By Lauren Pope
Honorable Mention, Prose, Create | Encounter 2019
Content Warning: Suicide
“Can you get that over-hang in the frame? I don’t want to lose the impact of the sunset.”
“Yeah, Lainey, but I need you left like five feet though.”
“I feel like Rise is too obvious. Use Hudson. My shirt will look better.”
“Yeah. I’m going to have my arms open, ok?”
“Yeah, it will make things look so much more dramatic.”
“No, I mean are you sure?”
“Yeah.” Lainey looked over her shoulder at the at the canyon below. “Let’s do this.”
Lainey Love took a step back and fell.
“Please, don’t stand on the chair. It’s obnoxious.”
Jen could never quite shake the manners that her mother had drilled into her at every Sunday dinner. Sure, the angle wasn’t quite as sharp from the ground, but she liked to think that the waitstaff appreciated her restraint.
Robin clamored atop the sparkly red vinyl chair. This place had really gone all in on the vintage diner thing.
“Jen, they don’t care. Look, we’re giving them publicity. They want the food to look its best. It’s a win-win. Can you move the fork a bit? I think it would look better. K, now can we turn the glass so the Coke emblem is showing? A little more…ok stop that’s perfect.”
Robin clicked a few pictures from different heights. Then, satisfied, she sat down and started flipping through them.
“Robin, you know my rule. You’ve got to eat the food while it’s hot. There’s nothing worse than an inauthentic nibbler.”
“I can eat and scroll, babe. Oh…shit!”
Robin held her phone up to Jen. “Look at this!”
“It’s got to be photoshopped. Pretty morbid, if you ask me.”
“No, I’m looking at the comments. It’s Lainey Love. And she’s dead. This is real. They have her boyfriend in custody for taking it.”
Jen gasped and pushed away her food. “Why haven’t they taken that down? It’s got to be against terms of service.”
“It’s being reposted everywhere. #LaineyLovesLastLaugh “
“Well, there goes my appetite.”
“No kidding. The framing is kind of beautiful though.” Robin picked at her chips. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s awful but…”
Robin looked out the window, her brown curls falling over her cheek. “Just, if you’re going to do it, you might as well leave something beautiful behind.”
Jen crossed her arms. “I still think it’s way too morbid.”
Robin sighed and turned back to her food. “We’ve got to eat it or we’re just posers, right Jen?”
Jen shrugged. “I’ll make an exception for today. You can eat though, no reason for us both to be frauds.”
Robin looked out onto the grey brown sludge that had displaced the clear blue ocean.
“This water is going to look like trash no matter what we do.”
“Yeah, I know. The storm yesterday has it all muddy. Just focus on the sand. The umbrella I got off Etsy is fire.”
“Uh, after Jason can we not say fire?”
Jen grimaced. That had been particularly gruesome. Supposedly his patrons had voted on the best way to go and “time delayed self-immolation” won out. His family was left with north of a million dollars.
“Yeah, noted. I can’t believe there have been three more this week. “
Robin shrugged. “The world sucks and you can leave your family with a boat load of money if you do it the right way. I get it.”
Jen stopped twisting the blue and white umbrella into the sand.
“Robin. You can’t talk like that!”
“No, I’m not saying I’d do it. I’m just saying that I get it. You can’t say you haven’t thought about it. How much are you bringing in now? Like maybe 2k a month? I know you used to get more before all the demonetization, I’m not judging, I’m just saying…no one is getting rich off pictures of the beach anymore.”
That much was true. Gone were the days when sponsors spilled money on anyone with more than 50 thousand followers. Jen had never been particularly famous, but she made enough to live and travel on. After the backlash from the whole Lainey Love thing, she was dropping followers every day. Now most of her money came from working as a weekend nanny, not that anyone but Robin knew that. She gave the umbrella another push and laid out the towel, a pink thing covered in oversized peonies.
“Well, money’s not worth much if you’re not around to spend it. Ok, we’re set. “
Robin sat down carefully on the towel, mindful not to wrinkle it. She balanced a glass of sparkling rosé on the little beach table Jen had crafted from a breakfast tray and pushed her sunglasses onto her head. She looked out at the disappointing water and the hundreds of beach goers crammed onto small patch of sand. They were all fighting to get a shareable picture. Playing with the lighting, adjusting the filters. It was all truly ridiculous.
“It’s not just the money, Jen. It’s everything. Sometimes it just feels like it’s all gotten so corrupted or something. Everything is so shallow, and people are so cruel. I’m just saying I understand it.” She looked back at Jen and forced her face into a smile. “The light’s good now. Let’s start shooting.”
