Friday, 16 April 2021 17:05

Commencement Rites by P.J. Powell

Commencement Rites by P.J. PowellHolland Hills High seniors line the hall outside the gymnatorium, shrouded like a bunch of priests and priestesses in their red polyester gowns, waiting for their names to be called. Everybody wants to escape this conformist teen nightmare. Probably the only thing I have in common with my classmates, other than these stifling robes that smell like starch and great expectations.

Our families are all out in the bleachers rooting for us. All except for my dad, at least so far. On the way in I checked every dark corner, the shadows between the floodlights. The places where Death might stand to watch his daughter walk across the stage. But those places were all empty. He said he would try to make it. He’s got about fifteen more minutes, which I intend to spend staring into space. Awkwardly, no doubt.

“I’ll be so glad to get out of here for good,” Brian Martin says, stretching his arms upward to reveal wet circles under his armpits. He’s not talking to me. Nobody here does, if they can avoid it.

They don’t know what I am, not exactly, but deep down they know something is off. They never fell for the trappings my high-end mom insisted would help me fit in: my healthy tan, my long, black hair, my lash extensions, my limited-edition Louis Vuitton. They also didn’t bother to see the girl underneath, the gamer who laughs a little too loudly and still loves pastel locker decorations. All they feel when they see me is their mortality humming in their bones, so they down a glass of denial and choose to ignore me. Given my paternity, I guess I can’t blame them.

 Technically my dad is Foreman, not “Death.” He says death isn’t a being, that it’s barely even an event, at least to anyone who understands how the universe operates. But what would you call the dude who makes sure people don’t live forever, that their bodies give up their souls to keep the universe running? I think “Death” is perfectly acceptable. And since he’s not here, I can call him whatever I want.

“Sweetheart, I’m sorry I’m late,” a deep voice says behind me. Could it be?

“Daddy!” Priscilla Maxim throws her arms around her dad’s shoulders. I can practically feel the crush of appreciation passing between them. Then there’s a little velvet box in his hand, and she’s so excited she doesn’t even think to take a selfie before rushing to unbox whatever bauble he’s gotten for her.

“Diamonds?!” She sounds so happy. Like a girl whose dad shows up. He’s all grins.

“We’re so very proud of you. NYU, look out!” Must be nice to have a dad who cares and a college to go to.

She nearly elbows my lip putting the earrings on. One tender daddy-daughter good‑bye later, Priscilla the Insta ice queen floats down the hallway, bragging about her earrings and her big scholarship, leaving me in a cloud of her dad’s aftershave. She’ll be back before long, and I’ll have to listen to it because I’m stuck standing in front of her. It’s an alphabetic tragedy.

“Priscilla’s got that bling,” Brian Martin says admirably when she returns. She jostles me getting back into line but doesn’t seem to notice.

“Thank you, I try,” Priscilla replies past me.

“Airport gift shop bling,” I mutter, apparently during the one breath when no one else is talking. Happens sometimes. The lull between waves of high school drama means they can’t help but notice me, and then come the judgments, stage-whispered within earshot.

Weird girl. Emo disaster. Freak.

Priscilla steps alongside me and narrows her tiger eyes, no doubt preparing to shred me with the sharp edges of our brief shared history.

“You know what I think about you, Jade Mason?” she asks, continuing before I can answer. “You’ve always known you don’t fit in here, and it’s not just that you give everyone the creeps.”

True. For years I’ve been social leftovers, a last resort to be poked at once they’ve eaten everything else. But she’s not done.

“You’re so busy being uninvolved, I bet you barely scraped together the credits you needed to graduate.”

True. But wait, there’s more.

Priscilla’s voice could scorch a diploma. “But none of that matters now because we’re all moving on while you stay where you belong—working in that creepy funeral home.”

Too far.

Years of snickering side-eye from this Daddy’s Girl, and I’m itching to give her something to cry about. I grab both her hands and take our eye contact nuclear. She’s not ready for it, so she goes rigid and I let her have it.

“You know what, Priscilla? You’re not going to see your twenty-first birthday.”

Her jaw drops. I look a little deeper into her final act.

