The New York Times bestselling author blends a pitch-perfect childlike voice with keen adult observation as she shares her heartrending, groundbreaking insider’s look into the fascinating and frightening world of childhood bipolar disorder.
Starting with her first suicide attempt at age seven, Terri Cheney was held hostage by her roller-coaster moods, veering from easy A-pluses to total paralysis, from bouts of obsessive hypersexuality to episodes of alcoholic abandon that nearly cost her her life. On the outside, her world appeared perfect. She was pretty and smart, an academic superstar and popular cheerleader. Yet her inner world was chaos, a well-guarded secret too troubling, too painful to fathom even thirty years later in her bestselling memoir, Manic, which was lauded as “chilling” and “brilliant” by People. In The Dark Side of Innocence, her eye-opening follow-up, Terri shares her poignant and compelling journey from a childhood of disaster and despair to hope and survival, an informative first-person account of a dark beast that preys on a staggering one million children.
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About the Author
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A little boy died
When he was seven.
He went straight up
—My version of a nursery rhyme, age seven
Killing yourself at any age is a seriously tricky business. But when I was seven, the odds felt insurmountable. My resources were so limited, after all. We lived in a one-story house, so there was nowhere to jump. The cabinet where the good silver was kept—the one with the knives that could make a nice, clean slice—was locked, and my mother had the key. We did have a swimming pool in our backyard, but who was going to teach me how to drown? I’d only just learned how to dog paddle.
It all started two nights before my seventh birthday, after a fight with my brother, Zach. I was a delicate-looking thing, pale as porcelain, with long red hair that flowed down to the middle of my back. Zach was ten, and big for his age. I didn’t care.
“You’re sitting in my chair,” I said.
Zach didn’t stop eating. “So?” he mumbled.
I could hear my voice growing shrill. “Move.”
“No, you move.”
My mother intervened. “Honey, let Zach sit next to his dad for a change. You come sit next to me.” She patted the empty chair to her right.
Except for fancy occasions like Thanksgiving, we always had our meals at the L-shaped kitchen counter. My father would sit at the head; I’d sit next to him; then my mother; then Zach. I don’t know who had assigned these places, but that was how it had always been.
I felt my hand tighten into a fist. I could just go back to my room. I wasn’t that hungry anyway. But something deep inside me kept me standing there, transfixed. That something was so familiar, so real and omnipotent, I’d given it a name: the Black Beast.
I tried to negotiate.
“Not now,” I argued.
“Now,” the Black Beast insisted.
My fingers clenched tighter, so hard that my nails gouged into my palms.
Daddy hadn’t come home from work yet, so his chair was empty. There was still time to fix this, if indeed it needed fixing. You could never tell with Zach. Of everyone in my family, I felt that he was the only one really keeping track of things. At ten, he could already see straight through me. He knew I was not adorable.
I gave him fair warning. “Zach, I swear, if you don’t move now, you’re gonna be sorry.”
He ignored me and reached for a tortilla chip, his hand passing right in front of me. Big mistake.
I grabbed the nearest fork and stabbed, hard, into his flesh. There was a moment’s bloody satisfaction, like when you bite into a good, rare piece of steak and the juices flood through your mouth. The fork stood up straight from the back of Zach’s hand. I’d skewered him like a bullfighter.
My mother swore and ran to get the first aid kit while Zach screamed. Thank God she was a registered nurse and knew exactly what to do. I don’t remember much of what followed—just that I was sent to my room, where I waited in terror for my father to come home.
It was the night of December 5, 1966. It was a good time to live in suburban Southern California. Building was booming, but you could still drive a mile or two out of town and picnic in orange groves. The smog was bad, but it produced brilliant sunsets. Out in the real world—the grown-up world I only caught whiffs of now and then—trouble was brewing: in four years, words like “Kent State” and “Cambodia” would enter the national consciousness. The Beatles would break up, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix would die.
But in Ontario, the little corner of the world where I lived, some forty-odd miles east of LA, none of that seemed to matter. Euclid Avenue, the eucalyptus-lined main street of town, was named one of the seven most beautiful avenues in the United States, and a good Sunday still consisted of church and a stroll beneath the trees. No one knew then that a blight was about to kill them all off, one after the other. In 1966, all was green and thriving.
Things weren’t exactly perfect at 1555 North Elm Court, but you couldn’t tell from the outside. The garage was freshly painted, the pink geraniums my mother had planted on a whim were blooming, and a brand-new fire-engine red Dodge Comet stood in the driveway, waiting for us to hop in. But come around midnight, and you might hear a different story: voices brittle as icicles, aiming for the heart. I could hear them through my bedroom door, although I couldn’t quite make out the words. Something about money, usually; and sometimes, when the frost was particularly thick, the single word Rebecca. On those nights, I fully expected to wake up and find all the pink geraniums withered and dead. But to my surprise, they continued to bloom, and the neighbors looked on us as a fine family.
And so we were. Zach was tall for his age and strapping, with a shock of red hair even more vibrant than my own. My mother and father were both handsome people, trim and photogenic. In the few pictures I possess of us, we look like a Kodak commercial: smiling, smiling, smiling. I remember hating being photographed as a child, and perhaps that accounts for my awkward grin. But even I could look angelic when I chose.
“There’s something wrong with her.”
My mother’s normally cool, firm voice quavered. She was either on the edge of tears or extremely angry, I couldn’t tell which. I pressed my ear up against the crack in the den door, trying to listen harder.
“There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s only seven. Besides, she’s number one in her class.” My father’s Kansas twang was followed by a crackle; no doubt a page of the Daily Report being turned.
“Put that goddamned paper down and listen to me. You call what she did to Zach tonight normal?”
Another crackle, then silence. “She won’t do anything like that again. I’ll make her give me her word.”
My mother laughed. It was not a pleasant sound. “She’d say anything to get you to forgive her. I mean it, Jack, I’m worried. One minute she’s sweet as pie, the next she’s a little fiend. And all those days she claims she’s sick when she really isn’t—”
“That’s just to stay out of school. All kids do that.”
“Not for weeks at a time. I tell you, something’s wrong with her.”
I heard the sound of a cup or a fist banging down on the table. “Nothing’s wrong with my baby. Christ, she’s number one in her class.”
“You already said that.”
“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?”
There was a moment’s silence, and then my mother began to cry. She rarely cried, except when she was so frustrated she couldn’t find the words to express herself.
“You always take her side,” she said.
“There are no sides here,” my father said, his voice softening. “It’s just us.”
“I don’t know how to handle her anymore. And it’s not fair to Zach.” My mother was openly sobbing now.
“Shhh,” my father said. “If there’s a problem, I’ll fix it. You know I always do.”
I was glad I was only eavesdropping. I couldn’t have stood the sight of my mother’s tears. I crept back to bed, deeply ashamed of whatever was so clearly “wrong” with me.
Wrong with me, wrong with me. I knew my mother was right, of course; I’d always known I was different from other kids. I just didn’t realize how much it showed. How was my father going to “fix it”? What would they do to me if they ever found out how bizarre I really was? It wouldn’t just be a matter of being grounded then. They’d take me away and lock me up somewhere, and I’d never see my daddy again. I’d have to be more careful.
“Careful,” I whispered into my pillow.
My father stood in my bedroom doorway. There was a crease on his forehead that I’d never seen before.
“Why did you do it?” he asked.
