Contest #255 winner 🏆

Some Peace and Quiet

Submitted into Contest #255 in response to: Start your story with a character in despair.... view prompt

36 comments

Contemporary

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

For the record, I really wasn’t trying to kill myself.

I know what it looks like. I grew up in the northeast; I should have known the dangers of a February night and a lakeshore buried in snow. I do remember being little, maybe five years old, and hearing my parents (bright, young, sober) discussing a boy who had frozen to death by my school. They said it was a soft, painless way to go, and that was what made February dangerous: you felt, there at the end, like you were calm and safe and even warm. You had to be smart to keep yourself from surrendering to the snow. 

But that was when I was little. The past six or seven years there’s been no dangerous snow in my hometown. The past two years there was no snow at all. February isn’t a soft white death trap anymore; it’s gray and muddy, asphalt and car exhaust, people sitting around in their thick-walled rooms built to withstand blizzards and wishing for a breeze. When I went off to Maine for college, I was just looking forward to sledding again.

It happened like this. One Sunday, in the middle of finals season, I got the call from my mom.

“Sweetie,” she said. Her voice was cracked, fissures all through it like the cap of a mountain about to erupt. 

I held my breath.

“Sweetie,” she said, “I’m so sorry.” 

I sat on my bed holding my phone in numb fingers, and suddenly I felt too light, like I was floating up above my body. I didn’t speak for too long, and she started talking again, her words like lava pouring out of her, an incoherent inferno. 

“It’s all right,” I said quietly. “Hey, it’s okay, don’t be sorry.” 

I sounded like a ghost, an echo. Her sobs were like boulders hitting the ground, and they made my head throb.

When the conversation ended, I wandered dazedly outside. It was noon, and the sky was brilliant white, the courtyard grass crusted with frost. Campus was clean in February, quiet, the trees bare and pale. I trod softly on the sidewalk as my thoughts raced hurricane-fast. 

I was thinking I needed to find the aesthetic of my grief.

I pictured everyone I’d ever known who had been through a tragedy. My friend with a dead mother, my friend whose brother had cancer, my cousin who was assaulted, my roommate whose early childhood was spent collecting cans out of dumpsters to exchange for her next meal. Their griefs showed themselves in various ways; going suddenly silent at a memory, a breakdown on an anniversary, becoming cold and distant or else needy and desperate for comfort. I’d always felt estranged from them in those moments. Grief was alien to me. 

You know, part of this, too, is that people my age tend to think we’re immortal. Nothing bad had ever happened to me, not really. I’d never had one of these griefs that haunted other people, and by the time I got to college, I figured I never would. I didn’t think my family could fall apart like this, any more than I thought I could freeze to death. 

Now grief had come, and I would have to decide how to take it. So I was thinking over all the models I had as I walked. 

I finally went inside at dinnertime. In the dining hall I ran into Charlie and Robin. 

“Good, you’re here,” said Charlie. “Can you quiz me for the history final? I made flash cards.”

“Sure.” I took her cards and fixed my gaze down on them. “Tell me about the battle of Austerlitz?” 

The flash cards were soothing, a chance to fill my head with dry, solid facts. I let Charlie go through them for a while, then we switched and she quizzed me. I ate my chicken strips slowly, methodically. 

“When you two finish the final on Wednesday,” Robin said, “and I turn in my paper, want to go out for drinks to celebrate?”

“Yes,” I said, too quickly.

“Sure,” said Charlie. “Mae, tell me about the Rue de Rivoli.” 

That first dinner, I thought about telling them. The easiest time would have been right away. The second easiest thing would have been to take my cues from the griefs I knew about, go silent, look away from them, fill my eyes with tears until they asked me what was wrong. But I didn’t end up doing either one, and by the time we were dumping our trays, I’d decided not to tell anyone. I’d have to figure out how to say it, the correct emotions to express, how not to sound like a crying child or a heartless cynic. Too difficult. 

So I went back to my room and did my homework. I started writing a paper I’d been putting off for weeks. The hour ticked later; I finished the paper. I checked my citations. It was four in the morning. I didn’t want to sleep, sure my dreams would be chaotic, sure I’d wake from them out of breath and vulnerable to tears. When I was too tired to work, I lay in bed and scrolled Instagram until dawn.

I trudged to class. It was our last history class before the final. I sat next to Charlie.

“You look tired,” she said. 

“I was up late last night. Studying.”

“Oh, good for you.”

