I told the cops that I didn’t see Danica that night. That was a lie. I told my parents that I had no idea why my roommate had been on the bell tower in the middle of the night. That was a lie. I cried with her parents when I told them she had been depressed for months. That was a lie.
The Thursday that Danica died we had spent the evening watching trashy reality TV, just like we had every Thursday for the last two years. Around midnight I turned off the television and handed her a small white card. The front of the card read, 'Chi Gamma Mu', and the back of the card read, 'THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE'. Danica flipped it over in her hands a few times before looking at me confused.
“It’s an invitation,” I explained. “For a game. Tower of Truth. It's kind of a right of passage before initiation.”
I watched as my words sank in and her eyes widened. “I’m being initiated tonight?” she asked in an excited whisper. I joined Chi Gamma Mu sorority last October, and for the past year Danica had been counting down the days until she could pledge. We opened up recruitment several months ago, and Danica was the first one there. Now there was only one thing standing between her and initiation.
“Get dressed,” I instructed. “I’ll explain on the way.” I grabbed a black hoodie that was draped over the back of the couch and ushered her out the door. The walk across campus took about fifteen minutes, and by the end Danica was bouncing up and down with impatience. We came to a stop in front of the oldest building on campus – the bell tower. I pointed up. “This is the Tower of Truth.”
Danica’s eyes grew wide and she took a few steps back so she could take in the entire building. I remembered how I felt when I was in her shoes. I remembered the pounding of my heart, the jolt of adrenaline coursing through my veins. Mostly I remembered feeling like I was going to puke. There was a movement in the shadows that caught my eye, and I saw the president of our sorority, Kaylie, emerge. Behind her were eight terrified pledges and fifteen initiated sisters whose excitement was palpable. There was some type of perverse pleasure in watching someone else go through the same torture that you did. “Let’s go,” instructed Kaylie. No one argued, and when Kaylie began to climb the winding staircase everyone followed.
“Veronica,” Danica whispered as she rushed up the stairs behind me. “I don’t think I want to do this.” I ignored her, saving my breath for the climb. It took almost ten minutes for everyone to finally reach the top. I was one of the last ones, and when I stepped out of the shadows of the staircase I could see all the pledges were huddled together in the middle of the platform, as far from the edge as they could get.
“Listen up pledges,” Kaylie’s voice rang out. “There is one game standing between you and initiation. The Tower of Truth.” A few of the initiated sisters cheered and I heard the pop of a champagne bottle being opened. As Kaylie explained the rules, the bottle was passed around. “If you’re going to be a part of this sisterhood, then we need to know we can trust you,” she started, taking a moment to look each of the new girls in their eyes. “So, one by one you are going to get up here,” she demonstrated by taking a big step up onto the ledge of the tower. “And whatever question we ask you, you have to answer truthfully.” She hopped down and shrugged. “Simple as that. You tell the truth and when you come down, we welcome you in the sorority with a champagne toast.” The pledges looked at each other and then back at Kaylie. It was obvious they wanted to back out, but I knew from experience that no one would be willing to be the first to do so.
There was silence as champagne flutes were filled up and passed out. When everyone had a glass, Kaylie raised hers. “A pre-game toast. May the truth set you free,” she finished off her entire glass, the rest of the girls following suit. Then the glasses were being collected and refilled, ready to cheers the first player.
“Hannah!” Kaylie yelled, pointing at a short girl with frizzy brown hair. I recognized her as the cousin of one of the initiated sisters, Jane. Hannah looked over at her cousin who gave her an encouraging smile and a thumbs up. Slowly, Hannah reached out and touched the ledge. She lifted one leg and put a shaky foot on the concrete. She pulled her other leg up so that she was in a crouch, and began to stand very slowly. Fear got the better of her halfway through, and for a few moments she stood hunched over, paralyzed. “Come on Hannah,” goaded Kaylie. “We haven’t even gotten to the fun part yet.” Something in Kaylie’s voice made me look over at her. I had heard her give orders plenty of times. I’d even heard her tease and bully people. But there was something else in her tone right now. She sounded almost, victorious. As if she had somehow won this game before it even started. Goosebumps prickled my skin. This was not good. She knew something about Hannah, that was the only explanation. Sure enough, when Hannah finally managed to stand up Kaylie didn’t waste a minute before asking, “Have you ever slept with a family member’s fiancé?”