“He made me do it,” I said with as much bravado as I could muster. How could I begin to explain what I didn’t understand myself? My father couldn’t possibly know, because I couldn’t possibly tell him, that “he” did not refer to Zach. “He” was the Black Beast, the monster that ruled over me and manipulated my moods. The Black Beast didn’t live under my bed or in the closet, like a proper childhood monster should. He lived inside my heart and head, leaving little room for hope or joy or any emotion lighter than sorrow. Sometimes he weighed a zillion trillion tons, and it was all I could do just to breathe.
But then at other times, the Black Beast switched my mood in exactly the opposite direction. I’d be agitated, irritable, giddy, and silly, all in quick succession. One minute the prick of a tag on the back of my sweater would make me writhe and scream; the next I’d be roaring with laughter at my own private jokes and pirouetting down the aisles of the supermarket. Those were “Disneyland days,” as my father called them, and although life in an amusement park can be exhausting, I still preferred them to the days in the dark.
Most children have a secret friend. But I never considered the Black Beast my friend. He was bigger than any mere childhood whim: he was a living, breathing creature that inhabited my body. I couldn’t just stuff him away in the toy chest and sit on the lid.
We fought constantly. I didn’t always want to do or say or feel the things that he commanded, because they often got me into trouble. But he was stronger than I was, and very persuasive. I’d originally named him “Black Beauty,” after one of my favorite bedtime stories, in an attempt to make him seem more like a pet. It didn’t work. When the Black Beast wanted his way with me, there was simply no stopping him.
I didn’t dare tell my father about this—or anyone else, for that matter. I thought that no one could possibly want a child possessed by a beast. So I cried that night instead: big, gulping sobs, bigger than my mother’s, because I needed my father’s allegiance more than she did. She was so attractive, she could get any man she wanted. I was a scrawny almost-seven-year-old, and there was nowhere else to turn. I shook off the covers and held out my arms. “I’m so sorry, Daddy,” I said.
He came over and sat on the edge of my bed. “Do you promise never to do anything like that again?”
I nodded, crying harder. Daddy looked around and picked up Toto from the foot of my bed. Toto was the tattered stuffed dog I’d had since I was three, my constant ally, my dearest friend.
“Swear on Toto,” he said.
“I swear,” I said. The sobs were coming so thick and fast by then that I could barely get the words out. And then at last—at last—my father took me in his arms and pressed me to his chest. My breathing slowed down instantly, the throbbing in my neck and temples eased. But just as my tears began to subside and I felt the universe slip back into its proper orbit, he held me out at arm’s length and shook his head. “You know, I’m very disappointed in you,” he said. “I want you to lie here and think about that for a while.” Then he got up and went back to the den.
I clutched Toto and thought about it. Thought about it, hard. There were really only two avenues open to me:
- I could win back my father’s love, or
- I could die.
Don’t ask me how I knew about suicide at such a tender age. The Black Beast knew all sorts of things that were better left unknown. I was fascinated by death; always had been. The nuns thought it was wonderful that I studied my catechism so intently, but the truth was, to me the Bible was just a great grisly story. The same was true of fairy tales: I wolfed them down. Not the saccharine Disney versions, but the unexpurgated Grimms, with their sawed-off heels and lopped-off heads and altogether dark and nasty vision. It satisfied something deep and hungry inside me to know that there was a way out of this life.
At the moment, though, it seemed easier just to try to win back Daddy’s love. I’d done it before—I knew how. Winning back my father’s love meant getting an A-plus at something. Not an A, mind you. Mere As were for ordinary folk who didn’t have that extra special something it took to rise above the pack. My father made it clear to me: every A-plus earned crisp dollar bills, while straight As merited only pocket change.
I applied desperate logic. It seemed to me that all my father really lived for was my outstanding progress in school. He never talked much about his work as a real estate developer; he had no hobbies that I knew of; and when he came home, my mother greeted him with warmed-over argument. But he’d sit for hours in his brown leather chair, listening to me talk about my latest achievement, his face intent and a proud-to-bursting smile lighting his eyes. Nothing my mother said could disturb him then. “Jack, the gas bill’s overdue.” “Jack, your meat loaf’s getting cold.” “Jack, did you hear me? I’m talking to you.”
So I figured I must be the reason he kept coming home. Narcissistic? Perhaps. But there must have been some truth to it. No doubt he loved my mother and Zach, but he seemed to love those A-pluses best of all. I don’t know what they meant to him; I only knew the light in his eyes.
But how to get the A-plus? I looked over at the blank sheet of construction paper lying on my desk—my latest homework assignment—and shuddered. How could I possibly ace it? Everything was wrong, all wrong. The paper wasn’t supposed to be white, it was supposed to be manila and marked across with thin blue lines so that I could print neatly between them. That was how it had always been; that was how it was supposed to be.
I’d told my parents about my dilemma, calmly as I could, and they’d searched the local stationery stores for lined manila paper, with no luck. Finally, my mother wound up buying the offending blank white paper, and for a moment I considered blaming her for my predicament. But deep down I knew it wasn’t her fault—it was mine. I was the one who had claimed to be too sick to go to school for the seventh day running, so I wasn’t there to pick up the special paper that went along with the assignment.
All my mother knew was what she had heard over the phone from Sister Mary Bernadette: write a story about yourself and draw a picture to illustrate it. But how could I tell a proper story without the little blue lines? My handwriting wasn’t anywhere near good enough yet; it would sprawl all over the page. The result would be . . . catastrophe. I’d get a C—maybe even a C-minus.
No. Never. Death first.
It never occurred to me that my thoughts might be a little extreme. I knew what I knew: I had to stay the head of my class. That was what held the fabric of my existence together: I had to be the best. The smartest, the most promising, the one to keep an eye on, the one to come home for. So there was really no other option left. If an A-plus was impossible, I’d simply have to die.
A shiver of fear ran through my body. I knew what death looked like, from having come across my pet mouse Jitsy last year, lying stiff and motionless in her cage. Her little red eyes were closed. I poked her and tried to shake her awake. When she didn’t respond, I ran to find my father.
“It’s not that kind of sleep,” he explained, gingerly picking her up by her tail and laying her in a shoe box. “Jitsy won’t be waking up.”
I was only five then, and I didn’t understand. “How come?”
“She’s gone to Heaven,” my father said.
Heaven I understood. We’d learned all about it in school. Heaven was the place where good souls went to eat as much ice cream as they wanted the whole day long. Of course, there was that other place, but I didn’t want to think about it. Zach had shown me pictures from his third grade catechism: bodies twisted and tormented, writhing in pain while the flesh on their bones roasted as crisp as Kentucky Fried Chicken.
I jumped into bed and jerked the covers up over my head. In spite of my mother’s frequent warnings about wasting electricity, I didn’t turn off my lamp. Some things, like bad grades and Hell, were best left to the light.
I slept fitfully the rest of that evening, with snatches of dreams that would have made the Grimm Brothers proud. Then all at once my eyes fluttered open, and I was wide awake. I glanced over at my bookshelf, at my rapidly growing collection of the lives of saints. Not that I expected to be named a saint after my death. That dream would have to die along with me, because I knew full well that killing yourself was a sin. It was, after all, a terrible theft: the theft of God’s power over when to end a life. But I was clever. I had a plan.
It was all in the timing.
