A story by Sarah E. T. Greydanus
Hey, Danny—yes, it’s me. Finally. I did get your very nice letter—it’s sitting now somewhere in the crazy mess on my desk. I’m sorry I didn’t answer it before now. I guess I forgot, what with everything that’s been happening. I guess I’ve been forgetting a lot of things lately, actually. Now I’m ashamed of that, and it isn’t the only thing. Since you went to the trouble to write out all that for me, I should probably be writing back a physical letter to you; but I’m kind of in a hurry to tell you what’s happened to me, so—at the risk of Gmail somehow eavesdropping—I’m writing you the fast way and hoping you have time and patience for all this.
I don’t guess you need me to get into the troubles I’ve been having. They seem to be all over Facebook at this point anyway, and from your letter you pretty well understand. What you prolly didn’t know—what nobody knows, except apparently one person and now you, and hopefully it’ll stay that way—is I almost, almost killed myself over them. As in, literally, I was about to do it, the knife was in my hand. But I didn’t, and I don’t want to do any such thing any more. I’m writing to tell you why, and please listen to me, Danny, because that’s really what I need right now.
I thought about it for several weeks, I guess, but it was three days ago now that I really made up my mind to do it. It was a lot like the feeling I got when I quit the track team or dropped out of college—I’d had enough; it wasn’t worth it; I wasn’t putting up with things any more. A mix of bitterness, what my mom would call “a smoke-snorting rage,” and relief. It felt good to think that I was done and would soon be free of my issues.
The next thing I had to decide was how. For my weapon I picked the big breadknife, since that’s the sharpest I have, and I wanted my stroke to be quick and sure—what I didn’t want was to screw it up somehow and injure myself, but not die, and be taken to a hospital and saved (and probably locked up somewhere to get psychological help and be kept from trying suicide again). I’d have preferred a gun, but I didn’t own one (and still don’t). All that makes sense enough, but then for some reason I got awfully ceremonial about other details that couldn’t really affect my success or failure. You’d think I’d want to get the business over with ASAP, but I decided I didn’t want to die in my apartment. The memories I associated with it were mostly of frustration, or exhaustion, or just plain boredom. Not a lot of happy memories. I didn’t want that place to be the last thing I saw. So I decided to drive across town and carry out my suicide in the one place both happy and private—our old secret hide-out, in the woods in the park. I decided I wanted to die looking at that old tangle of bushes and thinking of all the fun times we had as kids, before high school and all the other miseries. At three P.M., too, which (I’ve always thought) is when the sun hits those bushes best and lights up all the leaves like Christmas decorations. Am I crazy, Danny? When somebody’s about to die, what does it matter where he is or when it is? Is there a reason why that should have mattered to me?
Anyway, yesterday was the day I was going to do it. I set out for the bus stop at 2 P.M., in case there was traffic, and got to the park maybe ten minutes later (there wasn’t traffic). I had the knife tucked in a fold of a newspaper under my arm. I strolled slowly down the paths, looking around and thinking about all the times I’d run around there as a kid. There were kids there yesterday, too, running around, and now I’m wondering if they’ll go on to mess up their lives later on, like I have. It’s scary, the things you never know. But that didn’t occur to me then.
I didn’t run into anybody on my way through the woods, other than an old guy walking a dog. Funny, the dog—a little shrimpy black creature, almost more like a large rat—got one look at me and started yapping like crazy, tugging on its leash and lunging at me like it knew I was up to something. But the owner just pulled back on the leash and kept going.
It was a little before 2:30 when I got to the hide-out. Still being ceremonial, I made sure to take the “secret passage” that we always used—along the big rocks in the creek (even though that’s dried up at the moment), between the “Twin Trees,” down the rock path until it comes to the bushes, and then through our “tunnel” in the bushes (did I mention that “tunnel” is a lot less of a tunnel that I remembered? now I can see why no adult ever took any notice of it, lol). Yeah, trying to crawl through there, squeezing and scraping through the branches and getting poked and scratched and running into spiderwebs, kinda killed some of the nostalgia.
I still fit into the hideout, though, even if I couldn’t stand up straight in it any more. Lots of dead, dirty leaves and a few scraggly, sick-looking weeds were now decorating its “floor,” but the bushes looked pretty much the same. Since it wasn’t yet 3, I leaned against a trunk of a big bush and looked at the scraps of sunshine up in the leaves.
