He had popped eight pills before you made it home from school, twelve before you had the mind to call an ambulance. It felt like any other day, until it wasn’t.
“How many more did you take?” you shake him, cupping his shoulder joints in your hands. “How many?”
“I don’t ‘member.” His skin is melting; it feels like your hands are submerged underwater as you hold him. You prop him upright and check the bottle. There are five little white pills left, and when you shake the bottle he follows the sound with his eyes, as if God himself is going to climb out and save him.
“I’m calling 911.”
“Don’ worry ’bout it. I’m good.”
You reach for the phone on the end table and he fights you, his hands wrestling to grab onto any part of you, but missing every time.
Then he stops breathing.
He grabs at his throat, his tiny pupils disappearing inside his bulging eyes. He falls to the couch and starts scratching at his neck, scraping off little bits of skin with every swipe.
“911 what’s your emergency?”
You blink and you’re back at the office. It’s 3:45 and you should have clocked out fifteen minutes ago. You put your computer to sleep, slip your coat off the back of your chair, and sling your book bag over your shoulder. Various co-workers tell you goodbye and have a good one and see you tomorrow and you just nod and wave to the ones you like and walk out into the cold. You wish you had brought your friend the book you’d bought her a few weeks ago for her birthday and you feel bad because you’re going to meet her right now and you’ve forgotten three times already. But she’s the kind of friend that really only keeps you around so she has someone to talk about herself to and you realize that she probably forgot that you never gave her the book in the first place. You wonder what she would do if you could actually tell her what was going on in your life because she never lets you get more than a few words in at a time. And you ask yourself why you keep people like that around but you keep walking towards the café anyway.
The first time your brother got caught drinking, your mom asked him why he drank so much at once, and he told her that nobody loved him before he fell back into unconsciousness and a part of her died that day. He slept for sixteen hours. You remember creeping into his room and lifting up his comforter, just to watch his chest go up and down. You remember sticking your finger under his nose, the same nose that you have, and waiting for his exhales. You went back in your room and sat on your knees with your hands clasped together, knowing that God wasn’t real but crying to him anyway.
He told everyone he was upset because he liked Ashley Evans at school and he asked her out for homecoming and she said no and he came home and just wanted to get drunk, and he snuck into your neighbors’ house and mixed all the liquor they had together into a huge plastic cup and then drank and drank until he threw up all over himself and your mom came home from work, hours later, and found him passed out naked in her shower with scalding hot water burning his back. Maybe he had something else going on that no one bothered to tell you about; some depression or anxiety that would explain his dangerous tendencies. Maybe he was just stupid. But you’ve learned to stop asking questions because nothing makes sense anyway.
The next day mom and dad sat him down. You weren’t invited to the conversation, so you camped out on the stairway to listen in. They told him that they were disappointed, that he wasn’t doing well in school and now this? That they’d lost their trust in him and it would take a lot of work to regain it. They told him that they’d been hearing a lot of rumors from other parents about what he’d been doing all those late nights out, and he told them that it was all bullshit and they were just making it up out of thin air. He told them that there were plenty of times you’ve gone out and gotten drunk and you’re not even in high school yet, and why didn’t you ever get punished for anything? And you were so mad at him for ratting you out that you wanted to run down there and tell them everything you knew about him, all the little secrets you kept for him.
A car honks at you while you’re crossing the street and you realize you’re going down the wrong road. You don’t want to go down the alleyway so you decide to keep going and just turn down Grand Avenue and double back because Grand always has more cars and more people and you feel safer. And you wonder if your friend will be mad that you’re late because you don’t like to walk in the dark and the longer it takes you to get there the less time she has to tell you everything new in her life since the last time you saw her.
A few years later he wrecked his dirt bike showing off to the girl down the street and broke his back in a few places and then came all the ugliness: the little white pills and everything else that followed. You remember visiting him in the emergency room and your dad was sitting in a chair fuming because he wanted to yell but you were in public and your mom was crying hysterically because she doesn’t do well at hospitals. And all he could say was I feel so good and this shit is magical and what is this shit anyway? While the girl in the bed next to him had her fibula sticking out of her calf and she was screaming so loud that you could feel it in your teeth and all you wanted was for the doctors to give her some of that magical shit your brother was having.
Sometimes, when you feel like torturing yourself with worry, you imagine that he’d died from the overdose. In your worst moments, you even find yourself wishing that he had died because of everything he’s done to you, to your parents, to himself. You imagine that his funeral is small, that all of his friends show up in groups inappropriately dressed and reeking of cigarette smoke. You imagine that your dad has this look of humiliation on his face because now everyone knows his son was a drug addict and he couldn’t save him. Your mom is a wreck. She has aged incredibly in a matter of days. You imagine that you did her hair for her before the service because she’s not good with a curling iron, but by the time you reach the cemetery it has already fallen apart. You imagine her when she cries. She has a wet spot above her pallid, sunken chest where all the tears keep pooling, and every once in a while she rubs her palm across it and wipes it off on her tatty dress pants. You don’t speak to her once. What can you say? It’s okay, he’s happy now; he’s off living in the heaven none of us believe in? He had a great life? She did everything she could?
