THIS IS FOR MY SISTER
Here’s how Hayley described it to me later: everyone at the entire graduation ceremony, all the graduates and guests, stood up and watched as me and Kamran tussled on the roof. Some people screamed.
Supposedly, Veronica had been nervously watching her brother, but right then, she took advantage of the pandemonium to try to slink out of there. But Hayley said she stopped her with a “where do you think you’re going?”
Veronica had supposedly said, “You can’t just grab my arm and hold me here, Hayley.”
Hayley said she said, “I won’t” and then knocked her flat with a punch that would have made the Hulk proud.
As Hayley explained it, Mr. Studie jumped off the stage and into the second row of graduates, where LaQuisha may well have already been annoying people by using her cell phone in the middle of the ceremony. Mr. Studie used his own copy of the yearbook to knock LaQuisha’s phone right out of her hands. No sooner could she say “Hey!” but Leslie and Susie slipped into the graduate seats and held her arms. Thanks to my three best friends, Veronica was down and LaQuisha wasn’t getting anywhere near a phone. I guess my girls were there for me after all.
Hayley said she opened up her email and her jaw dropped. Understanding the implications, she began to forward it around to everyone she knew.
Even as I was clawing and kicking with Kamran, I could see Officer Chabot down on the ground. He had left the bleachers and was now about fifty feet below me and Kamran. His gun was trained on both of us. I slapped Kamran hard and yelled to Officer Chabot, “Please don’t shoot me!!”
Kamran took advantage of my momentary pause. Just as I said “me!!” he almost knocked me off of the school’s roof. He got me just to the ledge. He strangled my neck while he tried to push me off of the edge. According to Hayley, the entire crowd below caught its collective breath.
My whole body felt like wet spaghetti. Is this what Miley felt like? Or Casey? I said to Kamran weakly, “They’re going to find out. It’s over.”
Kamran’s eyes were as red as a fire truck. He said, “You’re so stupid. That doesn’t mean it’s over. That means I’m already going to jail for life. One more murder won’t make any difference.”
Why wouldn’t Officer Chabot shoot him? Because he was in it with him? And his daughter? Was he gonna shoot me? In front of all these people?
I couldn’t resist Kamran any longer. I wanted to, but I just didn’t have the strength. He and two other people had just beaten me within an inch of my life. I felt Kamran’s powerful arms throw my upper body off the edge.
More gasps and screams from the crowd as I felt myself fly from the ledge in slow-motion. “I’m coming Miley,” I thought. So that’s what people think in that situation.
Then, oddly, the backs of my knees caught the ledge. I heard yet another collective gasp from the crowd. I was now dangling off the roof by the backs of my knees. Kamran was furious. He tried to pull my right leg off.
Thing is, I had held myself like this in gym class about a million billion times. I let him loosen my right leg. And then I used it to kick him three times in the head.
He was woozy, but not out. His left arm dangled off the ledge even as he began to gather himself for another strike. I grabbed his left arm and yanked his face up close to mine.
“This is for my sister, you motherfrakker.”
I threw him sailing off the ledge. One final gasp of shock from the crowd. Kamran went CRUNCH on the concrete below, right in front of Officer Chabot.
I began to flip myself up, as I had done so many times, only to see Scott charging me with the axe. I braced myself…
Anton came up behind him with the shovel and knocked him in the head. Scott landed on the roof, safe and unconscious.
Anton came up to me. “Riley?”
I said, “I got this,” and got myself up. We waved to the graduates and the audience. Everyone applauded.
I could hear Susie even from that far away. “RILEY! LOOK OUT!”
We turned and saw Jessica coming up behind us. Oh my google, not more. Then I heard a voice, “Stop or I’ll shoot!”
Jessica stopped, right near the ledge, and put her hands up. “I just want to see Kamran…don’t shoot me!” she squealed.
“Kevin,” came Officer Chabot’s voice from below, “She’s not armed. You know the rules. Put your gun down.”
I looked and saw Officer Tsui on the roof, his gun trained on Jessica. It had been his voice. Now he yelled, “You know the rules, too, Dave. Put your gun down.”
Officer Chabot’s gun was still pointed in my and Anton’s general direction, goddammit. He said, “You first.”
Officer Tsui walked over to the ledge, where Officer Chabot could see him, and holstered his weapon. He took out his cuffs, walked over to Jessica, and clamped them on her wrists. She looked terrible – human for the first time.
I saw a few other cops coming onto the roof. Officer Tsui gave Officer Chabot a look. He holstered his weapon as well and said, “I’ll be right up.”
Anton said to Jessica and Officer Tsui, “Just stay a few feet away from us.”
Jessica peered over the edge and said, “Yeah, uh, no problem. I’m…I’m so sorry. I mean, seriously.”
