Fourteen years ago, when I was only four years old, I was at a park in downtown Denver, Colorado, when I watched my mother get murdered. Every Sunday after church, she would take me to play at this park in particular, because it was her favorite park in the entire city of Denver. She loved it because of its many trees, but she also loved it because of its solitude. It was in a small suburban area out of the way of the city and so one would think that it would be fairly safe.
Once, I remember her explaining to me that it reminded her of her hometown in rural Georgia, because it made her feel like she was back in the country far from the busy hustle and bustle of the city. I knew she missed the country, but my father had always insisted that we live in Denver. I have no idea why, and I’m not sure that my mother ever really did either. At the time, I didn’t really understand what my mother meant by living in the ‘country’ because I’d always lived in the city. I’d never left Denver, and at four years old, the only ‘country’ I knew of was the United States of America and that didn’t make sense to me, because I knew that we did in fact already live in the United States.
And so, that Sunday afternoon began like every other. Upon arriving, I’d jumped off of my brand new bicycle, that I’d gotten for my birthday the week prior, and immediately rushed to the swing set like I did on every Sunday afternoon. The swings were my favorite park attraction both because they made me feel like I was flying, and because my mother would push me while humming my favorite tune, the one she also hummed to me every morning at breakfast and every night before bed. Now, years later, I can neither recall its melody nor its name. I only remember that I loved it, it made me feel safe and warm inside.
I leaped up onto my favorite swing, the baby blue one, and my mother pushed me, while humming the elegant tune to herself. While swinging, I imagined being a bird, flying freely without a care in the world and soaring around looking down at all the tiny people below. It was both exhilarating and relaxing.
After a few minutes on the swings, I noticed that there was a young black-haired boy about my age a couple of swings down from me swinging all by himself. I couldn’t help but wonder whywhy he was alone. Where were his parents? He looked sad, almost in tears, and I remember wondering if he was lost or if one of the other kids in the park had been picking on him. I wondered if his parents had forgotten him there, alone in the park, and if he was scared because he didn’t know what to do.
After a long moment of watching him from the corner of my eye, I urgently asked my mother to let me down off of the swing and I pranced over to the boy and gave him a big bear hug, wrapping my arms around him tightly and asking him if he’d like me to push him on the merry-go-round. At first he tensed as if ready to fight me off, but soon he relaxed and his brilliant brown eyes met mine with just a hint of what I can only describe as hope.
We were quick to be friends. We spent the next two hours rolling around in the sandbox and racing down the matching, side-by-side yellow slides.
I’m sure that the only reason that my mother let me stay so long that afternoon was because the boy’s parents were nowhereto be seen. All afternoon, we’d watched kids and their parents come and go, but no one came for the boy. It eventually got dark, and the park emptied out quickly. It was past most children’s bedtimes and I knew that by this hour I was normally tucked into my bed.
My mother asked the boy, whose name I learnt was Daymon, numerous times if he knew where his parents were. Each time, he replied with a shrug and continued playing with me in the sand. He wouldn’t speak in front of my mom and he rarely said much to me either. I didn’t mind, I wasn’t a very talkative kid. I was used to all the other kids my age talking over me because I was extremely shy, so it was nice to have a friend that let me get a word in for once.
My mother used the payphone in the park to call the police and report the little boy’s presence to someone that could be of some aide. While she was on the phone, her back to us, the boy grabbed my hand and quickly led me under the play equipment.
He pressed his lips to my ear and whispered, “Be quiet. Whisper like I am.”
“Why?” I asked him, wondering what game we were playing now.
“Look.” He pointed through some trees at an elderly man leaning against a tree trunk and staring towards the park, directly at the two of us.
“Is that your grandpa? Do you have to leave?” I asked him sadly. I didn’t want him to go. What if I never saw him again?
“No, that guy is the guy that hurt my parents yesterday,” he admitted terrified. It was the longest group of words I’d heard him string together since meeting him.
“What did he do to them? Did they get in a fight?” I asked him, confused.
“Yes, and he killed them. Ariella, he killed them and I watched him do it. He’s a murderer,” the young boy answered, starting to cry.
My heart hammered in my chest at his words. Was this another game, or was he being serious? It would explain why he was here in this park alone without any supervision, but being only four years old, I couldn’t wrap my mind around what he told me. I mean murder, did that stuff really happen in real life? Sure I knew what the word meant from other kids at my play school but were there really people out there that were that terrible?
“We have to tell my mom,” I whispered back to him.
He shook his head furiously.
“You can’t, she can’t help,” he muttered and glanced impatiently at my mom who was still on the phone.
“Yes she can, we have to tell an adult so that they can catch him and put him in jail,” I insisted, squeezing his hand.
“You don’t get it, Ariella, you can’t understand because your mom is just a mom. She can’t help me. The man will only hurt her too.” He sniffled and his breathing quickened as if he was about to hyperventilate. “Wh-where is your dad?” he demanded.
“I don’t know, at home,” I guessed, a little confused by the comment about my mom. My mom wasn’t justa mom. She was amazing. She was like superman. I wanted to tell him that but I felt like I didn’t want to make the boy more agitated than he already was, so I ignored the snide comment.
“You have to get him. He can help,” he whispered breathlessly and I looked up at the man. To my agitation, he was slowly walking closer to us. My heart started pounding harder. If he killed Daymon’s parents, would he kill us too?
Soon the man was only feet away from us. My brain screamed to get up and run or scream for my mom but my body wouldn’t move. I was in shock. I was terrified.
“Oh hello, sir,” my mother greeted him, hanging up the phone. “Are you his father?” she asked hopefully.
“Grandfather,” he corrected with a smile, his voice rough with age.
“Oh, good. I thought he was maybe lost, I just got off of the phone with the police. I’ll have to call them back and reassure them that he’s alright.”
“This is not my grandpa! My grandpa isn’t even alive! This guy, this guy is the guy that killed my mom and my dad last night!” the boy shouted erratically to my mother and now gushing tears. He grabbed my hand and quickly jumped up from the ground, running out from under the park equipment and into the trees while towing me behind him. The tug on my arm snapped me out of my state of shock and I bolted after him. I could barely keep up to him because he was a much faster runner than I was.
My mother’s face wore a look of disdain as she glanced from us to the man. It was a look of disbelief. She clearly didn’t believe the boy and probably assumed that the boy was just saying anything so he didn’t have to go home. He was a toddler after all.
I took a glance behind me just as my mother crumpled to the ground, her hands clamped to her ears as if something was suddenly incredibly loud.
Then she screamed as if whatever it was was so loud that she couldn’t bear it. I listened but couldn’t hear anything except the sound of my own heartbeat thudding in my ears. Dark red streaks ran down her flushed pink cheeks and fell to the sand below. Then after a mere moment, her body slumped to the ground and her screams vanished completely. She laid there, unmoving.
“Mom!” I cried out as loud as I possibly could. She didn’t move.
“Shh! Yelling is only going to get us hurt like her! Run, Ariella!” Daymon pleaded and tugged hard on my arm.
