I kept reading and I saw the texts from that Saturday night. It was just two of them. Where are you? And PLEASE TEXT ME BACK NOW.
The text before that was from before I left the party. It was a selfie that she’d taken of us and sent to me. Our cheeks pressed together and both of us smiling. Over our heads, I could make out part of Keith’s face.
Dumbly, I backed out of her texts and then I scrolled back up to Sebastian’s. Swallowing hard, I opened up his texts and made my way to the ones I hadn’t read. His started off just like Abbi’s.
Where are you?
There were several more messages, and I could easily see him firing them off, one after another.
You didn’t leave without coming to get me?
Okay. Please text me back. I’m starting to freak out. Someone said there’s a really bad accident not too far from here.
Come on. Answer your phone. Please.
My heart thumped heavily in my chest. I knew his voice mail was one of the many that sat unheard on my cell.
Closing his texts, I scrolled back down. My thumb hovered over Megan’s texts. I could see that the last text she ever sent me was an attachment. I already knew what it was. A picture of a volleyball that she’d drawn a face on. She’d done it after practice one day. No idea why, but that was Megan. She just did things.
A huge part of me wanted to read through her messages, but I couldn’t handle it—reading her words, seeing what used to be and now what could no longer be. I tapped out of the texts and went to my voice mails.
I listened to them.
The missed call from Lori happened after Mom must’ve called her. In her message, she told me she was coming and that she loved me. She’d sounded okay, calm even, as she spoke. It sounded nothing like Abbi’s message that had come that Saturday night when she had been looking for me, or Dary’s message the following Sunday. I could barely make out what Dary had been saying.
There were more messages from friends I saw every day at volleyball practice, and other messages from people I hadn’t spoken to since we shared a class last year. They were the voices of strangers, but their messages were all the same.
I could barely see the delete button when each message came to an end. Tears filled my eyes and my hand was shaking as I got to the last one I’d skipped over. It was a message from Sebastian, from that Saturday night.
Every muscle in my back locked up as I hit the play button. There were only a few seconds of silence and then I heard his voice.
“Answer your phone. Come on, Lena. Please pick up your damn phone.” His voice was hoarse with a panicked edge after a pause. “You’re not in the car. God, please tell me you’re not in that damn car. Call me and tell me you’re not in that car.”
The message ended. Dropping the phone, I pressed my palms to my eyes. Sebastian sounded like he did when I first woke up in the hospital and saw him.
He sounded destroyed.
Because he knew when he made that call, deep down he had to have known at that point, that I wasn’t going to call him back. That I was in that car along with Cody, Phillip, Chris and Megan.
My hands felt damp as I dragged them down my face. Everything inside me felt raw and bruised. One night had irrevocably changed all of our lives. One choice had altered the course of what we all were supposed to become.
What would I have done differently that night if I’d known there was no tomorrow? Everything. I would’ve done everything differently.
Pumpkins were on front porches. The tree in the backyard had turned burnt orange and red, as had the maples lining the streets and surrounding the school. Halloween decorations plastered the windows of the shops in town.
Homecoming banners filled the hallways at school. Excitement buzzed in the classrooms and the cafeteria as talk of dancing and parties and dresses consumed the senior class.
The air had turned chillier. Long sleeves and cardigans replaced tank tops, but I was still wearing my flip-flops. I would until snow kissed the ground.
I was preparing my application for early decision to UVA.
Two weeks ago the cast had come off my arm. There was only a twinge of pain in my ribs every now and then, and I was able to sleep on my side now. I was breathing normally. Only a little over two months since the accident and...
And people were already forgetting.
Life was moving on.
Talking to Dr. Perry about what happened the night of the accident, how I’d suspected Cody had too much to drink but still got in the car, had lessened some of the suffocating weight I carried but not all of it.
When I told him that I had finally listened to the messages and read the texts, he’d told me that was progress. I was making some of the right steps, but there was still no sudden awakening or clarity after rewinding the night of the accident and actually forcing myself to come face-to-face with the decisions I’d made.
I’d had two choices that night.
And I’d made the wrong one.
Dr. Perry had said, in the session on Wednesday, “Some people may try to say or may even believe what happened that night in August cannot be blamed on anyone but Cody because he was behind the wheel. They may even say that all of this has nothing to do with blame, but that’s not the actual case. Do you know why?”
“Why?” I’d asked.
“Blame isn’t about making someone feel terrible about their actions, and it’s not about hurting the person’s feelings. Actions and inactions have consequences. If we did not accept responsibility or blame for them, then we’d be at risk of repeating those actions,” he’d explained. “Everyone who was there, who saw you all leave, who knew that they had been drinking, and even the parents who allowed the drinking to occur. But it is also partially your fault.”
Partially didn’t feel any different from completely, but what he said at the end of the session, what he’d reiterated the following Friday meeting, was that I was not the only one who was partially responsible. And it stuck with me.
It wasn’t like things changed. Like there was some magic switch thrown and I was suddenly okay with everything. If anything, things were more real, the memories sharper and more clear.
But then, after that Wednesday session, the nightmares started.
I was back in the car again, being thrown side to side. Sometimes I dreamed that I was in the driveway and I hadn’t gotten in the car, but I knew what was going to happen to my friends. It felt like my feet had been cemented to the ground, and I kept telling myself to go get someone, to warn everyone that they were about to die, but I couldn’t move. I was frozen until I woke up, gasping for air. Many nights I came to, throat raw, with Mom clutching my shoulders. Only then would I realize I’d been screaming.
Dr. Perry had been right. I guess those fancy degrees attached to his name had a lot to do with it. I was still traumatized from the accident, from the memories I kept to myself, and talking about them pushed the accident to the forefront of my thoughts.
And I did a lot of talking.
The session on Friday and the following Monday were basically lessons in exposure therapy. Rewind. Relive. Each time it got a little easier to say the words I needed to, but by the next Friday, something finally clicked into place.
My friends were dead.
They really were dead, and no amount of guilt was going to bring them back. Nothing was ever bringing them back or undoing what strangers and friends alike now thought of them. Nothing was stopping the suits being brought against Keith’s family or the pending legal charges. Nothing was stopping the lawyers from contacting me and Mom every other week.
At the end of that session, my face hurt from the tears I’d tried not to let fall but couldn’t stop. I had to hide my face throughout the rest of the afternoon because it was so obvious that I’d spent the morning sobbing.
Dr. Perry had been so right about grieving.
I hadn’t truly begun the process, so blinded by the trauma of the accident and consumed by the burning guilt. I hadn’t let any of them go. Hadn’t even truly begun.
Those days, those weeks, were hard. Focusing on classes became difficult for a whole different reason. I missed them—missed Megan and her hyperactivity, missed Cody and his arrogance, Phillip and his sarcasm, and Chris and his goofiness.