Forcing my eyes to stay open, I watch Mr. Conn’s face while I hold my stomach. I should have called in sick today. The artificial lights in the classroom blast the space with annoying brightness. Everything in here shines like a waxed apple, including the faces of the thirty-five students in thirty-five wobbly desks. We’re crammed close enough that I smell everyone’s deodorant after PE.
Why do I feel this way? I did nothing wrong. What happened to Jason is not my fault. Or is it? I didn’t even know him that well. We were on the same robotics team in middle school. We carpooled twice.
“Discover your self-worth,” Mr. Conn says. He’s wearing his usual blue polo shirt and gray sports pants. He’s giving his weekly lecture on mental health in “Advisory” class, which is weird since he doesn’t offer specific advice. He just monologues in strange metaphors. He’s a nice guy who’s great at teaching, but if I hear one more metaphor…
“Take care of your body,” he drones. His subway sandwich lies half-eaten on the desk.
The pickle smell of his turkey on wheat saturates my nose hairs.
Don’t think about nose hairs. Think about homework. I should be working on the three hours of homework he assigned today. God, it was much worse for Jason. What did he say to me the last time we talked? Why can’t I remember? Does depression make people forget things?
What am I wearing? I glance down. My typical black sweatpants and random free T-Shirt. This one says “2014 Mini Golf Champion.”
I peek at my friend Matthew. Unsurprisingly, he’s wearing the same red jacket he wore yesterday when we ditched to avoid three tests. He stares at the corner of the wall, his fingers fidgeting. No doubt, he’s mentally writing the Lord of the Flies essay that’s due tomorrow. He’s a procrastinator like me. It’s an underrated art form.
Behind me sits Aiden. My body blocks his entire shape from Mr. Conn. Aiden is likely dreaming about the French Revolution after the all-nighter he pulled studying for the History test. He owes me one in English class later, where I’ll bury my head in my arms and dream of fish.
“You are all young. Take this time to discover your acorns. What do you want to do in your life?”
One kid coughs and another sneezes.
But I wonder, what do I want to do with my life? When I was little, my older sister took me to Saratoga Creek. We hiked under the bridge at Wildwood park, and she pointed at the invasive trees and exclaimed, “Look! It’s an Ash tree!” She pointed at the butterflies: “It’s a Cabbage White!” When she spoke about the environment, she was like an auctioneer. Her words slurred together into one incomprehensible jumble. She loved the environment. One time, she picked up a guy’s empty Starbucks off the ground and speed-yelled, “Hey loser, you dropped your brain!”
But my sister has run off to study environmental science at Emory. She sends me pictures of taxidermy bugs and Chipotle burritos. Even though our parents are divorced, it doesn’t affect how we interact. If anything, we’re closer. After my mom became a travel nurse, I started spending nights in “my room” at my dad’s house surrounded by his Coca-Cola bottle collection. He always asks, “What are you gonna study in college?”
What will I study? What are my interests? My Rubik’s cube and those pressed quarters? I have one from the MET, the Smithsonian, and Pearl Harbor. My problem is that I lack motivation. My perfect day is being left alone in my room, my left cheek pressed into my memory foam pillow, my left arm underneath it, and my eyes closed. God, it’s heaven. Some days, I’m so lethargic from staying awake all night worrying about meteorites and tests.
Basically, I wish I were a cat.
The thing is, I wasn’t always like this. I used to be so curious as a kid. When I met new people, I’d tell them random facts: Owl’s don’t have eyeballs. Caterpillars dissolve into a liquid in the cocoon. Cockroaches can live up to one week without their heads. President George W. Bush vomited on Japan’s Prime Minister.
But what do I want out of life? I want a fancy pencil collection with Spoke model 6’s and IJ instrument model 9’s. I want to eat Margherita pizza every day. I want my sister to come home from college and tell me how much she missed me. I want to be an astronaut floating in space while watching the Earth spin. I want to determine the meaning of life—well as close as my sixteen-year-old brain can come to it. I want to know what went through Jason’s mind. Was it sudden or did he think about it? I want this hour to end.
“It’s like I always say: be like a cactus…” Mr. Conn continues, walking back and forth on his metaphorical stage, his forehead wrinkling with thought.
A cactus? Let’s be logical. We aren’t in the desert. Well, maybe, considering how school goes on and on forever and ever like the Sahara, or like an ultramarathon … Could I survive alone in the desert?
“You need to be able to survive in any circumstance…” Yeah, like being overworked, sleep-deprived, and bored!
“…and push through tough times, rebounding stronger than before. Be patient and bloom brightly when your time is here.”
Bloom brightly? Are we flowers now? I thought we were cacti, or was it acorns? How does he change metaphors so fast? He’s like Usain Bolt with figurative language. While he is talking about mental health, why isn’t he mentioning Jason? Doesn’t he know?
“Daniel!” Mr. Conn shouts, his fist clenching as if he had a spear in his hand and I were a fish.
“Yes!” Oh god. What did I do?
“Stop mumbling, face forward, and pay attention,” Mr. Conn growls. His nose hairs stick out as he crinkles his face. “Not just you! Everyone! Eyes up here and listen!”
