By Adeline Ike
"Congratulations to all of us graduates!" I said, delivering the speech I had practiced countless times. "Today is a special day, a day to celebrate with our loved ones. It's been a long journey since we started kindergarten 13 years ago..." Although I spoke the words confidently, I couldn't help but feel my life was falling apart. Nobody in the auditorium knew about my struggles and all I wanted was for this day to be over. Not because I was excited to leave high school, but because I needed to deal with the chaos that had taken over my life. It wasn't something I could push away. So how could I share the joy that everyone was feeling right now? How could I stand up here and pretend I'm okay? I realized I had stopped mid-speech. Everyone stared like I had a spider on my head. What if they did know about my struggles? Did information leak out? How could I continue now?
But the movement at the back of the auditorium caught my eye. Something fishy was in the air when I saw Matt and Chase moving around. They weren't in their seats but crouched around something. The other students continued to watch me as I tried to push the suspicions out of my head. I told myself to continue with the speech.
"Um, sorry. I want to say a good job to everyone. I enjoyed working here with you all for a good portion of my life, and I made some great friends that will always be in my heart. Let's give it to Ms. Kellie!"
As the teacher reached the stage, the audience burst into applause. I started to make my way back to my seat, but before I could descend the stairs, a loud noise echoed through the room. I looked towards the back and saw that the sound was coming from there.
Fireworks. Someone was setting off fireworks in the room. Screaming had already started, and the graduates began running toward the exit room at the front as the fireworks erupted everywhere. I ducked to the ground when one went over my head. Smoke began to fill the auditorium rapidly.
Through the screams, I could hear what I hoped not. Laughter. Someone thought it would be a funny prank to set fireworks off. And I was guessing Matt and Chase.
I quickly stood up and realized I needed to intervene with the boys who were continuing to light fireworks. Despite the ongoing chaos, graduates were still attempting to exit the room, but the smoke made it difficult to navigate through the crowd. I stumbled forward, pushing through everyone. As I approached, I noticed a vivid orange glow—flames. And they began to spread around the room, hungry for anything dry.
"Chase, Matt! Stop!" I yelled. I accidentally bumped into a girl who then grabbed my shoulders, "Hazel! We need to leave now!" she said urgently. It was my friend Madison. I replied, "No, Matt and Chase are at the back. We need to stop them before it's too late."
The fire was growing larger and larger by the minute. Matt and Chase weren't the only ones that were gonna be stuck behind the flames. I dashed to the back where I helped a girl up and told her to get out. I didn't have to look back to know Madison was behind me. I kept going.
Finally, I made it to Chase, where I grabbed his shirt and pulled him away from the fireworks, "What are you doing, you idiot!?" He was trying to stomp out a flame that caught on the carpet.
"It was just a prank! I swear! But now we're trying to put the fire out. It's not working. And Matt is hurt over there. He got burned pretty bad when one of the fireworks shot at him--"
"You go. Madison and I will get Matt." I pushed him on, and he never turned back. The flames grew immensely, to the point where almost the entire room was ablaze. The good thing was everyone was now out. The bad thing...Matt was behind the flames and injured.
I took a deep breath and braced myself to leap through the flames. Madison was by my side, and we counted to three before dashing through. The smoke was thick as I searched for Matt and eventually found him in a corner, struggling to breathe.
It was pretty hot on this side of the flames. Madison and I took action and made it to his side.
"Let's get him up. Quick!"
We both grabbed an arm and tried to pull him up. He screamed out, "My leg!"
It didn't help he was heavy, either.
"Hazel, watch out!" Madison cried out as she leaped to the side. Something large was falling from the ceiling, but I couldn't leave Matt. I crouched over him before I could think, and the debris hit us hard. Matt and I didn't cry out at first. It was hard to process the pain. But then it hit like a rock. I felt like I was dying. And I knew something on me was bleeding. Matt was struggling underneath me. He was having a hard time breathing.
"Matt...Matt...we got this. Just breathe." he only coughed in response. The heat was almost too much to bear by now.
When I tried to move, I couldn't. Whatever fell was on top of us, and it was really heavy.
"Madison..." I tried weakly. But no answer. I tried and tried to get up, but it was no use.
Matt grabbed my arm, "Just stop."
I kept trying.
"Hazel! Just stop!" he coughed, "It's over. We're done for. And it's because I'm an idiot. It was my dumb idea to set the fireworks off. I thought it'd be funny to scare everyone. But look at this. It got shoved in my face, didn't it?"
I stopped trying and sagged my body. The fire was already dangerously close. I think Matt was right. It was too late. I wasn't fast enough. I could've tried harder.
"No. It's my fault. I could've stopped you guys sooner, but I pushed it away. I was too focused on myself and my struggles. I'm the idiot, Matt. I'm so sorry..."
Matt turned his head toward me as much as he could, "Are you always like this? This seriously wasn't your fault."
Beads of sweat rolled down his face. A pretty bloody gash was on his face, and it was hard not to look at it.
Another big chunk of the ceiling dangerously hung by a thread not too far from us. The auditorium was falling apart bit by bit. I turned to Matt, "Can I tell you something? I might as well...I mean..." I looked at the fire.
Matt nodded, "You go, then I'll go."
I swallowed hard, "I don't know if you guys have noticed, but I am not okay. I...lied about having parents. They died a year ago. I don't even have a home, Matt. I have nothing. Madison probably has suspicions when I ask to shower at her house or when raiding her fridge. I have been through much more. Things you'd never imagine. But every day, I have to come to school, pretend my life is like everybody else's. I even lie to the teachers. I could barely hold the tears during my speech..."
Matt nodded, and I felt him grab my hand, "Hazel, you are extremely strong and amazing. I had no idea you were going through that. You always looked so happy and like you could one day rule the world. But really, I think the truth is-- we all lie about our lives. We pretend we're happy. Because the world has set standards that everyone's lives are perfect and fun. I bet you didn't know my parents are getting a divorce. My sister has cancer, and money isn't the best for my family. I thought if everyone knew, they'd look at me differently. Isn't that wrong?"
A tear slipped down my cheek, "I'm so sorry...I thought I was the only one, Matt. Thank you for sharing that."
"No problem. And Hazel," he squeezed my hand, "thank you for coming back for me. It means a lot."
I tried to hug him as best I could from the awkward angle we were in, "We'd be best friends if we survived this." I said.
Matt chuckled in my hair, "Let's not think of that. Just relax. It will be over soon."
"Yeah..." I sighed.
Matt sat up a little, "You hear that?"
I sat up with him, cringing at the pain, "Sirens? Firefighters, do you think?"
We looked at each other with hope.
"Hazel! Matt!" I heard through the crackling fire. We still held eye contact, obviously shocked.
Immediately we started shouting, "Over here! Help!"
I saw Madison’s face through the flames a couple of minutes later, then several people. Water started spraying toward us, and soon we were soaked. The fire began to die down where we were, and this time I had hope that everything was gonna be okay. I was thankful for Matt showing me that everyone has problems. I was too humiliated to tell anyone or ask for help, but now I was not scared. I was gonna get help. I was gonna tell someone about my situation and get this sorted out. And I was gonna graduate with a real smile on my face.
Hazel giving her speech