Anton said, “Not right now.”
The principal, Ms. Merrill, came to the microphone. “All right, class, let’s all sit down and let the police handle the situation on the roof. I’d like to let Anna take over from where she was.”
The valedictorian took back the microphone. “Thank you, Ms. Merrill. Well, as I was saying, we all know about the severe economic challenges facing our country. Some say there’s never been a worse time to graduate from high school. But I say…I say…”
She stopped because half the people in the audience were looking down at their phones. It was a really weird sight, even weirder from where I was. Hayley had done it by forwarding the youtube link.
Up on the roof, Jessica kneeled, looked at Kamran, and sobbed. We had a first-hand look at the bizarre sight of Officer Chabot walking away with his own daughter in handcuffs.
Anton and I looked down as two policemen came over to Kamran’s body. He hadn’t moved in a minute. We knew he was dead even before they looked up at Officer Tsui and shook their heads.
Principal Merrill came to the microphone again. “Excuse me, everyone, you have already been asked to put away your cell phones. You’re being very rude. For many of you, this will be the last thing I ever ask you to do. Please give Anna your undivided attention.”
Officer Tsui approached me and Anton. “You guys ready to come with me?”
Anton said, “What are we being charged with?”
Officer Tsui said, “Uh, nothing. But we have a lot of questions.”
“Hold on a minute, Kevin,” said Anton to him.
The valedictorian, Anna Nomura, got on the microphone again. “You know, someone once asked if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Today I wonder, if a video is going viral, can anyone stop it even for a second?” No answer. “Hey, everyone, can I ask you a question?” No answer. “Does that video really show what happened to Miley Tyler?”
Someone yelled, “Yeah!!”
Anna said, “In that case, one more question. Can we plug the video into this projector up here?”
Susie came over to the A/V equipment and started to take care of it. Anna picked up her notes, held them to the microphone, and tore them in half, causing a riiiippp sound that was immediately followed by a wave of cheers.
Anna leaned in and said, “Look guys, I was going to talk about how Americans have always bounced back from bad times and gone on to make the world a better place. But let’s face it, in history class we didn’t only learn how Americans pushed through the Depression and won World War II. We also learned about some problems, some failures. We also learn from those. So let’s finally learn what the heck happened to Miley. And as we learn, let’s let the lesson give us ideas about how to behave in the future. I know it’s not how we planned it but…the minutes on this tape will constitute the rest of my speech.”
People cheered. In all of America that day, I doubt there was an audience of graduates listening more closely to what was coming from a stage. I don’t think Principal Merrill was exactly thrilled. But she read the crowd and knew what had to happen.
Susie had managed to advance it to where the visible video portion began. Everyone stared as Kamran and Scott threatened Miley. My sister said, “This blog gives hope to every unpopular kid at this school.” And then everything I already told you. They made a move, she threw the phone, they said they killed her, they discussed moving the body.
Officer Tsui sat down next to me and Anton and said, “Well, a lot of people around here have worked pretty hard to get to this moment. But I’m not sure any of them have worked harder than you two.”
The video went green-leafy, but the audio was still fine. Everyone in Kirksville was listening as Kamran on tape said, “Where are you going?”
Scott answered him, “To find that phone.”
Kamran answered, “We don’t have time for that. It’s practically dark…We can take down the blog when we get home. Now we know she can’t put it back up.”
Anton and I sat watching the video from the ledge. I put my arm around his waist. Okay, fine, it wasn’t a Gerard Butler-like six-pack, but in that moment, like, it felt amazing or something. He put his arm on my shoulders. That felt kind of amazing too.
On the audio, Scott said, “Kamran, last time. Put that bitch’s body down.”
“Think about it, dude, DNA. Little hairs of yours and mine that they’ll find on her. Or even just sweat around this field.” Kind of strange to hear the voice of someone you just killed.
Scott on the tape said, “They’ll find that shit if we take her, too.”
Holding me, Anton used his other hand to reach into his pocket and pull out five $20 bills and hand them to me. He said, “I owe you this.”
Kamran on the tape replied, “We can say we had a fight, but that we haven’t seen her since. We have no idea what happened to her. I’d rather be lying about a missing girl than a dead one.”
Scott on tape asked him, “How much thought have you put into this?”
I took Anton’s money and threw it off of the roof. We watched as the $20 bills floated to the ground. The policemen there looked at them kinda strangely.
On the tape, Kamran said, “Just now. People go missing all the time. The cops give up. On a murder, someone always gets blamed, even if it’s the wrong person.”
“This is cause you’re not white, isn’t it?”
“I need your help to lift her into the trunk.”
