By Joseph Mulak
While the children were upstairs, safely asleep in bed, Naomi was in tears.
The news hit her hard, but it was the way she found out that made it so much worse.
The stupid jerk couldn't be bothered to tell her himself. Instead she found out because for some reason she'd decided to buy a copy of the local paper that particular day, which she never did because small town papers rarely had anything newsworthy in them. Mostly articles about bake sales and other local events that anyone who wasn't involved had no interest in.
But as she was picking up a few needed items at the convenience store down the street—milk, bread, and the like—she grabbed the paper and tossed in on the counter for no other reason than she may need something to keep her mind occupied later on. Once the kids were in bed and she finally had time to herself, that's when she also had time to think about all things that bothered her.
To her dismay, the local rag only served to increase these problems. She was absentmindedly flipping through the pages when she came across his picture. That smiling face she knew was an old photo as she hadn't seen him looking that happy in a very long time. In fact, she couldn't remember him ever looking so happy.
Obviously, his mother had chosen the photograph. He looked young enough in it that it was probably a high school picture or one taken not long afterward.
She stared at the picture for a few moments. It was weird to see him with a huge grin on his face. During the few years she'd known him, he never smiled much. There was the odd chuckle every now and then when he would make a joke, as he liked to tease her good-naturedly, but for the most part, he tended to go through life looking like his puppy died on a daily basis.
Naomi was so lost in his eyes as she stared at the photo that it took her few moments to clue in as to what section of the paper she was currently reading. He first clue came when she noticed the other photos surrounding his. They were all of elderly people, each one had two dates underneath their pictures.
The obituaries, she realized.
She didn't even need to read the write-up to know how the cause of death. Now that she thought about it, the clues had been there all along, but she either didn't recognize them or she chose to ignore them. Probably the latter, she scolded herself.
MARCH 18th 1980-OCTOBER 20th, 2012
On October 20th, 2012, Jason Nelson chose to
take his own life. He is missed by his family.
He is survived by his parents, Maurice and Carol Nelson
His brother Martin Nelson,
And his children...
She couldn't bring herself to read the rest. The words “survived by his children” hit her hard. The bastard had bailed on his own kids. She couldn't imagine what they must be going through right now. How do you tell kids that young their father had committed suicide?
Those thoughts were soon buried as her mind searched for ways this could be her fault. Jason had always told her she blamed herself for things she had no control over too often, but she was certain she could have prevented this had she caught on to the signs sooner.
Like his stuff. The day she ended their relationship, she offered to bring the belongings he'd left at her place—some clothes and toiletries he kept their for the nights he stayed over, some movies he brought over them to cuddle on the couch and watch together, his Playstation. But he told her not to bother. He'd said he wouldn't need them. She received no answer when she asked why. He quickly changed the subject and she forgot all about it.
They'd even had a discussion about it once, during one of his more severe bouts of depression. She'd asked him straight out if he was thinking about killing himself.
“Every day of my life,” he'd replied, then noticing the look of concern on her face, he quickly added, “But I'd never do it. I'm too chickenshit to actually go though with it.”
She believed him, though looking back on it, she shouldn't have. She knew he could. He had in the past. She was well aware of his stays in the hospital after previous suicide attempts.
He tried to jump off a bridge but was wrestled off by a passing police officer. He tried to hang himself, but the ceiling fan couldn't hold his wait and ended up crashing down on his head. He tried to overdose, but a friend who had popped over to visit saw him laying on the floor through the window and called an ambulance.
Jason often made jokes about how he couldn't even succeed at killing himself, but Naomi got the impression he wasn't kidding. She believed he was still upset about failing.
Now she had confirmation she was right.
She threw the paper onto the coffee table, not bothering to fold it back up. As she stood up and stormed past, she ignored the sound of rustling papers as it blew to the floor. She had to do something to take her mind off Jason's suicide, but had no idea how she would.
The entire house was one big memory of him. He'd spent enough time there. Whenever he didn't have the kids—which was every other week, as he shared week-about access with his ex-wife—he practically lived there.
