I stared blankly at the puddle of sweet, red liquid forming under what used to be my cherry popsicle. I wasn’t really looking at as much as through it, focusing on nothing but my own thoughts.
This morning offered so much promise. I woke up and actually noticed that the sun was shining. I was able to feel a genuine smile creep across my face; today was the first day in many months that I actually felt something akin to happy.
“Hey, Spence?” It was my mom, knocking on my door.
“Yeah?” I grunted to her, propping myself up on my elbows.
“Can I come in?”
She opened the door. “Good morning. How’d you sleep?” The question was a mixture of genuine concern and fear of the answer.
“Not bad, actually,” I said, surprising not only my mom, but myself as well. I stretched and rubbed the sand from my eyes.
“That’s awesome, sweetie. Maybe we’re finally getting your meds straightened out.”
I have been on antidepressants for a number of years, and for a while Zoloft really seemed to help. Then, about a year ago, I started having frequent bouts of insomnia. Given the plethora of other medications I was taking at the time, it could have been any of them, or any combination of them. But my mom and my doctor focused on the antidepressants. I moved from one medication to another, but with little to no change in my sleep habit. Until I started taking Bupropion.
It wasn’t a dramatic change in the beginning. Rather, it started working by making me at least feel better rested when I woke up in the morning, even if I’d had a lousy sleep. Little by little, though, the number of hours I slept increased, then the ease of falling asleep improved, and finally, last night, I was able to sleep most of the night. I remember waking up once, when the clock in the living room chimed two AM. I simply fell back to sleep.
“Are you ready to get up?” mom asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said, throwing the covers off. My mom walked around the bed and rolled my wheelchair into position. Then she placed her arm under my back and I place my arms around her neck, and she hoisted me up into my chair. My legs had once carried me to waterskiing fame, now they hung pale, pencil-thin, and limp.
“Thanks, Mom,” I said, rolling out the bedroom toward the bathroom.
My daily ablutions complete, I made my way to the kitchen for something to eat. “Want me to make you something?” my mom asked, knowing full well what my response would be.
“No, thank you,” I said, with more than a little frustration.
I made myself some peanut butter toast, and rolled into the living room. CNN was on the tube, and Jim Acosta was reporting something from the White House that was of little consequence – and even less interest – to me. Instead, I ate my toast and contemplated what to do today.
“Hey,” my dad said, looking up from his paper, “watch the crumbs.”
“Dad, they’re literally falling on me.”
“Not all of ‘em.”
I finished my toast, grabbed a bottle of water out of the fridge, and called for a Paratransit pickup. There was one available, and they would be at my house in twenty to thirty minutes. Perfect.
I finished primping for the day, stopped in my parents’ room to tell my mom where I was going, grabbed my wallet, and rolled out the front door to wait for the transport van.
When I rolled off the transport lift and onto the sandy street, I could immediately smell the popcorn, pizza, and French fries. I maneuvered my wheelchair away from the curb and rolled onto the boardwalk, flipping my shades down in the process. Nearby, I could hear the dings, bells, whistles, and other sounds coming from an open-sided arcade. Next to the arcade was a large souvenir store which was advertising t-shirts for only $5 each (selected varieties, of course). There were other businesses along this stretch of the boardwalk, including a coffee and tea variety shop; a food vendor that sold boardwalk fries and corn dogs; several other souvenir stores, each advertising the same $5 offer on selected varieties of t-shirts; and more than a few shops that sold beach tchotchkes.
A few hundred yards down the stretch of planked wood, I took up a spot nestled between a water fountain and a shade tree, directly across from the locale I’d come to visit. It was an unusual business, standing out along this line of loud, bright, smelly stores. The front edifice was relatively plain, a regular brick and mortar store. There were windows in the front of the store, but a pair of heavy, dark green shades were pulled down, obscuring what was going on inside. The door was unlocked but closed tight, and there was no loud music thumping from within. Only a small sign posted directly over the door gave any indication what one could find inside.
