Trigger Warnings: References to suicide, references to rape
Standing off to the side of the stage, I can see the entirety of the class. There are opening remarks and awkward pauses as principals and board members get emotional over the graduation ceremony about to take place. Meanwhile, I’m stony and cold with a low rumbling rage. I know every single pretty faced teenager sitting in their shiny black chairs, caps and gowns hiding their fancy clothes. But they can’t hide the elephant in the room… They can’t hide the fact that one of their classmates is missing.
Jessica Langston. My best friend.
My late best friend.
A month ago, I remember stepping out of my house in pajamas, the morning air nipping at the exposed skin on my arms. I was confused by the presence of officers in my driveway and had raced down to meet them. A solemn recognition burrowed into my heart the instant they welcomed me with condolences. Nightmares that had been plaguing me for weeks came to fruition via the single bullet Jessica put through her brain the night before, leaving me with a memory that still causes me to grind my teeth in irritation.
Jessica was supposed to be on a suicide watch. I had reported my concerns to teachers and school counselors. I begged her other friends to make reports of any unusual behavior. Without a doubt, she was a danger to her self. I regularly checked in on Jessica to ensure her safety, but the girls always joked that she was only in trouble if she was ‘with the boys.’ This, of course, was a cruel joke. They always made sure that they said it loudly enough for everyone in the hallway to hear. I often left those conversations physically ill, though violently upset as well.
Before Jessica killed herself, I was her only remaining friend. Nobody else wanted to be seen with her after she reported the rape. Gazes that had once been envious burned black with jealousy; though, if they new the pain she was in – none of them would want for her life. Each person condemned her to Hell for her ‘sins,’ many of her bullies genuinely impious themselves; all the while her rapist has since been hailed as a king. It was a ‘sexual feat’ for him to bed the valedictorian.
What a feat – raping someone.
Adam fucking Addison.
He’s sitting right in the front, and I have to try really hard not to spit at him when I’m invited to join the principal onstage. Jessica was supposed to make her speech today but instead its me. She had wanted me to have a copy on the off chance that I was invited to honor her memory. Little did I know back then that it would come to fruition. I really didn’t want to do this but I feel that nobody else deserves to do it, either.
I catch a glimpse of the Langstons standing side-by-side in the crowd as a moment of silence is called in Jessica’s name. There’s no mention of her suicide, which shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. Anger has a way of eating through the reserves of common sense that we, as a sentient people, should have, and instead of redirecting it – I allow it fester. I’m going to need the adrenaline rush for the delivery of what, I believe, is going to be a very – memorable – speech.
While their heads are down, my chin is held high. I resist smirking at the false faith pandering through the crowd. If there truly is an afterlife, Jessica is scoffing at these scoundrels for their fake sympathy. Before her passing, she harbored immeasurable contempt for the hypocritical hatred borne from their religious regime. The devotees of her old faith betrayed her, essentially shepherding her to her grave. I scold each and every blasphemous fool before me.
And then Assistant Principal Masters denotes some of my lame accomplishments, though they are quite ordinary in comparison to Jessica’s incredible high school career. A few weak claps come as I slide up to the podium and prepare myself to become the voice of the voiceless. But I’m more than that…
Today, I am the voice of the dead.
“Good Evening, Barrington Heights, my name is Eli Chase – and I’m here because I was asked.” Faces are contorting at my verbal ambivalence, though I am sure that my own expression is quite the opposite. Dark amusement prickles along the back of my neck, anger seething beneath that in every layer of skin.
Murmurs are dying down, so it seems appropriate for me to continue. These people don’t know it, and they never will, but what I’m going to say is far less scathing that what Jessica could have been saying if she were here.
“I’m not going to say the words that she should’ve been here to share. I don’t stand here because I deserve it. I am here because I was the only person on Jessica’s side the day that she died.” Instantaneously, there are insults flying from the crowd. People who didn’t even know her now protest against me from the bleachers. The principal shuffles, I can see it in my peripheral vision, but he doesn’t come all the way to the podium yet. I point out at everyone, moving my arm around to gesture to every person who could be at fault for the events that have transpired.
“In the aftermath of Jessica’s suicide, we must all be reminded that terrible things do happen to people our age. We will be challenged in the years that come after high school, and we will come to live through the lowest lows of our entire lives,” I speak, hoping that my classmates with find clarity in what I’m saying. “How we choose to deal with those events will define out entire future. Remember exactly how great it feels to succeed today, because I can promise you that there is nothing more rewarding that proving what you are worth to the people who despise you, who judge you.”
The principal approaches me now, placing a hand against my shoulder blade, silently urging me to step away. I refuse to do this, though, because I’ve not said my piece. I will only leave once I’ve told everyone what I think they need to hear. “Finding your stride isn’t easy, and neither is keeping it.”
Despite how positive my message is, and the temporary calm amongst the crowd, I still hear the dissenting voices of Jessica’s bullies damning me for my audacity to speak out. They would have me stay silent and pretend that they’ve done nothing wrong. This is when the principal urges me to please step off the stage. Scoffing, I choose to disobey.
“Today when you stand up, throwing your hats in celebration of this milestone in your life, remember that Jessica isn’t here to share in your joy. She was raped and abused by people standing next to you right now. Not every smiling face smiles for you; not every ally is standing next to you; and not every friend means well by you. Sometimes – more often than we’d like to think – we must be our own heroes.” On that note, I shove past the principal, swearing at him for his willful ignorance, and strip my graduation garb to the ground. I don’t care if I leave it behind because the second I slip through the emergency exit, I’m climbing into my illegally parked car and running away.
All that’s left now is to drive as far away as possible, as fast as possible.