Part One: The Kids Are Not Alright
I find myself staring off into space, a deep stare where the world’s sounds fade away, submerging myself underwater to an eerie, death-like silence. I routinely find myself zoning off every time Mrs. Johnson, our sixty-year-old junior English teacher, goes on a tangent about the importance of literature and how our generation doesn’t care. I looked down and read a few lines from my favorite play, read, daydream, read, daydream up the scene like a creative director then stare at the white walls with purple stripes. Our prison cell drips in our high school’s mighty colors of pride, integrity, and passion. The colors of Teamwork. Honesty. Friendship. I’ve drowned seeing and hearing that propaganda for three years now, on every wall on campus, and every cheer shouted. Mrs. Johnson clears her throat and pulls her bifocals down to around her neck, folds both hands on her hips, and lets out a huge sigh. Like clockwork. “Now you listen, back when I was a young girl, we understood and cherished the importance of books and imagination.” Just as the class clown yelled out, interrupting her.
“No books were written when you were young!” The class erupted into laughter. Mrs. Johnson rolled her eyes, used to that sort of interruption, and surprisingly accepting of it. I’m still zoning off, deep in a daydream about a summer blue sky and warm blue eyes. My favorite eyes. My favorite color, blue. SMACK. A paper ball hit me in the back of the head.
“Wake up, faggot!”
I slowly close my eyes, then slowly re-open them. I hate football players. Anyone would assume that having had, our first black president, a growing number of gender-neutral bathrooms, and a surprising amount of LGBTQ aired T.V. shows that people would be more accepting. Not in Lincoln, Arizona. The devil’s asshole. Probably one of the smallest towns in the entire state. No traffic lights, one bar, and a high school of 150 students. And me, the token gay.
Lincoln was prone to despair, the type of town that sucks you in and never lets you escape. Families never leave generation after generation just making their way during the day and then drinking themselves to sleep every night. Lincoln did make the state-wide news once. A train that goes through the town derailed, slicing the water tower leaving all 1,500 thirsty and frustrated. The National Guard had to supply water for a month until they got the water tower fixed. That was my first volunteer experience. The summers in Lincoln exceed 110 degrees. Not the ideal place to be when you have no water. Again, the devil’s asshole.
Mrs. Johnson began to lose control of the class as side conversations started, and no one was paying attention.
“Now class, listen up, stop the talking!” she let out but was interrupted by a knock at the door. Principal Miller opened the screechy door and walked in, followed by an unfamiliar face.
“Students listen up, we have a new student joining us, this is Nicole Clark. Mrs. Johnson, will you see to it that Nicole is settled in?”
“Oh yes, of course, welcome Nicole, welcome to Lincoln High.”
Mrs. Johnson is too cheery, I thought. Nicole stood there awkwardly, placing her left arm across her stomach, grabbing her right. Being judged by all twenty students simultaneously, from the style of her flip-flops, her black Jansport backpack, and straight brunette hair.
“Hi y’all,” Nicole said in a soft Texas accent followed by a beautiful smile. She took a seat in the first open chair she saw, next to me. Principal Miller left, and Mrs. Johnson resumed the lecture. I slightly glanced over at Nicole, she seemed a little nervous but tried not to let it show. She opened her backpack and got out standard classroom materials to take notes right as the class bell went off. She jumped by the sudden loud ring. I leaned over.
“Yeah, that bell is the worst, they just recently changed it to be more alerting I guess.” Nicole let out a laugh.
“Whoever approved that should be fired,” Nicole replied.
“Right? I’m Tyler, by the way.” I said, reaching my hand out, so professional.
“Nice to meet you, Tyler, I’m Nicole.”
“I know,” I said sarcastically.
She seemed down to earth, casual, and the Texas version of the girl next door. As we walked out of class entering the sun’s rays, she began to tell me a little about herself. She was from Texas, a small town as well but not nearly as small as Lincoln. She explained how her dad got the job as the town sheriff, and she was a little homesick. I couldn’t imagine having to move to a new school, a new town, a fresh hell. She started a month late, as school started in August, so she shouldn’t be too far behind. Just as we were approaching the junior lockers, Principal Miller’s voice echoed over the intercom system.
