There are things I remember really well about Billy’s death.
The morning when I walked through the parking lot of the high school where I work, two years ago, on my way to a day of August pre-first-day-of-school teacher training. I always like these days. Everyone, except for the most burnt out of teachers, is inevitably filled with optimism about the upcoming year. Like, we can do this again. We’ve had time to rest, and we think we remember why we like to do this.
In general, I keep a bit of a distance between my personal life and my work life, but two teachers I care about were standing on the sidewalk, one of them crying. I probably would have walked awkwardly by if I didn’t feel somewhat close to the teacher who was crying, but I did, so I stopped. Asked what was going on. They gave me that horrible, reluctant, stricken look that makes you realize something really bad has happened and you’re the last to know. They told me Billy was dead. How he had died, in this absolutely horrifying way. Then the crying teacher said, “I can’t do this right now. I can’t be here,” and she walked back to her car.
The other teacher and I walked a few paces toward our staff meeting, me in stunned silence. After a moment, he said, “I haven’t been teaching for a long time, but this isn’t the first student I’ve known who died this way, and it won’t be the last.” And then he walked ahead, to give me space.
The actual reasons behind Billy’s death are controversial now; no one will ever quite know what was going through his head. At the time, it seemed like an obvious case of suicide, although I would later learn that Billy had been suffering from pretty severe mental illness in the time since he had graduated from our high school. So either he didn’t mean to kill himself, or he did, but either way, he was the student that I had been closest to in the first four years I’d worked at that school, a brilliant human being who’d only gotten to experience one year of college, and he was dead.
The other memory I remember most clearly is from the funeral. Even with two years’ distance, I have a hard time thinking about this funeral. It was a funeral where it seemed like the purpose was to convince the audience that it wasn’t a suicide, just a tragic accident—all this focus on the death, not on the life. I was sitting next to another teacher I care about, one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and during the most upsetting part of the whole thing, she had her head down, sobbing, shoulders shaking, and I remember not knowing whether I should put my hand on her back, comfort her in some way, but I was too messed up with my own emotions to do anything at all. Later, I realized she just understood more clearly, how wrong everything was, and was processing it better than I was, something I lacked the capacity to do at the time.
I can’t remember how much time passed after the funeral, before I started writing my first book.
I had always dreamed of writing books as a kid, but a bunch of self-doubt and one fiction class in college that went poorly made me abandon those dreams pretty quickly; I changed the focus of my writing degree to non-fiction instead. Post-college, I worked customer service jobs while I figured out what the hell I wanted to do with my life; there was one year that I wrote for a few online sites and even attempted to make a living out of it, even though that was an entirely unfeasible plan. But writing fiction, like books, was a dream that had been really, truly absent from my bones until Billy.
My first book was YA—I’m a teen librarian, I’m well versed in the world of YA and it didn’t feel like such a wild thing to try—and it was a type of love story between a girl named Harper and a boy named Zeke. I honestly don’t know if I consciously understood at the time, that I was working through my grief, giving Billy a happier ending through Zeke—even though, as I started writing, Zeke quickly became his own, unique person, even if the inspiration started with Billy, as it should be when you’re writing fiction—but I did know that I wanted to…acknowledge, honor Billy and other kids like him, that his story wasn’t told enough. That that funeral had been fucked up and my brain wanted to do something to fix it.
In the book, Zeke is the adopted son of a white woman who adopts Black children from around the world like it’s her mission from God. He wants to find his biological family, whom he can barely remember, in Haiti. Harper is the daughter of a single lesbian mother, a mother who once had a partner, who for a year of Harper’s life, had been her mother too. Until the other woman realized she didn’t want a thing to do with motherhood and yeeted out of both of their lives. Harper and Zeke are worlds apart in many ways but are alike in having questions about people who were part of their lives once that they no longer know, in being part of families that don’t look or feel anything like their peers.
