Wednesday, March 12, 2008

THUMP by Cecily Anders

You wake up late. Only twenty minutes until your first class of the day, Abnormal Psychology. Run out the door, without taking a shower, and catch the bus just in time. You don’t want to miss a second of this lecture; this is your sexiest professor.

Once on campus, run to the classroom and take a seat, near the back, as the teacher begins. Try to hide your disappointment as the professor runs a hand through his wavy brown hair and puts up an overhead of a family tree. Normally, you are able to sit closer so that his royal blue eyes are visible from your chair.

In this transparent, paper-thin world, squares are people. The overhead is littered with black boxes, with self-inflicted gun shot wounds, swinging ropes, and 100-foot falls off the tops of buildings. Each family has at least ten or twenty dark suicide squares. This topic makes your palms moist.

As the professor continues to lecture about the hereditary nature of suicide, you find him less and less attractive. His smile doesn’t seem nearly as radiant as before. He’s too secure in the genetic origin of this disorder. He doesn’t even show one example of a lone suicider. On him, confidence is not sexy.

It seems as if you are looking at these tree transparencies for hours, as if five class periods have passed and he won’t dismiss you because there are still more tree examples to display. Why aren’t the dismissal bells ringing? Nervous sweat drips from your forehead into your eyes. By now, you find him repulsive.

From the row behind you, someone taps you on the back. You refuse to turn around because this is the distinct finger maneuver of your dead brother; this is the middle-of-the-spine poke your sibling used to wake you with in the morning. When you don’t acknowledge him, he leans in towards your ear, “Hey, we’re related. Did you remember that? You have my genes and I have yours.”

Flustered, you stand up and grab your backpack. As you leave the room, mumble something to your neighbor about needing to be at work. Even though no one else is leaving, you’re certain that several class periods have passed. Your fellow students must not have any obligations outside of this room. The neighbor glares at you as if you are irresponsible.

In the hallway, reach into your backpack and pull out the syllabus. You have to determine the very next time this teacher will hold office hours. The “how would someone be able to find out if they have the suicide gene” question is best asked in private. Tomorrow at 10 AM. You will be there at 9:45.

As you pick up your backpack to leave, look at your watch. There are still forty-five minutes remaining in the class. Do not think about what this means. Instead, decide to go to work early. Being early is a sign of dedication. You want the restaurant manager to know how committed you are to food service.

As you leave, your brother’s brisk footsteps echo behind you in the long hallway. As his pace increases, walk faster. Even when your brother was alive, he scared you; always so negative, always so angry at the world. But now, you’re afraid to see the bruise marks on his neck. The fingernail scratches might still be there. You’re not sure how long it takes for the dead to heal.

But he won’t be ignored. He screams out, “We’re related. Are you listening to me? We’re related!”

Begin running. Exercise keeps people from wanting to kill themselves, right? And one can never get to work too early.

As you’re jogging, think about how your family is not like the overhead examples. There is only one suicidal person, instead of ten or thirty. And what have you ever had in common with your maladjusted brother, anyway?

At work, your first table is a larger table of eight. Your brother is sitting at the table, along with seven other strangers in horribly outdated clothes. Some are older, some are younger. Instead of taking their drink order, duck into the kitchen and approach the manager.

“So, you came to work early and now you don’t want to work? You just want to get paid to sit here, while other people work. Is that it?” Apparently, the manager is in a bad mood. Maybe he woke up this morning and realized he has a worthless, dead end job. Regardless, you’d still be willing to trade places with him right now.

“I’ll take the next table.”

“That table is yours. Everyone else already has a table except for you.”

“I’ll switch with someone then.”

“Oh, so you want a smaller table. You want to work, but just not that hard? Get out there and take their drink order! Are you trying to get yourself fired?”

Panicked, you scurry out of the kitchen and over to the table. Unemployed people kill themselves. You have to keep this job.

“Sis, do you remember our Aunt Becky?” Your brother points to the woman sitting next to him. She’s wearing clothes from the seventies. Not the new retro clothes, fresh from a factory; but rather, something that can be purchased at a thrift shop from a previous era. “You probably don’t recognize her. She jumped off a bridge when you were only two. But I remember her.”

“I think we’re scaring her, Hon. Maybe we should just leave,” comments this Becky person.

“No! She’s going to be like us some day. She might as well get used to us now.”

Another relative with a Victorian collar and long sleeves jumps in, “Yes, let’s just go. She’s looking awfully pale. And her hands are shaking.”

“No! I want a glass of water!”