“All students report to the gymnasium for an assembly, I repeat all students report to the gymnasium.”
Nicole and I both looked at each other, she looked confused, but I had a hunch what the assembly was about. The high school was built fifty years ago, classrooms in the shape of a ‘U’ with the combined gymnasium and auditorium at the top. The chairs were slightly comfortable, movie theatre style with worn-out blue cloth seats and wooden back support. Nicole and I were among the last to arrive, scanning the crowd for two empty seats. I could feel the entire student body glaring at Nicole, fresh meat.
“There, two in the back!” I pointed.
The gymnasium was buzzing with side conversations, few laughs, and paper airplanes. Finally, Nicole asked, “Do you know what this is about? Who is that in the picture in the center of the basketball court?” Confused but slightly aware of why a giant picture was in the center of the court surrounded by flowers and a microphone stand.
“His name is Cameron Fulton, he started here about a month ago when school first started, umm… but he died by suicide last week.”
Nicole’s eyes expanded in surprise then soft with remorse.
“Oh my god,” she let out.
Principal Miller walked to the microphone stand, tapped the top “Test, 1, 2.” He’s so awkward, I thought.
“Okay, everyone, thanks for attending today’s assembly. We have a few items we want to go over before you are all released for lunch, so please pay attention. As all of you know, we lost a fellow student last week. He had a kind soul, and all of our thoughts and prayers go to his family. Now I would like to bring up Mrs. Wilson and the school choir to sing a beautiful tribute song.” This school is so small the choir is always made of the same eight people, the Glee obsessed band nerds that are surprisingly in tune. Cameron signed up for the choir club when he joined Lincoln High.
“Ready, one, two, three,” Mrs. Wilson counted, followed by hums, guitar strums, and biblical lyrics. You could tell the students were sad, shaken, but not too worried as they only knew Cameron for a month. They would all be discussing the next big rumor or party by the next period. I looked over at Nicole, and she looked genuinely upset, like she could feel what the family was going through, the level of pain Cameron must have felt to take his own life. The choir finished their tribute song, it seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place my finger on its name. Principal Miller returned to the microphone stand.
“Thank you, Mrs. Wilson, for that beautiful song. We all know Cameron would have fit right in with your choir group. Now, students, we are going to bring in a professional counselor from now until the end of the school year for any students who wish to talk to her. It is completely confidential, so please use the resources and don’t fear your parents finding out what you both discuss; it’s to help you, not get you in trouble. Given the recent set of events that took place over the summer, we want to make sure you are all in good mental health. Suicide is a difficult subject, especially for young adults, to carry with them, so please schedule an appointment with Ms. Jennifer Hall.” I knew Nicole would ask.
“What happened over the summer?”
I pondered my thoughts, wanted to make sure I said the correct thing. Nicole just started at this school and will look at it with much kinder eyes.
“Umm, so over the summer… this couple, Greg and Lizzie, also died by suicide, together…. They were found holding each other in his dad’s vintage Mustang in his parents’ garage with the engine running. It was graduation night.”
Nicole placed her hand over her mouth.
“That’s terrible, oh my gosh. Does anyone know why?”
“No. Greg and Lizzie were an interesting pair. Did everything together. Never with anyone else. They didn’t play sports or join any clubs or activities. I remember Greg when I was in middle school; he was a little bit of a comic nerd who wore those weird tails the comic con kidswear. He was picked on because of it.” I described, Nicole nor I paying any attention to the assembly.
“I recently read an article about Lincoln,” I continued, “saying we have surpassed the national average suicide rate by 23%, given the number of suicides, time frame, and population.”
Nicole looked perplexed, like what in the hell kind of town did she just move to? The assembly was over pretty quickly, and all the students dashed to lunch. Nicole and I took our time, still sitting in the gymnasium.
