The date June 21, 2018 is tattooed into my mind forever. I sit at the big table in the dining room, years later, as the day breaks. The sun pushes through the thin kitchen blinds and I blink, remembering the exact scene years earlier. Connor, shaggy hair hiding his eyes, black t-shirt, way too loose as always.
My husband walks downstairs at 7:15 am. Thump, thump, thump, as he always does. Predictable, if nothing else. Trustworthy. Safe.
“How long have you been up?” he asks, but he can sense from my face that he won’t get an answer. “The house feels empty without Lydia,” he continues, unperturbed. That’s always been his way. It might be the anniversary of the day our lives collapsed, but he will continue on as if it were a normal day. “Maybe we should ask her to come back for the summer.”
“You know she doesn’t want to. Ever since… Well, ever since then, she’s hated this town.”
“I know, but it’s not right for a kid to live away from her parents. Especially for so long.”
“She’s seventeen, David. She’s basically an adult.” I don’t want to keep talking about this. I don’t want to keep talking at all.
David seems to take the hint, so he moves into the kitchen, where he pours himself cereal and milk, the sounds bouncing and echoing off the walls of the empty house. He slurps it with his coffee, packing his lunch in the meantime. I’ve done the washing already, so his cloth masks are all lined up by the door.
“Have a good day!” His voice is cheery, but we’ve been married for so long that I know he says it without even realizing he did.
I sit at the table in the dining room until 8am. The instant the clock hits, I stand up and move into the kitchen and start reorganizing the dishes. I have to keep my hands busy somehow.
Connor was always late to school. I can’t recall a single day he actually left the house in time to make it by the first bell. He always promised me he’d run, but we all knew he didn’t. My hands scrub a china saucer that I’ve never used as I remember the way he’d always ask for money for lunch. I knew he never wanted to pack lunches - it wasn’t cool for a high schooler to bring his own food. But lunch money added up, and I couldn’t understand why he needed to have a fancy school lunch when he could make a perfectly good sandwich, exactly to his liking, right here at home. So I never gave him lunch money. I regret that now. Maybe that’s what pushed him over the edge.
I move into the bedroom - time to change the sheets. The sheets don’t really need to be changed, but I’m avoiding the computer, with all it’s angry beeping red message notifications. I know people want to talk to me today. Everyone knows what today means. But I don’t want to talk about it.
As I’m dumping the sheets into the washer, I notice Connor’s middle school soccer jersey. He got kicked off the team for punching a kid. He was so insistent he was in the right (“that kid was cheating, Mom!”) that he refused to apologize. I pick up the jersey. That impulsivity, that confidence that he was right in convictions - it got him into so much trouble later.
The phone rings and I jump. I don’t pick it up. I’m not ready to talk. But the phone, sitting on its charging cradle next to the window, reminds me that the windows haven’t been washed in a while. I touch them softly, and they’re hot from the glow of the summer sun. June 21, the last day of school in our school district.
I have fond memories of my own last days of school. Slices of watermelon, paper cups of lukewarm, flat Pepsi, ice cream sticks. Everyone wearing flip flops, teachers telling us stories of their most troublesome students, movies in class. Even in high school, we would all be sitting there with makeup on and hair teased, preparing for the epic start-of-summer parties in the afternoon. I remember the teachers were always unusually forgiving of dress code violations on the last day.
Connor never liked school very much. Kids would bully him a lot. He wasn’t a bad kid, just disruptive sometimes, but not in the funny, class-clown way. Just disruptive in the way of a kid who was filled with angst and self-importance and drama. We knew things were happening, but we figured it was just typical teen stuff. I was bullied growing up, so was David. We always knew Lydia was more popular, but it was easier for her. She was a people person, she sort of just always knew what to do in social situations. Connor wasn’t particularly social, but that didn’t mean he was a loner. He had friends, people who really really liked him. There was one boy especially, Toby, who would come over all the time. They’d play video games in the basement and watch those old Westerns.
The washer beeps and I bustle back into the laundry room. It’s best to keep busy. I keep thinking, thinking, thinking too much. I’ve replayed this day so many times. I’ve replayed all the years. Seventeen years of a life, and I never noticed the signs. I knew he was hurting - I didn’t know it was this bad. I feel so useless. I should've known. So instead of wallowing in guilt, I stuff it into the laundry basket with the pillowcases.