The way I understood it, before the age of seven, a child is considered free of sin. The soul is virgin territory then, innocent and unblemished. And here’s the kicker: so long as the child dies before she turns seven, she goes straight to Heaven. No messing around with purgatory, no chance of the devil getting a taste. Straight. To. Heaven.
I figured that qualified as an A-plus at death, and I was going to get it. Which posed a problem: I had only one day left to do the deed. I twisted around to look at the clock: just after five in the morning. Normally, I liked to take my time with things—figure out all the angles, meticulously check for errors—but I didn’t have that luxury. This would have to be a smash-and-grab operation. I knew where my mother kept her pills, the little blue ones she took every morning. They were in the very top drawer of her bureau, where she kept all her “unmentionables.” I wasn’t allowed to go in her bureau. I wasn’t even allowed to go in her bedroom, which she kept locked. But every once in a while, when she was in a particularly good mood, she’d let me in to watch her dress.
Watching my mother get dressed to go out for the evening was a bewitching experience. She’d start with a spritz of Arpège behind her knees and build from there, sliding into a pair of transparent silk stockings and snapping each garter shut with a satisfying click. Then she’d lay out a collection of slips on her bed: delicate skeins of silk and lace, too precious for me to touch. “Which one should I wear tonight?” she’d ask, holding them up against her body. She had lovely, luscious curves and hollows in all the right places. God had given her a body most women would die for, and then He turned around and gave her a face to match.
It wasn’t fair, I sometimes thought, surveying my own knobby body and desperately hunting for cheekbones. Why should she have so much and I so little—just a blaze of red hair that now and then looked pretty in the sunlight? But when my mother tried on her slips for me, all my longing was forgotten. I just stood in awe of her, so proud that such beauty ran somewhere through my own blood.
But the best part was when my mother got dressed for work. I didn’t usually get to see her then, because she left the house by six a.m. But I was frequently plagued by insomnia, and I’d slip into her bedroom with the dawn and watch her in the mirror, eagerly waiting for the crisply starched, immaculate white uniform and cap that transformed her into Florence Nightingale. She worked at a big blood bank in Skid Row LA. I couldn’t imagine what she did down there, amongst the homeless and tormented. Floated above them, no doubt, like the angel of mercy she was.
Everywhere, that is, except in our house.
“I take care of sick people all day long,” she’d snap if I came home with the sniffles. “Do you expect me to do it here too?”
For a nurse, she had surprisingly little patience with imperfection. Once when she came home rather later than usual, I noticed a stain on her apron and made the mistake of pointing it out. Right in the middle of serving the spaghetti, she ripped the whole thing off and flung it in the trash. “Filthy mess!” she said as she kicked it away. I wasn’t sure, but I got the impression she wasn’t referring only to the apron.
I rolled out of bed and grabbed my favorite flannel robe, the short one with the big yellow daisies. It wasn’t quite warm enough for December, but it was a gift from Daddy, and I loved it so much it was worth the shivers. I glanced again at the clock: ten minutes past five, which meant that my mother would be in her bedroom, getting ready for work. I tiptoed past her room, past the bathroom, to the kitchen. I couldn’t risk turning on a light, so I fumbled around in the spice rack until I found what I was looking for: the economy-sized box of black pepper. Steeling myself for the bite, I sprinkled some into my hand, brought it up to my nose, and sniffed hard.
Wham! A firebolt erupted inside my brain, and I began to sneeze convulsively—ten, twelve, fourteen times in a row. Before the spasm could quiet down, I ran back down the hallway and knocked on my mother’s door.
“It’s me,” I said in broken gasps.
“What do you want? I’m getting ready.”
“I’m sick,” I said, letting loose a volley of sneezes for emphasis.
I could hear her exasperated sigh all the way through the door. She opened it up and stood there, one hand on her hip. “What is it?”
I couldn’t really blame her. I was sick a lot, sometimes genuinely so, with a bad case of asthma and allergies, but more often than not with the pepper-induced kind. I knew how to hold the thermometer up to the lightbulb just long enough to fake a credible fever. I knew that sticking my fingers down my throat would make me throw up eventually. A swipe of my mother’s taupe eye shadow underneath my eyes created a convincing pallor. All good tricks that a lot of kids knew, but the right attitude was key: listless and lethargic, so bone-numbingly weary that the only proper place for me clearly was bed.
If you had asked me, I think I would have been hard-pressed to explain why I pretended to be sick so much. I loved my classmates, loved my teachers, loved the church. Just two weeks before, I’d been elected class president—surely St. Madeleine’s was the best school in the whole wide world. And I loved my parents, like a good child should: my father, who had never said no to me yet; and my mother, whom I sometimes confused with the Virgin Mary when she came to kiss me good night. I even loved my brother, although Zach lorded his three years’ seniority over me and kicked me under the table when no one was looking.
But all these wonderful things meant nothing to me when the Black Beast came to call. On really bad days, he stole my eyes from me, so when I looked at my mother’s prized pink geraniums, all I saw were the unpicked weeds. I saw the small strip of peeling paint on the garage and the dent on the Comet’s fender. What I saw when I looked at myself was so frightful that I refused to look in the mirror. I even covered my spoon with my napkin, for fear I might catch a glimpse.
I couldn’t go to school then, of course. Everyone expected so much of me there: the teachers, the students, the priest. I was supposed to be the first one waving my hand in the air with the answer, but I could barely hold it up long enough to brush my teeth. Everything felt so heavy then: my arms, my legs, my heart. My friends wanted mischief and magic from me. I was the schoolyard sprite, the instigator of all grand recess schemes. No one wanted to hear how much it hurt just to smile, how hard it was to nod and pretend that I was listening to anything other than my own private howl. Or at least that’s what I assumed. I never risked the attempt. It was easier—safer, far wiser, no doubt—just to stay home, curl up in bed, and read. Bed asked nothing of me but inertia, which was all that I could deliver.
Worst of all, when the Black Beast was in this kind of mood, I couldn’t do the one thing that made life truly meaningful for me: I couldn’t snuggle up with my father in his big brown chair and read the evening paper. Daddy came home late at night, but it didn’t matter. He always found time to read to me, to explain who Robert F. Kennedy was, what the fight for civil rights was all about, and why the Beatles mattered. For dessert, he’d turn to the funny pages and make sure that I got every joke.
But the Black Beast would do something strange to my sense of smell, so that my father’s beloved aroma of unfiltered Camels and aftershave suddenly seemed noxious to me. It was easier just to plead sickness and go straight off to bed than to risk insulting him with my upturned nose. Plus I couldn’t seem to muster the exuberance required to scramble into his chair and bombard him with pertinent questions. Sustained interest in anything beside myself was practically impossible.
I slipped past my mother and sidled up next to her bureau. My timing was perfect—she was just about to take her pill. I watched as she uncapped the bottle, shook the tiny blue pill out onto her hand, then swallowed it with a sip of water. I imagined it traveling down the swan’s length of her throat, and I wondered if I’d look anywhere near as graceful when I downed the entire bottle.
She placed the bottle back in the drawer, then bent down to lace up her shiny white shoes. As soon as her back was turned, I rummaged around in her lingerie until, at last, I found it. I stuffed the bottle deep into my pocket and swung back around to face her, innocence engraved across my face. She was still tugging on her laces. So far as I could tell, she hadn’t seen a thing.
Now that I had the pills in my possession, I was eager to leave. Faking a couple more sneezes, I told my mother I felt dizzy and needed to go back to bed. She looked at me suspiciously. “What do you do there all day in bed?”
