Christopher Green


Christopher Green currently lives in Brooklyn, where he also hosts a monthly fiction reading series, The Prose Bowl, and its accompanying podcast. He holds an MA in English from the University of Toledo. His stories have previously appeared in journals and magazines such as Burner, The MacGuffin, and The Ampersand Review. He is currently working with his agent to publish two novels.


We Are V

On the day that Emily Warren killed herself she changed her profile picture to a stock photo of a bird. It was the photo that we discovered first, in fact, hours before her parents and her older brother began to make phone calls, before the fog of our unease coalesced into news. We crowded around cell phone screens, lined the rows of the computer lab. That picture suddenly everywhere, like a conveyor belt full of milk cartons. We stared at it, knowing but not knowing how. Premonition churned inside us, made our breath catch and our vision sway.

The bird that Emily chose was a great blue heron. Pencil-beaked and alert, in a pool of shallow water, her long neck contorted into the twin hooks of an S. Sunlight marbled over the waves around her feet; shadows crept along the belly like charcoal shading. There was something in that posture, in the taut angles of her body, that struck us as unmistakably human. She looked contemplative, even resigned. Perhaps, we would later reason, this was how we intuited the depth of the photo’s significance. That, and the fact that for three years Emily’s profile had remained the same: herself at fourteen, standing in the doorway of a shop that sold band instruments, a lollipop stick protruding from her lips at a jaunty angle meant to suggest a cigarette.

All through the evening confirmation began to leap from bedrooms to backseats to restaurant booths. Sparking along network wires like the fuse on a stick of dynamite, carried over the air like a chill wind. The adults, for their part, seemed to have no idea why Emily had done this, what message she might have wished to convey. All they had—and this much we got only from her brother Caleb, who told a friend who told a friend and so on, as these things go, even when these things are tragedies—was that her estimated time of death was 1 PM. Within half an hour of the photo’s timestamp.

“Look at its wings,” said Denise Burroughs, a freshman. In the few weeks since school started she had cut in and out of Emily’s periphery a number of times, passed within inches of her in halls and stairwells, but never known her as more than a hazy figure in a collage of uniforms. “Look how they fold back like that.” She pointed. “See? Tucked together. They’re like an angel’s.” And this was instantly what the picture came to signify to all of us—a concise, soothing analogy drawn by a stranger Emily had never exchanged one word with. That this was unlikely to have motivated her (she was an outspoken skeptic, a bitter opponent of sentimentality) was beside the point. From the moment she died, she suffused herself among the rest of us. Self-cremation, a spreading of her own ashes. She belonged to everyone now; she had become mutable.


Our grieving, at least in the beginning, was quiet. We tended inward. At our epicenter was Emily’s best friend, Katie Grine, the one who first uncovered the new photo in her feed. This was in second-period AP Calc, amidst lecture on tangent lines, average rates of change. Her shoulders succumbed first, then her head. Her whole body slipping down, like a coat falling off its hanger, collapsing against her desk. The line of her torso full of tremors.

Ms. Lorre stopped, swiveled her head. Her chalk stick still raised against the board. We would all remember this moment later.

Katie went first, led from the classroom by a doting elderly administrator. After that was Tim Gunsher, first-chair clarinet, who we all kind of assumed was Emily’s boyfriend even if they never said so. He had to be let out of second period, too, during History of Eastern Religion. After that it was a trio of girls in third-period Health. Then half of Mr. Langhani’s Analysis and Composition class—and those were juniors, not even the same grade. Our belated affliction spread exponentially. It was a virus, a natural disaster. By 1:45 that afternoon it came down through the PA system that classes were canceled for the remainder of the day. Students flowed out through the school building’s door in unprecedentedly orderly lines, hushed and staring. The whole afternoon felt drained through a sieve.

Miss Shain, the art teacher, watched for the next week as her classroom walls crowded with sketches of angels and birds. (There was another, smaller batch of sketches in Room 305, beneath the window next to Emily’s empty homeroom desk.) The adjoining of the wings was an obvious common point of difficulty, and most of them ended up looking like a single clumsy, heart-shaped appendage, with scales like the belly of a fish. This, she informed us with bittersweet satisfaction, was the clear focal metaphor to aid us in what was likely our first act of public mourning. We were learning to put our goodbyes before our hellos, and it was hardly surprising if that process proved difficult to watch. She was wrong, of course, but we didn’t fault her for that.

