فصل 42

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فصل 42

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Day 71

Life Is Life meets on the grounds of the arboretum in a nearby Ohio town, which shall remain nameless. This isn’t a nature class, but a support group for teens who are thinking about, or have attempted, or have survived, suicide. I found it on the internet.

I get into Little Bastard and drive to Ohio. I am tired. I am avoiding seeing Violet. It’s exhausting trying to even myself out and be careful around her, so careful, like I’m picking my way through a minefield, enemy soldiers on every side. Must not let her see. I’ve told her I’ve come down with some sort of bug and don’t want to get her sick.

The Life Is Life meeting takes place in a large room with wood paneling and radiators that jut out from the walls. We sit around two long tables pushed together, as if we’re going to be doing homework or taking tests. Two pitchers of water sit at either end, with brightly colored Dixie cups stacked up beside them. There are four plates of cookies.

The counselor is a guy named Demetrius, who is this very pale black guy with green eyes. For those of us who haven’t been here before, he tells us he’s getting his doctorate at the local college, and Life Is Life is in its twelfth year, even though he’s only been running it for the past eleven months. I want to ask what happened to the last counselor, but don’t in case it’s not a pretty story.

The kids file in, and they look just like the ones we have in Bartlett. I don’t recognize any of them, which is why I drove twenty-five miles to get here. Before I take my seat, one of the girls sidles up to me and says, “You are really tall.”

“I’m older than I look.”

She smiles in what she probably thinks is a seductive way, and I add, “Gigantism runs in my family. After high school, I’m required to join the circus because by the time I’m twenty the doctors predict I’ll be over seven feet.”

I want her to go away because I’m not here to make friends, and then she does. I sit and wait and wish I hadn’t come. Everyone is helping themselves to the cookies, which I don’t touch because I know each of those brands may or may not contain something disgusting called bone char, which is from the bones of animals, and then I can’t even look at the cookies or at the people eating them. I stare out the window, but the trees of the arboretum are thin and brown and dead, and so I keep my eyes on Demetrius, who sits in the middle where we can all see him.

He recites facts I already know about suicide and teenagers, and then we go around the room and say our names and how old we are and the thing we’ve been diagnosed with and if we’ve had any firsthand experience trying to kill ourselves. Then we say the phrase “____ is life,” as in whatever strikes us in that moment as something to celebrate, like “Basketball is life,” “School is life,” “Friends are life,” “Making out with my girlfriend is life.” Anything that reminds us how good it is to be alive.

A number of these kids have the slightly dull, vacant look of people on drugs, and I wonder what they’re taking to keep them here and breathing. One girl says, “Vampire Diaries is life,” and a couple of the other girls giggle. Another says, “My dog is life even when she’s eating my shoes.”

When it’s my turn, I introduce myself as Josh Raymond, seventeen, no previous experience beyond my recent halfhearted experiment with sleeping pills. “The Jovian-Plutonian gravitational effect is life,” I add, even though no one knows what this means.

At that moment the door opens and someone runs in, letting the cold air in with her. She is hatted and scarved and mittened up tightly, unwrapping herself like a mummy as she finds her seat. We all turn and Demetrius smiles a comforting smile. “Come in, no worries, we’re just getting started.”

The mummy sits down, losing the scarf, mittens, and hat. She turns away from me, blond ponytail swinging, as she hooks her purse strap over her chair. She settles back, smoothing the loose strands of hair off her cheeks, which are pink from the cold, and leaves her coat on. “I’m sorry,” Amanda Monk mouths at Demetrius, at the table. When her eyes get around to me, her face goes completely and immediately blank.

Demetrius nods at her. “Rachel, why don’t you go ahead?”

Amanda, as Rachel, avoids looking at me. In a wooden voice, she recites, “I’m Rachel, I’m seventeen, I’m bulimic, and I tried to kill myself twice, both times with pills. I hide myself away with smiles and gossip. I am not happy at all. My mother is making me come here. Secrecy is life.” She says this last line to me and then looks away.

The others take their turns, and by the time we get all the way around, it’s clear I am the only one here who hasn’t tried to really and truly kill himself. It makes me feel superior, even though it shouldn’t, and I can’t help thinking, When I actually try, I’m not going to miss. Even Demetrius has a story. These people are here and trying to get help and they’re alive, after all.

