I Live At The End
In which I share a story from the memoir.
Hi, Y’all! Glad You’re Here—
Back in 2019, I shared a story I’d been working on for a while, titled I Live at the End. I’d pitched it as a hilarious essay about a time I’d been sent to a mental health facility, following a suicide attempt. I’d been submitting it to literary magazines, but after quite a few rejections and feedback from a friend, I decided to publish the draft on the website where I had been posting my book reviews. A few people read it, gave kind responses, but I realized that the work maybe wasn’t as strong as I initially thought it was. I also realized that not everyone wanted to read this kind of story or liked my approach to the subject matter. It really made me consider why I approached my story like I did in the first place. Over the next year or so, I attempted to re-work the story, edit and revise it as best I could. But the truth is, this has always been the hardest story for me to pin down. I’ve never figured out how to find the balance in tone or how to make sure I’m not glamorizing this experience in any way. In some ways, getting this story write has felt like the most impossible task I’ve ever encountered.
Still, I have worked hard on this story. I know it will never be perfect, and I am accepting that for what it is. It’s still not where I wanted to be, but over the last few months, I’ve had some readers of the newsletter ask if I would ever share any stories from the memoir, and I figured sharing the one I was most anxious about seemed like the best idea. (Don’t ask me why, I can’t even fathom my own logic sometimes.)
So, here is the title story of my memoir, I Live at the End. Trigger warning for suicide, domestic violence, drug use, and reference to sexual assault. I believe that’s all.
Suicide is a family tradition. Granny’s the only one who hasn’t given it the ‘old college try’. Bless Momma’s heart, she’s tried and failed a multitude. She firmly believes in ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try—try again’; inhaling carbon monoxide, jabbing a pair of scissors into her arm, dissolving too many pills under her tongue or smoking too much crack. She tried shooting herself once—sitting on the toilet in the bathroom of a condemned trailer—but my stepdad broke down the door before she could find the safety switch. He grabbed her head and slammed it against the sink, a Pavlovian way of saying, bad dog! Let me do that.
While most people in our family are successful in their attempts, others—like Momma and me—have had more trouble getting across the finish line. I started early, about seven or so, locking myself in the bathroom and holding my breath until I passed out. Every time Momma disappeared for weeks at a time or someone at school called me a fag, I’d rest my head on the linoleum floor and push all of that anger to the center of my face—shaking as the rage stained my skin a violet hue—and then I’d wake up to see the world had gone dark. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized death takes work.
If it sounds like I’m being too cavalier, I’m not trying to be. There’s this weird thing that happens to my brain whenever I talk about bad things that have happened in my life, and the only way to explain it is to use the movie-musical, Chicago, as an example. You know how when things get too tough for Roxie Hart, her brain shuts down and everything turns into a glamorous musical number? The dark, gritty real world disappears and in its place is razzle dazzle. It’s sort of like that. My brain reframes all of my bad memories into funny quips I can tell to friends over dinner. I’ve learned over time that people don’t like talking about uncomfortable things, like suicide, unless there’s something to cushion the blow.
It’s been over ten years since the attempt that got me sent away. For a while, all I could remember was my empty room. Granny had taken everything from my bedroom and boxed it up, leaving only a naked mattress and box springs. Contraband I’d smuggled from Momma’s—cigarettes, mini-bottles of peach schnapps, condoms—had all been tossed in the trash. I felt like I’d been robbed.
I remember sitting on the bed, facing the window. Ladybug carcasses crowded on the sill. I pulled out a ball of tin-foil. Wrapped inside were a dozen Oxycontin I’d bought off a girl in my math class. I slipped one pill in my mouth after the other, counting to three between each swallow. Momma once said if overdose was your path, you couldn’t pull a Cinnamon Brown and down them all at once. If you did, you’d just vomit on yourself and have to start over. I took a final gulp, and waited.
I hadn’t planned on killing myself that day. My planned suicide attempt happened a few weeks before, when Momma told me she was dying. Her and my stepdad, Eric had come down to see me in the school play—It was an ensemble piece, but I was the audience favorite—and when it was over, we went to dinner to celebrate. Momma wheezed and coughed during the entire meal, and when we got back to the hotel, she said she had to tell me something.
I sat beside her on the bed, reaching to brush away a hair that stuck to her lipstick. When she took off her cardigan, I noticed bruises on her arms shift from brown to purple.
“I deserved it, baby,” she said, reassuring me as my eyes scanned her body. “I was on this new shit and it had me all fucked up and he had to knock some sense into me.”
Momma was always trying new drugs to get off old drugs—cocaine to get off meth, Oxycontin to get off cocaine. I knew they changed her sometimes, but I didn’t think there was any level of fucked up that warranted Eric laying hands on her. I heard him humming in the shower, the water pinging off his body.
Momma coughed again. She dug through her purse as her eyes watered and spittle flew out of her mouth. When she found a napkin, she pushed it against her mouth and spat out a heap of green sludge. She crumpled it and used the clean edges to wipe at her eyes. She smoked at least three packs a day—Marlboro ultra-light shorts—and I just assumed she was clogged up. When she finally turned back to me, she looked at me strangely. “I think I got lung cancer,” she said.
The golden lamplight fractured as my eyes welled up. It only took me a moment to understand how this one terrible thing would cause everything else in my life to fall apart. I was supposed to move in with Momma and Eric over the summer. Things with Granny had soured as I realized that who I was didn’t align with her spiritual beliefs. She was dead set on washing away anything that hindered me on my journey to salvation. If Momma died, I would be stuck with Granny, and if I was stuck with Granny, I would be drowned in the blood of the lamb.
Momma backtracked as I sobbed. She said it probably wasn’t cancer, just “Eric-itis”, some disease she suffered from being around Eric for too long. She tried to laugh at it, eyes darting from me to the bathroom door. I blinked my tears away as Eric walked in, steam drifting behind.
I remember Eric pointing at Momma’s bruises and laughing. He said, “Did she tell you what happened?” His teeth were stained a greasy yellow from the chewing tobacco. The still-wet curls of his mullet licked at his ears. I shook my head no. “This dummy fell against the footboard of our new bed. Just like that, pow!” he slapped his hands together for added effect. He reclined on the bed, clad in Hanes tighty-whiteys. I knew then that he was a coward, accusing the bed of roughing up his wife to deflect blame from himself.
I tried to imagine a life where I could exist without Momma. It wasn’t so much that I needed her, but that I needed the escape her existence offered. She was the only one who could take me away from Granny, who could provide me with a life similar to the one I had, but without me having to sacrifice so much of myself. I’d invested every hope of my happiness in this unstable woman. Looking back now, I realize how selfish it sounds. But I was a selfish person. I was convinced that if I didn’t have her, I didn’t’ have anything.
That night, while Momma and Eric slept, I plundered through the desk drawers until I found the Hampton Inn stationary. I sat at the table by the window and wrote notes to everyone I loved and everyone I hated. I was honest—a rarity back then. As I wrote, I devised a simple plan for my execution. I had my final performance of the school play the next night, a Saturday. During intermission, I would down the pills I’d bought earlier in the week, finish the second act, and die before I got home. My last memory would be of me acting with my friends. I could die happy. When I finished writing, I stuffed the notes in my back pocket and went to bed.
