Evelyn knew that her son, Jerry, always liked birds. They were his first fixation; every parent remembers each of their children’s first fixation—so, at a young age, he would prattle on, almost mechanically, about the capacity of a crow to remember a human face, how ravens could mimic human speech, how owls ate their prey whole. He hadn’t used such sophisticated language, of course. The precise way he expressed his love for the creatures was lost to time.
When he turned eleven, she bought him a parakeet—or a budgie, as Jerry insisted they were properly called in their native Australia; how smart he was, so said the teenage girl behind the counter. Of course, they had to then buy a parakeet for Andrea, their nine-year-old daughter, because fair is fair, and pledge to get one for Kyle, then six, when he got old enough to take care of it (an offer he never redeemed).
Was Jerry happy with the blue and green “budgie” that his parents, after some resistance, allowed him to name Bruno? Hard to tell. Maybe, for a bit. He admired Bruno, enjoyed taking him out to fly around the bathroom, giving him food sticks, and watching the bird peck. When Andrea was going to have her bird fly around the bathroom, that’s when Jerry needed to let Bruno out too, and he liked to play Bruno’s bodyguard, saying, “hey hey hey!” and separating Bruno and Andrea’s bird, a bright yellow thing she named Oskar, with an oven mitt if they nipped at each other. Jerry seemed most engaged when the opportunity came to intervene.
But Bruno would peck at Jerry sometimes, and Jerry reciprocated with inanition, letting the bird go too long without food or water or cage-cleaning to the point that he became the “family bird” until Jerry promised his mother he’d be more responsible. Jerry, from then on, fulfilled his obligations dutifully, by all appearances, although the frequency with which he’d take the bird out lessened each year. How to account for why Jerry remained so abstractly interested in birds and less-so with the real article? It’s as if he’d been found out in something, and therefore expressed his interest in birds less and less—although, the same could be said about all topics as he got older.
So, imagine Bruno broke free from his cage and flew around the household right now, if the poor wheezy bird could still fly for so long. What would he see, as he went from room to room? Evelyn bawling, screaming and gnashing, her husband Patrick holding her, so frustratingly stoic. Bruno would see Andrea, now fourteen, and Kyle too, now eleven, and what would he feel of their unguarded moments? Relief, indifference?
The bird would notice, perhaps with some pleasure, that Jerry was nowhere to be seen. If so, would it feel a satisfaction at the calamity, at the grief—payback for his lonely nights shivering in Jerry’s room, or payback for his inapposite name? Is it worth discussing the other members of the family, their passions, their pursuits, the trajectory their lives were taking up to this point? No, not now. Bruno would fly out, leave this family to their grieving, much as we will now, else this would be too grueling.
Because Jerry, at the age of seventeen, on the cusp of graduating high school, is dead. He killed himself, without even whatever quantum of closure might be provided by a suicide note.
Let’s check back—it’s been a month. As if that really mattered, though. As if that made a difference in any appreciable way. As if, during that month, Evelyn thought about anything other than when she’d found his corpse.
When she’d found him, Evelyn had made sure to knock several times. You always had to knock several times because Jerry relished privacy, and he expected that preference to be honored. Patrick would give one or two solid knocks that doubled as commands. Andrea’s were rapid-fire, impatient knocks in quick succession—the knocks of someone never eager to approach. Kyle’s were respectful, if unnatural knocks, timid with deferential pauses. Evelyn would give languorous, patient knocks—enough time for Jerry to stop whatever he was doing and assemble himself.
But this time, Evelyn had knocked enough. Opening the door and finding him hanging there was the equivalent of watching him kill himself; it all came in a rush—she could see it in the afterimages. The plummet, the tensile arc of his swing, his tongue squirting, an almost comical grimace—so strange to see that enigmatic face of his, once so definite, now so unchanging. In some versions of the imagining, there was an exaggerated crunch-crash of his neck snapping, instant death, better than some alternatives she saw: his desperate, futile kicks to right himself back on the stepladder. To deepen the wound, she thought despite herself that, to witness such kicks would have been perhaps the first and only time she’d ever seen him zealously try to do anything. And what a Jerry outcome, wasn’t it? Hopeless failure.
Who would have thought you could tie bedsheets to the motor housing of a ceiling fan? Jerry was a skinny boy but certainly, he weighed too much for the fan to withstand. Grimly enough, you can’t argue with results. She had never imagined him capable of displaying such physical ingenuity to tie such a stable knot, execute such a plan. He was never a Boy Scout; he had worn Velcro sneakers until he was ten.
This is too much. We’ll need to come back after scabs have formed over these wounds.
“My problem is, if I had to sum it up in one issue, is I know I have problems, but I don’t value myself enough to do anything about them, I guess. So, I continue to suffer but won’t do anything about it to lessen my suffering because I always feel like, what’s the point?” Jerry had said, months before his eventual suicide, as he leaned on his elbows, as he sat atop a wooden table in the park, staring into the dreary, cloudy middle distance that lay beyond his outstretched feet.
Graham nodded solemnly. “That makes sense and isn’t uncommon, unfortunately. This sounds terribly clichéd—and I know how you hate clichés—but some clichés are clichés because truth bears so much repeating. No one hates us as much as we hate ourselves.” Jerry blinked and then, realizing he was being looked at, nodded. “But some people truly deserve to feel the way they feel. Maybe the suffering, the self-hatred I feel…Maybe, I deserve it.”
