A stirring work of fiction where memories of a devastating loss — oft suppressed by substances that fog memories and mute rumination — push a parent over the edge…
by: Chris Cooper ((Header artwork, entitled “Melancholy,” sculpted by Albert György.))
The cool mist from the crashing waves sprinkles against my skin as wisps of sea foam brush over my feet. Soft moistened sand lingers between our toes after each step we take. As a family, we continue our journey along the beach while sun rays caress our backs with welcoming warmth. Our son CJ breaks from our grasp and ventures into the shallow ocean, cackling as he splashes, smiling as he reaches down to retrieve a seashell.
Catherine’s hands extend around my waist, pulling me close as we watch CJ play in the water. Her delicate touch elicits goosebumps on the back of my neck as she nuzzles her chin into the crevice of my back. “I’m going to find you guys the biggest, most beautiful seashell,” CJ announces. He surveys the shallow waters, gravitating back towards us as he looks up and smiles, his glassy blue eyes reflecting a deeper hue than all the ocean, his wavy brown bowl-cut wavering in the wind as he pivots from hunting the ocean floor to glancing back at us. He is the complete amalgamation of Catherine and I. Curly locks of Catherine’s hazel hair graze my face as I look back over my shoulder at her; she whisks away her flowing strands to reveal a heartwarming smile. A moment before our lips touch, the indelible, guttural scream that pierced my heart the day our child died erupts from her mouth once again like a fucking siren, shattering my hearing as my eyes flash open.
Supine, staring at the ceiling, noticing the water blemishes overhead, inundated with a persistent mildew smell, I wonder if today will be the day. Maybe I’ll reach across the bed and my hands will find Catherine. I’ll retrieve the sweet redolence of lilac, the smell of her moisturizer, and she’ll gaze at me and smile. Her brown tresses will lay on the side of her face, circling her chin, and her sleepy eyes will evoke a warmth inside my chest, a settling that’ll make me fully present and grateful to be alive. Soon after, a boisterous boy wearing long socks to deter under-the-bed monsters from grabbing his feet while he’s sleeping will jump upon our bed and ask, “Can we have banana nut pancakes for breakfast?” But today isn’t that day, and tomorrow won’t be either.
Today is Tuesday or Wednesday, or maybe it’s Saturday, I don’t know. It’s either going to be warm outside, heated with the sunshine of summer, or it’s going to be dark, frigid, raining, maybe even snowing. It could be winter. I notice a faint glow emanating from underneath my bedroom window curtains, an indication it’s relatively early in the morning, so I ponder going back to sleep. But I can’t do that. Because today is going to be different.
I know I need to find a concoction that’ll imbue inspiration, so I reach across to my nightstand. Pushing aside the array of empty beer cans and the large oval ashtray, I retrieve two pill bottles. Pinching one container with the thumb and index finger of my left hand and squeezing the other with my right hand, I hold the prescriptions to my ears, shaking them, reveling in the clamor of capsules. Since my hospitalization expired several months after I lost my job, I reverted to combing the back pages of Craigslist to find Klonopin and Adderall for sale. Posts about ‘holistic breakfast’ were code for benzos and ones discussing ‘therapeutic ambition’ meant amphetamines. Although most of the time the pills were knockoffs, off-colored, navy blue instead of sky blue, purple instead of pink, lop-sided, and inscribed with hieroglyphics, I wasn’t going to let a little nuance or precariousness ruin a chance at chemical courage. Maybe, just maybe, I’d get lucky one day, and I’d get sold a batch laced with fentanyl, and then I’d never have to worry about waking up again or searching for inspiration to keep going on with this life. But if there’s one thing I do know, I’m not lucky.
I pull myself from the brittle bed sheets, scooting to the edge of the mattress to mix my medications on the side table. I can’t only take Benzodiazepine because that renders me comatose, somehow yielding me desensitized. My mouth ajar, my eyes heavy, my thoughts repressed, sedated, I become a pile of paralyzed flesh. I can’t only take amphetamines or a wave of conscientiousness will swarm, and I’ll spend thirteen minutes counting to five hundred, starting over after two hundred, just to make sure I didn’t miscount. Five hundred being an even, strong, formidable number, the kind of number I would aspire to be if I were an arithmetical value. Once I’d accomplish my count, I’d venture to clean my room, wiping down woodwork, vacuuming my stale carpet, reorganizing personal items, hoping its orderliness would transition to my life. I’d switch from tedious tasks, nervous habits, and pointless rituals in order to feel some sense of accomplishment, only to realize by late afternoon that life is fucking meaningless, no matter what I do.