“It’s a party in some college dive bar. You’re wasted in the bathroom, and your sorority friends are too wasted to look in on you, and you die alone in a stall that’s covered with ads about chicken wings and dollar-drafts. Maybe you should be worrying about your own future, not mine.”

Brian’s hand clamps down on my shoulder, pulling me off Priscilla.

“The fuck, Jade?”

His turn. I grab his upper arm and lock eyes with him, a guy who’s whispered lies about me whenever he got bored pulling wings off the other ants at this school.

“What, Brian? You want to know how you’ll go down?”

A drop of sweat escapes his hairline and flees down his temple. I could tell him. I can see it written on his soul. His death will be quiet, later in life, to the tune of late-night reruns of Win Some, Lose Some, amidst empty frozen-dinner trays and lingering questions about why his kids never come to see him. Words that almost come out of my mouth stick in my throat.

“You’re a horrible person,” Priscilla says softly to the floor.

“Crazy, like we always said,” Brian mutters, rubbing his arm as he turns away.

I’m done. They’re dead to me. The principal is a few people away from calling my name, and I go back to hoping my dad is here to hear it. Carpe diem, bitches.

My walk across stage lasts long enough for me to be sure that my dad still isn’t in the audience. The clopping of my kitten heels echoes on the wooden floor, reminding me that tonight I walk alone. And I’m going nowhere.

When I step into the darkness offstage, diploma pressed into sweaty palm, my tears ambush me under the cover of my anger. By the time I make it to the musty backstage bathroom, it’s a full-on attack. My body doesn’t care that if I cry too hard or too long here, I’m going to have to endure my auntie’s suffocating compassion and my mom admonishing me for not having emergency eye cream handy. Before my reeling brain can catch up to my spastic sobs, the doorknob shudders and the door flaps open, revealing my hiding place to the last person I want to see.

“Oh, it’s you,” Priscilla says.

“Did you ever try knocking?” I’m done fighting with her. I just want her to go away.

“Sometimes, but not when it sounds like there’s an animal trapped behind the door.” Why couldn’t I at least have made it into a stall? 

“I’m fuh-fuh-fine!”

“Obvi,” she says, jerking a paper towel from the dispenser and thrusting it at me. “I don’t know why you’re crying. I’m the one who got the death threat.”

I know I shouldn’t have read her death out loud to her. I was just so angry about the things she said. “I’m sorry. I—”

“Forget it. It was just crap you made up, right? To get me back for what I said when you made fun of my earrings?”

Thinking of the earrings sets off my crying all over again. Priscilla flinches. “Jesus,” she says, digging around in her purse. “What can I give you to make you stop?”

We’re way past turning off the waterworks, and my words spill out with my tears. “I love your earrings. I’d give anything to get a gift like that from my dad, but he ghosted me tonight, and your dad made it a priority to get here, and his gift was so thoughtful—”

Priscilla’s jaw drops for the second time tonight. “You really don’t know what you’re talking about. Here. Put this on.” She hands me a Lux sheet mask, the new one I’ve been dying to try.

“Lux Gold? Does it really work?” Supposedly it has the power of six facials in one.

“So far,” she says, smirking. I snicker before I can help myself. She’s distracted me enough to stop my crying. But I don’t want to owe Priscilla anything, so I hand it back. “Thanks, but it’ll take off all my makeup.”

“Please,” she says, waving me away. “Look at yourself. That ship has sailed. Anyway, if you let it do its job, you might not even need makeup for the next week or so.”

The mask starts cooling my hot cheeks right away. She helps me adjust it so the edges can touch the puffy places around my eyes.

“Congrats on NYU. You were right that I’m stuck here next year.”

She moves on to replacing her own lip gloss. “My parents went there and it’s the only place they will pay for me to go to college. I’m excited to go but it would have been nice to choose it myself. Besides, I assumed you wanted to work in your family’s funeral home.”

“Would you want to work there? I wanted to go to NYU, just like you. And I wanted my dad to come to my high school graduation, but unlike your dad, I guess he didn’t feel like making it a priority.” Tears threaten to strike again, but the sheet mask pushes back.

