Have you ever wanted to say something but your voice failed you? Something important; something crucial was at the tip of your tongue, but you couldn’t let it out. Was it an idea which lit up in your mind that you turned off with your sealed lips? Or maybe it was the fire to speak up against injustice that you quenched with your silence?
I would be mocked if I talked. Keeping quiet is my best option here. My voice won’t make a difference. This matter isn’t even my business . . . Do these statements sound familiar to you? I’m 99.99% sure they do, betrayer.
No – not as far back as that terrible winter when cold chilled your bones, chapped lips quivering as you awoke your taste buds with steaming; hot chocolate. Not that time.
It’s also not as recent as this morning when you groggily opened eyes to dust particles dancing like excited pixies around the streaks of sunlight that managed to infiltrate your room. Not then, either. So when?
Think high school.
Yes, I know those harboured memories are coming back as quick as time. All those late-night parties with friends that left you breathless, the rigorous academic work that kept you on your toes, that annoying teacher who was always breathing down your neck, not to mention those labels everyone was tagged with based on the clique they were fortunate or unfortunate enough to join on the first day of school.
Why did your mouth quirk up while you took a trip down memory lane? Is it because your teenage life was a package comprising varying levels of fun, drama, and excitement? Count yourself lucky to have experienced all that, because not everyone can boast of living the time of their lives in high school. A perfect example of such miserable people is the boy you killed, betrayer.
Hold on – I’m sure you’re mistaking me for someone else, you’re thinking. I’m quite certain I neither know you nor this boy you’re referring to. What on Earth did I do so wrong to earn these bad labels of murderer and betrayer?
What did you do wrong . . . ? I guess that’s something you have to remember on your own.
Think prom night.
Is the music resonating in your ears? Are the multiple colours of disco lights flashing in the periphery of your vision? Is the buttery scent of freshly popped corn and the heart-stopping, mouth-watering aroma of smoked meat filling your nostrils and causing your stomach to cry out for those scrumptious delights called party food? If you can remember that, I’m sure you can also remember the biggest deal of every prom – the student awards.
Your brow is furrowed as you try to extract those trivial details from the murkiest depths of your mind. Of course, those silly awards didn’t mean much to you then. What did you get again? Best body? Most intelligent? Most popular? Best smile? I can’t remember but I know it was way better than what the boy you killed got.
Again with this mysterious boy, you sigh. Could you stop beating about the bush and hit the nail on the head already?
Okay, let me go straight to the point and take you on the guilt trip you deserve.
The boy you killed was in your high school. Surprising, isn’t it? Both of you breathed the same air, you both attended the same classes, roamed the same halls, and ate the same cafeteria food. He was that boy who always walked with his head down, that person who always sat alone on a lunch table, who barely ever spoke a word during classes, and who never came for school parties.
Is he coming to your mind now? Or should I plunge deeper to give you a clearer picture?
He was a dark-skinned, scrawny ghost – a ticking bomb waiting to explode sometimes – who always wore a baggy hoodie over his sleazy clothing and a scowl on his face. He was the school loner and a famous punching bag – this shouldn’t even be news to you. You saw him get beat up by jocks not once, not twice, but a thousand times. Don’t you remember when you watched with wide eyes and an open mouth as the scarlet blood trickled down his nose? Aren’t the dark lines that mapped his arms still imprinted in your mind?
Bullying. You knew he was bullied but you said nothing, betrayer.
You looked away when you saw the tears stream down his cheeks after multiple fists collided with his flesh. You pretended to check the time when you stumbled upon him yelling at his reflection in the empty gym. You hummed a tune to yourself whenever you heard him get insulted, and you acted like you didn’t notice the cloud of gloom he walked under each day.
Why, though? Was it that you were worried about your reputation? Were you afraid that your social status would be brought down if anyone found you talking to him? Was it because no one associated themselves with the boy and you didn’t want to be the first to do so? Or was it that you were just too comfortable ‘minding your own business’ to care about someone else’s?
