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Today's Story by Russell Bogue

There are people like my mother who can look at the fragile flight of a butterfly and tell themselves that they want to die. God, what is wrong with this place?”


I was never the type to say anything.  Words are meaningless, I find. Most people use them cheaply, carelessly: a babble of lukewarm chatter to fill up the empty spaces.  The spaces where the elephant likes to camp out. I like those spaces.

I don’t remember exactly when I started noticing the changes in my mother. It seemed to happen gradually, a shifting of emotions; she faded slowly like a tired sigh, not exactly unhappy, just… not happy.  She seemed frail: wispy hair, thin skin, an unsteady gait.  Looking back, I realize it must have just been my imagination, for it was her mind, not her body, that was wasting away.  But it was so slow, so almost meaningless, like a footprint in a puddle. You knew it was there, you knew it’d left something underneath, but you moved along anyway.

As an architect, my mother was the most precise woman I knew. Without moving a finger, she could calculate large sums in her head.  Her fingers were thin and limber, moving purposefully across papers and sheets and adding figures to make dimensions, compiling dimensions to make shapes, making shapes into structures. Pictures in her yearbook showed a mousy girl, narrow shoulders held close, hair straight and lank.  She hadn’t changed much; what was most beautiful about her was unseen. Her laugh was a small giggle, never more. Her mind was agile, her disposition forgiving. I did not appreciate this when I knew her.

My father stopped loving her before they got married. I could feel the tension as soon as I could perceive emotions – glances they thought I did not notice, muscles tensing as they exchanged terse words. The toll it took on my mother was made slowly and terribly clear as the years progressed. My father had enough on his mind, working in his lab, always struggling to get another grant approved, always on the cusp of a breakthrough. My mother sat at her desk at home, rarely left. Some days I would return from school to find her staring listlessly at the top left corner of the room, as if wishing she could make it come alive… or wishing she would be less so.  I never said anything: it was just a footprint in a puddle.

My years in high school passed as a nobody. I preferred silence and anonymity to having friends – something, I think, my mother and I had in common.  She was always there, another marker in the landscape of my daily life. I regret those days that I did not thank her for making dinner. Now I know the cost.  Some nights I would wake up and see her staring at me through a crack in the door. Just enough light would seep through so that I could see her silhouette, and I would lie completely still as though asleep. After some time she would move slowly away. I realize now that during those moments she most displayed her love for me, a love so deep that she could not bear to express it to me face-to-face.

She killed herself when I was sixteen. It was January 15th.  The snow that coated our Rhode Island home that day was thick enough to make the world seem a little less cruel – God’s sense of humor, I suppose.  I found her lying across her desk, mouth strangely agape, and I could tell immediately it was not sleep that held her body limp.  For the first few hours I felt a chilling lack of emotion, even less than my father, who’d cried only at her sparsely attended funeral.  It was later that night – when I awoke and saw my door cracked but my mother was not standing there – that I wept for her death, wept until dawn, wept until my sheets were wet with urine.

• • •

It’s been two years since her funeral. My senior year of high school is passing like all the others – a vague and unimportant time that is simply observed and used up, never savored.  I got marginally more sympathy once word got out that my mother had committed suicide, but by now that has worn away. She exists now as memories in the minds of her family, her few friends, and as a collection of papers that consist of her work. The pills she used lie in ashes, cremated with her body, contained within a simple blue vase in the local cemetery. I do not visit her.

My father has continued with his life as usual, as if she never existed. He was waiting for this day, I suppose, ever since he placed the ring on her finger. A scientist, he viewed my mother as a specimen, a project he never quite succeeded at completing. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness; born into a marriage devoid of love, I was doomed to be unhappy. I had been given no chance from the outset.

Today I sit in science and make friends with the spaces. I’ve been noticing a lot of them lately. They were everywhere after my mother’s suicide, wandering around the room when people talked to me, coming in between my father and me. They are a barrier I make no effort to breach. They are my buffer.  My teacher asks me a question. I say I don’t know the answer. The spaces nod approvingly, and I settle back down into myself.

Someone pokes the back of my head. It’s the new girl – Joanne.  She seems like someone who enjoys the spaces, too. Moved in about three months ago, a loner by religion it almost seemed, without friends but not without a smile.  She hands me a piece of paper and I read:

“January 15th.”

I blink several times, rereading the scrawling penmanship.  For a moment, I am tempted to think it is some sick joke, that she is cruelly reminding me of the day I lost the mother I had never appreciated. But Joanne isn’t that type of person, I don’t think. I write down a question mark and hand her back the paper while the teacher is scribbling down some nonsense about mitochondria on the board.