The audio clearly played the trunk opening, some grunting, and then what must have been Miley’s body landing in there. The trunk closed, the doors opened and closed, and the car drove off.
I didn’t even know I was crying until I felt Anton’s hand hold mine. I instinctively pushed his hand away. He wiped away some wetness on one side of my face.
Down on the stage, Principal Merrill came to the microphone. “I think that’s enough…”
The crowd went, “Awwwww” and “Nooooo.” Someone said “One more minute!”
“Oh, is it one more minute?” she asked.
On the tape, the car’s noise only just faded when we were all able to hear rustling. That meant that Veronica had been in the bushes for a while, probably since before Miley threw the phone. The rustling gradually got louder, until finally we saw a human hand come over the phone. The phone rose up from the branches, and we suddenly saw a close-up of Veronica’s face. “Oh!” she said, and turned it off.
Then, a surprise: the video cut to a shot of the school at night. It was a little grainy, but no question it was the front of the school. There were people on the roof. You couldn’t make out their faces, but after what we’d just seen, everyone knew who they were. And Jessica was with them. She, well, she had two features you could see from a long way off.
Casey was screaming, “NO! NO! HELP!” on the video.
Up on that same roof, I looked over at Anton, who had just turned white as a sheet.
I had to say something. “What are the odds that Veronica would have these back-to-back?”
“Makes perfect sense,” said Anton in a whisper. “She had to keep all the incriminating evidence together. In case of emergency.”
“No one can hear you,” Scott said on tape in a voice firm enough to be clear. “Now hold still so I can get Jessica’s handcuffs on.”
Jessica said, “Those are my father’s cuffs, don’t…”
Kamran almost yelled, “Get her phone! Get her phone!”
Scott said, “Yeah, really, this time.” Even from this distance, I could see that Scott pulled it out of her pocket.
Anton was shaking like a leaf. I…was about to put my hand on his shoulder, but….the whole school was watching! At least, occasionally! And after all the work I’d done…
Tyler, come on, I said to myself. Have you learned nothing?
I put my arm around his shoulders. He barely seemed to notice – understandable considering that on the tape, Casey kept yelling, “HELP! MURDERERS!!”
Kamran on tape said, “No, don’t smash it here, we’ll do that later. I want this to look like a suicide.”
Casey said, “No one is gonna think this is a suicide.”
Kamran said, “You don’t know the note you’re about to leave.”
Jessica said, “A suicide wouldn’t have those cuffs…”
Kamran interrupted, “…those are to keep her from breaking her fall. Obviously we take them off after we find her on the ground.”
“You won’t get away with this,” grunted Casey.
“Wrong thing to say,” said Scott.
“As usual. You’re the one who won’t be getting away with something,” said Kamran, as they both pushed her to the ledge.
“Don’t. Please don’t,” Casey pleaded. “NO!”
And they pushed her off, making sure her head went first. She tried to twist mid-air, but still wound up landing almost on her neck. She must have died instantly.
Now, finally, the tape ended.
Principal Merrill said, “All right, class…I…let’s just have a moment of silence.”
Two weeks before, when she played Bryan Adams, no one was quiet. Now that there was no music, ironically, people actually shut up.
Call me a youtube virgin or whatever, but I realized that before that hour, I had never actually seen a person die, even on video. In the last twenty minutes I had seen three, Kamran on the pavement, and my sister and Casey on the video. One moment they’re alive, the next moment they’re not. My stomach churned and my lip quavered like a stuck worm. Anton hugged me hard. And yes, it felt good.
EMAILS FROM JUVIE
No, we didn’t get together, okay? I mean, like, not then.
I went home and took a thirty-minute shower. Ahhhhhh.
Mom and I talked everything out. We were laughing together for what felt like the first time in years. Mostly we just bonded over Vicodin pills. Thank google for pain-killers.
There were a bunch of graduation parties that night. There was a time when I was desperate to get invited to several of them. As it happened, I did get invited to all of them at the last minute. But now, I had absolutely no desire to go to any.
I just wanted to sit home with my laptop, my headphones, and Mom’s cocoa.
I pulled a weird move that night; I went to youtube and dredged up Miley and Mom’s dinosaurs. I listened to U2, Nirvana, Portishead, the Pixies, the Ramones, even the Beatles.
Okay, fine, the Beatles were all right.
Veronica texted me. I guess some people get to use their phones even in juvie custody. Her text said, “I cant even begin 2 tell u how sorry I am. I never, ever expected anything like this 2 happen. I know I lied 2 u but I never wanted to hurt you, I swear”
I didn’t answer.
Her next text said: “need your help. need you to tell police that I meant no harm”
Why the frak would I do that? I texted back: “email me and tell me absolutely everything u know. if u give me enough new info, ill consider helping u”
Within an hour, I received her email. Oh my google, did she have nothing better to do? Not only that, wait til you see how much she wrote in sixty minutes.