I don’t know if I’m going to eat today, and I can’t tell you what I did yesterday, but I do know that if I mix more than one gram of benzos with under fifty milligrams of amphetamines, I’m going to retreat inside of my hollowed self, climb back under my covers, and I’ll probably drift to CJ crying in the hospital bed. His mouth surrounded by sores, his charred residual hair emitting a burnt metallic stench from the chemo. “Mommy, Daddy. Please make it stop,” he quivers as he squirms, whipping his bald head back and forth. I’ll relive the moment, observing helplessly as veritable nihilistic hands wrap around my heart, clenching, applying unrelenting pressure, wringing out my insides, evoking a deep embedded sadness that will make me cry until I vomit. But I also know that if I mix less than a half a milligram of downers with over fifty milligrams of stimulants, I’ll mentally float to my mailbox on November 29th of 2018 around 5:17 in the evening, when I received a certified letter, notifying that Catherine was divorcing me; the torrential downpour providing camouflage for my welling tears. “I can’t stand by and watch you kill yourself, no matter how much I care,” I hear her voice linger in and out of my head; our marriage experiencing more DUIs than dates in its last two years. I’d come home and find her clutching CJ’s teddy bear as she sobbed on his bed; his room kept like he was expected home any day. I’d hear her whimper, and I’d crumble, reaching for the bottle instead of an embrace because how could I save her if I couldn’t save CJ?
There’s a precise proportion of substances required to flood my head with the ideal quotient of dopamine, norepinephrine, and indifference needed to stop the divulge of memories and constant rumination. It was only a few months ago while experimenting that I discovered the perfect ratio, an exact blend, which was exactly three-fourths of a Klonopin pill and seventy-five milligrams of Adderall, finished off with a swig of whiskey. It’s a formula for a fleeting sense of freedom, where I remember not just what it was like before CJ died and Catherine left, but years before I even met Catherine when my life wasn’t defined by a disaster, and I had no traumas to identify with.
Opening the top drawer, I reach inside to fetch one of the cut-up straws that I’d accumulated over the last year. To streamline the elixir, I’ll snort the upper in my left nostril and the downer in my right, creating a balance of duality, which will become absorbed in my bloodstream much quicker than if I were to digest the pills. Searching around the crusty tabletop for my small razor blade, I feel my stomach rumble with hunger. I extend my arms outward, stretching as I expand my diaphragm, sticking out my torso to crack my lower back. My ribs protrude from my trunk as I place my hands on top of my head. My feet press on the cold, hardened carpet pile, and I can’t help but think back to the master bedroom I shared with Catherine and the soft, lush frieze that welcomed my feet each waking morning. I spill two uppers and one downer onto the table. After recovering the small dull razor blaze, I press the edge strategically into the top of the Klonopin pill, breaking off just about eighty percent of its contents. I push the blade into the Adderall, crushing it completely, proceeding to crack up any chunks, creating a consistent florid powder. I switch to squashing up the remnants of the blue pill into a delightful dust, pushing the powder back and forth, refining any irregularities. I combine the snowy piles together and push the grains into a tiny smiley face configuration; the eyes blue and the grin red.
