The prom queen is dead and you’re not.
It’s that simple. She’s dead, the beautiful blonde who literally gasped in surprise when the principal read her name, announcing that she’d won. Someone caught it on camera and in a week or so you were pointing at that gasp without touching the photo to tell someone else on the yearbook staff yep, that’s it, put that one in the center of the layout. You picked it because it was the prettiest, the most palatable, and not because you knew her in any way. You didn’t care if she’d be excited and gasp again when she saw she was the focus of the Prom 2004 spread. You heard she was nice but you didn’t know her because you didn’t run in that crowd, the crowd of the pretty and the palatable. You just knew the picture looked good in the center.
Now, 11 years later, in hundreds of homes there’s a yearbook with a page where a beautiful blonde girl gasps as a tiara is being handed to her. This beautiful blonde will gasp forever and at age 28 she put a needle in her arm and OD’d on heroin and it’s just that simple: the prom queen is dead and you’re not.
Before her it was a guy from the varsity tennis team. You didn’t know him either but for some reason you have a video on your computer of him playing guitar for your friends. It’s senior year, everyone is sitting on the ground around him singing a song by Sublime and you’re filming and last spring he got sideswiped by a semi truck on his motorcycle.
There was another girl, someone big in drama club, one of those Anne Hathaway types with too many teeth and too much to say. She wasn’t your friend but she acted like she was when she was running for student council. Ran right up to you at lunch and threw her arms around you in a hug, asked how your summer went, if you’d lost weight. In that moment you hated her, hated the way your name sounded in her mouth, but you bit the bullet and smiled back, knowing that after she got your vote she’d never remember your name again. They found her in her garage a few years ago with the car running after her husband ran off with one of his male coworkers.
The year you graduated from college, some guy you did a scene with in elective theater class got crushed by a tree while hiking through the Pacific Northwest. The scene you did together was something about the woman’s bathroom and a Stradivarius cello and he was killed by an act of God during his church-sponsored nature retreat, ha-fucking-ha on that one. You can’t remember the name of the play but think it had the word “Flowers” in the title.
After your first semester in college your roommate – the one who moved out without ceremony or telling you where she was going but managed to take your hair dryer and your trash can – she moved in with her boyfriend. You learned that much on Facebook, but you didn’t hear until almost two years later how he’d strangled her one night after a fight about meth. They’d been tweaking for days.
The prom queen is dead, and so is the guy who played guitar. The girl with too many teeth in her head and your least favorite ex-boyfriend. The guy you acted with one afternoon and the girl you lived with one semester.
You’re friends with too many of them on social networks. Twitter profiles with one final tweet that echoes on forever. Facebook pages that become burial markers, interactive graveyards where people still stop by and post as though the long-gone person who smiles at them from their profile picture will get the message. “Miss you.” “Love you.” “Wish you were still here.” It’s an embarrassing, fruitless attempt to contact the dead, an online Ouija board with no one on the other end.
You act cavalier about it, about the people you’ve known who are now in the ground. You pretend it’s not a big deal. Maybe you write snarky little thinkpieces about it, like this one. But the truth is, the ugly stinking truth at the rotten core of the matter, is that it scares the shit out of you. The sheer number of people who were HERE and now just AREN’T. How fast it can happen, like a lightbulb going out. Sometimes it keeps you awake at night.
The prom queen, she had kids. Two of them. A boy and a girl who are barely out of diapers and now they’ll grow up without that beautiful smiling blonde who, according to her Facebook profile, went on smiling long after the tiara was placed on her head, probably kept smiling right up until sticking the needle in her arm. The guy who played guitar for your friends, all of them beaming and singing “What I Got” at his feet, he had a wife and they were planning on starting a family that summer.
The girl from drama club, you didn’t like her but she gave a monologue from “The Crucible” that took your breath away. Your ex-boyfriend was a piece of shit, sure, but there were plenty of times he made you laugh, made you feel good, and that’s got to count for something.
The guy in the Pacific Northwest was there to help people. He had powerful faith in God, something that everyone praised for weeks after he died but how can you say that and ignore the fact that he was killed in the most unfair way? That he was struck down, literally, while doing God’s work. Where was God then?
Your college roommate was sad. You could tell that from day one, her eagerness to be friends, her dark eyes that begged you (or anyone, really) to love her. Maybe if she’d met someone else, found a different guy to give herself to, she wouldn’t have died on that dirty flophouse floor with his hands around her throat.
Because that’s the root of it, isn’t it? Death itself, that’s not enough to shake you to your core because you imagine it’s a lot like a dreamless sleep or how it was before you were born. What really scares you isn’t the unending darkness you’re pretty sure follows death. It’s the idea of your funeral with few people in attendance. It’s the people you love unable to remember your face clearly. It’s your Facebook page, a barren wasteland, no one stopping by to say they miss you.
It’s being forgotten.
And sure, you haven’t forgotten. Even the people you didn’t really know, they occupy a small slice of your mind. The guy plays his guitar for your singing friends and your shitty ex-boyfriend tells you he prefers brunettes to blondes so you consider dyeing your hair. Your former roommate writes “hi cuteface” on the dry erase board of your shared dorm. The girl who reminds you of Anne Hathaway insists she’s a good girl, a proper girl. Your acting partner makes too many jokes while you’re trying to rehearse so you spend most of the time laughing and can’t remember your lines. The beautiful blonde smiles, smiles, smiles.
But you. What makes you special enough to be remembered?
You sat down to write a horror story and you’ve found out what really scares you instead.
But the important thing to remember, I suppose, is this:
The prom queen is dead and you’re not.