Oh God. Jane’s boyfriend had proposed to her a few months ago and she was still on cloud nine. I prayed that Kaylie was wrong, but I knew she never asked any questions that she didn’t already know the answer to. I couldn’t bring myself to look at Jane, so I kept my eyes locked on Hannah. Tears were rolling down her cheeks, but she remained quiet. “I need an answer,” Kaylie pressed. Hannah looked at Kaylie, then at Jane, and finally at the ground below.
“Yes,” she whispered. She didn’t wait for permission to get down. Instead, she lowered herself back into a crouch and slipped off the ledge. Hannah didn’t take the glass of champagne that was extended to her, choosing instead to walk over to the staircase and disappear down it. The rest of us raised our glasses.
“To Hannah,” we saluted. “The truth has set you free.” As everyone took a sip from their glass, I noticed Jane had finished hers. She stuck her arm out for a refill and I poured her some more without comment.
The next twenty minutes went by in a similar fashion, although there were no revelations quite as dramatic. “Last but not least,” called Kaylie, “Danica.” Danica walked over to the ledge and climbed up without hesitation. Her bravery was met with cheers and applause. That’s when I noticed it. Her body swaying ever so slightly. It may not have been enough for anyone else to see, but after two years I knew what my roommate looked like when she was drunk.
“Kaylie!” I yelled, pushing through the other girls. “Get her down.” I rushed at Kaylie who turned to face me, and at that moment two things happened. Kaylie brought her hands to my shoulders and pushed me backwards, making me trip over a loose rock. As I fell backwards and landed on the ground, I heard an ear-piercing scream followed by the sound of a body hitting the ground below. Then more screaming. I scrambled to my feet and looked over the edge of the tower. Danica was sprawled out below. Her arms and legs were bent at impossible angles, and her eyes were open, staring up at me.
The screaming stopped as fast as it started. Everyone looked around in various stages of shock. I don’t know how long it was before Kaylie began to talk. She started by addressing the newly initiated sisters. “We are a family now,” she explained, her voice eerily calm. “That means we protect each other. We stick together.” She took a step back so she could see all of us. Then her eyes locked on mine. “Veronica. How long was Danica depressed?”
I shook my head. “What?” Nothing was making sense.
“Did you know that she drank by herself?” Kaylie continued.
I was too stunned to follow the conversation. But Jane wasn’t. “I knew,” she chimed in. “I saw her the other night, walking around with a bottle of wine. She looked really depressed.”
I shook my head again, finally catching on. “No. No, you know that’s not true. Danica is – was – the happiest person I ever met.”
Kaylie stalked over to me slowly. Her voice was low and it held a warning. “No. She was depressed. And a drunk.” She took my hand in hers and lifted my chin to look at her. Her tone softened. “V, Danica is gone. Are you really going to ruin the rest of our lives as well?”
“No." My whisper was barely audible.
Kaylie gave me a small, sad smile and walked to the staircase still holding my hand. No one spoke as we descended the stairs, and when we reached the bottom Kaylie wrapped her arm around me, shielding my view of Danica’s body. “Go to bed,” she instructed everyone. “Veronica, you stay with me tonight.”
The next few days were a blur. I did everything Kaylie told me to. I wore what she told me to wear, ate what she told me to eat, and said what she told me to say. I told everyone that I didn’t see Danica that night. I told everyone that I didn’t know why my roommate had been on the bell tower. I told everyone Danica had been depressed for months. I lied.
It was a few weeks later when Danica’s parents showed up at our apartment to get her things. As I was helping to pack up Danica’s bedroom, I found the invitation I had given her the day she died.
“What’s that?” her mother asked as she entered the room.
I looked down at the paper in my hand. At the words written in capital letters. THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE.
I crumbled up the invitation before she could read it. “Nothing,” I lied. “Just a stupid game.”