I gathered myself, pushing back my tears like my father had always taught me. He’s always taught me that crying is for the weak and I never truly understood that until that moment. If I started crying, it would hold me up. Crying would make me an easier target than I already was, and so I picked up my pace earning a sigh of relief from Daymon as he continued to pull me forward.
“Hurry!” he shouted frantically. “Where do you live?” he asked. “Do you know how to get there? Is it far?”
“No. I-I don’t know where it is,” I admitted sheepishly.
The boy’s shoulders slumped. “We can’t just keep running. He’ll just catch us. We aren’t fast enough,” he realized, though I didn’t agree. He was just an old man. Then Daymon threw us into an outhouse on the outskirts of the park and slammed the door shut. “Don’t make a noise. Not even a small one, got it?” he asked and I nodded.
It was quiet for only a few seconds before the outhouse door flew open and the old man stepped in, grabbing me by the throat and throwing me out onto the hard gravel outside of the small building, scraping both my hands and knees. I cried out in pain and the man kicked me hard in the ribs sending me back a few more feet. He was strong for an old man, most grandpas I knew could barely even walk. I began sobbing, dropping the facade I was grasping and letting the tears out. That was all the pain, confusion, and fright I could handle.
The bad man then turned to my new friend and put his large hand on top of his head. The boy began screaming in pain like my mother had even though, to me, it didn’t look like anything was really happening to him.
Then suddenly my father was behind the man. To this day, I don’t know how he found us. Maybe he got worried that my mom and I weren't home yet and he came to look for us. I don’t know. But howhe got there doesn’t matter, thathe got there is all that matters.
All I remember after that is waking up hours later at home on the couch, my father sobbing. I’d never seen him cry before and it scared me to death. He was always the tough one in the family. It scared me even more than the entire incident at the park had because ifhe wascrying, then the world had to be ending or something equivalent to that anyways.
“Daddy?” I asked him carefully, moving to sit next to him. “Are you okay?” I held in my tears with all of my might trying to show him how strong I was. “Don’t cry, daddy. Crying only makes you weak,” I told him and used my sleeve to wipe away his tears.
“Oh, Ari,” he mumbled, using my nickname. “Thank god you’re okay,” he whimpered, while removing my now tear-dampened sleeve from his face. “Ari, it is okay to cry. Sometimes.But only for a little while. While it’s safe to.”
I didn’t understand what he meant by that but I didn’t say anything. I just stared up at him and climbed onto his lap.
I was smart for my age and I knew something was up. There was something bad that he was going to tell me. I just knewit. My dad wasn’t just sad because his favorite football team lost their game or he fell down and hurt his elbow. I knew that the only thing that could possibly make him this sad, sad enough to cry, was if something happened to me or my mom. I was wrong before, even if the world was ending, my father wouldn’t cry about it. He would do something about it, not waste his time with tears that wouldn’t help a soul. Whatever he was crying about was something that could not be undone. Something that couldn’t be fixed or helped.
“Where’s mom?” I asked him slowly, not ready to hear the answer. I think a part of me already knew what his answer would be. I braced myself, ready to hold back that blast of emotion that would soon hit me like a freight train.
He was quiet for a moment before saying, “She’s gone, Ariella. It’s just you and me now.”
“What?” I asked, tears filling my eyes. Only I wasn’t confused by the question, I didn’t need any clarification, I just hoped that somehowI’d misinterpreted his words.
“She’s in heaven now, sweetheart,” he answered and kissed the top of my head. “It’s okay to cry now. Get the tears out so now we can be strong again tomorrow. Sometimes holding them in is as big of a weakness as letting them go. We must mourn now so we can be strong later.”
We were quiet for a long time. My father’s sobs eventually quieting as he held me, but I wasn’t as strong as him and my own lasted far longer.
“What about my new friend Daymon? He’s okay right?” I demanded through sobs, suddenly remembering the last thing that I saw at the park.
“I don’t know,” he answered honestly and wiped some of my tears away with his baggy t-shirt.
“But that man is going to jail, right?” I asked him, still sobbing.
He didn’t answer me and I didn’t push because I ultimately did not care much about that old man right then, I was more concerned for my friend and devastated by my mother’s death.
Time passed, days, months, years. Neither of us talked about the park incident after that day. Dad easily could’ve lied about Daymon and said that he’d made it home safely that day but he didn’t because he knew that I could handle the truth. He knew it would make me stronger. That’s what my father was and is all about.
He’s always raised me to be strong, right from day one, the day I was born. Not just mentally, but physically. Shortly after my mother passed away he began teaching me self-defense skills which later turned into an array of different martial arts training. I loved it at first. I loved that if there was ever another time that I or someone I loved was in danger, I might actually be able to do something other than hide in an outhouse and pray for my life. But as the years passed, I became bored with it. The memories of why I needed these lessons began fading. I mean, I still remember that day in the park but it eventually began to seem more and more like a dream than a memory. The memory is blurry, seen through a child’s eyes. The time finally came years ago when I couldn’t remember what my mother’s face even looked like and for some reason my father got rid of all of our pictures of her, I couldn’t find even one anywhere. It’s like she never existed. We literally haven’t talked about her once since she died. Part of me even wonders if I dreamt up that day in the park. Did it even really happen? The only thing that tells me it did is the scar on my left knee cap where the old man pushed me down onto the gravel and I had to get stitches.
I also never mentioned the boy again, although growing up, I always wondered what happened to him. Is he still alive somewhere? And what about that old man? What did he do to my mom? How did he do it? Who was he? The older I get and look back, the more questions I find myself having, but thankfully ever since that day, my life has been normal, or as normal as it possibly could be anyway.
I mean besides not being allowed to cry and having to take fighting lessons from my father since I was four, my life has been almost toonormal. Boring, really.
You might ask why I’ve never brought up my mother’s death or the boy or the incident in the park to my father since that day, well, I’m not sure actually. Believe me, there have been tons of times while growing up that I wanted so badly to ask my father about it, but when I tried, nothing would come out of my mouth. I’m not sure if it’s because I can’t ever find the words, or if something else is stopping me from talking about it out loud, but I just can’t bring myself to talk about it.
Tonight is the night of my senior prom and it also just happens to be my eighteenth birthday. Thing is, I hate dresses, makeup, hairspray, heels, and dancing. So you could say I’m a bit of a tomboy, but thankfully I at least have a date. His name is Nathan Walters, he’s just a guy I met last week at a party, no one terribly important like my boyfriend or anything. We hadn’t even really been talking before he asked me. He just came up to me at the party and asked if I had date for prom yet. Here I had been stressing for the weeks leading up to prom thinking I wouldn’t have a date because no one would ask me and then this random guy just asks me out of the blue. Anyways, he’s no football quarterback or hockey captain, but he’s a guy and it beats going alone to my prom.
My friend Mindy stands behind me fiddling with my hair as I sit in front of a full length mirror in my room. She goes to a different school than I do so she isn’t allowed to attend my prom and her’s isn’t for another week so she’s offered to do my hair.
“So is he cute?” she asks me curiously, knocking me out of my daze.
“Come on, give me something,” she insists.
“He’s just a guy, Mindy, I don’t know. I wasn’t about to start being picky a week before prom when all the good guys were already taken. I took what I could get,” I tell her, annoyed.