I blinked. What did she mean? What did she know? I never really thought that she’d noticed how much time I spent in bed—she was so busy working and making dinner and arguing with Daddy. I felt strangely violated somehow, as if I were being spied on in my undies. I decided to bluff, to play it cool.
“I read,” I said. “I rest. Sometimes I say the rosary.”
She frowned. “I don’t know why we pay all that fancy tuition if you’re never going to be in school.”
I’d heard this argument before, and a whine crept into my voice. “But Mom, I’m really sick.”
She ignored me. “Tonight, no matter what, we’re going to fix that hem. I won’t have you parading around in public looking like a ragamuffin.”
I suddenly felt genuinely ill. She was referring to my First Communion dress, the lovely white froth in my closet, the hem of which had come partially undone. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, except of course for my mother. The big Mass was scheduled for this coming Sunday, five days away. And because I was the class president, I was certain that I would lead the procession up to the altar. Every eye in the church would be on me, which was surely how God intended things, except—
Except that if all went well, I would be dead by then.
It wasn’t fair. I’d tried on that dress so many times I knew every seam by heart. I had a makeshift altar in the corner of my room, and I’d practiced in front of it dozens of times: the graceful walk up the center aisle, eyes demurely downcast, face aglow with anticipation. Then I’d sink to my knees and tilt my head back, my mouth slightly open, eager for God to enter me through His sacred host. Somewhere I had picked up the notion that a girl at her First Communion was like the bride of Christ. True or not, I felt as tingly as if I were waiting for my very first kiss.
The biggest moment of my life, and I was going to miss it.
I walked back slowly to my room and sank down on my bed. The blank white construction paper taunted me from across the room. Maybe, just maybe, my writing skills were good enough. Maybe if I used a ruler, the lines would be sufficiently straight, and no one would notice it was the wrong kind of paper . . .
But what to write? I’d been so worried about my printing that I’d never even thought of the bigger problem: I was supposed to tell a story about myself. It would have to be so deeply engrossing that Sister Mary Bernadette would ignore the less than perfect lettering and feel compelled to give it a rousing A-plus. But look at my life: nothing ever happened to me. I got up, made my bed, had breakfast, went to school, came home, watched TV, ate dinner, went to bed. Fish on Friday, church on Sunday, dance class on Tuesday afternoons. Day after day, week after week, the same routine over and over again. The only thing of any interest in my life was the Black Beast, and of course, I couldn’t write about that. I’d be kicked out of St. Madeleine’s for good.
I curled up into a little ball, drawing my knees so tight against my chest that I could feel the outline of the pill bottle against my thigh. Just then I heard my mother’s footsteps in the hall. “I’m leaving!” she yelled.
“I’m asleep!” I yelled back, not realizing until I said it how silly that was. But the only answer I received was the sound of the front door slamming shut.
In spite of all the noise, my father still slept soundly in the guest room. He’d been sleeping in the guest room for as long as I could remember. My mother claimed he snored; he vehemently denied it. It was my job to wake him up so he could fix breakfast and take Zach and me to school. It wasn’t easy: my father could sleep through an earthquake (and had, several times). He told me once that World War II had taught him how to sleep through anything.
It wasn’t quite time to wake him yet, so I decided to take a few minutes and figure out what to wear for the big event. I surveyed my closet: black seemed like the obvious choice. Then they wouldn’t even have to change me for the funeral. But my mother didn’t like how I looked in black, so the only thing I owned in that color was my witch’s costume from last Halloween. I worried how that might look to God—as if I were courting the devil. There was my Pop Warner cheerleading outfit, but the skirt had grown rather short this past year, and that didn’t seem very dignified. In fact, it seemed like I’d outgrown almost all my good outfits. Except—of course!—my First Communion dress.
I took it off the hanger and laid it out on the bed, taking care not to snag the loose hem. It was just the right white, like a freshly washed soul. Real lace covered the entire bodice, and there was a scratchy petticoat underneath that made the skirt stand out stiffly from my body. I loved the slight discomfort against my skin. It was my very own version of a hair shirt—it made me feel as if I were doing penance.
And then there was the veil. I spread it out carefully next to the dress; a long length of gossamer fabric. I’d wheedled my mother into buying me the biggest one the store had in stock, even though she kept insisting it was too dramatic. I knew it wasn’t. Somehow, at seven, I already knew the effect that exaggeration could have on an audience. I’d had to use it often enough, so that the Black Beast could get his own way.
But of course, no one was going to see it on me now. My exhilaration began to deflate, until I realized that the veil would make a perfect shroud. I’d wrap it around and around my body, just like Mary Magdalene had wrapped Jesus’s body when she’d taken him down from the Cross. I’d die in white, like a true bride of Christ.
That settled, I went to wake Daddy. His room, unlike my mother’s, was never locked. I went in and out as much as I liked, played with his cuff links, pawed through his dresser drawers. A few of my stuffed animals even lived on his pillow, next to his sleeping head. One of his arms lay outside the covers, and I gave it a gentle shake.
“Daddy, it’s time,” I said. Nothing. I tried again. Not a flicker. I jumped on the bed and gave his arm a serious yank, just like in tug-of-war. His eyes popped open. “What the hell?” he said.
Daddy was allowed to swear because he wasn’t Catholic. He wasn’t quite sure what he was, and he didn’t seem to care. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world because it meant he didn’t have to follow the rules. He didn’t have to eat smelly fish on Fridays, he didn’t have to go to confession, he didn’t even have to kneel during Mass. While the rest of us bruised our tender knees, he sat back with impunity. Once or twice, I looked over my shoulder at him, and I could swear I caught him grinning.
“It’s morning!” I said, tickling him in the ribs.
“Obviously,” he grunted, and rolled on his side. “Go away, you miserable child.”
I knew my father well enough to ignore his moment of pique. I could count on one hand the number of times he’d been seriously angry with me. But that didn’t mean he didn’t have a temper. It was terrifying, like a lightning storm in summer: just as sudden and just as short-lived. He’d flare up at my mother with a big, booming voice, his face bright red, the veins bulging out of his forehead. Then the next minute, his eyes would grow quiet again, soft and brown, like my bedtime cocoa.
I tickled him again. This time his hand shot up and grabbed me by the wrist, then he pulled me down next to him and tickled me until I collapsed with laughter. “Who’s the lazybones now?” he said. “Come on, last one up’s a soggy pancake.”
I ran to the kitchen, but his legs were longer than mine, and he beat me. Ours was a well-oiled machine by now: I would gather up all the pancake ingredients while he coaxed the old griddle to life. By the time it was hot, I’d have everything waiting: Bisquick mix, eggs, milk, maple syrup. There was an annoying interruption every morning while my father fixed himself a cup of coffee. That morning, I didn’t want to delay even a minute before we played the pancake game—especially since it would be the last time I ever played it on this earth.
The game was simple and dated back to the time when I was first learning how to read. Daddy would drizzle the batter into letters, and I wasn’t allowed to eat until I knew which letter was represented. My favorite was T for “Terri,” of course, but I also liked J for “Jack.” Now that I had learned my alphabet, the game had progressed so that I had to spell ten words that began with the letter before I could dive into my pancakes. Not little words, like go or get, but big words, like geranium and geography. “Next week,” my father informed me, pouring out the batter, “we’re going to do proper names from history.” That was okay, I thought, drowning my new batch with maple syrup. I didn’t mind cold pancakes.
