I found her sitting on the edge of the little bridge near our house when I was seven. I wasn’t supposed to go down by the bridge alone—it was small, but the stream it ran over was deep enough, and fast moving—but I went anyhow, usually on my way home from school. The bus dropped me off far up a private road, and I walked up the road all by myself, very adult-like, so why couldn’t I go walk by a bridge if I wanted to?
The girl’s name was Lilly, and she always wore a white dress. Crisp and clean cotton, with starched lace on the collar. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen—but then I was seven. She was so happy to see me! She’d ask me about my day at school and listen to absolutely anything I had to say, even something as silly as how Tommy Walker had stuck his gum in Myra Boning’s hair, and she’d come back to school with all of it chopped off. Mom didn’t like listening to those kinds of things, but Lilly would laugh and laugh, and ask for more stories. She was desperate for stories, she’d tell me.
Lilly was eleven, and she didn’t like to tell stories. When I asked about her family, she told me crossly that it wasn’t polite to ask personal questions, and when I reminded her that she knew all about my life, it seemed like she was going to maybe tell me, but instead she went down by the shore and started splashing in the water. She called for me to come down with her. I really wasn’t supposed to go down to the shore by myself, but Lilly called again, and when I still didn’t go, she asked if I was a baby, so I went. I wasn’t a baby.
Our days and days went back and forth. Some days we played in the stream, some days we explored the woods surrounding us, and some days we just sat and talked and talked. No matter what she did, her dress always stayed perfectly white. I was jealous because my clothes always managed to get dirty and wet, and I got in trouble for it. Lilly never did.
Mom knew I’d been down to the river, and sometimes she’d ground me for it, asking me why I would do something like that when everyone knew it was so dangerous? Lilly didn’t like it when I was grounded—she’d get mad, but she also wouldn’t stop getting me into trouble.
Some days I’d go looking for her but there would be other people on the bridge, fishing or just watching the stream. They’d shoo me away and tell me that I shouldn’t be there all alone. When I did find Lilly there after that, she’d ask me where I was, stamping her foot and telling me I was a bad friend. She’d never listened when I asked where she’d been. But then she was always happy to see me. I don’t know of anyone who’d ever been so happy to see me as Lilly.
I started to get older… eight, nine, ten… but Lilly never did. Part of me thought maybe she wasn’t real, but I could see Lilly. Her brown curly hair and her bright blue eyes. I wasn’t making her up. She still asked for stories, but she got jealous when I talked about the friends I had at school, so I’d tell her about the books I was reading, and sometimes I’d read to her.
The first time she scared me was when I mentioned that it was going to be my birthday in a few weeks. Lilly’s eyes gleamed. “When?” she demanded.
I told her it was October 3rd.
“You’ll come and see me that day, right?”
I hesitated… I told her I was going to have a big party at the ice-skating rink in town, then a sleepover at a friend’s house. I would be gone all day, all night. It was all planned.
“Why do you want to be with them?” she asked me, acidly. “You’re my friend, you should come be with me.”
“But it’s my birthday, and I can do what I want!”
I knew I’d made her mad, because she suddenly got very quiet. “Then you’ll come and see me the next day.”
I didn’t want to see her the next day. I didn’t want to be seeing her then. I told her I would, though, and her whole demeanor changed in the blink of an eye and she was brilliantly, perfectly happy. “Great! We’ll be best friends forever, won’t we?”
I didn’t answer her, but she didn’t mind, she just went on talking about how we were going to always have the best of times. All I could think of was how I liked my friends Gina and Rosemary better—I could swap clothes with them and trade nail polish and go to the mall.
And really, Lilly had never been a very good friend to me.
That was the day I stopped going to the bridge after school. Mom was surprised to see me home so early—she’d kind of given up on stopping me from going to the bridge, but she asked me what I was doing home.
“I don’t know… I have a lot of homework. I just wanted to get some of it done.”
“You usually work on that stuff down at the bridge.”
It was true, even though I didn’t realize Mom knew it. “I don’t think I’ll be spending much time there anymore,” I said, like admitting it out loud might break the spell it had had over me for years.
“Really?” Mom asked, surprised, then she said, “Well, I’m glad. I never liked you going down there. Maybe I’m silly, but all my life I grew up with stories about the little girl that fell off the bridge and drowned there… you know, she was about your age. Or your age in a few weeks, I guess. She died on her eleventh birthday. Her name was something… some kind of flower…”
That brought me to a full-stop and I stared at her. I’d always known there was something strange about Lilly of course, how she never aged or went home or got dirty, but I’d thought she was magic, some kind of fairy, maybe.
I’d never thought she might be dead.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me about that?” I asked, my voice coming out shrill and sharp—like Lilly’s, when she was angry. I clapped a hand over my mouth.
Mom frowned at me. “I thought I had. Are you okay, dear?”
I wasn’t, but I said I just wasn’t feeling well and went to my room to lie down. I never, ever wanted to go near that bridge again.
Lilly didn’t like my decision, though. One night, I woke up to the sound of crying. Lilly was sitting at the foot of my bed. I yelped a near-scream, terrified.
Immediately she was furious. “Why haven’t you come to see me?”
My heart pounded in my ears and my breathing was coming too fast for just waking up. “I’ve been busy.”
“I’ll come, I’ll come!” I promised, cringing at myself the minute I realized what I’d said.
“The day after your birthday you’ll come. Right? Promise? We’ll be friends forever. Don’t you want that?”
It was like I could see it in my mind. Lilly ecstatic to see me, pulling me to the top of the bridge, telling me to look down at the leaves falling in the stream, then grabbing my feet, pulling them up, pushing me over the ledge…
We would be friends forever.
I told her I would only come if she left my house and swore she’d never come there again—even though she couldn’t touch me here, didn’t weigh anything. She sat right on top of me without me feeling her, like she only had weight and baring when she was near that bridge. Still, she scared me here. She didn’t belong here.
The next morning was a Saturday. I woke up early and got some supplies out of the garage. It was barely light out, no one at home would be awake for hours.
I was very careful with the lighter fluid Dad used for barbeques. I used gloves to protect my hands, made sure none of it got on my clothes.
Lilly was there, but I ignored her. I put every ounce of my being into ignoring her, and on spreading the lighter fluid. She screamed at me, but I didn’t let the words penetrate. She grabbed at me, but I made her hands insubstantial with my refusal to acknowledge her.
It took three tries to throw the match just right, and Lilly couldn’t stop me—she was caught in the flames.
Two weeks later, they were still looking for the arsonist, but our town is small and the bridge was old… no one was very sad it was gone. The fall had been wet, and almost no damage to the forest had been done. And me? I got to spend the night at Gina’s after my birthday party, and I never saw Lilly again.