“‘You know what I can’t understand? I can’t understand how the people who are meant to love you unconditionally are the ones who turn on you in a heartbeat. Lately, I had to convince myself that it wasn’t me who she turned on, it wasn’t me who she blamed for Dad’s death—she loves me. I know she does. She just can’t comprehend the different ways that love can work. Ways only us teenagers can grasp before the land of adulthood takes away our magic, our wonder. Being a teenager is a curse and a gift. It’s the age where fairytales cease to exist and Santa isn’t real but parts of our hearts want to say ‘What if…’
“‘It’s the time where you feel everything but everyone claims you are just overreacting. You and the guidance office and society throw out strong questions that we teens have no clue how to answer. Who are we? Where do we see ourselves in five years? What do we want to be? The most frightening thing to me is picking a study, choosing a life path to follow at such a young, naïve age. No one knows who they are at our age. No one has a damn clue where they will be in five years. The last question is my favorite: What do we want to be? That’s the easy one.’”
Daniel paused and looked over to me, quoting the last part of Ryan’s powerful letter. “'Alive. I want to be alive, and I have no idea why, seeing how hideous life is at times. Maybe it’s belief, hope, and passion all wrapped into one shape that rests inside my chest. Perhaps my heart is just praying for better tomorrows to replace all of those shitty yesterdays. So to answer your question in a very depressing, teenage-angst manner, I want to be alive when I grow up. So now I ask you, Mr. D. What do you want to be when you grow up? Because growing never stops, and dreaming rarely ceases.’”
The room filled with a silence that even the gods of the earth found unsteady. Daniel folded up the piece of paper and slipped it back into his pocket. He spoke into the microphone and smiled a sad grin. “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. But if there’s anyone I want to be like when I do, it’s that young man who wrote those words. I want to be unafraid of the outcome of life. I want to remember to breathe in the laughter and cherish the tears. I want to dive into hope and land in love. I want to be alive when I grow up because…I have never been alive in all of my life. And I think the least we can do, in order to honor Ryan, is to start living today. And forgive ourselves for all of the shitty yesterdays.”
On the steps of the church stood Hailey and Jake. The winter breeze was unkind to any bare skin. I watched as Jake whispered something to her and she nodded in understanding.
“Jake.” He turned my way at the sound of my voice. I nodded him over to me. He glanced at her and then moved back toward me.
He stepped in close. “She’s pretty wrecked, Ashlyn.”
The sad grin he gave me almost broke my heart. “She blames you.”
He stared out into the distance, his hands in his pockets. “Pretty much the whole senior class showed up in there for him. Everyone loved the guy. Did you know he was the king at our junior prom last year?” He took a deep inhale. “How do you get to a point where you feel that alone?”
There wasn’t an answer to that question. I thought that’s what hurt people the most—the unanswered questions.
His thumb and pointer finger pinched the bridge of his nose and he closed his eyes. “Look, Ashlyn. I know this probably isn’t the right time, but…” He sighed. “The guy you gave your heart to… Why isn’t he here?”
My voice cracked. I shifted my eyes. “You’re right, Jake. It’s not the right time.”
“Yeah. Right. But…” His voice shook. “Ryan’s dead. And when people die, you get thinking about the things unsaid. The things you were too afraid to say. And I’m about to go away for Christmas break to visit my grandparents in Chicago, so I’m just going to say it now—”
“I hate him. Whoever the guy is who isn’t here for you—I hate him for leaving you alone today.” My eyes watered up from his words. He reached for his tie and loosened it. “I know you probably think that I was just into you because of your body. Yes, at first, that was why. You’re gorgeous, Ash. But then each day in chemistry you would show up and you would talk. And then I realized how much I liked the way you spoke.
“And then I realized how much you had to say and how much the world deserved to hear your thoughts. And then I thought about how much I would love you if you ever let me in. Then I thought maybe if I cleaned up my act, maybe if I stopped smoking pot or got into college or got a library card or something, then maybe you would love me, too.”
“I do love you, Jake.”
He laughed. “Don’t give me that friendship bullshit. It’s fine, really. I just… I needed to say it. No regrets, right?”
I leaned in, kissed his cheek, and whispered, “Please hug me now.” His arms wrapped around me. I breathed him in and held on to him tight. “Don’t let go yet, okay?” He pulled me in closer.
After the hug, Jake reentered the church. My footprints landed against the fallen snow as I moved in Hailey’s direction. “Hey, Hails.”
She tightened her arms, which lay across her body. Her lips pressed together. It seemed that her focus was on something across the street.
I continued. “I’m so sorr—”
“You know what I don’t understand?” she said, cutting in. “You were supposed to be with him.” Her body rotated in my direction in a haunting fashion. “You were supposed to watch over him for one night. One night! Where the hell were you, Ashlyn?!”