Mr. Fawkes, who taught gym, reacted more or less as you might have expected him to: with volume. He addressed us as though we were simply coming in from a heavy lunch, lounging about with half-closed eyes, like cats. He talked a lot about “overcoming adversity,” as though what Emily had done had been some schoolwide shot across the bow—which, perhaps, it may have been. But we were unmoved, and we furthermore objected to demands for dodgeball and archery and flag football. We objected to all acts of violence. Instead, we filed out to the campus and made slow, winding circuits around the main building for forty minutes. Every period, one class after another, in groups of threes and fours. We didn’t even bother to change out of our regular uniforms in favor of shorts and tee shirts.

At home, our parents were baffled. “Tell us,” they coaxed, “what it is we should be doing.” But we said nothing, just folded our legs up on the sofa, turned our noses into the creases of the pillow. Our long, clumsy bodies sprawling out over all the old places, eight hundred filled-in chalk outlines.


As the weeks crushed themselves into the past, though, our tenor changed. The grief began to reorient itself.

Jessica Frankl downloaded the bird photo and set it on her own profile. On the post that revealed this move she wrote the caption, “Because I miss you, Em. Because sometimes it’s me, too.” The rest of us, when we found it, were stunned. Someone went to check on Jess right away, but she was only practicing trumpet in the band room. It wasn’t a cry for help; it wasn’t a parting missive. It was just a picture. A choice that for all its simplicity was invisible to us until she did it. Something so tiny, but with so much disruptive power, like a pebble in the barrel of a gun. A few other seniors, in the second-floor study hall room, downloaded the photo from her profile and set it themselves. By third period, all the seniors had done it. By lunch, the upperclassmen. By sixth period, everyone. Everyone. The freshman boys, second-string varsity with empty letter jackets. The junior class academic team. The sophomore scenesters, cutting class in the shadow of the fire escape. And Katie Grine, who had returned to school after two days but spoken to no one except to thank them for their condolences.

Someone, it was never determined who, eventually discovered the photo’s source, three pages deep in a website for a South Florida estuary. Whoever it was managed to secure the original image file from the website’s host, and to have it printed at full size, 24” by 36”, at a nearby shop. And on a Wednesday morning we filed in to find more than twenty copies taped up around the hallways and classrooms.

This was only the first in a string of anonymous acts of vandalism. Another kid, maybe even several kids, began to graffiti on that first series of prints. WE ARE V, one read. NO MORE FEATHERS, read another. And many more prints followed, too, some in black and white, and some in strange, unsettling palettes that resembled photo negatives. The following week, someone brought in a dozen copper heron statues from a home decorating store. The statues began to crop up everywhere: in boys’ room stalls, behind the curtain in the auditorium. It was only when the principal, Mrs. McDaniel, found one in her big leather desk chair that the installations were deemed problematic.

An emergency assembly was called. Classrooms were emptied; folding chairs were unfolded and settled into long grids. The auditorium filled up with silence. From the stage it must have looked as though eight hundred heads were bowed in prayer, but really, we were all looking at our phones. “Will the students who are perpetuating this misbehavior please step forward!” Mrs. McDaniel bellowed into the mic. “Your disrespect is preventing this school’s deep wounds from healing. You have no idea how your actions profoundly affect your fellow students. We ask that you come up here and speak with us, so that we can all learn from this terrible instance and start to heal.”

We didn’t rise to meet her. We kept our heads down. Mrs. McDaniel, we knew, was a smart woman. In the end, she wouldn’t need our help to determine which of her words were true and which weren’t. Chances were good she knew already. The point of calling us together was not to uncover something, but to turn away from it.

