Short Story by Lil Williams
Jared ran until his vision blurred, until his ability to breathe at quarter capacity was about used up, until he thought he’d drown in his own sweat. The sun and the footpath had assaulted his skinny legs and joints, all the while his ‘below average’ in PE stood mocking him. He would never run again by choice.
Why did all the streets look the same? He turned around and doubled back a block, sure that he’d just missed a landmark that he recognised. The dog had moved. Not quite a landmark he had to admit, but memorable just the same. Jared never did forget a good set of teeth, even on a canine. Which house, though?
“Here, boy,” he called and whistled as he looked around. Ah, sweet suburbia. He yanked his hand back over the fence as the dog tried to take a chunk out of his hand.
Jared kept his eyes down, watching the linoleum floor whizz past. People probably weren’t staring but it was embarrassing anyway. He’d like to meet the person who invented the wheel chair rule when you’re exiting the hospital (even for a mental health issue) and give them a piece of his mind. These insurance schemes were some kind of sick joke. How can a person be deemed wheelchair reliant one second and totally fine the second they hit the hospital carpark? You’re on your own, buddy. Flawless logic.
As soon as the car door slammed, he ripped the name bracelet off and slipped it out the crack at the top of the window. If only he could get rid of all the evidence that easily. Jared imagined the response of the kids at school next week. His mum kept assuring him that everyone would understand and that they would all welcome him back with open arms. He nodded and smiled to make her feel better, honouring the unspoken agreement amongst teenagers.
He was running out of time. A guy’s life was hanging in the balance and he couldn’t find the damn house. Jared stood staring at the dog, out of biting range, and chewing his own lip. He pressed his temple. His mind could still bring forth a vague picture of the house, an image from a long ago birthday party, tinged with the filter of childhood innocence. Had he ever looked at the letter box? Fifty-something? Or did it end in a five? Jared could remember the colours of the balloons hanging from the letter box—blue and green—but nothing that would actually help him now. He wound the drawstring of his jacket around his index finger until it began to cut off circulation. He set off running again. He was sure it was this street. He would check every house. Time to ditch the jacket.
Alex sat on the edge of the bath tub, willing himself to walk out of the room. Talking himself into staying. Trying to convince himself that what he was about to do was his only choice. A slip of the knife, or a gulp of the pills. A tug of the noose, maybe, but that required more work. A millisecond of courage. That was all it took. He reread the note then folded it gently, neatly, on the bathroom bench.
I couldn’t go on like this. I’m sorry Mum, Dad, Jessie. I love you all, and I’ll see you again one day.
Short and sweet. So why the hesitation?
The one with the dog. Of course. Jared rubbed his hands together. Alrighty, then. He reached slowly into his pocket for the squashed, more than slightly melted, Kinder Surprise as the dog spat and growled at him. The stained teeth its curling lip revealed looked like they could still do the job. “Here you go.” Jared offered the kinder surprise. His phone buzzed in his pocket, diverting his attention for just long enough to remember the following phrase: Mom says chocolate isn’t good for dogs. . . . Jared snatched it back into his pocket. Damn.
Distraction was his only option left. He wasn’t exactly a dog whisperer. Jared threw the kinder surprise to the right side of the yard, hoping to land it outside the fence, just beyond Lassie’s reach, and prepared to make a run for it. He’d beg his legs for forgiveness later.
He reached the door without tripping more than once, and tugged at the fly screen as the dog raced back, teeth bared and aimed at his bum.
“It’s the postie!” he yelled, pulling at the door handle, as he saw a curtain flutter to the left. His social life was over.
Alex looked the same as everyone else. Maybe Jared had read the signs wrong. I mean, Alex was basically top of the food chain at Westlake High School. The lion. And lions didn’t think suicidal thoughts, or do suicidal things, to Jared’s knowledge at least. Yet he had cleared out his locker completely. Everything, even the girly pictures tacked to the door. It was a lot of effort to go to, just for the weekend. If Alex wasn’t a lion, Jared would say that he was identical in some ways to himself, the runt zebra of the school yard.
