This story is by Heather Johnson and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Her eyelids felt like sandpaper when she opened them. The morning sun shining through the curtains made the bedroom glow red. It didn’t matter whether her eyes were open or shut. Everything was red. She blinked again and noticed a piece of paper on the pillow where Brent should have been. As she arose, she picked it up and tried to decipher the words he had scrawled across it.
I’m sorry to leave you this way, but I can’t face you right now. I love you, and I always will. I can’t live like this. It’s too painful. I can’t face the guilt of disappointing you every day. Goodbye.
He hadn’t been gone long. The bed was still warm. Scrambling out of bed, she pulled on a pair of jeans, slid her feet into the nearest pair of shoes and grabbed a sweater, pulling it over her head as she walked out the door. She was already on the phone by the time she got to the car.
“I know it’s early, I’m sorry. Have you heard from Brent? He’s gone again. I’m trying to find him. No, I’m not going to just ‘let him be’! What kind of mother are you?”
She pulled the phone away from her ear and dialed another number. No answer. She tried another.
“Jeff. Have you heard from Brent? He’s gone. The note he left—he’s not in a good place.”
“Janie, just breathe. We’ll find him.”
“Did he mention anything to you yesterday when he was at your place?”
“No. He seemed fine. Well, except he was fixated on the beach. Rambling on and on about erosion and how destructive waves and water can be. You know how he gets.”
“But otherwise he was acting normally?”
“Yeah, he seemed okay. Maybe a little too quiet, aside from rambling about the beach, but not upset.”
“Do me a favor. Check your medicine cabinet. Is anything missing?”
“Just do it!”
She heard medicine bottles knocking together and pills shaking in their plastic containers.
“Janie, I’m missing a bottle of muscle relaxants.”
“No! Where would he go? I need to find him so I can get him to the hospital before it’s too late. Help me think! I’m guessing we have an hour until he’s unconscious.”
“Janie, I have no idea. I’m getting in my car. I’ll head downtown. Maybe he’s wandering around the fountain where he used to work. He’s done that before. I’ll let you know if I think of anywhere else.”
She hung up and turned her car in the opposite direction, toward the coast. Life had drastically changed after the accident. Brent had suffered a severe concussion that landed him in the hospital for weeks. When he finally stabilized, everyone, including herself, had praised God for a merciful recovery. Brent had been heading for a full recovery when the headaches started. Unbearable pain that made it impossible for him to function. After the first one he said he was feeling depressed. He went out for a run and claimed it helped clear his mind.
As his headaches became more frequent, his mood declined steadily. The days of bouncing back from the darkness were long gone. Doctors fed him pill after pill to no effect. What had previously been a blessing now felt like a curse. He had flashes of normalcy, but his depression was overwhelming and hard to watch. When his suicide attempts became more frequent and troubling, his family largely abandoned him. Janie refused to leave. He needed her.
Two years of depression and suicide attempts had changed him. He had become a blank shell of a man bearing only a fleeting resemblance to the man she had fallen in love with years ago. If she left him and something happened—it was unthinkable. The guilt would eat her alive. Whenever life felt too hard and she thought about leaving, she tried to remember their first date. How she’d fallen head over heels for his rugged scruffiness as they stood in the sunset at the base of the pier.
It was a place they had loved to visit—the only place they considered going when they talked about the beach. She called Jeff as she drove.
“He’s at the pier. Meet me there. And call 911.”
“Are you there? Do you see him?”
“I’m twenty minutes away, but I know he’s there. Just send help!”
She had about twenty minutes to make it to Brent before he lost consciousness. She had no idea if she’d make it. Minutes flew too quickly as she followed the winding highway, driving as fast as she dared until she arrived at the turnoff. From that point it was a mad rush of spinning tires and flying sand as she sped into the parking lot in front of the pier. Leaping out of her car without bothering to shut the door, she sprinted up the boardwalk. When she arrived at the top, she scanned the area.
There. There he was. A man curled up on a bench. She ran to him, hoping she could rouse him if he was already unconscious.
“Brent! Can you hear me?” She shook his shoulders as she peered into his face. One of the fishermen nearby looked at her as if she had lost her mind. She didn’t care. She shook him again and put her face close to his. He was still breathing. That was good.
“Brent. Baby. It’s time to wake up.” Her voice shook as panic got the best of her, but she kept trying.
Slowly, too slowly, he opened his eyes. “Janie. Where am I?”
Her stomach dropped. He wasn’t just drowsy; he was completely disoriented. How many pills had he taken? She frantically searched his jacket and jeans pockets for the bottle.
“What did you take? Can I see the bottle?”
He looked her in the eye and opened one of his hands, yielding up the bottle like a child who had been caught stealing candy.
She shook the bottle. There were still pills in it.
“Honey, how many did you take?”
He stared at her blankly. She felt tears roll down her face as she worried about the answer.
“I have to know how many. Please tell me.”
He sat up slowly. Janie got up from where she had been kneeling to take a seat beside him. In the distance, she could hear sirens. A breeze of relief swept over her. Jeff had done his job.
“I didn’t take any. I couldn’t.”
“You’re sure? What happened?”
He looked down at the waves crashing on the beach. “I planned to take enough to knock me out. When I got sleepy, I would jump off the pier. It seemed a poetic way to end my life…and our marriage. You know, where it all began? When I got here and heard the waves—I couldn’t do it. All I could think of was you.”
Tears fell freely down Janie’s face. For a moment he was the old Brent. She looked away at the ocean before looking back at him. His eyes had glazed over again. Old Brent had disappeared as quickly as he had come.
She could hear people running toward them, and was grateful for the help. She was more grateful for the distant memory that had saved his life.
“Instead of taking the pills, I curled up and went to sleep. I’m sure they all think I’m some homeless bum.” He gestured to the fishermen around them.
She kissed his forehead. “We’ll find something to help you. Just hold on. Please.”
He crumpled in her arms as the paramedics reached his side and started asking him routine questions.
Jeff trailed close behind them. “I don’t know how you found him, Janie.” He reached out to put a steadying hand on her back. She leaned into it.
“This place meant something to him, to us, once.” Her voice trailed off. “Thank you for calling the ambulance. And for meeting me here.”
“Of course. I couldn’t hang my best friends out to dry.” He patted Brent on the back.
Janie stood, “Thanks for always being there for me—for us.”
Jeff moved to embrace her and whispered in her ear, “I’ll always be around when you need me. Can I see you tonight?”
She blushed at his closeness, but allowed him to nibble her ear for a moment. It was her favorite of his many moves.
“We’ll see how late I’m at the hospital with him.” She gestured to Brent.
The paramedics pulled Brent up and put him on a gurney. Jeff followed. It was a surprising relief to watch Brent roll away. She mentally slapped herself for the thought.
“Be careful with him!” She shouted stumbling after them. “You don’t know how much he means to me.” She chewed her bottom lip as she followed the gurney, wondering which ‘he’ she really meant.