Better (1)

Updated: Jun 1, 2019



I was having the time of my life until the phone call.

I was spending the summer with friends in London. For the first time in my life, I was on my own, and it was amazing. That night, Riley and I were doing karaoke when Ian tapped me on the shoulder. “Hey, your phone’s ringing.”

“Wait, I have to finish this song!” I yelled. “…and you’re gonna hear me roaaar!” we sang at the top of our lungs.

“It was your dad,” Ian said, handing me the phone when I finished.

“Hey, don’t start without me!” I shouted at Riley, and she nodded as I walked back toward the bathrooms. The bar was small, but full of people, and you had to yell to be heard over the loud music.

When I got out of the crowd, I looked at my phone. Three missed calls, all from Dad. Oh, no. Something was wrong. Why was he calling so late? I quickly called him back.

“Hi, Dad, what’s up? Sorry I didn’t answer. I didn’t hear my phone.”

“Ashley, honey, I need to tell you something.”

Something in his voice made me feel anxious. “Oh, no, Dad what’s wrong? Is everything okay?"

“Just listen to me. Something… has happened. I don’t know how to say this. It’s about Isabel.”

“Is she okay?” my heart sped up. Isabel was my best friend back home. I didn’t know what I’d do if something had happened to her.

“Her father was in a car accident.”

“What?” I gasped. My head spun, not comprehending my dad’s words.

“Isabel’s father passed away today, Ashley.”

I felt like I was in a dream. This couldn’t be true. My best friend’s father was dead?

“But… how? What happened?” I choked out the words.

“He dozed off on the highway and drove into the other lane. There was a semi-truck coming from the other direction, and it couldn’t stop. He died instantly.”

I didn’t know what to say. A million things flashed through my mind, Isabel’s dad telling us silly “dad-jokes,” he letting us ride in his big truck and talking about all his travels, bringing Isabel something after every trip... “Is Iz okay? Did you talk to her?”

“Her mother called. Mom’s over there now.”

“Daddy, I need to go home, now! I have to be there for her!”

“I don’t think there’s much anyone can do for her, Ash.”

“But I need to talk to her! She needs someone that cares!”

“You can call in the morning. But I don’t think you should come home. You’ve been waiting for this trip for months, and the Dier family is going to need some time to heal.”

“I don’t know, Dad, I’d feel terrible knowing that she’s suffering all alone for another month.”

“Think it through, honey. If you feel like you need to come home, we won’t stop you. But I don’t think you’ll be able to help much here.”

I stood there, leaning against the wall for a long time, wondering what to do. I could vaguely hear the laughter and shouts from the pool table. It felt like forever before Riley and Ian spotted me and walked over, looking concerned.

“Where were you?” Riley asked. “You’ve been gone like half an hour. We were getting worried.”

“Umm, I got a call from home.” I said, shaking my head, trying to clear my mind. I looked at them. “Isabel’s father… died today.”

Riley clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry.”

Ian put his arm around my shoulder and led me outside, while Riley grabbed our stuff.

Nate showed up a minute later, and we all got in the car and drove back to the student hostel.

No one was back there yet, and I sat in our room alone, my mind spinning. How could something like this happen? There was no way I was waiting ‘til tomorrow to call Iz. I grabbed my phone and called her even though I knew it would cost me a fortune. She didn’t pick up. I wrote her a text that said:

Iz, I’m so sorry! I wish I could be there with you right now and give you a hug! I love you and I’m praying for you! Xoxo, Ash.

I heard voices from the hall, and Riley walked in.

“Are you okay?” she asked me.

I nodded, still holding my phone. “I need to go home.”

“What?”

“She needs me.” I turned and looked at her. “I have to go home.”

“Ashley, you can’t go.” Riley sat down beside me. “We’re having so much fun! We’ve been dreaming about this summer for forever! I agree it’s tragic, what happened to Isabel’s dad, but you can’t bring him back, and that’s the only thing that would help them right now.”

“Dad says I should stay too, but…”

“He’s right. Think of all the money they spent on this trip for you. There are only a few weeks of summer left, we’ll be going back in no time. And we haven’t even been on the London Eye yet, that’s what you’ve been waiting for!”

