I heard his uneven breaths.
“I do think you matter, Daniel. To a lot of people.” I recognized the honk of a car horn and I imagined him sitting in a public park or maybe pulled over on the side of the road. “And to me.”
“How could I matter to you?” His voice had pitched. “I’m just a voice on the end of a phone line.”
“You’re much more than that, Daniel,” I said. “Don’t you realize that every time you’ve hung up I’ve wondered for days if you were all right?”
“You have?” His voice was hoarse, as if he’d been gulping in air.
“Of course I have. Sure, this is my job,” I said, “but I have feelings, too.”
“Oh.” His voice sounded incredulous. “Yeah . . . yeah, of course you do.”
Did he have someone in his life who told him that he mattered?
My supervisor stood at the door listening, checking whether I needed any assistance. He used to stay in the room at the beginning of the semester, and then gradually allowed more independence and responsibility. I gave him the thumbs-up that all was okay and tuned back in to Daniel.
“Do you have anything you’d like to talk about, Daniel?” I asked, hoping that he finally felt safe enough to confide in me.
“I . . . uh, maybe. I’m not sure.”
“Why don’t we begin slowly. About that night. The night of the accident,” I said, hoping my voice sounded soothing instead of nervous. “I mean, if you feel ready to tell me.”
“I . . . I think I do.”
“I’m here. You can trust me to listen.” I realized I’d been bracing my knuckles so hard that I’d left indentations in the sides of my paper cup.
“We went to a party that night.” He blew out a long breath. Like he was gearing himself up. To bare his soul. “I was the designated driver, and I drove my best friend and his girlfriend.”
I tried picturing what Daniel might look like. I also wondered why he hadn’t taken his own girlfriend with him that night. Did he hang out with only the two of them a lot? Like a third wheel?
“My best friend was being a dick to his girlfriend that night. They’d been fighting lately. And what he didn’t know was I’d been crushing on her, hard.” He said that last part in a whisper. That answered my question about why he wasn’t with anybody else. “And she knew how I felt. I think she played me because of it. She and I had been sharing looks all night. I thought it was something intimate, but in hindsight, I wondered if she’d wanted to make him jealous.”
“Why would she do that?”
“He was a huge flirt and had been in his element that night. All the girls loved him. Would’ve wanted their chance with him. He was into his girlfriend, but I noticed he had been getting bored.” He huffed. “It was his pattern.”
My heart was slamming against my rib cage. Even though I hadn’t heard this story before, it felt too close. Too powerful. Too personal.
“How do you know she didn’t have true feelings for you?”
“I didn’t really. I just knew the effect Bas . . . um, my best friend had on the ladies.” Bas. The beginning of a name or a nickname. He’d chosen to keep the names private. And I understood that, so I let it go. This was his story to tell.
“How were you different from your best friend?”
“I was always more quiet. Kept to myself. He was the life of the party.” Something about the way he described himself reminded me of something else. Of someone else. It felt so familiar. I shook the feeling away to listen to his story.
“My best friend got trashed and his girlfriend and I got him in the backseat of the car, where he passed out.” I heard him sniffling and I wondered how many different emotions this stirred in him. “The last words he said to me were ‘I . . . I love you, man.’”
A keening sound I’d never heard before tumbled from Daniel’s lips, and a chill shot straight down my spine. My stomach was clenched so tightly into a ball that I needed to stretch my spine in order to loosen the dread that had taken hold.
And then Daniel let himself go. He let it all pour out—like a wound ripping open and bleeding—as he sobbed into the phone. I stayed silent, giving him the time to work through his emotions. Sometimes the noise sounded muffled like he’d put down his phone or held his hand over the speaker.
I knew from experience that crying was healing, purifying, cleansing to the soul. I’d done my fair share of crying over Christopher—gut-wrenching, heart-splitting, can’t-catch-your-breath kind of bawling. I never would’ve been able to move forward without fully experiencing that hell—it was the only way out.
Finally, Daniel sniffled and caught his breath, composed again. “I’m . . . I’m sorry.”
“You have absolutely nothing to be sorry about.”
“I’d forgotten he’d said that to me,” Daniel said, his voice raw from crying. “Do you think he knew?”
“That he was going to die?” I said, my voice light and pensive. “Some people believe that. But I’m not sure.”
We fell into a comfortable kind of silence and I waited for him to tell me more.
“His girlfriend sat in the front seat next to me while he was laid out in back. On our way home, she slid her fingers over and placed her hand in mine.” He paused, maybe to reminisce about that moment in time. “My palm was sweaty and my heart was all erratic and, man, I had it so bad for her.”
I pictured this scene in my head, how it might have felt for your crush to respond to you, to like you back. Even though it might have been bad timing, it didn’t mean it wasn’t real.
“You said that your best friend was passed out in the backseat. So she couldn’t have been putting on a show for him—not right then.”
He didn’t say anything for a long moment, considering my words.
“Unless she was just setting me up for later,” he said.
He had built up these walls, not allowing any positive thoughts to seep inside. He would only accept that he was bad, that he was wrong, that he didn’t measure up.
“It seems you so easily believe there’s no way she could’ve liked you for you,” I said. “Am I right?”
I held in a gasp. Fuck, that was a loaded question.
Here I was pouring my heart out to a perfect stranger and she asked me the one question I’d refused to ask myself. Never thought I was worthy enough to ask myself.
How come this stranger got closer to the true me than anyone had in a long time?
Except maybe for Ella. We were drawn to each other. It was natural. Hypnotic. Magic. And Ella had the same soothing tone as Gabby, like I could tell her anything. Except telling her everything would make her loathe me. And telling Gabby was what she was trained to do.