Graham looked thoughtful, a slight bob to his head, as if he had to let the speaker know that every sentence uttered in his direction was independently analyzed and computed. “If someone was truly disliked by many, many people—essentially a type of pariah in their community—it would behoove them to better understand why that was. There is great wisdom in a crowd, especially when it comes to why a community of people reject someone which, to a healthy-minded person, should indicate that there very well may be something about themselves they need to change. We know all about the wisdom of a community, after all.”
Jerry signaled his agreement.
“But for you, Jerry, the hatred is internal. Your trouble is a self-imposed isolation and loneliness, of pushing people away—not of being actively rejected. You know that. We’ve talked about that. The reason you do that is because you think you are better than other people, smarter than them. You value intelligence. You recognize your own intelligence and so find the mass of others lacking, and that causes you to devalue them.”
Jerry bobbed his head again in agreement, the movement helping to conceal his involuntary eyeroll. He’d heard all this before, although he recognized its truth. But there was something to be said about novelty.
“Let me ask you Jerry, why are you sitting on top of the picnic table instead of standing here with me?”
Jerry looked back over his shoulder at Graham, then looked again toward the chilly, unused playground. Before he could ready a response, Graham placed the tips of the fingers of this left hand to his temple and prognosticated: “Let me fancy a guess.”
“Okay, you do that.” Good. This would save Jerry the effort of having to think of something snappy to say.
“Firstly, lying on top of a picnic table in a park—that’s something you aren’t supposed to be doing, and there’s something you like about distinguishing yourself, even if there’s no one else here, because you are still doing something you aren’t supposed to be doing. Secondly, your stance—I see you adjusted yourself to be leaning on your elbows, a kind of cliché, casual bad-boy stance, which reinforces your own perception of yourself as outside the ordinary. From your elevated position, it’s almost like you are looking down in disdain. And thirdly, or maybe more like as an added bonus: instead of facing me, you are facing that playground that’s not being used, which I am sure reminds you of the ticky-tack, dreadfully boring suburban environment you can’t wait to escape.”
Waiting a beat, Jerry asked, “Done?”
“So, how’d I do?”
“It was more that I just didn’t want to be seen walking around with a middle-aged man. For your own protection, you know. Doesn’t look good.”
Graham laughed. Jerry adjusted his position, first sitting up, then descending from the table altogether. He was perceptive, this Graham. Jerry didn’t like that feeling of being summed up and explained. It made him feel diminutive, reduced. Even if it wasn’t entirely accurate, it appeared accurate, and that perception of accuracy made him feel self-conscious. Especially not when there was an undeniable grain of truth—more than a grain, really, more like a half a bushel—but there was much that Graham was missing, and Jerry didn’t want to invite continued probing.
Now that Jerry was off the table, Graham came over to him and, with his typical brio of homey, comfortable atavism, shook Jerry’s hand.
“I want you to stick around, friend. There are reasons for you to stay. Your life is important, and so are you, even if you don’t believe it yet. You aren’t going to kill yourself.”
“Say it. I want to hear it from you.”
Jerry smiled cavalierly.
Graham pressed on. “I get it: us depressed people hate sincerity. But still, you know the drill. I want to hear you say it.”
“You know I won’t kill myself.”
“No one knows anything. That’s the point of this, as you know, of us meeting, of us all meeting together, our community. It’s important.”
“I know it is. It isn’t easy finding you all, as you know.”
“We know. That’s intentional.”
“Yeah, you are only for the doomed cases, the tough ones, the SWAT Team of Suicide Prevention.”
Graham bellowed a laugh, a genuine laugh that revealed, in hindsight, that this previous laugh rang a bit hollow, a bit forced. “I like that. Well, you’re still here, and you haven’t tried anything since, have you?” But it wasn’t framed as a question.
“So we’re doing something right. I’d tell you that we’ve never had a member of our support group relapse—”
“I’d believe that, for sure—”
“But I don’t like saying that because I feel like that might have the unintended consequence of encouraging someone to be the first. You know us: We all think we’re so unique.”
Jerry made a face to suggest he understood. “If that ever happened for that reason, well, then you’d have to re-evaluate your admissions committee.”
As they walked toward Graham’s car, Jerry looked back at that ticky-tack playground, and simultaneously admired Graham’s perspicacity while resenting his conclusion: This town was fucking lame, and these people within were, for the most part, stupid, vain, and fundamentally sloppy, in both their emotions and intellect. They lacked possession of themselves, and it greatly depressed him to have to go out and function in their world.
Well, he had Graham here and the others, his online companions, that formed his band of brothers which, at various times, assumed the roles of emotional support group, philosophical debate club, or simply his other world he could lose himself in.
That wasn’t nothing.
Sure. It wasn’t.
It’s now been approximately three months after Jerry’s suicide, and something like a new normal has settled upon the family. As a family unit, they attract that aura of attendant sympathy wherever they go, with whoever they talk to. They could fail to bring a gift to a housewarming party or foodstuff to a potluck or forget to pick someone up, and no one would dare say anything. Not that Andrea took advantage of this, but she could fail to hand in an assignment and have an acceptable excuse at the ready.
Everyone processed things differently. No one wanted to go to therapy. Evelyn wanted to scream at them to do so, if only because that’s the thing you are supposed to do. She wanted to grab Andrea by the hair and scream at her for never getting along with her brother, even though no one got along with Jerry, and Andrea’s approach towards him— reactive, tentative, wary— was empirically sound.