Jared thought back to a Friday afternoon last year when he had cleared out his own locker, carefully, considerately. He hadn’t received any concerned or even curious questions. Not one person had even asked what, or why. Their eyes had slid over him as if asking a question was too much effort, on to the next thing with vague hopes that he would be okay. The few people Jared had taken pains to hide this from had not seen him with his arms full. ‘
Jared would watch Alex sometimes in homeroom, or P.E., and wonder what his life was like. He thought being that popular must come with a certain amount of pressure, which he didn’t envy, but surely it had its perks too. Jared was pretty sure Alex didn’t think about him, at least not anymore.
They had never been friends, as such. But there was a time when they had been friendly over a joint history assignment. It was the only time Jared had ever been to Alex’s house, apart from the primary school party. Alex’s mum had apparently made him invite the whole class so Jared didn’t consider his invitation too special.
Jared now watched Alex laugh as one of his muscular friends punched him playfully in the shoulder, every bit the high school cliché.
According to the rumour mill, Alex had been in some kind of accident while up on the Sunshine Coast over summer break. He’d apparently been water skiing or something with a bunch of his mates and gotten some kind of injury, presumably serious. Word gets around. But when he came back all seemed to be well, with the exception of sitting out in P.E. for the first four weeks. But Alex kept on smiling. What didn’t get around was what exactly the injury was.
“What are you looking at, Jareldine?” asked Alex’s friend, Ben, with a smirk that Jared wished he had the nerve to wipe off the guy’s face. How original, Jared thought, but averted his eyes quickly.
There had to be another reason. And yet, empty lockers spoke for themselves.
Alex grabbed his phone off the edge of the basin and plugged in his headphones. Something to make the room feel less silent, and judging. He surveyed his options laid out on the vanity and slowly inched his hand towards the knife, stolen from the second kitchen drawer. His fingers trembled as he shuffled his palm up toward it like an awkward army crawl. It seemed like a quick option, and not at all girly. And tile didn’t stain.
His dad would be home first. He wanted to spare his mum and Jessie. He quickly reached over for the pen and added, “This is not your fault” in messy letters to his note. There was a crash outside and Callie was barking. He listened for a moment, popping one of the earphones out. Was that someone outside the house? But Callie stopped barking, and he couldn’t hear anything else. Great, now he was paranoid. What time did his dad say he’d be home again? Pulling the knife into his lap, he refocused. This time he was not just messing around.
Jared waited primly outside the sick bay, trying not to look like he was listening to the conversation through the door, but truth be told he’d always been an awful eavesdropper. And he couldn’t help himself if people were going to raise their voices. People walked by to and from the school office.
“This really is a worry, son. Legally I should report this, ‘specially since it looks self-inflicted. An accident? Come on, I wasn’t born yesterday. At least let me call your parents.” A pause. “They’re not home? Well, when are they home?” An indistinct murmur. “Ah . . . I see. Well, go back to class for now, but I expect to see you next week.”
Alex Grayson opened the door, looking both ways then locking eyes on Jared. Jared stared so hard to the left that he thought he’d give himself a crick, but before he’d looked away they’d both registered the mutual surprise. Alex readjusted his long left sleeve ever so slightly but the movement caught Jared’s eye. A fresh bandage winked at him before disappearing behind navy cotton blend.
“What are you doing here?” The nurse had opened the door behind him. “Alex,” she jerked her head. “Class, if you don’t mind?” She eyed Jared. “And you?”
Jared held up his right index finger, a few drops of blood dripping half-heartedly down it. “It’s nothing. Miss Crandie didn’t want blood on my essay, that’s all.” He tried smiling to take away the awkwardness, but had always had a tendency to increase rather than lessen awkward situations.
The nurse leaned back into the room without taking her hand off the door frame—inhospitable body language if Jared ever saw some—and he heard her mutter, “And you think iPads in schools these days would at least reduce the papercut rates . . .” She shoved a band aid in Jared’s direction with a humph.
“I know,” he said, jerking his head to the right. “Class.”
The 6 o’clock news ended while his dad grunted over the newspaper. At the table, Alex glared down at his half written English essay and tried to tune out the new program that was starting. One of those A Current Affair type shows, where they bring the ‘real issues’ to light for the world to gasp and marvel over.