“Thank you for sitting with me and showing me around,” Nicole said as she adjusted her hair, a little tick I noticed she does right before she makes a forward statement.
“Yeah, no problem. I don’t have the biggest friend group. I know the feeling of not knowing anyone.”
“Well, I’ll be your friend!” Nicole said, followed by that beautiful smile. “Can I grab your number?”
“I don’t really have a phone at the moment. I had one that broke. It was a pre-paid that always had credits on it because I didn’t text or call anyone,” I said, hoping Nicole wouldn’t think less of me for not being a traditional millennial.
“Oh no problem, so I take it you don’t have an Insta or Snap account?”
“No, I don’t…” Now, this is the part where Nicole thinks I’m weird, and we part ways forever. Just then, Nicole took out a small piece of paper and wrote down her number.
“Here’s mine. I hope you have a landline at home?” She said jokingly.
Haha. “Yeah, I do.”
Before I knew it, lunchtime was almost over. The loud, shocking bell was about to ring, meaning Nicole and I had to part ways, but the school is small enough we didn’t have to travel very far. As I walked to the next period class, I couldn’t stop thinking about how she genuinely listened to what I had to say, attentive, she wasn’t Lincoln raised. Had she not come today, I probably would have sat with a few choir kids, or Mark, he’s pretty cool, but he’s always with the jocks, and I already see them enough.
The afternoon flew by, and before I knew it, the final bell rang, the school was dismissed for the day. Three large buses lined up at the front of the school. I began walking to the middle bus when I saw Nicole. She was standing off to the side, probably waiting for a ride to pick her up. I ran over.
“Hey stranger, is someone picking you up?”
“Yeah, my dad said he would before he goes into work. He works nights usually.”
“So I know you didn’t really know Cameron, but his funeral service this Saturday at the Eastside Church. Would you want to come with me?”
“Yes, of course.” She said encouragingly.
“I have to arrive a little early to set up, so we can just meet there?”
“I can go early with you. What do you have to set up?”
“Are you sure? I love sleeping on weekends, but the family asked if I would film the service for them and burn it to a DVD.”
“That’s so nice of you! And yeah, it’s fine, I usually wake up early anyway, mostly because my dad makes breakfast and if I want food I better be up and at the table. Do you do a lot of filming?” Nicole joked.
“Film is kind of my hobby. The football coach has me film all their games for him; in exchange, he gives me P.E. credit,” I said in a sigh of relief.
The football team is okay for a small school. Since I film all their games, that means I travel with the team when they have away games, the part I dislike the most. Trapped on a bus for three hours with immature football players. The smell doesn’t bother me. It’s kind of hot. Almost like being in a locker room, but the harassing side is a bitch.
The worst of them all is Jason Brophy, a junior that always reminds me that I’m gay and useless. He was the one who threw the paper ball at my head in Mrs. Johnson’s English class. All of his harassings is usually subtle name-calling, writing slurs on my locker, and paper ball throwing. He is a teenage living example of Trump’s America. Cowboy boots, cheap beer, and shotguns usually consisted of his weekend activities; he’s so cool he doesn’t even have a girlfriend. To everyone, he is Jason Brophy. My coming out to my peers’ story wasn’t this grand spectacle full of celebratory hugs and laughs. I actually didn’t control it. Jason started telling people that I was gay in eight grade. It spread like wildfire. It seemed like the entire class ran up to tell me the rumor and ask if it was true. Well, it’s not not true was my response. Nicole’s dad arrived, and I ran to my bus before it left me again.
I arrived home to an empty house again. My dad is a CDL owning truck driver and has been since the day I was born. A few years ago, he bought himself an engine red semi-trailer truck, with living quarters and everything. Right behind the driver’s seat. A coffee pot table next to a twin bed. He’s a strategic planner. He knew what was brewing and hatched himself an exit strategy. When I was younger, it wasn’t bad, his routes were always just a few hour drives here and there, but recently, those hour-long drives turn into days. His parents, my grandparents, lived in the town their entire lives, and their parents before them. My grandfather lives alone now attending to his many birdbaths and feeders, his newfound hobby. My grandmother passed away years ago when I was younger, and I don’t think my dad has deep down been the same since. Numbing reality just enough, while chasing the past at the bottom of every bottle.
