by Jordan McNeil
Jaime isn’t in class. I heard she’s spending the day in the guidance counselors’ office. I stare at her empty seat while the teacher attempts to lecture about something. His words don’t really resonate within my ears — I’m not even sure if I know what class this is. Is this fifth period? Maybe third? All I can do is look at Jaime’s desk and feel the weight of the classroom atmosphere crush my chest.
I can’t blame her for not wanting to be here.
Some students stay silent as the teacher rattles on; others seem to have already put the news behind them — or maybe they’re just pretending they have. I don’t know how to read any of this. All I know is that I want to wake up. All of this mourning, this somber surprise, this grief is not real, it can’t be real. We’re barely old enough to drive — aren’t we still supposed to be safe from tragedies like this?
There were no morning announcements today, no lesson plan for first period. My teacher wrung his hands, as lost as we were. Not even the adults believe this is reality. He told us something — something prepared. I’ve already forgotten. We were supposed to use that first period to cope, to share stories and see the guidance counselors. I thought about Jaime.
I don’t know if students talked or not — in self-preservation my brain has stopped amassing memories. I can’t even remember who was sitting next to me this morning. I’m not even sure if I saw them — I’ve kept my head on the cool of the desk for most of the day. Avoiding eye contact, avoiding others’ saddened souls.
The teacher didn’t know Reilly very well, he said. That I remember. Because I didn’t either.
I was there when Aaron received the text message. It was just me and him, shooting hoops in the church parking lot. There weren’t many people left after the meeting, and any form of adults were inside, chit-chatting and cleaning up. We were on our own.
I took the ball when his phone buzzed, dribbled it on the cool blacktop. He stared at the screen for a second, a minute, an hour, a day. An ominous pause of time overtook our small patch of the world — I could see our parents through the window, moving, talking, laughing, full of life.
Aaron and I were still.
We’re still young — in heart, in mind, in spirit. We thought it was some awful, cruel joke; a prank in terrible taste.
Reilly’s dead. He killed himself.
The words felt fake to my ears. Just a foreign combination of consonants and vowels. That doesn’t happen in real life, right? You hear about in the news, see it in movies, read it in fiction. But suicide’s not a real thing — there’s no way.
Aaron finally broke the freeze cast upon us. Not with words, but with the quick yet casual movement of his feet. I followed him, out of instinct purely. My mind was still working on those utterances of sound masquerading as truth.
He led us into the hall where the parents were. I hung back as he showed his dad the text — they talked in hushed tones. It didn’t make it feel any more real. I still couldn’t fathom the words, had no belief in them.
I had no trouble sleeping that night.
There are whispers in the halls — speculations how, why. My ears pick up bits and pieces. A word here, a word there. I want to scream.
Just a few weeks earlier, I had read a book. An English teacher recommended it, it had good reviews. It was terribly sad, though I didn’t fully realize how sad until today.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. In it, the main character receives a box of audio tapes from a former classmate. With them, he is led on a journey across his town by her story — her thirteen reasons why she committed suicide.
I cried a little as I read it; definitely felt a deep pit of sorrow. But then it ended. I closed the cover, returned the book, and the sadness was gone. It was all just a fiction, from Asher’s imagination.
Today, it’s reality. I’ve finally come to terms that this is reality. The loss is too palpable in the air, in the other students, to deny it any longer.
Reilly’s dead. He killed himself.
I’m crushed under the heaviness of it as I maneuver the halls, avoiding the wet faces, the sad eyes, the unfounded, uneducated rumors. If there was one thing I learned from that book with cosmic timing, it’s never one reason and it’s hardly ever easily explicable. It’s a snowball effect. And once it starts, it doesn’t take much to keep it rolling.
But there they are, gossiping behind their hands. It was this, it was that. Money, family, friends maybe. I want to smack them for their sacrilege. Don’t they know the community is grieving? That the world is grieving?
I hope Jaime stays holed-up with the guidance counselors — or better yet goes to the safety of home. These rumors aren’t going to help her any. I wonder how she is. Does she feel guilty? That she didn’t see the signs? That they didn’t work out as a couple? That they broke up? Does she blame herself?
I think I would, even though it’s been weeks, maybe even months, since their relationship ended. My own heart shatters for her, for his family and his friends. I feel a great sorrow, an emptiness in my soul. It’s one part grief, one part self-loathing. In my mind, I’m isolated from the rest of the mourners. I’m a fraud. A copy-cat. And I hate myself.
My bus-route goes through Reilly’s cul-de-sac neighborhood. He lived in a small, white-ish house that sat rather close to the road. Sometimes there was a bike in the yard. Some days it would be him and a sibling; others just him.
I remember him sitting with a buddy of his, chatting about high school things. In eighth grade, I tried to boast my algebra skills, and Reilly accepted my challenge, scribbling made-up problems in my notebook. He picked on his friend and I laughed along with him. I remember him in my periphery, his voice reaching to my bus seat, his smile and laugh in the school hall at something a friend said, his name in conversation.
