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The early morning sun sneaked through the curtains of my bedroom casting a long beam of light across the bed. I rolled onto my back and reached over to the bedside table, right hand groping for my phone.

The screen cheerily displayed the fact that it was 7.30 am. And as I already knew, the first day of Spring.

It had come. The day I had been waiting for The day I had been planning for for months.

I swung my legs out of bed and sat up, my gaze drawn to the window. The rose patterned curtains were drawn across with just a tantalizing glimpse of blue sky peeping through in the centre. Blue sky. So it was going to be a nice day for it then. Would that make it easier, or harder?

Standing up, I moved over to open the curtains. The sudden blaze of sun dazzled me and I turned my head away as my eyes adjusted to the light. It was actually a beautiful day. I suppose it was always possible that the first day of Spring might be truly spring-like, but somehow I hadn’t been imagining that it would be. In my head it was more of a cool clear day with hints of new growth. 

So why had I chosen this day?

Thinking about it now it actually seemed crazy and incongruous. Why had it seemed the perfect day all those months ago? Why had I needed to set a date for it anyway? I could have done it anytime. It didn’t need to be in Spring. Why had I decided to wait until Spring? I could have done it at the start of the year. That would have worked. Or even better at the end of the year. Far more fitting. But for some reason I had decided that the first day of Spring was the right time. 

I wandered into the bathroom and closed the door. Time for a shower. I needed to look just right for this, and that meant clean hair.

As the hot water poured over my body, my mind ran back over the last six months. The last six months that culminated in today. How could it be any other way? There was no other way. This was how it had to be. But a tiny little part of my mind kept intruding and asking, why? Why is there no other way? Have you tried to find one? And why today?

I closed my eyes against the torrent of water, and my mind against the conflicting voices in my head, and soaped myself vigorously. I must be clean. I must look my best. That was all important. My mind ran through the clothes I had planned to wear. My new skinny jeans, the ones with the little hearts on. My pink strappy top and my long multi-coloured stripy jumper. Looking at the weather that should be warm enough. 

As I pulled the clothes on, back in my bedroom, I glanced again out of the window, The sun had risen a little further and was shining directly at me. But that shouldn’t make a difference. The weather didn’t really matter. So, again, why had I chosen today? I shook my head in frustration and wriggled into my jeans, breathing in as I zipped them up. The only thing I hadn’t decided on was footwear. It needed to be fairly sturdy, but I didn’t want to wear boots. I glanced over at the corner of the room where I had a tendency to toss my shoes, and my eyes lit on my pink Converse. Perfect. I’d be colour co-ordinated, just the way I liked it.

As I laced them up I heard a noise from downstairs and inwardly groaned. I had hoped to have got ready and gone out before anyone else got up. It seemed I was a little late. I should just have to sneak out the front door while they were in the kitchen. I could hear the sound of the kettle boiling and some muted conversation. Reaching over for my phone, I was about to pick it up and slip it into my pocket when I paused. I didn’t need to take it. In fact it would be silly to take it. My hand hovered over it, itching to do what was normal to me. I never go anywhere without my phone. 

With a sudden burst of resolve, I left it where it was. I needed no distractions today. Someone would be bound to message me. No. The phone should stay where it was.

I ran my hand gently across its screen, and then stepped out of my room onto the landing. Very quietly I tiptoed down the stairs, taking care to avoid the creaky one, and paused in the hallway. Quiet voices were coming from the kitchen, interspersed with the sound of the radio. I also heard the sound of a knife on a plate and concluded that they were busy enough with breakfast not to notice me leaving via the front door.

Luckily the door was already unlocked and I opened it silently and slipped out into the crisp Spring morning. I paused on the path and took a deep breath, the gentle air filling my lungs and the morning sun warming my face. Time to go.

I set off down the road at a slow jog, carefully avoiding any contact with anyone, dodging across the road when necessary, and finally arriving at the path to the woods, warm and slightly out of breath. I slowed to a walk and stepped onto the path, the thin soles of my worn Converse noting the difference in terrain. I dodged over some large tree roots that protruded onto the path, and made my way further into the dense deciduous woodland. 

Far to my right I could make out the sound of water filtering through the trees, and I headed towards it. 

The river. 

My destination. 