She laughs at my irritation and we’re interrupted by a knock on my bedroom door.
“Ari?” my dad asks. “Can I come in?”
“Yeah,” I call and Mindy twirls my chair from the mirror to face the doorway.
The door opens, and he takes a single step in. His face lights up as soon as he sees me.
“Oh Ari, you look…beautiful. Just like…” he gives a brief pause and my heart begins leaping in my chest, is he going to say what I think he is going to say? He hesitates and then says, “your mother, I can’t believe how fast you’ve grown up. It feels like just yesterday you were eating shit off of the floor and pooping your pants," he jokes with a smirk, but I see the look in his eyes that he’s trying to cover up with humor. It's pain at the mention of my mother, as if just mentioning her has brought forward all kinds of pain. Surprisingly, I don’t feel any pain. I feel a brief flash of sadness but I don’t feel pain. I’m almost shocked by this. Is it because my memory of her is so faded, or is it because I’ve been taught to put mind over emotion my entire life? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because of the huge wave of shock at the mention of my mother that has me too rattled to feel pain.
Mindy laughs, shattering the moment. Is that her flirty laugh? Is she flirting with my father? Oh my god, for the love of all that is holy!
“I just wanted to bring you your birthday present slash prom gift before you left,” he wags his eyebrows at me, all traces of pain now gone from his eyes, and sets a large blue velvet jewelry box into my hands.
I open it curiously, inside is a huge blue sapphire on a chain. I wonder if it’s real but decide that there’s no way that it could be, it would’ve cost a fortune if it was. We can’t afford anything like that. Not that we’re poor or anything, but I mean we’re not rich. He’s a firefighter for god sakes and they don’t pay those men and women near enough to save lives.
“It’s real,” he admits quietly and then says, “It was your mother’s.”
“It’s beautiful…” I trail off removing it from its box.
Mindy’s eyes widen. She’s one of those girls who almost faints when they see something shiny and pretty. A girly girl as they call them. I’m amazed by the necklace, but I don’t know anything about jewelry and so it’s probably not as amazing to me as it is to Mindy.
“That’ll go perfect with your dress tonight! It’s almost the exact same blue!” she cries excitedly while clapping her hands.
I ignore her and thank my dad, “I love it, thank you.”
He smiles. “I hoped you would. I’ll let you finish getting ready. Remember, I want a picture before you escape,” he warns and leaves the room. I know that 'a picture' is equivalent to a photo shoot but I don't say anything.
As soon as the door shuts, Mindy begins fanning herself with her hand dramatically.
“Oh my god, please tell me that was your secret brother and not your father!” she squeals jokingly. “What?” she giggles at my expression of disdain. “Your father looks like he’s 25 not 45!”
And this is why I never bring friends over.
“He’s 34,” I correct her. “He had me when he was 16.” I've had to tell her this a million times over the years we've been friends.
“Oh god, still!” she cries, and pretends to faint.
It’s no secret that the whole world has the hots for my father. I’ve had to hear about it my entire life. From my kindergarten teachers gushing over him, to my teacher coming onto him last year at the parent-teacher interviews. I only hope that I’ve inherited his awesome aging gene. But even though he always has all of these women gawking at him and flirting with him all the time, he’s never accepted a date with any one of them. In fact, he hasn’t even went out with a single woman since my mother. I partially wonder if it’s because of me, if he thinks it would bother me. It wouldn’t, he can’t be alone forever, and he needs someoneother than me. He doesn’t have any friends besides his work colleagues.
It seems like ages pass before Mindy is done curling my hair and touching up my makeup. Finally she lets me stand up and pulls my dress from its protective canvas. She helps me into it carefully and does the zipper up in the back.
When I am done, she snaps a couple pictures with her phone, likely for some social media website that I will find myself tagged on later.
My blonde hair falls to my shoulder in ringlets and I have to admit that even though I’m not one to wear much makeup, I look pretty good.
“Perfect!” she approves and quickly pushes me down onto my bed and begins shoving my glittery heels onto my feet. “Let’s go show your dad!”
Yeah, you just want to go check him out again, I think to myself.
I struggle down the stairs, trying not to fall and crack my head open in my dumb heels. This will be the one and only time I will ever wear a dress or heels. I swear that, not even for my own wedding will I wear a dress.
“She’s reeaady!” Mindy calls down the stairs behind me in a sing-song voice.
My dad steps out from the kitchen with a camera and begins snapping photos as if I am a model. I’m not even down the damn stairs yet.
“Smile, Ari! You’re going to your senior prom!” he encourages, and snaps a few more. You’d think that he was a photographer.
Then there is a knock on the door and my heart skips a beat, I’m suddenly super nervous. My date, Nathan Walters, is early.
My dad opens the door and then steps away from it.
“Good evening, you must be Ariella’s brother,” the boy greets him.
My father laughs and Mindy looks at me with ‘I told you so’ eyes. I roll mine back at her.
“I’m her father, actually,” my father corrects and motions for him to come in.
“Oh…sorry, sir,” he quickly replies, staring at him as if trying to put the pieces together.
“Are you ready to go?” I ask him quickly, ready to get the night over with.
“Yes, let’s go,” he answers me thankfully.
Before we leave, my father snaps a few pictures of us together and gives me a hug.
Nathan has a fancy black car, I don’t have a clue what it is exactly because I know next to nothing about cars but it’s definitely something fancier than my piece of crap from 1991.
The ride to the school is long and awkward.
“You look…awesome…I mean…beautiful,” he stammers awkwardly.
I thank him just as awkwardly and then we are silent for the rest of the ride. When we get there I take a swig from the flask I have hiding in the breast section of my dress. Nathan doesn’t seem to notice and if he does, he doesn’t say anything.
We register at the front table, flashing the junior prom workers our student I.D.’s and then we enter the decorated gymnasium. It’s full of balloons and sparkly decorations. I wonder who’s going to have to clean all of it up afterwards. Whoever it is, I feel bad for them. Mostly because of all the glitter and sequins on the floor.
There are people everywhere, apparently no one else thought being fashionably late was cool. Nathan immediately takes my hand and leads me to the dance floor.
Great.I’m not a dancer.
Thankfully the end of the song approaches and we only have to dance for a few seconds. He is getting ready for the next song when I pull away and motion to the snack table.
Now, the snack table, thatis the whole reason why I even came to prom. I mean Nanaimo bars, brownies, punch, all for free. Just kidding, I only came to this lame party because my father pushed and pushed for me to go. I consider grabbing a bunch of yummy squares and running home with them but sigh and just pour myself a glass of punch. Nonchalantly I take my flask out and pour some alcohol into it. This time Nathan sees me.
He laughs. “I’m that bad a date, am I?”
I smile. “No…I just, I’m not really into the whole prom thing. I uh-I don’t really ever go to stuff like this or wear dresses or…dance. The only reason I’m here is to make my dad happy,” I admit sheepishly.
He sighs with relief. “Oh thank god. I hate these things too. I’m only here because my older sister pushed and pushed me to go.”
I hand him my flask and he dumps some into his own punch before handing it back.