“But your esophagus is crushed,” pipes in an older relative wearing a derby hat and a suit.

“My mouth is dry. I am not leaving until I get some water.”

Your ears fill with the sounds of the kitchen as your eyes slowly drift open. The manager is fanning your face with some papers. “If you didn’t feel well, you should have just told me. I would have let you go home.”

At your apartment, turn all three locks closed. Once you sit down on the couch, the phone rings. It could be your brother. You let the machine pick it up.

“Honey, this is your mother. I was just calling to say hello…”

Run over to the phone. “Mom, wow, I’m so glad you called. Did you have a sister that killed herself?”

“No…, but your father did. Why are you asking me about that?”

“Besides your son, did you ever have any relatives that killed themselves?”

“No… Are you feeling okay, sweetie? Should I come visit you?” Good, it’s all on your father’s side. Your mother isn’t one of them. You can trust her.

“Do you think I look more like you or Dad?” If you look like your mother, you’ll have her sane genes. You desperately want her long nose and non-suicidal tendencies.

“Like your father, honey. You and your brother have always looked more like your father.”

Your throat goes dry as you try to swallow. “Why are you asking me so many questions about suicide? Are you ok? Is this about your brother?” She has fear in her voice, as if she already knows you’re one of them, as if she might need to hang up immediately to call 911.

Someone knocks at the door. “Mom, I have to go. My friend just got here.”

Don’t even bother to look at the door. Instead, turn on the TV and increase the volume. Unfortunately, the movie that pops up is a western. On the screen, there’s some criminal clawing violently at the rope around his neck. Inside yourself, every cell in your body is taking notes. From outside the apartment, your brother yells, “What’s on TV, Sis?”

Turn off the TV and run to the radio. Increase the volume to blaring. Sit in the corner and suck on your thumb while weeping uncontrollably. If only you could call your mother right now, but you don’t want her to know for sure you’re one of them. You want her to still love you. Eventually, your lids become heavy.

In the morning, your eyes feel puffy from last night’s tears. Forgo taking a shower for the second day in a row. As it is, you barely have enough time to make it to your professor’s office by 10:10.

In his office, without the bright enhancement of the auditorium lights, his dark blue eyes are dull and flat. His beauty was just an illusion, a fabrication. He’s as disappointing as life itself.

“What can I help you with today?”

“Is it possible for someone to kill themselves without a genetic predisposition?”

The professor’s rate of blinking increases. Before answering, he stares at you with his fluttering, dull eyes. “Yes, suicide can be a purely environmental phenomenon. It’s less common though.” Right outside the professor’s door, your brother is whistling.

“How would a person be able to find out if they have a suicide gene?”

The professor’s eyes widen slightly. He clears his throat. “There isn’t a genetic test… There’s only the action of the patient.” Your foot begins to twitch. “But environment always plays a role. Genes have to be triggered. Nothing is set in stone.”

You think about your brother’s tombstone and how your mother cried over it. She looked directly at you in the middle of her tears. Did she already know you were one of them? Did she regret having married your father?

“When was the last time you took a shower?” Your brother’s whistling grows louder.

“Two days ago.”

He hands you a Campus Mental Health Services card and suggests that you might want to ask them some additional questions. This is a great idea. Someone with real world experience is bound to have better answers.

Five minutes later, walk into the Mental Health Services building. Your brother’s footsteps are still behind you.

This is a newer building compared to the professor’s run down office filled with dusty books, inadequate lighting, and a cracked leather couch. Here, under the glow of soft-white bulbs, the floor is shiny and bright, modern furniture decorates the lobby, and there doesn’t appear to be a spec of dirt in the entire building. These people are going to say something you want to hear.

On the fourth floor, the receptionist is young and pretty with strawberry blonde hair, freckles, and pink lips. Despite your unshowered appearance, she smiles at you as if you are normal and asks you to fill out a questionnaire so that she can determine which therapist you should see.

Sit down and happily fill in several survey bubbles with your pencil. You’re intrigued and entertained by the answer pattern that emerges on the right-hand side of the page. This is much more fun than you anticipated.

Toward the end of the questionnaire, you stop when asked about your family history of suicides. Your brother, sitting next to you, says, “Make sure you mention me. Don’t forget about me.” He points to the suicide question to make sure you understand what he means. His fingers are white, almost transparent.

Place the clipboard on a nearby table. You already know the answers to your questions. You’ve heard the death thoughts before. You’ve heard your genes expressing themselves.