“I . . . I don’t know. All this time, that’s what I’d told myself.” I thought about what Amber had said in the parking lot that night. About still wanting me. I thought she’d been messing with my head.
“I guess I’ve always felt like I was only an obligation or a chore to people,” I said.
“Is that why you put so little stake in yourself?” Her voice was soft, soothing.
How in the hell had she guessed my deepest secrets?
“Maybe.” She’d pretty much hit the nail on the head. I immediately thought of my parents and maybe even Sebastian. I never stood up to him; I just fucking worshipped him. He had everything I didn’t. He was everything I wasn’t.
Maybe in the back of my mind I was glad he was dead.
“I just think . . . I just know . . .” I was having so much trouble getting the words to line up on my lips because they were so shocking, so mind-boggling. Could I even voice them out loud? “Maybe I would have done anything to get with her that night. What if I . . . Did I . . . kill him on purpose?”
I’m sorry, Sebastian. I didn’t mean that. My head was so messed up. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK!
I heard Gabby take a deep and meaningful breath. “Do you honestly believe that, Daniel?”
“Fuck, I don’t know,” I whispered. “No, that’s not true, I do know. And the answer is . . . no. At least not consciously.”
“Of course not, Daniel.” She said it so resolutely that even I might have believed her. “Besides, thinking it and doing it are two different things. Maybe you wanted him to disappear for a while, so you’d have a chance with this girl. But you didn’t want your friend dead.”
And then I was lost in my own thoughts for long moments. And she let me be lost.
Until, finally, I repeated, “Yeah, okay.”
“So how did your night end?” she asked. “Your best friend was in the backseat and the girl you were crushing on was holding your hand in the front seat.”
“I got distracted. By her. And my own thoughts. I kept thinking he was going to wake up any minute and see that I was betraying him,” I said, sharing what I had never once uttered out loud. “I should have said no, let go of her hand. Told her to break up with him first.”
I thought of me and Ella. How close we’d gotten with our flirting. I told myself I wasn’t going to cross that line again, and I wouldn’t have. Even in the basement, when I was desperate just to touch her.
But then she broke up with her boyfriend, showed up in my room, and called my bluff. I was out of excuses. It was just me and Ella, free to act on our feelings. And I chumped out on her. Because still, somewhere deep inside, I didn’t believe that a girl could like me—really like me—for me. Just me. All of me.
“What happened next?” Gabby broke me from my self-pity.
“I don’t know exactly. To this day, the details are still shady. There was a truck in the next lane over, hauling ass. I must have veered over the line and we sideswiped each other. I lost control of the car—we were sent into a tailspin.”
I shut my eyes and relived that moment. The brunt of the impact. The sound of crunched steel, shattered glass. Losing control of the wheel. Amber screaming.
“My best friend flew out the side window. My air bag went off, and his girlfriend . . . she smashed her head against the dash, but her seat belt saved her.”
“So it was an accident,” she said very quietly.
I felt my anger building up but not to an all-consuming intensity this time. “I was being careless, not paying attention, and my best friend paid for it with his life.”
I placed my head in my hands and rocked back and forth. “He died and I’m still alive.”
“And that kind of devastation is the hardest to bear,” she said with such empathy in her voice. “I know.”
She said it like she really did know. Like she’d been through it, lived it, carried it inside her.
“What happened to the truck driver?”
“He survived,” I said.
I wouldn’t tell her that my parents had paid him off.
I had shared so much with her tonight, so why was that once piece of information so hard?
Because it was humiliating.
The truck driver had said he was sketchy on the details as well—who had swerved into whose lane. But then my parents became involved, spoke to the police, to Sebastian’s family, to the driver, whom they paid off, to make it all go away in a neat and tidy package. Like it never happened.
Except that one person was gone forever.
And another was broken and lost, possibly for eternity.
I should have yelled and screamed and told the police to put me in jail. Even Amber had blamed me. Asked me why I hadn’t seen the truck sooner as she cried over Sebastian’s body on the side of the road, a huge knot protruding her forehead.
It was the worst sight I’d ever witnessed in my entire life. One I’d never forget. Like it had been singed into the backs of my eyelids. I’d felt so horribly responsible that I’d retched right there in the grass near a blanket of shattered glass.
But a couple of nights later, my father came into my room, slapped me across the face, and told me to get ahold of myself. Said I would not ruin my life and his chances of running for office. Said the driver agreed to take the lesser plea and get the hell out of town. That Sebastian’s parents agreed it would all be for the best and wanted to put it behind them.
They never blamed me and they never would. The driver had taken responsibility.
Didn’t he realize that by paying people off, he was already blaming me? Me, his only child. It was the same as saying, You’re a fuckup. I don’t believe in you. I’m going to pay off someone to make sure it remains a secret—the real you remains a secret.
The following day, Aunt Gabby came over while I continued to barricade myself in my room. I listened to their muffled argument through the door. She told her sister that I deserved more. And then Mom kicked her out of the house.
Their relationship had been strained ever since. Not that it hadn’t been before that. Aunt Gabby and Mom were different as night and day and sometimes I’d lie awake in bed and wish I’d been born into Aunt Gabby’s family instead.
“What keeps you going, Daniel?” Gabby asked in a dreamy, faraway voice. “You haven’t ended your life, and I’m thankful for that. So what is it that makes living worth it?”
“I . . . I don’t know.” I thought about how I was trying to make it up to Sebastian’s parents. My drive to do that had replaced my desire for my parents to see me succeed.
“Sometimes . . . I mean, really, all this time, I’ve been trying to keep myself alive for his parents.”