Tuesday — we had schoolfor the first time. Madame O’Malley had a moment of silence at the beginning of French class, a class that was always punctuated with long moments of silence, and then asked us how we were feeling.
“Awful,” a girl said.
“En francais,”Madame O’Malley replied. “En francais.”
Everything looked the same, but more still: the Weekday Warriors still sat on the benches outside the library, but their gossip was quiet, understated. The cafeteria clamored with the sounds of plastic trays against wooden tables and forks scraping plates, but any conversations were muted. But more than the noiselessness of everyone else was the silence where she should have been, the bubbling bursting storytelling Alaska, but instead it felt like those times when she had withdrawn into herself, like she was refusing to answer how or why questions, only this time for good.
The Colonel sat down next to me in religion class, sighed, and said, “You reek of smoke, Pudge.”
“Ask me if I give a shit.”
Dr. Hyde shuffled into class then, our final exams stacked underneath one arm. He sat down, took a series of labored breaths, and began to talk. “It is a law that parents should not have to bury their children,” he said. “And someone should enforce it. This semester, we’re going to continue studying the religious traditions to which you were introduced this fall. But there’s no doubting that the questions we’ll be asking have more immediacy now than they did just a few days ago. What happens to us after we die, for instance, is no longer a question of idle philosophical interest. It is a question we must ask about our classmate. And how to live in the shadow of grief is not something nameless Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims have to explore. The questions of religious thought have become, I suspect, personal.”
He shuffled through our exams, pulling one out from the pile before him. “I have here Alaska’s final. You’ll recall that you were asked what the most important question facing people is, and how the three traditions we’re studying this year address that question. This was Alaska’s question.”
With a sigh, he grabbed hold of his chair and lifted himself out of it, then wrote on the blackboard: How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?—A. Y.
“I’m going to leave that up for the rest of the semester,” he said.
“Because everybody who has ever lost their way in life has felt the nagging insistence of that question. At some point we all look up and realize we are lost in a maze, and I don’t want us to forget Alaska, and I don’t want to forget that even when the material we study seems boring, we’re trying to understand how people have answered that question and the questions each of you posed in your papers — how different traditions have come to terms with what Chip, in his final, called ‘people’s rotten lots in life.'” Hyde sat down. “So, how are you guys doing?”
The Colonel and I said nothing, while a bunch of people who didn’t know Alaska extolled her virtues and professed to be devastated, and at first, it bothered me. I didn’t want the people she didn’t know — and the people she didn’t like — to be sad. They’d never cared about her, and now they were carrying on as if she were a sister. But I guess I didn’t know her completely, either. If I had, I’d have known what she’d meant by “To be continued?” And if I had cared about her as I should have, as I thought I did, how could I have let her go?
So they didn’t bother me, really. But next to me, the Colonel breathed slowly and deeply through his nose like a bull about to charge.
He actually rolled his eyes when Weekday Warrior Brooke Blakely, whose parents had received a progress report courtesy of Alaska, said, “I’m just sad I never told her I loved her. I just don’t understand why.”
“That’s such bullshit,” the Colonel said as we walked to lunch. “As if Brooke Blakely gives two shits about Alaska.”
“If Brooke Blakely died, wouldn’t you be sad?” I asked.
“I guess, but I wouldn’t bemoan the fact I never told her I loved her. I don’t love her. She’s an idiot.”
I thought everyone else had a better excuse to grieve than we did — after all, they hadn’t killed her — but I knew better than to try to talk to the Colonel when he was mad.