“I don’t know. I should be there…”

“Listen, Isabel knows you love her, and she’d want the best for you too. She wouldn’t want you to go home either; she knows what this trip means to you!”

“I don’t know. You may be right… I don’t know what to do.” I buried my face in my hands and rubbed my eyes.

“You need to sleep,” Riley said as she helped me get in bed.

As I lay in bed, I could feel the tears coming. I couldn’t imagine how my best friend was feeling right now. Was it okay for me to have fun while she was suffering? Wouldn’t that be selfish? I didn’t know what to do.

***

The next few days were hard. I got no answer from Iz, and I considered calling her, but knew she would’ve written back if she’d wanted to talk to me. Two days later, my phone vibrated during lunch, and my heart leaped when I saw I had a text from her. All it said was “Thanks.”

I jumped up. “I have to call someone.” I told the others. I could feel them watching me as I walked away. I knew they didn’t know how to act around me. I hadn’t been very sociable lately.

My hands shook while I waited for Iz to pick up.

“Hello?”

“Iz, it’s me, Ashley. Listen, I’m so sorry about your dad. I wish I could be there with you, if you want I can come home right away-”

“You don’t have to, I’m fine.” I could tell by Isabel’s voice that she was not fine, but I didn’t want to push her over the phone.

“Are you sure? Really, I wouldn’t mind…”

“No, it’s okay. You have fun. Don’t worry about me.”

“How can I not worry about you? You’re my best friend! Of course I’m worried!”

“I told you, I’m fine. You don’t need to worry. Thanks for calling.”

When I hung up, I felt horrible. Isabel was not okay. She needed me. No, she needed her dad. And I couldn’t help her with that. I sighed. Only three more weeks, and I’d be going back. She would survive until then—hopefully.

The next three weeks went by quickly. I had fun even with thoughts of my best friend hanging over me like a rain cloud. I didn’t talk to Isabel again after the phone call. I considered calling her every single day, but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to bother her. By the end of our vacation, I’d convinced not only my friends, but myself, too, that everything was okay.

The day of departure finally arrived. I felt kind of sad to leave the beautiful city with its rich history and wonderful monuments. There was so much I still hadn’t seen, even after two months.

“Ashley, guys, over here!” Riley called as we lugged our suitcases into the airport. She held out her phone, and we gathered around. “Our last picture in London! Gosh, I’m gonna miss it!”

Sitting on the plane, I thought through this summer. This was the first time in years I hadn’t spent my summer vacation with Isabel. She and I had been inseparable since first grade. We did everything together. It even got on people’s nerves. It was as if I couldn’t go anywhere without her coming with me. Riley always asked me if I ever got tired of her. I always told her I could never get tired of Iz. We were best friends forever.

Isabel lived in her own little world. I was always amazed by how much fun she could have alone. She loved to draw and paint. She could work on a drawing for days without leaving her house, feeling completely content. She was friendly but had few real friends. She didn’t let people into her world easily. But once in that world, you were in for good. I was one of those privileged people who she allowed in. The two of us had so much fun; everything we did together was an adventure.

Going to London had always been a dream of mine, and Iz knew that. So when the opportunity presented itself, she didn’t try to stop me. We both wanted her to come too, but her parents couldn’t afford it. She had also gotten a summer job, so it worked out pretty well. It was hard saying goodbye knowing we wouldn’t see each other for two months, but we promised to talk every day.

Riley seemed overjoyed to finally get me alone for once. I had a feeling she didn’t like Iz as much as I did. And I admit, after a few days of being in London, I enjoyed the freedom of being with different people. By hanging out with Riley and her boyfriend, Ian, I got to make a lot of new friends. But since the night Dad called me with the news, I knew my place was back with Iz. I decided I’d go visit her as soon as I could.

***

I stood in front of her house. I couldn’t get my feet to move. I was scared and didn’t know what to expect. It had taken me a day to get settled back home before my parents let me come and visit Iz. I’d been so anxious to see her, but now that I stood there looking up at her window, the light shining through invitingly, I was nervous. What would she be like? We hadn’t talked in almost a month. Did she cry all the time? Was she curled up in bed, staring into space? Did she want to see anyone? Did she want to see me? What would her mom be like? That thought crossed my mind suddenly, and I almost turned around and headed back home. Mrs. Dier had always been very friendly and let me stop by whenever I wanted to, but now, with so much on her mind, would she be happy to see me? Or would I just be a nuisance?