“First, it wasn’t like I was following Miley. I just happened to be in the Pine Barrens in the right place at the right time.”
I wanted to change one of those “right”s to “wrong”s, but I couldn’t decide which one.
Veronica’s email continued, “I was walking along when I saw what was happening, and I just…hid. I was afraid they would hurt me if they saw me. Once I was set in that bush, I didn’t move a muscle, not even to use my own phone. Your sister’s phone almost hit me in the head. I think maybe she might have seen or heard me and that’s why she threw it at me…I don’t know. Afterward, I was going to go to the police, but…they had their own scandal then and I wasn’t even sure I could trust them. I don’t even know why I asked Scott and Kamran for money. It was like…I don’t know, my parents always taught me that no one will ever give you a break. That you have to fight for everything in life. That you have to exploit any advantage you have, because if you don’t, the other person will exploit you. That’s America. If you can get money for it, you do. Isn’t that what the internet proves?
“Even then, I meant to only ask Scott and Kamran for money once, like one time, but my parents got wind of it and we started using it for their old credit card bills…it was a mess. At one point during my freshman year, our house was burgled. My computer was taken. I think I might have told you that at the time. What I didn’t tell you was that my Dad had already anticipated a break-in, and had kept a copy of the incriminating video on a thumb drive. He decided that we each needed to keep a copy, just to be safe. So as you deduced, I started keeping a copy around my neck.
“Do you know that phrase ‘an albatross around your neck’? Like when something is weighing on you? Boy did I ever come to understand that. I had all this guilt for not telling you. But I also loved how easy it was for me to get in with the popular kids. And I knew how you resented it, but you also paid me a lot more attention. So I sorta had the best of everything and wasn’t ready to give it up.
“Casey Campbell figured me out by following the money – literally, she followed it right to my pocket. One Monday, she confronted me in person, right after our English class, and told me that she knew everything. She gave me three options. One, I give her the video evidence and then she leaves me alone forever. Two, I give her nothing and she goes straight to the police. Three, I tell her where Miley is buried, and she keeps my secret and leaves me alone for a week. Believe me, I thought about it. Finally, I chose door number three. I told her that Miley was buried in Jessica Chabot’s backyard garden. I didn’t know exactly where.
“I fully expected her to, like, call the police or dig Miley up herself or something. I was checking online updates like a freak that whole week. But nothing happened. Then the next Monday, she came up to me again with three more options. This time, the third was to tell her about the murder weapon. I wanted to just ignore her, but I didn’t want to go to jail. So I told her about the trophy.
“After two more days passed with no new news, I started thinking. There had to be a reason that she hadn’t gone to the police or dug up Miley herself. She didn’t have the goods. She suspected, but she didn’t have proof, only circumstantial evidence. She had already been through one defamation-of-character lawsuit. She was now 18 and could maybe go to jail as a repeat offender.
“The next Monday, she came up to me outside English class and demanded the evidence. I was like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. This week, option #3 was putting all her allegations in the yearbook. She said she would make it cryptic, so that she couldn’t be sued, but that finding the truth would become a game the whole school would play. She said she would deny leaving any signs the same way John Lennon denied any special significance to ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.’ I googled that reference during my next class.
“She said that I had twelve hours to change my mind, because the final yearbook revisions were due that night. She said it wasn’t like I had killed someone, and if I cooperated she would do what she could to help me avoid jail. If not, she would incriminate me in the yearbook.
“After that, I was really scared. I felt like I was being forced to choose between some prison time and more prison time. So I did something that…I guess you’ll never forgive me for. I texted Kamran, Scott, and Jessica to see how they wanted to handle it.” I winced to read this. Had she not made this decision, Casey Campbell would probably be alive. How would I tell Anton?
Veronica continued, “I met with them over lunch. They were furious with me. They acted like it was all my fault, and I had somehow been indiscreet, which was all bullshit. They insisted that I destroy any and all evidence that I had. I was like, no way. They kept pressing me for information about what Casey knew or didn’t know. I insisted that she didn’t really know and thus we shouldn’t do anything. But they didn’t like that. We went over like a dozen plans. Finally we settled on me telling her that I would meet her that evening at the school, just before the deadline. I would present it as a trust issue: how could I trust that she would actually erase anything incriminating from the yearbook, and after that, how could I trust that she wouldn’t just go back and put it in? So I would tell her that I would give her the evidence, but I wanted to sit with her and wait for the courier to take away the final version.
