by Huan He ’13
When I want to really think, I mean really think, I like to fill my head with monotonous noise. For example, about five days after my 17th birthday, I sat on the roof of my house thinking and listening to trains aggressively drone past. I know this might sound counterintuitive to some people; especially those who like to contemplate in silence. But to me, the deafening silence pulls on my psyche. Only on rare days in my hectic life do I get to experience silence, turning the quietness into an experience of distracting sublimity. So I like to think while listening to trains, traffic, or even background conversation.
That’s why I almost didn’t hear him when he first spoke to me. I was deep in mindless thought while chucking rocks toward the direction of the speeding locomotive. Then, a voice that sounded like he was speaking in ALL CAPS called to me.
“Hey kid, can I ask you a question?”
I was slightly startled. It’s easy to forget that other people live in the town when all I see is the brilliant blue Nebraskan sky and the vastness of the railroad. But I looked down.
He was about five foot two and wore black socks in sandals. He sported a black shirt that stated “FBI: Female Body Inspector,” wore thin black glasses, and his hair looked like he had been rolling around in the grass. Without paying much attention, one might think that he was only 13 years old. But I definitely recognized him as someone from my small town high school.
“What’s up?” I responded.
“You’re Peter? You’re friends with Beth, right? I recognize you as someone in her posse. Anyway, my name is Seth, and I was wondering if you would support me in the Student Council election this coming Monday. I’m running for President. And can you tell your friends to vote for me as well?” He squinted at me, waiting for a response and trying to shield his eyes from the blinding sun.
“Why the fuck should I do that?” I said carelessly. I was in one of those indifferent moods.
However, I could see I struck a nerve. Seth looked as if I had simultaneously excited him and slapped him in the face. “You think the new administration is doing anything good for our school? All they’ve done is screw up our dining options, change our school calendar, create the most pathetic joke-of-a-study hall period that just gives the kids in our already-failing school system less time with teachers. And the worst part is that nobody cares. I think it’s all so sad. I think it’s because they think we don’t care, they can get away with it. If you vote for me for President, then I’ll do something about it. I know I won’t have that much power, but still, the administration will have to at least hear me out. At the very least, I’ll get on the administration’s nerves.
A train blasted by in full force.
“Like it’ll really matter,” I said. “I mean, your idea sounds great and all, but like you said, none of the administrators care. Even worse, none of the students care. Most students are so psyched to just get a job these days and get their high school diploma that the last thing they want to do is actually learn. Why does it even matter when everyone in our class is going to end up living in this same town or another shittier town and married to someone else whose only dream for the future is to get a steady job at the local gas station. They don’t care because nobody cares. Even if they are smart and know better, they still don’t care.”
“Do you care?”
At the same moment I was about to respond, another train engine overpowered my voice.
I started to notice Seth more and more at school. He didn’t win the Student Council election for President (Kylee Pierce, one of the bimbos of the school ended up winning because she had recently led the girls’ basketball team to a state championship). However, something about my rooftop conversation with him resonated with me. He was one of those kids that you probably saw all the time but didn’t know it, and now I just recognized him all the time, especially everyday at lunch. He would usually grab a slice of the cafeteria’s stale cardboard pizza and sit in a computer lab to finish his lunch in solitude. He usually kept to himself, but he never seemed bored. This day was one of those days where everything went well for me, and I feel particularly bold. So I decided to join him. I slowly opened the door to the computer lab and was greeted with a rush of A/C.
“Hey,” I said.
He turned around and stared at me. For a second, I thought he was going to ask me who I was. But his answer indicated his familiarity.
“What do you want?”
I quickly replied, a little startled by the confrontational response. “I was just sick of the cafeteria scene. Too many people all talking about the same crap they talk about everyday. Do you mind if I join you in here?”
“What are you working on?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m just working on a screenplay that I’ve been writing for the past few months.”
“Can I read it?” I asked.
The computer whirred. Seth continued to tap on the keyboard, creating what appeared to be a masterpiece on the computer. The writing was formatted to look like a real script. From what I could tell, the piece was a melodrama of some sort, an emo-saturated piece with the main character contemplating suicide. I liked it.
“Don’t you have some other work to do? Or somewhere else to be?”
“Yeah, probably,” I said.
I watched as he typed more words. I was waiting for the perfect moment to tell him.
“Hey, I’m sorry about the election. I know you really wanted to win. You would have been a good President,” I said.
He paused and looked as if he was about to say something immediately, but the moment passed. He just looked down at his keyboard. I thought he was going to remain quiet, but then he spoke.
“I just think we could do so much better, you know? Is it wrong of me to actually care? Or am I just being stupid? I mean, I look at these students who just are so smart, who are so talented. But then in class, they just don’t give a shit. At all. They don’t care, and the administration definitely doesn’t care. As long as they graduate high school, the administration wouldn’t give two shits about whether they even go to college or not.”
“Yeah, it’s fucked up,” I replied.
His eyes shot me a piercing glance. “See, why do you curse?”
“I…uh…,” I stuttered.
“I know you know better. I know for a fact that you are smarter than that. Remember? We had 3rd year English together.”
I didn’t remember this fact at all.
“You probably were the best student in that class. I just don’t see why you have to lower yourself to that.”
Seth had a valid point. But, before I could respond, the school bell buzzed the usual drone, and I left Seth in the lab typing away the day.
It was about mid-school year now, and the days became lazier. The harsh Nebraska winter was nobody’s friend and all the students in the school seemed especially deflated. Nobody was especially motivated to succeed, and everybody just went through the daily motions.