Once, you even had to call your best friend to come sit with you. The genes were moving your limbs. They were hunting through the house in search of weapons. Like a heart attack, you were helpless to stop your body from killing itself. When she finally got to your apartment, she wanted to take your blood-streaked arms to the emergency room; but instead, the two of you came to a compromise. She caressed a warm washcloth against your skin, trying to close the surface wounds, trying to calm what was deep inside.

Walk out of the building and towards your car. Drive to the grocery store. You’re going to eat better, exercise more, and sleep nine hours every night. You’re going to take better care of yourself.

At the store, fill your basket with fruit, vegetables, nuts, whole grain bread, fish, and egg whites. These are the foods that will keep you happy. Pass by the cookie aisle warily, keeping your hands firmly by your side. Sugar will only make you crash into mental misery. You need to stay balanced, well tuned.

At the checkout, your healthy foods are rung up. The beeping makes your heart feel joyous. It beats in unison with the checker’s rhythm. You can fight this disease.

Then, the skinny checker picks up a package of twisted, coiled rope and brushes it across the scanner. The chubby bagger snatches it up and places it into one of your homeward-bound bags. Your face goes white. Your throat closes up. You can’t even protest that this item isn’t yours. From behind you, your brother says, “I put that in there while you weren’t looking, Sis. Thought you might need it some day.”

In the parking lot, dig through your bags until you find the rope. Toss the unwanted item as far away from your car as you can. People in the parking lot stare at you. A young mother pulls her infant close to her chest and walks quickly away from your general area. But you don't care. You’d rather be a freak than die from rope-induced suffocation.

At home, grab a garbage bag and start tossing items into it: toilet cleaner, Drano, Windex, knives (even the butter ones just to be safe), your razor for shaving, and the entire contents of your medicine cabinet. You’re no different than a diabetic throwing out sugar; there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Run out to the garbage room and toss the bag down the chute. The whole time, check to make sure no one else is around to notice or ask questions. As the bag hits the pile of trash in the dumpster, let out a deep breath. You’re safe now. Your home will be a suicide-free haven. Nothing will sneak up on you.

When you get back to your apartment, you’re exhausted. Lie down on your bed and close your eyes. You’re driving in your car towards a bridge. Your head is drowning in DNA-induced thoughts of death. They’re filling up your skull. They’re spilling out through your nose. Your genes take over, park the car, and walk you to the edge of the bridge. They look down at the royal blue water which reminds you of your professor’s eyes, under the right lighting. If you let your genes dive in, that bright, fake world will be yours. Place your hand over your heart for the last time. Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump…

Wake up sweating. Your brother is sitting on the corner of your bed with his legs crossed. “The others thought it would be rude to just barge into your apartment. But I’m your brother. I have certain privileges they don’t.” He always was somewhat inconsiderate.

There’s something around your neck. He’s torn up one of your sheets and wrapped it around your throat in a hangman’s noose. There is something horrifyingly comforting about the feel of the material tight against your skin. “I put a dining room chair in the living room, under that fan. You could hang yourself there.” He stares at you, waiting for a response. “It’s easier than you think.” When you don’t move, he continues, “You might as well get this over with now. You can’t stop it from happening.”

Jump up and run into the living room as the sheet flaps behind you. Your brother follows. Grab the chair, raise it up off the ground, and swing it at him. Your brother ducks as you scream at him. “It’s just a genetic disease!” Swing and miss again. “Lots of people have diseases waiting inside them and they don’t die!” Swing unsuccessfully a third time. “I can fight this! I’m just like everyone else. I’M JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE!”

Continue to swing the chair until you realize your brother is no longer in front of you. “I’m over here, Sis.” Set the chair down, turn around, and grab your brother by the throat, right in the bruised part. He yelps and coughs as you escort him out of your apartment by his neck. He doesn’t put up much of a fight. As soon as you shut the door in his face, he begins knocking.

Sit on the floor, against a wall, and untie the knot. Toss the ruined sheet into a corner. You’re just like everyone else. Cancer, high blood pressure, kidney failure, heart attack, diabetes. You’re just another person with a genetic disease.

The knocking continues. It mimics your heartbeat; it is your heartbeat. Knock knock. Knock thump. Thump thump. There is no dead brother right outside your door. You’re just like everyone else.


THUMP was awarded Third Place in the 2007 Competition.


Cecily Anders, currently a compensation analyst for a non-profit healthcare system in Houston, Texas, graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2000 and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2001. An enthusiastic participant in creative writing workshops, Cecily credits her loving and imaginative grandfather for being responsible for the development of her creative abilities.