When he didn’t respond I tried filling in the words for him. “Suicidal thoughts?”
“Yeah, sorta,” he said. “I just figured . . . things would be so much easier if I weren’t around.”
I’d heard this same sentiment from many of my callers. They just wanted to know someone cared. Needed them. Would listen. “Easier for whom?”
“For the people I hurt. And for me,” he said. “But I’m also not sure what’s waiting for me. On the other side. Probably some form of hell. And I’m a chicken shit.”
My heart clenched for him. He thought he was worthless. Bad. Would go straight to hell. What had this guy done?
“Why do you think you’d go to hell? Everyone makes mistakes. We hurt people when we don’t mean to. Or sometimes, we even do.” I’d had to convince my parents of this fact, because suicide was a sin so ingrained in their religion. A religion I couldn’t stand behind any longer. Not when my brother would be condemned for taking his own life after having longstanding mental health issues. “It’s a part of being human, Daniel.”
“Not this kind of mistake. I don’t think I can ever be forgiven.” And then more quietly, he said, “Or even forgive myself.”
“I’m here to listen, Daniel. And I’m not going to judge you.” My fingers gripped the phone so hard my knuckles turned white. I was desperate to hear his story. For him. And for me, too. So I could help him heal. Or direct him to someone who could. “You can pour it all out and never worry about running into me. We don’t even know each other. We’re just on the phone. You’re safe to tell me.”
“Shit.” His voice came out gurgled, like he was on the verge of tears. And then with one big huff, the floodgates opened, and he let them flow. He was sobbing and panting, so I kept silent, my heart lodged in my throat.
“It’s okay,” I whispered after several long minutes. “It’s good to get those emotions out.”
When his breathing finally slowed and he pulled himself together, he said, “Thanks.”
“No problem,” I said, my words clogged with emotion. “I’d like to hear your story, Daniel. We all have one, you know.”
I heard him shifting and wondered where exactly he was. I figured inside somewhere because I hadn’t heard any car horns or other people in the background. I pictured him in his room, much like Christopher had been that fateful night. “If I tell you, you might not think I’m such a nice person after all.”
“What could you possibly have done to make you think that?”
“My best friend,” he choked on the word. “I betrayed him and then . . . I killed him.”
What the hell? Killed him? I was out of my league here.
Am I talking to a murderer? No, I couldn’t believe that. This was Daniel. The person who somehow evoked memories of Christopher. My sweet brother whose life ended too early.
He was calling the hotline because he was hurting. Desperate. In agony.
“Killed him how?” I tried to make my voice sound level. I gripped my pen cap and it left an indentation in my palm. “Was it an accident?”
“That’s what people think, yes,” he muttered. “But I should’ve been more careful, been paying better attention.”
My hand went to my eyes, rubbing them to keep my emotions at bay. I needed to stay strong. For him. “Oh, Daniel.”
“Don’t you dare say it.” His voice was like a soft growl. Like he’d been clenching his teeth. “All those things the therapist would say. That no one decides in a split second to take someone’s life. That I need to forgive myself, or my life will feel meaningless, too.”
So he’d been to therapy over this. He was carrying guilt around. Wearing it like a suit of armor. “Okay.” I was trying to remain neutral, to allow him the chance to talk.
“What the therapist didn’t know was that I didn’t give two shits about my own life,” he rumbled. “That I was already thinking of ways I could end it.”
But he hadn’t ended it. Which told me he needed to unload all of this. Unburden himself. That’s why he was calling the hotline. To talk to someone he felt safe and anonymous with. My instincts were usually right. But what kind of guilt was he lugging around? Survivor’s guilt or just self-loathing?
“What do you think of me now, Gabby?”
His voice was shaky, laced with fear. As if by knowing his truth I’d had the power to ruin him, take him down, or call him the filthiest names in the book. Like that would be any worse that what he was already putting himself through.
And that’s when I realized just how vulnerable Daniel was.
I felt a longing in my chest to hold him, comfort him. Like I might have done with Christopher that night.
“I wish I could see your face,” he said, never allowing me the chance to respond. His voice was fueled with anger. “I’d be able to tell what you thought of me just by looking in your eyes. Just like what I saw in everybody else’s eyes. Pity. Disgust.”
“No, Daniel. Not disgust. Not even close.”
“What, then?” His voice became soft and timid.
“The truth is,” I said, finally finding my voice, “I’d only have to look in your eyes to see a person filled with an overwhelming amount of guilt and pain. So much hurt that it’s coming out of your eyeballs.”
I heard him clear his throat like maybe it was jammed with grief.
“But there are layers to you, Daniel, that make you deep and complex and good. Under all that agony is an inherently good person,” I said. “That’s what I believe.”
“You don’t even fucking know me,” he spat out. “I’m not good.”
And then the line went dead. Again.
Damn it to hell!
Like last time, Daniel had called from a blocked number, so I had no way to get him back. Only in the case of an emergency did we involve the police or put a trace on a call.
Even still, I had trouble sleeping that night thinking about Daniel sobbing into the phone and hoped against hope that he believed there was good inside of him.
And maybe that’s what kept him going. Kept him alive.
I wondered what Christopher had said to himself in the still of the night. The night he took his own life. What truths did he tell himself? And what lies—as he downed that bottle of prescription pills and chased it with vodka.
I woke from a fuzzy night filled with vodka and rum dreams. I’d cried my sorry ass to sleep and hopefully my goddamn wussy tears were muffled by my pillow. Otherwise the guys would totally razz me or get on my case about being too stinking drunk.
I’d made the hotline call instead of playing poker with those jokers again. No way could I stomach any more pussy jokes—because I sure as hell wasn’t getting any—or losing any more money.