When I woke the next morning, the room smelled of Clinique Happy and smoke, rotting food from the leftovers we’d forgotten to put in the mini-fridge. The daylight felt intrusive, cutting through the room and landing on Momma’s sleeping face. She turned away from me. Her blonde hair tangled at her neck, braiding itself into the silver chain of her necklace. Cold air exhaled from the AC unit under the window. There was a click at the door as Eric slid the keycard and let himself in.
He’d been downstairs to grab breakfast, and I noticed his coffee had splashed against his orange polo shirt. Eric sat the food by the TV and said good morning, told me if I was hungry I better run downstairs to grab a muffin or something before it was all gone.
I checked my phone. I had four missed calls from Granny.
As I headed downstairs, I called her back. She’d been parked outside of the hotel room for nearly an hour, ready to pick me up.
“Momma said she’d drop me off,” I huffed.
“She’s never been the reliable type,” Granny said.
She came through the front entrance, wearing one of my old windbreakers that hadn’t fit in a few years. After my last growth spurt, Granny had rummaged through my closet for anything that didn’t fit and added it to her wardrobe; hand-me-ups. She pushed her windswept hair out of her eyes and asked what room Momma was in.
“She ain’t gonna like you showing up like this,” I said.
I knocked before we entered, hollering through the heavy door that Granny was here. Eric hated Granny, but when I opened the door, he smiled kindly and went to hug her. I shook Momma awake, whispered again that Granny was in the room.
Momma and Granny had hated each other for as long as I could remember. I had this fear that if they were within speaking distance for too long, there would be a shift in the Earth’s axis and everything would spin out of orbit. As I stood between them in the hotel room, watched their dead-eyed polite smiles, I wondered if they’d ever loved each other at all.
Momma cleared her throat and told me to bring her the makeup bag sitting on the dresser. It was a large, pink bag filled with Avon and Merle Norman. There were beige stains along the edges. I handed it over, and when Momma sat up, the wrinkled linen sheet slid off and exposed her bruised arm.
“Darlene,” Granny said, pushing past me to get to Momma. She ran her hand across the bruises and looked back at Eric. “What happened?”
“It’s that new bed,” Momma said, rubbing her face with a Seabreeze astringent-soaked washcloth. “I fell against the floorboard the other night and it knocked the crap out of me.” She laughed. Last night’s eyeliner crinkled into her crow’s feet. “It’s funny, because when I went to work the next day my boss, Yogi, was like, damn it, Dee! You’re so God Damn clumsy.”
“Dee!” Eric gave her a stern look. He was recently born again, and didn’t like her using the Lord’s name in vain.
“Sorry,” Momma said. When no one responded, she tried to explain that she hadn’t meant to use the Lord’s name in vain; she was just quoting her boss and thought it didn’t count.
“You ready to go,” Granny asked.
“Guess so,” I said.
I hugged Momma goodbye, holding on too tight and for too long. I know that love isn’t actually in your heart. I know feeling is all in your head. But in that moment, thinking I would never see Momma again, I felt like all of the love I had for her was in my chest, and that too much love might cause my heart to burst.
“Love you,” I said.
“Love you too,” Momma said, applying taupe eye-shadow.
I cried as we left. Granny didn’t notice at first, too busy navigating her way out of the hotel parking lot. When she finally turned to me after getting on the road, she looked around like she’d forgotten something.
“What’s wrong, little baby?”
“Just miss Momma sometimes, is all.”
“You’ll see her again in two weeks,” she said. “It’ll be alright.”
She patted my hand.
“I know it was Eric,” she said. “He don’t realize. I been married to enough abusive men to know. Just wish your Momma would get off the drugs and move out.”
The light ahead turned red. The van rolled to a stop. Granny carried on about Momma. She explained all of the reasons why Momma would always be stuck in the life she was in, and that there was no way we could help her until she helped herself. I was too young, too short sighted to understand that Granny was just scared for her daughter, hated that she couldn’t help her and was looking for reasons to shift the blame. I just thought Granny was a monster, and I wanted to be away from her as quickly as possible.
“I gotta be at the school early today,” I lied.
“You ain’t gotta be there until four,” Granny said.
It was barely ten AM.
“I gotta help fix stuff with the sets. Everyone said they would get there around ten-thirty.”
We’d already passed the school, but she turned around and headed back. The lot was empty when we pulled in. I reached in the backseat for my book bag and checked to make sure all of my things were inside. Granny had a habit of going through my belongings, taking things at random. I’d come home on more than one occasion to my entire room re-arranged, noticing the absence of a candle or a notepad, only to have Granny smile and explain that she cleaned things up for me so I would feel more at ease.
When I saw that everything was still in my bag, I opened the door to the van and hopped out.
“I’ll just wait with you,” Granny said, “until they get here. Just so I know you’re safe.”
She put the van in park and turned on the radio. It was some CD she’d bought at church when we’d had a guest singer a few Sunday’s back.
“Just go home. I wanna be alone for a minute.”
“I just don’t want nothing to happen to you.”
I felt a burning in me. It happened whenever I got too overwhelmed. I asked again, to be left alone. Granny argued that it would be better if she stayed. She kept talking, but my ears stopped working. I screamed. I screamed again. I hollered at her until she stopped talking and I slammed the van door and pointed at the road. Her hand trembled as she reached to put the van in reverse. I could see tears streaming as she drove away, but I didn’t care. I hated her.
When she was out of sight, I walked over to the back entrance of the drama room and collapsed against the door. It was cold out. The grass sparkled in the sunlight, morning dew slowly evaporating. Time seemed to expand.
I sent messages to several friends, hoping someone would come be with me while I waited for the last performance. I pulled my knees to my chest, sobbed into my jeans. I waited for my phone to vibrate as anyone confirmed that they loved me enough to be with me before I left this world.
No one was awake to see my messages. While I now realize it was unrealistic to expect any teenager to be awake before noon on a Saturday morning, at the time, it felt like a confirmation of my greatest fear. I thought all of these people hated me and that none of them would miss me when I was gone. I’m no Anna Kendrick.
I made my book bag into a pillow and curled up into a ball. I shifted in and out of consciousness. Sobbing always lulled me to sleep, and this time was no different. I only woke up when I heard the slamming of car doors as people arrived for the last show.
Momma always said people don’t like sad people. They hate the awkwardness of watching someone cry and not knowing what to do. If someone is sad for too long, it wears on people’s nerves. So I tried to be happy. As we all slipped into our costumes and powdered our faces, I smiled too hard and I laughed too loud. I became a different person. Mr. Mimbs, our drama teacher, gathered us all around for warm-ups. We hit our S’s and our T’s; we leaned forward like a rag doll and came back up, one vertebra at the time. Then we all linked hands and prayed for a good show.
There was still eleven minutes before the show started.