“Meanwhile, the real reason for the late-night meeting was for Kamran, Scott, and Jessica to confront her and probably just erase the entire yearbook. They told me that threats would sound a lot more convincing late at night when there was no one around to protect her. I assume you’re thinking, did I not know what they were planning to do? The truth is that I did not. I knew they hated Casey and I also thought that Casey hated them. But I had no idea it would go that far. I didn’t call the police for obvious reasons.
“A few hours ago, a police officer accused me of showing up to videotape the crime because I knew the crime would happen. But that’s not why I went to the school that night. I went there, well, partly cause I told Casey I would. Partly in case she wanted to see my face. Maybe I could even prevent violence, I remember thinking. But I missed my bus, and by the time the next bus got me there, I could hear screams coming from within the building. That’s when I got out my phone and started filming, just to get the screams on tape. I had no idea when I started filming that suddenly these guys would appear on the roof. And then, once I had that evidence, I put it on the same video with the other one and saved it onto the same thumb drive. I was thinking of starting to ask for $1000 from each family per month.
“That’s all I know, Riley, I swear. If I had any other information, I’d give it to you. I really don’t know what’s going to happen to me and I’m really scared. I do not expect your forgiveness, but if you can give me any help or any words of comfort, I’d really appreciate it.
I thought about it for a second. Then I typed in my reply: “Who cut our brakes?” I didn’t even sign it, I just clicked “send”.
She got back to me a minute later. What kind of juvie detention was she in? The Waldorf-Alcatrazia? “I have no idea who cut your brakes. If I find out I’ll text you right away. Anything else? Sincerely, Veronica”
No, nothing else, I thought. Certainly not right now.
I checked facebook and twitter. As expected, everyone was posting about the awesome parties they all seemed to be at. Less expected were comments like “Just drank a toast to Riley and Anton” and “This is for my heroine, Riley Tyler” and “We love you Riley!!!” and that sort of thing. I had 87 new friend requests. And 214 new twitter followers. For an account I barely used. Wow.
The internet giveth, the internet taketh, then the internet giveth again. I cranked “Across the Universe” a little louder on my headphones.
I had a deluge of new emails. One of them was from Jessica Chabot! How did she even get my email address? Who cared. I almost deleted it out of anger. Then I thought, let’s see how she sounds without her boobs in the way.
“The police are allowing me just a few emails and I’m writing to you. First I am so profusely and profoundly sorry. I never, ever wanted your sister dead, no matter what sort of immature phrases I used on her blog. When Scott and Kamran showed up with Miley’s body, I told them to leave. But Scott said that if I didn’t agree, he would ruin me at the school. You have to understand that I was crazy in love with him and…with the idea of being popular. I mean, can you understand that?”
I didn’t like that she just assumed I could.
Jessica continued, “It started in September of my sophomore year, almost three years ago now. I don’t know what your girlfriends are like, but when we were 15 we were all a lot of back-biting bitches, like on Gossip Girl or Pretty Little Liars. It was like a race to the bottom to see who could talk the most crap about who. Kamran was the boy that we accused each other of being more in love with. In his own way, he was as sick of all that drama as I was. Scott was not just a trump card over their constant chisme, but also a way out, a race to the top.
“I realize this doesn’t sound like a great rationalization for cyber-bullying. And…it isn’t. Because my race to the top was just more bottom-feeding. I hadn’t changed like I told myself I had. I started picking on your sister 1) to impress Scott, 2) to help him so that he wasn’t the only target of ihatebullies.com. I think Kamran did the same. I still ask myself why Scott couldn’t just let it go. I mean, he was already first-string quarterback and homecoming king, why did he care if some sophomore wanted to say he was an asshole? He said that Miley was the bully and that we had to prove that. He said we could strike a blow for everyone falsely accused of bullying.
“And, Riley, I had better admit to you now that I enjoyed it. I know you won’t believe this, but before my breasts came in, I was picked on all the time myself. I wanted to get back at the world, and right then, Miley represented the world. I knew I was never going to Harvard, so I wanted to rule the campus, to have a time in my life when I could be best at something. I wanted power, and I didn’t want some blogger to be able to take it away from me. And I got it, you know? But there’s a price, as you’ve taught me. My Dad now says that the universities that accepted me will send rescind-offer letters. Once they see Veronica’s video, they won’t have to wait for a court of law.
“So…why have I written all this to you? Because, Riley, my life is in your hands. You and your mom and the Campbells. If you decide not to press charges, that could save me years in jail. Maybe even help me get into college. So my life won’t be completely wasted.”
Fat chance, I thought.
Jessica continued, “I’ll go to jail anyway, but with your help I might have some kind of work-release options. I want to do community service. I would actually love to do some sort of anti-cyber-bullying thing, you know, like MTV’s athinline.org.”
I rolled my eyes.