But that’s it. That’s all I have. Three distinct memories and a generalization. Not enough to be a friend, barely enough to be a colleague. He was just there and I let him be.
And now he’s gone.
I didn’t think much of the fact that the bus passed on by his house this morning. It’s not unusual for high school students to run late and miss the bus.
I dread the bus ride home.
Lunch period. The ruckus appears to be normal. There’s too much of a mix of grades in here for everyone to have been affected. I eat my packed food, allowing myself to get distracted by my friends, who didn’t know him any better than I did.
I don’t know how to explain to them how I feel. They seem saddened by the news, but have moved on. It was a tragedy, yes, but he wasn’t a friend. He wasn’t close. They’ve moved on to the rest of their classes left of the day. Life must go on.
Ha. Life must go on. Terrible word choice, but I bet that’s been a thought in their heads. Life must go on. I wonder if they realize the terrible irony in that phrase today.
I too am saddened by the news, but it’s also so much more than that. I want to cry. I want to grieve with Jaime, with Chad, with Aaron, with the people who actually knew Reilly — his family and his friends. His loss has punched me square in the chest and it hurts with each passing thought. With each student with watery eyes.
But what gives me the right to feel this way? I have none. Absolutely none.
I didn’t know him — I knew of him. I knew he existed, knew he interacted and formed relationships with other people that I know, or know of. But I didn’t know him. We weren’t friends. So why do I feel his death so keenly right now?
I don’t attend the funeral, or the calling hours. A niggling thought of mine wants me to, begs me to, but I don’t bring it up to my parents. I don’t bring it up to anyone. I let it go, and try to ignore the empty halls on those days.
As the days pass, the school moves on, and so do I. I forget the agony of that day, the uncried tears and the guilt. I laugh, I smile. Life goes on.
Time continues by. It’s a Sunday. My family sits in Aaron’s church, guests for the guest preacher. Aaron stands up in front of the congregation and I try my best to stay awake for him. As he talks, I let his voice filter in and out of my consciousness. I people watch, I follow the hymnal, stand, sit, pray, sing. My normal Sunday morning routine.
And then he says it — the core of his sermon. My stomach plummets violently to the floor beneath my seat.
I lost my friend Reilly to suicide.
I’m transported back to that day, that day before when everything was still normal, the world was still okay. I’m back on the blacktop, basketball in hand.
Reilly’s dead. He killed himself.
My stomach churns evilly, viciously. I suppress the urge to run out and throw up in the lawn. I no longer listen to Aaron’s words or look at his face. My eyes are on my shoes.
My eyes are closed.
My eyes are wet.
I shudder, or whimper, or something because Mom looks at me. And she knows. Her motherly intuition fills her in in the blink of an eye. She places her hand on my shoulder.
I can take you home after — when he’s done.
After the sermon, there’s going to be a fellowship hour. Coffee, cookies, and conversation. There’s no way I can stand there with all these people I don’t know, with these long forgotten emotions back in my head.
I nod and hold myself.
When service is over, I jump from my seat and race to my jacket. Everyone else files through at a normal speed, saying hellos and nice jobs to Aaron. I avert my eyes from his — I can’t let him see.
Mom whispers in my grandma’s ear, shakes Aaron’s hand, and meets me in the lobby. We talk a little on the short ride home, but I stop mid-sentences when the tears threaten. She lets it go.
She drops me off at the driveway and turns around to return to the church. I run into the house and fly into my bed, face first. I clench the pillow against my face and cry the tears that have been buried deep in my soul for over a year.
It’s four years to the day that Aaron received that text message. I sit on Facebook, miles away from home, and read the memorial posts. My stomach still churns, but no more tears. I’ve become stronger than that now.
I smile sadly at the memories, laugh at the jokes. And then, clear as day, a thought possess me.
I want to visit Reilly’s grave.
It haunts me for a spell, lingering days after the anniversary. My doubts and self-loathing from four years past comes back to me with it. What right do I have to go there? And what would I do? Leave flowers? A card? A prayer?
I don’t have the courage to ask someone where he is. I don’t have the courage to ask my parents to drive me. I don’t want the questions, the looks — of confusion, of sadness, of disapproval. What right do I have?
Maybe, one day I’ll go. Stand there and see the mementos from those who truly knew him. Cry and tell him how I’ve been feeling since that day. How I wish I could’ve known him better. How I wish I deserved to grieve his passing.
Maybe one day I’ll find closure.
Jordan McNeil is in her final year as a Professional and Technical Writing major (and Creative Writing minor) at Youngstown State University and is yet unsure if she’s ready to be out in the “real world.” She’s also been published in the Penguin Review, and won the 2013 Robert Hare Writing Award for Fiction and the 2014 Robert Hare Writing Award for Literary Criticism.