Had Brian been home, he’d have played video games with me, but he’d been out with Tracey. Even Ella would have played, but she hadn’t been around last night, either. Besides, being around her would have felt different. I’d have been too tempted to sit closer so I could feel her thigh brush mine and her breaths against my arm. Maybe get to know her better. I needed to get her out of my system already.
I’d considered driving my drunk ass out to the cliffs last night and then maybe going over, but I didn’t want to kill anyone else in the process. Sometimes, I parked there and stood on the edge, peering into the stormy water, hoping it would somehow swallow me up.
What Gabby had said to me on the hotline was probably standard. Possibly something she had to say to all the fucked-up people who called her. Regardless, it had touched something raw inside of me.
It was the way she’d said it. It reminded of something my aunt and uncle once said to me, after Mom and dad had left me home alone for hours. They had shown up at the house to rescue me. I’d been old enough to stay home by myself but not legal yet to drive. I was shoving my clothes and toothbrush into a bag so I could stay with them for the weekend.
“It sucks that you can’t pick your family members,” Aunt Gabby said, standing at the doorway to my room. Uncle Nick stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders in a show of support. “But you can choose who you surround yourself with and how you handle what you’re dealt in life. I hope you know how much we love you, even on days you don’t feel supported.”
“You are good, through and through. You hear me, Daniel?” Uncle Nick had said. “Don’t ever forget that.”
I’d pushed them away these past couple of years. I couldn’t look them in the eye. They were like surrogate parents to me and I was terrified to see the disappointment etched in their faces over what I’d done.
Talking over the phone felt freer somehow. Gabby had been right about that. The person on the other end couldn’t see you struggle through whatever you were telling them.
I knew there was good buried deep inside me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to keep up this farce for Sebastian’s parents. My intentions were good, even though I kept lying through my teeth every time I saw them.
So what did you do when all the good inside you was yanked deep into the abyss of your soul because of one big event? Was it possible for one act in your life to ruin everything else—to mar it, weaken it, poison it, make it sour? It had been for me.
Today was the fund-raiser car wash event with our sister sorority. I needed to get my butt up, especially since I was in charge of rags and bucket supplies. I had gone around and collected old clothes from the guys the other night and torn them into rags with Lucy from Sigma Tau.
I got my ass in the shower and then pulled on a worn pair of cutoff jeans shorts and a shitty T-shirt that I knew would come off when the sun beat down on us. It was an exceptionally warm spring day, the temperature already in the seventies, which meant more traffic would be sent our way.
When I walked downstairs, my chest tightened at the sight of Ella sprawled on the couch across from Brian, playing Call of Duty.
As I stepped into the room Ella looked up and said, “Hey, Quinn.”
I nodded and sat on the arm of the nearest chair.
“I was just dropping off bagels and coffee for the fund-raiser,” she said. “But Brian practically begged me to play the zombie version with him.”
“If you say so.” Brian laughed and then shoved his controller at me. “Dude, take over. I gotta make a beer run.”
When I looked at the screen Ella was totally obliterating all the zombies in her path.
“Take that, sucker,” she ground out through clenched teeth.
“You might not need me after all,” I said.
“I totally do,” she said, her voice suddenly elevated. “Hurry, I’ve been hit. I need you revive me.”
I plopped into the chair Brian had vacated to save her from total apocalyptic failure. For the next ten minutes we yelled, laughed, and swore at the screen until finally being overrun by the zombie population and suffering fatal blows.
“That’s the highest level we’ve ever gotten to,” Ella said, holding her arms up in triumph.
We sank back into our seats high on our small victory. She was smiling ear to ear and the way her blue eyes were so unguarded and sincere right then made her look angelic.
Yet sexy as sin.
I tried to channel my thoughts about what it would feel like to kiss her into something tamer. She must have noticed the change in my features because the smile slid from her mouth and she worried her bottom lip between her teeth.
I wanted to tug that lip into my mouth and suck on it long and hard. She looked down at her feet, a line of red creeping up her neck as if she could read my thoughts. As though she wouldn’t object to what I had in mind, either.
I needed to rein in my goddamn imagination before I did something irrational, and who better to help me with that than fucking Joel. He walked in the room holding a beer in one hand and a CD in the other. I looked away as my stomach clenched tight.
“Babe, weren’t you running home to change?”
“Oops, got too caught up gaming. Okay, I’m out.” Ella threw one last demure grin in my direction before hopping up. And I latched on to that smile like it was my goddamn lifeline or something. “Be back soon.”
Fifteen minutes later, five cars full of sorority sisters showed up blaring pop music from their speakers. They were loud and rowdy as they put the finishing touches on the huge signs they’d made to hold up on both corners of the street. They wore bikini tops and short shorts and would have no problems getting boatloads of cars to pull in and donate money to our cause.
And ironically enough, the charity the fraternity had chosen to donate to was a fucking national foundation to combat child and adult depression. So maybe we’d be contributing directly to Gabby’s salary after today.
The car wash always took place in the parking lot next to the frat house so there was room to spread out. I gathered up my buckets and towels and then came back to yank the hoses over there.
The next thing I knew the car wash was under way and cars were lined up around the corner waiting to pull in. I was so busy getting buckets filled with soapy water that I hadn’t noticed that Ella had returned with her two friends.
One was a petite blond with a tight little body. She was dating the tattoo artist all the guys in our frat used. They’d pushed me to get a tattoo also, but there was nothing I’d want stamped on my body except maybe something that reminded me of Sebastian. But then I’d have a literal daily reminder of my guilt. Not that I wasn’t reminded every day anyway.
Besides, I wasn’t worthy enough to wear his name anywhere on my body, especially since I was the one who had taken his life. What scumbag would do such a thing? Did murderers on death row wear the tattoos of their victims, for Christ’s sake?