I knew that I couldn’t make it through the show without telling at least one person about what was going through my head. Not about killing myself, but about Momma. The image of me sobbing over her dead body kept replaying itself in my head. It was the same image that came to me every time she disappeared when I was younger, but it felt more real now. I needed it out, just long enough to get through the next few hours. I knew that one of the boys in the show, Ely, had lost his mother when he was a kid. He’d casually joke about how he made people feel bad every time they told ‘your momma’ jokes. I figured if I told him, he might understand this better than anybody.
He was standing in a circle with a couple of the seniors, scratching at his patchy blonde beard, laughing at a joke. I tapped his shoulder. He turned to me and said, “What’s up?”
“Can I talk to you for a sec?”
“Yeah, man…yeah,” he said, following me to one of the dressing rooms. The laughter of the cast grew muffled as I shut the door. He smiled at me, waiting for whatever it was I had to say. His eyes were like snow in shadow, a clear, translucent blue. I had always found them beautiful, but never said so because I was worried he’d realized that I was in love with him.
I tried to speak, but then I was sobbing and gasping for breath. My body convulsed, like I was exorcizing a demon. A few words escaped with every exhale, staccato and smudged with saliva. He eventually figured out what I was trying to say, and he wrapped his arms around me.
Telling someone how sad you are, it inevitably alleviates some of that pain. You feel just a little bit lighter, which makes you feel like there’s just a little more hope in the world. For just a moment, I no longer wanted to die.
Ely helped me get myself together before we lined up to get onstage.
That night was our best performance. During the first act, we got our biggest laughs of the weekend. There’s a scene where my character, a boy band reject, outs a man as a Santa Claus imposter. I made a smacking sound with my lips, and the audience laughed so hard we had to pause for them to hear the next line.
As the lights went out on act one, I reached into my pocket and felt a wad of cellophane I’d used to hold my pills. I’d been buying pills for months. It started out with aderall, and just so I could focus better in class and improve my grades. But then the girl ran out of her prescription and started selling me whatever she found around her house. I took them because I had gotten used to taking them anyway, and I liked the feeling of swallowing them down. As everyone left the stage, I peeled apart the cellophane and took a few. Something stopped me from taking them all. I couldn’t help but thinking about how kind Ely was. I shoved the remaining pills in my pocket and went onstage to finish performing.
When the show was over, the cast ran to the backstage area where someone had brought pizza. The smell of tomato sauce was nauseating. I stumbled outside, needing fresh air. It was black out, the lights in the parking lot fraying as I stared them down. I was too high to realize whether or not I was dying. I had forgotten that I even wanted to die. I had never considered why Momma took pills before this, but in the midst of forgetting everything bad about life, I remembered that there were things I was forgetting, and Momma always wanted to forget bad things too. I felt the scratch of the bricks through my shirt as I slid down and into the grass.
There was a woman standing over me, asking if I was okay. The parking lot was nearly empty. I looked around, and then a few of my cast mates were standing nearby, panicked. I smiled at them, not entirely sure why they were upset. Mimbs’s girlfriend came over to me and asked if I wanted to go inside for Pizza. I said I hated pizza, that I was allergic to tomatoes. She asked what I wanted. I said chicken strips. She said to get in her car and she’d take me to my favorite place for chicken.
The memory of being in her car is so hazy. The only thing I really remember is her asking questions as we passed the streetlights. Their glare swooped over us one by one.
She didn’t take me to get chicken, unfortunately. I eventually came to on a couch. She had taken me to her house, where she lived with her parents and sister. Her mom was hovering over me, and there was another woman there who I didn’t recognize. She introduced herself as my friend Katie’s mother. Katie’s mother and Mimbs’s girlfriends’ mother checked to make sure I was alright and when the panic was over, they said they would help get me back home.
They drove around until I was sobered up, and then they dropped me off at Granny’s. When I got out of the car, Haley got out, too. She asked if I had anymore pills. I pulled the baggy out of my pocket and handed it to her. The cellophane shimmered from the cars headlights. She said she’d flush them when she got home, and made me promise her I wouldn’t buy anymore. I lied, promised I wouldn’t, and went inside.
Somehow, a few weeks after the play, Granny found out I’d taken the pills. I like to blame the small-town gossip that we southerners are privy to, but anyone with eyes could’ve seen the wreck I was in. As she drove me to school, she asked if I was trying to embarrass her. I didn’t know what she knew—there were a number of things I’d done that she’d be embarrassed of—so I just played stupid. She told me she found out about me buying pills and that we were going to have a long talk when I got home that night. She grabbed my hand and started to pray, the way she always did before dropping me off, only this time I snatched my hand away. I saw her chewing her lower lip in the side mirror. As she pulled up to the school, she said she still loved me. I slammed the door and walked away without turning back.
taken anything since the night of the play. Even as I walked into school, as I felt my skin burning and my heart racing and imagined everything in my life ending, it still didn’t occur to me that I could buy a few more pills and make it all go away. Which might be why it felt like a blessing from God when, during math class, Taylor slid a ball of tinfoil across my desk.
“Your mom takes oxy’s, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “How much?”
“Dozen for a hundred,” she said.
I pulled open the ball; twelve pills—small, round, white—nested in the silver. They were a lower dose than Momma took, but Taylor was still practically giving them away. I looked over to Mrs. Westbrook grading our tests, and shoved the ball between my leg and the seat. I asked Taylor why she was asking so little. She said, “Mom needs grocery money. Besides, these are left over from when Grandpa had the mouth cancer. We ain’t got much need.”
Taylor and her mom didn’t mess with pills. They stuck with weed.
I felt in my back pocket for the cash. Momma always split whatever money she stole or won from scratch-offs, and I had a few hundred on me at all times. I paid Taylor, and shoved the ball in my back pocket. She smiled as she walked away.
After school, I waited out front for Granny. When she pulled up in the van, I didn’t even look at her. I kept my face pressed into the screen of my phone and focused on an argument with my ex-girlfriend. She broke up with me because I wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness, and I wanted to get back together so people would stop thinking I was gay. Granny snatched the phone from my hands and plopped it in her purse.
“Johnny’s coming over tomorrow,” Granny said.
Johnny was Granny’s sixth ex-husband. I’d hated him ever since his lower arm got ripped off while working a backhoe, and we had to spend my seventh birthday in the hospital. The last I’d even heard of him was when Granny and one of her friends saw a picture of him on some website that warns about sexual predators in your neighborhood.
“I’m not coming home tomorrow if he’s gonna be there.”
“You ain’t gonna have a choice,” she said, pushing a cassette tape into the audio deck. Elvis Presley’s voice—singing gospel—drowned out my reply.
You’d think this would have been the moment I decided to kill myself, but it wasn’t. Who would want to live in a world where there are pedophiles with white moustaches and mechanical arms? But none of that occurred to me. Instead, I just wanted to push granny out of the van as we sped down the highway. I felt my face get hot, then my hands. I started slamming my body against the door. The van jerked to the side. Granny squeezed the wheel as the van tilted to the left, tires lifting, and then planted back down. My head hit the glass and then the dashboard and then the glass again. I punched my thighs over and over. I’d learned this trick years ago, to hurt myself so I didn’t hurt others. It seemed perfectly logical to my sixteen-year-old mind. Granny yelled for me to stop, but I couldn’t hear her through the blood in my ears.