Class attendance grew increasingly erratic. Some days a mere half of the desks would be occupied; other days, almost none. Once or twice, teachers lectured for fifty minutes to an empty room. We weren’t sure whether they hadn’t noticed, or whether they had resolved to just do their jobs, one way or another. In the cafeteria, the din of conversation had been scrubbed from the walls and ceiling. Servers stood idle at their stations; trays of corn pudding and refried beans remained full. Meanwhile, the heron photo spread across school property, whole flocks assembling around trophy cases and bulletin boards and oil paintings of administrators from the 1960s. The hallways started to look like channels carved through great bodies of water. And everywhere, that same beady pupil staring out, ellipses spanning hundreds of feet at a time. Questioning, or accusing, or lamenting. Teachers started to come in through side entrances in the mornings. Mrs. McDaniel patrolled the building with her eyeglasses resting from their chain, half-blind, navigating by memory.

Jonah Park was the first of what we eventually came to call sleepers. One morning he was found in the center of the gym, just shy of the three-point line, curled up on his side. Down the lengths of his forearms were streaks of red magic marker, still thick and wet and pungent from recent application. Several teachers were called in to remove him; Mr. Fawkes had to be led back out to the hallway after he started to scream. But Jonah could not be made to move, would not, in fact, even respond to pleas or threats or negotiation. And it was illegal to force him. So there he lay, stilled, with only the rhythm of his breathing to separate him from the dead.

When a group of students appeared in the gym’s open doorway, ready to lie down beside him, faculty members grew desperate. Punishments of mounting severity were heaped upon the newcomers, who shook their heads—maybe disappointed, maybe simply uncomprehending—and piled themselves atop Jonah, adding the shape of their bodies to his. That same red marker had stained all of them. Down a neck below the ear, or in the center of a white tee shirt. Each of them a monument, though to what the school staff could only guess.

Slowly, the sleepers began to outnumber the regular students. Faces that on one day had been seen dutifully taking their seats for Integrated Math or Environmental Studies were the next day meshed into a pyramid of cotton and skin. Eyes open, rarely blinking, settled on some distant point. The smell of magic marker replaced those of paper or floor wax or cafeteria beef. Piles of children were discovered in locker rooms, supply closets, in front of chalkboards and in the middle of the desk ring in Miss Shain’s art room. (Miss Shain resigned that same week. We all felt bad about that, but it was her decision.) None of them could be removed. They were as implacable as the tiles or the paint. What few students remained made no sign that they noticed, but like the teachers, their paths altered to accommodate it.

Courses were consolidated, or canceled. Gym was the first to go, then Chemistry and Econ. Mr. Langhani’s Analysis and Composition was the last to be pared down—Mr. Langhani, fifty-eight and tenured, had long since altered the curriculum to focus exclusively on personal essays. For weeks he collected the work done in class to be graded, but offered neither the scores nor the work itself to the administration for review. When at last their requests grew terse and threatening, he revealed that he had taken the essays home, sheaf by sheaf, and burned them in his fireplace. He had taken the ashes and delivered them, in secret, to the senior class president, who in turn gave them to Caleb Warren.

We loved Mr. Langhani, in our way. We were sad to see him go.


In November there was a second emergency assembly. This one was held on a Saturday; what few practices and events had remained on the schedule were swept away to make room for it. We trickled into the auditorium as we had before, speaking only in the rustle of our sleeves and the brush of our soles on the carpet. Sometimes, in that sea of heads, the mewling chime of a phone, but we didn’t bother to silence them.

Seats had been carefully arranged such that each child was paired with a parent or guardian. Chairs for the adults had square leather cushions, but they sat uncomfortably anyway, never touching the backs. They rummaged through their purses, the pockets of their coats, as though whatever they were looking for was trying to elude them. On stage, the entirety of the school staff, missing only Miss Shain and Mr. Langhani. They formed a semicircle around a large wooden podium, the glaring chrome head of a microphone. Outside, a low sky and the spindly tops of trees. Snow had been predicted and then refused to arrive.

When Mrs. McDaniel began her address this time, she had sanded down its edges until it was soft and plaintive. She sounded the way adults do when they try to get sick kids to eat. “Obviously,” she told us, “the way things are going now is unsustainable. All of us, your teachers, we know that. What we can’t understand is what started it. Why Emily? What was it about her loss that inspired all of you to behave this way?”

We were confused. We didn’t understand the question.

