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I met Amanda Fleetwood when I was fourteen years old. A mutual friend introduced us because we were the only kids in school who knew what Anime was. The next year we ended up taking Japanese class after hours together. We’d study together. I’d help her with her math. We became fast friends.

Amanda Fleetwood became my first girlfriend in December of 2001. I was sixteen.

On July 10, 2004, Amanda Fleetwood was shot in the back of the head. Her body was found in a car on the side of the road and rushed to the hospital where they said a bullet had gone through the back of her skull and lodged itself in her brain. The swelling was so bad that they couldn’t remove the bullet. Even if they had removed the bullet, it’d torn through the parts of her brain that dealt with memory and recognition. She’d be a vegetable for the rest of her life. She was gone. I was twenty.

Six years of friendship, four as my partner. Now it doesn’t seem like such a long time, but when you’re twenty it seems like a lifetime. We’d had our lives planned out. She was it for me. We fit so well despite our clashes. We were separate people but so close it was almost fightening sometimes. It was hard to tell where she ended and I began. And then a week to the day after my twentieth birthday, I get a call saying she’s in the hospital. I’d left her apartment just five hours before. She’d wanted me to stay the night but that was something I’d fought with my mother about. I was tired. I didn’t want to start a fight. So I kissed her, made her promise me she wouldn’t stay up until seven in the morning again, told her I loved her. It was the last thing I would ever say to her.

Most of my friends now never knew her. They can only ever know her through the CrimeStoppers information pages, old photos, news articles. That’s how she’s seen to the world now. A sad story of a girl shot before she was old enough to live her life. Murdered by a man who was never caught, murdered for a couple of wadded dollar bills and a pack of cigarettes for the kindness of offering to drive a stranger home late at night. For a long time thats all I could remember too. There was a wall separating me from the reality of what had happened. My mind wouldn’t let me connect this tragedy to someone that I honestly, truly loved more that I ever imagined I had the capacity to.

This is how I remember Amanda.

She was beautiful. Fun-loving. She loved adventures and taking risks, something that gave me a heart attack almost constantly. She had a tiny freckle on the inside of her lower left eyelid. When she was pouting at me she’d puff out her cheeks and scrunch up her eyes until I gave in. It didn’t last long; I usually won. The first time I met her she smacked me in the face with a heavy silver necklace. I decided I didn’t like her. That didn’t last long either, though she most certainly won that time.

She wanted to see the world. Experience all of it. Even in those times where she felt like she didn’t deserve good things or happiness — these moments were unfortunately frequent — she fought for it anyway. As much as she talked like she wanted to give up on everything she never did. She clung to the hope that life could get better.

She hated her middle name.

She loved New Orleans. The city spoke to her. Her plan was for me to become a rich lawyer and for her to become a writer so she could mooch off of me forever in a big red-bricked house with white pillars in New Orleans. We visited once before she died, and I hadn’t seen her happier in a long, long time.

We spoke every single day. If we went away and couldn’t reach each other by phone, chat or in person, we wrote letters. One for every day we were apart. we’d exchange them when we met up again.

I still have her letters. She loved writing.

She was one of the first people in my life that made me feel completely loved and accepted just as I was. I didn’t need to change for her. I could change if I wanted to, I could stay exactly as I was, and I knew that no matter where I went or what I did she’d be there, supporting and loving me through it all.

I have a thousand memories of her, bursting through my mind at a million miles an hour. Not a single day goes by that one of them doesn’t trigger. Even now, seven and a half years later, I have moments where I want to tell her something and then I realize I can’t and it still crushes me. She was such a bright part of my life and that is so hard to let go of. I’ve tried every way I know how and I haven’t managed it yet.

But she’s why I know I can be loved. She’s why I know I’m worth being loved. That’s something she gave to me, is still giving to me even though she’s not here anymore.

Yesterday Amanda would have turned twenty nine. Three days ago, December 27th, would’ve been our ten year anniversary. She’s been dead longer than we were together but so help me, I still don’t love her any less.

Happy birthday, monkey.