The note doesn’t come back for several moments. The teacher drones on about vacuoles in a cell.  I smile vaguely – vacuoles are little spaces, empty holes for the waste of the cell to gather unnoticed.  Another poke on my neck interrupts my smile; I take the paper and read:

“My mother too.”

I am still for a while, not fully comprehending – or not believing, really.  It can’t be… the odds are massively against such an occurrence. To be sure, I scribble down frantically another question mark.

The third poke comes almost immediately after I hand back the paper:

“Meet me after school in the library.”

I feel a flush come to my face. No one has ever wanted to talk to me before, especially after my mother killed herself. I am the dormant volcano of the class; I’ve never had an outburst or fit of rage, but people assume one is just around the corner. Provoking me or contacting me in any way is off-limits. I prefer it that way anyways. But Joanne seems oblivious. Being new, she wouldn’t know me really, but somehow she already knows my past.

I do not return anything. My consent is understood. Science and history pass slowly, as I have for the first time something to look forward to. I make my way immediately to the library after class, meeting no one’s eyes, gliding effortlessly through the spaces.  An almost unrecognizable feeling of anticipation heightens my awareness as I approach my school’s library.

The library is the oldest part of the building, an expansive room with no air-conditioning but an abundance of radiators that musk up the chewy air. The librarians take no notice of me as I slip between the desks and scan the room, searching for the scraggly black hair pulled back behind a multi-colored bandana. I find it instantly and make my way towards her.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she says as I sit down. “You think I’m making fun of you. You think I’m insensitive to your mother’s death.”

I shake my head untruthfully. “No.”

She is untroubled by my impolite brevity. “Well, my mother killed herself, too. January 15th of last year. She went bungee jumping off Hamson Bridge without a bungee cord.”

“I’m sorry,” I manage, feeling shell-shocked. So, it was true; I briefly wonder how unlikely it is for two people to meet whose mothers had both committed suicide on the same day.

“My father left her two years before,” continues Joanne, looking down at her fingers. They are covered in henna. “She was fired from her job the day she drove her car to the bridge and climbed over the railing. I guess she realized she couldn’t provide for me any longer.”

I nod, not knowing how to respond. The light streaming through the windows feels uncomfortably hot, making me sweat.

“You’re wondering why I’m telling you this,” she says, squinting her eyes up at me. A pause. “Why are you so quiet? Why don’t you reach out?”

I shrug. “People don’t tend to understand me. I don’t need them to.”

“That’s stupid,” she says bluntly. “Talk to me about your mother. Tell me how she died.”

I shake my head, preparing to leave. This was not what I had in mind. “I’m not comfortable with that. I’m sorry about your mother – I am – but I don’t really want to talk – ”

She pulls me back down, looking somewhat desperate. “No – please. I know it must be hard for you, but do it for me. It’s been only a year. I need to know I’m not alone in this world. Please.”

I attempt to shrug her off, pulling the spaces in around me. “Why do you want to talk to me? I’ve never even met you before.”

“I don’t know,” she admits. “I’m new, you know. I just… what are you scared of?”

Her probing questions make me shift uncomfortably again.  “Nothing, I guess. I just don’t want to talk about it.”

“Yeah, I know. You’ve said.” She seems thoughtful. “When she fell through the air… I felt each second –”

“Wait,” I say, cutting across her. “You were there?”

She shakes her head, the beads in her hair slapping together. “The police were. They showed me the video from the cruiser’s windshield.  I saw her hysteria; I saw her pleading and threatening at the same time. I saw her purposefully leap off the bridge.”

“I’m sorry,” I say again, feeling inadequate. Her pain seems far more potent than mine. The spaces seem to shrink a little.

“It’s all right,” she says. “But… I just want to talk. Please?”

“I don’t just talk about these things, Joanne. It’s weird to ask people that, too. No wonder you have no friends.”

I immediately regret my flippant remark, but she smiles wryly. “So you’ve noticed. I suppose I’ve always had an issue with that. But hey, you’re not so well off yourself, you know. Probably because you’re so damn distant. Have you always been this way?”

“Not really. I guess so. I don’t know.”

“How assertive. God, you’re like rice pudding or something. White and bland and tasteless. Sorry to be blunt.”

Normally I would find myself blushing furiously at such a frank appraisal of my attitude, but somehow I smile. She has a way of saying things that make them seem like a joke, even when they’re not.

“I suppose I am, in a way. I get it from my mother.”

