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I stand in the doorway before entering the classroom. They look at me. I decide to not care. With their conscience telling them to look away and their eyes wanting nothing more than to catch a glimpse of the broken girl, I walk to my desk and sit down.
“I know that we’ve been reading the epics, but I want to take a break. I think we could all benefit from it. So, today we’re going to talk about losing people.” Mr. Martin says.
There’s a silence that no one would dare break. The hum of the air conditioner is the only noise filling the void. It’s so weird not hearing Mr. Martin have to fight over the obnoxious voices of students. I focus on twiddling my fingers to avoid the awkwardness.
“She didn’t talk much, but you could tell that she always had something going on in her mind. It’s like she held the secrets of the world and just watched everyone else struggle to figure it all out.” a boy said. He was trying to hold back tears.
I shake my head. She hated him. She thought that he was just another jock, another football player in a letterman jacket. He didn’t talk to her. He barley made an effort to look at her. Now he’s going to act like she was his best friend? Like she was more to him than a girl in his English class?
The room returns to a discomforting silence. I go back to twiddling my fingers.
“Alex was…” A girl started to talk.
I didn’t tell my legs to get out of my desk and stand up. They just did.
“Alex was what?” I interrupted the girl that was speaking. Everybody’s attention turns toward me. “Was she so kind? So nice that she made you feel like you’re the most important person in the world? Is that what you were going to say?”
The girl sat speechless in her desk. She starts to open her mouth to speak, but once again, I cut her off.
“Or were you going to say that she was loved? That she’ll be missed?” As I started to think about what I was going to say next, the tears flooded down my face. “I promise you that she didn’t feel loved when she was swallowing a bottle of pills, or slitting her wrists, or drowning in a bottle of whatever poisonous alcohol she chose. She didn’t feel loved when all of you people decided to take out your eyes. God! Are you all blind? Are you freaking blind? Did you not see? She was dying right in front of you!” I point to her desk, which is now empty. “She died in that chair everyday and you watched it. Every single one of you could see that she was fading away. She stopped smiling. She stopped talking. She came to class high and bleeding. And you decided to look the other way, to not care. You guys killed her. You did. Sure she’s the one that took the pills, but none of you stopped her. None of you said anything. And now she’s gone. She’ll never come to school again. Never sit in that desk. Never go to the supermarket. Never go to college. Never get married or have kids. And it’s your fault. It’s your fault that she has to be missed. We could have avoided all of this, if one of you, one of you, just asked her if she was okay. That’s all it would have taken.” My voice quivered.
I looked around the room. Their eyes weren’t on me anymore. Most of them starred at the ground and let my voice echo through the room. Others let out cries of agony as they realized what they had done.
My head feels like it’s spinning. I walk out of the classroom, but her voice stops me.
“What did you do to stop her? Even with you, she still killed herself.” I want to punch the girl that said it. I almost do. But I don’t have enough energy, so I continue to walk out of the classroom.
Maybe she’s right. I was there for her, but she still did it. She slept over at my house on the nights that her house was unbearable. We stayed up into the early hours of the morning talking. Sometimes we never even went to sleep. I told her to call me when she was sad. But I guess it wasn’t enough. One person can’t do it all.
I hear Mr. Martin walking behind me.
“Reese.” He calls my name. I keep walking. I need to get out of this place. Alex walked these hallways. She was here and now she’s not.
“Reese.” He grabs my arm. I turn towards him. He looks into my eyes even though his are filled with tears. It’s weird. Before today, I could never have imagined him crying.
But that was before.
“I need you to stay with me.” He said.
?“You will survive this. You have to fight the temptation to die. Most days, it will feel like you’re already dead. And you’re not. You’re alive and you’re breathing. So, I need you to stay with me. I need you to stay and fight.”
I look at him. And I walk away. There is nothing left for me to say.
“It’s not your fault.” He says.
“Of course it’t not. I just blamed everyone in that classroom. Didn’t I?”
“You can’t compare yourself to them. They weren’t there for her. You’re right about it being their fault. Mine too. I… I read her writing and… I knew. I knew that something was wrong, I mean really wrong. So, I told the counselors about her. They said they would talk to her, but it never happened. I guess they were ‘too busy.’ I handed the problem off to someone else and I can’t even look at myself. I could have done… something, but I didn’t. So, it’s my fault and it’s their fault, but don’t ever convince yourself that it was yours.”
“Well, it’s over now. We can’t change that.”
But what if we could? What if we could go back? Do it again?
[Everything freezes. Reese and Mr. Martin stand in the hallway, both with tears streaming down their face. The students in the classroom are hugging each other and crying. Some have their heads down on the desk.]
What if time could rewind?
[Images of unknown events pass by quickly.]
