming. She leapt from her lawn and began running towards the boy, but she felt an arm around her waist as she was lifted off the ground and into her mother. She struggled, screaming and crying and gasping all the while.
"Mark!" she sobbed. A keening siren pierced the fading pink of the sky as it turned onto the street and screeched to a halt next to the silver car. Men dressed in blue uniforms sprang out of the back door, and Leah felt her legs and arms grow heavy.
"Leah, honey?" Leah felt her mother gently shake her. She looked up into the worried face.
"I don't feel so good, Mommy…" she choked.
"I know, baby, I know," she whispered, holding Leah to her chest. "What happened?"
"My tummy hurts… Remember when Jack shoved me and I fell and I couldn't breathe and then Mark beat him up for touching me?" Her mother nodded. "That's what it feels like…" Leah cried softly, nose running. Her mother stroked her hair and looked back to the street where Mark's mother was screaming at the EMTs and his father was sitting on the curb with his hands between his knees.
"I think I'm going to throw up," Leah whispered, turning away from the unfolding scene and burying her head in her mother's neck.
"What happened, Leah?" Mark's mother collapsed next to his father, their hands now clasped together as they leaned against each other, shoulders shaking. The ambulance drove back down the street to where it came from, the siren eerily silent. Leah turned her attention back to the vehicle when she heard it leave.
"Where's Mark going?" she demanded.
"Leah, what happened?"
"Where's he going?" Leah's trembling voice rose.
"Away," her mother answered.
"Is he coming back?" The older woman watched the ambulance turn the corner, a tear falling down her face.
"No, baby, I don't think so."
"But, he has to!" Leah twisted in her mother's arms, wriggling her way down to the ground. "He has to come back!"
"He's not coming back, honey," she said with a tear rolling down her cheek.
"NO, he will come back! He will!" Leah wrenched her way out of her mother's grasp and tried to run on wobbling legs, but fell to her knees five steps later. "He has to come back, Mommy! He left his favorite ball!" Leah pointed to the end of the street where the forgotten toy was rolling away in the gentle wind.
"Leah, Mark is gone! I'm sorry," her mother knelt next to her, an arm around her daughter as Leah stared after the ambulance and the ball, tears still streaming down her red cheeks. The little girl shook her head violently.
"You're wrong! You're wrong, Mommy! Mark never goes anywhere without his ball! He told me that he wouldn't give it up for the whole world, not even if Superman asked for it! Not even if the Flash wanted it! And the Flash is red! The Flash is Mark's favorite, Mommy! And he wouldn't even give up his ball for the Flash," Leah cried out. "You're wrong!" she screamed, little fists pounding the wet grass. "He's coming back!" Leah's mother gathered her struggling daughter in her lap, pressing her to her chest as the child continued to scream and cry, gasping for breath between sobs as the sun finally came out to warm the cold ground.
"He's gone, Leah…" she whispered, kissing her blonde head.
"He's coming back, Mommy, you'll see…" Leah sniffed, wiping her nose on the back of her sleeve. "He left his red ball…"
Her mother looked up to see the ball roll past the stop sign at the end of the lane and past the neighborhood's climbing tree into the busier street beyond. A car flew by, the ball flying beneath it before being spat back out into the street, its flattened body a useless shell of rubber.