The powdery potion fills my naval cavity, advancing to my soft tissue, and almost instantly, filling my veins with empty ecstasy. The fiery post-nasal drip journeys down my throat and settles in my stomach. I reach down beside my bed and yank the top off the half-empty jug of whiskey, raising it to my lips before kicking it back with a guzzle. Swishing around the alcohol in my mouth, savoring its smokiness, I look over at my laptop laying on the floor and debate whether I should look up today’s obituaries. Perhaps today is the day where I’ll read about another six-year-old, healthy boy that developed a brain tumor, which turned out to be cancerous, killing him only six months later. Maybe I’ll read about other young children dying from some improbable illness, which might bring me a slight sense of solace. Maybe I’ll discover another mother just like Catherine, trying to raise awareness for an anomalous disease by holding fundraisers and running 5ks for some temporary comfort, a transient distraction from the reality that your child was never coming back. Or maybe I’ll create another fake Gmail account and post more negative reviews about Dr. Stephen Norton, the oncology doctor that treated CJ. From Google Reviews to ZocDocs and Health Grades, maybe I’ll unleash some of this inner anguish in the form of callous words. I’d be sure to use words like “incompetent” and “careless.” But not today; today is going to be different.
The small safe’s code is 2129, and I know this because February 21st is Catherine’s birthday and the 29th is CJ’s. I pull the safe out from underneath the bed and blow the smut off its stainless-steel face. I remove CJ’s passport, my tax return from 2018, and a stack of unnecessary papers I saved from over the years to reveal my father’s revolver. “Charter Arms” the barrel reads. I grab the handle, pointing the gun across the room, admiring its hef. It’s been a few years since I’ve fired the gun, so I try to remember the correct shooter’s stance; feet shoulder width apart, toes parallel, knees flexed, torso slightly forward with arms fully extended. I point the gun forward, letting the grip sink into the palm of my hand. But I’m not ready to pull the trigger, yet.
The monotonous car ride to 711 Louisiana Street is slow and serene, kind of like dying. Vivid fall foliage lines the streets, creating a spectacle of lively color, but it’s all for show because everything is dying. Approaching the neutral grey two-story home, architectured with dormers and transoms above the front door, I fight with leaden eyelids and reach inside of my pocket for a dose of scarlet rigor. I pop two more Adderall into the corner of my mouth and chew them like gummy bears. The acidic matter slips under my tongue and splashes against the inside of my cheeks, leaving a rancid aftertaste. I park my car just a few feet past the driveway of the home and proceed to the front of the house, the six-shooter hangs on the right side of my waistband.
Ambling to the front door, my perspiring hands drip, my flesh on fire, my heart a manic metronome. The “Live Laugh Love” doormat instantly catches my eye with its tawdry bright colors and large lettering. A stirring of vomit sneaks up my esophagus and unloads on the mat. I hunch forward to expel more of my stomach contents all over the heartfelt floor sentiment, hurling from the bottom of my stomach. I lean further forward, hanging my head, and I can’t help but smile as I marvel at my masterpiece. I wipe my mouth and ring the doorbell fourteen times while pounding on the door. Approximately seven seconds pass before I cradle my brow and press it against the side glass panels to get a glimpse inside the house. Doctor Stephen Norton doesn’t appear to be home. I imagine he’s at the hospital instilling false hope in another patient, promising only one more round of chemo will do the trick.
I jump back into my car and toss the pistol onto the passenger seat. I throw the car in reverse, running over the doctor’s mailbox before maneuvering a three-point turn that places me on a neighbor’s front lawn. I put the car in park and turn up the volume dial to hear the encouraging chorus of Journey singing, “Don’t stop believing!” Leering across the street at Norton’s home, I bob my head, bouncing to the guitar riffs, shaking my fist in the air as I sing along with the catchy tune, “Living just to find emotion!” I put the car in drive and floor it, traversing over the street and up the doctor’s lawn heading straight towards the house. I approach fifty-five miles per hour before crashing through the front door. The impact of speeding iron and steel colliding with wooden glass and stone foundation rattles my body, rendering me a lightweight crash-test dummy. I black out briefly before returning to consciousness, remaining motionless in the driver seat as the concluding chords of Journey’s song rings loudly. I try to breathe, but my chest is crushed; my ribs throb with every troubled inhale. I feel immense pressure radiating from behind my neck, pushing my head forward as a persistent ache from my sternum causes me to wince uncontrollably. The cold copper taste of blood trickling from my mouth makes me sleepy, so I acquiesce to the fatigue and pain.
“You can’t let your memories kill you,” Catherine’s lilt captures my attention, opening my eyes. I try to move, pressing my hands into shards of broken glass that line the armrests. My body convulses, my head stings, my insides pulsate, so I sink back into the driver’s seat, catching the smoke billowing from the mangled hood. The engine churns and rattles as I slip off into another reverie.