And studying was how I got through the days until Wednesday. I did manage to get a few hours of sleep on Monday and Tuesday nights; when I woke, early in the morning, I distracted myself by immediately reaching for a book I was supposed to read for another class. The only trouble came when I heard people talking outside my window. Loud laughter, calls across the courtyard. It made knife-bright moments in my dreams come back to me; the crack-clatter of a glass thrown against a wall, the pound of a fist on a door. The longer it went on the more tempted I was to open the window and scream at them to shut up.

The exam room was beautiful, a cavernous silent space, the scratching of pencil and soft ruffle of paper all I could hear. I wanted to live in it forever. 

When I left the exam room, I had a voicemail from my dad. His voice was low, weighed down with tears.

I went into the bathroom to call him back. “Hi, dad.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t call earlier.”

“It’s all right.”

“Tell me how you’re feeling.”

“I’m okay. I just got out of an exam.”

A terrible silence emanated from the phone.

“How are you feeling?” I asked, because it seemed like the right thing to ask, though I desperately didn’t want to know the answer.

He spoke in brief spurts, as if struggling to drag words up his throat. We didn’t talk for long, and afterward in the hall I felt light-headed again, unsure if anything around me was real, unsure if I had enough substance to touch it.

Charlie barreled into me from behind and flung an arm around me. “We did it!”

“Hell yeah,” I said.

“Let’s go find Robin. Then drinks.”

The sun was setting when Robin and Charlie I set out with a few others to the nearest bar. We got a table and ordered potato skins and Moscow Mules and toasted to our academic success.

“I don’t think I did that well,” said Aaron, who’d just finished his Statistics final. “But I don’t think I failed, either. That’s all that matters.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Charlie. “I want an A.”

I sucked down my drink too fast and ordered a second one. I finished the second one, too, but my heart sank unexpectedly when the third appeared in front of me. This wasn’t how I was going to grieve, was it? That was one of the worst ways I’d ever seen it done, the way it seemed my parents had been trending these past few years. 

The conversation turned to careers. Charlie was holding forth about how terrible the job market was for anyone with a humanities degree.

“That’s why I’m thinking of selling out,” she said. “Going into consulting. 

“You don’t have to call it selling out,” said Aaron. 

“I mean, it is if you’re only doing it for the money, I guess,” I said. 

“Right,” said Charlie. “But is that so bad?”

“I don’t know.” I took a deep breath and sat back in my chair. No, I was all right; I was eating, and I didn’t feel dizzy or sick.

I looked out the window. My heart jumped; it had started to snow.

Charlie caught my stare.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s supposed to snow a lot tonight and tomorrow. Actually, we should probably head out before it gets worse.”

So we paid our bills and finished our drinks and fifteen minutes later we were crunching over snow already an inch deep. I shivered, a tiny thrill, when my shoes sank into it. Everyone peeled off one by one; at the end, I had five minutes to myself, heading back to my dorm with the snow falling gently around me.

There’s something about snow at night. All dark and cold and strange and still. Watching the flakes fall, I imagined distant corners of the Earth, tangled forests, desolate glaciers in the far unpeopled north. Unthinking, unfeeling beauty. That night, I found myself yearning for winter; for the deep snow that used to descend on my hometown and lie over it until spring, for centuries before I was born. I think that was when the desire awakened in me, to escape all this human turmoil for a night, to find some bone-deep peace in the cold, to numb the blazing pain in my chest.

I woke to seven inches of snow. Charlie and Robin invited me out sledding. I clomped out in my thick winter jacket, but soon I found myself throwing it off in the heat of running, laughing, throwing snowballs. 

That night we went out drinking again. I had three more drinks and then slowly nursed a fourth. I remained coherent, cracking jokes, nodding along to my friends’ stories, dry-eyed and enthusiastic.

Taking grief is a little like taking booze. The pleasure of alcohol, for me, was always partly the challenge - how much I could drink while still acting sober. This was like that. It was almost a pleasant mental exercise, by Friday, to down six drinks and plaster a smile on my face. But it didn’t stop my longing for real rest. Head foggy, I kept leaning back from the bar and watching more snow fall through the window. 

My mom called me at ten on Friday night. I didn’t pick up. An hour later, my dad called; I ignored that one too. My stomach roiled when I saw the voicemail notifications. I clutched my drink for balance.

“Mae, what do you want to do after college?” Charlie asked. “Would you consider some consulting job if they offered you enough money?”

I stared at the bar, pretending to think about it. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Not me,” said Robin. “I’d kill myself if I had to work twelve hours a day for a corporation and pretend I loved it. Don’t you think you would, Mae?”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on,” said Aaron. “What if I offered you a hundred thousand a year?”