Jen looked at Robin through her screen. She could tell the smile was forced. “Promise me you won’t.”
Robin waved her hand “Fine. But golden hour isn’t going to last forever. Let’s go!”
“Robin, it’s Jen. I texted you but I didn’t hear back so I’m calling. I thought we were meeting at the Starbucks on 31st. I guess I’m just a little worried. Sorry, old lady problems. Just text me ok? I’ll be here for another 30 minutes or so and then I’m headed back to the apartment. I hope everything’s ok.”
Jen turned onto her street and saw ambulances in front of their apartment. She ran down the sidewalk but was stopped by an officer guarding the stairs. The look in his eye told her that her worst fears were true.
Jen held her thumb over “share,” debating what she was about to do. Everyone would expect her to make a post, of course. She could expect a pretty decent bump to her numbers as people offered condolences and tied themselves to the tragedy. There was a script for this sort of thing. She was supposed to say that she was happy that Robin was finally free and that she was so thankful for all the outpouring of support. That’s not how she felt. The supporters felt more like vultures, hungry for their next victim. Picking apart the bones. Robin wasn’t free. She’d done it because her mom had cancer and needed money for chemo and the GoFundMe wasn’t raising enough. She’d done it because her asshole boyfriend was pressuring her to hold drugs for him. She’d done it because she’d been depressed since she was 15. None of this was something to be celebrated.
But still, if she hit “share” she was going to implode her world. No one wanted to hear what she was saying. They didn’t want to hear that they were complicit in her best friend’s death. They didn’t want to hear that something had gone terribly wrong with the world where people thought suicide was the only answer to paying a medical bill. Nothing about this was right. Screw it. She shared it, tossed her phone to the side, and went to bed.
When Jen woke up the next day her phone had blown up with alerts. She was afraid to look. When she finally did, it confirmed her worst suspicions about society. There were about 100 DMs all saying that she was a terrible friend and person. A canceling campaign was targeting her few remaining advertisers. She was the hateful bitch who was against the right to die. Jen threw her phone down again and sobbed.
A few hours later, she gave in to the constant buzzing and was happy to see a few texts from people who actually knew her and Robin. Some were supportive, others shocked, but at least they were real. She cautiously opened one from Robin’s mom, Cheryl. Jesus.
Hi, Jen. I just…don’t understand why she felt like she needed to do this. Didn’t she know that I would never want it? I’m trying to plan the funeral now, and I thought you would have a lot of pictures that I don’t. Things you girls didn’t put online. Please message me back when you get this. Ok honey. That’s all.
Jen composed and deleted a hundred responses. What could she say?
“I think she did this because of some stupid influencers who convinced her this was the best way to help you.” Like she needs that guilt.
“I think she must have been more depressed than we knew.” That was probably true, but trite.
“Ask Jonathan.” That was just cruel.
“I don’t know why she did this, and I’m so so sorry. I have so many pictures. Can I come over to go through them with you?”
She hit send.
“Can I get you anything? Water?”
“No, Mrs. Vincent, I’m fine, but thank you.”
“Jen, you’ve known me for years and we’re both adults. Cheryl is fine.”
Jen shifted uncomfortably on the floral sofa. Suddenly she was incredibly aware of her hands. “Actually, maybe tea would be nice…Cheryl.”
Robin’s mom got up and walked to the kitchen. Jen grabbed her phone out of her purse and opened up her photos. She’d made an album of all the pictures she thought that Robin’s mom would most like to see. There were a lot of outtakes from their shoots, but also just candid shots from around the apartment and even a few tame ones from nights out. It was a nicely curated album and it would make a nice slideshow.
“Here you go, hun,” Cheryl handed Jen the tea, “It’s a London Fog. Robin always liked that.”
“Thank you so much, I love it too.”
“Are those the pictures?”
“Yeah, I was just getting it pulled up.” Jen handed over her phone. “I put all the best ones in an album for you. I thought you’d like to have them all together.”
Cheryl flipped through the photos, tears streaming down her face. “These are wonderful, and you’re right, they’re perfect for the funeral. Thank you.”
“Do you have any of the less perfect pictures? I know Robin would kill anyone who took a picture of her without makeup, but I feel like everything I have is just so staged. It’s not how I remember her.”
Jen took a deep breath. Truthfully, there weren’t that many. Robin had been a ruthless deleter. “Let me see,” she asked, taking back her phone.
