by Dave Franco | January 30, 2014

Savannah put her head on her mother’s lap as they sat in the back seat of the family car and headed toward the hospital. Tears fell from Savannah’s face onto the jeans her mother was wearing. Teri, herself crying, stroked her daughter’s blonde locks. “Shhh, shhh,” she whispered.

Donald, Savannah’s father, was driving slowly and deliberately, his fingers gripping tightly the steering wheel. His face was also covered with tears.

Savannah wiped at her nose with a tissue and then folded it tightly in her hand. Teri wished that she could step inside her daughter’s head and clear away all that must be exploding in her mind, the horror, the mistrust. She thought about how innocent Savannah was, just 15 years old. She wondered how her faith—a faith that always seemed a little tepid for her liking, was going to hold up now that Savannah’s life, as she knew it, had been taken away.

Images rolled through Teri’s mind like snap shots of Savannah’s life as a little girl, all the way up to where she was now. Just the day before, she watched Savannah sitting on the couch with her kid brother and sister watching Soul Surfer, the Bethany Hamilton story, while eating junk food and marveling at the surf footage. Savannah was so regular-girl, such an all-American average teen, so beautifully unblemished by the world.

Now, everything was different.

Savannah closed her eyes and two more tears were set free to fall. The events of the day were beginning to play over in her mind.

“Shhh, shhh. It’s alright, honey. It’s alright,” Teri reassured her. She didn’t know if it was true. She just didn’t know what else to say.

Savannah closed her eyes and two more tears were set free to fall. The events of the day were beginning to play over in her mind. It was such an ordinary day for something so extraordinary to happen.

• • •

Savannah rarely had a whole night free to spend with friends, what with school work, extracurricular activities, church events and going to an occasional football or basketball game.

But on this night, she arrived early at the address her best friend, Jennifer, had asked her to come to. This was the night that Jennifer was to attend a party for a family friend and was dreading being there alone with nothing but adults. So she called Savannah as her lifeline. Savannah, as always, was eager to help.

Around dusk, when they thought it might be the least noticed, the two 15-year-olds slipped out to take a walk along the wide, almost park-like greenbelt that separates the houses along their backyards. The greenbelt is lush, with trees, bushes and lots of lawn. It is a very lovely walk, yet it is rarely used.

Savannah and Jennifer were sitting on the ground beneath a tree with no one else in sight when two boys emerged from some nearby brush. They had their hoodies on and when they saw the girls, began whispering to each other. Savannah, who almost never says an unkind word about another person, felt herself speaking without thinking. “Those guys look like freaks,” she said, surprised that she had said it.

The boys walked away and out of sight. The girls turned toward each other and shared a look as if to say, that was creepy. About 10 minutes later, they suddenly felt themselves grabbed from behind. Startled and confused and offering no defense, as if perhaps being pranked by friends, they screamed. All at once, they were being violently pulled to their feet.

“Stand up,” they said. “And keep your mouth shut.”

Savannah looked over at Jennifer whose assailant had a knife to her throat. It was one of the hooded boys. She realized the boy who held her was the other. With wide eyes, the two girls shared a horrified look. “What do you want? Savannah asked sharply.

“Just keep your mouth shut and start walking,” one said.

They pushed the girls toward a part of the nearby hill that was off the beaten path. “What are you going to do to us?” Jennifer asked.

She began to look for an opening to make her move and get away. Suddenly she saw Jennifer yanked about and driven to the ground. There was no time to think about a getaway. It was now.

Her assailant paid her no mind and spoke to the other in Spanish. The boys started to separate the girls as they walked. Savannah, heart pounding, knew what was about to happen and touched her purity ring. She began to look for an opening to make her move and get away. Jennifer was now about 20 yards up the hill. Savannah didn’t want them to be separated any further. Her mind went into overdrive as she thought about how she could escape his grip. Suddenly she saw Jennifer yanked about and driven to the ground. There was no time to think about a getaway. It was now.

Savannah backed into her assailant, kicked him hard and swung her fist. He tackled her and they both fell to the dirt. Savannah fought her attacker with fists and knees and fingernails. She was punching herself loose from his grip and it was clear that he would not be able to contain her. She was about to get free to run.

“Tell her to stop or I’ll do it!” Jennifer’s attacker yelled at her with his jittery knife against her throat. “Tell her now!”

Savannah heard him, but continued to pull and kick. She was winning. She was about to get free and run away. All at once, from the whimpers of her friend, arose a shriek.

“Savannah! Savannah!” Jennifer screamed. “Stop or he’ll kill me! Please!” Savannah continued to inflict pain on her downed assailant but then ventured a quick look. She saw the knife against Jennifer’s throat. Savannah had only split seconds to make an unthinkable decision: save her life or save her friend’s.

Suddenly, Savannah stopped putting up a fight. The boy leaped up, grabbed her, and threw her down. And there it happened.

The back of Savannah’s head hit the hard dirt with an awful thud. Her assailant tore at her clothing as Jennifer’s feint whimpers could be heard in the distance. The whirring disbelief in Savannah’s mind began immediately, as if her brain was beginning to turn off in self-protection. She turned her face away from the boy’s, which was just inches from hers. She looked in the distance as her mind continued to numb the moment. The boy did what he was there to do. Savannah cried.

Suddenly, a feeling, like the breath of life, passed through her soul, as if from heaven.

“I am with you, Savannah,” a voice spoke to her. “I am with you. Have faith in me.” Savannah’s eyes opened wide. She did not question what she had just heard. It was God. She knew it at her core.

A strange clarity came over her. Suddenly she wasn’t afraid. She was filled with calm.

A strange clarity came over her. Suddenly she wasn’t afraid. She was filled with calm. She turned her head and looked at her assailant’s face cold and long, memorizing his features. The knife he was wielding was on the ground near her face. She looked at it and memorized the unique shape of the blade.

When it was over, the boys walked the girls down the hill for a few yards until they heard Jennifer’s mother, who had an intuition that the girls were in trouble and had set out in her car to find them. “Jennifer! Savannah!” she called out as she drove.

When the boys heard her, they dashed toward bikes they had stashed in the bushes and rode away. The girls looked at each other and broke down in tears, falling to the ground as they held each other in the dark.

• • •

The car ride to the hospital seemed particularly long. Teri rested her hand on Savannah’s cheek, rubbing ever so slightly along her skin. Savannah sniffled again.

“Shhh, my sweet girl. It’s going to be OK, honey. It’s going to be OK.” Suddenly, as if hearing something she needed to correct, Savannah lifted her head and looked her mom in the eye.

“No, mom, I know everything is going to be OK. I know it in my heart. God told me Himself.” Then, Savannah lay her head back down and said softly, “It looks like me and Bethany Hamilton have something in common.”

Teri looked at her daughter a bit taken aback, remembering that Bethany’s faith remained strong even after a shark bite took her arm. “I want other’s to know about what happened, Savannah said. “I want them to know that God is always with you. I felt him. He was there.”

•   •   •

One week later, the assailants were arrested. Sixteen months later, the trial began. Savannah’s testimony including the details of the face of her assailant and the weapon used were critical in the prosecution. The boys were tried as adults, found guilty, and are now serving life sentences. Savannah wants to expose her story to as many people as she can. Jennifer and Savannah are taking steps toward their recovery, which is at times, painful, and at others, debilitating. But through it all, Savannah maintains that God was at her side and always will be. Psychologists have reported that her recovery has been “remarkable.” When Savannah was being examined in the aftermath of the rape, she asked the doctor if she should take off her purity ring for fear it no longer applied to her. The doctor told her that she was very mistaken that she was no longer pure. Savannah left the ring on.


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