Was that true? Did Jerry not get along with anybody? He’d had friends when he was younger. He could be sharp-witted and clever when he wanted to be; he was a smart boy. He read a lot, spent all day on his computer, playing video games and talking to his friends online. She’d seen him, heard him, talking with people on his headset while playing shooting games on his PlayStation, and she figured that communication was better than nothing.
The youngest, Kyle—that nonentity. Truth be told, equal attention can’t be paid to every child. Kyle had always stayed away from the Jerry-Andrea drama, never had any opinions, didn’t want to get involved, silently and un-showily did what was right and what was expected of him, acquired the appropriate interests and temperament, as if just enough to keep up appearances without attracting scrutiny. With his silence and withdrawal, Evelyn sometimes imagined him counting down the days until he could leave. He shared that with his departed brother: the feeling that behind closed doors, he’d let out a big sigh of relief and pursued interests he deigned to keep to himself.
Evelyn wanted to curse her husband, his temperament being so quietly reasonable and grounded, his refrains of ‘what can we do’, and that nagging feeling that he had processed this, was further along in the healing process and, worst of all, the fact that his was an unflagging, infuriating patience. It was as if her dedication to this emotional wretchedness and profound hopelessness at the loss of her son was the talismanic proof of her love, and that it was somehow deserved recompense for all the things she hadn’t properly done: she didn’t poke and prod and investigate enough, she didn’t shape his development enough, she wasn’t engaged enough in his life, wasn’t that it? Why else does a seventeen-year-old, one who never had to worry about money, who wasn’t being physically or sexually abused, who had nothing to escape from, do such a thing? By not wallowing alongside her, it was as if her husband was agreeing that the burden of the shame was properly allocated among the deserving parties: her and only her.
But what are you supposed to do? You can’t be a helicopter parent. Was it worth it for her to have kept her distance, fearful of Jerry’s every dismissive, unkind word? Was it worth it, her submission in the face of his recalcitrant refusal to reveal? Was it worth it, avoiding those eyes rolls, the worst thing she thought he could ever do with his eyes until she found them jutting, distended and now, literally lifeless? Apparently, even in death she couldn’t avoid that look of ghoulish judgment and disdain.
That neck cracking. Those eyes, positively lunging from their sockets.
It was approximately four months later, and Andrea felt frozen. She knew she needed to proceed carefully. Evelyn, after sitting on the couch next to her under some pretense of small talk, had just asked her if she knew any of Jerry’s friends at school who she could talk to about him. Mom had wisely and immediately broadened that request: Did she know any of Jerry’s friends? This, saving Andrea from the awkwardness of letting it dawn upon Mom that Jerry truly did not have any close friends.
Mom had, of course, been at the funeral. None of the kids from school who attended could honestly be described as Jerry’s friends, at least not in the classical meaning of the word. Family friends, Andrea’s friends, Kyle’s friends, people who casually knew him and paid him no mind. Sure, many of them knew Jerry and had nothing bad to say—who could say anything bad at a funeral? But likely there was nothing conceivably bad they could say because Jerry had kept to himself.
Was there anyone, Mom insisted? Anyone Mom could talk to, with the obvious explanation being that Mom was still—and perhaps forever would be—riddled with guilt. Andrea blanched, sensed a dismantling of the assumed understandings that oft separate parents from children. It was almost frightening: parents provided guidance and made the rules, and inherent in that guidance was the expectation that it would be exercised appropriately. That Mom’s request was so transparently a bad idea chilled Andrea to the bone; this was someone she loved, relied upon and trusted, and that the mother she loved and relied upon so much could be so wrong, well…that was a very harrowing thought indeed. So tenuous was the stability that kept the family unit functioning: she imagined no food in the fridge, the family phones cut off due to lack of payment, her mother on the corner of her bed, knees to chest, rocking back and forth babbling to herself.
“I can try and find out,” was the best Andrea could offer.
Mom smiled weakly and placed her hand warmly on Andrea’s face. “Thank you.”
Andrea saw then the stable, competent Mom she knew, and Andrea smiled back, as if forgetting that this wasn’t the first time that Mom had pursued this doomed inquiry. Mom, so competent, just wanted to hear that Andrea understood and would help, and that would be enough. That Mom then asked what Andrea wanted from the grocery store—confirming with her that she’d get Andrea’s requested mozzarella sticks, tangerines, and crunchy peanut butter—furthered that impression, because here again was Normal Mom discussing normal, healthy Mom things.
In the parking lot of the Key Food, after the car was turned off and she readied to climb out, Evelyn found herself instead unable to move, hands wrapped tightly against the steering wheel, seeking to bend it. She unclenched her hands.
What was she doing? She was a self-possessed, analytical woman. She was frustrated and, in quixotically rending the steering wheel, there was that primal satisfaction of physical exertion, of directing that bottled energy elsewhere. Andrea couldn’t be relied on to look into anything, Evelyn knew, because no one can be relied upon to do what you want to be done, with the effort you require, other than yourself.
But such activities weren’t fruitful, she knew. Just think about, look at yourself in some imagined third-person perspective. Is this a healthy approach: to sit, parked in a Key Food parking lot, death-gripping a steering wheel, while some geriatric townie gives you the side-eye as she pushes her shopping cart of canned soups and cranberry juice, or whatever the fuck, to her SUV?