“Where is your brother this morning?” my father asked, sitting down with his coffee. It was as much a part of our routine as the recalcitrant griddle.
“Don’t know,” I said, which wasn’t the truth. I knew. My father knew. My mother knew. We all knew. Zach was in his room. Zach was always in his room. What he did there, with his towering stacks of National Geographics and his enormous collection of cap guns, we had no clue. We were never invited in. I, particularly, was forbidden to enter. I think I must have offended Zach deeply just by virtue of my entry into his world. It couldn’t have been easy for him, as firstborn and sole possessor of the stage, to have the spotlight yanked away by a red-faced, squalling infant. In his defense, I must admit I really can’t blame him: from the day that I came into this world, I did everything in my power to keep that spotlight trained on me.
My mother often argued with my father about this disparity of attention. “Jack, you’re spoiling her rotten,” she’d say. “And it’s completely unfair to Zach.” No doubt she was right. It wasn’t fair. But I wasn’t in the business of fairness, I was in the business of staking my territory. The world did not feel safe to me, and between my father and mother, my father seemed the more likely refuge from harm. Not that I didn’t love my mother, but I knew those pink geraniums in front of our house bloomed only so long as she was happy, and her happiness seemed a precarious thing, entirely dependent on mysterious words like mortgage and Rebecca.
But except for his occasional outbursts of temper, my father was uniformly easygoing, charming, and relaxed. He seemed to me to have things in hand. Best of all, he thought I was adorable: the smartest, the cleverest, the most competent child ever invented. And he told me so constantly. The most effusive my mother ever got was, “Button your sweater, it’s chilly outside.”
I never meant my bond with my father to get in the way of his relationship with Zach. But a child’s soul is inherently selfish, and in truth, I was pleased to have so much of my father’s time to myself. The way I saw it, Daddy’s love was the ultimate A-plus, and Zach was doing nothing to earn it by hiding away in his room all day. Whereas my campaign never ceased.
I’d set up my station by his big brown chair a half hour before he got home. In one pile was all my schoolwork, including any excellent grades or comments or honors I’d won that day. In another, the Daily Report, folded just the way he liked it. In a third, the amenities: cigarettes, lighter, the ashtray I made for him in kindergarten, his bedroom slippers, and his favorite heavy-bottomed scotch glass. The one thing my mother refused to let me do was fill up the glass ahead of time. “He can fix his own damned drink,” she’d say. She, as a Catholic, was not permitted profanity, so her use of it impressed me. Alcohol quickly became associated in my mind with a flagrant disregard for the rules.
Then I would wait by the door. I hated that door. No, I loved it. It was the door my father would enter from, and that, of course, made it perfect. But it was also the door that he would slam on his way out of the house after one of their endless latenight arguments. I’d be lying in bed, just waiting for it, but nothing ever prepared me for the awful sound of that slam. The whole house would reverberate with it, but I would continue to shake long after the house settled down.
I knew that he would leave one day. It was a fact of my existence, as glaring as my strawberry hair. It was the central mission of my life to make sure that when he left, he took me with him. Which was why I simply couldn’t risk coming home with a C on this latest homework assignment. Things had been tenser than usual lately. A week ago, Daddy had slammed the door and hadn’t come home for two days.
“He’s working,” my mother had said when I’d begged to know where he was. But I knew that couldn’t be true. He was working on a nearby tract of homes, and he’d never had to leave before. Besides, he would have told me if he was going anywhere. We would have looked it up together on the map, he would have given me ten proper names to spell, there would have been a quiz on it later. So she must have been lying, and I could feel the earth begin to shift ever so slightly but treacherously beneath my feet. Now was clearly not the time to loosen my hold.
There was a flaw to my logic, of course. If I killed myself to avoid losing my father, I’d be dead, and I’d lose him forever. “Forever” wasn’t quite clear to me. Forever could be an afternoon if the Black Beast was impatient that day, or it could be a lifetime. At six, I didn’t have much of a grasp of finality. I just knew that forever sounded like a long, long time to be without my daddy.
The only way out of this conundrum was faith. I simply had to believe with all my heart and soul in what Sister Mary Bernadette had taught us about the nature of Heaven: that the moment you reach the Pearly Gates, everyone you ever loved, dead or alive, is gathered around to meet you. She assured us that this included dead pets and lost stuffed animals, so it had to apply to beloved fathers too. Please, sweet Jesus, make it so.
“Why are your eyes closed?” my father asked. I was startled—prayer had just snuck up on me; I hadn’t meant for him to see it.
“I’m sleepy,” I started to answer, and then I remembered that I needed him to call the school for me, to get me excused for the day. “No, you know what? I’m sick. I woke up this morning with a terrible cold. You should have heard me sneezing. Mom was really worried.”
“Did she say that I should call the school?”
I hesitated, not wanting to burden my soul with another lie so close to my death. “I’m sure she just assumed you would. She was in an awful hurry.” That much, at least, was true.
My mother’s opinion as to matters of physical health was absolute and final. Anyone seeing her in her shining white uniform would have followed her instructions to the letter. “Hand me the phone,” my father said.
While he dialed, I studied his face: the high curving forehead, the broad Cheney nose, the endearing gap between his two front teeth, the wayward lock of sandy brown hair. I wanted to commit every detail to memory. I’d never gone anywhere without my daddy before, and death was the longest journey of all. Sure, I believed he’d be there to greet me in Heaven, but who knew how long it would take me to arrive? Even Disneyland had lines; maybe Heaven did too.
A flutter of emotions kicked up inside me: fear, doubt, loneliness, regret. For all his years of single-minded devotion, I felt I owed my father something. An explanation, perhaps. At the very least, a good-bye. Trembling, I opened my mouth to speak—and Zach walked into the kitchen.
“Where’s breakfast?” he asked, slinging his book bag onto the counter and pulling up a chair as best he could with his bandaged hand. I avoided looking at it.
“We already ate. Get it yourself.” I didn’t mean to snap, but his timing was lousy.
“What’s with you? And why aren’t you dressed?” He got up and clumsily poured himself a heaping bowl of raisin bran.
“I’m sick,” I said.
He snorted. “Again? What is it this time? Lung cancer?”
My father hung up the phone. “Okay, you’re all set. But Anna Marie can’t come for an hour. Will you be all right until then?”
I nodded. Since they both worked, my parents were sometimes forced to leave us alone for short periods of time. It was no big deal. We lived on a quiet cul-de-sac, and the neighbors all kept an eye out for one another. It seemed unlikely that anything bad could ever happen in our peaceful, middle-class neighborhood, with its neatly trimmed hedges and meticulous flower beds.
Anna Marie was the girl down the street who came and sat with Zach and me after school until my mother got home. Sat was literally all she did. She parked her hefty carcass on the sofa and watched TV while simultaneously eating potato chips and flipping through the latest teen magazine. Zach was in his room, of course, so she had nothing to do with him. Once or twice, I’d tried to befriend her, but short of discovering that we both liked extra salt on our potato chips, I couldn’t find much in common. So Anna Marie wouldn’t hinder my plans. She barely even noticed that I was alive; I doubt that she’d know I was dead.
“I’m halfway through Misty of Chincoteague,” I reassured my father. “Plus I’ve got an overdue homework assignment.” I regretted the words as soon as I spoke them.