I had been spending a lot of time with Seth. I just happened to bump into him everywhere, and we eventually just started spending almost every lunch together in Computer Lab A. Sometimes, I would help him with his screenplay, or we would just sit and talk about the things we wanted to do after we left high school. I really hadn’t thought about any of this much, but Seth did.
“I just want to go to college in a large city, you know. I don’t even care which city. I could care less if I get lung cancer from all the pollution or get mugged by a rando. I just can’t take these small towns anymore. It’s too suffocating. Sometimes, I’ll walk around and think about how my life is just withering away every time I hear the trains cruise through town and am reminded of the fact I live in this town.”
This computer lab at lunch became a second home for us, but eventually, we would start spending a lot of time together throughout the day and outside of school as well.
I realized that life goes in cycles, that when things start going your way, it’ll usually stay that way for a while. And everything will be nice. No problems at school, at home, or with friends. But happiness is only temporary, and sooner or later, something goes wrong. That’s when you realize how powerless you really are.
It was in the middle of February, and Seth was getting ready to head over to my house. I was waiting for him down the hall where I saw him putting books into his locker. A couple of boys in cowboy boots and overalls walked behind Seth, talking to each other. At first, I didn’t make anything of it. Then, the larger of the two checked Seth into his locker. A loud bang followed, and the boys disappeared around the corner of the hall.
I ran towards Seth worried and furious.
“Are you ok?” I asked. “What happened? Who were those guys?”
Seth’s eyes were wide and frantic. He was out of breath, but he immediately got up and continued to put books into his locker.
“What are you talking about? I am fine. They just accidentally bumped into me. That’s all.”
“What?” I asked. “That was definitely not just an accident. Who are they?”
“None of your business.”
“Dude, I’m just looking out for you,” I said.
Seth slammed his locker shut, picked up his backpack, and walked away without a word.
I called after him. “Hey! I’m just trying to help!”
He snapped around. His face was glowing red, flushed from anger. “What are you going to do, huh? You can’t do anything. Nobody can. I’ve talked to the administration about this, and they don’t care. They told me to go talk to my guidance counselor who doesn’t give a shit.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
I could see his eyes glistening with tears behind his now-crooked glasses as he spoke. “I didn’t want to bring you into this.”
‘Why? That’s why I am here. I’m always here for you,” I said.
“You know, I don’t even know what I did to them. It doesn’t even matter now. You wouldn’t have been able to do anything anyway. I’ve dealt with this way too long. But you know, shit happens. That’s why I want to leave this town, this fucked up town.”
I stared into his sorrowful eyes without a clue of what I should do next.
A month passed, and so did any discussion of the incident between Seth and me. Occasionally, Seth would enter a depression, and I knew something had happened. But he would never want to talk about it. He was the best at pretending, actually. Not because he was usually successful at hiding his emotions but because he was able to consistently wear a fake smile to cover his emotions up. It was one of those lifeless smiles, the kind that you see people wear when they try too hard to make a good first impression. Seth was a master at it.
Sometimes, I would see that he’d have a busted lip. Seth would write it off as a bad fall. Other times, he looked as if he was about to cry at any moment.
I remember one afternoon afterschool when I was in Seth’s room in the basement of his house. We were studying for calculus together when we heard a truck drive past the house. Before we could go look at the window to see who it was, a rock smashed through the basement window. Shards flew everywhere. I couldn’t tell what was more frightening: the shards or the loud bang.
Seth did not utter a word.
“What was that?” I asked.
This was the first time in my life that I saw real fear. Seth tried to formulate words, but none left his mouth.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
The old grandfather clock in the room ticked away slowly, making me frighteningly aware of the reality of what had just occurred.
“I…I can’t do this.”
Lost for any words of comfort, I approached Seth and embraced him.
One brisk spring morning, I woke up to my phone ringing obnoxiously. I thought it was my alarm at first, but as I drifted into consciousness, I realized it was Seth’s caller ringer. I was so exhausted from the previous night of studying for calculus, that I just let the call go to voicemail.
When I finally rolled out of bed, I sluggishly reached for my phone to play the voicemail. Seth’s voice spoke.
“Hey Peter, it’s Seth.” His voice sounded shakier, as if he was either out of breath or just plain cold.
“I didn’t know how to tell you this, but I’m gone. I can’t tell you where I’ve gone, but just know that I’ve finally left. I’m finally free, Peter. I can’t tell you how amazing this feels. I just feel so…free. I wanted to tell you that. Maybe we’ll run into each other sometime, you know? Life can be weird like that.”
I don’t know why, but I just stood there gawking at the phone for what seemed like a full minute. When I finally grasped my consciousness, my first instinct was to run to Seth’s house. So I ran and ran in my boxer shorts towards the corner house. I banged on the door, and his mom opened it with a frantic look on her face. I could tell she had been crying and that she knew. She was holding a note in her hand that Seth left her.
She told me that she had just called the police, and that they would be arriving in five minutes.
The police? This all seemed too real, and I just couldn’t sit still. I thought maybe by some stroke of luck that he was still in town. So I ran toward the train station, hoping with all my heart that I would find him waiting on a bench. Even though in my heart I knew it was impossible, I still ran.
In the distance, I heard the booming sound of a train get softer and quieter. But I kept running. My legs pumped faster than they ever did in my life. It seemed like the faster I ran, the quieter the train became. Finally, my legs felt numb, and I clasped my knees gasping for air. The train was gone, and I listened to the silence ring.