Priscilla wrinkles her nose. “Will you stop giving my dad so much credit? He was late because he’s having an affair. My mom doesn’t know. He’s been letting his stupid girlfriend pick out my birthday and Christmas gifts since sophomore year. She probably picked out these earrings too.”

Airport gift shop bling. Damn. No wonder she blew up at me. “That sucks, Priscilla.”

“You think? My advice to you—stop leaving your happiness up to your dad. The sooner you realize he’s just a dumb, broken human like everybody else, the sooner you can live your life the way you want. My dad was late to my graduation. Your dad missed yours. We can hold that over them for years.”

My dad isn’t exactly human. Dumb and broken, maybe. But I still see what she’s saying. “Why are you trying to make me feel better?”

Another epic eyeroll. “I hit you as hard as I could. You hit back just as hard. Kind of a letdown to see you losing it now. Besides, it’s graduation. We’re free. Nobody should be this worked up when they’ve got their whole lives ahead of them.”

She fumbles in her purse again, lining up makeup samples on the ledge under the mirror. Roll-on eye gel (my mom’s kind of girl). Concealer. Tinted moisturizer. “I have to go. It’s supposed to be a thirty-minute mask, so wait at least five more minutes before you take it off, and then use these to cover anything the rush job couldn’t fix before you go out there. If you don’t, whatever pictures your family takes after this are going to haunt you forever.”

“Thank you.”

On Priscilla’s way out, she pauses in the doorway. “That stuff you said in line really was crap, right?”

My death sense isn’t wrong. But I can’t tell her that so I just nod. She snorts softly. “Of course. I don’t know why I even asked. Look. A bunch of people are sneaking into the Railroad Powerhouse at midnight. If you want to drop by, I promise not to weirdo-shame you.”

Did I just get invited to a party?


Almost midnight and still nothing from my dad. No appearance at dinner after the ceremony. Not even an apology text. Family consensus was just he probably had some Foreman business, and in their mind that automatically excuses him. As if watching the video of the ceremony later will make it up to me.

The irony is that I always hear from him on graduation night, apparently just not on mine. Without fail somebody dies, and I’m the lucky Collector he sends to pick up that soul and send it through the Engine. Overdoses. A fire once. Last year an accidental shooting. Always some kind of awful crossroads where fate meets serendipity, and they veer off script, hurling someone into oblivion. Dad’s idea of reinforcing a cautionary tale, I guess. You don’t need those kids and their parties, sweets. Nothing good there for you. That’s what he tells me.

But I do, Dad. I do. I need a friend who slaps a sheet mask on my face and tells me to snap out of it. Who doesn’t mind when the light catches the cracks in their façade, so I can see that they don’t let being broken slow them down. And unless Priscilla is playing some sort of long revenge game, tonight I might have that friend. Forget my stupid dad. If I throw on my new plaid slip dress and leave my hair down, I can be fashionably late.

Half a block from the Railroad Powerhouse, while I’m hoping funeral-home essence isn’t clinging to my clothes and hair like secondhand smoke, my feet go numb. Bad sign. I try ignoring it, focusing on the sooty brick castle up ahead with its tall, yellow windows and the central tower that, a century ago, may have told time. My spindly legs wobble, then stop. I fixate on the faintest of sidewalk stains, suddenly a layered abstract painting. Funny the details I notice when I’m about to live someone else’s death. All I want is to be at the party.

And I am.

The night sky is gray watercolor painted by Holland City’s riverfront buildings. We make our own stars by spraying champagne while we twirl in the mist in front of the twinkle-lights strung between the fixtures on this forbidden rooftop. The droplets conceal the light sweat on our upper lips, at our temples, as if we cared that everyone can see us living.

The music pounds in time with the heartbeat of the city under us, and we dance with fingers interlaced in the warm breeze that seems to be generated by the bouncing of the crowd, the churn of clashing futures creating the occasional gust that takes your breath away. Hearts swell with possibility, so much possibility you can’t decide whether to reach out and pluck a dream from the bunch or whether you’d rather let them linger together a little while longer.