I was still raging when we pulled into the trailer park. Granny ignored me. She walked up the wheelchair ramp and stood by the screen-door. I got out and stomped up behind her. “Don’t forget your book bag,” she said.
I turned around, slung open the side door of the van and watched it cobble to the ground. The family across the street turned to see us. The little wrestler-obsessed boy and his rotted-toothed sister stared at me, wavering as the trampoline stilled. Granny let out a howl and pointed at me like I’d dropped a baby on its head. She ran up to me and then fell to the ground, tears watering the browned grass.
“You’re just so cruel,” she sobbed. “I ain’t got the money to fix this, Hunter. Why’re you so cruel?”
Cruel; the word stuck to the roof of my mouth. She’d never called me that before. I ran through my memories, the catalogue of everyone I knew who was cruel; the men who came and went from Momma’s life, from Granny’s life, the bullies at school. Those were cruel people. I’d never thought I could be paired with those people, and realizing the truth of it now only made me worse.
I ran in the house and pulled out my burner phone, calling Momma. She answered with her silky, glassy-eyed, four bumps of cocaine voice. I told her what happened, and she asked how much I had in my wallet. I pulled out three hundred. She said to give it to Granny and said I could get more when I went to visit over the weekend. I shut the phone and ran back outside to Granny still on the grass, fetal and small; squalling like a mother bird whose eggs were swallowed by a snake. I tossed the money in her face.
Granny grabbed the money and some loose grass and pushed herself up off the ground. I picked up the van door and fitted it back in its place. It went lopsided and sad. There wasn’t any hope for it, so I chose not to worry about it and headed to my room. When I got there, everything was gone.
I dropped to the floor and ran my hand under the bed. I opened my closet door and there was nothing inside. My clothes were gone. My books were gone. My drawings, which used to line my walls and litter the floor…they were gone.
Outside of my room, I heard metal dragging across the floor. Granny wedged a chair under my doorknob to keep me in. I hit myself in the face. She didn’t even bother locking it this time. The top of the door was still broken from the last time I’d pried it open.
Granny’s steps dissolved into her mom’s room, which was right next to mine. I listened as they talked about me. Later, I’d find out it was Grandma who’d convinced Granny to bring Johnny back around. She told Granny she’d feel safer having a man nearby who could handle my temper tantrums.
This was the moment where I had convinced myself there was nothing left to do but kill myself. I’d been properly acquainted with suicide from the previous attempt, the groundwork was set. I’d held tight to the letters I’d written everyone, stuffing them in my back pocket every morning. It made more sense to leave now, while the world was steadily crumbling, than to see if I could survive the wreckage in the end. I wasn’t Noah; God had never given me a blueprint to survive this storm.
I sat on the bed and pulled the ball of tinfoil from my pocket. The pills were bitter in my mouth, but it didn’t last long before they were gone. As I waited to die, I pulled at the loose buttons on the bare mattress. My finger glided along the swirls of stitching, and I wondered why mattresses looked so pretty with nothing on.
A lady bug landed on the mattress and crawled toward me. I’d gotten used to them landing on me at night, walking up my arm or along my nose and then returning to the windowsill to die. My friend Katie liked ladybugs. I sat up, pulled the burner phone from my pocket and texted her.
“Hey,” I said. “I got a gift for you, so come to my house sometime next week and Granny will give it to you. I won’t be here. You can find it in the corner of my closet.”
I went to my closet and put the letters in the corner. I couldn’t tell her I was killing myself. But I knew that Granny wouldn’t respond well if I told her to give these notes to my friends and enemies right as I died. My phone buzzed.
“It’s Hunter. This is my other phone.”
“Why do you have another phone? And why can’t you just give it to me tomorrow.”
“I’ll be gone,” I typed. My phone screen swelled. Or at least it appeared to. “Just come by sometime next week.”
“What’s your address? I gotta send you a gift anyway.”
I gave her my address, turned off my phone, and waited to die.
Then there was a knock at the door. I heard it from the back of the house, where I was locked away. Granny slipped the chair out from under my doorknob before she answered. The sound of men echoed, and then granny opened my door and said to come on. I followed her to the living room where two EMT’s stood by the couch. They said they’d received a call from someone who was worried about their friend. I was confused. My legs were white noise, tingling. I felt like those neighbor children on the trampoline, wavering. The two men looked at me, and I smiled. “I’m fine.” They said okay and left.
Granny—not knowing about the burner phone Momma gave me in case of an emergency like this—blamed my ex-girlfriend. Granny had read through our messages and figured the girl was trying to get back at me for not responding to her last message. She reached in her purse to respond to the girl when there was another knock at the door. It was the EMT’s, again.
“Could we speak to the boy alone?”
Granny went to Grandma’s room. I looked at them sitting on the bed. They looked like the Beale’s from Grey Gardens, swathed in crocheted blankets and damp towels. I sat on the couch and the one man, the younger one with nice teeth and smooth skin asked if I was okay.
“I’m fine,” I said.
On all of the living room walls were paintings of Jesus. I looked away from the EMT’s. I thought if I could just lock eyes with Jesus, I could ask him to save me. But Jesus is rarely painted looking at you. He’s painted looking at the sky, talking to his father. The only time I’d found Jesus’ eyes, he didn’t answer me anyway. I wiped my eyes and turned back to the EMT’s. The one sitting closest to me had a nametag reading ‘STEVE’. He was young and tan, sharp jaw and soft cheeks. He gave a sympathetic smile and reached for my hand. I slid it away and said, “I’m just overwhelmed.”
My memory gets blurry here. I know I got into the ambulance and that Granny followed. I remember knowing that this felt like both the best and the worst thing to happen to me. But things don’t become clear again until I’m in this room at the hospital. Granny is sitting by the door, bundling her anger in a black sweater with rainbow butterflies. The wings were glittery beads that winked and helloed with every catch of light. Underneath, she was still in her nightgown. Her hair was wet and oxidized foundation streaked her pale cheeks. I heard her praying in tongues under her breath.
I didn’t know why they’d placed me in a room. Any other time I’d been to an emergency room, there was just a curtain to separate you from everyone else. I wondered if it was being separated because I was crazy. There was a knock at the door and Granny jumped.
Katie and her parents filled the small room. They smiled at me like I was an expensive vase swirling at the edge of a table, and asked how I was doing. Granny stood up and told them to leave. Who did they think they were, she asked them, interfering with other people’s business?
“Ma’am,” Katie’s mother said, “Why don’t we take this conversation outside and give the kids a moment alone.”
Granny shoved at her, hollering, howling, saying she wasn’t going anywhere, that I needed her. I realized, suddenly, that they’d spoken before. Katie’s mother was a nurse. She was the one who’d found me the last time I’d tried to kill myself. She was the one who suggested I tell Granny. I knew now that she must’ve told Granny herself.
“Get out,” I said, catching Granny by the arm. She looked offended, but I knew she couldn’t have been surprised. She grabbed her purse from under the chair and followed Katie’s parents out the door.