I sat in my wheelchair, looking at the building, summoning the courage to go in. People - hundreds of people, heck thousands of people - walked between me and the store, not paying any attention to either of us. After what felt like half a day, but was probably closer to a couple hours, I decided to cross the boardwalk and go in the little store.
Entering was like stepping foot out of one reality and into another. I left the sunny, hot, humid boardwalk full of people, music, and the smell of grease, and entered a dark, cool, cave-like room, where glass cases lined three of the four walls. Behind one of them, a man wearing a monocle and a three-piece suit was speaking with someone who appeared to be a customer, though I don’t recall seeing anyone enter the store.
“I’ll be right with you,” the man said with a certain heaviness.
“Thank you,” I said, trying to smile. I wheeled myself over to one of the cases, as far away from him as possible. Inside was a variety of small red, blue, purple, black, and yellow berries, each atop its own tiny pedestal. In the center of the case, a small sign written in crisp, black cursive read “Berries.” In the next case over, amid a number of leaves, seed pods, and other greenery, “Herbs and Seeds”, written in the same crisp, black cursive hand.
“Good afternoon,” the shop owner said, making me jump.
“Oh geez!” I said, jumping and clutching my chest.
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry,” he said, removing his monocle and wiping it on a clean white cloth he produced from his pants pocket. His fingers were unnaturally long and each knuckle was a gnarled knot. “How may I help you?” he asked, re-settling the monocle on his face.
“I’m not sure,” I said, questioningly, raising my eyebrows. I hoped my facial expression was answering the question for me.
“Yes, I see,” he said, a wry grin inching its way across his face. His teeth were a mis-match of different shapes, sizes, and colors, with varying widths of blackness between them. It sent a shudder up my spine. “Are you shopping for yourself or someone else?”
I looked up at him, and for a split second, I swear I saw a forked snake tongue flit between his teeth. I felt dizzy and nauseated, and glanced away quickly. “Uh, myself,” I said, in mid-cough.
“Ah, very good.” He folded his freakish hands in front of him and focused his gaze on me. “I can only imagine what it must be like to be in your position.” He paused, and glanced down at my worthless legs. “And you’re certain about this? There will be no coming back from it? No magic remedies?”
“Yeah, I know. I’m sure.”
“Very well. I might suggest something from this case,” he said walking toward a case near the back of the store, labeled “Chemical.” Inside, small vials stood side by side. They were dark brown in color and each had a black, plastic twist cap. The shop owner reached in and grabbed one, read the label, replaced it, and grabbed another. “Yes, this is the one,” he extended his hand, his fingers each ten inches long if they were an inch, to hand me the vial. I very carefully plucked it from his grip, not wanting to touch him if I could avoid it.
“You’ll want to be very careful with this,” he said, his snake tongue dancing between his top and bottom teeth. “And be sure to take it only when you’re certain you’re ready.”
“What is it?” I asked. There was a tiny label on the vial, but the language was unfamiliar to me.
“You shhhhhouldn’t concern yourself with suchhhhh quessssstionsssss,” he hissed. His tone was frustrated, but not angry. “But since you’re curious, it’s a blend of chemicals; medications, actually, that will do just what you want – or need – them to do.”
I had done enough of my own research to know about pentobarbital, and its praise for being a relatively easy – and pain-free - solution, but I was given to believe that it would require taking many pills. This was a relatively small vial, only filled about half-way. It certainly didn’t seem like enough.
“And this is enough?” I asked, holding the vial up to examine it.
“Indeed,” the shop owner answered.
I left the shop with the vial in my pocket, though I don’t recall how much I paid for it or even the act of paying for it. Nor did I have much of an idea when I would take it, but that didn’t seem to matter right now. Somehow, I felt better just knowing it was there.
I rolled down the boardwalk a ways, toward the amusement park. “The End of the Trail” was its official name, but everyone referred to it as The End. Among the tilt-a-whirl, bumper cars, and carousel, there was a roller coaster that took the riders up and over the water before plunging them back down to earth. And there was a Ferris wheel, nothing super tall or fancy, but always one of my favorites as it gave the most beautiful, breath-taking views of the cape.