She went on, “But think about how powerful that would be if we teamed up on it together. I mean, the two of us, once enemies, now united to help other kids. Or maybe there’s something else we could do that I’m not thinking of. Anyway I hope someday you can forgive me. You know, of the two of us, you’re the lucky one. I look at you now and see life the way I should have lived it. Riley you’re not going to believe this, but…I love you. Jessica”
She was right that I didn’t believe it. And I’ll be damned if I would give her a get out of jail free card. Everyone thinks that I’m so forgiving just because I’m Catholic. The truth is…
The truth is I had a lot more on my mind.
The next day, Sunday, rain fell for the first time in a while, a nice break to the June swelter. It also gave people an excuse to huddle into church, not like they needed it. I had never seen the pews so full outside of Easter and Christmas. My knuckles must have turned white, like when you get to the top of a roller coaster. I was gonna talk in front of all these people? Frak.
Other than the speeches from me and Mom, Father O’Brien had planned Miley’s funeral mass to the letter. He blessed his holy sacraments and kissed his rosaries and prayed to the blessed virgin. This was a closed-casket affair, but that didn’t stop everyone from walking by and touching the casket where her head was. Maybe everyone, like, wanted closure after two years of wondering, I don’t know.
Mr. Studie was in our church for, like, the first time. Hayley and Susie and Leslie were there. Anton was there. I think even Mr. Stanley was there. Everyone was dressed in like, really nice clothes. I was impressed. I also didn’t really want to see anyone. I asked Mom if I could wear a veil, and she told me I was being ridiculous.
Father O’Brien took the microphone. “Parishioners, ladies, gentlemen, children…thank you so much for coming. I know our hearts are very heavy today. But there’s something about that word ‘heavy’ which is quite close to the word ‘heaven.’ Something that tells us that we must understand grief and suffering to also understand eternal salvation. And I don’t know that I’ve ever met a 16-year-old who had done more to earn her heavenly reward than Miley Tyler.
“I know I’ve spoken on this subject before, but I hope you’ll indulge me. I want to tell you a little about the Miley I knew. When Miley was just a little seven-year-old girl waiting in line right here for her communion wafer, one Sunday she noticed that a couple of kids had received their wafer and then gone to the back of the line to get a second one. I remember she stopped the whole line, saying, ‘Father O’Brien! Those two kids already got a wafer! It’s not fair!’ I can hear from your reaction that some of you remember this. I said, ‘Miley, please quiet down. When you get to the front, I want to tell you something.’ And when she got to the front, she explained it to me again. And I told her she was just going to have to let those two kids be. And she said in a very loud voice, ‘But it’s not fair!’ And I whispered to her that those two kids had been dealt a very bad hand in life. That their mommy and daddy were broke, and the whole family was nearly starving.
“Now, maybe four out of five little kids would have said to me, ‘But it’s still not fair.’ But not Miley. Her whole expression changed. She whispered to me, ‘So the world hasn’t been fair to them?’ I said, ‘Something like that.’ She said, ‘Why?’ And I told her that we can’t always know the Lord’s plan. And she said – and I want you to all picture this coming from the mouth of a beautiful seven-year-old child of God – ‘But we can help it, right?’
“We can help it, right. This was the Miley Tyler I knew. A Miley that saw the way the world was, and the way it could be, and wanted to help move it from one to the other. Even as a seven-year-old, this was Miley. And she did not waver in that belief. We often hear that today’s teenagers are callow and selfish and materialist and uninterested in their communities. This was not Miley. This was never Miley. Miley knew as well as any adult I ever met that bad things happen to good people. As a young child she was determined to do something about that. And this determination…was something she was prepared to suffer for.
“I do not casually bring up that patron saint of France, the Maid of Orleans born 600 years ago, Saint Joan of Arc. Some of you will scoff at any such comparison. Born into the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc faced very different challenges than any of our young people today. But what I find fascinating is that both Joan and Miley were able to look at their world and see wrongs that could be corrected. Even when people told them that their quest was impossible, they saw that, with God’s help, right could prevail over might. They saw that morality and goodness were worth fighting for. In a harsh medieval world, Joan of Arc fought for France over England. In a digitized, smartphone-saturated, internet-based culture, Miley Tyler fought for victims over bullies. Both of them reminded us not to settle for what is. Both of them remind us to ask what is possible. Both of them call to our best selves. And we celebrate them and we love them just as we love our Savior. Miley, you are one of God’s most cherished people, and as you look down on us from heaven I want you to know that we will remember your example and that your life will live forever in our hearts. Amen.