“I was so scared,” Katie said, weeping against my shoulder. She covered me with her silky brown hair and her heavy breasts and her goose-pimpled arms. Perfume she wore during our play kissed my nose. I told her I was sorry, but my tone was all wrong. She lifted up and asked if I was okay. I realized I was still fading in and out. If I hadn’t died yet, I didn’t think it was going to happen. I said I was fine.
I had more to say, but Granny came in and said a psychiatrist needed to evaluate me. “Alone,” she said, pointing at Katie. We said goodbye and then an imposing man with an asshole face took Katie’s place.
Momma always says you can’t trust people of authority with the whole truth; she says that they tend to find some way to use it against you later. I thought of that as I watched this man nodding along, even though I was silent. He was probably late-forties, stylish glasses and a receding hairline. He thought he already had me figured out. I could tell. So, for every question he threw at me, I broke the truth apart and gave him whatever fragmented half-truths I thought were safe.
When he finished, he scribbled something at the bottom of his clipboard and smiled at me. “Feel better,” he said, and walked out.
I thought that was all. He evaluated me and now he would go home to his miserable life and I would go home to mine. Yet, he stood outside the door, talking to Granny, assuming I couldn’t hear him. “I think he just want the attention. But when they say they actually tried it, we have to send them.”
He went through a list of possible options. I’d only heard about one, Greenleaf, because that’s where everyone at school went when they tried to kill themselves. It was a nice place with good care and outpatient treatment once you were released. It was less than an hour away, and the best option for people with money. Granny cleared her throat, told him what she could afford, and sobbed. They settled on a place called Hope’s Corner, and then he walked away.
I asked Granny about this night a few years ago. I’d come to visit, and we were in the middle of watching Prozac Nation. Christina Ricci screamed at Jessica Lange, blaming her for every bad thing that had ever happened to her, and then apologized for being so crazy. I stopped breathing. My therapist called it a ‘trigger’, when you see something like this that brings up a bad memory. I watched Granny, to see if she felt triggered by this. She didn’t look at me, but she sat shaking her head at the screen. When the commercials came on, Granny turned to me and said, “Your momma used to be just like that.”
Granny sat up, looked behind me.
“You were different. Your momma never wanted to get better. Even before bad things happened to her, she was acting like a victim. You can’t dwell on the sad stuff; you just got to ask God to help you move on.”
“I don’t remember much after I tore the door off the car.”
“You was going through stuff. If I’d known how to help you better, I would’ve. Anyway, ain’t no point dwelling. The movie’s back on.”
I turned back to the TV and watched as Christina Ricci played me…or my mother; I’m sure all mentally ill people feel like they watch themselves in these movies. I wanted to cry, but I’d spent so long proving I was better. I didn’t want Granny to worry about me. I didn’t want to worry about me.
When I woke up, Granny was gone. A police officer stood outside my door. He knocked a few times, asked if I was dressed, and told me we’d be leaving in five minutes. I left the room and followed him down the hall, wondering how much he knew about the night before. He must’ve known I was crazy; he must assume everyone who tries to die is crazy.
Behind us, I heard my name. Granny ran down the hall, pushing past doctors, hollering, wait! Wait! Her nightgown was too long and flooded the hall like the train of a cheap wedding dress. She gave me a Wal-Mart plastic bag, hugged me, and said she loved me and would talk to me that night. I didn’t understand how she could love me and hate me so much at the same time.
The clock in the cop’s car blinked 3:34 AM; the red lines disconnected at every joint. I held my phone to my chest and thought to call Momma and let her know. She never slept much throughout the night. I dialed the number and deleted it again and again as I thought of what to say. When nothing came, I turned off my phone and put it away. There was no way to tell her I’d attempted to unalive myself. She always said I was the only reason she’d lived this long.
I pulled the plastic bag into my lap and untied it. Inside was a pack of underwear, socks, and my favorite chocolates. They were the hazelnut chocolates wrapped in gold foil. I unbuckled my seatbelt and stuffed the socks under my head as a pillow. As the streetlights lulled me to sleep, I prayed to God. I never finished the prayer, but it started with asking forgiveness and wondering why he thought bringing me into this world was such a good idea.
When I woke up, the officer said we were almost to our destination.The sign for Hope’s Corner was reminiscent of the sign outside of the house in The Amityville Horror. It swayed in the wind, streaked with muddy tears. The officer pulled up to the front, tires crushing the perfectly manicured grass. He opened my door and helped me out, and as he walked me to the door, we were met by a woman who looked shockingly similar to Jane Lynch.
The officer handed me off, saying “Feel better!” as he walked away.
I stared at a mole on the woman’s chin as she walked me to her office. She opened the door and offered me a seat next to her desk.
“Okay Sonny,” she said, smiling, pulling up her chair. “Why’re you here?”
“Because I tried to kill myself, I guess.”
The office was undone; there was an empty bookcase, unframed motivational posters crinkled on the floor, a cluttered second desk with a busted lamp. The woman grabbed a pen from her drawer, wrote down what I said, and then gave me a hard look.
“I don’t know why any strapping boy like you would do that,” she said.
She spent the next hour evaluating me. There were questions about child abuse, neglect, family history; all things we didn’t talk about at home. She asked how often I felt like this—this, being suicidal. I didn’t even have the emotional toolkit needed to construct my feelings in any understandable way. At the end, she asked if I had any other questions moving forward.
“There’s this show I watch, called Glee,” I said. “There’s a new episode coming on tonight, and it’s my favorite show. Could I watch that tonight?”
“We might could work something out,” she said. She stood from her desk, still looking over the paperwork in her hand, and said she’d be right back.
“You look just like one of the actresses on the show,” I said, as she opened the door. “If you ever watch it…she’s the coach.”
The woman smiled and patted my shoulder.
When she came back, there was a man with her. He carried a pair of blue scrubs and Birkenstocks. His eyelids were covered in scars. I’ve never trusted men very much and recoiled at his presence. The woman said we just had to get me changed out of my ‘street clothes’ and then I’d be all set. They walked me to a bathroom and opened the door. There was a single light bulb glowing weak yellow over the sink. The walls were brown. I reached for the scrubs.
“We have to come in with you,” the woman said, “check for any scars or other marks on your body.”
“Why,” I snapped.
“We have to write down any bruises or scars you have, in case anything changes during your stay.”
“Do I have to get all the way…naked?” I asked. I was already crying. Being naked in front of other people was one of my biggest fears, back then.
“You can keep your underwear. The rest, they’ll keep in a locker.”
When she was done marking up my chart, she said goodbye, and I followed the scarred man down the hallway. To enter or exit any room where patients were being held, you had to have a badge. I’d never seen anyone use a scanner to get into a door before, except for in Charlie’s Angels. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I was a flight risk. I just thought I was somewhere important.
Inside the room were three boys. One, an older boy pulling at his chin hair, rapped while knocking his knuckles against the table. Yeah, she call me honky, I keep acting nonchalantly. The other boys, two red-heads, nodded along. I found a chair in the corner and kept my head down. I told myself I wasn’t like these children.