Our house with wheels is your typical single-wide mobile home that is not very well insulated. My mother does all the decorating in the house. Bright yellow daffodil ornaments filled the kitchen, her favorite flower. A few family pictures scattered across the refrigerator door and plant succulents on the window ledge.
My mother doesn’t usually get home until a little later. She is a second-grade school teacher and is often stuck at work. I’m assuming grading the quality of the painted pictures or dried noodle necklaces? She and my dad dated in high school had me and never left town. I always wondered if they blamed me or viewed me as a reason for them not making it out of Lincoln, running off to the big city, the same dream that everyone in Lincoln has.
I plopped down back on my twin bed. Looking up at the ceiling, counting all the glueballs that have lost their glow in the dark star. I closed my eyes and immediately saw those warm blue eyes looking back at me. I could smell the fresh pine from the forest and the water running in the small creek. Birds chirping as the sun’s rays moved in and out from behind the tree branches. My heart began to pick up.
He had his arms around me, my head leaning into him, the safest place I’ve ever felt.
Nicole’s room was cute, blue soft bed sheets on an old school wooden bed frame. She was ruffling through her room, trying to find a pair of clean black leggings to wear with her dark navy dress, she had other black dresses, but they were still boxed up. She didn’t want to go through the hassle she kept saying, beginning to get frustrated. Not with her jeans, not with her shirts, not under the bed? Finally, she tried the small dresser she keeps in her closet, jackpot!
“Finally! Thank heavens. Okay, I’m going to change quickly, then we can head out,” Nicole said as she ran to the bathroom to change.
“Okay, cool.” I got up and looked around her room, admiring the beat-up metal softball bat leaning against her dark brown desk, all her sports awards and trophies from junior beauty pageants. Second place medal for butterfly and backstroke. Seventh grade Outstanding Player for softball. The employee of the month from lifeguarding at a public pool in Texas. She must have had an exciting life back there, I wonder what it must feel like to completely change your life, leave all of that behind. I saw a picture, well many pictures scattered about her bedroom with the same blonde lady in them. She must be Nicole’s mom. I wonder what happened to her? Nicole never mentioned her. I could hear Nicole’s phone camera going off in the bathroom. She must be taking a few selfies. I slowly opened a drawer on her desk, inside was a silver flask with an outline of Texas, there seemed to be a little bit of juice left there, whatever it was. A few pictures with her friends from back wherever she is from, and an assortment of colorful hair ties. The bathroom sink came on, she must be almost done as I slowly closed the drawer and went back and sat on her bed. She seemed normal, teenage reasonable.
Nicole then began looking for her purse, ruffling through her belongings to find that one small black purse she knows she has, and then she remembered it was downstairs. We walked down the stairs into the kitchen. The crispy, oily smell of bacon and the sizzling sound made my mouth water, Sheriff Clark was making breakfast.
“Morning there, would you care for some eggs? I just made a bucket of bacon.” Nicole’s dad asked while trying to flip the eggs without breaking the yoke. He was right about the bacon, though, a mountaintop sitting on the kitchen table center.
“I’ll grab one piece for the road, I can’t stay Pops. Tyler and I are going to Cameron Fulton’s funeral service. I’m sure you have heard what happened?” Nicole explained as she searched the living room for her little black purse, still unable to find it. Sheriff Clark began to shake his head and let out a sigh.
“Nicole, should you really be going? This is a very private service. You didn’t know the boy.”
“I don’t have to know him to show him respect, Dad. And Tyler wants me there for support,” Nicole replied as I awkwardly stood next to her. Sheriff Clark began cleaning his hands on his blue cooking apron.
“Tyler? Hi, very nice to meet you,” he shook my hand as I leaned in, adjusting my camera bag.
“Nice to meet you, Sheriff.”
