I stared at the wall behind Simon Pelletier while he explained all the reasons my behavior was abhorrent, but none of them hit that sweet spot, the place he seemed to think I had somewhere buried in my heart. Simon, the therapist I had been assigned to when things went from bad to worse at home, must have been a moron if he saw something redeeming in me. I had to give him credit, though. The guy tried, but I was more interested in staring at the photo of his gorgeous wife than listening to anything he had to say.
“Wyatt, I know you’re ignoring me, but if you don’t listen, then one day, there won’t be anything I can do for you. Your mother asked us to help you, and I want to, but you’ve gotta give me something.”
I shrugged. It was something.
Simon leaned back in his chair and sighed. The Harris-Hyland Foundation had been around for a while, long enough that hundreds of kids just like me had found bright futures—happy ones, at least—with their help. But I was determined to be the exception. I, Wyatt Bishop, didn’t care what anyone thought about me, least of all my father.
“Look, you can’t keep treating people like this, Wyatt. One more incident, and you’ll be expelled. Do you understand that? This last prank you pulled could have gotten someone killed, not to mention the unwarranted abuse these kids face every day, thanks to you.”
“Look, I only say what’s true. As for the pranks….” I shrugged again.
Simon leaned forward with his game face on. On most days, it did little to spark any interest, let alone compliance, but this time… this time, the anger in his eyes and the way the little neck vein pulsed told me I’d better at least pay attention or end up dead in a ditch somewhere.
“If you bother Adaline Hayes again, you’ll answer to me. Do you understand?”
“What’ll you do to—”
“You mistake this for a negotiation, Wyatt. Let me make myself as clear as I possibly can. If you bully another person in this school, including Adaline, I will personally take you down to the precinct and have you booked.”
“Can’t I? I have friends, Wyatt, and they don’t like bullies.” Simon’s angry demeanor contrasted his usually warm and approachable manner. Frankly, it scared the snot out of me.
“Don’t make me call Mrs. Harris. No one wants to have Charlie come all the way down here to deal with this, least of all you.”
I swallowed. Now that was the truth. Charlotte Harris did not play games, and sitting in a room with her when she was angry with you was like diving into a pool filled with sharks—hungry sharks with big teeth.
“Yes, sir,” I said and grabbed my backpack strap, hoisting it from the ground.
“I will see you next Thursday for our regular meeting. In the meantime, think about who you are, Wyatt. Who do you want to be? Do you think you can go that long without getting into trouble?”
“Sure.” I let the door slam behind me and headed to practice. On the way, I thought about everything Simon had said. Usually, I let it slide right off my back, but he said something that stuck this time. Of course, I didn’t tell him that, but it finally hit that place. Who are you, Wyatt, and who do you want to be? How could such a simple question weigh so heavily on my mind?
Once upon a time, I was a nice guy. I made decent grades, and people liked me. People still liked me, the people who mattered, but there were twice as many who ran when they saw me coming. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment I changed. It probably happened a little at a time while my teenage mind grappled with the need to be popular versus my own desire to graduate and get as far away from town as possible.
The high school hierarchy was a miserable representation of life. It tricked me into believing the social ladder was of grandiose importance when, in reality, it was nothing more than a ridiculous game. It did nothing to prepare me for the real challenges in life, and from the moment I started the climb, it filled my head with false security, a sense of importance, entitlement, and glory.
But as life sometimes goes, it wasn’t just Simon Pelletier that got to me that day. She did, too. Adaline Hayes, the girl who people ignored for more than one reason. That day ended up being the day, the day I was unceremoniously pushed off my throne by a red dump truck and a broken girl. It was the first Friday in October at exactly 3:42 p.m. when everything changed.
When I arrived at practice, the first thing I heard was Coach Stephens blasting orders and working himself into such a frenzy I wondered if he would drop from a heart attack right there in the middle of the field. The cheer squad had already begun practicing their tired old routines at the far end of the field, which was completely unnecessary given the fact they hadn’t tried anything new in years. The track team was sprinting into the parking lot as I sighed, wishing I could jump into my car and leave. The temperature was dropping fast, and I was starving.
I was just about to slide my helmet on when I saw it. A red dump truck sped down a side street that curved toward the front of the school before ending abruptly at a stop sign. The sign was easy to miss, and people blew through it all the time. At the same time, a white SUV pulled out of the school parking lot.
