Falling into Us Read online
I checked my parents’ room, which felt odd. I’d only been in there a handful of times in my life; their bedroom was a sanctuary, by unspoken rule. You just stayed out. My father’s slippers were, ridiculously enough, in the classic TV dad position at the side of the bed, neatly aligned. My mom’s blue terrycloth robe was slung over the back of her antique rocking chair. The rocker was a family heirloom shipped over from Lebanon for my mother’s fortieth birthday a few years ago.
The last place to check, of course, was Ben’s room. My dread increased to a palpable sense of stomach-knotting fear, my heart hammering, my hands trembling, my breathing coming in ragged gasps. I put my hand on the cold silver knob, twisted, and pushed…
The room was empty. It was also spotless, the bed neatly made, nothing out place, which was unlike Ben, who was a bit of slob. I don’t think his room had ever been this clean. Posters of rappers papered the walls, along with Sports Illustrated and Playboy centerfolds. A rack of CDs covered one entire wall, each jewel case aligned the same way, writing facing the left. It even smelled clean, and Ben’s room had always smelled, even through a closed door, of patchouli incense, which he used to cover the stench of his pot. The only sign of life was the open window I’d once escaped through to see Jason. A warm breeze blew, rippling the curtains.
There was a single sheet of notebook paper aligned square on the top of his dresser. I shook my head at the paper, denying even before I’d read it.
I’m guessing you’re the one who’ll find this. I’m sorry. You’re honestly the only reason I didn’t do this a long time ago. I didn’t want to let you down. You always believed in me when no else did. It’s just not enough anymore. I don’t have much to say to Mom and Dad, except I wish you’d tried harder with me. Loved me as I was, instead of judging me and trying to fix me, and then just giving up on me. I’m sorry to everyone. I’m sorry, most of all, to Kate. I don’t deserve her, I never did and never could. I let her down, time and again, and I just can’t keep failing her. She needs someone better than me. Now she can find him. I do love her, but it’s not enough.
P. S. Becca, you remember the tree? That’s where I’ll be.
I touched the paper, and the ink smeared on my fingers. I felt a bolt of hope at the sight of the smeared ink. If the ink wasn’t dry yet, maybe there was still time. The tree. God, the tree. Our house was at the far edge of the subdivision and backed up to acres of open land, part forest, part scrub, part endless grass fields. About a mile from our back door was a mammoth pine tree with straight, low-hanging branches, the lowest one just out of reach. We used to play beneath that tree for hours. Then, when Ben got older and his bipolar mood swings took hold, he would go out to the tree and get away from everything. He claimed he could feel whatever he wanted beneath that tree, instead of feeling like his moods needed adjustment. That’s where he’d go when he wanted to get stoned, too, until he realized our parents were either oblivious or were playing blind.
I didn’t even think. I swung my legs out the window and scaled down to the ground at record speed. I stumbled through the bushes and into the scrub-covered hillside, fumbling my phone from my purse. I called Jason, because I was too overcome by panic to even think of anyone else.
“What’s up, baby?” He sounded out of breath, and I heard the clink and rattle of weights in the background.
“It’s b-Ben. I th-think he’s…he left a note, a suic—s-s-s—ide note. ” I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak.
“What? Are you serious? Did you find him?”
“No, n-not y-yet. There’s a tree, be-h-hind our h-house. I think that’s w-where he is. ”
“That huge granddaddy pine tree, I know it. Baby, listen, don’t go there by yourself. I’m less than five minutes away, okay? I’ll be there, wait for me, okay?”
He was too late. I was already there. The tree was up a rise and down the other side. I could see the top of the pine tree swaying in the wind. Birds chirped cheerily, a harsh contrast to the terror in my gut. I was running as fast as I could, the phone forgotten, clutched in my hand. I could hear the tinny, distant sound of Jason’s voice calling my name. I crested the rise, stumbled, and fell, skidding down the steep, gravelly incline on my backside. I felt rocks gouging and scraping my bare thighs, my shorts too short to protect my legs.
I righted myself and tripped around to the other side of the tree, where the lowest branch was. My eyes were closed, as if to block out what I feared I’d see if I opened them. Tears were already streaming down my face, and I heard Jason’s voice in the phone, or maybe it was in the distance. I forced my eyes open.
Ben hung from the lowest branch, swinging, legs kicking still. An orange Home Depot bucket was overturned beneath him, still rolling in circles. His eyes showed white in his face, his mouth wide, face going purple.
I smelled shit.
I lunged forward, screaming his name over and over again. I grabbed his legs in my arms and lifted with all my strength, sobbing. I got him lifted high enough that the tension was eased, and I heard a faint raspy choking noise, and then my legs gave out and his ankles slid out of my grasp. I fell to the ground beneath him. His toes drooped earthward, limp, swinging in tiny circles, no longer twitching.
“BEN!” I heard my voice shrieking, shrill. “No, Ben, no, no no. ”
I scrambled out from beneath him, struggled to my feet, and tried to lift him up, knowing he was gone, knowing it was too late. I felt something hot and sticky and putrid on my hands from where they grasped the back of his legs, and I knew what that was, too. I knew what happened to the bowels when someone was hung.
I looked up at his body, twisting in my grip. His head was craned at an unnatural angle, his eyes rolled back, tongue lolling out.
“Oh…fuck. ” I heard a voice behind me. Jason.
I felt his arms around me, pulling me away. I fought him. I needed to help Ben. He was hurt. He needed me. He’d always needed me, and I wasn’t there. I was too late. I had to help him. I fought the pinioning arms, heard screaming go hoarse as vocal chords gave out, heard broken whispers in my ear, Jason begging me to turn away.
Don’t look anymore, baby. He’s gone. He’s gone.
NO! HE ISN’T GONE! My brother, my brother, my Ben. I fought even when my strength gave out and Jason was holding me. I wasn’t speaking anymore, I wasn’t intelligible, I was sobbing and gasping and babbling, straining for Benny. He twisted in the breeze, rope creaking.
A crow cawed somewhere, announcing the arrival of Death. The ink-black creature hopped on a branch on a nearby tree, head tilted, eye glinting. It ruffled its wings, cocked its head to the other side and cawed again, directly at me.
“NO! You can’t have him!” Those were the last words I would speak fluently for a very long time.
I ripped free from Jason’s arms and scooped a rock from the ground at my feet, hurled it at the crow, who only ducked and cawed again, twice, harsh and mocking. Then, with a ruffle of feathers and a snap of wings, the crow was gone, and I fell, boneless, to the earth.
I felt myself scooped up into strong arms, and I clawed helplessly at the iron chest, Jason’s sweat-scent in my nostrils all that kept me from dying in that moment. I clawed at him, scraping his chest with my fingernails. I’d just had a manicure the day before, and my nails were bright purple, perfectly painted and shaped. I watched with disconnected horror as my purple fingernails curled into Jason’s shirts and ripped it, then clawed again at the bare skin, dragging pink lines down his flesh. I couldn’t draw breath, felt stars speck in front of my eyes, my lungs burning. I couldn’t draw breath, because I was caught in an endless looping scream, soundless, shuddering.
I was being carried away. I felt the hill beneath us. I fought, gasped, fought.
“B-Ben! N-no! T-take me b-back! He-he-he needs m-m-me…plea