Trigger warning: Addiction, suicide
“Julie, get your things ready now, the bus won’t be long here!”
“In a minute, dad” - Julie said quietly while rolling her eyes, slumped in the armchair, left hand hanging loose with the right hand holding her smartphone. Mark raised his head as he was packing his suitcase and could glimpse through the small gap in the door; she was at it again, skimming through more pictures on social media on her phone, some of her friends, but many of herself. No doubt checking if anybody had commented on what she was wearing yesterday.
“Now, Julie, please!”
“OK, OK, my bags are already packed. Do we really need so much stuff? It’s only for a few weeks right?” Jule snapped back sharply.
Mark often thought back to that magical moment many years ago when Julie became alive and all of those worries started to possess his mind every single day; how to nurse her properly, how would he make sure she studied hard in school and did her homework, every little conceivable thing.It went around and around in his mind every waking moment, was present in every dream and every nightmare. And when his wife Angela died of cancer but a few years later, his daughter’s needs outweighed his grief. She was his entire life now, and her life was his responsibility.
Social media didn’t exist back then, and he was ignorant to it at first, almost willfully as the older generation can be to anything new. But now it had his full attention, and he wasn’t going to let it take his daughter too. Last year the school had sent letters to all parents informing them of a girl who fell victim to cyber-bullying. She was a pretty young girl, just like Julie, but that didn’t seem to matter. And when she overdosed one evening in her bedroom after one taunt too many, parents like Mark suddenly realized there was a new threat, one they could either choose to ignore or do something about.
“Where are we going again, dad? I know you like your surprises but can’t you tell me anything?”
“I told you, it’s a wonderful summer nature reserve I found out about. Remember how you used to love walks up the mountain? Picking the berries and rolling down the hill and then running up and doing it all again?”
“Dad, I’m not seven any more.” - Julie smiled back for once, a rare sight nowadays.
The hum of a vehicle slowing down outside their window alerted Mark that it was time.
“OK, let’s get a move on.”
Both father and daughter stepped outside, carrying their luggage to the white minibus that pulled up opposite their house. Mark fidgeted with his seat trying to find the best position for the ride ahead; Julie just lay back and pulled out her smartphone.
“Remember I told you they don’t allow phones in the reserve.”
“Come on dad, if you think I’m spending the whole summer without this, you’re madder than I realized.”
Mark was well aware of what was going to happen when they arrived and they saw the phone; at least he had already warned her so she might not be too pissed with him. And anyway, her phone distracted her from paying attention to where they were heading. It was a long journey and the fewer questions beforehand, the better Mark thought.
When he understood the scale of the threat, Mark went in hard; he tried limiting her phone access but that didn’t fly with her at all; then he tried confiscating her phone but she simply would not be seen at home until very late in the evening, probably getting her fix at her friends house instead; then he gave the phone back and tried insisting she attend some counseling; that worked for a short while but then she slipped back again; how can you convince an addict in denial that they need help? He never felt so powerless since losing his wife; cancer he could not fight despite all his love; surely he could find a way to fight this? He knew he had to find a way.
Mark followed every crumb of information online that he could find, but nothing seemed to work. His nightmares became more frequent now; every time he reached out with his hand and opened the front door of their house calling his daughter’s name; there was never any reply. He walked upstairs step by step up towards Julie’s room tightly holding the banister, the floorboards creaking as he approached the door; it was always slightly ajar with a sliver of light shining on his feet as he stood outside. Then he reached out his hand and pushed it open. The sight that all parents dread to ever see.
However, one shrink had given him a suggestion, somewhere that could finally help. As he left one otherwise unproductive session, he slipped Mark a small white business card from his pocket with only a name and a number printed. Mark kept it in his wallet, sometimes pulling it out and staring at it before putting it back again. But he came home one day and found her crying, just one anonymous comment was all it took. And then it happened again, and again. So, he finally called; he was desperate, and they told him what they could do for him and his daughter. Maybe they were just telling him what he wanted to hear, or maybe they could genuinely help? It would cost money of course, a lot of money, but he was running out of options.