“Can we just chill?” he asks me hopefully. “You’re not the only one that can’t dance.” Is it just me or is he shaking? No way is he possibly that nervous. I mean I'm not even that nervous and I'm a very nervous person.
I nod. “Definitely, though if I keep working on this flask I might start thinkingI can dance,” I joke…sort of.
“So…where are you going to school in the fall?” he asks after a moment of awkward silence.
I shrug. “I’m not sure yet. I don’t even know if I’m going to go. I feel bad leaving my dad,” I admit truthfully. What will he do after I leave home?
“Ah…your mom?” he asks then, gaging my reaction and hoping he hasn’t touched a sore spot.
“She died when I was very young,” I explain quickly.
“So did mine. She got sick, what about yours?” he asks suddenly as if this somehow makes me more interesting.
“Oh god, I’m so sorry,” he apologizes, quickly spitting some of his punch back into his glass in surprise. I choke back a laugh at this. He then gathers himself and puts his hand into his pocket awkwardly.
I fake a laugh. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Here I am, ruining your prom.”
I gaze up at him in shock. “Trust me, Nathan, it was destined to suck before I even met you.” I change the subject. “So why haven’t I seen you around school before? Are you new here?”
“Yes, actually. A few months ago I transferred from private school to get a feel of normalcy.” He seems reluctant to admit it, like going to private school is a bad thing.
“Meh. It’s not all it’s made out to be,” he mumbles.
I look up at him and smile reassuringly. “Neither is public school, I’m afraid.”
This makes him laugh. “Yeah, these prom things seem so much cooler on movies.”
I have to agree with him there.
“So, you have an older sister? How much older?” I prod, not sure what to talk about.
“She’s the smarty pants of the family. She’s 21 and…she goes to Harvard. Her name is Theresa. I, on the other hand, can barely spell my middle name.”
“What’s your middle name?” I ask curiously.
He chuckles. “My middle name is John. Nathan John Walter. I’ll be lucky if I get into community college.”
He grabs a brownie from the square tray and shoves it into his mouth in a single bite before mumbling something through his stuffed mouth.
“What?” I ask, bringing my eyebrows together with confusion.
“Those are really good, you should have one,” he says after swallowing the chocolate treat.
I then grab one from the tray and stick it into my mouth. He’s right, they are absolutely mouth-wateringly delicious.
"So, what do you like to do for fun, Nathan?" I ask him curiously.
“Well, I crotchet..." he answers with a smirk and it takes me a minute to realize that he's only joking. "Nah. I mean, growing up, my mom made me try a bunch of things but none ever really stuck. Nothing she made me try was ever anything that I liked. After she passed away, I moved in with my father and he really didn’t care about me getting a hobby or anything."
"What did she make you try?"
"Oh, she made me try piano, football, tennis, uh badminton, hockey, guitar, swimming. The worst was when she made me try singing. God that was a nightmare." He laughs.
"Singing? You're no good?"
"Can't hold a tune to save my life."
"So what do youwant to do then? I mean, if you could do anything?" I ask him, again curious.
"I'd like to write. Create my own worlds and characters and stuff, you know? That's what I'd like to do for fun. My dad calls it having an over active imagination. He doesn't support it. He just really doesn't get it," he tells me sadly. "He’s a uh businessman. He wants me to follow in his footsteps, go to some fancy school, you know, like my sister. I hoped her going to Harvard would take the pressure off of me. I thought wrong." He sighs. "There's no way that I'll get into one of those schools with my grades anyhow, but he will probably pay my way in just because he’s like that." He shakes his head in disgust. "I don't even want to go to school, any school. I just spent the last twelve years of my life in school, why would I want to waste any more of my life? It's short, you know, life? Why not spend it doing what you want to do?"
I'm surprised by how much I've come to genuinely like Nathan Walters in these short few minutes I've talked to him.
"I agree," I nod.
"What about you?" he asks with a frustrated sigh.
"What do you like to do? Party? Enter fashion shows? Count carbs?" he mocks. I almost burst out laughing, he couldn't be more wrong.
“No, none of that actually. I like baking...and eating. I do a little Zumba too I guess. Uh...other than that...I work?” I admit. I don’t tell him that I’m a black belt or that I’m pretty decent in about ten other fighting styles. It’s not something that my dad likes me to share with others. He says that the weaker people think I am, the better chance I will have if it comes to a real fight. But if this kid or nearly anyone tried to pull a move on me, I’d have them down on the floor screaming in pain in less than a second, no matter how strong they were. The majority of people on this planet aren't trained to kick ass. I think all my training is a bit of overkill. The older I get the more I seem to think that my dad is just being overprotective with this whole self-defense thing. I mean, who makes their children do hours upon hours of ‘warrior’ training a day starting when they are four? Seems like severe overkill to me. But I don’t argue with my dad. I neverargue with my dad. I know he is just trying to protect me and I love him for that. The exercise and quality time with him is good for me anyways.
"Ah.” He smiles. "You're different."
"Gee thanks," I say sarcastically.
"I mean, you're different than most girls in this city," he reassures me.
"Well, thanks... I think," I say confused.
He grabs another brownie and shoves it into his mouth. I start to feel some of the alcohol kick in and I make a mental note to slow down. The last thing I need is to pass out at my prom and have them expel me from school for drinking or something.
"So where do you work?" he asks through a full mouth.
"At a little pet store by my house. I basically just clean up dog crap." I shrug.
"What do you want to do after you graduate...keep cleaning up crap?"
"Ew, no thanks. I don't really know what I want to do after school," I tell him honestly. To be truthful, it isn't something I've thought much about. My father hasn't ever really pushed me and I guess I've never really imagined leaving home. It’s something most parents push their kids to do, and it surprises me that with how much my father pushes me to do things like practicing fighting, get a job at 14, and hell, go to my prom, that he hasn’t ever really mentioned post-secondary education.
"Hey, Ariella! I've been looking for you all night!" shouts a female voice over the pounding music. I glance over to meet the eyes of Mya Sinclair, one of my good friends.
"Hey Mya, this is Nathan," I introduce them.
"Oh, I know, you're in my gym class actually!" she nods and shakes his hand.
"My date ditched me for some other chick but whatever, he was a drag anyhow," she exclaims, trying to hide her annoyance. "Speaking of drags, why are you guys just standing here, why aren't you dancing?"
"Not our thing," I reply, matching her loud tone over the music.
"Too bad, they're playing some pretty good stuff!" she says sadly and pours some punch for herself, guzzling it down. "Hey, so I wanted to find you to tell you that I'm having an after party at my place. I texted you but you never texted back so I wanted to make sure you got it. I think I'll leave here around midnight to make sure everything is set up but I'm sure my dad has it all ready to go. I think he's more excited than I am. So you can come any time after that," she tells us with a laugh. "Puhlease make an appearance, both of you, and bring friends. I'd hate to have nobody show up. That'd be sooo embarrassing," she cringes, while putting her empty cup into the garbage can beside the snack table and swaying her hips to the music. Apparently I'm not the only one who's had a couple sips of alcohol tonight.