But the whole thing is heartbreaking. Between thoughts of bone char, and stories of wrist cutting and hangings, and bitchy Amanda Monk with her little pointed chin jutted out, so exposed and scared, I want to put my head on the table and let the Long Drop just come. I want to get away from these kids who never did anything to anyone except be born with different brains and different wiring, and from the people who aren’t here to eat these bone char cookies and share their tales, and the ones who didn’t make it and never had a chance. I want to get away from the stigma they all clearly feel just because they have an illness of the mind as opposed to, say, an illness of the lungs or blood. I want to get away from all the labels. “I’m OCD,” “I’m depressed,” “I’m a cutter,” they say, like these are the things that define them. One poor bastard is ADHD, OCD, BPD, bipolar, and on top of it all has some sort of anxiety disorder. I don’t even know what BPD stands for. I’m the only one who is just Theodore Finch.

A girl with a fat black braid and glasses says, “My sister died of leukemia, and you should have seen the flowers and the sympathy.” She holds up her wrists, and even across the table I can see the scars. “But when I nearly died, no flowers were sent, no casseroles were baked. I was selfish and crazy for wasting my life when my sister had hers taken away.”

This makes me think of Eleanor Markey, and then Demetrius talks about medicines that are out there and helpful, and everyone volunteers the names of the drugs that are helping them get through. A boy at the other end of the table says the only thing he hates is feeling like everyone else. “Don’t get me wrong—I’d rather be here than dead—but sometimes I feel that everything that, like, makes me up has gone away.”

I stop listening after that.

When it’s over, Demetrius asks me what I thought, and I tell him it was eye-opening and enlightening and other things along those lines to make him feel good about the work he is doing, and then I chase down Amanda, as Rachel, in the parking lot before she can run away. “I’m not going to say anything to anyone.”

“You better not. I’m so serious.” Her eyes are wild, her face flushed.

“If I do, you can just tell them I’m a freak. They’ll believe you. They’ll think I’m just making shit up. Besides, I was expelled, remember?” She looks away. “So do you still think about it?”

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.” She looks up. “What about you? Were you really going to jump off the bell tower before Violet talked you down?”

“Yes and no.”

“Why do you do that? Don’t you get tired of people talking about you?”

“Including you?”

She goes quiet.

“I do it because it reminds me to be here, that I’m still here and I have a say in the matter.”

She puts one leg in the car and says, “I guess now you know you’re not the only freak.” It’s the nicest thing she’s ever said to me.


March 18

I don’t hear from Finch for a day, then two days, then three days. By the time I get home from school on Wednesday, it’s snowing.

The roads are white, and I’ve wiped out a half dozen times on Leroy. I find my mom in her office and ask if I can borrow her car.

It takes her a moment to find her voice. “Where are you going?”

“To Shelby’s house.” Shelby Padgett lives on the other side of town. I’m amazed at how easily the words come out of my mouth.

I act like the fact that I’m asking if I can drive her car, when I haven’t driven in a year, is no big deal, but my mom is staring at me. She continues to stare as she hands me her keys and follows me to the door and down the sidewalk. And then I can see that she’s not just staring, she’s crying.

“I’m sorry,” she says, wiping at her eyes. “We just weren’t sure … we didn’t know if we’d ever see you drive again. The accident changed a lot of things and it took a lot of things.

Not that driving, in the great scheme of life, is so important, but you shouldn’t have to think twice about it at your age, except to

be careful….”

She’s kind of babbling, but she looks happy, which only makes me feel worse about lying to her. I hug her before climbing in behind the wheel. I wave and smile and start the engine and say out loud, “Okay.”

I pull away slowly, still waving and smiling but wondering what in the hell I think I’m doing.

I’m shaky at first because it’s been so long and I wasn’t sure I’d ever drive again either. I jerk myself black and blue because I keep hitting the brakes. But then I think of Eleanor beside me, letting me drive home after I got my license.

You can drive me everywhere now , little sister. You’ll he my chauffeur. I’ll sit in the back, put my feet up, and just enjoy the view.

I look over at the passenger seat and I can almost see her, smiling at me, not even glancing at the road, as if she doesn’t need to look because she trusts me to know what I’m doing without her help. I can see her leaning back against the know what I’m doing without her help.

I can see her leaning back against the door, knees under her chin, laughing at something, or singing along with the music. I can almost hear her.

By the time I get to Finch’s neighborhood, I’m cruising along smoothly, like someone who’s been driving for years. A woman answers the door, and this must be his mother because her eyes are the same bright-sky blue as Finch’s. It’s strange to think, after all this time, I’m only meeting her now.

I hold out my hand and say, “I’m Violet. It’s nice to meet you. I’ve come to see Finch.” It occurs to me that maybe she’s never heard of me, so I add, “Violet Markey.”

She shakes my hand and says, “Of course. Violet. Yes. He should be home from school by now.” She doesn’t know he’s been expelled. She is wearing a suit, but she’s in her stocking feet. There’s a kind of faded, weary prettiness to her.