“Dad, where is this place, we’ve been driving for hours now?” - Julie looked outside and noticed they were driving through some woodlands, on some poor excuse for a road with no road signs anywhere.
“Almost there Julie, almost there.”
She turned her gaze back to her phone, at least for a few minutes more. Only when the signal strength hit zero did she give her full attention back to where they were traveling.
“Dad, there’d better be reception at this place.” Mark didn’t answer; he knew they were close and then he would have to explain the truth anyway. Julie kept glancing at the signal bar on her phone, each time accompanied with deep sighs brimming with frustration. After traveling half of the day, they finally reached a wooden gate which opened and allowed the van inside.
“OK, we’re here. Time to get out.” said the driver, his first words since closing the door on them. As Mark and Julie jumped out and grabbed their bags, a tall bearded man shouted out to them. “If you come over here now, we’ll begin the registration.”
“Registration? Dad, what is this place?” - Julie spoke with some trepidation; she kept looking in all directions while briefly staring at her father, hoping for an answer. He remained silent and looked only ahead. They approached a small hut with a bench across their way. A grey haired old lady stood there waiting.
“Good evening Mr Thomas. Hello Julie. I hope you had a nice ride here.”
“Who … who are you? And how do you know my name?” - Julie’s breathing was audible for everyone to hear.
“I’m Dr Hendricks, I’m the director of this center and I’ll be in charge of your rehabilitation program. Mr Thomas, here are some forms for you to sign as we discussed on the phone”
“Dad! What is she talking about? What is this place?”
“This place is ... going to help you.”
“Help me?! Help me with what?”
“You know with what, Julie. I tried to help you, but I couldn’t do it alone. You wouldn’t let me, so now you need their help.”
Julie looked around with a panicked expression, looking for some kind of escape where there was none.
The director stepped forward and held out her hand face-up, “I’m going to have to ask you for your phone, Julie.”
“My … my phone? Dad, please”
“Julie, please hand it over.”
Julie looked all around, hoping for some salvation, tears rolling down her face as she started to sob uncontrollably. She pulled out her phone from her pocket, hands shaking. She looked once more at her father, wide-open eyes. “Please dad.”
Those teary eyes had made Mark give-in so many times before; he closed his eyes briefly; the image of the half-ajar door flashed into his mind’s eye. Not this time; this is for her own good. “Jule, hand the phone over, please.”
Julie looked down at her phone, hands shaking even more. For better or for worse, this phone had become her life. Her hand moved cautiously towards the director’s hand, which did not move. Julie eventually reached out the whole way and placed it down.
“Thanks, Julie. We will show you to your accommodation. It’s quite late in the day, so we will meet to talk first thing tomorrow after breakfast, OK?” Julie looked straight down at the floor.
“Thanks, doctor,” Mark replied. The tall bearded man gestured to them to follow. Julie’s gaze was locked to the floor as her father led her on towards their new home. She never looked up until they reached an old rustic wooden cabin.
The bearded man handed Mark the keys - “Breakfast is at 7am in the red cafeteria. Good night.” - he walked off leaving father and daughter alone once more.
Mark walked up the steps of the cabin. They creaked loudly, as did the door and the floorboards. “So, how long do I have to stay in this prison for then?” she said meekly, resigned to whatever fate her father had decided for her.
“WE will stay here as long as it takes for you to get better. I only want what’s best for you Julie. I’m only doing this because I love you.”
Julie stared downwards for several moments before standing up and walking to the door.
“I hate you!” - she looked up briefly towards her father shaking her head - she’d long run out of tears - before going inside.
Mark stood there in silent contemplation; he was prepared to hear those words, but it still hurt. Which child wouldn’t hate their father for doing this to them? He was not normally the type for self-doubt; all he had to do was close his eyes and think once more of that door ajar and the fateful silence within. Yes, he was doing the right thing. She could hate him for the rest of his life as far as he was concerned.
He stepped through and closed the door; he could live with it.