37. A little heart and a smiley

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   I parked my motorbike next to the bus stop. As we waited for Dario, Gaia called Virginia multiple times with no success. At first she didn't want to read all those messages in Whatsapp group chats, but she needed to know who was the original source. We both had a suspect, but she didn't want to believe it was actually him. She couldn't accept that.

As soon as Dario got off the bus with ragged breathing and unlaced shoes, we started moving. It had to be the three of us. We had to be there for her and we had to be together. It was shameful that we had no idea what was going on in her life for the past few weeks. As we paced towards her house, all our problems and conflicts seemed insignificant. When we arrived, Gaia rang the bell and then immediately knocked on the door and then rang the bell again. I glanced at Dario and we both approached her. She had shaky hands.

Virginia's mum opened the door. "What the hell?" she yelled.

She had never been nice to us, but today it looked like she was ready to kill us. To kill anyone who dared to interrupt her crying session. Yes, she had been crying. I could tell by her red eyes and the napkin in her hand.

"What do you want?" she snapped.

Dario lowered his head and Gaia stared at her in silence, as though thinking of something else.

I cleared my throat. "Uhm, is Virginia home?"

"No," Miss Colombo replied. "She doesn't want to see you. She doesn't want to see anyone."

"So she is home?" I said.

"Just leave."

She was about to close the door, but Gaia blocked it with her arm. She didn't say a word, she just stared into her eyes.

Virginia's mum sighed. "And what do you think you can do, Gaia? Her future is already ruined. She can only dream of getting a degree or having any kind of career. And because of her stupid actions, my reputation is also compromised. Now I'm waiting for a phone call from my lawyer to find a way to undo all of this. And what's your plan?"

Gaia gulped and clenched her jaw. Her collarbones became more visible and her gaze more frigid. But once again, she didn't say a word.

"We just want to make sure she's okay," I said.

"Good luck with that," Miss Colombo replied. "She hasn't left her bedroom since yesterday night."

"And you did nothing? You didn't even try to comfort her?"

"Look," she raised her tone, "I'm doing the impossible here to make sure her life doesn't become a total shit-show."

"Why exactly are you crying?" Gaia asked. It was the first thing she said to her and perhaps it was the only thing that had been on her mind since the moment she saw her.

"Because I can't even look her in the eye," she said, with a heavy chunk of sadness in her throat. "Because I would have never ever thought that one day I'd feel so ashamed of my own daughter."

Gaia frowned and pushed past her, walking inside the house with Dario behind her. Miss Colombo didn't react. She just breathed in and breathed out, as though letting her own words sink in. Then her eyes ignited with rage and she turned around, rushing to the kitchen. I closed the door behind me and slowly walked up the stairs. It was quiet. Too quiet. The only noise was Virginia's mother crying and Gaia's fists knocking against Virginia's bedroom door. The hallway upstairs was narrow, but some light reached it through the windows of the open studio. Virginia's mum was a teacher, her father an architect. They were good parents, I guess. The pictures on the walls should have been proof of that.

''Virginia, please, open the door.''

Gaia whispered these words for the 100th time, but no response. She pressed her forehead against the door and sighed. Dario was sitting on the floor with his legs crossed. He was holding a lighter and lit up the flame every 5 seconds. I sat next to him.

''We're not gonna leave you,'' Gaia said.

She turned around and let her body slide down against the door. She took off her high heels, her legs were already shaking without them. She was a mess, even with the elegant lace dress on and the French braid on her shoulder.

"I know you can hear me," she said. "So I'm just gonna sit here and talk and talk until you open the door and we hug each other real tight, okay? And you know I'm not a good talker, so I'm gonna say some stupid shit and I'll mean all of it and one day we'll remember this moment and you'll make fun of me for being cheesy." She laughed softly and sniffled. "I know I'm the worst best friend you could ever wish for, but... I'm here for you. And I'll be here for you through all of it, even when – no, especially when – things get dark and complicated. And yes, that sounds cliché, but you know that I truly mean it because you know me."

Her voice cracked and she lowered her head. Dario kept igniting the flame, I could see the shadow of fire reflecting in the black of his eyes. Gaia bit her lip.

''Remember how we met?'' she said. ''My babysitter and your mum quarrelled in the park because I stole your doll and made you cry. I could have afforded a thousand of those dolls, but no one ever asked me if I wanted one. And I did. And I remember how jealous I was of you in that moment. Jealous of the way your mum held your hand and yelled at my babysitter, jealous of your pink dress and your little curls. And I remember that your red cheeks were covered with tears. I looked at you with so much hatred and you just smiled at me. You smiled and I was so confused and I almost wanted to hate you more. But instead I started crying. I don't know why, I never understood that."

She sighed and pressed her head against the door.

''Virginia, I... I'm so sorry. If I could go back and change everything, I would. I would push him away from you, I... I just want you know that it's gonna be okay. Time will pass and everyone will forget. It has already happened here in Genoa. All those girls are still alive, aren't they? They still go to school and they have friends and... if someone's gonna judge you based on a topless picture you took one summer night, that someone isn't worthy of your attention. They can think whatever they want, they don't know you. They don't know how beautiful and smart and brave you are. And I admire you. I want you to know that. I have admired you since the moment you smiled at me as you cried."

A sob.

A suffocated sob came through Virginia's bedroom door. It was short and quiet, like a hiccup of pain. Gaia gasped and put her arms around her knees. Her eyes widened and froze and dispersed like dust. She was crying. Everything was shaking in her. Everything was shaking in me. I looked up. A smiling Virginia was looking back at me, with her colourful cardigan and preppy skirt. And her confident grin, immortalized on the picture frame. And there was a picture of us from two years ago, summer 2014. In the corner, she had written in cursive ''the sweetest days of our lives''. A little heart and a smiley.


I lowered my head and looked at Gaia. Her smudged make up and her quivering lips reminded me that this wasn't summer 2014. This was reality. And reality wasn't that sweet.

''You have to stop him,'' she said, ''before he does anything stupid.''

I knotted my eyebrows and then I looked around. Dario was gone. He had left his lighter on the floor, but he took my helmet. I immediately stood up and ran outside. It was too late. I could hear the engine of my motorbike as he drove away. Jesus, Dario. He didn't even have a license. He didn't have anything. Just a broken heart full of rage. He loved her, I knew he did. And there was only one way he thought he could help her. And it was the wrong one.

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