"Alright! Maybe!" I call as she makes her way back into the crowd of dancing people.
Nathan is eyeing the brownie platter like he's about to grab another one but he's not sure if it's a good idea or not. I don't falter, I grab the biggest one there and take a bite off of the end.
"You must have an awesome metabolism," he mutters just loud enough for me to hear. "If I have another I'll probably gain fifty pounds."
"Zumba," I say through brownie. "Works wonders. You should try it."
"So you take Zumba classes?" he asks, sounding shocked by my earlier claim.
"No. I just do it my bedroom. Alone. Like an idiot. I basically just make up my own moves and jam out." It’s kind of true. Except I at least have a trainer-my father and I’m actually talking about martial arts but I mean, fighting and dancing are kind of close right?
He raises an eyebrow skeptically but says nothing.
"Wow, I actually can't believe I just told you that!" I giggle louder realizing how big of a dork my last statement made me sound like and nearly choke on my snack.
Now he laughs too. "I can picture that actually. Like you prancing around and singing into a hairbrush or something. But wait, I thought you said you don't dance?"
"Not in public!" I cry, hastily fixing my error. Duh. You’re here not dancing because you hate to dance, then he asks what you like to do and you tell him dancing. You idiot.
Soon we are both nearly in tears laughing like morons about things that aren’t even funny.
"I have to be honest. I thought tonight was going to be the most painful night of my life. Turns out it's started off to be just the opposite." He gives me a smile, raising one half of his mouth.
Is he flirting with me? Or am I just imagining it? Of course he's not! Why would he, Ari? You told him you have dance offs with yourself in your bedroom for heaven sakes!
"What do you think about going to that after party of your friends after this?" he asks, almost sounding nervous. He totally isflirting with me, isn’t he?
I debate it and when I don't answer right away his smile falters.
"Sure, why not, right? It's not like we're going to have another senior prom. I'll text my dad and ask him, but I'm sure he'll be fine with it," I inform him and pull my phone from my small clutch bag. It only takes dad a second to reply and give his approval. I also read the message Mya sent earlier about the party that I never replied to.
"Sounds like a plan!" I confirm with Nathan.
Suddenly all the colorful, flashing lights that light up the entire room like a dance club go dark, leaving the room in a near pitch black state aside from a few small moving lights which I assume are coming from people's cellphones. The music cuts out simultaneously and a few people begin shouting 'BOO!' as if that'll somehow help the situation. The room instantly fills with confused and upset chatter. Has the power gone out?
A few of the supervisors and teachers begin trying to calm everyone down while some of the other chaperones try to assess the problem. Who knows, maybe someone tripped over the cord and unplugged the entire DJ system. I mean, that would be something I would do, ruin the dance because of my clumsiness. I instantly check the floor by my feet for any cords I might have stepped on by shining my own phone around for a little light. I'm in the clear.
Then, I notice something small and orange-colored light up in the far back corner of the stage about the size of a softball.
"Do you see that? On the stage in the far corner? What is that? The power must not have gone out, something else must’ve happened. It looks like a light of some sort," I shout to Nathan over the screaming. He takes a step closer to me. Just as I finish talking, the orange-colored object expands and seems to climb up the black curtains coating the walls behind the stage. I'm quick to realize that it's fire. Something must've short circuited or overheated by the fabric curtains and set them aflame. I momentarily wonder how it's spreading so quickly but shake it off when I hear the screams get louder as others begin to panic.
Everyone begins screaming and pointing. It's not long before students are being hustled out of the building through its one double-doored entrance and into the fresh air. Smoke begins to fill the room and the people nearest to the flames begin coughing. Nathan and I are at the far back wall and out of the smokes reach but only for now.
I feel a hand wrap around my forearm and he begins dragging me towards the doors.
"Hurry, Ariella! Look how fast that's spreading. It's like someone poured gasoline all over the building! We won't make it out if we don't hurry!" Nathan demands and I quit resisting his pull, realizing that he's only trying to help me.
The flames have now somehow spread up to the ceiling engulfing it in flames too. Chunks of debris begin falling from above as the flames burn.
The smoke soon becomes so dense that I can barely even see the stage anymore. What is going on?! My heart speeds up as my adrenalin kicks into gear and I cover my mouth and nose with one of my dress' bottom layers as we rush towards the doors. Of course, the doors are at the far end of the room beside the stage where nothing is visible and the flames are spreading towards much too quickly. I realize we don't have minutes, we only have seconds and I begin pushing and shoving my way through the crowd alongside Nathan. By now, people aren't just panicking, they're freaking the hell out as they come to the same realization that I have—we won't all make it out. The flames light up the room and where the smoke has not yet reached, I can see people pushing and shoving through the crowd for their lives like Nathan and I are. I don't waste too much time glancing around as I can't afford to waste any time at all.
I get knocked down a couple of times and expect Nathan to leave me there to get trampled but he helps me back up and continues to pull me forward. Thank god this big burly guy asked me to prom and not some little stinker who hadn't hit puberty yet.
I decide that this is not the time to be pretending that I’m a weak little girl. I use my strength from many years of weight training to help Nathan push through the crowd. He doesn’t seem to notice that I’m abnormally strong, then again why would he? We’re trying to escape with our lives. There are more important things to be worrying about right now.
Then, the absolutely unthinkable happens and when I say that, I mean exactly that. I watch through the smoke as a blonde-haired boy right beside me gets thrown upwards towards the flames on the ceiling as if the room has lost all sense of gravity. I hear his screams as the flames burn at his flesh. I try to hold in my own screams but cannot. Please tell me that I'm not the only one who just saw that.
"What the fuck?!" someone cries, assuring me that they’ve seen it happen too.
"We have to get out of here. NOW!" Nathan shouts.
I gaze up at the ceiling at the boy’s half burnt body for only a moment before snapping out of it and pushing the incident behind my mental wall so that I can focus on survival.
Thanks to Nathan, we are nearing the door. The room is emptying much quicker than one would think possible, or maybe we’ve just managed to push up to the front of the crowd and there are still tons of people behind us. I have no idea and I'm not about to pause and look back, not that I'd be able to see anything now anyways. The smoke has gotten so dense that my eyes are watering and stinging furiously.
I begin coughing. I can't breathe. I know you're supposed to 'stop drop and roll' when there's a fire, but let’s be reasonable, if I do that right now, I will be trampled to death.
Elbows and fists fly into us as we continue to push through people.
My heart picks up pace again and I realize that I'm about to have a panic attack. I'm not sure if it's because of what I just witnessed or if it's because I can no longer breathe but I decide that I have to push it away so I can be strong and think clearly and so I can make it out of here. Maybe some of dad’s lessons haven’t been for nothing after all. My lungs burn and throb as does my throat as I desperately try to suck in clean air.
Then, I see a little bit of light and I know that we're only footsteps away from the double doors that will bring us into fresh air. Why in the hell would whoever built this building only put in one stinking door?! Are they not aware that this is a huge safety problem? Was it not required to put multiple exits when they built it? How are this many people expected to leave this room at once in the chance of a fire?
I hear sirens outside over the screaming behind me. Are the emergency vehicles are already here? How much time has passed? I realize that I don't have any idea...seconds, minutes? I don't even know.
