We Stayed Silent by AJ Sterkel
 
I love the honesty in AJ Sterkel's  creative nonfiction work. The last line is so chilling, I hope it stays with you long after you've finished reading  it. 


She said the name of our town on the morning news.

At first we thought we’d misheard—nothing newsworthy ever happened here—but then the news anchor said it again, and we knew it wasn’t a mistake. We crept closer to our televisions, abandoning our Fruit Loops and our half-packed backpacks. The light from our screens flickered through our predawn living rooms, reflecting in the glass ornaments of our Christmas trees. We gaped at our TVs with toothbrushes hanging from our mouths.

The name of our town sounded strange between the glossy lips of a news anchor in Denver. Had she ever been to our little town way out on the plains? We tried to imagine her mucking stalls in our barns or baling hay in our fields.

Then we realized she was talking about you. About your family.

She told us your father had died.

Even though she said the name of our town, your father hadn’t died here. He was killed hours away, at a ski resort in the mountains. An accident, the news anchor explained. He’d lost control while skiing on a black diamond hill and slammed into a tree. The impact killed him instantly. There was nothing the emergency responders at the resort could do.

Photos of your family lit up our screens: Images of you and your father standing with your Black Angus heifer at a 4-H competition last summer.

A spokeswoman for the resort assured us that serious skiing accidents were rare. There was no need for anyone to cancel their holiday ski trip.

Then it was over. We were left to watch the weatherman track a blizzard across the state.

When we turned away from our televisions, we expected the world to look different because your father was dead. It didn’t. Gifts wrapped in shiny paper still waited under our Christmas trees. Snowflakes still drifted past our windows and filled the empty fields around our houses.

Numb, we dressed for school. The math homework we hadn’t finished the night before stayed unfinished. We rinsed toothpaste from our mouths and dumped half-eaten bowls of cereal in the sink. We chipped ice off our windshields and drove to school because we didn’t know what else to do.

* * *

Your name rustled through the hallways. We huddled together and whispered the news while snow blanketed the school’s skylights, burying us. Would there be a funeral? Would we be invited? Most of us had never been to a funeral before. We all knew your family. Your father led the 4-H club and the Boy Scout troop and hosted a big Christmas party every year. Your mother managed the grocery store. You and your brothers were in our teenage Youth Group at church. 

We railed against the news station in Denver. They only mentioned your father’s death because it could impact the ski industry. The people in that news studio didn’t care about you. They didn’t know your family. We drafted angry letters in our heads.  

Should we send flowers to your mother? Was that the right thing to do? We pooled our lunch money to see if we had enough for calla lilies. 

After the bell for our first class rang, we lingered near our lockers, still whispering.

* * *

When the security guard shooed us from the halls and into music appreciation class, we were shocked to see you sitting at a desk. We froze in the doorway, knocking into each other. What were we supposed to say to someone whose father had just died? No one imagined you’d be at school.

You kept your head down and didn’t look at us. We stayed silent as we slid into our seats.

Opening our books, we pretended to pay attention to the teacher. If we didn’t, he’d yell at us for treating music appreciation like a throw away, like one of the final credits we needed to graduate. We were seventeen and felt that we already knew how to appreciate music, but if he caught us whispering, he’d slam his textbook shut and condemn us to Saturday School.

We pretended to pay attention, but we secretly watched you.

You glared at your textbook with watery eyes. Your hair stuck up in tangles. Mud speckled your boots, and flecks of hay dotted your winter coat. We all knew why. Your family’s cattle and horses still needed to eat, even if you’d shoved away your own breakfast that morning.

Wrapping your arms around yourself, you leaned forward until your head rested on your open textbook. When the teacher turned to scribble music notes on the whiteboard, you squeezed your eyes shut and clenched your jaw. Your shoulders shook.

We traced the faux woodgrain on our desks with our fingertips.

Seeing you slumped over your book made us think about our own fathers. We were nearly adults and fond of reminding our parents that we didn’t need them anymore. You made us wonder what would happen if our own fathers went on a ski trip and never came home.

As we watched you cry, we questioned why you’d come to school. Why were you putting yourself through this? Maybe you—like us—didn’t know what else to do. You came to school because it was Monday morning, and that’s what you always did on Monday mornings.

When the teacher turned away from the whiteboard, your eyes were still closed, and your head was still on your desk.

The teacher took two steps to his podium and slammed his textbook shut. 

We flinched. 

You blinked and sat up, knowing the slam was meant for you.

The teacher stared right at you as he said, “If you’re too tired to participate in class, you can go home.”

The room grew so quiet we could hear the scratchy ticking of the clock, the buzz of the florescent lights, the heavy snowflakes pelting the window.

Silent rage came first: the instinct to jump to your defense. We knew you weren’t sleeping; you were trying to hold yourself together. Before our minds could form a defense, another realization hit: The teacher hadn’t heard about you. He didn’t live in our town. He didn’t know your parents. Maybe the glossy news anchor hadn’t interrupted his breakfast. Maybe teachers floated above the whispers in the halls.

If he knew about you, he never would have slammed his book. On days when we finished our classwork early, he pulled out his guitar and played songs he’d written for his wife and baby. 

He never would have treated you like that if he knew.

We listened to the clock, the snowflakes, the footsteps in the hall. We mouthed questions at each other, all of us wanting to defend you, none of us willing to blurt out what had happened to you.

The teacher opened his book again.

You picked up your backpack and fled.

We stayed silent.

AJ Sterkel, M.F.A., is a writer, editor, nacho enthusiast, and Game of Thrones addict. She blogs about books and nonsense at https://ajsterkel.blogspot.com/