“What’re you in for,” one of the red-headed boys asked. He had gaps between every single tooth, and every few minutes, he ran to the door leading to the girls’ side to peak through the papered glass. His ass crack peek-a-booed every time he kneeled. I didn’t answer him.
“You a fag,” the other red-headed boy asked. I was convinced I wasn’t. Just because I gazed at boys longingly from across the room, masturbated to their muscular bodies in grainy videos, imagined their lips on mine, and wanted to be held in their arms at night didn’t mean that I was gay. I was sure of it, and I could suppress those feelings forever if I had to. I shook my head no, and asked if he was. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s part of why I’m here.”
He’d been caught giving boys hand jobs during math class. When they suspended him from school, his parents locked him in his room and placed a vial of holy water under his pillow. He smashed the glass, slit his wrists and waited to die. His parents found him before he bled out and sent him to this place. He’d been committed for thirty days. Today was his last.
Soon after he was picked up, a little boy arrived. The other boys called him little man and asked what he was in for. He told them to fuck off. Despite his puffed up chest, I knew he was just scared. My little brother, Gage, cussed a lot when he was scared. He thought profanity warded off evil. This boy had my brothers’ teeth, too; buck teeth resting on his bottom lip. I asked his name, but he just turned to the scarred man and said he was hungry.
I didn’t realize they’d confiscated my phone until I went to call Momma. They explained that, for my safety, they’d placed my phone and chocolate and underwear out of my reach while I was in their care. I wasn’t sure how much harm any of those things could do, but I was trying to look sane, so I didn’t argue.
Part of me expected the place to look like the set of Girl, Interrupted, but it was too small and not nearly as cozy. The walls were white and crusty, and the only chair with a cushion had a suspicious stain. In the corner nearest the door, there was one of those large, fishbowl mirrors you see in convenience stores. Directly above me was the TV. The sound was on, but only just loud enough to get on your nerves. When I took a good look at the TV, I noticed it was covered in a plastic encasing.
A little after five, a man named Bob came in the room with a phone and a clipboard. The scar-eyed man waved a goodbye and high-fived Bob on his way out. Bob called me over to the bench and asked who I’d like to call. I asked if I could call anyone, and he said, “Anyone who’s got the code word.”
The rapper with the chin hair rolled his eyes, said good luck trying to call anyone I actually wanted to talk to. I wanted to ask how people got this code word, but was too embarrassed I’d look stupid.
I asked to call Momma.
Bob crossed his legs and slouched to the edge of his seat. I heard the ringing echo against his ear. While he waited for Momma to answer, he scratched at his beard with the eraser of his pencil.
“Yes, hello, this is Bob from Hope’s Corner. I’m looking for a Darlene White.” I heard her voice hiccup through the phone. “Okay, great, now if you could just supply me with the code word.”
It took her a while to find it. She wrote notes down on ripped up packs of cigarettes and old lottery tickets, so it always took her a while to find things. Eventually, he smiled and handed the phone over to me. I meant to say hello, but I just sobbed Momma into the receiver.
“Don’t you know that I love you?” The sound of her crying was apocalyptic. She asked the same question over and over, and I said yes ma’am each time. “I thought you’d died. I went to see Mom and she wouldn’t tell me where you were. I had to threaten to take her to court.”
Next to me, Bob scribbled away on his clipboard; notes detailing my tears and apologies. I listened to Momma, but I didn’t say much, because I was worried Bob would use it against me somehow. After a while, he spun his finger as a signal to wrap things up.
“I’ll talk to you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, baby, I’ll be right by the phone when you call. Just act like you’re okay while you’re there, okay? If you act normal, they’ll let you out early.” She was crying again. “I mean, unless you think you need it. But I think you’ll be fine if we just get you out of that bitch’s house.”
Bob heard her and took the phone from my hand. He told her I’d call tomorrow, and dialed Granny. I didn’t even want to speak to her now, but she’d requested they put me on the phone every night until I was out. He asked her the code and immediately handed me the phone.
“Why didn’t you tell Momma where I was?”
“I…Hunter, she…” she took a deep breath, like she always did when she wanted to scream. “She was gonna drive all the way up there and get you. You know how crazy she gets. I was trying to protect you.”
“It’s a little late for that, but glad to hear it,” I deadpanned.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Well, I love you then. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
I love you came out as a huff, like she was too tired to commit to saying it. I started to say something but she ended the call. Bob wrote down that I was hostile, that I raised my voice. He smiled as I handed the phone to him, and looked past me to call the next boy.
“Lights out,” Bob said.
It was five ‘til nine. The remote was in my hand, preparing to search for the right channel, so I didn’t miss the beginning of my show. I explained to him that I’d made a request to watch it, and the woman said it shouldn’t be a problem.
“She must not have been aware that it violated the rules. Lights out at nine, fella,” he said, with that same smarmy grin.
There was no way I could sound like a regular, fully functioning person if I told him it was this show or suicide. But I needed this show. Glee had been the one consistent thing in my life over the past few months, and it was the one thing that made me feel like I could last this place. Bob took the remote from my hand and switched off the TV. I cried and screamed, and he wrote it down on his checklist, and ushered us off to bed.
“If your goal here is to help people feel less depressed, you’re doing a terrible job,” I said.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” he said, jingling loose change in his pockets. “Just remember people have it worse than you, and watching a TV show is just a thing you do, not a life saver.”
The boy with the chin hair patted his heavy hand on my shoulder and told me to just try to sleep. I went to close the door and realized there wasn’t one.
The mattress was thin, like my bed at Momma’s, but the sheets were scratchy and the blanket only covered half of my body. I stared through the door. Bob waited an hour before turning the TV back on, assuming we were all asleep. The rapper snored, but when I looked at him, he winked and gave the finger in Bob’s direction.
It felt strange sleeping next to another boy, but it always had. I’d slept next to cousins, camp counselors, my stepdad and stepbrother, friends, church members, random men who just happened to find their way under my sheets, and sometimes, I was left doing things I didn’t want to do. I didn’t trust men. Now, in a place everyone was trying to reassure me was safe, I was surrounded by nothing but boys and men.
Bob left around midnight, trading places with a man wearing a security jacket and a goatee. The man turned on the TV and spent most of the time tugging at the crotch of his pants. I rubbed against my scrubs, following his rhythm. I imagined him on top of me, holding my hands down at my sides to stop me from another suicide, and thrusting himself into me. Sex would save me. I let this fantasy lull me to sleep.
I was at a McDonald’s the first time I heard the word suicide. I was six. Granny and Momma thought I was too young to pay attention to their conversation, and talked over me as I ate my pancakes and sausage.
They were talking about Granny’s third husband, Butch, who she swore overdosed on purpose; suicide by heroin injection. He was a drug dealer, but, like, a high end drug dealer. They had lived at the Country Club in Cairo, and he sold to all of their neighbors. Momma said Butch wasn’t the kind of man to kill himself, but Granny said no one knew her like she did.