Alex and I lay on the roof of my house. The stars are mesmerizing. There is a silence between us, but it isn’t awkward. It never is.
“You should go to sleep. I’ve kept you up for the past week with my stupid problems.” Alex says.
“I don’t care about sleep and your problems aren’t stupid.” I say.
“I hope your dad doesn’t care about sleep either. We always wake him up by making pancakes at three in the morning.” We laugh, but then the smile fades from her face.
“I don’t think that I can keep doing this, Reese. I don’t know how much longer…”
“It’ll end. Not tonight, or tomorrow. Probably not for a while, but some day it will.” I try to comfort her.
“So in the mean time, what, I’m just supposed to wait? I’m done waiting.” She raises her voice.
“That’s what you have to look forward to. That day, that moment, when all this is over. You’ll be able to move on. You’ll be free.”
The silence comes back. I feel so comfortable with her. We don’t have to talk or fill the absence of sound.
“Pancakes?” I say. Alex gets up before I can and starts to climb off of the roof.
“I call stirring.”
She was on the floor when I walked in. Well, I didn’t actually walk in. I climbed through her bedroom window. Her parents were asleep and waking them up could be catastrophic. They would wonder why I was standing in their front porch at one in the morning on a school night. I would have to tell them that their daughter is probably passed out in the room next to them. Then it would get really bad. So I come through the window.
The phone that Alex used to call me is still in her hand. She always calls me when she’s drunk or on whatever, but it was worse this time. The words that she was saying weren’t words, just sounds. She was terrified. And now, so am I.
I grab her hand and squeeze it. She squeezes back.
“Hey,” I say in a shaky voice, “I’m here.” Her eyes are glossed over. She doesn’t talk. Maybe because she can’t or because there is nothing for her to say. She is probably embarrassed that she’s in this position again. When we were little kids, she always hated needing help, even from adults. When she couldn’t grab something that was too high, she would stack objects on top of each other and climb to the top just so she wouldn’t have to ask for help. One time, she fell and broke her arm. I tried to catch her.
But when someone is falling, more often than not, you just have to watch them hit the ground. Sometimes they break. You can try and catch them, but you’re just endangering yourself trying to save them.You can’t be the hero. You can’t save them for one simple reason.
The savior gets crucified.
Alex is starting to lightly shake. Not her whole body, but her hands and her feet. I need to find out what she took.
“Alex.” I say. “What did you take?” She looks at me, but doesn’t answer. I see her lips move slightly. She’s trying to speak. That’s a good sign. That means that she can hear me and she is, on some level, in the same world as me.
“I’m sorry.” She says it so quietly, I’m not sure if it was my imagination or not. I saw her lips move when the words came out of her mouth, so it was probably not in my head. I hold her hand tighter.
“I am so sorry.” It takes every ounce of strength in me to not break down when I hear her speak. Tears are streaming down both of our faces now. I pull her head up onto my lap.
“You’re gonna be okay.” I say as I brush her hair out of her face. “You’re gonna be just fine.”
The bell rings. The class anxiously gets out of their seats and hurries out of the classroom.
“Alex. Reese. Can you stay behind for a minute?” Mr. Martin says in a loud voice to make sure that we hear him over all of the zipping of backpacks and students talking. Alex and I look at each other. We know what this is about. She can tell that I want to make a run for it, but she stays calm. We walk up to his desk. He looks at us. He knows.
“Do you know why I wanted to speak with both of you?” He says. I’m going to be expelled. I knew that this was a possible out come when I wrote that essay. I just can’t believe that we actually got caught.
Alex and I stay silent. Mr. Martin waits for us to answer, but we just look at him. He sets both of our essays down on his desk.
“As an English teacher, I look forward to reading the essays of the students who care. If we’re being honest, out of the two of you, Reese you give a damn, Alex, not so much. The writing in both of these is beautiful. The problem is that they were written by the same person. They’re written in the same style and the use the same grammatical techniques. There is a tremendous amount of effort put into both of these essays. Can you explain to me why that is?” He knows the answer. It’s because I wrote both of them.
If I get expelled, I might as well go out telling the truth.
“I wrote both of them.” I say. He looks at me and is startled that I just came out and said it, but he is trying to keep a straight face.
“The punishment for academic dishonesty and forgery is expulsion. For both of you.” My ears ring. It’s over. We have been caught and now we will pay the price for it. “Before I go to the principle, I will ask this question one time. Is there anything more to this story?”
I glance over at Alex. Is she going to tell him? We both stay silent. Mr. Martin grabs the essays and stands up from his desk.
“Well, I’m sorry to say that…” He starts to say, but Alex interrupts him.