“Dad, Dad,” CJ’s voice echoes, scintillas of warmth tingle in my hands as he pulls me towards the ocean. “There’s a massive seashell I want to show you,” he smiles as he tugs.
“What the fuck!?” A vociferous yell sounds as I snap out of my trance. Flickering my eyes, I catch the image of a silhouette approaching the driver side door. “Dana, grab Jackson, and call the police,” it instructs. A face emerges from the dark, and it’s that indelible taut, tanned face of Dr. Stephen Norton; his large Hollywood lips pursed as he inspects me, holding his two fingers to my neck. A burning animosity ignites inside my chest, and I try to muster up the strength to reach for the gun on the passenger seat.
You’re almost there. You’re almost done, my mind mutters. I finally regain control of my ligaments as I creep my hand across the seat.
“Tell the police a drunk driver just crashed into our home, and he’s in critical condition,” Norton announces as he turns his head. Reaching desperately for the piece, my fingertips waver as the barrel is just out of my grasp.
“Is he dead, Dad?” a tiny voice speaks. My eyes capture the face of a small boy with frizzy hair; I just about make out the image of the glowing Buzz Lightyear appliqué on his onesie pajamas.
“Jackson, get away. Go back over to Mom,” Norton orders as he points an austere finger to the other side of the room.
Battling weighted eyelids, I make eye-contact with the boy; his guileless, confused face staring at me with wonder. I surrender the struggle for the firearm, and Jackson runs off. I close my eyes. My back tingles with warmth from the sunrays; my arms tickle from the ocean breeze.
“Christ, he’s bleeding profusely,” Norton whispers. “Dana, tell emergency response he most likely has severe internal hemorrhaging, and they need to get here fast,” he exclaims. I open my eyes to see Norton popping his head up and cupping his hand around his mouth for maximum projection. He turns back to me as I struggle to find my breath, and he moves in closer, trying to inspect my pupils. “What the fuck, buddy,” he mumbles, ducking his head to make direct eye contact with me. His eyes race back and forth like he’s working in overdrive to make a complete medical diagnosis. I remember the numerous times he would check CJ’s vitals; Norton nodding his head and patting my son’s back, reassuring us the severe stomach pain and lethargy would subside and CJ would return to normal.
“Daddy, please,” CJ’s feeble voice whispers, and I feel like crying, but my eyes are too tired, my brow piles with pressure. A smoldering rage grabs me, twisting my insides as I try to spit out words. My speech garbles as the blood from my mouth pours, and all I think about is how Norton is going to go unpunished.
“What is it, buddy?” he asks, moving closer to my mouth, turning his head to get a better listen. I draw my teeth, lunging forward, sinking them into the top of his right ear. Norton screams as I crunch on his cartilage, tearing and shaking until I remove a chunk of his ear. He breaks from my clench and falls, holding his ear as blood oozes from the side of his head. He lands on the ground, kicking and pushing backwards as he scurries away from me.
“Jesus fucking Christ, he nearly bit my ear off!” I swallow bits of ear flesh and spit the remnants out, sinking back into the driver’s seat. Norton moans as he clutches the side of his head, quaking and looking back at me in panic.
I cough up handfuls of bloody mucus and stare back at the shuddering doctor, watching as he breathes heavily, huffing and puffing with a worried vigor. His eyes transfix on mine, and he grows quiet as if he finally recognizes who I am. We share a moment as we both bleed in silence, a reckoning of sorts as an unfamiliar peace settles over me.
“Dad, look at this seashell I found,” CJ’s voice lulls. My breath slows, and I smile because I feel the sea foam brushing over my feet.
A 2010 English literature graduate of James Madison University, Chris Cooper currently works full-time as a senior copywriter and part-time as a freelance copy editor. His short story “The Swim” was recognized as the Best in Fiction for 2019 at Across the Margin, and his work has been featured in Scars Publications, Adelaide Literary Mag, and the Minds Journal Magazine. Chris is an avid health and wellness advocate and enjoys skiing, golfing, competing in strongman competitions, and of course, writing.