No, of course not.
The uncontrollable thing about terrific loss is that the weight of it can creep upon you so impassively, so surreptitiously and then, suddenly, it’s occupying your gut and your heart, so solidly and so completely. The reality of her son’s death, so very briefly forgotten beneath the muddle of her pep talk, reasserted itself with total primacy: your son is dead, and that fact won’t change. Psych yourself back up all you like, but that fact reigns supreme.
Still, she got out, fighting through the tears, believing somehow that they’d stop because they had to stop, because people didn’t cry going into grocery stores. Through the misty veil, she acknowledged—remotely and distantly as if observing it on behalf of someone else—a great black shape speeding toward her from her periphery. She paused and, instincts taking over, took a colossal gallop backward as a black SUV seemed to swerve. Her heart in her chest, she heard no honk, no screech of tires, became only aware of, bizarrely, some different old biddy, with a crown of soft white hair, silently putting her hands to her half-open mouth in a classic look of shock. The driver of the black SUV only seemed to regain control of its momentum as it pulled toward the curb to exit the parking lot.
Evelyn stayed put, caught her breath, felt the onlook of strangers and sensed the shaking of their head, intuited the murmurings of ‘Can you believe that?’ In an alternative world, she thought subconsciously, where Evelyn had ended up splattered in the Key Food parking lot, there’d be at least one good-hearted woman who’d speak truthfully and honestly to the police about what she’d witnessed. And then reality reasserted itself again, and she clenched her stomach, dreading that old biddy coming over to her and asking her if she was alright and, to think, Evelyn could cry and emote and that innocent beautiful woman would think it was because of the outpouring of pent-up relief from that close-call with the SUV. How lovely it would be to pour out all her feelings upon someone who knew nothing about her?
With the throat-clenching drama gone, what else could she do but go into the store and get her family’s groceries?
Jerry had shaken hands with all four of them. Graham he knew, of course. Each of their meetings had ended with a handshake, given Graham’s belief that tactile exchanges had a stabilizing, grounding effect—a commitment. Until next time. The presumed pledge being that there will be a next time.
In a sense, he knew the other three, but he had never met them in the flesh before. The man he knew online as “Acer” was Steven, probably the closest to his age at twenty-four. “Bizarro” was a well-kempt, fit but otherwise anodyne, middle-aged Eric, and “Moebius” was a non-distinct Dan. They’d all traveled some ways to meet Jerry and, while he was convinced that he was intellectually indifferent to social expectations, in reality, his palms were sweaty, and his heart was racing. He had already been accepted, he told himself. But during online interactions, he could be collected, calibrated—an expression of pure intellect. Online, he could be charming, comforting and stimulating—as many a cyber-sex partner could attest—but with physical presence came worries about his appearance, his ego, his haughtiness, or just his inherent alien, discomfiting otherness that couldn’t be camouflaged.
But, if any group of people should understand, it should be them.
“I’ve been thinking for a while before this meeting,” Jerry began—tempted to bail on the opener, but there was no turning back—“that it’d be ironic if the sheer pressure and anxiety of a meeting like this would be the impetus for a candidate to off themselves.”
They all smiled and laughed.
“Ever think of that?”
“That’s never happened before, although I guess that’s something new for us to have to worry about,” joked Eric.
“Well, with how our system works, I don’t think we need to lose too much sleep about it,” said Steven, smiling. “With our terms, our people have to be pretty committed. So, don’t get any ideas, buddy.”
“You can say whatever you’d like about how extreme it all is, but one thing you can’t deny is that commitment is kind of baked into this whole enterprise,” added Dan after a pause.
“You can say that again.” Jerry’s knowing contribution, like he was an old guy commiserating with his friends about the same ole shit, the weather or untrustworthy politicians or other common pablum. Funny how he hated himself for that comment. Guys all shooting the shit with pitter-patter, the supposed comfort of group acceptance, the strained and forced overreactions and smiles to the banal, the rituals of small talk. Funny, this suicide support group—certainly the most dedicated and capable such group that ever existed, always reminded him of his inescapable exhaustion with life. Not out of high school and already saturated with bitterness. He couldn’t imagine ever being free of it because the disgust and the tedium was part of—baked into, to borrow Dan’s phrase—the whole enterprise of social interaction.
This support group might have worked better if it had remained entirely online although, with the type of commitment entrants to its inner circle needed to make, he could understand the idea, at least, about meeting in person. He bet all these guys thought he should be impressed with the sacrifice they were making in traveling however far they’d traveled to come meet him. He should reflect graciousness, but not overdo it. They should expect this. In conniving, he forgot the blundering, awkward parts of himself.
Graham, as Jerry’s ambassador of sorts, made eye contact with whomever was speaking throughout the meeting and, as everything was going accordingly, nodded sagaciously and in concert with everyone’s points, redoubling his efforts when it was Jerry doing the speaking.
When the expected lull came, Jerry spoke passionately about how the group’s support had helped him, had kept him alive at his darkest times. Jerry paused, corrected himself to explain that, to describe it as ‘darkest times’ was misleading, because that implied one distinct low point, when the truth of the matter was that he lived perpetually at the low point, like a little crab ‘scuttling around the bottom of the sea floor.’