My father’s face turned serious. “What’s this?”
“You know. I’m supposed to write a story about myself.”
“I can’t think what I should write.”
“Write about anything. Write about—” His eye caught the vase on the dining room table. “Flowers. Say what kind of flower you are.”
“Okay.” I shrugged. What did it matter now, anyway?
“Come on, Zach, we’re late,” my father said.
Zach stayed in his seat, frowning. “My hand hurts. And I think I’m getting a sore throat. I should be able to stay home too.”
“Forget it,” my father said.
“Why is she the only one who gets to lounge around all day?”
“Because she’s not the one who just got a D-minus on a math test. Out with you.”
My father scooped up his keys off the counter and held out his arms. “Give us a kiss, princess.” Knowing this would be the very last kiss nearly undid me. I hurled myself into my father’s arms and hugged his waist so tight I could feel his belt cutting into my skin. Then I burst into tears.
“Whoa, what’s this?” He stroked my hair. “You’re not afraid to stay home alone now, are you? A big girl like you?”
I didn’t want him to remember me like this. I’m not sure I knew the exact words yet, but I wanted him to remember my dignity. Grace. Poise. “No, of course not,” I said, shaking my hair back out of my face and cracking a lopsided smile.
“That’s better. Give ’em hell, baby.” It was his signature line, the one he always said before we had to part. As always, it stiffened my spine and made me feel like a soldier on my way to the wars.
“Bye, Daddy,” I said softly to his retreating back. Zach sped by me, saying, “Don’t cough up any blood on the couches. Mom’ll kill you.”
“Bye-bye, Zach,” I said with far more tenderness than I had ever mustered toward him before.
And then they were gone, and the house was all mine. My footsteps echoed on the hardwood floors. I caught a glimpse of myself in the living room mirror and decided not to look in mirrors anymore. I looked far too small for the big deed that I needed to do.
I thought about preparing one last grand meal, full of everything I was usually denied: chocolate chip cookie dough, a great big root beer float, Cheetos, corn chips, and an economy-sized bag of M&M’s for dessert. But I just wasn’t hungry. There were things to do, and Anna Marie was coming in an hour. If I was going on this journey, I needed to pack. I realized that packing for the afterlife might be futile, but those mummies had been pretty smart, and they had brought along a thing or two.
I had my very own suitcase: a small pink one that my mother had bought me when we visited her family’s farm in Canada a few years before. Standing on a kitchen chair, I wrestled it down from the closet shelf. It was empty except for one photograph tucked away in one of the silk-lined compartments. I remembered that photograph, although I wished that I didn’t. It showed what appeared to be a wild child, a seething mass of hair and bared teeth. Her mouth was open, clearly screaming. The child was locked in an empty cage.
The Black Beast had been upon me then. I’d been bad: I hadn’t wanted to go to a livestock show with the rest of my cousins. I hadn’t wanted to do anything, just wallow in bed. But I was maybe four or five, and of course, they couldn’t leave me behind. One of my cousins joked, “Let’s put her in the cage”—the one they used to carry the pigs. They tossed me in there and locked the door. It was a sweltering day, and the smell of shit was so thick and strong I thought I’d suffocate. Flies swarmed all around me, buzzing angrily in my ears and crawling in my eyes, my nose.
The Black Beast went berserk. I didn’t know any swear words then, I only knew how to scream. And scream I did, so loudly and so long that I lost the use of my voice for days after.
It was the first time I remembered ever losing control. In spite of my fury, in spite of my righteous indignation, the abandon felt delicious. It was like I lived on a freer, wilder plane than my grubby, earth-bound cousins, who by now were gathered around laughing, snapping photos of me. I played to the camera, loping around like a crazed gorilla, beating my chest, banging my head against the bars. I lost myself entirely in the part, leaving behind the immaculately dressed little girl in her polka-dot socks and Mary Jane shoes. I scooped up some dirt (mixed with pig dung, no doubt) and smeared it across my face, my dress. I was just about to start eating it when my aunt caught sight of us from the farmhouse window and made my cousins release me.
I got a lot of attention after that: a warm bubble bath, an extra helping of my Aunt Dolores’s famous mashed potatoes, and the right to keep the light on if I wanted. My dreams were full of cages from that night on.
I slipped the photograph back in its place and lugged the suitcase into my room. What to pack? Daddy had read me an article once about King Tut, the boy king who’d been buried with his gold. I had no gold, but I did have a genuine pearl pinkie ring from SeaWorld. In it went. There wasn’t much else in the way of treasure, so I just took what was most precious to me. Toto, of course; maybe God could restore his missing ear. An old picture of my mother with her arm around my father’s waist—it was one of the few times I’d seen them embrace. All seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia. (I left the lives of the saints behind, figuring that I could interview them in person.) But I didn’t take a single honor or award. There were lots of them lining my bookshelf: plaques and trophies and parchment scrolls. The best of this. Most valued that. In Heaven, I was sure, none of this would matter.
I shook my head in wonder. Imagine: a world without grades, without prizes. How would God know that I was the best? Would He still love me anyway?
I shut the suitcase and snapped it closed. The house was quiet. I could hear the clock out in the hall. I could hear the leaky faucet in my mother’s bath, the one she kept nagging my father to fix. Our house abutted the freeway, and the sound of the traffic was sometimes so loud it made conversation difficult. But it was strangely muted that day, as if all the cars were running on velvet. The world was hushed and waiting.
I sat on the bed and pulled the pill bottle out of my pocket. I tried to read the label, but it was an unintelligible mass of mostly vowels, followed by “Take as directed.” It didn’t really matter what they were called, I supposed. Everyone knew that pills were dangerous; that’s why they hid them in the lingerie drawer or on the very top shelf of the medicine cabinet.
I went in the bathroom and filled my toothpaste glass with cold water. Then I opened the bottle and emptied it out on my bedspread. Damn. There weren’t nearly as many as I’d hoped there would be: twenty-five—no, twenty-six—little blue pills. Was that enough to do the trick? Or would I end up a vegetable like my mother’s great-aunt Rosemarie, with the perpetual spittle in the corners of her mouth that nobody bothered to wipe away?
One thing was for sure: I couldn’t do this alone. I pulled Toto out of the suitcase and held him tight, careful not to crush his ear. Then I knelt down on the floor and prayed for guidance: “Dear God, I’m sorry if this is a sin, but please don’t let me mess it up.”
Not a very eloquent prayer, but deeply sincere. I got up, slipped off the robe with the big yellow daisies, and packed it carefully in the suitcase. Then I put on my First Communion dress—or rather, I tried to put it on. There was a row of little pearl-covered buttons in the back, which I couldn’t quite manage by myself. I felt an intense and sudden longing for my mother, with her efficient, nimble fingers. It was not the most auspicious start, to arrive at Heaven half-buttoned.
I checked the clock. Eight-thirty, and Anna Marie would be here at nine. If I was ever going to do this, now was the time. Now, now, now, the Black Beast commanded.
All at once, I felt a curious sensation, as if my body had split in two and was watching itself. I observed my right hand reach out and pick up one of the little blue pills. It was strange: I wasn’t afraid. In fact, if I had known the word, I think I would have said I felt serene: the decision had finally been made. But I noticed that my hand was shaking, and my fingers were icy white. I placed the pill on the tip of my tongue and waited, tasting. It was bitter; so bitter it made my eyes squint. I took a long, cool drink of water and felt it course down the back of my throat, sweeping the pill along with it.