“What I mean is,” Mrs. McDaniel tried again, “For three years Emily was all but unknown to you. You were indifferent to her, maybe even neglectful. And we’ve lost other students before. So what made this time different?”

It wasn’t a matter of difference, we tried to explain. Emily’s death was no more or less a burden than any of the ones that had preceded it.

“Then why have you been doing all of this for the last two months?” she asked, and we could see that she was beginning to lose her composure again.

This, we said, had not begun in September. We had been like this for a very long time. Before Brian Taylor was shot to death when his four-year-old brother discovered their father’s rifle, before Lucy Rosalin was crushed against a wall by a drunk driver, before Miri Lam was strangled by her stepmother. For nearly as long as we could remember. And with Katie gone now, too, we had no choice but to continue.

“But it wasn’t Katie who died,” Mrs. McDaniel said. “It was Emily.”

No. That was before. Katie Grine had passed four days earlier. She was the first in a pile of sleepers one morning, in the foyer, between sets of doubles door. When the rest of us stood to leave she was the only one who didn’t get up. She just kept lying there, staring. We had taken her body home to her family in the back of Tim Gunsher’s pickup. There was a small memorial to her at her desk, and in the landing of the back stairwell, where she had often waited for her little brother to get out of class at the middle school. We couldn’t tell Mrs. McDaniel how it was that she didn’t know these things. That wasn’t any of our business.

The teachers cast uneasy glances from one side of the semicircle to the other. In the seats, parents pressed their thumbs inside of closed fists, pressed the fists to their lips, and made small sounds of desperation.

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. McDaniel said, and it was clear to us that she meant this. Her eyes were glossy with the threat of tears. Her long fingers clutched the edges of the podium. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to make things better. Can you tell me?”

Again, we didn’t understand the question.

“How do I make this stop? How do I make you all happy again?”

Why, we wondered, would she believe she could do that? Was she happy? Was that a part of adulthood we needed to be trained for? We were skeptical.

“You’re still children,” she said. “For a little longer, at least. And you deserve whatever happiness we can give you.”

What you can give, we told her, has run out. And we haven’t been children for a long time.

Out in the halls they had set up tables with glossy tablecloths and plastic cups for lemonade and Coke. There were dishes of cheap sugar cookies bought from the grocery store down the road, emptied in rings around the circumference of plates so that their pastel grains made them look like flowers or exploding fireworks. Parents mingled with one another, commiserating, while we drifted to our homerooms and waited to be told we could go home. We didn’t speak, just sat at our desks, looking at each other, or else checking our phones.

Mrs. Warren eventually found her way to Room 305. By this point the space around Emily’s desk had mostly cleared; only a handful of sketches remained in the basket beneath her seat, tucked away by the janitor. The new focal point was two rows up, at Katie’s spot, where kids had started leaving a stack of Rita Dove poems.

Emily’s mother crossed the room at the back, past posters shouting READ, past a long wooden table full of models of cell structure. For a few seconds she stood behind Emily’s desk, hands on the back, and we watched her, all eyes set. Then she took in a small breath, held it, and sat in the desk. Reached down and retrieved the first of the sketches, smoothed it flat in front of her. It was a bird, but not recognizably a heron. Probably one of the freshmen had drawn it, someone who wanted to be a part of things without quite knowing what they were about.

We’re sorry, we told her. Mrs. Warren. It’s true what the principal said: we didn’t love Emily. And we’re sorry. And we’re trying.

Mrs. Warren said nothing, but she didn’t look angry either. None of us moved, or even breathed; out in the hallway, the faces of classmates from other homerooms crowded the boxy windows of the two doors. Questioning, waiting. Finally, she took in another breath, and her face crumpled, like the last moment before crying. But she only let the air out through her nose, and pulled out the rest of the pile of sketches. Then she stood, went to the nearest wall, and took down a copy of the heron photo, carefully, pulling each corner from its loop of Scotch tape. These she tucked under her arm, careful not to crease them.

She turned back to us. “No more feathers,” she said.

No, we promised. No more feathers. But we were nearly adults now, and we understood already that promises were meant to be made more than they were meant to be kept.