She moved away from me and reached up to put her hand over her mouth. Her eyes darted away from my propping gaze and it took her a few minutes before she spoke. When the words came, they lacked her typical fire and sass. They sounded strained and forced as she shifted her weight nervously from bare foot to bare foot.
“I was always kind of stubborn and crazy. The more someone told me not to do something, the more I absolutely wanted to do it.” She started to pace in front of me as the ragged words escaped her. “When I was little, my folks called me a handful and other grown-ups called me a brat. When I got into my teens, that morphed into me being a bad influence and a troublemaker. I didn’t have a lot of friends because I had a wild reputation that I definitely earned, so a lot of girls my age didn’t like me and a lot of parents didn’t want me to corrupt their kids. I was a party girl, the girl that was always down for a good time, whatever that entailed, and I never cared what anyone thought of me because it was always fun … until it wasn’t.” She shot me a look, but when I didn’t interrupt or offer any kind of comment, she kept going.
“I did have one friend, this very sweet girl named Autumn, that moved here from Kansas her freshman year. She was quiet, kind of shy, and had a hard time fitting in. Denver was like a major metropolis to her and she was really a small-town girl at heart. I can’t remember how we ended up hanging out, but once we did, we clicked instantly and were inseparable all throughout most of high school.”
It all sounded pretty typical to me. I mean, my childhood had been anything but basic, anything but normal, so I wasn’t an expert by any means, but what she was telling me sounded pretty much like every teenage girl’s trials and tribulations of growing up and growing into themselves. I didn’t want to stem the flow of words pouring out of her so I kept my mouth shut as she continued to give me her story.
“I liked to party, and I liked boys. I liked to act older than I was, and had no problem taking the risks that went along with that. Because Autumn was a good friend, and because I was her only friend, she often found herself in situations and surrounded by people she was really uncomfortable with. She didn’t want to tell me no because she was afraid I was going to ditch her if she didn’t participate. I think she was afraid I would find a new best friend to spend time with if she wasn’t right by my side. I was selfish. I was thoughtless. I never once asked her if she was okay with what was going on when we went out and partied. I assumed that because she showed up, she understood the unspoken rules and regulations the way I did.”
I cocked my head at her and considered her thoughtfully for a long moment. “Do you even understand the rules and regulations now, Avett?” It seemed like a fair question, considering how we had met.
She gurgled out something that may have been a laugh but sounded more like she was choking. She shook her head from side to side and put her hands up on her pale cheeks. “Oh, I understand, but I never seemed to get that breaking the rules might affect someone else and leave me completely unscathed.” She made a fist and thumped it against her chest. “I’m the only one that should be hurt when I decide to do something risky and wrong, but it never works that way. Never.”
I reached out and put my hands on her shoulders to still her frantic movements and locked my gaze on hers. “So your friend got hurt because she followed you into the lion’s den, unprotected, unprepared, and something bad happened to her?” I cocked a knowing eyebrow. “And you feel guilty about what happened, so you’ve been punishing yourself by making shitty choices ever since.”
She gulped audibly and lifted her hands so that she could curl her fingers around my wrists. I wondered if she felt my pulse kick when she softly told me, “She didn’t get hurt. It wasn’t just bad—it was the worst thing that could happen to someone. She died. I killed her.”
I had heard a lot of confessions and a lot of denials in my career, but none of them tugged at my heart and kicked me in the gut like this one did.
“What are you talking about, Avett?” My words were sharper than they needed to be, but I wasn’t prepared for that kind of confession out of her.
She squeezed her eyes shut and I watched as her lower lip started to tremble, making her words shaky and hard to follow, but I was good at tearstained admissions, so I had no trouble following along.
“We were at a party, a party in a part of town we had no business being in. I went because some college guy asked me to go and because my mom grounded me for the weekend for failing a test. It was a total ‘screw you’ and what I thought was normal teenaged rebellion. It was definitely on par with my typical activities on the weekend, but it quickly turned into something else. That night turned into my story, a story I can barely get through because it should be Autumn’s story. I feel so guilty that I’m around to tell it and she’s not.”
She opened her eyes and I could see the horror and tragedy of whatever happened that night clear as day reflected in the glassy sheen covering her turbulent gaze. There was a different storm raging inside of her, and this kind was destructive and hurtful.
“I told her not to take a drink from anyone. I told her not to be alone with anyone, that we needed to stick together. I told her that these guys were older, that she needed to be careful, and keep her wits about her because no one even knew where we were. I thought that was enough. I thought I was taking care of her. It wasn’t enough. Not even close.” She barked out a sharp laugh and let her head fall forward like she was hanging from a broken marionette string. Unable to resist the urge, I pulled her into my chest and silently urged her to get the rest of the story out, to let that storm howl and rage until it passed.
“She started smoking pot as soon as we got in the door. She was high, had too much to drink, and before I knew it she had disappeared somewhere in the house with a couple of the guys at the party. Her drink was drugged and when I finally found her, she was naked, passed out, and there was no doubt that she had been raped. I wanted to call the police and an ambulance. I needed help, but the guy that invited me to the party took my phone and told me there was no way I was going to narc on his friends. I was so mad and I was terrified for Autumn. She was out of it, but I knew when she woke up, she was going to be in a bad way. She wasn’t a party girl, she wasn’t like me.” Avett hiccupped on a strangled little sob and I felt her hands fist into the sides of my T-shirt as she started to shake. “I took a swing at the guy, never once thinking that he would swing back. He clobbered me. I remember being stunned at how badly it hurt, and I can still summon up how it tasted when my own blood was filling my mouth. I’d never been hit before, and even with the way I liked to go balls to the wall, I’d never felt unsafe until that moment. I couldn’t protect my friend, and I couldn’t protect myself.”