Then you remember that you’re not at your brother’s funeral. You’re sitting outside a café with your best friend and she’s talking about her new boyfriend that she’s so in love with and you just nod your head after you find your way back into the conversation so that she’ll keep talking and you won’t have to.
“He’s literally perfect. I wasn’t going to date anyone for a while after what happened with Joey, but then Jared just appeared out of thin air.” She takes a sip of her coffee and the steam bends around her nose, rising up in twin paths towards the bright gray sky. You squint even though you can’t see the sun hidden behind all the wispy clouds. You’re content here in the city’s busy silence, gazing up into the fresh sky, feeling every hair on your arms stand up as you wrap them around your torso. But you know that you’re supposed to say something to fill the silence; that she’s waiting for you to ask her something else about this new boyfriend and she’s looking at you like she just might explode if you wait any longer.
“Where did you meet him again?”
“At that conference in San Fran. He’s working for a congressman there. We’re like the exact same person. I’m thinking I might move there. Is it too soon?”
Yes, it is most definitely too soon, but you don’t tell her that because she just did that thing when she tells you something exciting where she clasps her hands together and pulls them into her chest and stomps her feet on the ground repeatedly; and besides, she won’t listen to you anyway. “No, I guess not. I just wouldn’t move in with him right away. You barely even know him.” You stick your finger in the foam coating the top of your drink and swirl it around until it disappears.
“Yeah, but he’s got an extra room and he said he won’t charge me rent or anything.” She has that defensive tone that you’ve learned means don’t tell me what to do and you know she’s already decided. You don’t care enough to take the argument any further.
After a while she says it’s cold and we should go inside and you tell her you like the cold because it makes you feel like you’re still alive and she looks at you funny and then gets up and keeps talking about her boyfriend and his quaint little apartment in San Francisco and how her whole life seems to be falling into place.
You’re walking home and you remember when your brother taught you to rollerblade because dad was a car salesman and wasn’t ever around on weekends to teach you. He helped strap your blades on, and then pulled you up off the driveway and let you revel in the beauty of balancing on wheels for a while. Then he held you up and pushed you lightly down the block, letting go of your back and then running after you to make sure you didn’t fall down, and you got going too fast and hit a bump and fell down, and he had this look on his face like he’d never forgive himself for letting you fall, for not keeping his hands poised right behind you just in case you needed someone to catch you. The teenagers that lived across the street saw you crying and started laughing and pointing because you were too old to still be learning how to rollerblade, what were you, retarded? And he yelled across the street at them and flipped them off and they were so baffled by a twelve-year-old confronting them that they gave up and went inside. And he picked the pebbles out of the gash on your knee and carried you back into the house and told mom that you didn’t even cry that much and you’re getting really good at it. And as your mom brushed your hair away from your sweaty forehead with her cool palm she told you that you have the best big brother in the world and the worst part is that you believed her.
You get home to your apartment just before dark and your roommate is there but she’s splayed all over the floor reading an article for one of her night classes and barely notices that you’re home; and you go straight in the bathroom and turn the water on and cry for a while before getting in and washing your hair. And when you get out you sit on the toilet in your towel with your hair dripping down your back and on the floor and you close your eyes and try not to remember what you’ve been halfway thinking about all day. But it comes anyway.
When you were in high school your brother went to take a shower and left his friend in his room for a little bit and it was okay because He was like a brother to you and your family took Him in and He went on vacations with you and came over for dinner all the time and you were really glad that your brother had a friend that would actually talk to you and thought that you were cool since your brother thought you were a loser because you did too well in school and really he was just jealous. And you were changing in your room and He came in and you told Him to get out because you didn’t have a shirt on and He said why it’s just like you’re wearing a swimsuit and you were so scared of Him when He grabbed your arm that you didn’t put up a fight and then He grabbed your chest and you couldn’t breathe and you wanted to scream but your brother was in the shower and no one else was home and you closed your eyes and floated away.
When you told your mom what happened she said He couldn’t come over anymore and your brother told her you were lying and he didn’t talk to you for a week. And your brother invited Him over whenever your parents weren’t home and He’d give you this smirk like He had something planned for you so you’d sit at the park until 5:30 when you knew your mom would be home and He wouldn’t be there. And every time you tried to talk to your brother about it, he just screamed at you and you wanted to scream back but you always started crying first and so you’ve never told him any of this.