“I almost killed myself.” She says. He stops. “The night before the essay was due. Reese stopped me. I told her to write the essay for me because it was ninety points and I can’t afford to lose that many points. So, you were wrong when you said that she’s the one that gives a damn about this class because I was nearly dead and I was still thinking about your dumb essay. So, screw you, Mr. Martin.” Alex tries to storm out of the door, but Mr. Martin jumps in front of her.
“Stay with me.” He says.
“You will survive this. You have to fight the temptation to die. Most days, it will feel like you’re already dead. And you’re not. You’re alive and you’re breathing. So, I need you to stay with me. I need you to stay and fight.” He says. “ I know you’re mad, and it feels like you hate me, but please give me ten minutes to talk to you. I knew from your other writings that you’re hurting. I told the counselors about you, but I don’t think they took it seriously. I knew that Reese forged that essay from the first sentence and if you were anybody else, I would have gone to the principal the second I figured it out, but I had this feeling that there was something more to this story.”
Alex stood still. I have no idea what she is going to do.
“I thought no one noticed.” She says. Tears fill her eyes. “So thank you, for noticing, but I have to be alone right now. Reese, I’ll call you tonight.”
Mr. Martin steps out of the doorway. Alex walks past him and starts to open the door.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” Mr. Martin says. “I damn well better see you tomorrow.”
“You will.” Alex says as she leaves.
Mr. Martin walks over to his desk. He takes out a red marker and marks both essays. I try to hold back my smile when I see the “A+” written on both of the essays. I smile at him and begin to walk out of the classroom.
“The essays were beautifully written, by the way. “ He says.
“Thank you.” I leave.
We sit in English and wait for the class to start. I sit in front of Alex and we talk until Mr. Martin writes something in huge letters that takes up the entirety of the white board.
“Uh, Mr. Martin,” a kid calls out, “I think that’s a Sharpie.” The class laughs, but Mr. Martin continues writing. He turns around and stands in front of the board so that we can’t read what it says.
“I know, Ben, that it’s Sharpie.” He replies. “I’ve been an English teacher for about ten years now. I’ve read countless essays, taught about grammar and forced kids to read Shakespeare and have truly enjoyed every moment of it.” The class chuckles. “But I think that I’ve missed the point of being an English teacher. My job, as an educator, is to do what I have said - teach you about grammar, make you write essays and read. But, in my role as a person who has studied that art of writing, I have failed all of you. And I want to apologize for that. I believe that reading and writing teaches you about life, struggle and how to overcome that. It teaches you about people. So, today, I have one lesson for you.” Mr. Martin steps away from the white board. He reads it. out loud. “Speak.”
The class doesn’t know what this means. They wait for Mr. Martin to explain.
“Speak. Speak up. Speak loud. Speak when nobody else will. Speak when you are afraid because that is when you need to be heard the most. Speak when they are trying to silence you. Speak because it is the only thing that will truly set you free. Speak about the things that dare to stay unspoken. Speak and you will be heard. Demand to be heard! The universe is your audience and if you would just speak what needs to be spoken, if you say what no body else will say, you will change the world.”
When Mr. Martin stops talking, the class erupts in clapping and screaming. Eventually the noise dies down.
“So go change it. “ Mr. Martin says and walks out of the room.
I put my English book in my backpack and turn to Alex, but a boy from our class wearing a letterman jacket walks up to her first.
“Hey,” he says, “we don’t really know each other. We’ve never talked. But I think we should be friends. I’ve noticed that you’re always thinking and pondering. I want to know what you’re thinking about. You seem different than the others. We’re gonna be out of this place in a year or two. I want to be able to say that I’ve known you.”
The boy smiles at Alex and walks away.
“Wait,” Alex says, “what’s your name?” The boy walks closer to Alex, pulls up the sleeve of his letter man jacket and reveals the scars across his wrists. Alex looks at him.
“David.” He says. Alex begins to pull up her sleeve, but David stops her. “It’s okay. I know.”
He walks away, with a bitter sweet smile.
Alex and I sit on the porch of my house. We smile as her four year old son and my five year old daughter come running up to us.
“Mommy, I hurt my knee.” Her son says. There is a small scrape on his knee. Alex kisses his forehead.
“Well, I guess we’ll have to get you a bandaid, huh?” Alex sets her son on her lap. “David.” She calls. David walks out of his house and comes out side. “Do we have any bandaids?”
“I don’t think so. Who got hurt?” David asks.
“Brandon. He hurt his knee. I can make a run to the supermarket. We’re low on food anyway.” She smiles.
David picks up Brandon and my daughter, Lizzie. He carries them on his shoulders. Their faces light up as David runs around the front yard.
“I’m gonna love that man until the moment I die.” She says. “He’s been saving me ever since that day in English and has never stopped since.”
“Yeah.” I say. “I guess all it takes is one person willing to speak.”