Bury Me With All the Lights On
Claudia Ann Seaman Award
Winner for Creative Nonfiction
Ella A. Harrigan
Interlochen Center for the Arts/Interlochen Arts Academy
At 6 AM on one of my last days in Paris, Cam told me a story about a boy in London he used to know. The boy was in the strange between of adolescence— his cheeks still had baby fat but his teeth were already stained from years of Marlboro Golds. The boy was very sad and did very many drugs and so one day he sat down, wrote a suicide note, and killed himself. The last line of the note was, instead of a tearful declaration of love, a Lil Peep lyric. It went like this: “When I die bury me with all my ice on.”
The boy was cremated.
Cam told me this story casually, slipping it in between his usual avalanche of jokes andanecdotes and philosophical musings. He was doing a whole routine this morning, trying to cheer me up. I had cried on the metro to see him, knowing this would be the last time we’d meet up before Imoved away. I didn’t know that in nine months Cam would overdose on fentanyl and barely survive, or that in twelve he’d stop responding to my messages. But I was sad to miss him, and so he gave me his sweatshirt and talked two hundred words a minute, pausing only to light his cigarettes and exhale out the smoke.
Cam’s voice was fast and soft, his British accent turning more American every month I knew him. Whenever we talked I felt like I was part of some great inside joke, like our conversation was the only one in the world worth having. Whenever we went to parties together, we always ended up together, arguing about politics or dancing with our arms wrapped around each other.
Cam was the person in the world I worried about the most. We were meeting at 6 in the morning because he had to sneak out, had to literally crawl out his second-story window and climb down the fire escape. He must have looked strange to anyone watching— a tall, skinny boy with a mess of half-dirty clothes hanging off him, slowly making his way out of the window and down to the street. He had to sneak out because he was grounded for passing out drunk in the middle of the city twice in a month. Cam loved the Lil Peep song referenced in his friend’s suicide note, and when we listened to it that morning after he told me the story, he sang every word. This made me nervous in the same way it made my mom nervous a few years earlier when I announced at dinner that my favorite book was The Bell Jar.
Ever since I heard this story, it’s been lodged in my brain like a song I can’t get out of my head. Whenever I try to express why I falter. I could say that it fascinates me because it reminds me of one of my own stories- calling the suicide hotline, sobbing, and listening to the hold music. It was jazz-funk and seemed so out of place that I started to laugh. I laughed so much I felt a little better and hung up before I ever got off hold.
Or I could say I like the logic of the punchline— cremation is cheaper, grandparents don’t want to see the corpse of their grandchild buried in silver chains and Air Force Ones, uncles don’t want to associate their nephew with a song whose first line is “switchblades, cocaine.” This practicality undercuts the drama of the song, of the suicide itself, it sobers you up like the cold water I’d splash on Cam’s face when he got really drunk to keep him awake.
I don’t know a lot of crucial details about the dead boy. I don’t know his name, or how exactly he ended his life, but I know what brand of cigarettes he smoked. I know what his favorite song was, but not what he looked like. I know what Cam thought was important to know about him.
When he finished the story I laughed at the absurdity of it, the unfairness of it, and he laughed with me, but since the moment I stopped laughing I have been working his story over in my brain, memorizing the way Cam’s voice broke as he delivered the punchline.
Captivating, candid, and creative, this piece dashes relentlessly and earnestly along its own history. The language here exudes such an admirable level of dexterity–restrained and subtle for most scenes, yet unashamed and compulsive in all the right moments. With the timely issues that it tackles, and so memorably too, the narrative culminates with a voice that is not only compelling but necessary.
EDITORIAL PRAISE FROM JOHNATHAN EIG, CREATIVE NONFICTION JUDGE
The writer had me in their pocket with “the strange between of adolescence.” Then things gets even better: baby fat and Marlboro Golds. That’s command. Here the passive works: “The boy was very sad and did very many drugs…” Fabulous use of detail. Fine sense of pacing and rhythm. Thank you for telling me what Cam looked like. Too many writers forget the physical details that make characters to come to life. This is a story of brevity and power, with nothing wasted. This is a writer I would follow down a fire escape — or anywhere.
Ella Harrigan is a highschool senior at Interlochen Arts Academy, and was the winner of the 2020 Virginia B Ball Creative Writing competition. She can be spotted in the poetry section of the school library, hunched over her computer and holding a large black coffee. She wants to be a real writer someday, whatever that means.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR