by Nathan Hall
Standard legal stuff: I own all the rights to this piece. All the characters involved are entirely fictional and entirely my own. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, real or fictional, is purely coincidence.
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I remember Martha until about second grade. After that, I must have outgrown her. I made real friends in my classes and had a real social life, real sleepovers. Eventually, I stopped thinking about Martha altogether. I hadn't so much as spoken her name in more than ten years.
Then, helping my mom move boxes down out of the attic, I found a photograph. One of those old Polaroids that you had to shake to develop. Faded, yellowed, curled at the edges, it was half-covered by a box. I recognized myself as a child, in a blue dress with black frills, my hair up in ponytails, tied with those plastic "gator" clips. My bare feet were black, my hands were sticky from candy, and I had a gigantic grin as I waved for the camera.
When I grabbed the photo from under the box where it must have fallen and lifted it high enough to see, I almost dropped it. A chill slashed through the heat of the attic.
Sitting next to me was another girl, in a pink dress with white ribbons. She had a small bag of candies beside her, and she seemed to have been caught popping one into her mouth. I didn't have to look to know they were Gobstoppers.
I held tight to the hand rail as I made my way out of the attic. My mother asked me what was wrong; I handed her the photo. Her face paled.
When I finally cajoled my mom into telling me the truth, I wished I hadn't. Wished I'd never found that photo.
Martha wasn't an imaginary friend--she was a real one. We met in preschool, and were best friends for years. She would spend a good deal of the summer's days at my house.
And I didn't simply outgrow her.
One fall afternoon, Martha went missing. She never made it home from school, her parents told the police. Somewhere between getting dropped off of the bus and their front door, something had happened to her.
The police searched frantically, but it wasn't until almost two weeks later that they found her body. An autopsy report revealed evidence of both physical and sexual assault. Even more than her death, however, what sent the neighborhood into a panic was that there were signs that abuse had happened over the course of months, even years. Unexplained, healed-over breaks, half-healed bruises in suspicious places, scars from cigarette burns.
It was discovered--corroborated in the weeks to follow by the witness of several of Martha's friends--that her father had been abusive, both to her and to the friends who stayed over. He was sentenced to life in prison, and many were upset that he escaped the death penalty by pleading guilty.
When I asked my mother whether I had stayed over at that house, she refused to answer. But I saw it in her eyes. Of course I had; I was Martha's best friend, and she was mine.
I decided not to look up newspaper articles of the time. To this day, I don't remember a single thing about Martha's parents or her house. All I remember are those summer days playing in the back yard, and the sound of Martha's laughter.