Joanne laughs loudly, a full sound. “Back to your mother, again, aren’t we? See, you want to talk about it. You just can’t admit it to yourself.”

I narrow my eyes. “You’re not going to trick me into it like that. Aren’t you smart or something?”

She stops smiling all at once. “I was, once. I used to be disappointed with a 4.0.  But after she died… I don’t know, it puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? Sorry to be a cliché, but it’s true. The world is so fucked, you know that? When stuffy old teachers stare down at you like some bastions of patriarchal oppression and mark your meager achievements with black little letters, things people like me used to live and die by, and all the while there are people like my mother who can look at the fragile flight of a butterfly and tell themselves that they want to die. God, what is wrong with this place?”

I’m silent. I pretend that her words have no effect on me. That I don’t think these same things myself.

“I mean, really,” she continues, unaware of my silence. “I wish we were born on Planet Zorox or something. I wish men had their dicks on their heads so that I could call someone a dickhead and it wouldn’t be an insult, because that’s such a satisfying word to say, you know? I wish that instead of boobs I had little feelers that could touch things and tell me their chemical makeup. I wish… well, I don’t know what else I wish, but I sure don’t wish to be here right now.” She stares sideways at me. “What do you wish?”

“For you to shut up,” I say. When she pouts, I smile. “I’m joking. I don’t know; I wish my mom hadn’t killed herself. Or at least that she’d left a note. Why did she have to leave like that? Why like that? Didn’t she realize what it would do to us?”

“She wasn’t thinking,” said Joanne, looking sympathetic. “No one is when… that happens.”

“No, I suppose not. But I just want to know why…” I suppress the rising emotion in my throat. “All the other kids I’ve ever talked to, all the other victims of a family member’s suicide, they all know why. I don’t. I never will.”

Joanne’s eyes are filled with the gentlest emotion; I don’t know why, but I feel myself get chills just looking at her. “I know,” she says, her voice hoarse. “But you can’t blame her. She had no life in her. All of us are born with life and some of us lose it before we die. And once you lose your life, it’s hard to get it back.” She looks long and hard at me. “Tell me, okay? Tell me what happened. I’m here for you.”

I’m tempted for a moment – sorely tempted – to move on and forget her, like I forget all the others, like I’ve forgotten my father even as he lives in my house. But something stops me; for once, the spaces seem unimportant. I can see them recoil, fearful of me, fearful of Joanne. So I begin to talk. I tell Joanne things I don’t think I’ve even allowed myself to think – I tell her about how I didn’t care, initially, that my mother had died. I tell her about how my father had never really loved her. Even as I speak, I become more frantic; having not spoken, really, to anyone in years, I feel a mounting sense of panic, as if I’m breaking some unspoken code that only I know about. But her eyes lock with mine and my mouth takes control and I speak. I speak for hours about myself, my life, my family. Eventually, she stops me.

“I think I’ve heard enough to paint you,” she says.

I’m taken aback. “Paint me?”

“Yes, paint you. It’s what I do – I paint. And I want to paint you.”

“Sure,” I say, unsure of what to think.

“It won’t look like you,” she says teasingly. “I paint the insides of people.”

I hesitate. “You don’t want to paint my insides,” I say. “Trust me. Even I don’t want to know what the inside of me looks like.”

She puts her hand on my arm, looks me in the eyes tenderly. “I know. It’s probably pretty damn ugly. That’s okay though. Hitler was ugly on the inside, and look how well he turned out!”

I laugh appreciatively.

She checks her watch. “Oh god, I have a violin lesson.  I’ll talk to you later, okay? Hang in there.”

I watch her leave and then slowly pack up my things and begin the ten-minute walk home through the relentless winter wind.  Around me, the world throbs with restless energy – the bare trees sway, devoid of leaves; the clouds slide effortlessly through the cold sky; the grass shifts and bends. For the first time in several years, for the first time even long before my mother’s death, I notice just how fragile everything around me is. As the sharp breeze washes across my face, I suddenly feel hot tears spill from my eyes.  Joanne’s face swims into my blurry vision, her eyes searching mine out, her restless hands smoothing back her hair. And right there, in the middle of the cracked sidewalk, I stop and I listen and I watch – and the spaces, I can’t really feel them anymore. They’ve gone to join my mother.


Russell Bogue hails from Guilford, CT and is a freshman at the University of Virginia, where he plans on pursuing studies in politics, Mandarin, and French. He has received national Gold and Silver Medals from the Scholastic Young Artists and Writers competition, including a Silver Medal for his Senior Portfolio. He enjoys policy debates, Lord of the Rings, and Chex Mix.


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