She flipped through the vacation they took to Seattle. The wind was crazy and their hair had gone beyond “flatteringly messy” to “uncontrolled chaos.” There was a picture of Robin standing at the end of a pier with her hair whipping across her face. She was laughing. Jen handed her phone back to Cheryl.
Her chest started heaving and Jen wrapped her arms around her as they both cried.
“Can you print this one for me to frame?”
Cheryl took a deep breath. Her eyes looked tired and dull from crying. “I promised myself that I wouldn’t ask you this, but I can’t stop asking myself why.”
“I honestly don’t know,” Jen said, “I think she thought there was no other way,” her voice trailed off. “No other way.”
They sat together and cried.
The funeral was on a Friday. They had delayed a bit because a crowd of followers wanted to attend. Jen wanted nothing more than to avoid all of them, but she couldn’t do that to Cheryl. She wore a black shift dress and pumps. She hoped she could sink into the background and wouldn’t cause any issues.
She wasn’t expecting what she saw when she walked into the chapel. It wasn’t just relatives and friends and followers. There were so many influencers. She recognized some of them. They were suicide junkies. Of course, they’d be there. They were taking pictures with the funeral arrangements. It was ghastly, and Jen sighed in relief when an usher asked them to sit down.
The slide show was perfect, and everyone laughed and cried in unison. The last picture was the one that Cheryl had asked to print. Somehow, she’d worked it in. Seeing Robin laughing on the pier was too much and Jen had to excuse herself into the hallway.
She heard the whispers from the back row.
“Can you believe she had the nerve to show up?”
“I know. And wearing that.”
“I heard she lost all her sponsors. Even that yogurt place that sponsors literally anyone.”
Jen stood behind the door holding in her sobs. It was true, she had lost all her sponsors. She was down to a few thousand active followers. It all seemed so incredibly pointless now.
Meanwhile, in death, Robin had been immortalized and her account had reached a million followers.
Death was popular.
Jen took a deep breath and walked back in as the minister started his service. She told herself the glares were just in her imagination.
At the end, Cheryl held her hand and thanked her for coming. Jen couldn’t force out her words. She nodded and flew to her car.
Jen was lying in bed when the notifications started.
She closed her eyes. When she opened them, she discovered that she’d been tagged in a post from one of the suicide fan girls. The picture was of her standing in the hallway crying and the text said: “You all know Jen. The crusader against suicide. She was standing outside of her supposed best friend’s funeral and only came in to make sure she got in the pictures. So pathetic, but what can you expect from someone like that? I’m just so happy that Robin’s TRUE friends were there to support her. Love you BinBin <3”
Jen screamed and threw her phone against the wall.
It had been three weeks from the funeral and the messages just kept coming. Jen had switched all her accounts to private, but it didn’t matter. Somehow, they found her. Sometimes they were short and to the point “Die, bitch.” Sometimes they were disturbingly calculating and included way too many personal details to be from a stranger. Once someone sent her a picture of herself from outside her window. She’d called the police who told her that, while it was all illegal, they didn’t have the resources to track down every instance of cyber bullying.
She tried to pick up extra nannying families, but it seemed her reputation preceded her, and no one wanted the headache. She was utterly broke. Thankfully her mother had told her that she could stay with her until she got back on her feet. She tried to pack her room, but everything reminded her of Robin. Things would be so much easier if she could just be with her wherever she was now.
Those thoughts had been coming to her more and more often since the funeral. She had fought against them at first, but now they just felt inevitable. Maybe it was inevitable. Since Robin’s death there had been 20 more influencer suicides, all more dramatic than the last. News stories were warning of copycats from followers, and parents were all on high alert.
She took out her phone and composed a message.
They suspended her account. Apparently, her message was considered harassment. No one could do anything about the trolls who told her to kill herself but telling people to live was beyond social acceptability. She’d appealed but was told the decision was firm. Someone on high had decided that the suicides were a form of expression and, while they were quick to delete the more gruesome postings, any criticism of them was bullying. The same rationale was used across platforms. Suicides were skyrocketing and they were all utterly complacent.
Jen was disgusted with everyone and everything.
Her mother suggested a technology detox so she spent her days reading books and waiting for her notoriety to blow over, so she’d have a chance to get hired sometime in the future. The intrusive thoughts kept coming, but she was determined not to let them win. The vultures wanted to pull her down and rip her apart, but maybe, maybe if she just survived that would be enough.
The thought started as a whisper but became her mantra. Survive. Just survive. The suicides kept coming and she decided that she’d had enough with hiding in the shadows. Jen switched her settings back to public, and composed a new message.
Her phone buzzed and she held her breath. A DM. “You’re not alone. Let’s talk.”