From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul on Love & Friendship

One Final Lesson

One rainy day I was at home playing on my computer when the phone rang. It showed up on my caller ID as one of my really good friends from across the state. I anxiously grabbed for the receiver and answered. But instead of the lively reply that I had come to expect from my friend, I heard nothing but sobbing. She was crying so hard she couldn’t even talk. Finally, she got it all out. Two of her best friends had just died. Slowly over the next hour and a half I got the story piece by piece.

After I hung up I couldn’t clear my mind of what I had just heard. It was a scenario I had heard too many times in my life. So I pulled the facts together and wrote a story of what happened. The following is what I came up with.

The last day of school is today. It couldn’t be more perfect since today is also your seventeenth birthday. All that you and two of your buddies have planned is a night out on the lake.

For a couple of hours you and your friends sit in a little aluminum boat in the middle of the lake under the colorful skies painted by a setting sun. As you guys empty can after can from a case of beer, you talk about the usual: girls and your plans for the summer, and what it’s going to be like when school begins and all three of you are finally seniors.

You don’t notice the wind beginning to pick up, churning the calm, smooth lake into something dangerous. By the time you realize it’s time to come in, the waves have already begun to thrash your little boat. Your friend gets the engine going and handles the steering while you work the throttle. As soon as he gets the engine started you open the throttle maybe just a little more than you should. With a jolt, the little boat is sent speeding across the waves. Halfway to the landing you helplessly watch in horror as you notice a huge wave coming at you from the side. Your friend turns the boat into the wind and toward the wave as you throttle down the engine for all you’re worth, but not soon enough. The wave hits the boat at an angle, sending her off the crest and smashing down into its trough. All three of you are knocked against the side as the force of the wave capsizes the boat and sends you all into the lake.

You kick for the surface, but your legs feel heavy and sluggish. It feels as if something is pulling you down into the depths. Your boots, now weighted by the water, are pulling you deeper and deeper into the darkness. As much as you try, the light of the surface becomes more and more distant. As your last few seconds of consciousness pass, you desperately try to pull your boots off. You tear at the laces, but they won’t come undone. You panic, thrashing wildly, doing anything just for a breath of precious air. Before blackness consumes you, images of your friends and family swim through your mind. No, you think to yourself. This isn’t happening to me. I’m only a teenager. I can’t die!

And then, almost as an answer to your thoughts, you miraculously find yourself on the sandy shore—dry, warm and sober. You see one of your friends swimming toward the beach. You call out to him, but he doesn’t respond. He pulls himself out of the lake and he stands there shivering as water drips from his T-shirt, looking at the overturned boat. He calls out for you and your friend. “Hey!” you yell as you walk over to him. “I’m right here.” But he doesn’t seem to notice. He calls out again, and again you give him your same response: “Hey! I’m right here!” You step in front of him, but his frantic eyes look past you, around you, and even through you.

Oh, God, he says to himself. What have I done? He takes a few steps backward, then turns and runs up the road.

“Hey!” you yell. “Hey, where are you going?!” But it’s almost as if you had said nothing at all. You watch helplessly as he continues to run until he disappears from sight.

For a time all is silent. Ten minutes pass, then twenty. After thirty, maybe thirty-five minutes, a siren pierces the silence. At first you don’t notice. But within minutes ignoring it is impossible. Down the road come a multitude of emergency vehicles, followed in short succession by cars and trucks, some of which you recognize as belonging to friends. As people jump out of their cars, you notice that your parents are there also. Your father walks somberly, while your mother sobs endlessly in his arms. You run over to your parents, yelling out to them, but they don’t seem to hear. They pull an officer aside to talk, to find out what is going on. As you get closer you hear the officer say, “Ma’am, I’m sorry but your son’s body is missing. We have called in helicopters to search the beaches with searchlights. Men on horseback have gone up to scan the cliffs . . . divers will come in tomorrow.”

“But you don’t need all them!” you yell. “I’m right here! I’m not dead! It’s not supposed to happen to me!”

As the night draws to a close, the lake fills with more and more boats. People from all over your little town are out on the water with flashlights, calling out for you and your missing friend. And no matter how hard you yell, no one seems to hear you. You walk by groups of some of your best friends, and even some of those people with whom you never really got along. Some of them are trying not to cry, yet holding those who are.

You watch your girlfriend crying and calling out for you as her friends try to comfort her. “Don’t cry,” your soundless voice says to her. “I’m not dead. I can’t be. I’m only seventeen. This can’t happen to me.”

Night gives way to morning and no one has left— instead, more have come. Your mother is out on the dock. She has been there for nearly five hours. You watch as your father and an officer walk out to her, and you hear your father whisper, “C’mon, honey, it’s time to go now.” She breaks into tears while you try desperately to hold back yours. She won’t go. Not until the body of her son is found. The flood of emotions hits you like a brick wall when the police have to sedate her in order to move her from the end of the dock. This shouldn’t be happening, you tell yourself. I’m only a teenager. I can’t be dead.

The names of you and your friend, which have been called out by rescuers all night long, are drowned out by the high-pitched roar of two army helicopters. Immediately, their searchlights pierce the fading darkness and begin sweeping over the lake and the beaches that surround it.

One of the searchlights passes over you; you put your arms in front of your face as the blinding light engulfs you. And then is gone . . .

You lower your arms and look around. The helicopters are gone. As are the police, medics and firemen. They are all gone. The boats that once carried searchers and their flashlights bob gently in their moorings at the dock. Your friends no longer sit on the shore, crying at the realization that two of their companions are forever lost.

Instead, the sun rises over the clear and pristine lake. The sky is blue, with not a cloud in sight. Your clothes ripple as a cool west wind slips beside you.

In a clearing you can see a small congregation of people. As you walk closer, each and every one of them becomes familiar—each of them a friend or a family member. There are two sections of folding chairs, all of which are occupied. Before them, beside a little makeshift podium, propped above a pile of flower bouquets, are two pictures—one is of your friend whom you never saw after the boat capsized and threw all three of you into the lake. You hesitate to look at the other picture because you already know—it’s you.

As one friend leaves the little podium, another stands and takes his place. She speaks about what the two of you meant to her and how much she will miss you. One by one, friends and relatives come up to speak, each emphasizing how much you will be missed. And you sit there and watch, all the time not believing that it happened to you. That you died, even though you were still a teenager.

Noah Campana

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