“If I think about it intellectually, which I do often, ruminating endlessly and obsessively—” and here the others chuckled, because they knew what Jerry meant— “I still come to the same conclusion. I don’t, intellectually and objectively, think there is any reason to live. I don’t believe in God or Heaven and Hell or a higher power,” and, of course, they all knew he wasn’t saying anything that they all didn’t agree with.
“But still, I remain here. I persist, if you will, with your help, this group’s help, and that’s an act of faith, in a sense. I’m not my thoughts but separate from them. Meditation, self-reflection, exercise, obligation, commitment, tethering myself to reality, faith in action, and I can’t…I can’t necessarily, intellectually validate why this should work but I suppose results speak for themselves. I find it interesting, and I’m still here.” After Jerry finished, they again all chuckled because again, he wasn’t saying anything they themselves didn’t struggle with and struggle against daily.
“Process,” Steven started, after a dignified pause. “That’s what it is. You understand, it's a process. You do the process, your thoughts—destructive thoughts, at least—subside, and you feel better. It is a type of faith, as you say, but faith with results. You don’t argue against it, you just accept the negative thoughts for what they are: thoughts, only thoughts, separate from yourself, that come and go randomly like waves in the ocean.
“It’s when you think, ‘I can’t live with myself anymore.’ That’s what helps to articulate the tension how, in a sense, your thoughts are separate and apart from who you are. When you think that, who is the ‘I’ and who is the ‘myself?’ You commit to us and you do what’s expected of you and, over time, it gets better.”
Steven spoke solemnly or, at least to him, as you couldn’t be too doctrinaire in explaining anything to the congenitally suicidal, who, by temperament, were skeptical and dismissive.
Steven’s comments about thoughts coming and going randomly like the waves in the ocean bothered Jerry because, while Jerry didn’t know the exact science behind it, certainly waves didn’t appear ‘randomly.’ They were caused by the wind or the moon or temperature differentials or some shit like that. But he suppressed the rising heat he felt and, when he spoke about the group prolonging his life, the words came easily because what he said was all true. Or, said in another way, had he not found this group, he would have killed himself some time ago.
Sunday, and the family was making a day of miniature golf. It was that odd type of outing that hovered between obligation and recreation, one that no one seemed to want to partake in but for no good reason. Kyle was withdrawn, a fear of failure perhaps that now extended even to missed putts. Andrea was more outgoing recently, and spent more time with friends, which Evelyn hated her for.
It was as if Andrea’s years of proximity to Jerry had been whittling her away, and now she was unencumbered by the burdens of her deceased brother—refreshed and rejuvenated for other people. Evelyn half-expected Andrea to start wearing more revealing clothes, because isn’t that what teenage daughters do when they are acting out or spreading their wings or sending a message? And it almost angered Evelyn that Andrea wasn’t doing so, but was rather just well-adjusted and, just maybe, was only responding rationally to the absence of someone who had made her life largely disagreeable. It was as if Jerry were no longer here to express his thoughts about Andrea’s vapidity and simple-mindedness and with his departure, Evelyn, out of some misplaced loyalty, stored his thoughts in her mind.
Evelyn could not remember one loving interaction between Andrea and Jerry; the only peaceable ones had been those occasions when they had been forced to sit in near-silence beside one another, perhaps in a car ride or at a school function. But that was childhood, wasn’t it? And, Evelyn told herself, it would only be in the years to come that Andrea would learn that she’d lost out on the prospect of a deepening adult relationship with her brother.
Patrick, had recent events not imploded their family, would prefer to be at home watching football with Kyle. Evelyn ungraciously suspected Patrick course-corrected to spend more time with all his family to keep the peace. She felt ashamed of her suspicions when she’d glimpsed the way Patrick laughed at one of their jokes, or the appreciative pride when Kyle let his guard down and joined in for a laugh.
The miniature golf began rigidly and awkwardly, as if they had been forced to play to oblige someone else's expectations and, in a sense, this sentiment wasn’t incorrect. But they loosened up with their successes and miscues: Kyle’s modest embarrassment from an absurdly great putt; the natural comedy of Patrick’s patient approach being rewarded by his ball careening into the water; their bated breath and Andrea’s yippy shriek when Mom’s ball was scooped to the side by the twisting windmill. By the third hole, the atmosphere was loose and genial, Andrea loud and smiling, Kyle unshowy and quietly pleased with his skill. Kyle ended up winning, with Andrea a distant second, Dad and Mom a close third and fourth, respectively. Evelyn wondered if Patrick partly threw the game to make that so and joked to herself he may have well gone all the way and let her beat him.
Hot dogs and chicken tenders for lunch afterwards at the shop on the premises, everyone (Andrea especially) tacitly understood that this was no time to be complaining about junk food. Andrea, who had recently been avoiding fried foods and carbs, ate her chicken fingers with particular relish. No one complaining about fat and salt made for a happy family.
Patrick and Kyle lollygagged as they all made their way to leave. Patrick coerced Kyle into getting some frozen Snickers with him, with Kyle countering that, if they were going to bother to get ice cream, they should at least get something they couldn’t easily make themselves. Somehow that became milkshakes; Andrea and Evelyn oof-ed in protest as they patted their stomachs and walked slowly away, waiting around for the boys to get their treats.
“Have a good time?” Evelyn asked her daughter as they stood waiting, half-distracted by the nearby presence of the parked cars. There was something wistfully sad about packing up the day and heading home. Evelyn hoped there was something transferable in the family dynamics that had opened up today. Already, Evelyn saw, Andrea was looking away and down at her phone.