The truck driver didn’t see the sign and didn’t slow down. A split second later, he must have seen the SUV, and he swerved to the left, but there was no avoiding the accident. The truck slammed directly into the driver’s side of the smaller vehicle. The unmistakable shrieks of metal on metal, metal on pavement, again and again, rang in my ears. The SUV rolled a complete turn, and glass exploded everywhere before it came to a rest on its roof, crunched into a barely recognizable pile of metal.
The passenger side of the roof was nearly level to the hood, and the door protruded out at an odd angle. The dump truck driver sped off, barely slowing down enough to maneuver around the pile of wreckage. I stared in disbelief, my heart thudding, a steady echo in my ears. Finally, my brain clicked on.
“Hey! Somebody call an ambulance!” I screamed as I threw my helmet down and ran as fast as I could toward the accident. By the time I reached it, a group of curious students had huddled around, snapping photos. “What is wrong with you people? Call an ambulance!”
I pushed my way through the crowd and walked around the car, trying to find a way in, when a slight movement on the driver’s side caught my attention. Unsure if what I saw was my imagination, I kneeled in front of the gaping hole where the windshield used to be. I heard a sharp intake of breath and saw another movement. Whoever was in there was still alive, but probably not for long. I dropped down onto my stomach and pushed the airbag to the side, scooting myself in a few inches to get a better view.
“Wyatt, what are you doing?” Jay, my best friend, tugged on my feet.
“I think the driver is still alive!” I yelled over my shoulder, still in disbelief.
There was no way the driver could wait for an ambulance. I had to at least try to do something. I pushed myself in a few more inches and continued to fumble around with the airbag until I saw a slender arm dangling in front of a face, its fingertips resting on the roof of the vehicle. I slowly moved the arm to the side and found myself locked into a stare with a pair of gorgeous, baby blue eyes. Startling blue and filled with terror.
It was just a glimpse, a fleeting moment before they fluttered closed. Those eyes were unmistakable. Merely a flash brought their owner’s face to mind as I pushed forward, reaching up to feel her neck for a pulse. It was faint, but faint was better than nothing.
“Jay, come help me!”
Jay dropped down beside the driver’s side window. “What do you think you’re going to do?”
“Get her out. Come on, help me,” I growled.
“How are you planning to get her out? You don’t know what you’re doing. What if you kill her? Shouldn’t we wait for the ambulance?” His voice was shaky, but honestly, I didn’t blame him. I was worried, but I couldn’t just let her die waiting for an ambulance.
“She’s going to die if we wait. She’s bleeding a lot, Jay. Reach up and see if you can unhook the seatbelt. You’ll have to support some of her weight with your other arm. I can only reach to her shoulders.”
Jay turned onto his back and slid into the window as far as possible. His arm strained as he reached toward the clasp of the seatbelt. His fingers fumbled for a moment. “It won’t open. It’s stuck. I can’t get it!”
A slow panic crept over me, then I remembered my pocketknife had a seatbelt cutter. Somehow, I managed to wiggle it free and toss it to him.
Jay twisted upward into the car, his body almost bent in half as he sliced the belt free. The girl fell onto his chest, and Jay pushed her forward while I pulled her free. I turned her over, her back resting on my outstretched legs.
Blood plastered her auburn hair to the side of her face. It dribbled from a deep laceration that exposed a portion of her skull from forehead to crown. I tried to hold back but couldn’t help it. I gagged but managed to hold down vomit.
Her left leg twisted under her in a gruesome manner, her femur protruding through blood-soaked jeans. Her entire body seemed coated with blood making it impossible to determine the extent of her injuries, not that I would know what to do if I could.
I pulled off my jersey and gently maneuvered her to the ground, using the jersey as a pillow. I applied pressure to the gaping head wound with a towel Jay handed me. Jay was pale and dripping sweat despite the cold. One look at her skull and protruding femur, and he vomited onto the pavement.
She was already bruised, her face and collarbone exhibiting deep plum-colored hemorrhages. Her eyes opened slowly, the lids heavy and swollen. They drifted to mine, where she squinted to see better.
I couldn’t believe I had never noticed how beautiful they were until that moment. They were easy enough to recognize, but I had never paid much attention to the intensity, the depth of color. Deep navy like I’d never seen before, with a paler blue closer to the cornea. I was falling into them when they grew large, and she gasped, desperate for every ounce of air her battered lungs could inhale. Each breath sounded like a leaking balloon, whistling in and whistling out.
