It would be the worst heat wave of their lives when the Lily and her college friends finally got their things together and decided to take a cross-country trip to California. They were staying with a high school friend of Linda’s just outside of San Diego, and they had planned on spending a week doing all kinds of stupid touristy things and nothing productive at all. But it was way too hot for that, so they had a change of plans.
The four visiting women and the two men who they were staying with were all crowded around the kitchen, occasionally opening the freezer to let out some cold air, and trying to beat the heat with different snacks and drinks that would keep them all cool. They were having a stupid conversation about silly things, but it was better than doing anything that actually required movement, or energy, or any heat creating actions.
Lily’s phone went off. She smiled at the phone and excused herself from the conversation to answer it. Since she was closest to the door, she just slipped out into the living room and answered the phone cheerily. The others in the kitchen continued to talk amongst themselves, all figuring when Lily was done, she would come back.
There was a small crash and everyone turned to look where Lily had been standing. Her phone was on the floor, and she was walking out of the kitchen. Everyone stared at the empty space in shock for a minute. Eventually, Lizzie, the closet to the phone, bent down and picked it up. The line was still connected. Hitting the speaker button, Lizzie said “Hello?”
“Lily?” The frantic voice coming through the speaker was Lily’s mother.
“Uh, no, Mrs. Jones. It’s Lizzie. Lily has—uh—walked away. Is something wrong?”
“Oh. She’s out in California with you girls now isn’t she? Is everyone there?”
There was a chorus of hellos from the surrounding onlookers. “Hello, all. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but—well, Lily’s brother is dead. He died sometime last night.” Mrs. Jones’ voice broke as she said it.
“Was it—“ Sami started to ask, but couldn’t make herself ask. Everyone knew what she wanted to know though. It was Lily’s worse fear, something that she had admitted to them in a drunken tear fest nights years ago. That her brother, who had been battling depression since he was sixteen years old, would finally give up and kill himself, and that she, their family, his friends, the world itself, had failed him.
Like the girls in the room, Mrs. Jones understood the unasked question. “Yes. It was. Lily knows that. Girls, please, please, please, take care of Lily. I know that’s not necessarily fair to ask, but please don’t let my little girl—“ Mrs. Jones voice broke again, and a sob came across the line. “I’ve got to go. Please have Lily call me back when she’s able to.”
They heard the front door slam. It was a heavy door that had the tendency to slam if left to its own devices, so they had to imagine that Lily hadn’t done it on purpose, but she was out of the house.
“She’s barefoot.” Linda pointed out.
“It’s, like, a hundred degrees out there.” Gregory pointed out.
James was already heading for the door, stopping to grab Lily’s shoes and sliding on his own flip-flops on the way.
The girls and Gregory followed behind James quickly, each of them actually knowing Lily a little bit better and a little bit longer than the last, with readymade instructions and warnings on their lips about how to deal with Lily while she was having a breakdown, hoping that they would still work in situations as extreme as these.
But they didn’t need them. James didn’t approach Lily, or try to calm her down, or make her put on her shoes, or any other of the other tricks they were prepared to warn him about. James followed behind her, three feet or so behind her as she walked. The group followed slightly behind him.
Lily didn’t seem to have a clue where she was going. She walked in circles at times, turning corners around blocks, but sometimes randomly veering off onto side streets. She did seem to have enough sense about her to not walk into the middle of traffic—stopping at stop signs, looking both ways before she crossed the street, things like that—but she never once looked behind her at the small crowd following her, or seemed to have any concern about the fact that her feet had to be quite literally burning walking across hot asphalt.
Whether it was her eventual intention or just pure luck, she found a park with a lake in it. She walked toward the lake. And she just stood there staring down at the water. Everyone else stood in the shade of tree, a couple feet away from her, awkwardly shifting on their feet, trying to decide what to do.
Finally, Lily sank down on the edge of the shore, crossing her legs, and pulling her feet up over her knees so that the bottoms were raised. James finally went forward and sank down on the shore next to her. Everyone else was so stunned, they lingered back. After a second of silence, Lily said as calmly as she could, “My feet hurt.”
“Yeah,” James replied.
“I want to go back to the house.”
“All right.” James helped her to her feet, and then scooped her up into his arms, one arm under her knees, one arm wrapping around her back, carefully avoiding hitting her feet on anything.
She wrapped her arms around his neck, buried her face in his chest so that no one could see her. James carried her back to the group and said, “We’re going back to the house.” In stunned silence, they followed him home.