Laura van den Berg’s short story “Friends” is excerpted from the new fiction anthology Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery & Murder , edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto and published by Black Balloon, an imprint of Catapult.
TINY CRIMES: Very Short Tales of Mystery & Murder, out June 5 from Catapult/Black Balloon
Sarah had moved to a city of medium size, the worst size for making friends. A place is a place, she’d told herself upon arriving, but she had never before lived in a city of medium size. People were moderately friendly. The streets were moderately busy, the shops moderately expensive and moderately good-looking. She lived near a park with cannons and an American flag, the most patriotic park she’d ever seen. Beyond the park lay train tracks and a river of moderate width, slicing through the city like a silver vein.
Sarah was not a friendless person. She had plenty of friends, from cities large and small. In fact, some of these friends had offered to set her up with people they knew in this medium-sized city. The site of her first friend date was a restaurant trying very hard to look like it belonged to someplace larger. Through a tall window Sarah spotted the prospective friend sitting at the bar. She was sporty-beautiful, the kind of woman who could be glamorous in sweats because everything was of such fine quality. Sarah disliked her on sight. On the street, she sent a text. Sorry! Food poisoning! The prospective friend texted back right away, with sympathy, and Sarah never replied.
On her second attempted friend date, Sarah, after two beers, started talking about her mother. Her mother had visited recently and insisted on staying in a hotel. It did not matter that Sarah, for the first time in her life, had rented an apartment with a guest room. It did not matter that she had promised to clean the bathroom and stock the fridge. Her mother had said that she did not feel safe staying with Sarah. Her own mother had said this! The bar was communist-themed. The second prospective friend shredded a cocktail napkin as Sarah went on, a mural of Lenin peering over her shoulder. Sarah went to the bathroom and by the time she returned, the friend had paid her share and left.
The third friend suggested meeting in a park, this one neutral on the subject of patriotism. Odd, since they were getting together after work, and it was early spring and still cold, but then again she hadn’t had much luck in indoor spaces. Aided by the small flashlight on her keychain, Sarah found this woman, Holly, sitting on a bench in a black gabardine trench coat.
“You found me,” Holly said. “That’s a good sign.”
A sign of what exactly Sarah did not think to ask.
Before long she was once again recounting the story about her mother’s visit. She knew this was off-putting to strangers but could not help herself—did not want to help herself, perhaps. Holly didn’t leave or change the subject. Instead, she said, “I can see your mother’s side of things.”
“You’ve never met my mother,” Sarah said. “You don’t know anything about us.”
“All I need to know is what’s right in front of me,” Holly said, with a shrug.
Sarah wanted to argue, but when she went to compile evidence to demonstrate that she was indeed a person others could feel safe with, she came up very short.
She and Holly continued seeing each other, always outside and always at night. They played tennis at the courts by the library. They went for long runs along the river. By May Sarah had lost five pounds. “You’re the perfect friend,” Holly said once, in the moonlight. The statement struck Sarah as half-finished, like there was another piece Holly was holding back, but compliments rarely befell her and it felt ungracious to push for more.
One Saturday morning, Holly sent a text asking if Sarah wanted to meet at the train station. Up for an adventure? Sarah was pleased; spending time in the daylight seemed like a friend-promotion. On Platform 6, she found Holly leaning against a concrete pillar in her gabardine trench, holding a round case by its lucite handle. Sarah realized that she had been mistaken about the color of the trench—in the daytime it was more like eggplant.
“I got us two tickets.” She passed one to Sarah. The destination had been blotted out with black marker. Holly gave Sarah the window seat, and as the train chugged away from the medium-sized city she pressed her palms to the glass and thought of the tiny succulents lined up in her windowsill—the plants favored by people who did not know how to take care of anything.
They rolled past Trenton, Philadelphia, Baltimore. They drank watery coffee and ate BabyBels. When Sarah asked after their destination, Holly just said, “We have a ways to go.” By the time they hit Washington, the sun was melting across the sky, bright and shapeless. Holly made another trip to the café car, and returned carrying a cardboard tray packed with little red wines and hummus cups. She handed the tray to Sarah and collected the round case. She said it was time to go to the roomette.
“This is an overnight?” Sarah said, frowning. She was not properly prepared to spend the night, on a train or anywhere else.
“We have a ways to go,” Holly said again.
The roomette held bunk beds and the smallest toilet Sarah had ever seen. She sat on the bottom bunk. Holly joined her, unscrewed a little wine, and handed Sarah the bottle.
“That city was not of a good size,” Holly said. “The people who built it should have stopped sooner or made more.”
Sarah was troubled by the past tense, as though the city had ceased to exist upon their departure. She took a long drink.
“I was starting to get used to it,” Sarah said. “The city seemed bigger at night.”
“You won’t miss it much,” Holly replied.
The train swayed, and Sarah felt the wine slosh in her stomach. “Are you kidnapping me?”
“Do you see a gun? Can a friend kidnap a friend?” Holly laughed and punched her in the shoulder.
“Seriously, though, I can’t start over in a new place without a friend,” Holly said. “Can you imagine?”
“Yes,” Sarah said. “I can.”
“Well you, my dear, are a cautionary tale.” Holly loosened the belt on her trench and opened the round case, which was much deeper than it had appeared from the outside. She passed Sarah a set of thin cotton pajamas printed with blue giraffes, a travel-sized toothbrush and toothpaste sitting on top.
“I should call my mother.” By then the land around the tracks had gone dark and Sarah had killed the bottle.
“Forget about your mother,” Holly said. “She doesn’t want to hear from you.”
In Hamlet, North Carolina, they climbed into the bunk beds. Sarah took the top, the ceiling so close she felt as though she’d been sealed inside a carapace. A little while later Holly’s voice floated up from the floor.
“So what happened with your mother? I have my ideas, but I’d like to hear about it in your own words.”
That winter, Sarah had moved in with her mother to help her recover from an operation, serious and invasive, and this arrangement had brought out the worst in both of them. Her mother had a little silver bell she rang every two minutes. Every way Sarah tried to help was wrong. She got the wrong things at the grocery. She always forgot to refill the bedside water glass. She left the TV remote out of reach. One afternoon she locked her mother’s door from the outside. She listened to the chiming bell. After thirty minutes, she unlocked the door. She claimed to have been out of earshot in the backyard, but they both knew. The next day she left a sandwich and a half-glass of water at her mother’s bedside, locked up, and went to see a movie.
“Let’s just say things did not improve from there.” Sarah thought it was close to midnight, though she couldn’t be sure because her watch had stopped ticking in Cary. Her phone had died too, and none of the chargers in the roomette were working.
“Am I a terrible person?” Sarah asked.
“Yes,” Holly said. “That’s what makes you perfect.”
Sarah asked Holly if she had brought a friend with her to the medium-sized city—and, if so, what had become of this person. In response, Holly began to snore loudly.
Sarah supposed she would get her answer soon enough.
Next door a toilet flushed. Someone was having a sneezing fit. When she tried to remember the friend who had set her up with Holly, she failed to summon a name. But surely this person existed—otherwise how would they have found each other? She imagined this friend in the roomette next door, whispering through an air vent.
The next stop was called— Denmark, South Carolina.
Sarah rolled toward the wall. She listened for the voice of her friend, who she hoped would explain that while Holly had strange ideas about what constituted adventure she was really quite harmless. But that was not the voice she heard. Instead it was her mother, saying something about a bell.