Right as I'm about to jump out into the fresh air, Nathan's hand leaves my arm. "Nathan?!" I struggle through a hoarse throat and gasps for air.
Nothing. I know I'm not going to be any help laying on the floor unconscious while people stomp on me so I decide that I have to keep going without him. At least to get a breath, then I can go back in and find him.
When my lungs get a taste of the fresh air I almost jump for joy. I take a few more rushed breaths and I blink rapidly trying to get the stinging in my eyes to go away. I look around through blurred vision. People are running back and forth and there are red and blue lights everywhere. I wipe away another set of tears and begin blinking again. As soon as I can see, though my eyes hurt so bad they can barely stay open, I scan the crowd for Nathan.
I see many girls, like me, with their eyes running and mascara ruined as if they've been crying for hours. I look around some more and see that there's mainly men outside. Did they all push through to the front leaving the women at the back? Assholes. There's no sign of Nathan anywhere.
Suddenly there’s an arm around my shoulders pulling me further away from the building.
"Ari?! Ari?! Are you okay? Come, get out of the way," demands a familiar, very worried, voice. Dad.
"Dad?" I ask through a cough.
"Thank god, you're okay. I just got here to drop off a jacket for you for the party tonight. Thank god. Thank god, you're okay. What happened?" he asks frantically as I continue to cough and cry. I’m not sure if the tears are still from the smoke or if I am actually crying now.
"I don't know. The lights went out, and the sound cut out and then a little bit of a fire started somehow on the curtain on the stage and it spread. I mean one second it was just this little tiny spark and the next it was covering the entire room. It was like someone drenched the room in gasoline," I say using Nathan's earlier analogy and reminding myself that he's probably still in there. "I have to find Nathan. He was with me until like three steps before the door. We were at the far back of the room and he helped me push all the way to the front. He was holding my arm until about three steps from the doorway," I cry, still gasping. "I have to go back in."
“You will do no such thing!” he shouts. “I’m sure he’s made it out and is looking for you too.” He hesitates for a moment and I'm too busy having a coughing fit to argue. “I have to go in, Ariella.”
"No!" I shout.
"Kids have stopped coming out of the doors now, Ari. It looks like many are still in the building. You know what that means right? I'm just going to see if there's anyone I can pull out by the door. If I can save even one person I will feel better. I can't just stand here when I could be doing something." He's right, I know exactly what that means. It means those who have not already suffocated from the smoke or burnt to death from the fire are dying right now, passed out in the burning building.
"They won't let you go in there," I shout at him.
"Ari, I'm the chief firefighter. I call the shots. Speaking of which, I have to go," he says apologetically and then releases me from his grasp. "They're going to want to have a doctor or someone check you over. Go home, you're fine. There are many other kids that need the help more than you do. My keys are in the gas tank of my truck parked across the road. I'll get a colleague to drop me off at home afterwards. They won't like you leaving without getting checked but there's so much going on that you can probably sneak away without notice."
I've always loved that my dad's a firefighter. I mean, I've always been able to call him a hero. He saves lives for living. But never before, have I totally understood how dangerous his job is. How much he risks for people he doesn't even know. That is, until today.
He disappears into the crowd and I decide to walk around and see if I can spot Nathan. If I worry, I will be even more useless. I put on the mask that my dad taught me to and push my fear to the back of my mind so I can think clearly.
"Ari? I'm so happy you're okay! This is all so crazy! Have you seen Geoff? I can't find him anywhere! We were both right beside the doors when it all went down, I'm sure he had to have made it out." Nathaly Matthews wraps me in a firm hug. Geoff is her boyfriend and also my neighbor which is how I know the both of them.
"No, I haven't. I just got out a second ago though. Have you seen Nathan? I mean you probably don't even know who he is what am I thinking," I blabber and continuously scan the crowd.
"Was that guy you were standing with at the snack bar all night? I haven't actually. Sorry," she apologizes and releases me from the hug.
“That's okay, but I better get looking,” I say a little rudely and push through the crowd which has thinned drastically since I initially came out. I realize it's because the fire trucks are trying to get in closer to the building and all of us are standing in the way. I follow the crowd out across the road and out of the way.
Here, people are crying and parents begin showing up to make sure their kids are alright. Word spreads fast. There are even news crews interviewing students already.
I stare at the doorway of the building I just left and wait for people to emerge. After starring for ten minutes and seeing no one come out, reality sinks in. I wonder how many kids are left in there dying. 100? 200? More?
Paramedics are pulling people onto stretchers and driving away with their sirens blaring. It's like something off of a TV show. More ambulances are continuously showing up and cops continually push back the crowd so the emergency crew can do its job.
A school bus pulls up front and people start getting on it. "You all must see a doctor before you go home today! Your parents may take you themselves if it's not urgent. If you are burned or are having trouble breathing or have some other urgent problem please find a paramedic. Otherwise, please get on a bus to go to the hospital," one of my teachers directs through a voice amplifier, her voice shaking.
I watch as a boy with long brown hair approaches a paramedic while holding a jacket around his arm. When he removes it to show what's underneath I nearly gasp. He's burnt so badly that his arm is barely recognizable. He takes a small glimpse at it before falling to the ground. I hope he's only fainted from the sight of his arm and something worse hasn't happened to the boy.
We're all lucky that the nearest hospital is only ten blocks away and within walking distance because the roads are so jammed up that there's only enough room for the emergency vehicles and school buses to get through. Parents must be parking blocks away and walking. What a mess.
Just as I think things can't get much worse, a loud 'boom' radiates throughout the vicinity and flames shoot from the door and roof. Everyone on the sidewalk with me cries out with shock and terror but I just stand there gaping. My dad is in there and possibly Nathan and so many other kids. God, probably a quarter of the school population is still in there I estimate, while glancing around at the people who made it out. I crumple to the ground.
"Ariella, I found Geoff. Are you-" It's Nathaly, I can tell she speaks through tears even though I'm not looking at her. I cut her off.
"I think my dad was in there," I shout painfully and finally I feel the tears I’ve been holding back since the fire began, leak from my eyes and down my cheeks.
I sit there for only a moment before pulling myself together and asking myself what my father would do. He would do anything to help. But there isn’t anything I can do, is there? There are firefighters and ambulances and cops and god, I’ll just get in the way.
After hours of sitting in my dad’s truck trying to hold back the tears that pour from my eyes, I realize that the only people left at the site are the firefighters still working on smothering the flames. I figure that it’s time to head home. I pull my phone from my clutch and look at my messages. I have a million of them. Most are from Mya, some are from other friends making sure I’m okay, but none are from Nathan or my father. I text Mya and my other friends back to let them know I’m fine, physically anyways. I also shoot my dad and Nathan texts both reading 'are you okay?’ Then I put my phone away.