I crossed my fingers that I was early enough in the day to have the place to myself. On warm days in Summer it could get very crowded, with picnickers on the river bank, and children paddling or fishing for minnows in the shallows. But that wasn’t the part I was heading for. Not the sheltered little beach where the water lapped gently against the shore; where the overhanging branches of the great oak trees made a shady spot for relaxing. No, I was heading for higher land. 

As I neared the river and passed the picnic area, the path began to climb uphill, and I found myself puffing slightly as I hurried along, stumbling occasionally on the stony ground.  The noise of the river was louder now and the rushing sound started to fill my head, making my heart pound uncomfortably in my chest. It was getting nearer. 

My steps slowed as I climbed up the last few yards to my destination. A patch of land that jutted out like a cliff over the river, about twenty feet above the swirling water. The trees had thinned out a little, and just two large oak trees were perched precariously on the edge of the cliff. I stood between them and stepped right up to the edge. Supporting myself with my left hand against one of the trees, I peered over at the torrent below me. Although the river was calm and slow flowing at the edges, in the middle it was a swirling torrent, filled with huge boulders and jagged rocks. 

I took a shaky breath and stepped back. This was it. This was how I’d planned it. It was the right day. I was dressed correctly. Everything was right.

I shivered and took another step back. But it didn’t feel right. Something was wrong. What had I forgotten? I looked around me. I was all alone, the only sounds being the river below me and the slight rustling of the leaves on the trees. It was perfect. Just how I had imagined it.

Yet it wasn’t. Something was wrong.

Slowly I sank down cross-legged onto the grass. I had to do this. I’d had it planned for six months.

Why?

Because I’d promised I would. I had to keep my promise. Didn’t I? So why had I waited this long? I could have done it six months ago. 

I put my hands over my face and took a long shuddering breath. I had to face up to something here. I’d been putting it off. I knew I’d been putting it off. But I’d promised myself. I had to do it.

“Are you alright?”

The voice was just behind me and I leapt to my feet in surprise, spinning round to face the intruder and taking a few steps backwards. 

“Are you alright?” The voice repeated.

The speaker was male, and had stopped a few yards away from me, under cover of the trees. I allowed myself to sneak a look at him, but he was in the shadow so I couldn’t see him clearly. I shook my head.

“I’m fine. Go away.”

“Not sure you are.” He paused and took a step towards me. 

I took a step backwards and supported myself on the oak tree again. “Go away.”

As he moved out of the shade of the trees I got a better look at him. He was a little older than me, wearing faded jeans split at the knee and an old T-shirt with some band name on.  His dark hair kept flopping over his face which held a concerned look.

“Why are you here?”

“Why shouldn’t I be?” I countered, turning my back on him and staring out over the river. “It’s my life. What’s it to you?”

“Fair enough.” He paused for so long I started to turn to see if he was still there, then he carried on.  “I used to come here a lot.”

I glanced back over my shoulder . “So? Lots of people come here. To be alone. I want to be alone.”

“So, why don’t I believe you?” His voice sounded closer.

“Go away,” I repeated through clenched teeth. “I’m busy.”

“Hmm. Are you sure about this?”

I tensed and turned round to face him. “What do you mean?”

“Are you sure you want to do this? There’s no going back. Trust me.”

“Why should I trust you? I don’t even know you. You know nothing about me. Leave me alone.”

“I can’t do that.” He moved forward again, but stayed several feet away from me. “I can’t let you make a huge mistake.”

“Why is it a mistake?” I turned back to look at the river, feeling the spray on my face. “I have to do it. I promised.”

“Promised who?”

“Myself.”

“Why?”

“Because I deserve it.”

There was a silence and when he spoke again he had moved forward to stand next to me. “No-one deserves what you’re planning.”

“How do you know?” I shouted at him, moving forward again so the toes of my Converse were poking over the edge of the cliff. “I do deserve it. It was my fault.”

“What was?”

“That she died,”

“Did you kill her?”

I looked at him in shock and shook my head vigorously. “No. No, of course not. But it was my fault. If I hadn’t run across the road….”

“She got run over? You were together and you survived?” His eyes locked onto mine. “That’s not your fault. Was she your best friend?”

I took a deep breath, wondering how to answer the question. Inside I was shouting ‘No! No!’, but I was finding it hard to form the words. In the end I sighed and leant back against the oak tree. “No.”

He nodded slowly. “So, someone…who you were with…got run over and for some reason you think it was your fault? Did someone say it was?”

“It was. I was….” I swallowed. “I was running away from her and dodged across the road. She followed and…….”