“Come on in. I’m just getting home myself.” I follow her into the kitchen. Her purse sits on the breakfast table next to a set of car keys, and her shoes are on the floor. I hear a television from the other room, and Mrs. Finch calls, “Decca?” In a moment I hear a distant “What?” “Just checking.” Mrs. Finch smiles at me and offers me something to drink— water, juice, soda—as she pours herself a glass of wine from a corked bottle in the fridge. I tell her water’s fine, and she asks ice or no ice, and I say no ice, even though I like it better cold.

Kate walks in and waves hello. “Hey.”

“Hey. I came to see Finch.”

They chat with me like everything is normal, like he hasn’t been expelled, and Kate pulls something out of the freezer and sets the temperature on the oven. She tells her mother to remember to listen for the buzzer and then tugs on her coat.

“He’s probably upstairs. You can go on up.”

I knock on the door to his room, but don’t get any answer. I knock again.

“Finch? It’s me.”

I hear a shuffling, and the door opens. Finch wears pajama bottoms but no shirt, and glasses. His hair spikes up in all directions, and I think, Nerd Finch.

He gives me a lopsided grin and says, “The only person I want to see. My Jovian- Plutonian gravitational effect.” He moves out of the way so I can come in.

The room has been stripped bare, down to the sheets on the bed. It looks like a vacant blue hospital room, waiting to be made up for the next patient. Two medium-sized brown boxes are stacked by the door.

My heart does this weird little flip. “It almost looks like—are you moving?” “No, I just cleared some things out. Giving a few things to Goodwill.” “Are you feeling okay?” I try not to sound like the blaming girlfriend. Why

won’t you spend time with me? Why won’t you call me back? Don’t you like me anymore?

“Sorry, Ultraviolet. I’m still feeling kind of under the weather. Which, when you think about it, is a very odd expression. One that finds its origins in the sea—as in a sailor or passenger feels seasick from the storm, and they send him below to get out of the bad weather.”

“But you’re better now?”

“It was touch-and-go for a while, but yeah.” He grins and pulls on a shirt.

“Want to see my fort?”

“Is that a trick question?”

“Every man needs a fort, Ultraviolet. A place to let his imagination run wild. A ‘No Trespassing/No Girls Allowed’ type of space.”

“If no girls are allowed, why are you letting me see it?” “Because you’re not just any girl.”

He opens the door to his closet, and it actually looks pretty cool. He’s made a kind of cave for himself, complete with guitar and computer and notebooks of staff paper, along with pens and stacks of Post-its. My picture is tacked to the blue wall along with a license plate.

“Other people might call it an office, but I like fort better.”

He offers me a seat on the blue comforter and we sit side by side, shoulder to shoulder, backs against the wall. He nods at the opposite wall, and that’s when I see the pieces of paper there, kind of like his Wall of Ideas, but not as many or as cluttered.

“So I’ve discovered I think better in here. It gets loud out there sometimes between Decca’s music and my mom yelling at my dad over the phone. You’re lucky you live in a house of no yelling.” He writes down House of no yelling and sticks it onto the wall.

Then he hands me a pen and a pad of Post-its. “Want to try?” “Just anything?”

“Anything. Positive ones go on the wall, negative on the floor over there.” He points to this heap of ripped-up paper. “It’s important to get those down, but they don’t need to hang around after you do. Words can be bullies. Remember Paula Cleary?” I shake my head. “She was fifteen when she moved to the States from Ireland and started dating some idiot guy the other girls loved.

They called her ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ and worse and wouldn’t let her alone until she hanged herself in a stairwell.”

I write Bully and hand it to Finch, who rips it into a hundred pieces and throws it on the heap. I write Mean girls and then shred it to bits. I write Accidents, Winter, Ice, and Bridge, and tear at the paper until it’s only dust.

Finch scribbles something and slaps it to the wall. Welcome. He scribbles something else. Freak. He shows it to me before destroying it. He writes Belong, which goes on the wall, and Label, which doesn’t. Warmth, Saturday, Wander,You, Best friend go up, while Cold, Sunday, Stand still, Everyone else go into the heap.

Necessary, Loved, Understood, Forgiven are on the wall now, and then I write You, Finch, Theodore, Theo, Theodore Finch, and post them up.

We do this for a long time, and then he shows me how he makes a song out of the words. First he rearranges them into a kind of order that almost makes sense.

He grabs the guitar and strums out a tune and, just like that, starts singing. He manages to get every word in, and afterward I clap and he bows with the top half of his body since he’s still sitting on the floor, and I say, “You have to write it down. Don’t lose it.”

“I don’t ever write songs down.”

“What’s all that staff paper there?”

“Ideas for songs. Random notes. Things that’ll become songs. Things I might write about someday, or started once but didn’t finish because there wasn’t enough in them. If a song’s meant to stay around, you carry it with you in your bones.”