Looking at them didn’t make me happy, though. Instead, it got me thinking about how different this visit to the hideout was from any other. Crawling through that tunnel and into that hollow space had always been “magical,” an important adventure, special—though, now that I think about it, I didn’t really think of it that way at the time. Always made me happier—I think. Now it was just a cramped cavity-like spot inside a mess of shrubbery. Like it had lost some special power. Like a little picture of my life—the beauty and happiness and hope had gone out of it. That made me start to wonder . . . is that just what happens in life? You have exciting, happy, nice times as a kid, and then you grow up and find that the world is kind of a mean trap, a muddy mess that swallows you up and never gives you a break again?
At this time yesterday I was pretty sure that was true. Some part inside me is still insisting that it is . . . but, but now, another part is starting to hope again that it’s not. I want—if, if I can, I would really love to believe that other part, Danny. Any way you could help me figure out which part to believe? You seem to be happy in life, and now that I look back, you’ve always seemed that way, not just now with your lovely wife and kids and, well, life, but even while we were at that rotten high school or the college I ended up quitting. How do you do it? Is there a reason? (I can’t believe I never thought to ask you that.)
Well, better get back to my story. And things are going to get weird from here on out, Danny, so please please listen and believe me. I swear all this really happened, and if you think I’m insane . . . well, you don’t think that, do you?
I was thinking those depressed thoughts, there in the bushes, when I heard a far-off bell chiming. Three o’clock. Now I realize it must have been from St. Faustina’s—now there’s a name that brings back some faraway memories. I sat up straight, glanced at my watch, and took out the knife from the newspaper. Now that I was actually about to do it, my heart was pounding and my hand was shaking, but I told myself I’d made up my mind and couldn’t be going back now.
I was holding the knife at a distance from me, getting ready to ram the blade into my throat, when . . . something crashed into me from the side and knocked me down. Something big and heavy.
The wind was knocked out of me, and for a second I just sort of blinked and flapped my arms and legs, trying to figure out what was attacking me. I had sort of glimpsed a large, dark shape, which made me think maybe it was a big dog or even a bear. But when I managed to look up, I saw that it was a girl, no older than your little sister by the look of her (Terry’s 15, right?), a skinny little thing, in a long, floppy black dress as if she’d just come from a funeral, and with a sort of long, thin black veil over her head. She was kinda short, so she hardly had to bend over to stand in the hideout space. As hard as she’d crashed into me, she didn’t seem to have fallen over with me—like she’d head-butted me or something. Looked like she might be Spanish or Italian or something like that. She had a very pale face and these big, dark, fierce eyes.
“Stay!” she exclaimed, and the way she said it, she could have been a police chief or a general. Her voice hit that quiet air like a fire alarm. “Stay your hand! You fool, you know not what you do.”
I blinked, wondering where in the world this crazy girl came from and how she knew anything about me. I asked her, “What are you talking about?”
Instead of answering, she bent over, grabbed my wrist, and wrenched the knife away from me before I had time to know she was doing it. She did it with more speed and force than I’d have thought physically possible for some skinny teenage girl. I shouted, “Hey!” but she didn’t pay any attention. The knife disappeared into one of her wide black sleeves.
“What madness has come over you that you do yourself such wrong?” she demanded, sounding part stern and part concerned, like she was my mom or something. “Think you that this is the way to deliverance?” She slightly shifted her tone, sounding sort of urgent-concerned now, as she added, “What could you hope to gain thus? You seek to destroy all hope of both body and soul!”
Not wanting to lie on the ground like an idiot any more, I awkwardly climbed back to my feet—though I sort of had to hunch over, to fit in that space—and looked hard at her. I felt a mix of things. For one, I was annoyed at her for interfering, especially since—if she delayed me much longer—I wouldn’t get to have the perfect death I had wanted, in the hide-out at 3 with the sun on the leaves. I was also worried that, since she knew, she might now tell someone and maybe stop me from doing what I’d planned. But beside those, I was getting more and more curious who she was and how she knew what she did and why she had decided to care so much about a total stranger. Not that it mattered a whole lot to me, but still, I was curious.
Having let me stare for a bit, the girl spoke up again, sounding mostly just concerned this time (only what I mean is a sort of extreme concern, as if she’d been my mom or something). “This is not your true desire, is it? To destroy your body before its time and cast your soul to destruction?”
At that I had to think a minute. I basically got what she was saying—it sort of brought back stuff I’d heard from my mom or from First Communion class. But religion hadn’t seemed to make a difference for me in a long time. It kind of felt far away, like a story I’d heard as a kid, and maybe believed at the time, but wasn’t so much a big deal any more. It definitely didn’t feel as real and big as the mess of pain that had driven me to go out there with a knife. You know how it is for me, Danny. Not a strong enough incentive to keep on living.
