This story is by Caitlin Hale and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
When someone you love dies, you tend to think about the living in light of your loved ones’ death. Why’d they die? Why’d they die so soon? Why’d they have to die and leave the rest of us here alone?
You ask some of these questions after your dad and mom and sister drown while kayaking in the rapids of the Cache La Poudre River. But you know the answers. You stare at your younger self through the glass of Cuppa Café where 18-year-old you sits with Sandy and Mom and Dad. Younger You laughs as Dad pretends to choke on a vanilla cupcake, and Mom chides him for getting the icing all over his chin and on the table. Maybe they can’t see you, or maybe they’re not really there, or maybe this is a fever dream brought on by the news that they all drowned while kayaking in the rapids of the Cache La Poudre River.
They die because you push them away and out the door, convince them to go on a vacation in Colorado. Cabins, kayaking, rapids, isolation. The latter of which you long for yourself before the rapids decide to keep Mom and Dad and Sandy and before loneliness is all that keeps you company.
“Susan, you really should come with us,” Sandy says before the trip. “You stare at a screen all day. That can’t be good for your eyes or your mental health.”
“I think my mental health would be much better off if I pass the bar exam rather than skip studying for a five-day vacation,” you say.
She shrugs. They leave. Thank God. They die. Why, God?
Punishment? Reaping what you sow? But you know.
Look, nobody’s perfect, but that’s all you’ve heard growing up. Oh, Susan’s perfect. Susan’s smart. Susan’s going to be a lawyer. Going places fast. Going to work for the prosecution. Going to the judicial field next. Judge Susan. Senator Susan. Guys, stop it, really.
You weren’t always perfect. You did tell little Jimmy Waite in the first grade who lived down your street that Santa Claus was not only not real but that anyone who believed in him would be cast into the place that you’d heard Jimmy’s older brother tease you about. The place where people who believe a lie dwell. Something about a darkness you can touch and feel around you. A deafening darkness. An outer darkness.
“No wonder you have no friends!” cries little Jimmy Waite as he runs back into his house.
Maybe friends are overrated. Maybe perfect people don’t need friends.
You know better than that now, but Younger Susan is still up on that pedestal. Perfect Susan. Always smart and always smiling. Always studying and prepping for debate club. Always alone.
Maybe people are overrated, always bothering you when you’re reading and studying and prepping for a debate. Always nagging you with their ideas of your career trajectory. Up, up, up. Sandy with her constant jokes about how perfect and smart you are. So perfect, pedestals should be renamed Susans so people can build their lives on fruits of your accomplishments.
You do have one friend. Or you did.
Brenda Matthews. Ninth grade. The only girl in class who doesn’t mind your quiet nature and questioning mind.
But isn’t Brenda a little needy? Does she need help with geometry every weekend? Can’t she figure out by herself after weeks of your assistance how to open her essay on Edgar Allan Poe?
Self-reliance, Brenda, you want to say. Figure it out for yourself. I’m not here to hold anyone’s hand.
Of course, you smile and answer Brenda’s questions about essay introductions and math equations.
But Brenda is more than a little smothering. And you need more time for yourself when you join debate club in your sophomore year of high school.
“I can’t come over on weekends anymore,” you tell Brenda.
Debate club meetings. Preparations. Speech writing. There. That’ll do it.
Brenda finds a new circle of friends. Boys like her father. Gets arrested the next year for attempting to sell cocaine to kids behind the football field after dark. Brenda decides she can’t live without one of the boys because he made her feel she was worth listening to, or so you hear in the hallways the week after Brenda swallows a bottle of pills and drowns herself in her pool.
“It’s a shame Brenda got mixed up with a bad crowd,” Mom says. “If she’d spent more time with you, then she might be still alive. What a shame.”
Younger Susan. Not so perfect after all. You don’t tell them you cut ties with Brenda after joining debate club because you wanted more time for yourself. Why let them think anything different of Perfect Susan? They could shut up about it, though. Could stop mentioning how wonderful and selfless and focused you are, how good a friend you are, how much of a shame it is that poor, unwise, foolish Brenda just up and got herself mixed up with the wrong crowd instead of choosing to stay friends with a good and wonderful and smart person like Perfect Susan.
That’s the trouble with people in this world. Can’t mind their own business. Can’t leave other people alone, let them be, let them live their own lives without interfering with their constant need to express their feelings and their expectations and their need for interaction.
You don’t attempt to make friends after Brenda. Don’t chat up classmates in senior year or your first years in college.
“Boy, that Susan is a quiet one,” Dad’s friends say. “The smart ones are like that.”
“She’s going to be a senator one day, you know,” Dad says. “After serving as a judge, of course. She’s going places, all right.”
But not soon enough for you.
Shut up. Run away. Go away. Get away. Leave. Me alone. Me in peace. Silence. Solitude. Anything. Anywhere. Let me breathe. Mom. Dad. Sandy. Brenda.
People don’t breathe when they’re dead. Is that why Brenda drowned herself after downing pills? To make sure she had no chance of being discovered with breath in her lungs and allowing someone the chance of reviving her? Is water in the lungs as suffocating as the demands of perfection?
You watch through the glass windows at Cuppa Café as Mom wipes off the icing from the table. Younger You smiles, but you remember the hint of pain Younger You is trying to hide. Pain. Secrets. That desperate desire to get away. From them, sure. From yourself? Or maybe it’s the desire to run toward something. That Perfect Susan they always talk about. Run into her shell and inhabit her body and fulfill the dreams others have for you. But Younger You can’t do that if you aren’t alone.
Mom and Dad and Sandy’s trip along the Cache La Poudre River lasts a week. Two days longer than they had planned. Maybe they didn’t make it, you think. Maybe their bodies are floating amidst the rapids, their kayaks resting along the edge of the riverbanks. No one around for miles to find them in time. Completely alone. And of course, that’s silly to think. Of course, they stayed longer. You would have. Cabins, trees, and only the breath of a river breathing down your neck.
You stand in your living room when you hear the policeman’s voice over your cell phone.
“They went out alone in their kayaks,” he says. “Made it into the Class IV section of the rapids. I’m sorry, miss, but I’m afraid they didn’t make it out,” he says. Or something to that effect.
The thickness of a creeping darkness around you fills in the silence, and you close your eyes. You open them again and see Younger You through the glass of Cuppa Café.
Younger You isn’t smiling anymore.
So you close your eyes again and feel the space around you. Who knew isolation could take the form of surrounding darkness? Outer darkness. Where people go who believe a lie, little Jimmy’s brother said.
You grit your teeth and bite your cheek, tasting blood on your tongue.
Believing a lie. A lie that says you must be perfect. Or that being alone is all you need.