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“Hey Buddy,” I cheerfully chirped into my cell phone when I discovered it was my best friend calling. I had known her ever since first grade; she became my best in fifth.
“Hey, what’s up?” Christy’s voice sounded strange and distant, she hadn’t used her usual greeting of “Hey Bud!”
“Mm, nothing really, you know. What about you?” I didn’t go into detail because I knew something was up.
“I’m not doing that good.” I assumed it had something to do with her mom, or her boyfriend, or something trivial that of course is always a big deal at the time. Still, I followed her lead, and, right on cue, asked, “Why?” What came next was probably on my top five list of totally unexpected, shocking, crazy, completely horrible, things.
“My cousin just died.” She barely got the words out and I had immediately switched into panic mode; the entire Duncan clan was my second family.
“What?! Who?! How?! When?!”
“Yeah, Natalie. She was walking Angel. She got hit by a tree. This afternoon.” I couldn’t believe it. My mind flashed to this sweet little girl, not even ten years old… There. Was. No. Way. Just last summer we had been in the pool at Aunt Eaka and Uncle Dave’s house, swimming and laughing. Natalie had been teaching her dog, Angel, to ride the floats while she swam along side. We had hotdogs and corn on the cob that Uncle Dave made on the grill, and we had eaten apple pie for dessert. Natalie didn’t want to get out of the pool. I started searching deeper and deeper in my memory, trying to grasp onto something that would change what Christy had just said. Oh yeah, Christy was still on the line. I compressed all my thoughts into one word, a tiny “Oh.”
“Yeah, my Mom’s at the hospital. I think I’m going to go though.”
“Oh, okay. Bye.” As I hung up the phone I knew I probably sounded like the most selfish, uncaring friend in the entire world. I hadn’t said any of the right things, not even “I’m sorry,” or “That’s horrible.” I felt bad that I hadn’t and decided to make the Duncan family a plate of brownies as a way to show my sympathy. I’m surprised the even turned out because my mind was on Natalie the whole time.
The first time I ever met Aunt Eaka, Uncle Dave, and Natalie, I had still been in my “clumsy” stage. It was the summer between fifth and sixth grade. We had spent the day swimming in Aunt Eaka’s pool, and Christy, her brother Timmy, Natalie, and I had been doing cannonballs off the diving board trying to make the biggest splash possible to get the parents wet. I, being myself, decided to jump in right near the edge of the pool. I hit the bottom, hard, right on the side of my left ankle. It hurt, but I wasn’t about to cry in front of these people. Instead, I tried to laugh it off as I struggled to climb out; my ankle already swelling and turning purple. Mr. D and Uncle Dave had to carry me across the yard and put me in the hot tub because “the heat would help my ankle.” Natalie jumped in next to me, her eyes wide with concern as my ankle started swelling more. I just shrugged it off. When I got home that night, I wailed for at least an hour.
The rest of the week after Natalie’s accident was all a blur to me. There was a newscast, about ten or twenty newscasts. All reiterating the same information over and over again, “A local nine-year-old girl was killed on Tuesday by a falling, ice-covered tree.” I felt my blood boiling each time it was mentioned. I avoided the TV. Those stupid news crews were using Natalie to get their ratings up. There were even broadcasts in China. They had no clue who she was, or who her family was; they didn’t know squat. Those stupid reporters didn’t know that Natalie loved to swim, or read, or how much she cared about her dog. They didn’t know that she was Aunt Eaka and Uncle Dave’s world, or anything.
There were just thousands of results on google about that stupid tree.
Aunt Eaka is honestly one of the sweetest women I have ever met. She works at a hair salon and last year for Winter Formal she styled my hair for me at Christy’s house. Natalie was there, hiding in Timmy’s room, being shy. Aunt Eaka was full of stories about Natalie, funny ones, crazy ones, random ones.
“Natalie asked me if I thought she should lose some weight. I told her, if anything, she could stand to gain five pounds.” It was in a voice that said, “Can you believe she asked me that?” Natalie was always skinny. My hair ended up looking fabulous. I let just a few tears wet my eyes before wiping them away. I couldn’t ruin my makeup. Natalie saw me.
“You look pretty,” she whispered in a small voice.
“Thank you,” I whispered back. We got pictures, I said thank you a million times, and Christy and I, plus our dates, went to the dance. When I got back to Christy’s afterwards, my feet were killing me from the heels I had worn all night. There had been so many blisters I ended up sobbing myself to sleep.
Natalie’s visitation was on a Sunday. My dad went with me to meet the Duncans at the funeral home. It was packed; there were at least a thousand people there, and more were coming and going all the time. I found Christy, then Mrs. D, and gave them both hugs. Christy was sniffling.
“Thanks for coming, it means a lot to me.”
“No, I wanted to come. You guys are family.” I bit my lip to keep myself calm. I had to be a good friend; I had to be “the rock.” We went to see Natalie. That lifeless girl in the casket wasn’t her. Well, it was, but not how I remembered. I looked over to see my dad wiping tears out of his eyes; it affected him and he didn’t even know her. I still forced myself to stay strong. He decided to go, leaving me with the Duncans. Christy took me to a table set up that had pictures, letters from Natalie’s best friends and Christy and Timmy, Natalie’s latest report card showing all A’s, and a card Natalie had painted Uncle Dave for father’s day. I looked at the card about how Uncle Dave was the best dad ever. I read the letters. I felt a wave of tears; I didn’t push them back, I had run out of excuses. It was the first time I ever let myself cry in public.
It was a Tuesday afternoon and I was excited about getting a snow day. I spent the day lounging around, eating food, and basically doing nothing. I was admiring how pretty the trees in my backyard looked all covered in ice, when my phone started ringing.