“She was chasing you? Why?”

I shook my head and looked away across the river. “Go away. I have to do this.”

“Who said it was your fault?” The boy persisted, moving slightly closer.

“She did.”

“She did?” he sounded confused.

I nodded. “Yeah. She said if I hadn’t run she wouldn’t have followed me. I should have just let her….”

He sucked in his breath. “She was bullying you. She was bullying you and you ran away.”

I sank to my knees at the foot of the tree and felt the tears begin to flow down my cheeks. “Yes.  But then she died and it was my fault. As I ran across the road I thought I’d got away and I looked back to check, just as she ran out after me and the car just couldn’t stop. I’ll never forget her scream and the way she looked at me.” I was sobbing in earnest by now and rubbed an arm across my eyes. 

“That must have been awful,” he sounded sympathetic. “But I don’t understand. When did she say it was your fault? She died.”

I glanced up at him. “She’s in my head. All the time. It never stops. She never stops. She says it was my fault and that I deserve to die too. She made me promise to kill myself.”

“When did this all happen?”

“Six months ago.”

He looked startled. “Six months ago? She’s been in your head all that time? Why did you leave it until now?”

I got to my feet, pulling a crumpled tissue out of my pocket and wiping my nose. “It had to be right. I had to pick a day. I had to make it perfect. I chose the first day of Spring.”

“Did she tell you to do that?”

“No. She just said I should die. She says it all the time. That’s all that’s in my head.” I took a deep breath. “But I…..”

“But you don’t want to die.” It was a statement.

I shook my head. “I don’t want to die. I thought I did.  I had it all planned. Every detail. Then the voice in my head would stop. But now…. I don’t want to. But I promised.”

“You said you made the promise to yourself.”

“I lied. I made the promise to her.”

“But she’s in your head. She’s not real. You did make the promise to yourself. So that means you have the right to change it.”

I looked over at him. “What d’you mean?”

“You’re not to blame for her death. She’s not really in your head. She didn’t tell you to die. That’s just your misplaced guilt talking to you. You must remember she was bullying you. You had every right to try and get away from her. It’s sad that she died, but it’s not your fault, and never was. No-one else thinks so, do they?”

I slowly shook my head. “No. I guess not. But I can’t get her out of my head. I can’t see any other way out.”

“Don’t you see, you’re letting her bully you from the grave? You have to let her go. You’re young, you have your whole life in front of you. Don’t throw it away. Go home, talk to someone.” He stared at me. “Have you told anyone else about this? Your parents? Siblings?”

I shook my head again. “No. I was too ashamed. I felt dirty and guilty. My parents think I’m fine.”

“But you’re not. You must go home, tell them what you told me, how you’ve been feeling. Tell them about her being in your head. But, don’t, please don’t, end your life. It’s not the answer. Believe me, I know.”

I looked over at him curiously. Clearly he must have lost someone to suicide. I glanced over at the river again and shivered. Maybe he was right. Maybe I could overcome this. After all, she wasn’t really in my head. She hadn’t really made me promise. That was just my guilt. 

“Thank you. Maybe you’re right. I don’t want to die. It didn’t feel right.”

“And it wouldn’t have been right.” His voice was emphatic. “Go home. Talk to your mum. It’ll all be okay. I promise.”

I slowly nodded and bit on my lower lip. “Thank you again. Are you here a lot? Might I see you again? It’s been good talking. You saved my life.”

He shook his head. “I don’t come here very often now. We probably won’t meet again. But if you ever feel like this again, just come back here. I’ll be around somewhere.”

“What’s your name?” 

“John Palmer,” he said, after a slight pause.

“Do you go to school round here? I don’t recognise you.”

“Not any more.” He shook his head. “But I used to. Now go, go and be happy. Live your life.”

I turned and set off down the path back towards the village, glancing over my shoulder just once, but he had gone.

Much later as my mother was tucking me into bed after a very long and emotionally healing talk, she asked me what had changed my mind.

“A boy in the woods,” I smiled at the memory. “He showed me what I was doing was wrong. His name was John Palmer.”

Mum’s eyes widened. “Goodness, I haven’t heard that name in a long time. There was a boy in my year at school called John Palmer.”

“Was there? How odd. Does he still live round here? Perhaps it was his son.”

She shook her head sadly. “No. He died. In the river, when he was seventeen. He took his own life.”

April 03, 2020 17:00

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