She’d come home early one night, bible study cut short, and saw him in the bedroom, holding one of her dresses. She stopped at the door, admiring how gently he handled the fabric. She described the dress as the color of a sad pond in the summer. He pushed the dress against himself, considered his body in the mirror, and then he cried.
She waited for him to calm down and put the dress away, but his sobbing only got worse. Granny knocked on the bedroom door—not an unusual thing since he didn’t like her watching him shoot up or walking in on him with other women. She asked if she could come in. He snatched open the door without saying anything and went into the kitchen.
“Is everything…” she began.
“Just took a hit.”
Granny thought to finish her question, but knew he’d probably kill her if she did.
Whenever I heard about suicides after that, I couldn’t help but think about all the times I’d worn dresses, and how Granny never said a thing.
I woke up to the scarred man singing. His happiness felt like aluminum between the teeth. I pushed my pillow over my ears to cover up the warm voice. He pulled at my sheets and I snatched back.
“Breakfast is on its way!”
He eventually introduced himself as Cricket. It was a nickname given to him by his family after the attack. At seven, he witness some crime, and the man stabbed at his eyes trying to blind him. He said now the only thing he was blind to was sadness. I gagged.
A woman, Grace, came in with a trolley of food. She joked with the other boys, talked to them like they were her own children. She reminded me of those women in movies who break just enough rules to establish trust, but not enough to get fired. I liked that.
She sat the plates down in front of us, French toast soggy with maple glaze. We were only given spoons, and the boys opted for their hands anyway, slopping sticky syrup all over the table. Grace smiled and said to eat up.
I pushed the plate to the center of the table, an offering to the ravenous beasts.
“It’s important to eat,” she said, moving the plate back in front of me. I went to move it back, but she gave me a warning look. “They put it on your chart when you don’t eat.”
I pulled one of the slices off of my plate and then pushed the plate back to the center. Later, when I checked my chart, she wrote that I liked to challenge authority.
After breakfast, Cricket told the boys to grab their journals. He handed new ones to me and ‘little man’ and told us to sit at the table.
The day was filled with routine.
10:00 AM- We wrote in our journals, goals we set for ourselves, thoughts and feelings we had, drawings and scribbles. Pencils and Pens weren’t allowed, since they presented the opportunity for self-harm. Instead, our letters bubbled and bled from the non-toxic markers.
12:00 PM- Lunch was pizza; I stuffed it in my pocket when they weren’t looking, planning to flush it later.
01:00 PM- It rained, so outdoor activities were traded in for inspirational movies. Most everyone napped.
03:00 PM- People were sent to the psychiatrist one at a time; we each had ten minutes to solve our lifetime’s worth of problems. I spent the majority of my time lying about my life, a way to save Momma from going to jail, save Granny from further humiliation, save myself from more of whatever was happening now. The man said we’d start me on a series of medications, which (spoiler alert) never happened.
Five came back around like a cigarette after a long day. I called Momma and we made plans for me to move in with her, and we cried as we realized how much we both hated our lives. She said I made her life worth living, but it felt dangerous to have so much control over a person’s entire life in that way. There were too many ways I could, and would, disappoint her. We said our ‘I love you’s’ and hung up the phone.
When I spoke with Granny, she said she’d found my suicide notes and was about to toss them in the garbage. “You don’t need them anymore,” she argued, as I begged her not to. “If you ain’t gonna kill yourself anymore then you can just tell people these things when you’re back.”
“Please, at least read the one I wrote to you…before you decide to throw them out.” I waited.
“Was all this because you was molested?”
Her voice crawled through the phone in her lazy drawl.
“No,” I said, after a while.
“Why, then,” she asked.
“I just wanted to.”
“Well,” she said, “In our family, if you wanna die, you’re just gonna live longer. Ask your Momma.”
According to Granny, her sister, Aunt Nancy, attempted suicide after watching The Exorcist. She sat there, watching Linda Blair stain the holy cloth with green vomit, and fell into that same sadness we all had. When she left the theater, this man pulled at the braids in her hair, asked if she had any money. She gave him her wallet and walked into the street.
This is one of the attempts we’re not allowed to talk about.
The next morning, Grace and this woman with micro-braids and red lipstick came in with shower caddies and fresh underwear. The rapper boy went first, saying he’d be quick, and then it was the red-headed boy, and then me. I wiped at the blur of the bathroom mirror, only to realize the blur was from a rubber casing. They were afraid we’d smash the glass and take a shard to our aorta. I couldn’t look at myself long. I masturbated in the shower. I cried afterward, the way I did every time I came; Christian guilt. Grace knocked on the door, said to wrap it up. I brushed my teeth and dried my hair, packed up my caddy and opened the door.
The little boy with the buck teeth went in next. There was no noise from the bathroom for a while, but the red-headed boy, whose ass crack still made an appearance every hour or so, faked a seizure and no one noticed the silence. I knocked and asked if the boy was alright, and when he opened the door, I saw blood staining his teeth.
“It hurts to brush,” he said.
I wasn’t sure how to help him, but I just said to brush lightly until he felt like his gums could handle it. They looked like they’d been clawed over by a cat. I watched him brushing, and showed him the circular motions I showed Gage when he first learned to brush his teeth. The boy said thanks and rinsed the red from his mouth.
Cricket took us outside after lunch. Grace had to change to the night shift, so we held off on our journaling. The boys threw around the deflated basketball, cussing every time their attempts to dribble only expelled more air. I sat at the edge, watching them. On the other side of the fence, the girls were playing hopscotch and jump-rope. I asked Cricket if I could join the girls’ side, but he said no. The woman with the micro-braids waved at me, mouthed ‘boys’, and rolled her eyes. I laughed and felt a little less alone.
“Is Bob coming,” I asked.
Grace walked in carrying an overnight bag and sat it on the bench. She turned to me, her face glittery with sweat. She said he wasn’t going to be back for a while. We all grinned, the red head and the rapper high fiving behind me.
“Don’t look so pleased,” she said. “He’s not as bad as you think.”
She grabbed the phone and clipboard. “Who’s up?”
The little boy dropped from his chair and ran to her side. We watched as he called his Grandmother. The night before, while a movie about white people saving inner city kids played on TV, the little boy got the news that his mother wouldn’t be back to see him. She’d left him there with no plans to come back, no plans to ever speak to him again. He screamed into the phone, begging her to take him home. He apologized for whatever it was he’d done wrong. It wasn’t enough. Hope’s Corner contacted his grandmother and asked if she could take him once he was released. Now, she soothed his woes with plans of a soft bed and homemade food every night.
When the little boy finished, Grace looked at us to see who was next. The rapper and the red-headed boy showed no interest in calling their families. I got up and said I’d go. Grace pulled my sheet from the clipboard and asked who I’d like to call. Bob never told me who all had already been given the code word, but now I could see I had options. Not many, but a few. I stopped when I saw my youth pastor was on the list. He cornered me in his office, a few months before all of this happened. I’d found porn sites saved to the history of his browser. I hadn’t planned to say anything, but he looked scared. He’d heard rumors that I was ‘a homosexual’, and told me he’d pray for me and keep it to himself, if I would do the same. After that, things weren’t the same. I took the pen from Grace’s hand and scratched his name out.
