Better (2)

Updated: Jun 1, 2019



The next few days were hard, much harder than I expected. I went to visit Iz almost every day with the same result. She would always be sitting at her desk, working away on the rainy picture, and when I suggested doing something else, she’d refuse and change the subject. I couldn’t get her out of her room, and it didn’t seem like my visits were doing any good either. Isabel was shutting me out. She didn’t want to talk about anything. She just wanted to be left alone.

One week before school, Mom and I went shopping for school stuff. I was in a pretty low mood; we usually did our back-to-school shopping together with Iz. I was checking the price tag on a pair of jeans when I heard someone calling my name. I turned and saw Riley hurrying over, waving vigorously.

“Hey, Ashley! How’s it going? All rested up from the trip?”

“No, not really,” I said, glad I finally had someone I could talk to about my problem. “I’m really worried about Iz.”

I saw Riley take a deep breath, considering what to say. “How’s she doing?”

“I don’t know, she won’t tell me. I can’t get her out of her room. She just sits there all day, painting. She doesn’t want to talk or do anything.”

“She’s obviously still suffering. She probably needs to be distracted from her thoughts.”

“I know, I’ve gone over there every day and talked about everything I could think of, but she doesn’t care. She hardly even looks at me. And she refuses to go anywhere. I don’t know what else I can do.”

“Well, maybe she doesn’t want help. She probably wants to think of her dad without being interrupted.”

“But she needs help whether she wants it or not!”

“You’ve done what you can, don’t stress about it.” Riley said, linking arms with me, and we walked through the store. “Hey, listen, we were thinking about throwing an end-ofthe-summer party sometime this week. You should come.”

“I don’t know… Iz…”

“Just because she doesn’t want to do anything doesn’t mean you have to give up on life,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“I just want to find a way to get her away from her thoughts. I won’t feel okay until that happens.”

“Hey!” Riley stopped suddenly. “What if we threw Isabel a surprise party? She’d like that, wouldn’t she?”

“I don’t think so. She doesn’t really want to see anyone, and a party might be too much…”

“Yeah, but it might make her realize what she’s been missing out on and bring her back to the real world. We could invite all her friends, play her favorite music… she’d love it!”

“But how would we get her out of her house? I’ve been trying for a week!”

“We could throw it at her house! You’d go there first and keep her in her room while we got everything ready. Do you think her mom would let us?”

“Maybe.” I’d started to feel a little more hopeful. Maybe this would get Iz out of her shell. Riley’s excitement was catching. “I’ll ask her tomorrow.”

“Great! I’ll start organizing!” Riley pulled out her phone.

The next two days were spent planning the surprise party. I’d been a little anxious about asking Mrs. Dier, but she actually seemed happy and said she thought it was a great idea.

“If you need any help at all, let me know,” she told us.

We got everything together, and I was feeling good about the whole thing, silencing the part of me that kept whispering that Isabel didn’t want to see anyone. It would do her good to see people again, I kept telling myself.

And so the day came. I arrived at the Dier house two hours early, hoping I could get Iz to get dressed and fix her hair somewhat without her suspecting anything.

“Ashley! I thought you’d forgotten about me,” she said with a wry grin when I entered her room. I could tell she was being sarcastic, but it made me feel bad. It was true, I hadn’t visited her in three days, and it probably had seemed like I’d abandoned her.

“Sorry, I had a lot to do. School stuff, you know.”

She shrugged nonchalantly. “You don’t have to come over, really. I’m pretty sure you have better things to do than watching me work.”

“You know I love hanging out with you,” I said, even though right now I was feeling quite the opposite.

“Yeah, I’m sure I’m great company. Come on in, make yourself comfortable.” She waved at her bed that wasn’t made and had paper of all sizes strewn on it.

“You’ve finished the rainy picture?” I asked, noticing she was sketching something on a blank piece of paper.

“Not yet, I didn’t put the final coat on it yet. It’s still drying. In the other room.”

