Her name was Emma.
That’s what everyone called her, anyways. Sometimes they would call her Em, sometimes someone would slip up and call her Emily. She was a part of our group of girlfriends growing up in a large town, not quite big enough to be a city but big enough that there was still privacy between neighbors.
We called ourselves the “Unbreakable Six,” because there was me, Summer, Mel, Nina, and Jules.
And there was Emma.
Emma started off as a practical joke by the other girls in the fourth grade. It was probably Jules that started it. She was always playing pranks of people. In high school, she even got suspended once for going too far, and had to babysit for hours to buy that girl a new cellphone. Or maybe it was Summer, who always seemed too busy with music and band to think of such an elaborate prank. Or maybe it was Mel and Nina, who were best friends and could have lived without us, always conspiring together like they were twin sisters.
Either way, I bought my lunch, cold cut sandwich and carrot sticks and a pint of orange juice (I couldn’t stand milk; it would account for how short I ended up being) and walked over to our lunch table. Jules looked excited, waving me over to them.
“Lotte! Look!” I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be looking. “This is Emma. She moved here from Los Angeles!” We lived far inland and into the boonies. Los Angeles was glitzy and glamorous and chic compared to the flat houses and half-rate high school football that was the only real source of entertainment in the area.
“Los Angeles, dummy,” Jules said, rolling her eyes. “She’s not in our class, she’s in Miss Lark’s. But she’s the same grade as us. Isn’t that cool?”
I still wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be looking. I sat down with my tray uneasily, wondering what I was supposed to see. “Who?”
Summer jabbed me in the side. “You’re being rude,” she hissed quietly. Summer was all about rules and manners. “Say hi to Emma.”
I looked around our table, from Jules to Mel, to Nina to Summer, and back to Jules, who was waiting impatiently. I don’t know. I was weak. I wanted to fit in. I didn’t get it.
They seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief, like I was making everything awkward.
“Charlotte’s weird sometimes, but her brother has a Nintendo that he lets us play once in a while.”
They kept on talking, chatting about whatever fourth grade girls chat about, and I ignored it. If they wanted to play that prank, then that was fine. I wasn’t going to buy into it. I was always a precocious child; I knew that what they were looking for was a reaction.
That’s how Emma became a normal part of our lives. It was crazy. We would buy her birthday presents, and they’d disappear like they were taken. I wonder how many candle making kits and Mancala games Jules had piling up in her closet after all these birthdays. One year, Mel even got Emma a really nice necklace, and that disappeared, too.
We never went to Emma’s house. I asked Nina about it when I was sure that “Emma” wasn’t there.
She gave me this scandalized look. “Lotte, don’t be rude. Emma’s family doesn’t have that much money. She’s embarrassed to let us come over. She told Mel that, and Mel told me, and it makes sense. I mean, look at what she wears all the time… I mean, we still love her. We’ll always love her. She’s one of us. But don’t rub in the fact that we can’t go to her house. That’s mean.”
After I was scolded so whole-heartedly by Nina, I didn’t ask again. They were covering their bases really well, and by seventh grade, I had to accept that they were taking this prank all the way.
It was weirdly comforting in a way. There was this silent friend that I never saw, but she was always around. We would leave seats open for Emma, and when we practiced the buddy system, someone always had her. On many occasions I watched as my friends, allegedly partnered with Emma, walked into a bathroom by themselves. When we decided that we wanted to be lame and come up with a name for our group of friends, we decided on the Unbreakable Six, even though there were really only five of us.
I was curious in sophomore year of high school when we were having a sleepover. Summer was at band practice until late in the day, and Emma couldn’t make it, as she had to “work on her science project,” according to Mel. So I asked Jules, the likely mastermind behind the entire hoax, “If you were going to write a story about Emma, like her biography, how would you describe her? Down to every detail.”
Jules loved stuff like that. She wanted to be a writer someday. “Well, she’s taller than you, which isn’t hard.” I threw a pillow at her that she dodged deftly. “She’s got a medium build—” Jules dropped her voice to a whisper, “—even though she gained a little weight recently, but we’re not gonna tell her, and she’s still beautiful.