“Before I finish, I just want to say that some people in our community have already responded to that call to our best selves. I believe that Casey Campbell, God rest her soul, responded to the goodness she knew from her friend Miley. And I believe that Anton Forster, an honored guest here today, also responded. And I believe that Marie Tyler, and her daughter Riley, and some of her daughter’s friends also responded to that call. And so I want to thank them and tell them that God also smiles on them. Amen.”
Then Father O’Brien busted out some Latin phrases that I couldn’t recount if I tried. There was some kind of ceremonial stuff that I didn’t really understand. Then Father O’Brien asked my mother to come to the podium. What? I thought I was going before her! I didn’t want to follow her! No choice. She hobbled up there; she was obviously still injured. Somebody, maybe Anton, did the whole solo slow clap thing for her. And yeah, people joined in. The wave of applause was vaguely inappropriate but also nice.
My Mom said, “Thank you, thank you.” She caught her breath. “Thank you, Father, for that beautiful eulogy. I don’t know how to follow it! I don’t really plan to follow it. I really just want to thank so many of you for supporting me over the last two years. Two years…for two years I never let myself believe that this day would come. And they say it’s supposed to be a relief! Maybe on some level it is. But I can’t believe I’m never going to see my sweet Miley again here on earth. I know that I’ll see her in heaven, I’m sure of that. But that won’t give me the privilege of watching her grow up and find her way in this world. Like Father O’Brien said last week, that’s…truly a loss. They say there’s nothing worse than losing a child. For two years I’ve pushed away the people saying that. But now I know what they mean, and they’re right, they really are.
“There are…two comforts I take. One is knowing that Miley is in heaven right now.” Many scattered “amen”s. “Father, I thank you for everything you say and do, not just today, but throughout Miley’s life. You kept Miley as close to God as anyone could have. I guess she just…needed to be a little closer.”
Whoa. Did Mom just think of that one?
Mom continued, “The other comfort was something I just realized now. I know you regular parishioners are seeing a few unfamiliar faces here today. Many of them are here on my account. But the funny thing is that their faces are unfamiliar to me, as well. Let me say thanks again for all the support I’ve received over the last two years, and let me now admit that a lot of it was from people I met online who I’m only meeting in person for the first time today. I thank you for coming here and I cherish you as well. For me, your presence was real even before your presence was real, do you know? And…well…I think that somehow that’s connected to Miley. Miley knew that people and words were somehow just as real online as they were in real life. She took that as a given. And so, she wanted to make both worlds fair, and honest, and good. And I like to think we’ll remember that about her. Thank you.”
Mom sat down. Oh great. Now I had to speak. I was still all black-and-blue from the day before. But I guess when you’re Catholic and you’re used to staring at a crucified Jesus, a bruised teenager doesn’t look that bad. No applause. No slow solo clap from Anton. Hm. Whatever.
“Um, hello,” I lamely began. “Well, uh, look, I loved Miley. But I don’t really think Mom or Father O’Brien got her right.” Scattered gasps, and a death stare from my mom. “Miley was very human, not a saint. I mean, she was always asking for stuff. Uh…okay, wait, maybe I should just stick to my notes. This speech is called ‘Unfinished Stories.’ Yeah.
“Some of my earliest memories of Miley are of her reading me to sleep. Long after I should have been old enough to read some of these children’s books myself, Miley did it. She was two years older but always at least three or four reading levels above me. She wanted to read to me, and I wanted her to keep reading. I’d say, ‘More! More! More!’ Those stories never quite finished, even after Miley said ‘The End.’ She would read them again, or start another one, or I’d ask stupid questions about them later.
“When she was in Girl Scouts, she volunteered at this home for disabled kids. I was like, why would you want to do that? What do you say to these kids? She told me something that stayed with me. She said that no matter how paralyzed or whatever some kid is, we never lose the privilege of presenting the world to the child. Nothing can take that sort of story-telling privilege away from the parents. By then I think Miley knew that life was a series of stories that never quite finished.
“I think when she joined the debate club, that was another way of telling stories that had to be adjusted in light of someone else’s stories. I think her website was telling stories while inviting other people to extend them somehow. I think Miley intuitively understood that the internet was, at its heart, just a bunch of unfinished stories. All the phones that we can’t live without kinda suggest the constant re-figuring of stories.”
I held up my yearbook and continued. “Today, we look at something like our 2014 yearbook, and it looks kinda old-school. It can’t keep up with the real world; it doesn’t know that Casey Campbell died or that my sister was found. It’s too much a finished story. Father O’Brien said last week that the internet could be clean, and I think a yearbook has the same sort of idea, because it can present this idealized version of the world. I think people think of all books that way. There’s a cover on each side and a title on the spine. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. Books, and the yearbook, and some closed-off sites on the internet, speak to our longing for order, for definition, for triumph.