When I get home, I pull off my dress and slip into some pajamas before slumping onto the living room couch and pulling a blanket over myself, setting a glass of water on the floor beside my makeshift bed for my still aching throat. I leave all the lights on, afraid to turn them off in case my father somehow miraculously comes home. Maybe he wasn't in the building yet. But then why wouldn’t he have called to let me know that he was okay? Surely he would know I would be worried. Then again, maybe this is some twisted test of my strength. No. He couldn’t possibly be that harsh. Could he? Suddenly, I’m not so sure. The only thing I have to hold onto for hope is the fact that I didn’t physically see him go into the building and therefore it is possible that he wasn’t in there when whatever it was that exploded, exploded.
In my mind I can hear the screams, still feel how the intense heat felt on my skin, and remember the harsh effects of the smoke on my lungs, eyes, and throat. I try to push it back so I can sleep but then something else emerges. Something that I pushed away hours ago both because it was distracting me from escaping with my life and because it was too impossible for my mind to comprehend. The boy, flying upwards into the flames on the roof and burning to death. Oh god, his screams of absolute terror. They were the worst of all the screams. What exactly did I see back there? I try to shove it back behind my mental wall, but it just keeps escaping. I can’t stop thinking about it. How?I mean, there hasto be a logical explanation, I just have to find it. I’m not one to believe in ghosts or zombies or vampires or any of that supernatural crap that the media fills people’s heads with these days. I am a logical person and there has to be a logical answer. And so, I lay on the couch for a very long time attempting to think up realistic explanations. I'm not sure how long I lay there before I finally drift to sleep, but eventually I do get a little bit of rest.
I awaken to my cellphone ringing and answer it before even checking the caller ID. It’s barely light out and I can't imagine who would be calling me.
"Hello?" I answer drowsily through a sore throat as the happenings of the night before come back to me.
"Ari? Oh, thank god! What the hell! Are you sleeping? How did you possibly fall sleep? I've been up all night watching the news! I've been calling you every five minutes since I heard what happened!" It's Mindy.
"Sorry, I must've slept through the rings," I apologize.
"I thought you were dead! You had me calling around the country in the wee hours of the morning trying to figure out if you were okay! You couldn't have at least texted me?" she demands.
"I'm sorry Mindy," I apologize bitterly. "I had other things on my mind. Like you know, I think my dad was in there when whatever it was in the building blew up. I was also busy worrying about how my date was likely still in there too and a lot of my high school classmates," I scold her.
She's quiet. A first for her.
"I'm sorry," I say, apologizing genuinely for snapping at her.
"No, you're totally right. I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking," she amends.
"What did you hear on the news?" I ask her, changing the subject, and reach for my remote.
"Nothing really. They don't seem to know anything yet. Hey, let me bring a pizza over okay? I'll be over in half an hour," she promises and hangs up the phone.
I think about protesting but she's right. I'm starving and could really use a friend right now. I remember what my dad told me when my mom died. Ari, it is okay to cry. Sometimes. But only for a little while. While it’s safe to. I cry.
It isn’t long before there is a knock on my front door. Only it’s not Mindy. It’s Jacob Whiler, my father’s best friend and basically my second father. Jacob also works for the fire department. My heart feels like it drops to my stomach. Is he here to tell me that my father is dead?
“Good morning, Ariella. Glad to see you’re okay,” he greets me with a half-hearted smile. “Sorry to bother you at such an early hour but I didn’t think you’d be sleeping after all that...er…crazinesslast night.” He eyes my pajamas apologetically.
“Hey, Jacob. I was actually already up. My friend is bringing over pizza. Come in,” I motion with my finger and swing the door open wider, dressing my face with the best smile I can.
He takes a step inside.
“Oh, good, I'm glad I didn't wake you. Is your father in bed? I’d like to have quick word with him if he’s awake. If not, I’ll have to catch him later.”
“Uh…no…he never came home last night,” I inform him sadly.
Jacob’s eyebrows merge in confusion. “His truck is in the yard.”
“I drove it home last night," I tell him as anxiety begins to build up inside me.
He nods in understanding.
“When was the last time you seen him?” I ask him hopefully. I hope he knows more than I do.
“I’m not sure. I was so busy running around trying to help that I can’t say for sure. There were so many people and firefighters and paramedics and Christ,” he mumbles almost to himself, his eyes glazing over as he goes back to last night. “I saw him talking to you early on when everything was super nuts and then I can’t say for sure if I saw him again.”
My fears that he wasin the building when the explosion happened, resurface.
“He told me he was going in to see if he could pull out any bodies from around the doorway. I never seen him actually go in but not long after that…” I trail off choking up a bit.
“The bomb exploded,” he finishes with a nod and I can tell that he too is worried about my father’s safety.
“What?” I exclaim. “Bomb?”
“Yes, it was no accidental fire. We have reason to believe that gasoline or a highly flammable substance like it, likely one without much of a smell, was thrown on the walls and even ceiling of the building. We also believe that the explosion was the result of a bomb going off inside the building. Maybe as a last resort to kill any remaining people inside. The fire spread too quickly to have been started by a faulty wire or even a lighter. We’re sure that it was a targeted attack.”
I gape. Who would try and kill 800 kids?
“Did you see anyone rush outside shortly before the fire started?” he continues.
I think about it. “No, sorry.”
“Quite alright. We don’t even know if someone started it from inside of the building or if they did it from outside of the building. We’ll know more once the wreckage cools down and the police can check things out. I got sent home to get some rest. I assumed your father had too when I couldn’t find him this morning. I just wanted to ask him what he thought about it. He always has the best theories. I’ll try calling him later I suppose,” he reassures me and steps outside. Isn’t he worried that my father might be dead? He sure doesn’t show it much.
“Alright, if you see him or get ahold of him by phone, will you let me know?” I plead.
“Of course and if you see him, tell him to ring me up.”
“Thanks. See you, Jacob,” I say my goodbyes before hugging him and then I begin closing the door.
“Ariella?” he asks softly with a small smile.
“Don’t worry about your dad. He’s the toughest man I know.”
I nod and continue to shut the door.
“And Ariella, it’s okay to be sad. You’re not a soldier, you’re a teenage girl. Holding it in will only make it worse in the end. That’s where your dad is wrong about staying strong. If you hold it in, one day, you’ll just snap. Then it’ll be almost impossible to make the pain go away,” Jacob suggests with understanding stretched across his face. He’s known my dad since high school and so he knows he’s a hard ass when it comes to showing emotion.
“Thanks,” I say in a vague thanks and close the door. Jacob is practically family. He’s at our house all the time. He’s even helped me train on many occasions. He joins us for dinner at least twice a week and helps us celebrate every holiday. He may as well be my second dad.
Nearly right after I shut the door, it swings open and in walks Mindy, pizza in hand.
After Mindy arrives, we call the hospital to see if we can get anything out of them. The lady I talk to sounds annoyed. Which really isn’t unexpected. I mean, the hospital has probably been getting calls like mine all night and morning so I don’t blame the lady for being a tad snappy.
By the time I get off the phone with her I have come to the conclusion that I may as well head down there in person, maybe then I’ll get a straight answer.
Mindy jumps into the passenger seat with the pizza, seeing as we have yet to touch it.
“Alright, where are we going?” she asks.
“The hospital,” I inform her, determined.
“Ah, makes sense. St. Marie? By the school?” she asks, while opening the pizza box and shoving a slice into her mouth.
