The Last Bonfire

It started as a fun, carefree fall night—a party deep in the woods. But by the time it was over, one person would be dead. One would be under arrest. And one would be in the hospital, trying to make sense of it all.

The chill in the air that October night warned that winter was  on its way, and with it, the end of the bonfires Tristan, then 16, had been going to all summer. One last time her crew met in the parking lot of a supermarket, then caravanned up a remote mountain road to build a fire in a vacant lot.

Tristan was looking forward to spending time with her boyfriend, Malek, then 19. Tristan and Malek had been going out for nearly a year, and Tristan was in deep: “This was the one person I loved with my whole heart,” she says. “Having him around just made things 10 times happier.”

Around the bonfire, kids drank from bottles of malt liquor and rum, singing along with the music from their truck radios and dancing. Tristan mostly talked to her cousin, Bryson, then 18, but wherever she was, she could hear Malek’s distinctive laugh: “He had this sort of little scream-laugh, any one of his friends could pick it out—and I’d look over, and I’d see him smiling,” she remembers.

The couple had argued earlier in the day—Tristan thought Malek, who’d graduated the year before, was hanging out with the party crowd too much—but she was still sure they’d be together forever.

They spent nearly every day with each other, and nothing could change that: “We just needed to figure out what we wanted for our future,” Tristan says. But the bonfire was no place for a heavy talk. She figured they had plenty of time to sort things out in the morning.

But that conversation never happened. That night Malek, Tristan, and their friends got into a car with someone who’d been drinking—and it wound up costing Malek his life.

The crash that killed Malek devastated his friends and family and shook their small community in Washington State, but it was not unusual: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), six teens die in car accidents each day, and more than a third of those fatal car accidents involve alcohol.

TOO LATE TO MAKE A GOOD DECISION

If Tristan could go back in time, she’d do a lot of things differently, starting with not going to the party in the first place. But by 2 a.m., when the party, like the fire, began to sputter and die, the only thing on her mind was getting home. “None of us were sober,” Tristan says. Still, according to the police report, when someone handed Bryson a set of car keys and asked if he was OK to drive, he said, “I think so.”

At that point, it was too late for Bryson or anyone else to tell if he actually was OK to drive. That’s because drinking affects your decision-making skills long before you feel drunk, and drinking is doubly dangerous for teens, says Justine W. Welsh, a professor who studies teen substance abuse at Emory University School of Medicine. Even more than adults, you can seem functional long after you’re impaired. “You can be incredibly intoxicated, but still be wakeful and moving around,” says Welsh. “You’re making decisions, but they’re really poor decisions.”

That impaired judgment is exactly what led the friends to pile into a beige Honda Accord with Bryson at the wheel, Malek in the passenger seat, and Tristan and two other friends in the back. In the statement he later gave to police, Bryson said he remembered carefully following a pickup truck down the dark two-lane highway, figuring that following the truck would help him stick to the speed limit.

Bryson may have been trying to drive safely, but his drinking made that impossible. “By the time you feel any effect of alcohol, even just ‘tipsy,’ your judgment and reaction time have been affected,” says Dr. Tim Naimi, a physician and alcohol researcher at Boston University School of Medicine. “It can be subtle differences, like whether you’re paying attention to the road or turning your head and talking to your friends while you’re driving.”

Which may be exactly what happened that night. Bryson later told the police that Tristan and Malek started arguing again, and he turned his head to listen. (Tristan has no memory of this fight.) The car started going off the road and he overcorrected, turning sharply to the left, crossing both lanes of the highway, and heading straight for the trees on the other side of the road. The last thing Tristan remembers is Malek yelling, “Bryson! Bryson!” 

“I’M SORRY”

The Honda crashed into the trees so hard that one tree split in two. Malek, in the passenger seat, was killed on impact. Tristan was pinned in the backseat with a broken pelvis. The two friends in the backseat with her suffered injuries as well. Despite having a broken rib, lacerated liver, and collapsed lung, Bryson was able to get out of the Honda. According to one of the passengers, after Bryson got out of the driver’s seat, he looked in the backseat and said, “I’m sorry.”

Fortunately for Tristan, another group driving back from the bonfire found them shortly after the crash and called for help. Doctors later told Tristan she would have died if help hadn’t arrived so soon. She and Bryson were airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Four hours later, Bryson’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was still above the legal limit of 0.08. At 0.08 BAC, a driver is five times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than a sober driver. The police put Bryson in custody while he was still in his hospital bed.

Meanwhile, Malek’s parents thought he was spending the night at a friend’s house. They were at church the next morning with his two younger sisters when they learned Malek was dead. “At first, I didn’t believe it,” says his mother, Sia. “He was too alive, too popular, too strong. The pain was just devastating and raw.” At her son’s funeral, six days later, she learned how widely beloved her son was. The 600-seat church was packed with people standing in the aisles, against the walls, even in the church kitchen and out the door. Friend after friend got up to speak: about the time Malek stood up for a classmate who was being bullied, the time he spent an entire afternoon driving a friend around so the friend could apply for jobs. 

“I WAS ALWAYS THINKING ‘WHAT IF?’”

Tristan spent two weeks in the hospital. She was heavily medicated, so the experience is hazy in her mind, but she remembers hearing she might never walk again. Once she came home, she was on months of bed rest. “I couldn’t do anything because of everything that was broken in my body. I was always thinking, ‘What if.’ What if we just stayed home, what if we did something completely different? What if we’d planned better?”

So what could the friends have done differently? “The best advice is, don’t drink,” says Welsh. “But if you’re going to drink, or be around people who do, then mitigate the risks. Are you in a safe place? Are you making sure you’re not getting in a vehicle?”

As Tristan now says, “I wish everyone would choose ‘better safe than sorry.’” And if you find yourself in a situation with someone who’s been drinking and don’t have a designated driver, you have options: Call a friend, call a parent, call a ride service. (See box “Make the Call.”) “It’s always better to call somebody and have them be upset with you than to get in a car with somebody who’s drunk and risk your life,” Tristan says.

THE AFTERMATH

Bryson pled guilty to charges of homicide and assault. Like the majority of impaired drivers who kill someone, it was his first impaired driving offense. The fact that he, Tristan, and Malek were under 21 made the accident seem tragically common: kids who start drinking young are seven times more likely to be in an alcohol-related crash than those who wait until they’re 21 to drink. Bryson was sentenced to six years in jail.

Tristan beat the odds. After four surgeries, she was able to walk again and graduated from high school in 2017. Today, she wears a necklace with a copy of Malek’s fingerprint. On Facebook, she refers to herself as his “Mrs.”

“I miss Malek every single day. It’s so weird without him here,” Tristan says. But she doesn’t blame Bryson: “It could’ve been Malek driving, it could’ve been me,” she says.

But the heartbreaking truth is, it didn’t have to be any of them.

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Skills Sheets (6)
Skills Sheets (6)
Skills Sheets (6)
Skills Sheets (6)
Skills Sheets (6)
Skills Sheets (6)