I was always an avid believer in living in the present. I never looked forward to the future, never concentrated on the past. But I can’t stop replaying that day in my mind.
The day that Claire died was hot and humid, her least favorite kind of weather. She always claimed it made her hair frizz. It was the Fourth of July, her favorite summer holiday. She had wanted to spend the day window shopping downtown and then watch movies at her place that night. “We can have a ‘just you and me’ day,” she said. “It’ll be just like old times.” And me, being the boyfriend wannabe, agreed to follow her around while she ogled shirts that didn’t cover enough skin.
So I picked her up in my beat-up car, and we were off. The doors had to be locked with the keys out of the car, and sometimes the back door didn’t shut all the way, but so many memories were made in that car – most of them involving Claire.
“Hey, I think you’re missing part of your shirt,” I said as she slid into the front seat. She kicked away empty noodle cups and soda cans and shot me an irritated look.
“This shirt is in style. If you don’t like it, go talk to the fashion designer.”
“But the fashion designer is just doing his job and providing clothes for the middle class to enjoy. It’s society that’s dictating that it’s appropriate for this outing.”
“Then yell at society, Tate. Yell at society.” I gave myself a secret smile and threw the car into gear, pulling out onto the main road.
“Your coffee, madam.” Claire’s favorite coffee was a creme frappuccino with three pumps of toffee nut syrup, three pumps of caramel syrup, and doused in whipped cream. It took me three weeks of carrying it around on a note card to finally memorize it, but I did. I memorized it for Claire.
“Ah, yes. I remember why I keep you around now,” she teased, smiling. Her teeth were impeccably straight, a result of the braces she suffered through when we were teenagers. I remember we got coordinating colors for Christmas. She got the red and I got the green because she didn’t want it to look like she had food in her teeth.
Claire and I had been friends since elementary school, when some boy tried to take her juice pouch and I yelled at him. I had received a bloody nose, of course, but she made up for it by hitting him back. I knew I loved her in that moment, even if I hadn’t really understood what love was then. We were together through all of her boyfriends, all of the heartbreaks, all of the good times. I was there through it all. I knew everything about Claire, and she knew everything about me. Everything except that I loved her. That was the one thing I promised myself I wouldn’t tell her until the time was right. I hadn’t felt compelled to, yet.
I swear we went into every store in those three blocks downtown. Every boutique had a complimentary “dude daycare,” as Claire so sweetly dubbed it. I became very familiar with all of those chairs as she took one item from each rack and tried it on, using the short dressing room hallways as her runway. The sun was in a different spot every time the bell chimed above our heads, signaling our departure.
Seated at an outside table of Claire’s favorite café, we heard that there would be fireworks in the square. Her eyes resembled those fireworks as she turned to me, practically vibrating with excitement. She didn’t even have to ask.
“Of course,” I said. I would have done anything to make her happy. “But we need to leave soon if we want to get a good spot.”
We got our to-go drinks, and she looped her arm through mine as we slowly made our way to the square, following the sound of voices. The sun set behind us, cooling the air. I was content in that moment, spending the day with the girl I loved.
• • •
My mother frequently quoted the French proverb “You often meet your fate on the road you take to avoid it.” In other words, when you take the long way around, that’s where you screw up. That’s where the bad stuff happens. It’s ironic, given my current situation. And now this quote keeps coming back to me. It’s the only thing that runs through my mind as I hold her.
The car came out of nowhere. The crosswalk sign still showed fifteen seconds as Claire dragged me across the street. She always had a fear of the light changing while she was in the middle of the road. Maybe the driver didn’t see the stoplight, or maybe he didn’t care.
Blood stained the pavement as her head connected. My fingertips went numb. The silver car flew through the intersection – through Claire – without stopping. Something inside me snapped, and I ran to where she lay motionless. The fireworks started above us as I reached her.
“Someone call an ambulance!” I screamed at the people getting out of their cars. I gently wrapped my arms around her shoulders and propped her head against my chest. Her eyes fluttered open.
“Claire? Claire, can you hear me?”
“Tate,” she whispered. I had to lean in to hear. “I need a favor.”
“Do you remember when we sang in the school choir in elementary?” She was taking short, shallow breaths. The color was leeching from her skin.
“Yeah. We sang ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ You had a solo. You wore a yellow sundress.” A ghost of a smile caressed her face. The memories were threatening to overwhelm me as tears rolled down my cheeks. A cut on her face dripped blood.
“Sing it to me.” I closed my eyes and prayed that the ambulance would arrive soon while dredging the words up from the depths of my memory.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” I started. My voice cracked and broke. I gently brushed a strand of hair out of her face.
“You make me happy when skies are gray.” Fireworks exploded overhead. Claire started coughing, and blood trickled from her mouth.
“You’ll never know, dear, how much …” I paused, letting a sob break free. “… how much I love you.” I looked up, to the multicolored bursts filling the sky. “So please don’t take my sunshine away.”
She flashed a peaceful smile and, one last time, I saw her baby blue eyes. Her mouth parted like she was going to say something; I bent over to listen, but all that came was her last exhale.
There was more after that, ambulances pulling up, pronouncing her dead, the cops trying to get my statement. But all I could think about was the love that was professed too late, the fact that I was unable to save her, to do anything. All I was left with was the memory of a little girl in a yellow dress and the words of a song delivering someone to sleep.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.