“But I think Miley knew a little better than that. If she didn’t know it before, she probably learned it when she had Mr. Studie for sophomore English. Cause that’s when I realized it. This guy Homer, the first author, probably never spoke the Iliad and the Odyssey the same way twice. Those books have been re-interpreted again and again and we can never say that one is the definitive text. The greatest author maybe was William Shakespeare. You think his plays survived without re-working? Every actor for 400 years has found his or her own way to extend the story and comment on the works. There’s so many ways to understand the magical realism of someone like Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, he just suggests open readings. And I didn’t know this until we read Kazuo Ishiguro, but in East Asia, almost no building is older than a few decades. They build them from wood and just keep making the same design over and over with new tweaks. Their homes are unending, unfinished stories. William Faulkner said, ‘The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.’ And you know, this yearbook isn’t as sealed as it looks. People write in it and circle pictures and adapt it for different uses. The stories continue.” I thought I saw Mr. Stanley yawning.
“Okay, okay, I’m getting back to Miley. I want you to think about the lives of the saints. The ones that Father O’Brien tells us about every week. Because of course every life is an unfinished story. Even if you get to be 100, you could never do all that you wanted to do. We dance on the world for such a short time and we live just long enough to see the crazy contrast between our beautiful life and our always untimely death. So what do we do? What’s left after we’re gone? Stories. We are collecting the whole world into a long unfinished story that we call humanity. This collection is the only immortality outside of heaven. The internet has brought this entire collection just a few clicks away. In the old days, parents thought they could control the collection, by banning books. But let’s say they restricted it to just the Bible and Aesop fables and family stories. They still never knew how kids, how people, would take it. There were all these hidden meanings. Now with the internet the stories are all out there and everyone is extending them in all their own ways. Miley didn’t see this as bad. Instead she wanted to contribute her original voice to it.
“What I’m trying to say is that I don’t really think Miley was cyber-bullied to death.” I predicted a few muffled gasps, and I got them. I was quick to add, “I mean, I don’t think she would say she was. Because that would be like blaming Uncle Tom’s Cabin for deaths in the Civil War or like blaming news media for the Iraq war or something. We are influenced by these stories, for sure, but ultimately, people decide what to do with them. From Homer to Shakespeare to certain saints to the internet, we extend and adapt and morph for our own purposes. And so we should never forget that the best stories are in some ways the least finished. Because when an author touches the universal, it’s universal, and that means we all want to make something from that. It’s almost a testament to Miley’s originality with the site – she was way ahead of MTV on this anti-cyber-bully stuff – that so many people reacted so strongly. But the internet didn’t kill her. She helped remind us that the internet was just another story, and her part was just another story, for people to use as they would.”
My mom was crying. Even Father O’Brien was crying. I could feel a tear coming to my own eye. It was time to wrap up.
“Miley wrote a verse of the great unfinished collection. It doesn’t really matter that she didn’t get to write the longest chapter in the collection. You don’t always remember the longest chapters when you read a book. Lord knows I never do. But what I’m saying is…Miley’s life was a very wonderful, very powerful unfinished story. In my own small way, I want to continue her story. I’m still that kid saying ‘More! More! More!’ Because you see, Miley is my hero. It took me a little while to realize that. And I owe a few people for getting me there, people like my mom, and Father O’Brien, and Mr. Studie, and Casey Campbell, and Anton Forster. Now that I have realized how much I owe Miley, I can’t write the story of my own life quite the same way. I need to do…what all those readers of the Bible and Shakespeare and Uncle Tom’s Cabin always did. I need to use my hero, I need to continue her story. I don’t know, maybe I’ll turn this whole thing into a book or something. But even if I don’t, as long as my mom keeps up her site, and as long as I live, Miley’s story continues. Miley. thank you for showing me the world. I look forward to showing you to the world. Miley, I love you. Thank you.”
I stepped down from the podium and hugged Mom. I saw Anton stand up first to lead what became, uh, a kinda thunderous standing ovation. But I knew that wasn’t really for me, it was for Miley. Or maybe it was also for the part of me that really did want to emulate Miley. And yeah, I had meant everything I said. I know I stuffed too much into it – banning books?
Okay, fine, confession: even then I was thinking I needed a strong ending to the book that you are currently reading the last page of. Kinda ironic, if you think about the meaning of the speech. Well…stories may never finish, but isn’t it better to leave them on a hopeful note?
Before bed that night, I put on my headphones, blasted my music, and checked out some comedy sites. I thought about my summer. Was I still going to go to parties? Was I going to hang out with Anton? What would Miley have done? Maybe I could do something more, uh, helpful than usual?
I had tons of new messages on facebook. One of them, from that day, said “the brake-cutter is still out there – HAL 9000” I stared at it for ten seconds or so. And then poof! It was gone.