I went into the next room and saw the canvas lying on the floor. This was a guest room that didn’t get used very often, so Iz usually used it as her art collection room until her mom needed it for something else.

I sat down on the floor to get a better look. The picture was darker than I thought it would be. The tree trunks were almost black. The figure on the path walked alone, now I could make out that it was a girl, holding an umbrella. She was walking into the darkness. Apparently there were no lights further down the path. In all, it was a pretty depressing picture, but incredibly beautiful. She’d done a great job with the reflections; the wet path was colorful from the water reflecting the lights.

I went back to Isabel. “It’s amazing.”

“Thanks.” We spent an hour in silence, she working, I trying to figure out the best way to get her down to the party. When I finally looked at the clock and saw it was almost time for me to take her down, I hopped up.

“Do you want to watch a movie?”

“Not really.” She didn’t even look up.

“Come on, you’ve been sitting there all day, you need some rest. I won’t take no for an answer.” I went over to her desk, where she’d put down her pencil and was looking at me strangely. I pulled her to her feet.

“Come on, let’s relax. I bet there’s some popcorn in the kitchen. You’d better change your shirt, though. You don’t want to get paint on anything.”

“It’s already dried. And it’s my house, so don’t worry about me messing it up.” She pulled back, but I didn’t let go of her arm.

“What do you want to watch?” I asked, pulling her with me down the stairs.

“What are you doing? Let go!” Isabel wrenched her arm out of my grasp. By then we were halfway down the stairs.

“Surprise!” we were both startled by the sudden noise and more so by sight that greeted us.

I saw Riley, Ian and Nate, but their faces were almost the only ones I recognized. There were at least thirty people in Iz’s living room, and most of them I’d never seen in my life.

“What is this?” Isabel whispered behind me. I was wondering the same thing.

Riley and Grace, one of Isabel’s classmates, rushed over with big smiles. “Surprise!” they shouted again.

“Do you like it?” Grace asked excitedly.

“Ashley thought that since we couldn’t get you to come to a party, we’d bring the party to you!” Riley said, and suddenly the music turned on, but it was not Isabel’s favorite song or even close. People around us cheered, and some started dancing.

“Ash? You were in on this?” Iz spun around, looking at me. She was furious. “I told you I didn’t want to go out, and I didn’t want to see anyone!”

“I- I thought this might help you—that seeing your friends—”

“My friends?” She gestured to the crowd dancing around us. “Who are these people? I don’t know them! If you want to have fun and party, fine! But don’t drag me into it. I said I don’t want to see anyone, and I mean it. I don’t want to see anybody,” she said pointedly, looking me in the eye.

“But-” I watched as Isabel turned around and ran back up the stairs.

I looked at Riley. “Iz is right. Who the heck are these people?”

Riley didn’t look me in the eye. “I couldn’t get a hold of most of her friends. So I improvised.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“I didn’t want to bother you. But look around, they’re having fun!”

I gasped as a large guy I’d never seen before bumped into the coffee table and knocked over a vase of flowers.

“Get them out of here,” I hissed through gritted teeth.

Riley looked worried. “But they just got here.”

I strode over to the speakers and turned off the music. “Alright, everyone out!” I yelled. “Party’s over, go home!”

Everyone looked around, confused.

“I said the party’s over!” I shouted again.

Slowly people got the hint that they weren’t welcome, and the room emptied. Riley still stood at the foot of the stairs, looking bewildered.

“I can’t believe you did this,” I said, walking back toward her.

“I didn’t know this would happen!” she said. “I didn’t know she was entirely antisocial!”

“She might not have been if you hadn’t invited half the town into her house! She hasn’t been out in a month, and you bring a bunch of strangers to have a party in her living room!”

“I’m sorry, Ashley, okay?” Riley looked scared. “I didn’t want this to happen! I just wanted to help!”

“She’ll probably never talk to me again!” I started up the stairs. “I don’t know what to say to her. I have to apologize…”

“Okay. Listen to me, Ashley,” Riley said, grabbing my arm. “You can’t blame yourself for the way she feels right now.”