Andrea looked back up. “Of course, Mom. It was fun. I was pretty good at it, who knew?”
“You have many talents.”
“And who knew Kyle was a golf pro?”
“Yes. Is there a golf team at your school?” It would be a few years until Kyle went to their high school.
“I have no idea, but I doubt it. I mean, where would they play golf unless they went to some course or something?”
“True.” Evelyn caught herself doing that Mom-thing, finding one possible interest or aptitude her son displayed, and poisoning it by schoolmarming it into something careerist or scholastic, or a subtle indication about how he should be more social, more outgoing. Nothing ruins an interest like dragooning it into the service of responsibility. Bringing up school or the world outside right now depressed her, and she would not mention it again.
Evelyn saw the boys—lips pursed, eyes closed in ice cream inhalation—returning with their shakes and, letting them have their own time, walked a few yards apace with Andrea toward their car.
“Do you want a shake?” Evelyn asked, not knowing why, as Andrea had already said she didn’t and, even if she had, Andrea wouldn’t inconvenience everyone by going back and ordering.
“I’m good,” and this time, she didn’t look up from her phone when she answered. Evelyn kept her eyes on her, just enjoyed looking at her, a bit unnerved by how quickly and efficiently she typed away whatever message she was sending to whomever.
“Imani is having boy trouble again,” Andrea said, as if intuiting that Mom wanted to hear something further. Imani was one of Andrea’s longtime friends, a pretty, smart Arabic girl, whose most noticeable feature was her deep-set eyes, always well accentuated with eyeliner. Also, Imani didn’t drink, which might be a good influence. Evelyn liked Imani, imagined she was chaste, and wondered how boys tolerated chasteness and sobriety these days.
“Oh, that’s too bad.” Evelyn found her keys and purse and turned toward the boys and their energized movements, where Kyle, with a whitish pukey substance on his jacket, was being dragged backward, Patrick lunging at the two men who were pulling on their son. She saw the soaring gash on Kyle’s throat, the man closer to Patrick, fending him off, as the other man, undisturbed, descending something like a pen knife again and again into Kyle’s throat with short, sharp, unrelenting jabs. With each stab, each puncture into her youngest’s neck, Evelyn felt something split open in her stomach, the mounting certainty that she’d lost another child.
She saw Patrick’s back in a three-quarter profile, but now he leaned forward in a way that indicated he was now concerned with himself, despite his son being butchered only a few feet away. She saw his hands go toward his abdomen and he stumbled backward, and she didn’t see Andrea in her periphery but filled in an image of her just now raising her head from her fucking phone as her brother lay torn and frayed and essentially neckless on the ground. Her father backed up into the road where there roared a screaming vision of a shape, a car she’d seen somewhere before, a car that her husband propelled atop of and over and now, he lay there in the road, his black jacket the relatively undisturbed lid on something blasted and broken underneath that she knew she couldn’t bear to turn over.
If her husband weren’t recuperating in the hospital, Evelyn would have insisted they move out of town immediately.
Miraculously, Patrick wasn’t in a coma, didn’t suffer any brain damage, only, only a broken leg, a shoulder fracture, two stab wounds to the stomach that pierced no vital organs, and a panoply of superficial cuts and bruises. Could people say she got “lucky” that Patrick hadn’t died, too? Is that what people could conceivably say she should be thankful for? Could people say that to her with a straight face? Would people dare now that her youngest, too young and sheepish to have shed his essential innocence, was dead, throat torn out while holding a half-filled Styrofoam cup? What she’d thought was whitish foamy puke on her son’s jacket was actually the contents of his swallowed milk shake, released out of his slit throat onto his jacket, like a little baby with a messy bib—the little baby he still truly was—and now would always remain.
She wanted Patrick to tell her who did this to them.
He wished he could tell her, but he’d never seen them before. One might have been middle-aged, the other might have been younger, and they were both fair-skinned, although one may have been darker-white. He wasn’t sure; it happened so fast. Fucking Patrick always had to be so honest and law-abiding and rule-respecting, so he told the police the following as if this changed anything or would lead to some break in the case: He saw something like remorse in the brown eyes of the man who stabbed him. How remorseful could they all be when, a witness revealed, the license plate of the car which had struck him was intentionally covered up with a sheet.
And when the police asked what, if anything, had these men said to him, Patrick just had to tell them the truth: that he was sure one of them had said, unironically and with some exasperation, that he was sorry.
A random, violent attack, so seemed to be the operative theory. Just pointless words, words that never took root, glided harmlessly along the surface of her brain like water striders across a pond. They were leaving town, was all she thought. Even if it had been entirely random, some impulsive crime of opportunity even where the ‘opportunity’ being seized was still a mystery, losing one son to a suicide and another to street-level butchery was evidence enough that the town was cursed. If not the town, their family was the virus that brought out some latent, violent overreaction in the town’s antibodies. Either way, they needed to leave.
Jerry lay flat on his bed. It wasn’t good to be lying in bed in the middle of the day, he knew. That was a classic sign of depression, and he wished he were only depressed. He improved to something like depression. It was when he was only depressed that he wondered where this seething cauldron of righteous hatred came from. Perhaps he should request that his brain be donated to science so it could be studied, and maybe there could be better treatment for people like him in the future. That premise assumed, of course, that the problem lay with him, and not the world, the very nature of existence, and that likely had to be true because most people functioned, operated, and reproduced, and they were not like him.
