It is Saturday morning and I am laying belly-down on my bed reading Seventeen magazine.

"Jenny? Could you please come downstairs for a moment?"

Even divided by 2 flights of stairs, I can hear from my mother's voice that something is up.

When I reach the living room, my father and brother look over at me, and then turn away a bit too quickly. I follow my mother's forefinger to the newspaper she is cradling in the crook of her arm and see a photograph of my friend, Alisha Cohen*, next to the headline "Baltimore Honor Student found Dead." Only then do I notice that my mother is crying.

I have never known anyone who has died An electrical surge breaches the levees that have been guarding my heart, my self, for all of my 14 years on the planet. All I feel is shock. But even this I don't "feel." It just is. Like a TV gutted and burnt to a crisp during a lightening storm.

My whole family waits and watches for my reaction. I am experiencing test anxiety, all eyes upon me. What are we going to do now? We need to do something. "Let's go to shul," I say with a firm resolve that I don't feel even one little bit.

In the car, my mother and I are silent until we reach the highway. After she merges, my mother peeks over at me. "When did you last hear from Alisha?" she asks. As I answer her, I feel as though my mom and I are playing ourselves in a movie. I see myself responding from the third row as I chomp on popcorn. This isn't really happening. It can't really be happening.

I have never known anyone who has died, and here death has come upon us; my mother and I can hear it breathing, gasping, sputtering behind us from the back seat of the Toyota.

I first met Alisha when she came over to introduce herself to me, the new girl in the class, one fall morning on our school playground during 4th grade.

"Do you know why my name is Alisha?" She asked me as we swung back and forth in synch, the swings squeaking for grease. "Because Alisha means 'truth.' And I always tell the truth," and then she flashed me a big toothy smile. I liked Alisha's loud laugh, the way she talked like a grown-up, her green and orange striped Izod shirt and Kermit green corduroy pants.

As the years passed, Alisha and I became good friends. In junior high school, most nights we would talk on the phone about diets and grades and boys. Once in 7th grade, Alisha received a B plus on a test, and she could not stop crying. I told her that if I had gotten a B plus, I would be jumping for joy. But I knew already that for Alisha, anything less than absolutely perfect was a total failure.

In the winter of 8th grade, Alisha fell in love with a boy from another prep school who was not interested in her. One night during our nightly phone call, Alisha told me through sobs that if Jason didn't love her, her life was worthless. She was going to kill herself.

I rushed to my mom, who called Alisha's mom, but it was already too late. Alisha had already swallowed a whole bottle of pills she had stockpiled.

There was only one public phone in the entire adolescent psychiatric ward, and during the months she spent there, I would spend hours every night trying to get through to Alisha. But the phone was busy 24 hours a day. When I did get through to Alisha, once every few days, she sounded dazed. She didn't sound like Alisha.

Alisha returned from the psychiatric ward almost unrecognizable in a heavy metal t-shirt, skin-tight acid-washed jeans, and heavy black eye shadow. Technically within the limits of the school dress code, but just barely. For all of ninth grade, Alisha would show up for only a few weeks of school at a time, but then, when she didn't show up to history class for a few days, I knew that she was back in the hospital again.

The summer before 10th grade, Alisha called me. The connection was really bad. "Where are you?" I yelled to make her hear me, "I haven't heard from you in months…"

"I'm at the Eastern Shore with friends." Alisha sounded distracted, fuzzy.

"What are you doing there?"

"Hanging out. Bad stuff happening here. You know, Jenny, you're the only straight friend I have left. You've got to stand by me." And then she cupped her hand over the receiver and yelled something to her friends. Somebody was cursing in the background. "Gotta go, I'll call you soon."

I am so scared But she never did call again. When school started again the following month, Alisha didn't show up for the first week of 10th grade. By the second week of school, we all knew that she would never be coming back.

My mother is reading from her prayer book, and I am staring up at the 5-story domed ceiling, the stained glass stars dangling down, the foggy windows overlooking the streets of downtown Baltimore.

The ancient songs in minor-key and the cavernous old sanctuary make me yearn for something I can't name, and I start shooting my questions at the dangling stars. What attracted Alisha to that dark world? Why was she so determined to die? Could I, should I have done something more?

I am scared. I am so scared.

Twenty-two years have passed since a nightmare came to life that Saturday morning. Today, Alisha's long shadow no longer casts darkness over my face like a black cloud stuck over the sun. Today, the open wound of pain, loss, and terror has completely closed over. Almost completely.

What remains from one of the darkest periods of my life is something strange, something I never would have expected: a rare gift that you can only purchase at the cost of thousands and thousands of tears.

Seeing death that close, feeling its bony fingers graze against my cheek at such a young age, has pushed me for the past twenty-two years to do, to build, to accomplish as much good as I can in this world until the clock stops ticking. To live, to live, to live.

Today I am old enough to be Alisha's mother, and more than anything, when I think of Alisha now I wish I could hold my old friend, this frightened, determined, sad little girl, in my arms and keep her safe from herself and the demons that plagued her.

Oh Alisha, if only I still could, I would hold you so tight and so relentlessly that the fiercest undertow, the highest waves, the strongest wind would never be able to pull you away from me again.

*Not her real name.