Chapter 2: The Early Years

At the time of Liana's arrival, I had two best friends from whom I was virtually inseparable. Feisty Lilly, with her shoulder-length dark hair, was every bit as spunky as I was, but reckless and daring in a way that far exceeded my own sense of adventure. She was apt to pick a fight with anyone, but less than wily in picking feasible opponents for herself, and though she often found herself on the losing end of a struggle she generally gave as good as she got, and rarely did her opponent walk away unscathed. The one second-grade girl I could never succeed in terrorizing, Lilly quickly became my partner in crime. Together, we were fond of pulling little pranks on everyone around us, and I don't doubt that we must have aged our teacher ten years in the single year that she had us.

Kara was different from the both of us in a refreshing way. Even back then, she was stylish and held the promise of a real beauty, with her dark, intense eyes, long lashes, and a silky mass of dark brown hair. She had the bearing and presence of a queen—there was a permanent bounce in her step as she walked and a movie-star gleam in her eyes that captured your attention right off the bat. Though not as tough as me or Lilly, she more than held her own, and commanded our respect to such an extent that we would never have dared to cross her. A behind the scenes contributor to our constant stream of mischief, Kara had a cunning and rambunctious streak in her which nonetheless never quite measured up to Lilly and my ruthlessness. Far more cautious and sneaky, Kara was always far enough removed from the trouble that though no one could ever decisively link her to it, and yet somehow her presence was felt in every prank that we pulled.

Liana simply slipped right into place, like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle without which the picture can never be complete. This is perhaps an overused analogy, and yet it describes to the tee the precise perfection with which Liana fit into our group. It was a perfect match, as though she was the link that made our group whole and united, the centerpiece around which we all revolved. In no time at all the four of us had developed a pack of highly devoted friends, each of whom would do anything for the others with no thought for themselves.

We ruled over the playground, forming our own sort of fierce, protective ring of friends. To say that we were loyal to one another would have been an understatement. Lilly and I once beat a kid senseless after she pushed Kara off a swing, and the unfortunate girl ended up with a broken wrist. Oftentimes we felt and acted more like the various, harmonious parts of one being than as four separate individuals. Revenge came swiftly and mercilessly to those who tried to upset the order of things, or who mistakenly thought they could push us around.

Early on, Lilly, Kara, and I sensed that Liana needed to be protected and cared for at all times, and within the group we formed something of a circle around her, shielding her from the cruelty and reality of the outside world and the meanness of the other kids, who laughed at her clumsy gaits and unconsciously loud voice. It was the unspoken agreement of our friendship, never voiced because there was no need to, but ever prevalent and always understood. Anyone who dared to say anything against Liana within our hearing was pummeled to within an inch of their lives. In those days I frequently came home with bruises and cuts all over my face from the multiple fights I took place in—much to the dismay of my parents, who didn't approve of that sort of thing. "Let her fight her own battles," they told me. "By always jumping in on her behalf you serve only to make her weak. You won't be there forever—sooner or later she will have to face the real world on her own." But it made my blood boil to hear the things that people would say, and as I was always rather hotheaded, my parents' words made little impression on me.

Our reign of terror only served to bring us closer together. Kara and I were the evil masterminds, and Lilly the one who carried out our diabolical plans. If we approached, the other kids knew well to scatter and keep clear, if we wanted to be in an area, it was ours. We were the unmistakable lords of the second-grade, and if the playground was our country, then the sandbox was our castle. We spent hours making it our own, decorating it with our initials to ward off all newcomers. We would chase the invaders and imposters away with sand and sticks, stubbornly persisting until we forced their retreat. Everyone knew that it was our area, a most exclusive clubhouse to which none could gain entry, and we were always careful to maintain that rigid protocol.

Once alone in our sandbox, we would chatter, play, and giggle, reveling in one another's company. It is the single most persistent memory of my childhood—the four of us sitting there, exchanging stories and fantasies and hatching our many playful expeditions. We spent hours drawing up friendship pacts, promising one another that we would always remain true. We swore that nothing—not fighting nor hectic schedules nor jealousy, and especially not—giggle—boys, would ever drive us apart or come between us. It was a promise that would hold us together over years of constant turmoil, change and confusion.

Being very private and exclusive in nature, not to mention domineering, we accepted almost no one even when outside the bounds of our sandbox. We were our own entity—we had almost no other friends, nor did we need them. To tell the truth, I think were sickened by the vain superficiality which came with so many of the friendships of our peers—even then we knew our friendships ran so much deeper.

We grew slightly more open-minded towards the end of second grade, enabling our group to extend a little bit farther outward. Even so, there were just two girls we accepted beyond our fabulous foursome. One was Alyssa—as beautiful and graceful as Liana was clumsy and awkward, and possessed of an air of self-confidence quite unmatched by anyone. She was all but joined at the hip with her best friend, Caitlin, a small, lively, and bullheaded character with a seemingly unlimited source of pep and vigor. In all of our schemes to cause havoc and chaos, we always left Alyssa alone, and gradually, as the only one exempt from our brutal line of pranks, she became graduated to the rank of friend. The two girls came as a packaged deal and though at first we harbored no great fondness for Caitlin, we managed to tolerate her presence out of respect for Alyssa.

I won't say that Alyssa and Caitlin fit right into our ring of friends the way Liana had—certainly they played no significant rule in our playground regime—but over time they were woven into the fabric of our friendship at the very seams until they became an intricate part of our group, though for a long time just shy of its true core.

But despite the intense closeness shared by our tight-knit group of friends, I always had the strongest bond with Liana. Through all those blissful years of childhood, she was without a doubt my absolute best friend. In her I would confide my darkest fears and my deepest secrets without fear of being sold out. If I was happy, it was to Liana I would run, skipping and singing, and when my parents got into one of their many fights, or my father walked out to stay at a hotel for a few nights, it was her shoulder I would cry on without fear of shame.

Ironically, though she knew every bit of my life down to the minutest of details, she never reciprocated with information of her own. Not once did she ever tell me about her own troubles—the ups and downs of life had seemingly little effect on her. If I was happy, she was grinning and laughing with me, if I was upset she was my single biggest comfort. She would pat my back—a little roughly, it's true, but kindly all the same—and glance up at me with her solemn blue eyes, lips curved upward in the very softest of smiles, telling me with quiet confidence that everything would be ok. And I would believe her, because things were so much simpler then, and my troubles would simply melt away into nothing and a minute later we would be laughing and playing like nothing had ever been wrong.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the company of my other friends, quite the contrary. Liana and I shared many wild, crazy times with our four friends, and the six of us grew up together like sisters—fighting frequently over petty differences but always making up, teasing and playful to the point at which we would sometimes offend one another—but always with love, cheer, and the best of intentions.

By the time we had reached fourth grade, our complete dominance over the girls of our grade was starting to wind down—but our friendships certainly weren't. We had learned perhaps a grain of subtlety and refinement, and no longer resorted to angry fistfights as a source of settling conflicts, but there could be no doubt that our sweet devotion and loyalty to one another reached new heights daily. The vanguard with which we had taken on ourselves to endow upon Liana was as prevalent as ever, and we continued to treat her as though made of glass—with the utmost tenderness and care, lest the slightest touch of reality sully her unspoiled cheerful demeanor and childlike perfection.