“Yep, I figure that’s where they would’ve taken dad and Nathan since it’s the closest.”
“Probably. Unless it was full of a million other students. Not all of them could go to one hospital,” Mindy points out. She has a good point.
“Let’s start at St. Marie.”
After a short car ride and half a pizza, we are walking through the hospital doors. It’s packed. We have to push our way through people as if we’re at a concert or something.
“Jesus," Mindy grumbles.
“No kidding. Let’s just get to that nursing station up there.” I shout at her over the chatting crowd. I was expecting a few friends and family but not the entire student body plus their parents, teachers, grandparents, and probably first cousins. Like holy shit.
Once we finally make it to the nursing station, I pull out my phone and bring up a picture of my dad.
“Do you know if this man is in the hospital? He’s my father. His name is Theenis Malgrovech,” I ask her, using my father’s full name.
She looks at me and then to the picture. She sighs.
“One moment,” she says sounding exhausted.
She types something into her computer and I watch as her eyes widen the slightest bit.
“What?” I ask.
“Ma’am, please come with me,” she instructs after a moment. She leads Mindy and me down the hall to a part of the hospital that is not nearly as busy.
“Is Theenis your father also?” she asks Mindy.
“No, I’m just Ariella’s friend.”
“I’ll have to ask you to go sit over there and wait then. I’m sorry, dear,” she says earnestly to Mindy who nods and goes to sit at a row of yellow chairs a little ways down the hall.
“Ariella, is it?” the lady asks.
“Okay, well first of all you must understand that your father didn’t have any next of kin contact numbers on his account,” she says quickly. “We figured he hadn’t any family or we would’ve called. He was brought in very early this morning not breathing. We tried to help him but there wasn’t much we could do. He’s no longer with us, but he died a hero, Ariella. The paramedics that brought him in said he ran into a burning building and saved at least three student's lives before there was an explosion which they assume was what took him.” The elderly lady’s soft blue eyes are warm and caring. “I’m so very sorry for your loss.” She pauses as if debating whether to say what she says next. “We would like someone to identify the body, if at all possible. It doesn’t have to be you, it can be any family member or even a good friend.”
“I’ll do it. He doesn’t have any other family,” I tell her reluctantly.
“How old are you Ariella?” she asks.
“I turned 18 yesterday,” I tell her as panic makes my heart flutter. What will I do now? My father is all I have. Had.
“Perfect. Come with me.”
She leads me further down the hall to a different desk, asks me few more questions and has me sign some stuff before she brings me into the morgue. I’m ready to burst into sobs at any given moment and have to struggle to keep the tears back. My father is dead. Oh my god dad is dead. He’s gone. Oh, my god.
I know I should be hyperventilating and letting the sobs inside me escape, abnormal control over emotions or not, but I’m in shock. Coming here, I knew that there was a strong possibility that this is what I would find but I still didn’t come here prepared. I don't think that it's possible to be prepared for something like this.
“Are you sure about this?” she asks as we step inside the chilly room.
“Yes,” I say blankly and follow her to a wall full of small metal doors.
She looks at a clipboard on the wall and then opens one of the doors and pulls the drawer outwards.
I swallow hard.
The lady glances up at me. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, please proceed.” Truth is, I’m not. For the first time in a long time, I’m not okay. There is no shoving this moment behind some wall. This moment will stay with me forever.
She then unzips the bag and although its contents are unbelievably burnt, it’s not hard to tell that yes, my father is in fact this man. I burst into tears as all the emotion from the last 24 hours gets let loose.
Once I’ve pulled myself together a little, I escape the morgue and find Mindy playing some game on her phone right where we left her.
“Let’s go,” I beg her, about to break down.
“Ariella? Are you okay?” she asks seeing my tear streaked face and shoving her phone away.
“He’s dead,” I muster, shaking my head as if in disbelief. The pain I feel is unbelievable.
“Oh, Ariella, god, I’m so sorry,” she sympathizes, her hand coming up to cover her mouth as her own eyes fill with tears.
Mindy drives home as I sob in the passenger seat.
When I get home, I call Jacob and let him know about my father’s death through sobs. He has to have me repeat what I've said four times before he understands my words.
“Ariella, if the body was burnt, how do you know it was him for sure?” he asks finally, after a long silence.
“I just know, Jacob. It was quite obviously him. I know my father. I know what he looks like.”
“Okay, I’m so sorry Ariella. Your father was a good man. Do you need any help planning the funeral?” he asks. Do we have to discuss this now? I mean I only just found out about his death!
“I…I don’t know. I was thinking maybe we could just do it graveside. Like just some of his colleagues and myself. I don’t know who else I would even call. I think that basically sums it up. I don’t really know where to start though, like who do I even call to dig the hole? How do I even pay for a headstone? Where do you order one? I have like thirty-two dollars,” I rant nearly going into panic mode again.
“Your father, I’m sure, had life insurance. He also wasn’t a poor guy. You’ll likely inherit the house and his money and everything. It’ll be fine. Would you like me to come stay with you for a few days while we get all this worked out? I can help you get it all figured out and take a few days off of work,” he offers.
I think about it and decide that even though I just want to be alone right now, I have no idea what I’m doing. “Yes, if you could, I mean I don’t want to be a hassle.”
“You’re not, I’ll be over in an hour,” Jacob says before I hang up the phone.
Mindy leaves when I tell her that I just need some alone time. I do, I need time to think and sort through my thoughts. After she’s gone, I head downstairs to my father and my training room to blow off some steam.
I set up one of our punching bags and begin beating on it as if it’s the fire that killed my father. If the fire was in fact started on purpose, if there was in fact a bomb, I’m feeling like I could kill whoever set it up.
I’m so into beating the punching bag that I don’t hear my phone ringing in my bra until the fourth ring. I whip it out, sweating like something else and put the speaker to my ear.
“Hello?” I say breathlessly.
“Ariella? Oh, thank god you’re okay!” a male voice says on the other end.
“Who is this…?” I ask confused.
“Nathan, Nathan Walters. I just er…got out of the hospital.”
After getting the news about my father, I somehow forgot about Nathan. “I’m so glad you’re okay!” I tell him through gasps.
“Well, that’s the thing. I don’t know if I am. Can I come over?” he asks nearly begging.
“Uh…er…it’s not really a good time.” I admit.
“Please, it’s important, Ariella,” he tries again.
“I just found out my father passed away last night,” I blurt.
“That’s what I need to talk to you about. I watched it happen, I watched your father die and you’re never going to believe this,” he says in a strange tone that I can’t place.
“What!? You knew? Why didn’t you call me?! I’d have rather heard it from you than the hospital employee who told me!” I demand, my heart races, this time not from my workout.
“Because I couldn’t. I was knocked out from the painkillers they gave me. The fire didn’t kill him. He was murdered, Ariella.”
“What?!” I shout. “No, I saw his body, it was burned. Who would want to kill my father? My dad doesn’t…didn’t have any enemies.”
“I’m coming over,” he says, not asking, but instead telling me. “There’s stuff that you don’t know about, that you need to.” Then he hangs up the phone before I can demand any more answers.