Why are people so afraid to move against the tide? Why are they so reluctant to walk the extra mile for another person? Why must everyone unwittingly analogize themselves with dead fish, which always go with the flow? Why, oh why, betrayer, did you commit the grievous sin of silence that earned you your new label?
Okay, I get it. Keeping quiet about something as terrible as bullying wasn’t my best move. But neither my words nor my actions hurt the boy. How then am I worse than the actual bullies?
How are you worse? I think you should be the judge of that.
Think high school student awards.
Every student in your school was present that night, wearing grandeur clothing and their heart on their sleeves. You were all going to graduate the next day, so none minded the few tears that were shed over the memories that were shared. There were those who smiled and cracked jokes and others with bloodshot eyes and runny noses. But whether anyone chose to act tough or to etch grief on their faces, the atmosphere of a life coming to an end was collectively felt.
Finally, the moment everyone was waiting for arrived – the high school student awards. You walked up to the stage with your head held high and the remote to the projector in your hand, while a sea of assorted emotions brewed within you. You already knew each person and their award, because you inputted the list created by the student body into your laptop and prepared the slideshow beforehand. But your heart was accelerating and you chewed the inside of your cheek in fresh anticipation, as though you had no clue of who was going to get what award.
As you stood on the stage, everyone’s murmurs gradually hushed to silence so deafening, it made your ears bleed. You gave a brief introductory speech – not too sombre so that uncomfortable waterworks wouldn’t begin, and not too jovial so as not to ruin the reflective moment everyone was experiencing – and started the presentation the whole school was hungry for.
Recall that moment. Let the details of that time fill your mind because it is here I will point out your faults. It is here I will reveal that it wasn’t your actions or your words that hurt the boy, but your inaction that did just the trick. If you were aware then of the fact that silence can cause equally as much pain as words do, maybe there would’ve been a better turn out of events that night. Maybe the boy you killed would still be alive . . .
Everyone knows there are two sides to the high school awards – the good and the bad. So while someone was flattered about getting the best smile or the most intelligent award, another person was shamed by getting the opposite. A few laughed off this humiliation, but no one can measure how deeply those negative awards cut into the awardees’ hearts. Most people sugared the motive behind them by saying it was to provide a bit of comic relief before graduation. But you knew what it was and its true name: bullying. You knew this but you said nothing about it, betrayer.
Let this information sink into your skull: only you could have stopped the boy’s death from happening.
You were the one that inputted the list on your laptop, weren’t you? You could have easily put an end to the cycle of bullying by removing the negative slides entirely. But you didn’t want to go against the tide. Doing this won’t make much of a difference, you thought.
You could have also curbed the act that night. You were with the remote to the projector, were you not? Stopping the presentation after all the good awards had been presented was simple enough to do. But you just went with the flow. Not doing or saying anything is my best option here, you said. You knew you’d regret it but you went according to the script everyone was expected to follow and watched in silence as the final waves of bullying hit the boy.
Who got the ugliest face? Him.
The least popular? Him.
The worst body? Him.
The least likely to succeed? Him . . .
You knew the list wasn’t accurate. You knew having him win most of the negative awards was premeditated cruelty by the bullies who had tortured the boy his entire high school life. You knew seeing his face appear on the screen to be laughed at was wrong. But you said nothing. Absolutely nothing.
You didn’t know, of course.
You didn’t know the boy had Autism Spectrum Disorder, which affected his social skills. You didn’t know he was suffering from depression, which always made him look gloomy. You didn’t know those bruises you saw mapping his arms were self-inflicted. And you didn’t even know he drowned himself that night . . . nobody did.
Have you seen where your silence has led you? If only you talked to the boy, if only you spoke up to the bullies, if only you deleted those slides, maybe, just maybe, things could have ended up differently. You didn’t know he was suffering from things nobody saw, but did you really need that knowledge before you could have done the needful?
It’s your fault he’s dead.
Sticky fluid is slipping through your fingers and forming a scarlet pool at your feet.
You have blood on your hands, betrayer.