“JANELLE IS YOUR best friend, Dana. We should go.”
Dana stood at the bottom of the stairs. She looked over at her dad, who was waiting in the hallway, truck keys in hand.
“I went already, with Grandpa, remember?”
“I know. But that was weeks ago. The truck’s all fixed now and—”
“For now,” Dana said with a half smile. “It’s such a long way, Dad. I think we’d better take it easy on that old truck. You need it for work.”
After being laid off from the factory all winter, Dana’s dad had started his own lawn-care business back in April. He’d been so busy all summer he didn’t have time to take Dana to the library or the swimming pool, let alone drive to the children’s hospital an hour away to see Janelle. Dana’s mother didn’t have a car. She was intense about doing her part to save the environment and always took the bus to work. As a result, Dana and her brother, Dale, walked everywhere or took their bikes.
When Dana’s grandfather had come to visit for a week at the end of July, he’d taken her up to the hospital in his little rental car. He’d helped her find the right room. Janelle’s mom and dad and aunt and uncle were there, everyone talking in whispers. Nelly was pale. Her entire left leg was set in a cast and rested in a harness suspended above the bed. It looked uncomfortable. It also looked like it would be really hard for Janelle to move around, but maybe that didn’t matter because she was so very, very still. Her eyes were closed. Dana felt ill. Her heart thumped oddly. She wiped her sweaty hands on her shorts and took a deep breath. She was still trying to get up the courage to walk over to the bed when a nurse had come in and shooed everyone out. “Too many visitors,” she said. “This girl needs to rest.”
Dana’s grandfather had spoken with Janelle’s parents in the hallway outside the room for a few minutes while Dana sat on a bench. Then he took her out for a milkshake, but she didn’t really taste it. He told her all kinds of funny stories from his travels, but she only half heard them. “I know you’re disappointed about not being able to visit with your friend,” her grandpa had said, resting a hand on her shoulder. Dana didn’t tell him that she had actually felt relieved.
Over the next few weeks, Dana had tried a few times to call Janelle’s room. Dana’s mother had gotten the number for her. The first time she called, the phone just rang and rang, and that scared her. Why didn’t Janelle answer? Had something bad happened? It wasn’t like she could go anywhere with her leg the way it was. The second time, a nurse answered and said Janelle was with a physiotherapist. The third time, Janelle’s dad answered and said she was down at X-ray. He asked if Dana could call back in a half hour or so. “Sure,” Dana had said. But she didn’t. She just…didn’t.
All through the summer, Dana’s mother had kept asking her if she was all right.
“I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I mean, with what happened to Janelle and everything.”
Dana was puzzled. “It didn’t happen to me, Mom.”
“It did, in a sense. These things touch people in different ways.”
Dana shrugged. She didn’t understand what her mom was getting at. “I’m okay.” She knew everything would be fine again once Janelle was home.
Dana’s dad kept saying things like “Next week doesn’t look so bad,” or “I think I can be caught up in a few more days.” But it rained enough to keep the grass green and growing, and the weeds seemed to do double time in the heat. Then the truck broke down. It stayed in the shop for a whole week while Dana’s dad rescheduled with his customers and worked to catch up on his bookkeeping at the kitchen table. But now the truck was fixed. And even though he was swamped with jobs again, Dana’s dad insisted he would take the afternoon off so that Dana could visit Janelle.
“Dana, when your friend is in the hospital—”
“I hate hospitals, Dad,” Dana cut in. “They smell funny. And I hate all those tubes and machines and beeping noises. The whole place makes me feel sick. I’m not like Mom. I would make a terrible nurse.” She shuddered and sat down on the bottom stair.
Her dad sighed. “No one’s asking you to be a nurse, Dana.”
“Dad, Nelly knows me. She knows I think hospitals are creepy. Remember when Dale broke his wrist in the basketball game last winter and you and Mom and I brought him to Emergency? How you had to call Mrs. Murphy and Janelle to come get me because I was starting to look like more of a patient than Dale was?”
Her father laughed. “I remember.”
“And Janelle knows all about our old truck too. She won’t care. She’ll understand.”
Her father shook his head. “I hope you’re right.” He took off his good jacket and hung it back in the closet. Then he took his work jacket off the hook by the door and tossed it over his shoulder.