“What? I brought these people into her house. It’s my fault!”

“No it isn’t. You’ve been trying to help her for the last two weeks, and what has she given in return? She barely even looks at you!”

“She’s in trouble! She’s mourning!” I sank down onto a stair. “What am I going to do with her?”

“You heard what she said; she doesn’t want to go anywhere. Does that mean you shouldn’t leave your house? She doesn’t want to see anyone; does that mean you shouldn’t see your friends? Just because she’s stopped living doesn’t mean you have to! Friendship can only go so far. You both have different lives, and you’ve got to live your own.”

“But… I can’t leave her alone.” Tears filled my eyes as I looked at Riley. She genuinely looked sorry for me.

“It’s her choice. She wants to be alone, Ashley. You can’t let her pull you back and keep you from living.” Riley looked around. “Do you need any help cleaning up?”

I shook my head.

“I am really sorry about what happened. It’s all my fault.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I doubt she would’ve liked it any better if her friends had been here.”

Riley looked at me, concerned. “Don’t beat yourself up about this, okay?”

I nodded. After she’d left, I straightened up the living room (thankfully the party hadn’t lasted long enough to cause permanent damage), then I headed upstairs.

I stopped in front of Isabel’s room and knocked. I didn’t want to barge in. I didn’t get an answer, so I knocked harder. Still no answer.

“Iz?” I called. I tried to open the door, but it was locked. “Iz, it’s me. Everyone’s gone. I’m so sorry about all of this; this isn’t what I’d planned. Please let me in.”

I stood in front of her room for another 5 minutes, but she didn’t answer or unlock the door. Finally, exasperated, I left, not knowing what else to do.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well that night. The things Riley’d said to me kept going through my head. She was right; I should go on living. But I just couldn’t leave my best friend in her misery. She was a part of my life I couldn’t let go.

***

There were now four days until school started. I was lying around at home, when Mom stuck her head in my room. “Guess who’s here!” she said. I came out of my room and saw my big sister, Lauren sitting in the living room.

“Hey, Ash!” she said, standing up and giving me a big hug. I was surprised. She’d been gone all summer, working in Brazil, and wasn’t supposed to arrive until next week.

“I didn’t know you were coming home today!” I said, and looked at Mom. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Mom smiled. “I didn’t know she was coming home either.”

“I got off sooner than planned,” Lauren said. “I thought I’d surprise you all.”

“It’s so good to finally see you!” I hugged her again.

We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the couch, Lauren telling us about her adventures and showing us pictures of South America. Mom went to the kitchen to get dinner ready, and Lauren turned to me.

“So, what’s new with you? How did you like England?”

I told her about all the stuff we’d seen and done.

“And how’s Isabel?” Lauren asked when I finished.

I took a deep breath. “I don’t know. I have no idea what to do with her.” I told her about everything that happened since I’d gotten back.

We sat in silence for a minute.

“Have you ever tried to just listen to Iz?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “She doesn’t even talk. If I didn’t say anything we’d just sit there in silence.”

“So you go there, talk to her, and try to get her to do something?”

“Yeah, I try to bring her out of her room and get her back into the swing of things, but she’s not interested. It’s like her life stopped and nothing will get her to move forward.”

“Hmm. That’s really tough, Ash. I know you’re trying to do your best, and Isabel’s really lucky to have a friend like you. But I think you’re trying too hard.”

“What do you mean?”

“You want her to get over her father’s death,” Lauren said. “Of course she needs to move on, but it’s not that simple. It’s easy to say, and I’m sure she knows she needs to get herself together, but this isn’t something you can do by knowing what to do.”

“What can I do then?” I asked exasperatedly.

“Listen.”

“But she won’t talk!”

“Maybe she feels that you’re trying to pull her out from her problems instead of trying to understand them. She doesn’t open up because she doesn’t feel like you want to know what’s going on inside her.”

“I do want to know! I wish she’d tell me everything!”

“Then tell her that,” Lauren said. “Let her know that you care about what she’s going through and that you want to help her through it.”