Her small hand grabbed at the collar of my t-shirt, twisting fistfuls of fabric as she tried to pull herself up. Just as I reached to calm her, her eyes closed. She sucked in one last breath and dropped back to the ground. Her pulse was gone. I shifted and pumped on her chest like a maniac, begging her to open her eyes again.
“Whoa, whoa, slow down!” Coach Stephens pulled me back and started a slower, more rhythmic compression. “Put pressure on that head wound!” he barked.
I pushed the towel against the wound and brushed the hair from her face, all while willing those eyes to open. I would never be able to tell her I was sorry. Sitting there staring at her, I realized just how pathetic I was, how ridiculous everything I had ever done to her had been. I cradled her head in my arms, begging her to wake up. Just wake up so you can hate me again.
I was lost in the rhythm of chest compressions, the metallic scent of blood, and the slightest hint of her citrus perfume when a paramedic grabbed my arm and tugged me away from her. I leaned back on my knees and stared helplessly as they stuck her with needles, poked, and prodded. There was no one else. Everyone—the crowd, Jay, Coach Stephens—they all disappeared from my sight. There was only her lying lifeless on the ground.
And I couldn’t tell her. She wouldn’t hear me. She would never know. I’m sorry. I just wanted to tell her I was sorry. Misery consumed me, swallowing me into its blackness in the middle of the road until my trance was broken by the paramedic yelling.
“I got a pulse. Let’s go!”
I bolted upright and ran toward the ambulance.
“Whoa, hey, you can’t go.” The paramedic held me back and shook his head.
He was a big guy, and I couldn’t fight him if I wanted to, but there was no way I’d let that ambulance leave without me on it. My mind swirled as I tried to fabricate an excellent reason to go with them, and I shouted the only thing I could think of at the time.
“She’s my girlfriend,” I said.
Jay’s face contorted in confusion and shock, but I didn’t care. All I cared about was a nearly dead girl in the back of an ambulance just five feet away.
The paramedic sighed. “Fine, let’s go. We need some information anyway. Move!”
I jumped into the back and was immediately pushed to the side as another paramedic worked quickly.
“What’s her name?” she asked. I stared back at her, stunned. Her blonde hair had a streak of blood in it, but she didn’t seem to notice or care. She shook me. “Hey kid, come on, I need your help.”
“Adaline. Her name is Adaline Hayes.”
She continued to ask me questions. How old is she? How could her parents be reached? Did she have any allergies? All things I didn’t know. I stammered and guessed her age, assuming she was also seventeen, given that we were both seniors. I vaguely remembered that her mom worked from home. That was all I knew about her. I didn’t know her, not even a little bit, yet I had made her life miserable for too long. She looked so helpless, just lying there, bleeding everywhere.
Adaline looked smaller than I remembered, although she always seemed small to me. Hunkered down with her nose in a book or rushing to her next class, doing her best to be invisible. She had never done anything wrong, certainly nothing that warranted the treatment she received.
She said hello to me on her first day of school two years earlier. I laughed at her and teased her relentlessly because I was popular and she was the new kid, and that was what the popular kids did to people who weren’t the same as them.
While I grew popular, she slid on a downward spiral into obscurity. She hated me, I knew, but until that moment, I hadn’t cared one bit. In fact, it made teasing her even more gratifying, challenging even.
Adaline’s eyes snapped open unexpectedly, startling the paramedic. She tried to pull the tube from her trachea before the paramedic quickly tied her hand to the stretcher. Panic set in, but she couldn’t move. Machines beeped louder as the paramedic attempted to calm Adaline to no avail.
I slid forward into Adaline’s line of sight. She squinted and shifted her attention toward me when I was in view as she struggled to see more clearly. She must have recognized me because she stopped struggling and simply stared into my eyes. Every bit of agonizing pain was on full display through those eyes. I wished it were only the pain caused by the accident, but I knew it wasn’t. As much pain as she was in, I knew what I saw went much deeper than physical pain.
I knew I was the last person she wanted to see, but I tried to soothe her anyway. “It’s ok. You’re going to be ok. You have to calm down.” I took her hand below the restraint to show my sincerity, but I wasn’t even sure she had a clue what was happening to her.
The paramedic injected something into the IV line, and moments later, her eyes fluttered closed once more. Before she lost consciousness completely, I felt her fingers interlace with mine, a tiny squeeze before they went limp. I hadn’t known it then, but that was the first moment of the rest of my life—a different life.