“Think there’ll be food at the funeral?” Sam asks absentmindedly as we meander down the hallway to the cafeteria. I’m about to sock him. How can he be this casual about death, even if it’s only the great-aunt he didn’t know? I slowly unclench my fist and force myself to laugh along with Sam even as bile threatens to spill from my throat. I’ve known enough of death to be familiar with its golden rule: don’t undermine its importance, or death pays you a visit.
We stroll into the cafeteria. My mind drifts from the conversation at the jock table to Sam’s great-aunt. To be honest, life and death are the only things that make me think there’s a God. And it doesn’t improve my opinion of Him or Her or whatever God is. What kind of God tears apart people’s emotions? What kind of God puts alcohol and drugs on earth? And what kind of God allows the idiots inhaling cocaine and downing beer to get into cars, allows a kid walking to school to cross the wrong street at the wrong time, allows the idiot in the car to slam into the kid at exactly the right angle to kill him?
I realize that I’m stabbing my sandwich. “Man, are you gonna eat that?” Darren asks, his lanky arm already snaking over to snatch it.
I nod tiredly. Any other day I would be blathering about how delicious my food tastes. But now that feels trivial. Sam’s great-aunt’s death has released a stream of emotions I’m busy trying to smother. Those emotions bubble up whenever someone dies. And I know I should be trying to cope with them, but I don’t want to face the memories.
“Why should we care about sandwiches if we’re all gonna die in the end?” I burst out.
There’s an awkward silence as my friends stare at me, bewildered by my out-of-character question. After a short pause they return to their original conversation. I drift back into my own thoughts of Sam’s great-aunt, seeing my own brother’s broken body in the cold bronze coffin...
I don’t remember putting my head down on the table but now I’m seeing only blackness blurred by tears. I’m vaguely aware that moans are escaping my throat and that my shoulders are heaving. I’m not crying, I tell myself. Except I am. The tears cascading from my eyes have been pooling for four years. I look up and see Josh and Darren and the rest of my friends looking at me, waves of snickers sweeping over them. Then suddenly the whole lunchroom is in an uproar, everyone cracking up.
Almost everyone. Sam, who’s sitting next to me, leans over and punches me hard in the arm. “Man up, dude,” he says in what he thinks is a whisper. “Don’t do this in front of Sylvie.”
Sylvie, black hair swishing at the next table, averts her eyes and tries to smother her giggles. It’s a matter of shame to be crushed on by the weeping idiot. I don’t blame her. But for some reason, I don’t care much. In the scheme of life--and death--being humiliated once in middle school isn’t a big deal. Nothing matters but your future and your possibilities, possibilities Alec never got. The moron who thought his beer was worth a life destroyed those. But the driver wasn’t the only murderer. There was someone else who could have prevented Alec’s death but didn’t.
My friends have lost their respect for me just from these freaking tears. What would they do if they knew that I helped kill my brother?
No. I can’t. I’m in the middle of lunch. Josh smirks at me and says, “You should probably go somewhere else for now.”
I wordlessly get up from the bench. The squeak of my shoes against the floor like claws on plastic is the only sound in the room as I walk to the side. A sixth grade class is passing, each pipsqueak whispering excitedly. I’m sure it’s a thrill for them to see the hulking captain of the football team reduced to a snivelling mess. I want to pummel them, but--It’s not their fault, I tell myself. It’s mine.
I stop sobbing and return stiffly to the jock table, but Josh adjusts his legs so he takes up more space. “Looks like it’s full,” he says quickly and high-fives Darren. I swear, someday they will both be lunch meat.
I reluctantly trudge over to the empty table where no one wants to sit. I finally begin eating my sandwich. It tastes like ashes. As I watch the cheese ooze over the soggy crust I feel something hit the back of my head. I turn to see an apple core falling. From its general direction a laugh blossoms and I realize that Darren threw it. Idiot.
I glare at him, brooding silently. He strolls over to me. “Whatcha crying about, loser?”
What am I supposed to say? I blurt out the first comeback that occurs to me. “Your mom,” I offer.
That makes the hyenas at the jock table convulse. I need to remind myself that I don’t care. Besides, they shouldn’t associate with me; I’m a cockroach who deserves to be crushed underneath their size 12 sneakers.
The jocks decide that the best course of action is to pelt more food at me. As I bathe in the shower of social rejection, I relish the pizza crusts bouncing off my chest and soak in the soda splattering over my head. This is relief; this is when I can remove my mask and let everyone know what I really am. And that might be the worst of all--I’m flipping happy. I’m happy that it’s out in the open that I killed my brother. I don’t deserve happiness. I’m drowning in the shame of it when I break.
“I AM A MURDERER!” I bellow. Immediately the cafeteria falls silent and I start bawling again. But this time the tears don’t lose me in blackness. This time they take me back four years to the last morning when I wasn’t a killer.
Alec is about to leave when I call his name from the kitchen. It’s the day my big math project is due and I’m still not sure if I got a problem right.
My brother rushes in. “What’s up, little man?” He leans casually against the stove and ruffles my hair. I push his hand away but he still smiles. I shove my paper at him, grubby from erasing. Alec skims my work and explanation, both scribbled in my best fourth-grade handwriting. “Right, right, right, wrong!” Alec hands me back the paper and points to Problem Four. “Check your addition,” he says.
I look at my messily stacked column and catch the error. “I’m impressed you found it so quickly!” Alec beams and squeezes my shoulder. “Gotta run. See you tonight!” He slings his bag over his shoulder and jogs out the door.
But I don’t see him again until the funeral. And that’s when I realize that if I hadn’t kept him he wouldn’t have been there when the driver careened across that intersection.
“My brother is dead. It’s my fault, yet I’m living the life he never had. How screwed up can you get?” My voice trembles with unadulterated emotion.
My friends are all shocked. Embarrassed. Afraid. It looks like they want me punished. But then I realize what I’ve been waiting four years to learn: there isn’t some higher power waiting to take you away when you have no reason to live. Maybe there’s a devil to kill the innocents, but there sure as hell isn’t a God to kill the ones who deserve it. So I can only do one thing. While my friends are still staring, I sprint to the window and say, “Goodbye.”
I climb up on the ledge with only the thought of death, blessed death, in my mind. I open the window. No one tries to intervene. I close my eyes and I’m about to jump when I hear a quiet voice.
I don’t turn around. I can’t now. I try to jump. My legs feel like lead--the voice is weighing me down. I utter a guttural scream to drown it out but it keeps talking steadily. “Man, don’t do this. It’s not your fault.”
At this I spin around and snarl, “Like hell it isn’t!”
The voice belongs to, of all people, Sam. “You didn’t kill him. You had no way of knowing that making him late would make him dead. Stop blaming yourself.”
“No!” I scream. I’m a rabid animal now.
“If you kill yourself now, that would be murder. And that would be something to feel guilty about. Dude, by committing suicide, you’d be killing one of the best guys I know.”
That penetrates my shell. It occurs to me that if I kill myself now, I’ll be transforming Sam into me--guilt-ridden, angry, full of emotion he can’t deal with. In the past I haven’t considered anything Sam has said because I’ve thought of him as a dumb jock. But even dumb jocks have feelings--I’m proof of that. And murderers don’t. A murderer couldn’t see the pain written so clearly across Sam’s face or the regret drenching Josh and Darren. A murderer couldn’t relive the day his brother died a thousand times, each one in more vivid and terrible detail than the last. A murderer couldn’t cry. That’s what makes me different from a killer.
And I step down from the ledge.
This piece won a Silver Key in the 2014 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.