He writes I, want, to, have, sex, with, Ultraviolet, Remarkey-able. I write Maybe, which he immediately rips up. And then I write Okay.

He rips this up too.Yes!

He slaps this onto the wall and then kisses me, his arm circling my waist. Before I know it, I’m on my back and he’s looking down at me, and I am pulling off his shirt. Then his skin is on mine, and I’m on top of him, and for a while I forget we’re on the floor of a closet because all I can think of is him, us, him and me, Finch and Violet, Violet and Finch, and everything is okay again.

Afterward, I stare up at the ceiling, and when I look over at him, there is this strange look on his face. “Finch?” His eyes are fixed on something above us.

I poke him in the ribs. “Finch!” Finally his eyes turn to mine and he says, “Hey,” like he just remembered that I’m there. He sits up and rubs his face with his hands, and then he reaches for the Post-its. He writes Relax.

Then Breathe deeply. Then Violet is life. He fixes them to the wall and reaches for the guitar again. I rest my head against. He fixes them to the wall and reaches for the guitar again. I rest my head against his as he plays, changing the chords a little, but I can’t shake this feeling that something happened, like he went away for a minute and only part of him came back.

“Don’t tell anyone about my fort, okay, Ultraviolet?”

“Like not telling your family you got expelled?”

He writes Guilty and holds it up before ripping it into pieces.

“Okay.” Then I write Trust, Promise, Secret, Safe, and place them on the wall.

“Ahhhhh, and now I have to start over.” He closes his eyes, then plays the song again, adding in the words. It sounds sad the second time, as if he shifted to a minor key.

“I like your secret fort, Theodore Finch.” This time I rest my head on his

shoulder, looking at the words we’ve written and the song we’ve created, and then at the license plate again. I feel this strange need to move closer to him, as if he might get away from me. I lay one hand on his leg.

In a minute he says, “I get into these moods sometimes, and I can’t shake them.” He’s still strumming the guitar, still smiling, but his voice has gone serious.

“Kind of black, sinking moods. I imagine it’s what being in the eye of a tornado would be like, all calm and blinding at the same time. I hate them.”

I lace my fingers through his so that he has to stop playing. “I get moody too.

It’s normal. It’s what we’re supposed to do. I mean, we’re teenagers.” Just to prove it, I write Bad mood before tearing it up.

“When I was a kid, younger than Decca, there was this cardinal in our backyard that kept flying into the sliding glass doors of our house, over and over again until he knocked himself out.

Each time, I thought he was dead, but then he’d get up again and fly off. This little female cardinal sat and watched him from one of the trees, and I always thought it was his wife. Anyway, I begged my parents to

stop him from banging into the glass.

I thought he should come inside and live with us. Kate called the Audubon Society, and the man there said if it was his guess, the cardinal was probably just trying to get back to his tree, the one that had been standing there before someone came along and knocked it down and

built a house on top of it.”

He tells me about the day the cardinal died, about finding the body on the back deck, about burying him in the mud nest. “There was nothing to make him last a long time,” Finch told his parents afterward. He said he always blamed them because he knew they could have been the thing that made the cardinal last if they’d only let it in like he’d asked them to.

“That was the first black mood. I don’t remember much that happened after that, not for a little while at least.”

The worried feeling is back. “Have you ever talked to anyone? Do your parents or Kate—or maybe one of the counselors …?”

“Parents, no. Kate, not really. I’ve been talking to a counselor at school.” I look around the closet, at the comforter we’re sitting on, at the pillows, the water jug, the energy bars, and that’s when it hits me. “Finch, are you living in here?”

“I’ve been in here before. Eventually, it works. I’ll wake up one morning and feel like coming out.” He smiles at me, and the smile seems hollow. “I kept your secret; you keep mine.”

When I get home, I open the door to my closet and walk inside. It’s larger than Finch’s but packed full of clothes, shoes, purses, jackets. I try to imagine what it would be like to live in here and feel I couldn’t come out.

I lie down flat and would be like to live in here and feel I couldn’t come out. I lie down flat and stare up at the ceiling. The floor is hard and cold. In my head, I write: There was a hoy who lived in a closet… But that’s as far as I get.

I’m not claustrophobic, but when I open the door and walk back into my room, I feel like I can breathe again.

At dinner, my mom says, “Did you have a fun time with Shelby?” She raises her eyebrows at my dad. “Violet drove to Shelby’s house after school. As in drove.”

My dad clinks his glass against mine. “Proud of you, V. Maybe it’s time we talk about getting you a car of your own.”

They’re so excited over this that I feel even guiltier about lying. I wonder what they’d do if I told them where I really was—having sex with the boy they don’t want me to see in the closet where he’s living.

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