There was once a chance I didn't take – I didn't save her.
Exactly one year ago today, I sat in this same blue plastic chair at this very same wooden desk in this dusty classroom that is now empty, but back then was full of half-asleep kids and a middle-aged teacher who didn't care anymore if they were listening. Apparently the seat next to me – according to what my sister has reported – is now assigned to a foreign exchange student, but a year ago it was left empty and remained that way until seven months after the funeral.
Last year was rushed, and indescribably painful. It was my junior year, which meant the start of looking into colleges and deciding what I wanted to do with my life. I practically collected planners, college pamphlets, and stress. Often, it would all come crashing down on me that soon I would have to enter the real world, that my childhood was officially over, and that I would have to learn to survive on my own. There were dark days where I shut myself up in my room for too long, ignoring the world, terrified that it was going to overtake me because how could I stop it? But the answer was that I didn't have to, because Dani did it for me.
Daniella Avery Scott was my very best friend since the beginning of my memory. She was one of the bubbliest, most positive and beautiful people (inside and out) you could ever meet. She laughed, and your ears would sigh with content. She hugged you, and a warmth that measly mundane words could never accurately depict would fill you from your head to your toes. She was the human embodiment of sunshine, which is exactly why she could brighten up even the darkest of my days.
“Noah, don't tell me you're fine. I'm not stupid so don't treat me like I am,” she would lecture me each time I put on a facade that was as transparent as glass to her, and each time I would apologize before spilling every thought and fear that was running through my mind. She listened with immaculate concentration and then soothingly spoke the exact words that I needed to hear, the exact words that kept me going. “Don't listen to what your good-for-nothing parents say. You'll get into a great college, okay? Probably ivy league considering how hard you've been working toward this. Your grades are amazing, your extracurriculars are out of this world, and all the volunteer work you've been doing will put you over the top. You've got this.”
“Thanks, Dani,” I'd croak out, trying to swallow the lump in my throat to avoid looking like even more of a wuss in front of her. “I don't know what I would do without you.”
“And you'll never have to. You're my Johnny, I'm your June, we'll always be together.” I chuckled happily at her promise, blissfully not knowing what the future held.
“How does someone like you put up with someone like me?”
“What do you mean 'someone like you'? You're great, you idiot – ignore the irony,” she laughed with a wave of her ring-clad hand that a second later ran through her ebony hair. “But Noah, listen to me. You're smart, funny, caring, incredibly ambitious, blah blah blah. And you're always there, protecting me no matter what. Your tendency to self-deprecate, however, is a bit tough to tolerate.” She grinned brightly, her forest green eyes smiling from her cheeks and I felt as if everything, no matter what happened, would be okay.
Months passed since that conversation happened in my bedroom during the middle of last fall, and around came March 15th, 2016 five months later. Dani and I had become frustratingly busy with studying for midterms and juggling that with our part-time jobs and other responsibilities, but we still made time to see each other at least every other day, usually by having lunch or a study session together.
“Do you have to work at the bakery tonight?” I asked her during one of our many study dates that, this time, took place at her apartment in which the walls were painted a horrendous peach color because it was her mom's favorite.
“No, my sister is going to some party later at the 18-and-over club downtown and she wants me to go with her. She practically twisted my arm until I agreed to it. What about you? Have anything planned?”
“Yeah, I'm going over to that Johnson kid's house to tutor him again. His brain turns to stone whenever it comes to physics.”
“Jonah Johnson? Are you only helping him out because his dad is the dean of admissions at Yale?” She arched a brow at me, suspicion thick in her expression as I tried to avoid her glare. I shook my head quickly. “Careful with those lies, mister. Burnt pants are a major fashion no-no.”
Hours later that night, I pulled into the wide driveway of the three-story monster of a house that belonged to the Johnson family. Just as I shut off the engine and got out of my old beat-up car, I spotted Jonah walking leisurely toward me through the gate opening, a smirk on his face.
“Change of plans, tutor boy. We're going out tonight,” he declared when he neared, his voice booming through the air. “Some buddies of mine have some pretty interesting things in mind for tonight.” I grabbed his arm before he could pass me.
“Dude, no. You're failing physics and I need the extra cash. Let's just go in and crack open the books, alright? You can always go out this weekend.” Jonah was clearly angered by my objection, jerking his arm from my grasp and pushing me back in response.
“Listen, man, do you want a good word put in with my dad or what?” I hesitated. For some reason unknown to me then, my stomach twisted as something inside my head screamed at me to say no, to get in my car and go home and stay far away from anything to do with Jonah that night. But then, an image formed in my mind of showing my parents an acceptance letter from Yale with my name on it and proving them wrong once and for all.
“Fine. Get in.”
Twenty minutes later, after listening to Jonah's directions, I saw the sign for the 18-and-over club Dani was talking about earlier that day. We pulled into the lot and parked, but instead of leading me to the entrance, Jonah took us to the alley alongside it where a group of teenage guys stood, whistling at pretty girls that passed them on their way into the club's doors.
