Looking up at the moon, Danny thought of an earring. Each end of the silver crescent lost in the cobalt ear of the evening sky. Away from the cramped hotel room and his parents, he could breathe again. The cool breeze swept him along as he walked across campus. Tears had brought relief, and for a moment he felt free. Chelsea was with him now. He held her soft small hand and smelled the tangy citrus perfume she always wore. Her red hair, a dark copper in the half light flared under the evenly paced lamps along the path to his dorm. Her voice drew him on in the dark, made it bearable, comforting. Chelsea talked about her classes, about the paper she was writing on a painting by Camille Pissarro.
He and Chelsea had taken the Peter Pan bus to the Museum in Boston. The painting she chose was called “Two Peasant Women in a Meadow.” Danny couldn’t imagine that much could be written about such a simple pastoral scene. But Chelsea described how the artist used the color white to make the canvas shimmer the way the sun does in the summer air. How the subtle shadows that cross the canvas create depth. The village, a couple of houses, a single steeple receding, magnified slightly by the humid atmosphere. How the tall trees bisect the shadows mimicking the steeple. How the whole painting was oddly balanced by a lush tree seen only partially at the right of the painting. The wild asymmetry of its leaves, fruit and trunk weighted against the two figures in the foreground, one seated, the other standing, resting heavy baskets in the swirling pink and green of flowers and grass, caught in mid conversation. Danny, listening closely, followed Chelsea’s voice through the quiet evening back to his room.
Switching on the harsh light over his desk silenced her voice. He felt the cramping pain again in his stomach. His mouth was dry and he was sweating again. Danny took a bottle of vodka from the freezer of the small fridge. He poured the clear liquid into a tall glass and drank deeply. Opening his backpack, he found the Ambien his mother had given him and swallowed it along with more than a dozen lorazapam he had left from his prescription. Taking another drink of vodka, he knew he needed to move quickly. He laid two heavy towels along the base of the door and opened the single window in the small room. The voices of student’s crossing the quad, floating in with the cool night air. On his desk was a postcard of the painting Chelsea had been telling him about.
Danny mainlined as much of the heroin as he could cook before the mix of chemicals and alcohol started to make him heavy with sleep. Draining the remaining vodka from the glass, he lay down on his bed. He turned the postcard in his hand over and over, staring at the vivid sun streaked painting. He listened again for Chelsea’s voice, but all he heard was the buzz from the fluorescent bulb over his desk.
When there was no answer to his persistent banging, Bill had the Residential Assistant unlock the boy’s door. Pushing the door open slowly against the heavy towels on the floor, sunlight and cold pouring in through the open window, Bill knew immediately from his son’s pale gray skin, his blue green eyes wide and unblinking, that Danny was gone. The RA returned to his room to contact the campus police. Bill closed the door and sat down next to his son on the bed and began to cry. There was nothing to hold back all the hurt in him now - first April’s death, then Chelsea’s and now this. He pulled a tissue from a box on Danny’s desk. Drying his eyes he saw the postcard in Danny’s hand. Bill lifted the brightly colored card slowly thinking it might be a note explaining this useless act - The back of the card read – “Dear Danny, thank you for going to the MFA with me and for loving me the way you do. I promise we’ll spend more time together once my paper is done.” Chelsea had abbreviated “I love you” and signed her name above a smiley face.
Deanna and Kurt Langley arrived the morning that Danny’s body was discovered. Caroline picked them up at TF Green Airport. The couple, anxious and sleepless from their long delayed flight from the west coast, were furious. They had hardly begun to accept the death of their daughter when Bill told them and Caroline how he’d found his son just an hour before. Caroline who had given Danny the Ambien and hadn't told her son that she loved him when he’d left the room the night before was unable to speak.
The President of the University met with the parents of both students in the early afternoon at his home just off campus. While Kurt and Deanna Langley, Caroline O’Reilly and her ex-husband Bill Levine were inconsolable, a determination of the facts was necessary if they were all to survive the inevitable media storm that was to follow. For now, the campus and the local police were there along with the Rhode Island State Police and the FBI. Once Bill disclosed the details - that Chelsea had taken the heroin from Danny’s room intending to teach him a lesson and that her death was accidental. That the post card of the painting by Pissarro was evidence enough that Danny couldn’t or wouldn’t bare the pain of what his recklessness had caused. And, that an autopsy would no doubt later confirm that a fatal combination of heroin, sleeping pills and alcohol were to blame for Danny’s death, it was determined that telling the truth would be the best course of action. With that decided, the authorities agreed that finding the source of this readily available drug as quickly as possible was one way to alleviate the Universities primary concern that parents would begin removing their children from the school.
Forty-eight hours later the parking lot of the Red Roof Inn was packed with satellite trucks. The story of a single student overdosing on heroin could no longer be contained by the University. Not after the victim’s boyfriend was found dead two days later in his dorm room, also the result of an overdose. The story had gone national quickly with several of the network anchors broadcasting live from the campus. The Today Show and Good Morning America interviewed the parents of the students in a makeshift set in a small area where the hotel served its continental breakfast. There, surrounded by a few sickly looking potted plants, the wives in tears, the husbands tired, all four soft-spoken, confused, unable to find, to the dismay of their interviewers, any god to praise or anything to be grateful for.
The shock over the senseless deaths of their children was made exponentially greater by the desire of the community, and the nation to understand why two white, middle-class kids who came from seemingly good homes would end up statistics in the ongoing heroin epidemic. President Obama, in a press conference held in the Rose Garden, referred to the situation as tragic and urged that it be a wake-up call. Flowers, candles and other remembrances of the couple accumulated outside of Danny and Chelsea’s dormitories. What had begun with an accidental death was quickly becoming a love suicide. Students left poems and cards, some quoting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“For never was a story of more woe
than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
Commentators spoke, each in an anguished hush on the steps outside of Chelsea’s dorm room, of the tragic miscommunication of the couple, Chelsea’s naive heroism and the solemn resolve of Danny to put guilt behind him by joining the one he loved. But the truth was that they were not the children of feuding families whose outsized love could not be contained - they were ordinary children whose love had barely begun to bloom and whose lives were only just beginning.
Over the next 36 hours the media explored the brief lives of these two photogenic star-crossed lovers, Danny, a musician and writer, a so-so student, who had yet to declare a major and Chelsea, a stunning redhead, who majored in Art History, liked horseback riding, drawing and playing volleyball. How the couple had met two years before on Easton’s Beach, when Chelsea attended a summer program for high school students at Salve Regina in Newport. How she had pleaded with her parents to return to Rhode Island in the fall, to attend the same school as Danny.
Kurt and Deanna Langley flew home to Colorado with their daughter’s body hoping to flee the media, only to be welcomed at Denver International by an even larger contingent of local TV and radio personalities, as well as politicians and other well wishers. Following the widely televised funeral of their son in Newport, Caroline returned to her small apartment in Providence, Bill to his home in Middletown.
In the quiet that followed, it struck Bill that since 9/11, with all the school shootings, and natural disasters, America had become great at handling tragedy. That a moment of silence on the anniversary, a memorial, a plague, a tribute, a fundraiser, a ribbon; that consolation had come to replace action and that just going on was all that was needed. Bill wondered just how many wake-up calls America really needed?
In the meantime spring on Aquidneck Island couldn’t be stopped. First the bright sun yellow of forsythia and tulips, then purple hued lilacs, white dogwood and pink cherry blossoms like cotton candy. Lastly, the many-colored hydrangea with their round voluptuous blooms and green upturned leaves, swelled with life.
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