His ennui was so deep that he convinced himself it would be too much effort to request that his brain be given to science. What does that even mean, ‘to science’? It was the type of imprecise thinking, putting the responsibility on others, that he loathed. It was too much work, he thought to himself with knowing, provocative irony. This, given the elaborate plan he’d already put into motion.
It was in these moments of what might be called reflection that he thought to himself that it must be him, there must be truly something wrong with him. Does a man who rapes the corpses of dead animals while wearing a Burger King Mask and nipple clamps ever look in the mirror with post-orgasm clarity and think, Jesus, maybe I am fucked up?
He’d passed judgment on existence and found it wanting, but he was part of existence too. That sentiment would lead to nothing, to drifting along, but maybe drifting was better. How could it be that, objectively and existentially, life didn’t matter, yet it was still worthwhile devising a revenge that he wouldn't be alive to witness? Was it some kind of intellectual satisfaction, that clicking into place of the last piece?
And what if he were wrong?
But this cessation of hatred was only temporary, and only occurred when he was alone. Proximity to others would remind him of their inherent selfishness, wastefulness, petty cruelty, misplaced priorities. Vapidity, intellectual torpor, and the millions of little hypocrisies that he refused to partake in. Just thinking made it all come bubbling back.
Still, he cried, sobbing like a little boy on his bed. Maybe even the sudden interruption of this placid state of reflection with this rekindled throbbing indignation was too much for him right now. If Mom were home, could he call out to her? Would she come comfort him? She’d leap at the chance.
No, he could never do that, because who wouldn’t wonder and worry about their malfunctioning sociopath of a son, crying without understandable cause on a weekend afternoon? Nothing in life was unequivocal or unconditional except God’s love, which he admired as a sustaining ideal but knew was nothing but pretty impetus, hollow faith for hollow minds.
He hadn’t asked for any of this. The self-loathing turned the corner nicely into hatred, which had the benefit of at least being goal-directed and, strangely, reassuring. Yes, that old guiding emotion.
He actually looked up the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and thought that, realistically, it would make a good place to send his damaged brain. He felt a private glee imagining writing ‘send brain to science,’ something totally daft and innocent, if only just to remind his family of the little naïve kid he’d once been.
He thought more about mementoes he should leave, little breadcrumbs that led nowhere, lead round and round like a flushing toilet. He thought about penning a suicide note composed solely of the lyrics to Nickelback’s “Photograph”, or some other garbage.
He got to work making one such memento and, when he was done, stuffed it deep in the bowels of his sister’s closet. Greedy, unappreciative slob. She had so many clothes that she never wore or kept track of, she’d never even notice that the note was there.
Andrea didn’t know how best to tell her mother. It felt somehow like she did something wrong. Vacillating wasn’t her style, and she wanted to be unburdened of this responsibility as soon as she could.
Andrea peeked around the door to her parents’ bedroom, where Mom was lying down, reading a book. An assortment of multicolored plastic containers lined the walls, shelves were open, clothes and papers abound. “Mom…I found something in my closet you might want to see.” Dad had been back home from the hospital for the last month, and they were packing up and moving out east to make lives easier for themselves.
“Okay,” was all Evelyn said in response, and followed Andrea, both in silence, as if both wanted to minimize all facets of this interaction as much as possible. Dad was winding things down at the office but, even if he’d been home, Andrea would have gone with this to Mom directly.
“I—uh, sorry,” was the first thing Andrea said, as the door stuck on the clothes and other contents piled en masse in her room.
“Holy Hell, Andrea, you have enough clothes to dress a small army.” Evelyn could map out the evolution of her daughter’s tastes in the clothes on display. “I remember that strawberry shirt. I didn’t know you still had it. You wear that pear shirt still. I didn’t know you also had that strawberry shirt. Just a couple more fruit shirts, and you can be a complete fruit salad.”
“I wear this shirt sometimes to sleep in,” said Andrea, picking the white-and-red t-shirt flecked with juicy red strawberries and green curlicues, “but it’s a little too frilly on the sleeves,” and she rubbed her frills swiftly as if proving her point. “The pear shirt is classier and a lot warmer too. It’s long-sleeved.”
“As long as I never see a peach shirt. I know what that means.”
“Mom, ewww,” she said, not without a sardonic love in her voice. “Don’t ruin fruits for me.”
Andrea pointed at the 8.5-by-11-inch gray moleskin notebook. It was on the floor by itself, just beyond the entryway where her largest closet began—a distinct, almost dignified island of repose among the mess of clothes and papers and trinkets.
“It—I’m pretty sure it was Jerry’s,” Andrea stated the obvious. “I found it, all the way like, buried in the back of my closet. I moved it up here. It was really deep down there. On the inside of the front page, it says Jerry on the top.”
“Good clue that it was Jerry’s,” Evelyn said quietly and smiled.
“Yeah,” and Andrea smiled back, each smile after each quiet word a reassurance to one another that this was an awkward situation, and they were each proceeding as best they could.
“Did you read it?” Evelyn asked.
“No, absolutely not. I knew it wasn’t mine; I never kept a journal I don’t think, not even for school, but I was curious. I just opened the front page and saw Jerry’s name.”
“Thank you.” Evelyn took the journal, held it in her hands with a pinched face, overcome with a feeling of oppressive weightiness, hugged Andrea and thanked her again. Andrea was visibly relieved to be rid of it.