There was also a poorly plotted out storyline about a mysterious roll of film found in Harper’s new house, and Harper and Zeke creating a secret darkroom in their high school, and a bit of Mary Oliver poetry, and screaming at the ocean, and a conversation that I found particularly hilarious to write when Harper’s mother tries not to be horrified at the thought of her daughter being straight (which Harper is not). And a Salvadoran grandmother and an apology made via soup. (Soup remains a running theme in my work, actually.) Basically, there was a lot going on, because it was my first book and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and it will never see the light of day because a lot of it was way out of my lane, but also I love it very much.
It ends with Harper letting Zeke go. Watching Zeke’s plane fly away, on his way back to Haiti, to find his answers.
In my head, it is a happy ending. At the very least, a better one.
There are still ghosts of Billy everywhere: his face still pops up in our student database when I’m searching for a last name similar to his. This fall, when I was getting textbooks ready for this year’s students, I randomly opened a cover of one to do some spine repair and saw his name, checked out years earlier. I wondered, as I have several times over the past few years, what he would think if he knew I started writing books because of him. Probably be real weirded out, even though he liked romance novels. I got a book deal, Billy, I thought this year when I saw his name in that textbook, and chuckled a little, at how grossed out he’d be, at the idea of his librarian writing sex scenes. It hurts less now, seeing his name.
Then there was last week. I got an email from another principal of mine. Difficult news, the subject line read.
I didn’t know her as well. But she was so young. I always felt like Billy was cheated out of so much, never even finishing college. But this girl was in 8th grade. She didn’t even get to high school.
Her death was more black and white than Billy’s; she left a note. She thanked her best friend for her friendship. I had a lot of anger back then at Billy, but I didn’t feel a shred of it this time. It feels hard to hold it against someone, doing what they felt they needed to do.
I thought about what that teacher had said, two years ago, about how Billy wasn’t the first student suicide he’d experienced, how it wouldn’t be the last. How awful it felt, to be in that club now.
I thought about how news like this feels slightly different now that I have a kid of my own, a cliche thing I’d heard before but that rings true. How terrifying it is, to have no idea what lies ahead for your kid. How anything could happen.
But other than this general, vague feeling of sadness—and this might have been due to the fact that I didn’t really know her, or just because it’s 2020 and my heart is already so full of trauma that it can’t handle any more—but honestly, I tried not to think about it too hard. Except for this one little thing.
Her name was London.
When I was looking for character names for the book that will now be my first published book, I searched through my Twitter—one of my favorite ways to find character names now—and stole Dahlia Adler’s for Dahlia. For London, I googled gender neutral names, ones that could be used for boys or girls or people in between, and I loved London immediately. I still love it. It’s not a huge artistic accomplishment, choosing names out of an Internet hat, but I do feel proud of Dahlia’s and London’s names, moreso than other characters I’ve worked on. They are both so beautiful. They both fit the characters perfectly.
And so it was, when I was searching through my manuscript looking for a quote to post on Twitter last week for #FridayKiss, and suddenly every London I saw felt like a little pinprick in my heart.
And I couldn’t stop thinking:
Didn’t she know? That she had the most beautiful name?
How many other things did she not know? That she didn’t get a chance to?
I am not sure, honestly, what my point here is, other than feeling the need to talk about it. But I think it has something to do with these ghosts, these echoes of people I knew well and those I didn’t, that show up in the words that tumble out of my brain onto a screen. How every year, the more I know real people, and the more I write about fake people, these ghosts and echoes are likely to multiply, reflections of each other, all mixed up in a muddy pond. And how sometimes I feel weird about it—will I always invoke Billy when people ask me how I got into writing books? Does that feel a little gross, somehow?—but sometimes, I just feel like, well, of course. That muddy pond, that’s the way this works.
Stories can’t always save people. Billy loved books, I think more purely than he loved anything else in his life. The last book London checked out from me was a Jenny Han one. I marked it as lost, after she died, and kept thinking about it. That I hoped she had liked it, that it made her feel happy for a little while, like Jenny Han books make me and so many other people feel happy for a little while.
Stories can’t always save people, but they can make us feel a little better, when we need them to. Sometimes the only thing you can do is keep writing them, while you can.