Now it was just like homework: I simply had to dive in and finish. I attacked the pills like potato chips. Over and over, I picked one up, placed it on my tongue, took a sip of water, and swallowed, until they were all gone. Around about the seventh pill, I noticed that my hand was still shaking. But other than that, I felt no different. I saw no visions, I heard no trumpets. Death tasted familiar, like toothpaste.
This wasn’t what I’d expected. I’d thought the pills would kill me instantly, and I’d be whooshed straight into Heaven, like in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is swept out of black-and-white into glowing Technicolor. But I looked around, and the room was unchanged. Same old macramé wall hanging, same old faded pink sheets. I looked under the bed. Same old dust bunnies too.
I was pretty sure I knew why I was still here. God didn’t want to take me yet because my homework wasn’t finished. Reluctantly, I got out of bed and walked over to my desk. I contemplated the horrid white paper. It looked even whiter and blanker than I’d remembered it. Write a story about yourself, Sister Mary Bernadette had said. I’d halfway promised my father at breakfast that I would—a story about flowers, I think he had said. What kind of flower was I?
My left temple was pulsing, and I felt slightly woozy, but I forced myself to sit down and face the page. The assignment seemed absurd to me. If I’d known what kind of flower I was, no doubt I wouldn’t be in this predicament. I’d be happy, in the right kind of garden, content just to be a daisy. But all I knew, all I’d ever known, was what I was not.
I grabbed my favorite crayon, burnt sienna, and started writing:
I’m not a rose like St. Thérèse
Or a lily like Joan of Arc
Here I stopped. I knew the image I wanted, but my mind was beginning to slip sideways and I couldn’t remember the name of the flower. It was shy and grew between the cracks—probably the last thing anyone would ever expect me to say about myself, but with death on my shoulder, I felt compelled to tell the truth. That was me, that little yellow flower always about to be crushed underfoot.
A sudden wave of nausea struck me, and I ran to the bathroom and was promptly sick. Plus I’d never had to pee so badly in my life. Once I did, the nausea lifted somewhat, and I made my way back to the desk. My legs felt as if they belonged to someone else, but my hands still worked, although the trembling was worse than ever. I examined what I’d written. Sure enough, it was wildly imperfect, the printing scrawled all over the page. I wanted to cry, but I was too preoccupied by the sensations erupting in my body: dizziness, thirst, and a violent buzzing in my ears. The paper was growing whiter by the second, the room began to spin and throb, and I barely made it back to my bed before I knew no more.
I woke to discover that Heaven looked just like my mother’s eyes. They were enormous; they filled the whole universe.
“You were sleeping so soundly, I didn’t want to wake you,” she said. “Anna Marie told me you were out like a light all afternoon.”
I hadn’t really expected to see my mother in Heaven. I thought she’d be so mad at me for stealing her pills, she’d never want to see me again. But here she was, and her voice was so soothing—soft and low and vibrant with concern—that I knew all must be forgiven. The whiteness of her uniform dazzled me. Clearly, she was an angel, and I’d never done her justice before.
I held out my arms to embrace her, but the motion unnerved me and I threw up all over the pillow. With one swift yank, she pulled off the pillowcase before it could soil the sheets. Then she kicked into nursing mode, laying one cool hand across my forehead, checking my pulse with the other. I loved it when my mother checked my pulse: she didn’t often touch me, and it felt like she was sending filaments of empathy straight through my wrist.
I leaned in to kiss her. She pulled back, let go of my wrist, and wrinkled her nose. “You’d better go brush your teeth,” she said. “And get out of that dress so I can fix the hem. I won’t have people saying I neglect my children.”
Shaky and dizzy, I went into the bathroom. I had a tremendous urge to pee again, but as I sat down, it occurred to me: there shouldn’t be toilets in Heaven. Nor should my mother pull away from my kiss. I realized then that I had failed—I had not scored an A-plus at suicide. What was I going to do now? I felt a sudden wetness on my cheeks, but I didn’t even look in the mirror to confirm that I was crying. I knew what I would see there: eyes like dead coals. I took off my dress and crawled into bed, careful not to let my mother see me cry.
“Dinner’s at six,” she said.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Suit yourself,” she shrugged. “It’s corn dogs.” She knew that was one of my favorite meals, but the prospect of food didn’t appeal to me. The thought of getting up and getting dressed was just too much to handle. I nestled Toto against my cheek and let him sop up my tears.
Sleep consumed me, and cages haunted my dreams. I was trapped and in danger, and there was no getting out. At some point, I thought I heard a man’s voice—my father’s, perhaps?—and felt familiar lips brushing my forehead. But it didn’t matter. The cages only grew smaller and tighter, the locks more cruelly intricate.
When I woke the next morning, I was seven.
I felt a burning thirst and that same insatiable need to pee. On my way out of the bathroom, I ran into my mother. She looked harried. “Have you seen my pills?” she asked.
“What pills?” I smoothed my face into a blank.
“You know, those little blue pills I take every morning. My diuretics.”
“My diuretics. My ankles are going to swell like elephants’ legs if I can’t find them. Come help me look.”
“I don’t know where you keep them.”
“In my lingerie drawer. Mind you don’t mess it up. And hurry.”
It was impossible to hurry. My arms and legs felt like sacks of bricks and didn’t want to move. I spent the next ten minutes pretending to look for what I already knew wasn’t there. I’d hidden the bottle in a shoe box in the very back of my closet. There was no chance of it ever coming to light. But I sifted and sorted most diligently while my mother tore the rest of the room apart. Naturally, she found nothing.
“This means I’ll have to wear support hose today,” she said finally. “I can’t stand support hose. I don’t even know where they are. I hate this stupid house, where you can never find anything.”
I felt a little guilty then, but not enough to tell her my secret. Besides, the Black Beast had hold of my tongue, and it was difficult to speak. I wanted to say, “Don’t you even realize that I’m seven today?” but there were too many syllables in that sentence and too much emotion required to voice them. I left my mother ransacking her drawers and burrowed back under the covers.
Seventh birthdays are highly overrated. I slept almost the entire day. I didn’t have to resort to the pepper trick or stick a thermometer under my arm. Nobody expected me to go to school. My mother had left a note, so my father didn’t even try to wake me. He told Anna Marie to give me two aspirins when I woke up, but I never did. “I tried to call you all day, but you were asleep, and your mother thought it best that we leave you be,” he told me later that evening. I guess I must have looked as sick as I felt.
I was still a bit queasy from all the pills, but of course, that wasn’t the problem. It was the Black Beast, sitting on my chest. Each and every one of my bones felt too heavy for my body. Blinking and breathing, no longer automatic functions, had turned into strenuous acts of will. It was all I could do just to pull in my ribs and push them back out again, over and over. And always, behind each labored breath, was the knowledge that I had failed. Like it or not, I was going to live.
There was a cake—a fancy one, with ballerinas pirouetting all over it. Chocolate with buttercream icing, my favorite. While everyone sang the birthday song, I closed my eyes and pretended to make a wish. But there was only one thing to wish for, and I think I had already exhausted it: “Please don’t let me get a C.”
I even got the presents I wanted most: an Easy-Bake Oven and a beautiful hand-tooled red leather diary with its very own lock and key. I was a creature of secret thoughts; now I had somewhere to put them. I forced a smile and tried to sound gay, but it came out rather lugubrious.