“Alrighty, we are going to head out. I love you.” Nicole said as she found her little black purse. We grabbed a few pieces of bacon and headed out the door, paying little attention to what he had just said, a typical teenager. Nicole and her dad moved into a two-story ranch-style home near the center of town, close to the Eastside Church. As we got closer, we could see the church parking lot was full. Cameron’s relatives must have come from out of town as some of the cars had California and Nevada plates. A few kids played outside in the dirt with trucks and dinosaurs, a few others on little bikes cruising up and down the poorly built sidewalk. Just as Nicole and I were about to enter the church, we heard shouting and yelling. We froze. Only then, three men threw another man from the church.
“Get the fuck out of here Dennis you piece of shit, we told you not to come around!” One man shouted. Nicole was taken back, clutching her little black purse.
“That’s my fucking son!” Dennis shouted from the ground all dusty, visibly drunk, and still wearing the same blue jeans and button-up shirt from the night before. His salt and pepper hair was a mess, and cowboy’s boots extremely worn out. The three men began to quickly shut the door to the church.
“Don’t you think about coming back in here, Dennis. We told you to stay away, but you couldn’t fucking listen!” the second man shouted. We just stood there, still taken aback, but quickly ran to the door, as the men were about to shut it. “Come in darlin’,’” the third man said, greeting Nicole. Mr. Fulton continued to sit in the dirt, crying, smashing his fist to the ground.
As we entered the Eastside Church, the smell of paper and flowers overcame me. It was an old building that seats about fifty people—large stained glass on both sides of the walls in the center of each a white cross. The altar sat at the end of the building. It had five white floral arrangements, each standing four feet high. In the center of the flowers was a picture of Cameron; red-haired bob cut with bright red cheeks and blue braces. At the end of the standing sprays were toddler pictures of Cameron with even redder hair and redder cheeks.
“Tyler, I’m going to search for the bathroom before this starts,” Nicole said as she tapped my shoulder and took off exploring. I looked around to determine where to set up my tripod without being in the way. The left-back corner looked sufficient. I got my camera out and attached it to the tripod when I heard a familiar voice.
“Tyler, thank you so much for doing this for the family, poor things, they could use all the help they can get,” said Susan Smith. I could smell the alcohol on her breath. Susan went to school with my parents and works at the high school as the lunch lady. You can see her brunette roots growing in, as she hasn’t bleached her hair in a few months.
“Hi Susan, yes, of course, this is just so sad. Anything to help out.”
Susan leaned over. “I heard they found him in the bathtub… with his wrist cut down his entire forearm and the shower still on.”
My face turned white with shock. “Wow that’s intense, please no more details, but umm…who found Cameron?”
“His mama,” she said, looking around the room. “I don’t see her here yet, the poor thing is probably a wreck, I know I would be. I also heard his dad was abusive, and that’s why they moved out here to escape him. I wonder if he will come to the service?” Susan kept on. The one thing people in Lincoln are good at is talking about each other. I kept setting up my camera, nodding.
“Is your mama coming, Tyler?”
“Umm, I believe so… the last time I asked, she was.”
“Alright, well if you see her tell her I’m looking for her.” Susan replied, jetting off to gossip with the next person she saw. I wonder if my mom was coming. She didn’t know Cameron. But it’s something you do within the community as a sign of respect. More and more people came in, all dressed in black, all silent. Among them was Cameron’s mother; she had on a pair of big dark sunglasses, a black hat, and tiny heels. She was on the bigger side, so she complimented her skirt with a black blazer. She slowly greeted and thanked each person for coming, tears rolling down her cheek, and landing on her arm’s bare skin. I quickly turned my camera and got some snapshots of people entering the flowers they brought, and a few of Cameron portraits. I changed the setting on my camera to capture those in black and white. As Nicole began to walk toward me, the pastor walked up to the podium and started reading Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…” I’ve witnessed many emotional events through the eye of my camera: weddings, sporting events, lunar eclipses, funeral services, and my favorite, those warm blue eyes.