“And… she has green eyes and brown hair, and she’s got freckles. She hates getting her picture taken. She’s nice, but quiet, and she dances really beautifully, I mean, you’ve seen her, right?”
I thought back to the time a few months ago when we turned on some music and danced around together to practice dancing at homecoming, so that we wouldn’t look weird or do it wrong when the time came. We stopped after a while and ooh’ed and ahh’ed at empty space for a while.
After that point, I didn’t ask any more questions. By then I’d realized my friends intended to keep up the charade for as long as they could manage, and there was no use fighting it.
* * * * * *
It was in our senior year of high school that it happened. I don’t know why it set me off, not really. It was something little, something stupid. We were hanging out in Nina’s pool, even though it was still too cold to swim. Teeth chattering and goosebumps rising on our skin, we were waiting for the nearby Jacuzzi to heat up to jump in. The cold sunlight cast a long shadow, and the wine coolers we’d snuck earlier were making that shadow seem menacing. It annoyed me for reasons I couldn’t quite place.
“Look at Emma, Lotte!” Jules called. She wolf-whistled and hooted, over the top, like Jules always was. “Hot mama! Look at that booty!”
I didn’t know where to look, like always. Like for the past nine years of my life, I didn’t know where to look. Since the fourth grade at our lunch table, dancing in Summer’s living room, homecoming, football games, at the park, in class, anywhere, I didn’t know where to look, because Emma wasn’t there.
That’s when I finally snapped.
“To hell with Emma!” I screamed. “And to hell with all of you! Have you been waiting for this, the moment I completely lose my mind?! Well, here it is!” I waved my arms around, manic and furious. “Emma. Isn’t. Real. Emma isn’t real!”
I looked at their confused faces. “Oh, you’re gonna keep this up? Well, you know what? I hate you guys! You’ve always done this, making me the butt of your stupid prank for almost ten years, guys! Ten years!” I slipped a little on the wet concrete but regained my balance. “Screw you! I hate you so much!” Tears welled up in my eyes as years and years of pent up frustration finally spilled over.
“Emma was some stupid prank that got out of hand, and I can’t believe that none of you ever had the balls to tell me that it was a stupid prank! No, it had to keep going; you had to keep laughing behind my back! It’s not fair!”
Summer was furious. “Lotte, don’t you dare be this way! Emma is right there and you’re being a bitch! Why are you doing this? Are you mad?”
Mel spoke up in a tiny voice. “Lotte, you look hot, too. I mean, you look good in your bathing suit, too.”
“Yeah, but God, don’t take out your anger on Emma!” Nina said, rolling her eyes. Nina walked over to the side of the pool and reached out a hand, like she was rubbing someone’s back. “It’s okay, Emma. Lotte’s just under a lot of stress right now, figuring out where she wants to go for college.”
“Shut up!” I howled miserably. “Stop it, stop it, stop it! Emma isn’t real! She’s not there! How could you guys do this to me?”
They were starting to look scared. I could see they were really invested in the prank. I wondered what the endgame was. When were they going to start laughing, when were they going to jump up and say, ‘Gotcha!’
I had enough of it. If they wanted to play charades, then I’d play charades.
The next part was a blur. I don’t remember most of it, not even now. But I do know that I walked over to where Emma was and I kicked at the air, hard. Really hard. Then I heard a scream and I slipped on the slick, wet concrete and hit my head. There was blood everywhere. There was so much screaming, but I kept on kicking and punching and fighting until I blacked out completely.
* * * * * *
I came to a day later in the hospital. My parents were there, and so were my friends. They were pale and tired and looked miserable. My heart panged. I must have really scared them. When my parents left, Jules approached me. She took my hand and began crying. The others stared crying, too. “I’m sorry, Lotte,” she wept. “I’m really sorry.”
It was almost frightening, looking at the way my friends were. They were beside themselves in the privacy of the hospital room. I started crying, too. I wasn’t sure why, but I started stammering apologies, too, as if by saying we were sorry things could go back to being the way they were. “I’m sorry,” I cried.