A woman was being interviewed, some kind of doctor. “Is it true that your research has proven a strong link between the repression of male emotion in the western world and a higher rate of suicide?” Focus on Shakespeare. This Macbeth was a real bastard. A hot flush crept up Alex’s neck. “Men, especially teenagers, need to feel that they are allowed to be struggling. Allowed to ask for help.” Who were the three witches again? Thank goodness for Sparknotes.
“Turn this rubbish off,” his dad said, gesturing an impatient hand toward the flat screen TV, even though he was closest to it. He turned the page of his newspaper.
Alex’s mum hesitated as she looked between the television and her husband. Her words “I think it’s interesting” were lost in the sound of him slapping the paper down on the coffee table with a sudden smile. Alex slouched lower in his chair, picking at the table’s reclaimed wood.
“What’s for dinner?” His dad approached the table and glanced over Alex’s shoulder at Macbeth. “What rot. Haven’t they found something better to read by now?” He mussed Alex’s hair as Alex laughed half-heartedly, but the words of the television doctor repeated in his head.
Three simple words. Are you okay? It shouldn’t have been that hard to say them, and yet it was. Jared imagined all the possible humiliating responses, especially if Alex’s friends had been around. But weren’t those three words the very thing that Alex needed? The words that, if spoken, could have averted disaster. But he couldn’t find the courage, and so stayed dangerously silent. He’d let Alex walk away with his stack of books, just like his fellow students had done the previous year to him. He felt haunted by his own hypocrisy as he fiddled with the fly screen door. Was it locked from the inside or just stuck? He jiggled it with more force, no longer caring if ‘property damager’ was part of the label beside his name. It could join the line behind words like ‘loser’, and ‘gay’.
“But it was just water skiing. A few stitches, laying off exercise for a while, sure, but I swear I’m fine.”
“Alex, I know it’s hard to accept.” The doctor clasped his hands and unclasped them on the desk, his words aggravatingly slow. Like that would somehow make this easier. “And while, yes, physically you will heal, this is something that I’m afraid is not going to bounce back.”
“You’re sure?” Alex gripped the sides of his shorts, wiping off the sweat. “I don’t believe you.”
“Yes. I’m sorry, son. Having kids is—would have been—a long way off though. Most guys your age haven’t really thought about this stuff yet.”
But Alex had. And telling Kelsey was something he couldn’t even bear the thought of.
“Your mum says you’ve been battling with a bit a bit of depression and anxiety lately . . .” The sentence hung in the air; an invitation to bear his soul.
“Look I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I’m fine. Thanks though.”
Jared was in a real panic now. He shook the screen door furiously. Was he already too late? He hadn’t seen that curtain flutter again, and there was obviously no one else home. If there had been, they would have come out several minutes ago, demanding to know what the hell this skinny stranger was doing on their veranda. He’d found a broom leaning up against the front of the house to ward off the dog, but he was out of kinder surprises and Lassie had already gotten two decent nips in.
“I’m trying to help,” he grunted to her as he gave the heave that finally unstuck the door—or broke its lock. Evidently the family relied heavily on the fly screen door, because the actual door was unlocked. He fell through the doorway, panting, and shut the door in the dog’s face, not caring for the moment if he squashed her nose. He wondered if this was what having a heart attack felt like, but it was no time for speculating. Jared opened one door, surprising an already frightened tabby cat, then another. “Alex?” Nothing. He strode through a vaguely familiar living room. What if his instincts were off? Would he get done for breaking and entering? No time. He followed the passage way. Past an empty bedroom that he presumed was Alex’s. The contents of his locker were spilled across the bed and water skis sat skewwhiff on a shelf above the desk. How was this going to go down? They weren’t even friends. He faced two closed doors at the end of the hallway.
“Alex?” He tried again. “It’s me, Jared. From school. I just thought . . .”
His hand trembled on the door handle for a second. He thrust open the door as the knife clattered to the tiled bathroom floor.
“What the?” Alex Grayson looked up in about as much shock as a person could be in. “What are you doing here?” His face was unusually pale and his hair was sticking a bit to his clammy forehead. Jared looked at Alex’s muscular forearm, the scars making a trail right down to his wrist.
Jared turned his own arm skinny arm around and offered it to Alex. “Um, I saw you clear out your locker yesterday and I just came to ask you something.”