We’re less concerned about pics than usual, but we never enjoy ourselves too long before remembering to document this fairytale life, so we pause to do just that. Stacey’s just about got us all in frame on my right, and Bella’s fixed her best pouty face on my left, and I’m so happy until the railing gives behind me, and my hands slip from their champagne-kissed shoulders.

This is the part where my gut should be telling me I’m falling. But my body just itches, tingles electric, because I’m not the one who is actually falling. I’m the one my dad is sending to collect the soul when it’s ready to leave the body. My own out-of-body experience has tuned me to the person I’m collecting.

How could I have been so wrong about so many things tonight? Especially, especially this. My death sense has never failed. But my Collection assignments come direct from the Engine. And the Foreman just said Priscilla’s time is up.

While my assignment downloaded into my body, the evening moved on. Always happens. I finally reach a Railroad Powerhouse bathed in red and blue lights, a section of sidewalk taped off. Paramedics and police mill around, but nobody is in a hurry because nobody survives a ten-story fall. Hang around the family funeral home long enough and you learn all kinds of stuff you never wanted to know about ways our bodies can give our souls back to the Engine. For example, I know that a fall from that height is like sprinting at seventy-five miles per hour into a concrete wall. The sudden stop turns your motion against you, converting it to blunt force trauma. The broken bones are the least of your worries. If the brain injury and snapped neck don’t kill you, the ruptures in your heart probably will.

Focusing on these clinical details is the only way I can survive my legacy. Viewing the body as a soon-to-be-empty, shattered shell on the pavement. Nothing more than a vast cellular conspiracy to coexist as a soft, beautiful mechanism for a soul to rent until tonight’s eviction.

A soul. Not my broken frenemy. Not the girl I told just a few hours ago she had two more years to live. Not the girl who decided to dance like no one was watching, just in case I wasn’t lying. Until she danced right off the edge of the night.

The covered body could be one of the fallen painter’s tarps crumpled at the base of the partially renovated building. Or a discarded white graduation robe. The all-over itching I felt earlier has centered in my chest, so I know the soul has withdrawn from the body’s tissues. Nobody will stop me from doing what I have to do because they won’t notice. A perk, if you can call it that. Approaching the body, my itching abruptly stops. Two small, slow-burning glows come from an end of the sheet.

When you die, your soul doesn’t go far. Not without someone like me. It drains from your cells and distills itself into an object, your totem. Usually something the person’s carrying on them when they die. And once I send that soul back into the Engine that turns the universe, that totem is mine forever.

Carefully, surgically, I uncover just the area around one of the points of light. A dainty ear and a diamond earring. Priscilla’s graduation present goes into my pocket. Keeping her covered except to reveal the other ear, I take the other. They thrum with Priscilla’s energy, like it wants me to listen. I don’t.

Sometimes I have to travel to find an entry point to the Engine. This time I think I can work on site. The power station that runs the trains between New Jersey and New York seems like a perfect Engine node and I’m right. Light bursts through the slit I make along one of the Powerhouse brick seams, too bright for me to look at, but I imagine the machinery inside, translucent parts whirring together, hungering for the soul fuel that keeps them going. Priscilla’s soul does the rest, or maybe it’s the Engine doing the work. Either way, the energy leaves the earrings, and the slit in my reality heals itself.

I’m torn between the fierce desire to never set the earrings down and the desperate desire to throw them into the Hudson. But I could never part with them. A Collector’s totems are part of them, as much as a knuckle or a rib. I’ll add them to my Collection.

Just as I step out from under the police tape, my phone jingles. Our special jingle, a text from the Foreman.

Wear them well. 



Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: P.J. Powell has been published in Across the Margin, Manawaker Studio's Flash Fiction Podcast, Perceptions Magazine, and Voices de la Luna. She has participated in several workshops, including Writer’s Digest conferences and Girls Write Out. P.J. also occasionally adds to her blog, Creatorology, and co-hosts the podcast “Write Away with Nat and P.J.” A strategic communications consultant and writer, P.J. is also a staunch defender of the productivity-boosting benefits of short naps, long walks, and dance breaks. Follow her on Twitter @2PSays, and visit her blog at