Summer was the only one who didn’t look like she had forgiven me completely. She looked at me, eyes red and cheeks pink, and wobbly-chinned, and said, “Are you?”
I didn’t have to answer. The nurse came in to change the bandages on my head.
For the rest of the year, no one mentioned Emma. Emma only belonged to our tight-knit group of friends, so there was no mention of Emma. One time, a cop came to the principal’s office, and Mel and Nina were quick to drag us away.
After the accident, I withdrew from everyone. I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t go to Summer’s recital, I didn’t go to Mel’s birthday party, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t go to prom. I stayed home, and just stared at the ceiling, wondering what had happened. Emma was in most of my life, and now she felt like a ghost.
I graduated high school and left immediately to go to a university far away in southern California, where the weather was always perfect and the beach was a five-minute walk away. I started to recover. I realized that I was depressed after what had happened, understanding that my best friends chose a punchline over me. Unbreakable Six… yeah, right.
I got good grades, volunteered at an animal shelter and found a boyfriend. He was so nice to me, even when I got quiet when he asked about high school. He never pushed, just held me when I had bad days and made me pancakes.
It was four years later when I was about to finish up college when I ran into an old classmate from high school, in my apartment complex, no less. Her name was Annie, and it turned out she’d been living there the whole time and we didn’t know. In high school, she hung out with a different crowd than me and my friends. Most people did; the six—rather, the five—of us were a clique of our own, separated from everyone else. I wasn’t necessarily friends with Annie in high school, but still, we overreacted the way everyone does when they see someone they haven’t seen in a long time.
“It’s been forever!”
“Oh my god!”
I went to Annie’s apartment for coffee and saw that she was packing up her things. “Moving back home for a while until I find a job. Yuck.” I saw a thick book on the sofa. “Oh, yeah, that’s our senior yearbook. I was flipping through it after I found it in my bookshelf.”
I didn’t bother getting a yearbook. I didn’t have friends at the end of high school. But I was curious to see what I looked like back then, if I had gained or lost weight, if my skin had gotten any better. I opened up the first page and was instantly confused.
“‘For Emma?’” I read aloud from the first page. It was a dedication. My mind raced. Was there someone named Emma in our year?
“Yeah, it’s really sad what happened to her,” Annie said, handing me a mug of hot coffee.
I flipped through the yearbook, looking for any trace of Emma. Then, I found it. My heart stopped, and I felt my mouth go dry. My hands shook as I held the yearbook, looking at the photograph.
It was a picture of the Unbreakable Six. We stood with our arms slung around hips and shoulders, sticking close together for the photograph. There was Summer at the end, then me, then Jules, then Mel, then Nina, then…
I had never seen this girl before in my life. Never. But there she was. I can’t even remember getting the picture taken. But she was right there at the end. Green eyes, brown hair, muffin top, shy smile, threadbare shirt and ripped jeans, looking straight at the camera like the rest of us. She looked as normal as can be, just another teenage girl.
Annie looked over my shoulder. “Oh, there you all are. What did you call yourselves again?”
“What happened to her?” I couldn’t even touch her photograph. I could only stand there while my shaking finger hovered over her face.
Annie fell quiet. “Well, I guess you might not really remember that well, after your head injury. And you just kind of faded away from everything, stopped doing much at all. But Emma disappeared. Out of nowhere. The cops came by once to ask questions, but her parents were both poor and junkies, so no one really cared. Just another girl that disappeared.”
I left Annie and went back to my apartment, the one I shared with my boyfriend. He took one look at my face and started boiling some water for tea, and grabbed a blanket to throw over my shoulders. I pulled away from him and locked myself in my room. I stared at the ceiling. I was eighteen again, lost and confused.
The girl’s green eyes haunted me. Emma’s eyes haunted me.
I went on Facebook and found my old friends, my best friends, and I told them to please meet me back at home, that it was important.
I returned back to our big-town little-city, went to the newest Starbucks, and waited. They trickled in, one by one. Jules, small-time blogger who works at an Italian restaurant until she makes it big. Summer, brown and freckled from her time at band camp, where she coaches kids for their field shows. Nina, the hot librarian at our former high school. Mel, her belly swollen with her second child, wedding ring secured to her left hand by her high school sweetheart.