“C’mon, Dad.” Dana tried to make her voice sound light. “Chances are, we’d drive all the way down there and not even see her because she’d be busy with a physiotherapist or something. She’s working really hard so she can come home. And Mrs. Murphy told Mom they’re hoping Janelle will be at school when it starts next week. I’ve called a bunch of times, and I’ve been writing to her, you know, to keep her spirits up and keep her up-to-date.”
“Yeah. Of course. She’s my best friend, Dad.”
“I know.” He ran a hand through his wavy hair and then turned toward the door. “I guess I’ll see you at supper then.”
“Okay. I’ll start packing my stuff for the weekend.”
Dana turned around and went back upstairs to her room. She heard her dad drive away in the truck, and she let out a long, slow breath. Dana knew she should visit her friend, but she really hated hospitals and seeing Janelle there was just—sad. She wasn’t supposed to be there. It wasn’t the same. She wasn’t the same. Where was the smiling, energetic Nelly she knew?
Dana pulled some shorts and her swimsuit out of a drawer and stuffed them into her duffel bag. She rolled up a beach towel and a sweater and shoved those in as well. She was going camping for the weekend with her aunt Sandy. They went every summer just before school started. She pulled her sleeping bag out of her closet and then sat down on her bed and sighed. She felt angry with herself, but she also felt bad for not telling her dad the truth. She had meant to write to Janelle. She’d started more than once. She’d pulled out several sheets of the pink paper that she’d gotten as a birthday gift a few years ago. They were heart-shaped and smelled like bubble gum. But she couldn’t send that to Janelle at the hospital. Too cheery. And the regular lined paper she’d found in her desk drawer felt too boring. Like she was doing a school project.
Dana didn’t know what to say in the letter either. Janelle had been in a terrible accident. She’d taken her bike to pick up a couple of things from the grocery store for her mom. While she was crossing the street on her way home, a car missed the red light completely but hit Nelly straight on. She’d been at the children’s hospital for six weeks already. When Mrs. Murphy had first called to tell Dana’s mother the news, she was crying. She wasn’t even sure Janelle would make it. There were no visitors allowed then. Now everyone was sure she would be all right, but they didn’t know how her leg would heal.
What was Dana supposed to write after Janelle had been through something like that? Should she keep her up-to-date on summer soccer? She’d just be reminding her of all the games she couldn’t play. Should she tell her they’d put in a new diving board at the pool? She’d just be reminding her that she couldn’t swim. Should she tell her she’d worked at Emerald Acres for two weeks picking beans? She’d just be reminding her of all the money she didn’t make, money they were both hoping to use for back-to-school stuff. She could tell her she’d finally gotten her braces two weeks ago and how annoying it was when toothbrush bristles got caught in them or how awkward it was when her lip got hung up on them, but these things seemed like nothing compared to what Janelle was going through.
Dana did want to tell Janelle how she’d used her time in the bean field to do a lot of thinking, and that she’d finally worked up the courage to tell Jason Elwood straight out that she liked him. But that wasn’t something you wrote in a letter. What if someone else accidentally read it? No way. That was totally classified information. So Dana didn’t write anything. But she was positive Janelle would understand. She would know Dana was thinking about her. They’d been friends for a long time.
Summer was almost over now, and they could forget about everything and move forward. School started next week, and Janelle would be there and they could start grade six at Emery Elementary as if nothing had ever happened.
JANELLE WASN’T THERE. At least, she wasn’t waiting for Dana at the bike racks like she’d done every other morning since kindergarten. Dana saw a few other kids from her class. She smiled at Ben, who was sitting on the curb reading a book, and waved at Charlotte, McKayla, Avery and Allie, who were playing four square. Trey was hollering and kicking a soccer ball back and forth with Greg and Tyler. That boy had the loudest voice of anyone she’d ever met. Dana slid her bike into the rack and secured her lock around the front tire. She tried to flatten her windblown hair as she jogged around the corner, lugging a backpack crammed with all her back-to-school stuff. She wished her mom understood that kids needed a ride on the first day. There was just too much to carry. And how could she hope to look even a little bit cool when she had to put an elastic band around her ankle to keep her new jeans from being chewed up by the bike chain?