“Oi! Took you long enough, Johnson!” one of the guys, the tallest and broadest one there, called to Jonah.
“Pretty boy here took a few wrong turns,” he answered, jutting his thumb in my direction.
“Only because you're an idiot who doesn't know how to give proper directions.” This made the group laugh collectively and my ego surged a little before Jonah sent a blow into my shoulder. We reached the dark alley and one by one I was introduced to each of the boys.
“Finally, last and most definitely least, this is Liam,” Jonah gestures toward the guy who hollered at him before.
“Johnson mentioned you were looking for a little extra dough?” Liam prompted, leaning back against the brick wall of the club with a twisted smile on his face. I nodded apprehensively. “Well we can probably help you out with that.”
“Watch and learn.” He turned his head as a group of four girls passed, said a few smooth words to them, and next thing I knew they were coming over and three of the other guys had stepped forward. In a flash, the girls' earsplitting screams rang out loudly as they were grabbed and ransacked, greedy hands darting into their pockets and purses, yanking out anything that felt valuable before the girls were able to run off, fear evident on their faces.
“What the hell was that?” my voice bellowed when the girls were out of sight, the sound of it echoing off the walls of the alley. Liam laughed heartily, lifting his black shirt up a bit to stuff a few stolen twenties into his front pocket. I caught a glimpse of something larger hidden in the waistband of his jeans but he dropped his shirt back into place before I could tell what it was.
“Sharing is caring, Noah. This town is full of rich chicks who could learn that,” Jonah spoke up, trying to pass me forty bucks and and an expensive-looking necklace. I shoved my hands into my pockets and took a step back, shaking my head at the offer.
“Nah man, I'm out of here.” I turned to leave.
“That's a shame. You would've liked Yale.” I froze in my tracks, though every bone in my body was still urging me to keep going and get away from all of this, to just go home and forget the night ever happened. But I ignored it, pushing away the horrible feeling that covered me top to bottom, and twisted slowly back around.
“Fine,” I snapped, snatching the cash and necklace from his hand. “But don't expect me to help.”
“Oh look, here comes a couple more. And the short one's cute,” Liam muttered, getting ready to pounce. I stepped back into the darkness of the alley, making sure not to be seen as the boys rushed forward, terrified squeals following soon after.
“Let go of us!” I knew that voice as soon as it hit my ears. My heart dropped instantly.
She was fighting them, using the purse they were trying to steal from her as a weapon, the tip of her sneaker also being sent into multiple crotches. I took a step forward before stopping. She'll be okay, they won't hurt her, I tried to convince myself. Anything they took from her I could reimburse as well. So I continued to hide, choosing not to save her as she fought harder and harder, using whatever she could to hurt hem. However, one kick sent between Liam's knees was all it took for him to pull out the object from his waistband: a gun.
“Give me the bag and empty your pockets or regret it,” he demanded, a terrible anger plastered all over his ugly face. The other boys backed away, their eyes wide as saucers. Dani began to cry and shakily emptied her pockets into her purse. Once both her and her sister had put all their things in the bag, Dani threw it at Liam and began to run. But, when he went to catch it, his hand slipped on the gun and the most horrific sound invaded all of our ears – screaming mixed with gunfire.
I knew in that exact moment, as my knees buckled and my heart began to break at the sight of Dani's body lying on the ground, that both of our lives were over.
I wasn't permitted to attend the funeral since we were all caught soon after the incident and the trial was a quick one. The rest of the boys and I were all charged with felony murder, and sentenced to automatic life without parole. That was the first time I had every heard of felony murder, and the last time I ever stood in the outside world.
Well, until now.
I don't remember how I escaped the prison earlier today, or fought off all the guards, or made it here to our old school – it's all a mirage of blurred rage and longing. I don't even remember how I managed to swipe one of the guards' guns that I now hold in my hand. I don't remember anything for very long anymore, except for her face, and her smile, and her laugh. The medications the prison put me on make my brain fuzzy and all I can think about is Dani and how I had the chance to save her, but didn't. In fact, the only thing I remember that's clearer than anything else, the thing that haunts me, is her body covered in blood, lying on the cold, dirty ground of a pitch black alleyway. She didn't deserve that. She didn't deserve to die.
What she did deserve, though, was to live out a long, beautiful life in a castle where she was happier than any fairy tale character could ever dream of being. And it's my fault that she will never be able to have that. It is all my fault.
I've found out what I would do without her, and I can't take it anymore. Which is exactly why I'm here now.
I lift the gun in my trembling hand and press the muzzle of it against my right temple just as the sound of police sirens encircling the school building threatens to turn me deaf. This is it – no more pain, no more remembering, no more mentally reliving the moment in which I watched the light leave my Sunshine's eyes and all my days became dark once again.
My finger presses against the trigger.
I'm sorry, Dani.