“Not a chance,” said Robin.

“Mae?”

The bar felt suddenly too hot; sweat beaded on my forehead. “I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Two hundred thousand,” Aaron pressed. “Come on.”

The music in here was too loud. I could hear the echoes of my mother’s sobs behind it. “I, uh, yeah - for two hundred thousand, sure.”

“Seriously?” said Robin. “I mean, I couldn’t even imagine writing a cover letter for a job like that. Having to gush over how much I loved the company. And you know the culture would be constant-grindset. You’d really endure that just for money?”

If there was ever a time for me to have exploded, shouted at my friends and then started weeping, it would have been then. But I just stared at them all blankly for a moment, feeling the acid churn inside me, and then, slowly, carefully, concluded I would be all right if I just got some fresh air when we left the bar. 

“I guess,” I said, “it’s hard to really know what I’d do.” 

We tramped back to our dorms in a foot and a half of snow. I gulped the freezing nighttime air; my forehead cooled. On a whim, I grabbed a handful of snow with my gloved hand and ate it. It tasted like mountains. 

When it was just me again, I wandered to a stop.

It was like this. I wasn’t thinking straight; I was drunk, I hadn’t slept, I’d just come from a bar so loud I thought I’d never be rid of the echoes in my skull. And I wanted winter. I wanted it so deep in my chest it felt like a wound, wanted it like you want water in a drought. And here it was, falling around me, after so many grubby, muddy years.

So I veered off and went toward the lake. 

The lake isn’t too far from the dorms. It’s just across a few walkways, a strip of woods that’s all that remains of an old-growth forest once dizzyingly deep. I emerged onto the lakeshore within a quarter of an hour, saw the sand covered with snow, the edge of the lake frozen solid, though the center was still dark water. 

It was so quiet. No voices, no music, no crying. I breathed in, deep as I could, and imagined the sharp cold frosting over my lungs. The snow looked silver; I looked up to see a full moon, freshly visible behind fleeing clouds. The sky was bottomless. I stumbled forward, still staring upward, until my boots caught the edge of the frozen shore, and then I sat with a thump in the snow.

When I started to shiver, I forced myself to relax instead. That’s probably the most dangerous thing I did. If I’d kept moving, paced or cried or called my parents back, I probably would have generated enough body heat to be fine. But I didn’t want to. I was more exhausted than I’d ever been. I wanted to be still, still in a way only ice could be, my molecules locked in place, my atoms no longer spinning but settled, infinitely, indefinitely. 

I know it sounds like I’m describing death. Maybe I am. But this beautiful death used to come to where I lived every December; we used to live alongside it for months at a time, when I was a child without any grief. 

The last thing I remember seeing is the stars.

________

I woke to shouting, to sharp light; I woke shuddering violently from head to toe. I was in a stark white hospital room. A nurse shone a flashlight into my eyes. My friends clustered by the door, demanding to know if I was awake. 

I think I was making some animal groaning sound. The nurse pressed something warm against my neck. That was the only thing I could feel; my arms and legs were numb, I couldn’t move them. 

“Mae, what happened?” Charlie cried. “Did you black out? I didn’t think you were that drunk, I would have walked you home –”

“You idiot,” said Aaron. “She had like five drinks. I said someone should walk her home.”

“What happened?” urged Robin. “Mae? Can you talk?”

Sickness crashed back over me and I couldn’t maneuver myself; I vomited all over my chest, the nurse’s hand, the warm compress. The nurse withdrew and removed her gloves. 

“One second,” she said. “I’ll go get a towel to clean you up.”

When she left, my friends crowded around.

“Tell us you’re all right,” said Charlie. 

I opened my mouth, maybe intending to reassure them, and nothing emerged but another drawn-out groan that ended in a sob.

And that was how it all came out. That was the aesthetic of grief I was landed with, the worst, darkest one; that I’d tried to kill myself because my parents were getting divorced. My parents found out about it, and they both flew up to see me, even forcing themselves into the same room to wrap me in blankets and apologize over and over. My friends wept and fawned over me, sending me cards and flowers like I really had died. 

I was embarrassed about the whole thing. I tried to explain that I’d just gone to the lake for some air, that I was fine, really, that there was no need for any trouble. I tried to tell my parents they were adults and so was I and I respected whatever decisions they wanted to make. It didn’t make any difference. For weeks afterward, my grief and I were the center of everyone’s attention. 

