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 70’s wood paneled walls and the cottage cheese, water stained ceiling had dissolved into the night. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized death takes work.
Sixteen was when I had my most successful attempt.
Granny had taken everything from my bedroom and boxed it up, leaving only a naked mattress and box-springs. The sight of it overwhelmed me. I sat on the bed, facing the window, and 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 says if overdose is your path, you can’t pull a Cinnamon Brown and down them all at once. If you do, you’ll just vomit on yourself and have to start all over. I took a final gulp, and waited.
What’s funny is 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. She’d come 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, watching the bruises on her arms shift from brown to purple. She patted my knee, looked at me strangely, and said, “I think I got cancer.”
It wasn’t true, but Momma’s always been a gold medalist liar, and I believed it. I realized I couldn’t live without her. The suicidal thoughts had been with me for months, the arrangements slowly coming together, and now I had the best reason to do it. I wrote letters to everyone I loved and everyone I hated, and shoved the pages into my back pocket. The next day, during the last performance of the play, I ate a few muscle relaxers and smiled as everything faded. When the play was over, a woman found me slumped against the brick exterior of the school.
No one reported the incident. The drama teacher and his girlfriend just sobered me up and dropped me off at Granny’s. Before I got out of the car, the girlfriend turned around and asked if I had anymore pills. I pulled the baggy out of my pocket and handed it to her. 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 later, Granny found out. 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.
I hadn’t taken anything since the night of the play. Even in this moment, as Granny drove away, 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. He was a convicted pedophile and an ex-member of the KKK. Granny found the membership card one morning while doing the laundry and we packed up and left.
“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.
This should’ve been the moment I decided to kill myself, but it wasn’t. Who would want to live in a world where there are racist 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 sliding side-door of the van. Where the door should’ve stopped, it kept going, releasing from its track and cobbling to the ground. The fat boy and his rotted-toothed sister stared at me from next door, 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 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 around who could handle my temper tantrums.
This was the moment when I knew there was nothing left to do but kill myself. I’d been properly acquainted with suicide from the few weeks before, 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 text 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. She’d read through our messages after taking my phone 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 to the back of the house, where they sat 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.”
Everything was a blur until I was in the emergency room. Granny sat 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.
We were in a small 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 I 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’s the one who found me the last time I’d tried to kill myself. She’s the one who suggested I tell Granny. I knew now that she’d 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. This man 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 recently. 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 crazy people felt like they watched 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 last night. 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! She gave me a Wal-Mart plastic bag, hugged me, and said she loved me and would talk to me tonight. 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. There was no way to tell her I’d failed at self-murder, which should be the easiest type of murder to commit. She always said I was the only reason she’d lived this long, but I realized now that wasn’t true. It’s just a lot harder to kill yourself when people are always trying to save you.
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.
Hope’s Corner didn’t inspire much hope on first sight. We pulled in just after I woke up, and the exterior looked like the hospital in Halloween II, right before Michael kills all the people. The officer guided me to the door, and a woman who looked shockingly similar to Jane Lynch took me into her office.
“Okay Sonny,” she said with a smile. “Why’re you here?”
“Because I tried to kill myself, I guess.”
The office was undone; there was an empty bookcase, unframed motivational posters ready to plaster the walls, a cluttered desk. 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. 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 questions before they moved forward. I asked if I could watch my show when it came on that night. She said, “I’m sure we can figure something out.”
The woman excused herself, taking her pen with her. I figured it was a safety precaution. When she came back, she had a man with her. He held a pair of blue scrubs and Birkenstocks. His eyelids were covered in scars. They showed me to this bathroom with only one bulb, just over the sink. She said I needed to change clothes, and she had to write down whatever scars or bruises I had in case there were any changes during my stay. I asked if I had to get changed in front of them.
“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 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 the boy was. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s part of why I’m in 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.
A little after five, a man named Bob came in the room with a phone and a clipboard. He 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. He took the remote from my hand and switched off the TV. I cried then, 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 most of the time, 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 quietly masturbated myself to sleep.
Granny swears her third husband, Rocky, overdosed on purpose; suicide by Heroin injection. He was a drug dealer for the Country Club in Cairo, but his biggest mistake in that business was using the product. It wasn’t that bad until Granny came home early one night, bible study cut short, to find him holding her dress up at the mirror. She stopped by the door, admiring his gentle hands caressing the fabric. He pushed it against himself, looked in the mirror for a moment longer, and began to cry.
She waited for him to calm down and put her dress away, but his sobbing only got worse. Granny knocked at the bedroom door, not an unusual thing since he didn’t like her watching him shoot up, and asked if she could come in. He opened the door without saying anything and went into the kitchen.
“Is everything…” she began.
“Just high, is all.”
A few months later, he divorced her, and she knew he’d seen her in the doorway. He died not long after that.
Granny never told anyone what she saw, not until she’d found my drawings of boys stashed in the closet. She asked if I wanted to tell her anything. She told me about Butch, said she’d have loved him, even if he wanted to be a woman, and waited for my admission. I didn’t want to be a woman, so I didn’t think I had anything to say.
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. He said breakfast was coming soon.
The scarred man finally introduced himself as Cricket; it was a nickname given to him by his family after the attack. At seven, he witnessed a crime, and the man stabbed at his eyes, trying to blind him. He said now the only thing he was blind to was sadness.
A woman, Grace, came in with a trolley of food. She sat the plates down in front of us, French toast soggy with maple glaze, and smiled at the boys shoving food in their mouths. 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 chewed my first bite until it was documented on the chart, and then pushed the plate back to the center. Later, when I checked my chart, she wrote that I liked to challenge authority.
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 back 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.”
Granny’s sister, Aunt Sydney, attempted suicide after watching The Exorcist. It’s true, you can ask anyone. 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.
She was admitted to the mental health facility in Dothan for six months. She blamed the devil for her sinful thoughts of death, telling the psychiatrist any reasonably sane human being wouldn’t commit such selfish acts. I have three girls at home, she’d said, a normal woman don’t just leave her kids that way. When the doctor suggested it was her husband’s untreated bipolar disorder that might’ve contributed to her stress, Aunt Sydney argued that women weren’t here to judge their husbands, but to support them at all cost.
Years later, at Uncle Greg’s funeral, Sydney grabbed at Granny’s hand and let out a sigh of relief. I asked Granny later, why would Aunt Sydney be so relieved that her husband had shot himself in the head? She said that sometimes, when people are sick for so long, it’s just nice to know they’re not suffering anymore.
The next morning, Grace and this woman with micro-braids and red lips 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 got in the shower and masturbated. I wasn’t turned on by anything, but masturbating took so much focus, it distracted all of my senses from how much I wanted to die. At least, it did at first. When I got close, I imagined a man coming up behind me and pressing a gun into the back of my head. I imagined them blowing my brains onto the tile at the same time I blew my load. What a way to die, I thought. 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 unlocked the door.
“We’ve got keys,” she said, “if you ever try anything.”
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.
“Sometimes,” Grace said, “people show their love in strange ways. Don’t they?”
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. I asked how often she thought of things like that.
“If you push through the hard times, you’ll live long enough to speculate just about anything.”
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. We’d been to at least a funeral a year since I was five and more than half of them were due to suicide. 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 lied.