“You know we care about you, Jerry. I know you loathe hearing things like that—”
“And I know, look, we are both guys, yadda yadda yadda, so I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, ‘why do we have to say all this bullshit, I get it already,’ but—”
“No, no, I get it—”
“But just the absolute level of the commitment we’ve all made. That’s why our system works. We have truly committed ourselves to the struggle, to the struggle to live, and that’s why we—”
“I get it.”
“That’s why we take this so seriously. You promise never to kill yourself, and it’s a promise, not too be too dramatic about it, made in blood. You understand the consequences if you ever killed yourself. You stay alive for others, so this makes that literal.”
“I understand the consequences and accept them. This may sound weird, but I actually like knowing there are actual, severe consequences. Suicide isn’t a selfless act, anyway. You aren’t the only victim of your own suicide, anyway, isn’t that what they say? This just makes that more literal and less poetical. I kind of like how the stakes are just made so high. You don’t tempt fate, you don’t fuck around when the stakes are so high, when the danger is so clear and present.”
Evelyn lay in bed with the journal, her heart racing. She took a sip of water, enjoyed turning her face from the book. Just sipping water. Normality. Refreshing. She turned to the journal again and, on cue, her heart started racing, palms turning sweaty.
How Jerry would have hated her reading his personal journal. Maybe she shouldn’t, but that was a farce because it would only be a matter of time before she succumbed, and she was his mother, and he was her dead son, and she had the right. Intermingled with her panic was the shame at struggling with the premise that he was the sort of person to even keep a journal. Had someone told her that her son wrote in a journal she wouldn't believe it, but here it was.
The obvious question, and the obvious opportunity for self-reproach: What else did she not know about her son?
She combed through the journal, each turn of the page a new pang of guilt at each fresh violation. The pages were blank and, as she turned came the disorientation, both the mounting fear and strange relief that each page might be completely blank.
Something, more than halfway through, on the top of a page: THE REASON WHY, with deep-cut underlines. At the bottom of the page appeared the outline of small, cramped words, arranged with some obvious care and structure, heavily crossed out. She strained to pierce through the morass of black ink that hid her from the most sought-after truth, but it was impossible. The treasures that lay beneath were marred and disfigured beyond repair.
But hope. An inkling of a miniature arrow in blue ink, an instruction to turn the page.
More blanks. Blank, blank, blank, and her heart sank lower and lower but again, another little blue arrow, this one at the top of the page, and her heart soared. She was literally salivating unknowingly, head swimming in a clammy fog, eyes burning with overstimulation.
She found text, scanned it, and then rocketed through the rest of the empty journal. She backtracked, a finger for a bookmark where she found text, and then went back through the journal more methodically, enough times to understand that this found text was, somehow, all there was and all there was going to be. It read:
I can’t live with the cognitive dissonance of being attracted to a shapely ass and then
remembering that that’s where shit comes from.
An artifice, this was an artifice. She knew without accepting, unwilling to take the psychic leap into what conclusions that would bring. But before structured thought came, Evelyn somehow knew that Jerry’s suicide caused Kyle’s death, and that more death was coming.
Jerry looked at the single sentence of text he’d written in his ‘journal’ for his family to find. Somehow, this was crueler than the rest of the plan and, for a blistering moment, he truly hated himself, although that was fitting, wasn’t it? Because he knew that he was defective. In time, he’d get over it, and stow it away in his sister’s closet to be found after his death, for his family to stew and mull over, or perhaps they would understand the comic absurdity, the pointless of it all, and find it a fitting tribute to their troubled son. If any of them were left, that was. After all, he’d found himself able to both eliminate his family and these foolish suicide prevention cultists in one fell swoop.
He’d get over it and stow it away and continue with the plan, wouldn’t he, because that’s who he was. He was stuck in the spider web of time. Always bored, always anxious, always restless for what he didn’t know, always doing nothing yet somehow always fatigued. Never satisfied, always waiting, it seemed, for a resolution that would never come, for just something in his brain to click, some element to appear so he could finally understand and feel the simple pleasure of a sunrise or friendship or travel or food, and then he could think ‘oh that’s what people see in this,’ and look back at his dissolute years prior with a hearty chuckle.
But never. This grinding through the gears of time was perpetual. And that was life, wasn’t it? He hated life, and anyone who didn’t hate life was an enemy of his. For they enjoyed it somehow and because he experienced life as it really was, he’d always be, not only unhappy, but a despised outcast, his existence itself an offense to the established order.
What was wrong with him? The thought came again in a moment of clarity: Where did this resentment come from? Was it simply from being born with the name ‘Jerry’, a party-animal name, a hippie ice cream purveyor name, given to someone born wanting nothing to do with the act of living? That was as good a theory as any, and he considered replacing his existential poop-joke in the journal with that.
He’d been right (right again!), time had revved up the hate-engine and, on what ended up being a few days before his suicide, he sincerely hoped that his family would stay alive long enough to find his gift.
J. R. HAMANTASCHEN is the author of three critically acclaimed short story collections: You Shall Never Know Security (2011), With a Voice that is Often Still Confused But is Becoming Ever Louder and Clearer (2015), and A Deep Horror That Was Very Nearly Awe (2018). He lives in Queens, New York. He co-hosts an irreverent weekly podcast called The Horror of Nachos and Hamantaschen.
Artwork by Novel Noctule team.