I called Momma first. In the background, her dogs growled at each other. She shouted at them, silencing them, and apologizing, asking me to repeat myself. It was her day off.
“Mom called and said you left letters. I didn’t realize it was that bad.”
I didn’t know what else to say after that, so I told her I had to go. Grace called Granny. They spoke on the phone longer than I expected, with Grace nodding and smiling at whatever Granny told her. When she handed me the phone, she smiled and patted my head.
“Did you read the letters,” I asked.
“I tried to,” she said. “There ain’t no point in dwelling, Hunter. When you get out, we’ll talk about it then.” I knew that wasn’t true. Granny believed sadness could be ignored until it disappeared.
“Please read it,” I said. “I want you to understand how I feel about some things, before I come home.”
“They treating you okay? Judy said her grandson, Brandon, went to Greenleaf and it’s not as nice as you’d think.” Her breathing grew heavier and neither of us said anything for a while. When she started again, I knew she was crying. “I just don’t know how I let this happen,” she said. “It’s like I can’t save anyone, not even my kids. I really did try.”
I wiped at my eyes and put my head between my knees, putting the phone just far enough away that her sobbing wasn’t entirely heartbreaking. She said my name a few times and I put the phone back up to my ear.
“I love you,” she said. “I talked to the doctor up there. He said I can come get you tomorrow afternoon. You’re coming home tomorrow. You hear me?”
“You’re coming home. I love you little baby.”
She hung up and I handed the phone to Grace.
Grace let us stay up late that night. She snuck in playing cards, and taught us the same card games she taught her daughters. The man who worked the night shift, with the vest and goatee, never showed up. When I asked where he was, Grace said she’d committed to the long haul.
When all the other boys had gone to bed, I sat in the chair next to her and asked her everything I could think of. I found out that she didn’t celebrate holidays, because she was a Jehovah’s Witness like my ex. Her mother didn’t believe movies had as good a purpose as books. She believed that Hitler’s wife killed him, and that Germany was so embarrassed it was a woman who’d done it, they covered it up. She spoke with such authority, I would have believed anything she said. I was desperate to hear her say that she thought I would be alright. Instead, she checked her watch and said it was about time I went to bed.
Grace was gone when we woke up.
Cricket sang through our rooms, fingers substituting drumsticks, thumping along the doorways. The rapper chucked a pillow across the room. Our breakfast was eggs and bacon. I pushed the plate in the middle of the table and watched as the boys picked at the parts they wanted. Cricket asked if we had heard the news.
“About what,” I asked.
“You’re heading home today!”
The little boy lifted up from his plate and asked if it was true. I said yes, and he cried into the runny yellow scramble. Cricket lifted the boys head up and wiped at his drooling mouth.
“What’s wrong, little man?”
The little boy looked at me and asked me not to leave. I didn’t know how to tell him I couldn’t stay. His gums were still red from the morning before, and I told him everything would be okay as long as he brushed his teeth the way I showed him. I knew it wasn’t true, but he believed me and said okay, wiping his nose on his sleeve.
The woman with the micro-braids came in to assist Cricket with our journaling. I sketched her face into the lined paper and she told me to stop making her too pretty. I said I was just drawing what I saw, so I could remember it all when I left. When I finished, I handed it to her, and she looked at it for a while. “Can I make a copy,” she asked.
We passed by the lockers as I followed her into the office. The woman I’d met on the first day saw me and congratulated me on leaving so soon. I noticed her skin tag was gone. She patted my back on her way out. The copier finished. The woman with the micro-braids turned to me, holding up her copy of the drawing and smiling. She promised to hang it up as soon as she got back home.
“I’ve got chocolates,” I said, as she closed the office door.
“You brought them with you?”
“They’re in a locker,” I said. “Do you think I could have one now, since I’m leaving today?”
She tapped her finger on her chin, pretending to think about it. I laughed, and she said yes, but only one. She went back into the office and grabbed a set of keys, spinning through them until she found one labeled with my name. I said I’d share if I could have more than one. She grabbed five, and went to shut the door. I reached back in and grabbed one more.
“You’re so bad,” she laughed.
“This one’s for you,” I said, smiling.
“How’d you get these, anyway?” she asked, pulling open the gold foil. “They’re not supposed to make any stops on your way up here.”
“My Granny got them for me, right before I left. They’re my favorite.”
“Isn’t that the sweetest,” she said, licking melted chocolate from her thumb. “That’s my favorite part about being loved by somebody.”
“What is?” I asked.
“They know what you need to be happy.”
I was twelve when Momma drove the scissors into her arm. It was attempt seventeen. She’d just moved into our tightly packed house, hiding out from Eric after he’d thrown her against the wall and cracked a rib. Within a week, she’d spiraled out. I walked into the kitchen and saw the loops of the scissors poking out of her arm. Blood loosened the blades and they clattered to the floor. Granny drove us to the hospital while red inked the towel wrapped over Momma’s wound.
While Momma got stitched up, Granny and I waited in the emergency room. She flipped through a gossip magazine, a serene look on her face, as if nothing had happened.
“You ever try it before,” I asked.
Granny closed the magazine and set it to the side. She looked up, away from me, at the people filling out their clipboards and coughing and crying and possibly dying. Then she grabbed my hand. Her mothers’ ring, holding the birthstone of each of her children, glinted under the fluorescent lights.
“Never have,” she said. “I couldn’t.”
“I had to take care of people.”
We sat there, with her hand holding mine. She asked, in that way when you’re hoping for a different answer than you expect, if I’d ever thought about trying to kill myself. I had thought about it. I’d thought about it every time Momma tried to kill herself. It was like my life depended on Momma still being here, and any time I imagined having to be pulled away from her casket, I changed the image to us being buried together.
I asked why so many people in our family had tried to kill themselves, why they thought that was the only way out. Granny situated herself until my face was level with hers.
“The world ain’t always easy, little baby. There are mean people in this world, life ain’t always on your side, and happiness isn’t something readily built in everyone. Sometimes, especially in our family, the world gives us all of the bad news first. It scares people, when bad is all they’ve known. Death looks pretty good, when you’re on that side of things. But just know that death ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s so much good, and people like your Momma would see that if they gave it a chance.”
I nodded along, even though I didn’t know exactly what she meant. She asked if I would promise her something. I said yes, and she stuck her pinky out and locked it with mine.
“Promise me, no matter how hard it gets, that you won’t take the quickest way out of your problems. Promise me you’ll try to remember what I’m telling you now, and know that life can be so beautiful if you give it a chance.”
“I promise,” I said.
Thanks so much for anyone who took the time to read this. Like I said, it’s still a messy, unweildy story, but it’s also my life. It’s the thing I’m always trying to figure out. Hopefully one of these days I’ll get this one right. Anyway, I promise we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming next week.
Until then, XOXO
Thank you for sharing. I'm sure it was hard, but I'm glad you did. Your writing is beautiful and the vulnerability you show is touching. I hope you can keep going.
really beautiful hunter, thank you for sharing!