This Thursday we’re taking a quick break from Codon while I work through some personal business. The following is a chapter from a novel I’ve been working on for a long time.
Trigger warning: this isn’t a horribly dark chapter, but it does contain suicide.
Of Little Consquence
Her parents named her Stanleigh. It had been an impossible name to grow up with. The teasing, the constant identity mistakes, her mother’s insisting that it was a lovely name–that wasn’t so bad. But names have a sort of power to them, and poor Stanleigh had been doomed to grow into it. She’d fought it. In elementary school, she’d been Stanny, and that was cute for a while. In middle school, she’d tried out Stanli with an I. In high school and college, a rebellious feminist, she’d simply been Stan. None of them stuck. So Stanleigh she was, Stanleigh Perkins the secretary of Williams Law on Main Street, and she was the one who saw the boy die.
She was returning to Main Street after a somewhat-early lunch. The local private school was in recess–children of grades K-8 were running around and screaming madly. Stanleigh smiled, absently dreaming of a child of her own. She wasn’t getting any younger, no matter how vehemently her boyfriend may insist she didn’t look a day over twenty. Stanleigh wanted a daughter, someone she could give a proper name to–Sarah or Elizabeth or Lindsay. None of this androgyny business. Her eyes drifted over the playground and she sighed and then she saw the figure on the rooftop.
He was distant and alone and small. It took a moment for Stanleigh to realize how close to the edge he was, and another for her to realize he was alone, and then everything crystallized in time around her. Her eyes whipped to the playground to call for a teacher. The boy on the rooftop took a step forward. For an eternity he hung in the air, Stanleigh’s mouth forming around the word “wait”–she needed time, that was all, just a little more time and she’d be able to save the kid–and then the eternity broke. She had no time. He fell.
There was the sound of meat hitting asphalt.
They asked her to stay for a while, claiming that she’d been the one to call emergency services, but Stanleigh had no memory of it. She watched them cover the body and take it away, numb. When she finally got back to the office, her boss gave her the rest of the week off and called her a hero. She didn’t feel like a hero. She felt like a failure.
The news spread through the small town with the speed only bad news and gossip can achieve. The deceased boy’s name was Eric Hart, and he was thirteen years old. Everyone said that he’d been a generally energetic, happy kid. Intelligent. He got good grades and had good friends at school. For the first twenty-four hours, the media reported a senseless case: no one knew why he’d done it. The school shut down for the rest of the week, giving students time to recover. The reporters who showed up at Stanleigh’s door seemed disappointed that she didn’t know him at all, and the same tired interview played over and over on the local news. “No,” she said, “I’d never seen him before in my life. I saw him up there, and he jumped. I didn’t have time to call for help. I wish I could have seen him just a little sooner.” Do you have any idea why he might have done it? “How could I?”
Fragments of reasoning soon surfaced: two of Eric Hart’s closest friends had been the victims of another media storm back in January. Alexandra Lewis and Marcella Smith, both twelve years old, had vanished for no apparent reason, leaving no trace. Suspects in the case had blown in and out of the police’s attention, but no one had been charged or even seriously considered. Everyone was baffled, but lack of developments had pushed the story into obscurity. By a complete coincidence, it was Stanleigh who found Marcella Smith three days later.
Her boyfriend, a nurse at the local hospital, had convinced her to talk to a therapist friend of his. The therapist’s office was just across the street from the hospital, one of a pair of huge buildings on that block–the other was an office complex full of private practices. Between the buildings ran a small alley, which was the primary hangout of nurses when they took smoking breaks. It was in this alley, on her way out of her first appointment, that Stanleigh saw Marcella Smith.
The girl was healthy. She looked unhurt–better than that, she looked good. She was slightly more tan than the pictures Stanleigh had seen on the news, and wearing an odd dress. Had Stanleigh been a student of Classical Greece, she would have recognized as a peplos: a folded cloth wrapped around the body and pinned over the shoulders. Her hair, short in the media images, was down past her shoulders. Her face looked like it had seen a little too much of the world.
“Um,” said Stanleigh elegantly.
Marcella noticed her, and gave her a smile. It had obviously once been a bright, outgoing smile. Now it was exhausted. “Am I near the hospital?” She was. “Can you take me in? I need a checkup. What month is it?” June. “What year?”
Stanleigh took her to the ER. Her boyfriend–by an amusing coincidence, he was named Jayne–called Marcella’s parents, who showed up in a whirlwind of tears. Marcella cried too, and hugged them tight, and told them she was sorry. She seemed to have expected her parents, and even in the tears she was smiling. What she didn’t seem to expect was the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Lewis as well. They stood outside the hospital room with Stanleigh, all three of them awkward, before coming in and hugging her. They asked her if she had any news of their daughter, her best friend. Where was Alexandra?
Marci didn’t answer for a little while. When she did, it was the same answer that she’d give the reporters later that day: “Allie isn’t coming back. I’m sorry. She’s not dead, she’s happy and alive and healthy, but she’s not coming back.”
Where was she? Where had they gone?
With a laugh: “You’d never believe me.”
Tell us. Please.
“I can’t. I’m sorry. Where’s Eric? I need to call him.”
It was at this point that Stanleigh had to leave.
The funeral was held the Sunday after Eric’s death, and Stanleigh and Jayne both attended. It was a lovely ceremony, and well-attended. Even the weather participated: a steady drizzle of rain under a grey sky. Stanleigh didn’t know what to make of all the family members that kept coming up and hugging her, so she kept to the corners and the back of the room. They left early. As Jayne left to get the car, Stanleigh stood outside the church and shivered.
She wasn’t alone. A woman about Stanleigh’s age–maybe thirty, late twenties–leaned against the wall, watching the sky. “You saw him do it, right?”
Stanleigh was used to the question by now. She nodded. She didn’t want to get into it again.
“And you found Marce when she got back?”
“If you’re a reporter, I’ve made enough statements.”
“I’m not a reporter.” The woman lit a cigarette and took a deep drag, eyes closed. She wasn’t crying, and she was wearing jeans. She didn’t look like a funeral-goer. “I didn’t know he’d died until I heard about it.”
“That’s how it tends to work, yes.” Stanleigh paced a bit. It was cold and the woman made her uncomfortable. Jayne was taking too long with the car. Probably texting a friend before he drove over. The woman chuckled.
Stanleigh snapped. “Don’t you dare laugh at the poor boy’s funeral–” She turned to tell the woman that he was a kid, he was thirteen, hardly old enough to go shopping on his own, much less decide his future, to decide to kill himself– but the woman was gone. There was still a faint smell of cigarettes in the air.
Jayne pulled up in the car. They went home. A year later, he proposed to her on a camping trip. She accepted, and six months later they married. They had three kids, all girls, who Stanleigh named Sarah, Carmen, and Marcella–the last after the girl she’d rescued, and stayed in touch with. All three girls went to college, and Carmen went on to get a PhD in Psychology. Stanleigh ended up with four grandchildren. Jayne died of a heart attack at sixty–Stanleigh remarried five years later and retired to Florida. She lived there for fifteen years before dying in her sleep.
Stanleigh often told people about Eric Hart. Marcella stayed a life-long friend. She completely forgot about the woman outside the funeral home, although for the rest of her life she felt odd around cigarette smoke. On occasion she wondered what the three had been through. Marcella never told her.
In the long run, it didn’t really matter.