Originally written in 2015; edited in 2020.
Caroline is not her real name.
I think I was in first grade when I first learned Caroline’s name. I’d raised my hand to answer a question, but the teacher called on Caroline instead. When the girl spoke, I noticed that she had a funny voice. I decided I didn’t like her.
Back then, an observer would have said that I played by myself at recess. They would have been right, but, also wrong. I spent every recess with a set of imaginary characters, having adventures in the fantasy universe where they lived. I had no idea that across the playground, in a different world and with a different set of characters, Caroline was playing the same game.
I can't remember who conjured the pivotal spell that caused our worlds to collide, but I know the deed was done on a warm fall day in second grade. Suddenly, Caroline and I found ourselves running from the same giant snake, which stood on its tail to loom at twice our combined height. Caroline used her magic to hold the monster at bay while I ran ahead and found a place for us to hide. And then we were sitting crammed together in a tiny niche under the playground, panting from our close escape.
“You play games like this too?” I asked, surprised.
“All the time!” she answered. Caroline explained the backstory of her world, and I shared some details about mine. We decided to play together every day.
I’d never had a best friend before, but it didn’t take long to realize that Caroline fit the description. Because twenty minutes of recess was never long enough for a full adventure, we had our parents set up play dates on evenings and weekends, where we’d spend hours wrapping up story lines together. Other kids in school accused us of being in love, but Caroline told me to ignore them, and I did.
Second grade was the last time that Caroline and I lived in the same town. In the spring of that year, my family moved from suburban New York to a new home in New Jersey, an hour’s drive away. Despite the long trip, I continued to visit Caroline about once a month, which was as often as I could convince my parents to drive me to her house. Caroline never came to my house. Her parents said their car was too old for long trips; my parents said that her parents were being weird.
When I did visit Caroline, we’d often play games on her computer. I didn’t play many video games back then, but Caroline was familiar with several—none of which were what you’d expect an eight-year-old to be playing. She was quite good at a pixelated war tactics game called King’s Bounty, which even at the time was noticeably very old. She explained the rules as she played, but I don’t think I ever understood them.
“It’s too bad they don’t update this game,” I recall telling her at one point. “They could make it look a lot better.”
She paused the game, and turned to me. “But look at it,” she said, pointing at the flickering monitor. “If it was new, it wouldn’t be the same. Everything about it is perfect.”
Bugging my parents to drive to Caroline’s house took a lot of effort. As time passed, my stamina waned, and our visits became less frequent.
During a later visit, in fifth grade, Caroline showed me a game she’d created with a set of dolls arranged in six groups. She‘d pilfered a spinner from one of her board games, and explained that depending on where the arrow landed, one doll would be forced to switch factions. Some groups would welcome the foreigner, while others would react with hostility.
“Which group is the evil one?” I asked as she flicked the spinner.
“None of them,” she said. “Or, maybe all of them. It depends. When the dolls move, the balance of power changes. Everyone acts differently when they’re in power.”
I left Caroline’s house that day absolutely convinced that I knew a future famous author. Not of the conventional adventure books I liked, but of literature—the stuff we were just beginning to read in school. It was the last time I ever visited Caroline‘s house.
I didn’t see Caroline again until eighth grade. It began with a call from her family. They had a better car now, they said, and they wanted to come visit. My parents asked if I wanted Caroline to visit, and I said that I did. I wondered what she’d be like now.
Caroline came. We sat, and talked, and walked around the house and yard. We didn’t go on any imaginary adventures. Before leaving, Caroline’s parents reiterated that they had a new car and could visit more often. After they left, my parents asked whether I wanted Caroline to visit more often. I gave a noncommittal answer. I liked Caroline, but we couldn’t play the same games we used to, and maintaining connections with a friend who lived so far away didn’t seem worth the effort. It was the last time I ever saw Caroline.
On a hot day in late August, the summer after I’d graduated from high school and a few days before I was set to leave for college, my family was visiting with some old friends from before we’d moved. As the sun began to set over the trees, the mother of a girl I’d known in preschool pulled me aside.
“I just wanted to let you know,” she said, “because I know you and Caroline were close at one point. Caroline committed suicide a few days ago, during her first day of college at Columbia. She jumped out her dorm room window.”
At the time, this news didn’t affect me much. I hadn’t seen Caroline in years, and besides, I was about to embark on my own college adventure. I didn’t really know her anymore, I told myself.
Six months later, a couple hours after midnight, I lay in a bed in my own dorm room, playing with a new phone instead of sleeping. It had been accidentally synced with an old email address book, and I was deleting the erroneous contact entries that had appeared. I was approaching the end of the list when I came across Caroline’s name.
I froze, staring blankly at the small screen in my hand—a single source of light within the blackness of my room. “Caroline Williams” read the contact card, above an email address and a phone number. Caroline. The girl I’d stopped being friends with because it was too much fucking effort.
I deleted the contact, dropped the phone on the floor, and cried into my pillow.