Not that I thought all that out exactly like that, right then and there. It only sort of flickered through my brain like an old, blurry bit of film reel, and then I said, “I-I’m not very religious . . . I mean, I haven’t really been into that in a long time . . .”
“Ah! There, that is why you fail in hope!” the girl exclaimed. “Your mind is fixed only on the things of earth. You give no thought to what is above. Therefore you forget your Maker, the hope of all, and cannot trust in His compassion.”
I guess it was the way she said it, like something from a book—somebody messing with my business and trying to preach to me when I just wanted to get away, once and for all—that made me blow up right then. “His compassion?!” I yelled. “If He’s got so much compassion for me, why . . . why everything? You don’t know what I’ve been through. Gimme back my knife. If He was feeling compassionate He could get rid of . . .” I trailed off, not knowing where to begin explaining all what was making me so miserable.
“He cannot show you His mercy if you will not wait for it,” she argued. Her tone now was legitly upset, like she was both offended and sad at what I’d just said. “He disappoints none who hope in Him and wait with trust. If you despair and cast yourself away before the time is ripe for your deliverance, you reject His love with your life.” A minute went by and I didn’t say anything, mostly because I couldn’t think of anything to say—I was so confused and weirded out. Then she added, “Your life unfolds like a tale, woven by a master teller. It must pass through the dark places to reach the great light of joy beyond them. Is not every great tale grimmest before it reaches the glory?”
Now, in hindsight I dunno if this is what she meant, but then it sounded to me like she was claiming I was literally in a fairy tale. And lemme tell you Danny, for half a second I could almost believe her, because for the past few minutes it had kinda felt like one—this girl in her Halloweenish black, appearing out of nowhere in the woods like a little elf, interrupting my suicide to carry on about God’s mercy. Then I decided she must be out of her mind. The way she was dressed, her random obsession with a total stranger like me, the way she talked like she’d only learned it from books—like she’d jumped right out of Lord of the Rings. She had to be crazy.
With that thought, I decided I had to get rid of her somehow. Momentarily I considered calling the police (the last thing I’d expected to want to do on the day I was going to kill myself). Then I remembered I’d left my phone in the apartment. But I had to do something—I couldn’t get on with things with her around, and already she had ruined the perfect death I had planned. Unless I could get back my knife, I thought. After all, why shouldn’t I be able to get it away from a thin, young girl like that?
I stepped toward her and reached for her. But lemme tell you, she jumped back quick as some little rodent, with a fierce look on her face like she knew everything I’d been thinking. “You cannot regain your weapon,” she informed me firmly. In a more pleading tone, she added, “Stay, stay your hand until this madness has gone from you. Cast yourself not away. Lose not your body and soul. Is it not worth waiting a while with trust to find again peace of heart?”
Well, that time she hit the exact right note. Isn’t it worth waiting to find again peace of heart. Peace of heart—a few minutes earlier I’d have said no, I didn’t feel like waiting. But something about the way she said it made a little part of me start to wonder—could I find again peace of heart? Was I still able to have that, and could it somehow be there for me, even after all that had happened? That little part of me sort of lit up with hope, like when somebody finds out they’ve been reprieved from execution, but the rest of me felt tireder than tired at the thought of having to go back and deal with life again.
“Please give me back my knife,” I begged, without really thinking about it. “I . . . I just can’t do it any more. I’m . . . not strong enough to wait. I can’t deal any more. I can’t take the pain.”
The girl frowned thoughtfully at me. “You cannot take the pain,” she repeated. “You think to escape your pain by taking your life?” I sort of nodded a little, and she said, “But what will become of that pain? Do you think it will vanish? It will not. Your pain will live on. But it will no longer be your burden—it will become the burden of others.”
“Others?” I repeated. “Like how do you mean?”
She just looked at me, a long, hard stare, but when I looked into her serious dark eyes, it was like I saw there, all of a sudden, everyone I’d ever cared about—family, friends, neighbors, classmates, coworkers, even people I hadn’t seen in years, all went through my brain, like they say a dying person sees his whole life at once. All kinds of memories of them came crowding through my head at once, like a really fast montage from a movie. And at the same time, I felt like all of them knew what I was doing and were begging me not to do it. Even though I really knew they couldn’t have known, it got to me because I could easily imagine each of them saying to me, in some way, “Please don’t!”
And then I understood. If I killed myself, I’d get away from my problems all right, but I’d leave in a lot of pain people who deserved better than that from me.