The phone rings again. And again. And again. So I switch it off. I don’t have the energy to talk to anyone today. I’m even wary of switching on the TV, in the fear that it will be in the news. The chance is low, but you never know.
I want to visit his grave, but I don’t want to leave the house. I remember the casket, the way it sat there, a closed wooden box. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t salvage much of his head, so it’s going to have to be closed-casket,” the funeral director had said, without an ounce of sympathy in his eyes. His head, blown apart into pieces in the backyard of that damned school. I think about calling Toby’s mother. She didn’t even show up to the funeral, but I know for a fact that Connor got the gun from Toby. Toby’s dad went out shooting and hunting. We’ve never even owned a gun, hell, I barely have big kitchen knives.
The beds are made. The windows are washed, and the sun sparkles like it hasn’t in years. It’s sort of disrespectful, for there to be such beautiful weather on such a tragic day. I open the windows, let the fresh air in. It’s the sort of hot and humid that makes you uncomfortable all the way down to your toes. I let it seep over me, the feeling of being sticky and trapped. This must have been what Connor felt like in his last moments.
Buzz, buzz. The doorbell, followed by the pounding of fists. I run upstairs, my heart beating so fast I think it’ll jump out of my chest. I have no energy for sympathy or inspiration. I curl up upstairs, on the freshly made bed. I ignore all voices, intermingling outside, a cacophony of desperation to talk to me. This must have been what Lydia felt like. No wonder she wanted to leave. She lives in Ohio now, with her aunt and uncle and three cousins. They all pretend she’s one of them; she does have the same last name, so it’s not a stretch. I miss her, I miss both of them, but I know she couldn’t have grown up here.
I’m in bed for so long I doze off, and when I wake up, the sun is blazing hot directly in my face. I check the time - 1:17 pm. I jump up and run to the kitchen. It’s almost 1:28. 1:28 was when it started.
I stand in the kitchen, frozen, until 1:28. As soon as the clock strikes 1:28, I frantically start saying prayers. Lord Jesus, You alone are holy and compassionate; forgive our brother for his sins. By dying You opened the gates of life for those who believe in You; do not let Your brother be parted from You, but by Your glorious power give him light, joy, and peace in heaven where You live for ever and ever. Amen. Over and over again. I have to finish it, 21 times before the clock moves to 1:29. 21 times for the 21 children Connor killed before he killed himself.
I finish the 21 prayers just before the clock moves to 1:29. Then I say it one last time, for Connor himself, and collapse on the kitchen floor, a tangled array of hate and love, overwhelming me and crashing into me in a massive wave of contradictions. I stay, a sobbing heap on the floor, until 2:06. That’s when Connor stepped into the backyard of the school and shot himself, left temple. His reign of terror, over the other students and over himself, is over. I collect myself enough to stand up, my body aching, and walk over to the wall in the laundry room. I’ve written all 21 names above the washer, and the thick black letters stare at me accusingly. How could you not know? they ask. You’re his mother. You’re supposed to know these things. You should’ve raised him better than this.
I remember the outpouring of hatred, how the parents of the dead kids came to our house with threatening legal letters, how their friends and brothers and sisters egged our house and scratched our car. I remember the death threats, how we couldn’t let Lydia stay here because they promised us they would kill her.
I trace the letters on the wall with my fingertips for what feels like hours, a reel of Connor’s childhood summers playing in my head. Cotton t-shirts, Disney movies, the smell of chlorine from the pool. I am in the laundry room, disoriented and entangled in my memories, until 7pm, when David comes home. He knows exactly where I am, and he comes in and envelopes me in his big arms. We stand there until night falls and dry, soft coolness replaces the enormous heat.
We go about our evening routines in silence, eating and showering, wordlessly passing each other in the hallways. Even he can’t turn this into a normal thing. At night, we lay in bed next to each other, still and stiff, as we wait for midnight to come. Neither of us can sleep until it has. The wall clock seems to tick more slowly than ever, but finally, at long last, it hits midnight. Both of us breathe out a sigh of relief, as if we hadn’t breathed all morning.
“I love you,” he says, the words stilted.
“It wasn’t our fault,” I say, and the words aren’t strong, but they’re more convincing than last year. Every year, it will get a little better.
“It’s the longest day of the year, ironically,” David says, his hand slowly reaching out to hold mine. We clasp fingers. “It feels like the longest, but it really is, too.”
“I know,” I say. “It’s because it’s lonely mourning a monster.”