My friends were not the same, and neither was I.
I cut to the chase. I couldn’t spare a moment for small talk. “What happened to Emma?”
They exchanged uneasy glances. They knew this was coming. “Nothing,” Jules said with finality. “Emma wasn’t real.”
“She was just a trick,” Nina said softly. “She was a prank.”
I figured they might pull that. I reached into my bag and slammed the yearbook down on the table, making our drinks rattle and one fall over, spilling tea onto the ground. No one moved to try to pick it up. They stared at the yearbook instead. “Emma was real,” I finally whispered. “Emma was real. What happened to her?”
“Cut the crap, Jules,” Summer snapped. She turned to me. “Lotte, you killed Emma that day by the pool. You went nuts and kicked her, and kept kicking her, then you slipped and smashed your head, and you bashed her head, and she fell in the pool, and it was too late to save her and we had to worry about you and—”
“Summer!” Jules shrieked, swatting her in the arm. I was silent, absorbing what Summer had said.
Mel spoke up in a tiny voice. “Lotte… we weren’t going to let you go to jail.”
I looked up at my friends, tears running down my cheeks. “Why?”
Nina reached across the table and took my hand. She squeezed it, hard. “Because we’re the Unbreakable Six. We don’t break because one went crazy and another’s dead.”
I excused myself to the restroom and wept for what seemed like hours. It couldn’t have been that long, but there were angry knocks on the door from other patrons who needed to use the restroom. But I just sat there on the dirty floor, sobbing, until I had cried everything out.
I came out where my friends—my best friends—were still waiting. I sat down in my seat and faced them. “I want to turn myself in.”
There was an outcry of different responses. Summer seemed willing, ready to have me turn myself in to the police. Jules yelled out about them all getting in trouble. Mel started to cry. “You don’t have to,” Nina said. “You don’t have to. We got rid of all the evidence! We buried her far away where no one would find her.”
“I want to turn myself in,” I repeated firmly. “I killed her. I’ll tell the cops that it was just me, that I buried her. Tell me where she is so I can tell them where I put her. None of you will get in trouble. It wasn’t your fault.” I thought I had finished crying. I thought I had nothing left. But I choked out what I wanted to say for so long. “I never saw her.”
They looked at me expectantly.
“I never saw her, not even once. I thought… I thought it was just a big prank you were playing on me, and I didn’t want you to laugh at me… The girl in the yearbook, I had never seen her before. I just played along.”
Nina nodded. “I thought it was weird that you were always so cold to her. Like, you didn’t even acknowledge her.”
“She really liked you,” Mel said. “She thought you were so smart, that you were going to go out in the world and do amazing things. She would always talk about that.”
I felt as though my heart would burst. “I swear I never saw her. Something must be wrong with me, but I never saw her or heard her…” I cleared my throat. “Show me where you buried her.”
We got into Summer’s car and drove out far, into a park in a different city. The park was huge and overgrown, like no one had been there to take care of it in a long, long time. I got out of the car, and noticed a rusty shovel lying nearby on the ground, which must have been left behind by a worker long ago. I took it with me.
Jules led the way, deep into the park, deep through the trees, until we came to a small clearing. The dirt wasn’t fresh, and there were no markers or indicators, but the way my friends’ faces paled at the sight of the spot, I knew that was it. Emma was there, under our feet.
“I’ve gotta see her,” I whispered. I dug the shovel into the ground. “I’ve gotta see her.”
Mel didn’t want to see anything, so she and Nina retreated to the car. Jules and Summer found different tools, a hoe and a rake, and we started digging. Blisters rose and popped on my hands from the old shovel, but I kept digging as beads of sweat rolled down my neck and back.
The three of us worked together in silence, digging up our best friend. Suddenly, Summer jumped back in disgust, throwing her hoe aside. Jules did the same, stepping out of the hole. We looked down. Summer gagged, covering her mouth and nose, and Jules shook her head at the sight.
Me? I laughed and laughed and laughed, tears streaming down my face, laughing until it hurt, as I looked down into an empty grave.