I took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. My heart pounded in my chest. Why had I come? Isabel obviously didn’t want to see me…

Mrs. Dier opened the door. “Ashley! Come in, it’s so good to see you!” She was pale and looked like she hadn’t slept for a long time. She’d lost a lot of weight too, and there were bags under her eyes. But she smiled at me and gave me a hug.

“How was your trip?” she asked as I walked inside.

“Good, thanks.” I said nervously. I didn’t want to sound too happy, but I knew most people didn’t like pity, so I tried not to act too sad either. “How’s Iz?”

“She’s… doing okay.” Mrs. Dier tried to smile again, but looked worriedly up the stairs. “She doesn’t come out of her room much, but I’m sure she’ll be glad to see you. Go on up.”

“Thanks.” I said, mounting the stairs.

I knocked lightly on the door and entered my best friend’s room. There she was, sitting at her enormous desk, surrounded by drawings. She was painting something colorful, headphones on, humming. Her long brown hair was in a messy ponytail, almost touching the wet paint on the desk. She had on her old painting T-shirt she always wore when she was in the middle of a masterpiece. She looked the same as when I’d left her. I’d seen her this way a hundred times. She didn’t look like she was grieving; on the contrary, she seemed at peace.

When she looked up, her face froze, as if she didn’t know how to react to the fact I was standing in her room.

“Hi,” I said with a small smile. “I’m back.”

Isabel sat there, looking at me. I couldn’t tell what was going on in her head. I’d expected her to run into my arms and cry on my shoulder, but she just gave me a halfsmile.

“Hi.” She turned back to her work.

I stepped timidly closer. “What are you working on?”

“A rainy park,” she said without looking up. “I can’t get the reflection to look right.”

I looked around. Her desk was covered with colorful drawings and paintings, pastels and watercolors everywhere. She’d either had a lot of spare time this summer, or had been extremely busy. More like obsessed. I looked at what she was working on. It was a path lined with trees and streetlights on either side. It was dark, but the streetlights cast a bright glow that lit up the path. The trees that surrounded the path were colorful, the leaves all different colors, dark greens, oranges, even blues. The puddles reflected the colorful light. I could barely make out a dark figure that was walking down the path, alone.

“It’s beautiful,” I told her.

She waved. “It’s nowhere near done.”

I sat down on her bed. “How are you doing?”

“I’m fine.” She shrugged. “I’ve been very inspired lately. I’ve been trying out some oil paint techniques. They’re turning out pretty good.”

“But, I mean, how are you feeling about what happened?”

She shrugged again. “It’s not that bad. I try to keep busy.”

“Do you ever go out?”

“No, I prefer staying at home.”

“Do you want to go do something? I mean, we have two weeks till school starts; we need to have fun while it’s still summer.”

She took a deep breath and looked at me. I wondered what she was going to say. Maybe I shouldn’t have said “fun.” She was probably mad at me now. But she smiled a sad smile, and said, “That’s okay. I’m sure you’ve already had a lot of fun anyway.”

“Well, we could go to the mall, I heard there’s a new coffee shop there, and we could people-watch. Or we could go to the lake and feed the ducks. They’ve probably been missing us.”

Isabel turned around. “I really don’t feel like going out. I have what I need here at home.” She stood up. “I need to wash up.”

“Uh, okay. I should probably be going anyway. Mom wanted me home for dinner.”

We walked out into the hall in silence and stood there awkwardly. “I guess I’ll see you soon.” I said. “It’s okay if I come over, right?”

“Sure,” Iz said, tugging on her paint splattered shirt.

I reached out and gave her a hug. She stood stiffly and kind of put an arm around me. “You’re going to get paint on yourself,” she murmured.

“Oh, sorry,” I said, stepping back. “Bye, then.”

“Bye.”

I walked home, feeling strange. I’d never felt so awkward around Isabel before. Like there was an invisible wall between us that I couldn’t get through. She was obviously still grieving for her father, and she’d locked herself away from the world. She needed someone to break her out of her room. She just needed some motivation, someone to give her a push. And I would be that someone.

© 2020 by Nancy E Wood