I thought about what my sister was saying. She could be right. All this time I’d been trying to pull my friend out of her problems, not trying to understand what she was going through. I wanted everything back to normal and was putting so much effort into forcing her to go back to the way she’d been. But the truth was, things would probably never be the same as they’d been before. Something had changed, and it had affected Isabel very deeply. She was different. And I needed to embrace that. I needed to understand the person she had become.

***

I stood in front of her door, once again, not knowing what to say. I exhaled slowly and knocked.

“Yes?”

I walked in. Isabel was sitting on her bed, looking at old photographs. When she saw it was me, she threw her blanket over the pictures and stood up.

“What do you want?” she asked, crossing her arms.

“I wanted to say I’m sorry. For not listening to you. I want to understand what you’re going through, and I want to help. I know I haven’t done a very good job at it, but I’m here now, and whenever you have something to say, I’ll be happy to listen.”

Iz looked at me with a strange expression on her face, then flung herself back down on her bed. I stood there uncertainly, not knowing what to make of her reaction, so I sat down on her desk chair, and waited. We must have sat there silently for fifteen minutes, Isabel curled up in her bed, staring at nothing, me watching her, praying she wouldn’t keep me shut out.

“It hurt,” she said suddenly.

I started.

“It felt like you’d abandoned me.”

“But… but you said I should stay in London,” I said.

“I know what I said. But I didn’t mean it. I needed you, Ashley. I needed you so badly. I didn’t even realize how much at first.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, shocked.

“I don’t know. I was devastated. I didn’t know what I felt or thought. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to wake up and realize that the whole thing was a dream. But I kept waking up and kept having to tell myself every day that it wasn’t a dream. It had really happened. My dad was dead.” Isabel took a shaky breath but kept going. “I’ve never felt so alone. Mom’s dealt with this in her own way, she went back to work right away, and it looks like she’s perfectly fine from the outside. But I know she’s suffering as much as I am. She doesn’t know what to tell me or how to comfort me, so she stays away. Any people that I might have called my friends haven’t come to see me, after they told me that they understood and that if I needed any help, I should give them a call. What am I supposed to do, call them and tell them to bring my dad back? They can’t help. And you… you were far away, having the most fun you’ve ever had, without me. You don’t know how mad I would be sometimes when I thought about you, hanging out with Riley, flirting with cute British guys, partying every night. It was if I didn’t even exist to you.”

“I tried to talk to you, Iz. I just didn’t know what to say.”

“I’m not blaming you; what could you have done? What can you do now? I don’t know why I’m even telling you this.” She shook her head.

“But I came home and tried to make it up to you.”

“By then it was too late. I’d gotten used to the thought that I’d never see Dad again, I threw myself into art and tried to not think about life. By the time you came back, I felt like I didn’t need you anymore. I was doing fine all alone, and I didn’t want to relive my troubles again, especially when it looked like you didn’t even care.”

“I do care, Iz. I’ve always cared. I just didn’t know how to show it.” I grabbed her hand. “Forgive me. I’ve been a horrible friend. I wanted to help you so much, but I didn’t know what you really needed.”

Isabel looked at me with tears in her eyes. “I don’t know what to do anymore, Ashley. I don’t know if I can live like this any longer.”

The wall between us broke down. I put my arms around her and held her close while she cried on my shoulder.

“It’s… so… hard,” she sobbed.

We sat there like that for a long time, until she had no tears left to cry.

“I don’t know the solution,” I said. “but we can get through this together. I promise. It will get better.”

“How can you be so sure?” she asked me, looking up.

“Because you’re not alone. You’re never alone.”

***

The last day before school, I sat at home, reading a book, when my door burst open. It was Iz.

“I have something for you,” she said, holding out a big package.

She watched my face eagerly as I opened it. It was the rainy painting, finally completely done. But it was different from the last time I’d seen it. Now the figure on the path was not alone. Two people walked arm-in-arm under the umbrella, heading into the darkness, facing the unknown together.

I smiled.

© 2020 by Nancy E Wood