I stopped in the midway section of the park to play a game. I exchanged a five-dollar-bill for twenty quarters and took a spot next to a young girl whose long, dark hair was pinned with a bright red barrette. I started tossing quarters towards half a dozen flat, glass plates which I was certain were treated with Teflon or some other non-stick surface. Twelve quarters went skimming off the tops of the plates, only to land on the ground beneath. Deciding I didn’t want to waste all my money, I held onto one quarter and pocketed the rest (noting that the vial was still there). I tossed the final quarter and it landed squarely on one of the plates with a resounding tink!
Red Barrette started squealing and tugging on my shirt. “You won! You won!” Her excitement, much like her smile, was contagious.
“You can pick any prize you want,” the barker said, sidling up to the counter.
I looked up at the assortment of red, blue, yellow, orange, and green stuff critters. Nothing looked appealing to me, so I leaned over to Red Barrette and asked her which one she would choose. She pointed somewhat haphazardly and said, “the orange mouse.”
“The orange mouse it is,” I said to the barker. He lifted a long pole toward the clot of stuffed animals and somehow pulled out a single orange mouse. He handed it to me and I handed it directly to Red Barrette. It was bigger than she was and she thanked me profusely as she walked away. I would see Red Barrette later that day, but she would no longer have the orange mouse.
I made my way to the ticket booth, bought a ticket for the Ferris wheel, rolled up the handicap ramp, and waited for my turn.
I rode that ride three times in a row, and with each ride, it felt more and more like flying. I laid my head back, let the warm sun shine down on me, and breathed in the fresh salty air. I felt freer at that moment than I’d felt in years, and I never wanted that feeling to end.
After buying a candied apple for my mom and a bottle of Ol’ Pete’s Barbeque Sauce for my dad, I left the amusement park, headed back to the transportation pick-up location at the head of the boardwalk.
I stopped at a small food vendor before leaving the boardwalk and purchased a cherry popsicle. It had been years since I’d had a popsicle, and something about the day just begged me to have one. I unwrapped it and started sucking on it. As I meandered away from the food vendor, pushing myself with only one hand, I noticed the transport vehicle was already at the pick-up location.
“Oh, damn,” I said under my breath. I clamped my lips on my popsicle and started wheeling towards the transit van as quickly as I could. About half-way across the street, the popsicle broke apart and landed on the hot pavement. I paid it no attention; instead I wanted to catch the transit van before it departed. However, behind me I could hear the squealing of tires, the blaring of a horn, and people screaming. I turned my chair and saw a crowd of people forming in the middle of the street near two cars.
I could see blood streaked on one of the car hoods, its windshield spiderwebbed inward. I rolled toward the crowd and could see a sneaker and plain white, lacy sock laying askew across the hood of the car. As I got closer, I could see a Power Puff Girls t-shirt and blue jean shorts, a young face bruised and bloodied.
And a Red Barrette.
“NOOOOOOO!” I cried, reaching for her. I wanted to grab her, to ferry her to safety, to rewind all of this.
After the police left, I had plenty of time to sit and think. I stared at the remains of my popsicle, completely melted and somewhat mixed with Red Barrette’s blood now. She didn’t make it, of course, and I felt absolutely wretched about that. What was worse…
As it turns out, Red Barrette and her mom had been behind me after leaving the amusement park. She saw me buy my popsicle, watched as I was making my way across the street, saw me drop my popsicle, and in a moment of juvenile ignorance, took off running to pick it up for me. That’s when a car struck her, throwing her up onto the hood, smashing her head and face in the windshield, killing her instantly.
My mom picked me up from the boardwalk, and I rolled directly into my room once I got home. I didn’t want to talk about anything, to see anyone, to do anything. I just wanted to be alone.
I took a shower and changed my clothes. I wanted to rid myself of every part of the day. And as I was placing my dirty clothes into the hamper, I heard a jingle. I dug into the pocket and took out seven quarters.
And the vial.