I stepped up to the podium, holding on to my robe to hide my shaking hands. Meeting the eyes of the audience, I cleared my throat. They all stared at me with unblinking eyes, waiting for me to deliver my grand valedictorian speech so they could wipe their eyes, clap, and go home.
Taking a deep breath, I started spewing out everything I planned to say about the wonderful time I had at Jude Christian Academy and how much it prepared me for the great adventure of life. I kept going on and on, faster and faster, not even caring if they could understand my words. I was top of my speech class, but I just wanted to get off that stage as soon as possible.
I knew they would all wonder if I would mention something about what happened last year, but of course I wouldn’t. If there was something I could never do, it was talk about that. Because if I talked about it, I would have to tell the truth. And if I told the truth, they would hate me. They would also know how little I deserved to give this speech. I should’ve been expelled, not honored.
I made sure I met the eyes of everyone in the crowd without maintaining eye contact for too long, just like my speech teacher told me. Although I tried to avoid it, I made eye contact with Joe at one point. Instead of glaring, he gave me this look that told me I was doing exactly what he expected, because lying and pretending was all that I was capable of. Somehow that was much worse than glaring.
Getting more nervous, I looked away, trying to push the words of my speech out as fast as possible. People started to give me strange looks, but I didn’t care. I just wanted off that stage. When my words became so jumbled I couldn’t tell what I was saying anymore, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
Man, that was a mistake. Because as soon as I did, I got this picture of Annemarie. Not from when she was a kindergartener with cute brown curls, but when she was sixteen years old, gaping at me with confusion and hurt, saying that I betrayed her. Those grey eyes looked deep down in my soul, seeing all the darkest parts of me.
I gasped, my eyes opening wide again. The audience put on fake smiles to encourage me, but some of them couldn’t hide their concern. Or their disgust. Then I saw my little brother Drew, looking up at me with scared wide brown eyes, wondering what was happening to the stable big brother he always knew. And I knew he was asking something, too. He was asking me to be the hero that he thought I was, to give him some one worth looking up to. And I think that’s what did me in.
“I’m sorry,” I said, dropping my papers and backing away from the podium. “I don’t deserve to give this speech. I don’t deserve this tassel. I cheated to get here. The real valedictorian is Annemarie.”
It’s like a dam broke. When Fred said that, all the tears held inside of me came bursting out, and I started crying so hard I wasn’t even sure what was happening. I think I heard some commotion. A mess of people started talking and crying all at once, while Fred ran off the stage. Maybe someone put a comforting hand on my shoulder.
But all I could really do was cry and hurt and miss her and miss her and miss her. I wanted Annemarie back. I wanted her to give her valedictorian speech (and me the salutatorian speech). Then I wanted for us all to talk and laugh about our memories, especially Annemarie, Fred, Joe, and me. I wanted us to be best friends again.
That could never happen anymore. We lost all that last year. When I watched Fred breaking down (I really hate to admit this) I almost felt happy. Not just because someone finally spoke the truth, but because he deserved this. He deserved to hurt, too.
i’d been waiting for something like this to happen for so long. dreamed it up so many times. but when it actually happened i just kinda sat there, wondering what in the world was going on. everyone was startin’ to get worked up about it, and jacobson tried to get fred to go back on the stage. that idiot jacobson. the one time fred’s right and he tries to correct him.
though thank god that fred didn’t get up there, ‘cause i couldn’t’ve stomached that. ‘specially since jacobson wanted it. i hated the guy more than fred. so I just sat there, watching the salutatorian speech that no one was listening to, watching everyone freak out about what fred said.
and even after all fred did, i hadta kinda respect him for what he said back there. ‘cause it took guts, and i was just so freaking glad someone finally told the truth. or something close to it anyway. so i sat there through the rest of that dumb puppet show of a graduation, feeling the closest to happy that i had felt in a long time. “well annemarie, what do you make of this?”
I watched the truth start to unfold as graduation fell to pieces. The administration tried to end the event as soon as possible, pushing all of the guests out before anyone could ask questions, especially questions that would ruin the school’s reputation. When I saw Fred running off and crying his eyes out, I wanted to speak to him, to say that I forgave him for all he ruined. But I couldn’t. He had to deal with the consequences on his own.
I never thought I’d live to see the day when Fred told the truth. Or when any piece of the truth started to come out. Then I almost smiled at my mistake. Because I didn’t. I never could. I was never really there.
I was a ghost.