“You’re still not feeling well, are you?” my father asked.
I shook my head.
“Do you feel too sick to go to school tomorrow?”
I nodded, hard.
“Jack, she’s already been out almost ten days,” my mother said. “You’re indulging her, as always. And don’t forget, her First Communion’s on Sunday.”
That was three days away. “The only thing she really needs to show up for is confession on Saturday,” my father argued. “She’ll be good and rested by then. Won’t you, princess?”
I threw my arms around his neck. “I’ll sleep all day, I promise.”
My mother shot him a look of disgust, but he got on the phone to Anna Marie. “Terri Lynn’s having one of her spells,” he said. “We’ll need you tomorrow and Friday, okay?”
“One of her spells.” I’d often heard my parents use that phrase, but I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. Was I simply being ungovernable? Or was it possible, however unlikely, that they knew about the Black Beast? I immediately dismissed that notion. No one had ever mentioned it, and ours was too small a household for diplomacy.
Anna Marie was available, so I was all set. I’d rest up Thursday and Friday and go to confession on Saturday. Confession was, of course, mandatory before a First Communion. All sins must be cleansed, all impurities banished, before one could receive the body of Christ. I’d have an awful lot of confessing to do, I realized. I dreaded to think what Father Joseph would say, or what kind of penance he’d give me for attempting suicide—that most mortal of mortal sins.
I worried about it the whole next day, and the whole day Friday too. That’s all I did: worry, lie in bed, and eat myself into a stupor. As always, I went for anything sweet: apricot jam and Oreo cookies, chocolate chip ice cream drenched in pancake syrup, powdered sugar straight out of the box. My face and hair were covered with sugar, my precious robe spattered with chocolate, but I just kept shoveling it in—I couldn’t stop. Anna Marie didn’t care what I ate. She even helped me polish off the rest of the birthday cake.
When everything obvious was consumed, I grabbed the box of raisin bran and picked out all the raisins. They tasted all the sweeter when I imagined Zach’s face in the morning.
“Dad, she’s done it again,” he’d say, when he poured out his favorite cereal.
My father would look sympathetic and shrug. No matter how many times they ordered me not to vandalize the raisin bran, the Black Beast wouldn’t let it alone. It amused him too much to antagonize Zach—a dangerous game, I thought.
When I woke up Saturday morning, it was raining so hard that I was certain I’d been granted a reprieve. Surely no one would expect the students to go to confession in a torrent like this. But my father called the convent, and it was confirmed: if I didn’t go to confession, there would be no First Communion for me tomorrow.
Southern California so rarely has weather, the thunder and lightning would have been thrilling if it had been just any old day. But that day, the storm seemed like proof of God’s displeasure with me, rattling my eardrums and stinging my skin. We had to drive so slowly on the slick, flooded roads that the trip to St. Madeleine’s took forever, and we passed a bad accident on the way. I was thoroughly frightened and miserable by the time we reached the church. Despite my entreaties, my father stayed in the car to smoke a Camel. “Give ’em hell, baby,” he said.
Father Joseph had apparently been caught in the rain. His cassock was so wet it was streaming, leaving a dark trail behind him. The soaking hadn’t helped his disposition either, which even on the best of days was dour. “Line up!” he barked at the twenty or so shivering students waiting to confess. “No talking! No fidgeting! Contemplate your sins!” Probably none of us knew what “contemplate” meant, but like puppies listening to a master’s tone, we knew enough to stay quiet.
I was one of the first in line, which was good because it meant I didn’t have too much time to think. The light over the confessional went off, and Johnny Zinn stepped out. He was the toughest kid in class, and he was in tears. “Next!” Father Joseph shouted.
I stepped in, knelt, and crossed myself. It was dark and dank and close in there, the air a mixture of Johnny Zinn’s sweat and the incense lingering from the morning Mass. My body temperature began to rise, my heart began to flutter. As always, I worried that I would faint before Father Joseph could speak to me. I could hear him breathing through the screen; it sounded like he had a bad cold. Then he shot the secret panel back and said something in Latin. My cue.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been three weeks since my last confession, and these are my sins.”
I’d already decided that I wouldn’t use the word suicide. Instead I would just state the facts and let Father Joseph come to his own conclusion. It wasn’t really a lie that way, just a softening of the truth. I took a deep breath and said, “I stole my mother’s diabetics.” Then I added in a rush, “And I took them all.” There, I’d said it. The ball was in God’s court now.
I expected Father Joseph to be outraged. At the very least, I thought he’d ask me why I did it and then lecture me on the peril to my mortal soul. But there was silence on the other side of the panel, followed by a very great sneeze and a copious amount of nose blowing. When he finally spoke, he sounded congested and bored.
“Stealing is a serious sin,” he said. I wondered how many times he had to say that in the course of a week’s confessions.
“Yes, Father, I know.”
“Search your heart, child. Are you truly sorry?”
I searched my heart, but the truth was, my only real regret was that I hadn’t succeeded. So I decided to be sorry about that.
“Yes, I’m truly sorry.”
“Then I absolve you, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” He assigned me penance: something like twenty Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers. Mumbling another mouthful of Latin, he bid me to “go in peace and sin no more.” The panel slid shut, and I was free.
I stepped out into a newly made world. The rain had stopped, and a single ray of sunshine pierced the Annunciation stained glass window, lighting up the altar and the very first pew. A man sat there, not kneeling, not praying, but nonchalantly reading the newspaper. I rushed to him and gave him a hug.
“How’d it go, princess?”
“Perfect. What’s that?” I pointed to a cardboard box at his side.
“Another little birthday present for you. While you were in there”—he jerked his thumb toward the confessional—“I stopped by the convent to see Sister Mary Bernadette. I told her how concerned you were about not having the right paper for that latest homework assignment, and she gave me this.” He handed me the box.
I opened it slowly, afraid to be disappointed. But I should have trusted the setting: God’s house, my father’s hands, that single ray of light. It was indeed a miracle: twenty, maybe thirty pages of clean manila paper, marked across with those thin blue lines that made it so easy for me to print to perfection. I would get that A-plus after all. My father wouldn’t leave me, at least not for the foreseeable future. I was so overwhelmed I sank down to my knees.
“I have to say my penance now,” I said.
But instead I gave thanks: for the paper, for my father’s thoughtfulness, for Sister Mary Bernadette’s generosity. For the sunlight, which was now beginning to flood all the stained glass windows. For surviving yet another day, despite my fears, despite my imperfections, and despite the Black Beast.
My exaltation flickered for a moment. Who was the Black Beast, anyway, and why did he torment me so? Why did he make my moods plummet and soar, so quickly and intensely? Why did everything seem to matter so much? I looked over at Johnny Zinn, surreptitiously picking his nose in the next pew. I was sure he would never care enough about a homework assignment to want to kill himself. Why couldn’t I just be a normal kid?
A shadow fell across the nave, and for a moment I shivered. But it passed, and the light that succeeded it was so brilliant, I let my dark questions be swallowed up for yet another day. I was only seven, after all. Maybe life would get simpler by the time I was eight. I decided to put off saying my penance, and reached up and tugged on my father’s sleeve.
“I’m ready now,” I whispered.
“That was fast,” he said. “You must not have been very bad.”
I didn’t respond. Clutching my paper tight to my chest, I walked down the aisle, followed by the glittering eyes of saints.
© 2011 Terri Cheney