Matthew loses his staring contest with the wall and blinks blindly at Mr. Conn. Aiden’s desk jerks behind me, and I imagine him rubbing away the fatigue from his eyes. Everyone knows Mr. Conn is going to single one of us out, and no one wants to hold the microphone.
Mr. Conn throws his hands in the air. “Why is it that nobody cares about these meetings? These are real problems people deal with.” Mr. Conn’s eyes slowly pan across the room. Is he expecting one of us to answer him?
Unfortunately, I have that terrible problem where my lips move without saying anything.
It’s a disorder. I looked it up once but forgot what it was called. Who has time for that? “Pardon? Did you want to say something, Daniel?” Mr. Conn snaps at me. “Go on, here, grab the mic.” He unclips the tiny rectangle off his collar and hands it to me.
The whole classroom stares at me like I’m suddenly a car crash on a freeway, the kind with a car upside-down, two detached wheels rolling down the highway.
I hold the tiny mic with one hand. “I was just thinking about Jason. Nobody mentioned him,” I say as my eyes roam for support. All the faces in the room look down at their desks.
“Jason?” Mr. Conn asks.
“Yeah, ever since I heard, I’ve been thinking about the culture of our school,” I continue. “And uh, sure, nobody here has an empty stomach or shoes with holes, but people are suffering. It’s like everyone is stranded on a boat in the ocean, and no one is coming to get them.” Oh god. I’m beginning to talk in metaphors too. Mr. Conn is rubbing off on me.
“Who’s Jason?” Mr. Conn inquires as he straightens his back, making himself taller. “He’s a student who passed away yesterday,” I reply.
“I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m sure the school did what they should have done, so let’s move on,” Mr. Conn answers.
I click my tongue.
Mr. Conn folds his arms and glares at me.
“I just think it’s ironic,” I say, holding the mic closer to my mouth, “how we are supposed to be talking about mental health in this class, so why aren’t we talking about Jason?” What did I care if I made Mr. Conn angry? What could he do to me? Give me more homework? Kick me out of class? Besides, wasn’t this a time to talk about our feelings?
“What are you talking about?” Aiden whispers and jabs at my back with his finger. “You should shut up. Jason is fine.”
“What?” I say.
Whispers travel around the room: “Who’s Jason?”
Mr. Conn storms over to me and snatches the mic out of my hand. “That’s enough.”
For the rest of class, Mr. Conn continues as if I had never spoken. He drones on about cactuses being an excellent metaphor for mental health as they are resilient and can carry on in harsh conditions. I know he’s just doing his job, and most days, he’s pretty cool, but on a day like today, it’s not enough.
After the bell rings, Aiden follows me out into the hallway, where yellow-tiles point arrows towards the school office. We pass the math mural where the faces of famous dead mathematicians look down on us. Sounds of banging instruments come from the band room. In the hallway, everyone moves together as if drifting in a river.
“What the hell, dude? Where did you hear that Jason died?” Aiden asks.
“It’s everywhere. Have you not checked Instagram? I’m serious. Ask anybody.” We pass by a group of Jason’s friends. “See,” I say, pointing. “They look depressed.”
“No, it’s gotta be a prank,” Aiden smirks. “Look, I’ll message him right now.” Aiden pulls out his phone and texts Jason a simple “wya.”
“Dude, that’s so rude. You can’t say that to someone who literally just passed away. What is he going to do? Be like ‘I’m in heaven?’”
Aiden says, “I swear I saw him yesterday in the Safeway parking lot with his mom. He was holding a box of Oreos.”
“Parents are talking about it on WeChat.”
“No way, man. Unless he died, like, today morning, he’s perfectly fine.” Aiden is always like this. He never believes until he sees it with his own eyes.
“People do these kinds of things on the internet all the time,” he says. “Don’t take it seriously.”
We turn the corner and continue walking.
Heads bounce down the hall and locks spin on lockers. Backpacks float. I want to believe Aiden is right. I want to be that kid again whose biggest worry was if my sister would take me to the park. I want to believe in a future filled with pressed quarters, Rubik’s Cubes, Social Security, jobs, and picket fences.
We squeeze through the edge of the hallway and approach Jason’s locker. He won’t be there. I just know. The world is too cruel for happy endings. But maybe Aiden’s right. It’s just a rumor that got out of control. Rumors can happen. It happened to Taylor Swift.
Is that Jason’s red North Face jacket or is it just wishful thinking? The owner gets swallowed by waves of people. Shoes squeak and kids talk about chemistry tests. Is that Jason’s voice? Maybe if I imagine enough, if I just concentrate hard enough, I can bring him back to life. We are only ten steps away.
A future with Jason flashes in my mind. I’ll invite him out with my friends to the nearby food court for spicy miso ramen. I’ll tell him that everything can only get better. I’ll remind him about the time he shot the judge in the face with the robot’s foam ball and how we couldn’t have made it to the Worlds competition without him. I’ll ask him to tell me that joke again about fish that can break dance. I’ll remind him about the future, filled with college and jobs and Social Security.
As we walk through the hall, I mindlessly nod at Aiden’s small talk. The closer I get, the more the anxious feeling builds in my throat. My phone slips out of my hand and I bend over to pick it up. I know when I rise I will have my answer.
But why am I so afraid?
Bryan is a junior in high school who recently started creative writing as a hobby. He likes doing math, hiking with friends, and watching cute cat videos.