I wish it had all happened differently. Wish I had been able to hold myself together more, maybe drink a little less, maybe withstand the cold better. I wish I didn’t live in a world where grief comes like this for everyone. I wish the chaos of humanity hadn’t driven natural winter away from my hometown. I wish my parents had stayed sober and happy and together. Sometimes I still want to cry, wishing so badly for things to be different.

But I’ll say this, now, for the last time. I wasn’t trying to kill myself. I do want to live. Terrifying as it is, I want to keep breathing and running and shouting and crying. I want to see spring again, too. I’m forever grateful to Charlie, who happened upon my blue-lipped sleeping form on Saturday morning, who saved my life. If nothing else, I’m glad for her.

June 21, 2024 21:19

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36 comments

Anat Kalinski
10:41 Jun 27, 2024

You articulated so many genuine sentiments that touched me, such as trying to pragmatically go about an emotional process, or equating the control of liquor to that of grief. The symbolism of snow was very moving. Beautiful, thought provoking piece. Well done!

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06:16 Jun 22, 2024

Beautifully written!

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David Sweet
18:06 Jun 28, 2024

Congrats on the win! Such an emotional piece. The dialogue was so really and made the story flow so well. My favorite line: "It tasted like mountains." It's amazing how individuals deal with grief in so many different ways. You portrayed this with tragic beauty.

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Paul Simpkin
13:36 Jul 02, 2024

You are a very clever writer. The way you hold back the reason for her grief is excellent. It keeps us wanting to know the resolution. The characterisation is also excellent. I can see why you now have five wins.

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16:12 Jul 01, 2024

This was beautifully written. I don't think I can say much more... loved it :)

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Martha Lueck
11:59 Jun 30, 2024

You did an amazing job at keeping the reader wondering about Mae’s reason for grieving. Mae’s ability to “look like” she was doing okay was impressive. But her grief was still obvious, especially from her excessive drinking. I also thought the dialogue among the college friends was realistic. The lake scene was scary, and the hospital scene was heartbreaking. But I was glad that Mae finally opened up to her friends and her parents about her grief. Great job! I look forward to reading more of your work!

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Susan Jenkins
23:02 Jun 28, 2024

That was amazing. So rich with the emotion of loss and the struggle to keep it together.

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Amanda Stogsdill
20:43 Jun 28, 2024

Compelling story. Everyone deals with grief in different ways. Mae's reaction was one of many she could have done. Winter was a great way to describe her emotions. All that snow was really chilling.

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Audrey Knox
17:56 Jun 28, 2024

Wow, I love the way the imagery in this invokes all of the senses in the dull moments like the exam room and the extreme moments in the cold and the hospital. The question of what she was grieving was compelling to me, and it felt like an appropriate letdown at the end when I found out it was "just" a divorce. It made sense that she would be embarrassed about her reaction, but it was also a powerful reminder that we don't know what people are going through and that grief is a valid emotional response to a breadth of experiences.

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Alexis Araneta
17:40 Jun 28, 2024

Stunning writing here ! Congrats on the win !

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Marty B
17:30 Jun 28, 2024

Mae's internal dialogue rang like a bell, thoughts that I have had, distancing oneself from grief by discussing the 'aesthetic of my grief' adding layers in between the emotion, and how to express the emotion. Great language too- 'I grabbed a handful of snow with my gloved hand and ate it. It tasted like mountains' Congrats!

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Kendall Defoe
17:44 Jul 01, 2024

Of your stories, this is my favourite so far... Excellent story and a very timely story about mental health, family, friends, and all the denial we put on ourselves.

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Joseph Hawke
03:30 Jul 01, 2024

Awesome job, Phoebe. Congratulations on the win!

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Unknown User
04:10 Jun 30, 2024

<removed by user>

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Sarah W
09:57 Jun 29, 2024

What an absolutely gorgeous piece. Beautiful.

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Ernest Afram
22:41 Jun 28, 2024

It's beautiful.

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Emma Wu
18:17 Jun 28, 2024

This was amazingly written! The question of why she was grieving really pulled me into the story, but in the end, a divorce seemed exactly appropriate. Really serves to remind how different people experience grief and the storm of emotions that comes with it. Great piece.

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Carol Stewart
18:10 Jun 28, 2024

Congratulations. I did enjoy this story.

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Mary Bendickson
17:19 Jun 28, 2024

Congrats on back to back wins.

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Darvico Ulmeli
17:00 Jun 28, 2024

Excellent writing

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