“What you see is truer than you know,” the girl said very seriously, again like she’d read my mind. “This I know too well.” With that—and so help me Danny—she all of a sudden changed. She turned horribly pale, like a sick ghost, and her face looked like she was in huge pain—whether physical or emotional, I dunno—and running across her neck was an ugly dark-red gash. I’m telling you what I saw in plain daylight, as sure as I can see my keyboard now. Admittedly I could hardly think, I was so shocked, but I know what I saw.
“Seven hundred years ago, I destroyed myself just as you sought to do,” she said, and now her voice was small and deathly sad. “As a spirit, I was forced to see the tears of my mother and father, my brothers and my friends. But my soul also received mercy. In penance for my deed, I was sent to travel the earth and save others from inflicting on themselves the same doom.” She paused a bit, maybe to let me process what she’d said, then closed her eyes and added, speaking barely above a whisper, “I leave it now in your hands whether you will choose death or life. Choose life—and pray for the soul of Rebecca!”
With that, she let her veil drop down over her face, then—like something from a movie—just sort of melted away into thin air like a puff of steam.
I dunno how long it was before my brain started working. Eventually I realized I’d fallen over again and was in a sort-of sitting, almost-lying down position. Slowly I sat all the way up and started to think.
The girl . . . Rebecca . . . she’d said she saw her family and friends crying for her. Who would cry for me, I asked myself. She’d mentioned her brothers—I don’t have any, but there’s my sister in Oklahoma. Haven’t talked to her in weeks, but then I haven’t been checking my phone much, and she always worries about me—definitely wouldn’t appreciate my committing suicide. My parents, too . . . sure, the old man and I fought the last time we talked, but that was almost two months ago. Maybe he’s even forgotten by now. I thought of a couple of friends from college who I’m still in now-and-then touch with, and then, rather randomly, I remembered the two little girls in the next apartment. They’ve taken a liking to me lately, I guess because I’ve been letting them borrow my iPad for Pokémon Go, but in any case they call out to me so happily when I pass by—the littler one runs over and hugs me—and what would their mom tell them had happened if I went?
And then I thought of you, Danny, probably the best and truest friend I ever had, who I’d ignored for so long, even though you wrote me that long nice letter telling me how sorry you were and how you’re praying for me and all that. Not only had I not answered, I’d completely forgotten, I was so busy thinking about my problems and whether or not to go on living.
So, Danny, I’m writing to you now, and telling you all this crazy story, because . . . you believe me, right? I mean, I know it’s a lot to swallow, but . . . well, I know what I saw and what happened. Don’t know how I know it, or how I can prove I do, but—well, my bread knife is still gone. No trace of it anywhere. And anyway, I really need someone to believe me. And who’s gonna believe me if you don’t? Please, I need you to believe me, and I really want to talk things over with you. Can you come over to me, so that we can talk? I mean, if you can manage it—if you can get away from work and family and stuff to drive an hour here. (I’d come to your place, only my license is still suspended.) I can’t go through with suicide now, I know that. Rebecca was right—worry for myself couldn’t stop me, but thinking about other people did. But I still feel I’m no match for my situation on my own. I have to keep going, but I don’t know how I can. So I need your help.
If you can’t come yourself, maybe you could tell me someone I could go to? Not a psychiatrist. I don’t feel like talking to one of them. I don’t want to be analyzed. Unless maybe it’s someone you know personally and have confidence in. Maybe . . . maybe do you know a good priest? Not just any priest. I’ve had problems with some. But someone you trust—someone who won’t dismiss me as a nut or condemn me for what I almost did. Someone who will try to understand, and know what I should do now.
Maybe it’s kind of weird or ironic that I’d ask for a priest now, since I haven’t cared much for church since I’ve been on my own. But somehow, something feels a little different now. When Rebecca first said the thing about how I was failing in hope because I gave no thought to what was above, or whatever, I was mostly just annoyed. It was just words. I didn’t think God could possibly be caring about me up there when my life had gotten so bad. But now I’m wondering . . . she appeared out of nowhere and disappeared the same way. She’s a spirit—not that I understand much about what that means. And if her story wasn’t true, how could she have known anything about me at all? And then she said she “received mercy” and “was sent”—well, by who? Someone seems to be managing these things—someone who cares. Someone who cared enough about her to figure she could use another chance. Apparently someone figured I might use another chance too. I guess that’s what I’ve been given—even though it doesn’t feel very good, even though I’m still so overwhelmed and wish I could escape. But now, I’m starting to think, some tiny part of me is starting to hope—maybe something better will come—maybe God does care about me after all.
- E. Gracecull