If you could scream back, you’d tell him that yes, it really happened. That if he weren’t so interested in his little white pills then maybe he would have been able to tell that it was real. And some nights when you still lived at home you couldn’t fall asleep because all you would think about was Him coming for you in the middle of the night, because He knew what your car looked like and where you lived and could easily deduce when you were alone and vulnerable and least expecting it. And that sometimes still, even in broad daylight, you can’t breathe because you know there’s a man walking behind you and you’re horrified that he might try to do something to you and you tell yourself that you’re being ridiculous and not everyone is like Him and it’s the middle of the day for Christ’s sake but you’re still scared. And that sometimes you’re afraid to be in public, especially at parties and bars around men you don’t know because they smell like He did and they’re sloppy and pushy and when one of them gets too close you get this feeling like you don’t weigh anything and your insides start tingling like they are disappearing and you’re just floating away from the Earth because you can’t stop inhaling.
By the time you find yourself again you’re back in the bathroom and there’s a puddle on the floor and you’re shivering and your roommate is ready to break down the door because you’ve been in there so long and she has to pee. And you dry your hair with your towel and wipe up the puddle and open the door for her and she doesn’t notice a thing.
After your brother went to rehab during your senior year of high school his counselor told him that he had to go through and tell everyone in his life that he was sorry and he passed by you in the bathroom one morning and said I’m sorry for everything and it wasn’t even close to enough but when the time finally came to scream back at him you just said it’s okay and spit out your toothpaste and that was it.
And years later when he got clean for real this time and broke up with his girlfriend and moved back in with your parents while you were home from college for the weekend, he asked you to sit in the back of his truck and drink beer with him so you did. And the whole time you sat comforting him you wondered if it would be a good time to talk about Him but you didn’t because things were going so good and he hadn’t talked to you like this in years and you didn’t want to ruin it.
Your roommate takes you out to the movies because she’s sick of studying and you don’t really want to go but she knows you have nothing better to do so she forces you to come. When you get inside the theater you scan the audience and you see a tall tan man with blonde hair and a prominent jawline and a scowl on his face. And you have moments like these more often than you would like, where you think you see His face in a crowded room, and you begin to weigh your anger against your fear but before you decide whether to run away or confront him you realize that his nose is a little longer and he’s a little heavier than He was and you start to breathe again, but your heart continues to flutter around inside your chest and your palms get sweaty and it takes you quite a while to calm down. And you’re angry that you did this to yourself again because once you think you’ve seen Him, you start to see Him everywhere and the cycle repeats itself all over again.
You see your brother every time the family gets together. He never asks you how you’re doing or what’s new unless he runs out of things to say and by that time you’ve already talked yourself out of telling him the truth. You think he’s finally stopped doing drugs but you’re always worried because you still love him even though you hate him.
You start writing down all the little things you feel because you have this idea in your head that if you write it down on paper, your mind will be free to let it go and maybe if you write down enough your brain won’t have enough ammunition to hurt you anymore and you can finally start living again. You carry your little journal around everywhere you go and it becomes this sick sort of possession that you obsess over and you always subconsciously check for it in your bag to make sure you haven’t lost it even though you wish you could lose everything it contains.
And when you write these little ideas, these anecdotes and things that remind you of things you don’t want to be reminded of, you start writing them in the second person because it just feels right. Because it makes it seem like you’re telling a story instead of living it yourself. And you wonder if anyone will ever read it, if when you grow old and die someone will find it when they’re rummaging through all your possessions. You wonder if they’ll be able to understand. But you realize that nobody can really understand experiences like these unless they’ve had them. Because they become these things you have to hide, and you’re told to keep them inside but hiding them makes them that much more powerful, and you think if you keep them in long enough they might just go away but then before you know it they consume you and they become all that’s left of you and everything else that you used to be disappears.
And you decide to start embellishing a little, because when you add details that aren’t real it makes the rest of it seem less real, like it doesn’t belong to you anymore. And the things you add start to scare you, like the part where you lie about your brother overdosing. And you think how sad it is that you’ve found yourself imagining his overdose, imagining his funeral. But you do it because you have to find some way to feel pity for him, to feel anything for him. And before you know it you’re telling a full-blown story, and you don’t understand what it is that you’re doing anymore, and you’re afraid of what’s coming out of you but you’re energized by the idea that you can finally escape, if you just keep putting pen to paper and swaddling yourself in this second person narrative, you might be able to pull some unattainable glint of happiness out of thin air.
You confront him the next time you’re home visiting your parents. He goes out on the patio for a cigarette after dinner and you tell yourself this is it and you follow him out and thank God no one else comes out with you. The smoke from his cigarette seeps out of his nose, the same nose that you have, and he looks up and blows a whole mouthful out in one clean puff. He asks you how you’ve been doing and you ask him if he wants to know the truth and he says yes but looks a little suspicious. And you just tell him. You have an extremely unpleasant conversation, but one that is as satisfying as it is going to get, and he stubs out his third cigarette and goes back inside. And you realize that it’s really cold outside now that the sun has gone down but you like it because it makes you feel like you’re still alive.
This is a reprint of work originally published in WritingRaw.
Kathryn Netzel is a junior at the University of Arizona, pursuing Bachelor’s degrees in Linguistics and Creative Writing.