In the kitchen, she saw him doing the dishes, even though he hadn't eaten with them that night. She always protested, telling him he didn't have to. And he always looked back and in his gentle way, said he wanted to. She only asked him why once, and he said he just wanted to help.
The couch brought back memories of watching a movie together, and never finishing them because they would end up making love.
The bedroom made her remember all the nights she'd fall asleep in his arms, feeling safer than she'd ever felt with anyone before him.
Even the bathroom, she'd get annoyed with him for leaving the toilet seat up, or not cleaning up the hair in the sink after shaving.
At that moment, she'd give anything to be annoyed with him again.
As she was turning around to leave the bathroom, she caught her own reflection in the mirror. She stopped for a moment, examining herself.
She hated looking at herself. She never saw herself as beautiful. All her life, she'd been told she was ugly, overweight. Every man in her life who was supposed to love her insulted her and used her, treated her as though she were dispensable and easily replaced.
But Jason always told her she was beautiful. She never believed him, but she still liked to hear it. When they lay in bed together at night, he would run his warm hand up and down her body, slowly caressing every curve. His touch was always gentle. He was never rough with her. He never tried to force himself on her. He always respected her when she said no, and he would continue to caress her body as she fell asleep.
The face in the mirror began to change shape. This wasn't unusual. She always imagined herself different than she really was. She saw herself as ugly, hideous even, and her imagination always twisted her image of herself to fit her own perception.
But this time was different. The face in the mirror changed to one belonging to man. Her shoulder length, dark hair shortened and became lighter. Her glasses disappeared. Her round face became more oval.
Jason was staring back at her with a sadness in his eyes. His mouth was curled downward, as if he were about to cry. His hand reached out to her, pleading for her to reach back and save him. He mouthed the words, “Help me.”
Naomi ran out of the washroom and into the bedroom, flopping herself onto the bed, headfirst into the pillow, tears streaming down her face. She hoped the pillow would muffle the sounds of her sobbing and not wake the kids.
Now she was seeing him. She knew what that meant. All the stress from her day to day life was bad enough. Now with the weight of Jason's death on her shoulders, which she knew was entirely her fault, her mind had snapped.
She couldn't even bring herself to lift her head, she kept it firmly embedded in the pillow. There were remnants of him everywhere. Everything in the house was a memory of him.
The obituary didn't say how he killed himself and her mind starting to make up visual images of various ways he might have.
She saw him plummeting off the overpass toward the train tracks below. Saw him swaying back and forth, a rope tied to his neck and his tongue sticking out, eyes still open, but lifeless. An image of him lying on the floor, half his face missing and his brain matter splattered against the wall behind him, a shotgun lying on the floor nearby.
Why was she seeing these images? Why would her brain torture her this way?
She had no idea.
She lifted her head, turning toward her bedside table where she caught site of binder. His binder.
Well not really. Every time Jason wrote one of his short stories, he would email it to her. She printed out every one and kept them in the binder, so she could re-read them at her leisure. He never thought the stories were any good, but she loved them.
She reached over and grabbed the book, pulling herself to a sitting position at the side of the bed and flipped through the pages, reading each title as it passed. She smiled as she read them, remembering what each story was about with each title.
He'd never published any of them. He never bothered to try since he never thought he had any talent. “I just write them to get my feelings out,” he'd tell her when she tried talking him into sending them away.
But now, she was almost glad he didn't. They were a memory she had of him and she was the only one who he allowed to read them. It was something she of his that no one else did or ever would. Each story was a glimpse into his life, and by reading them she learned more about him than he would ever tell her.
She never told him this for fear he would stop sending them to her. But she learned so much about him from his stories. His hopes, his fears, his goals. So much emotion in his words. So much passion.
She kept flipped, skimming over paragraphs, her smile growing wider, but tears still flowing. She never understood the term bittersweet until that moment.
She came to a page she never noticed before. When she had passed what she knew to be the last story in the binder, somehow more pages followed. No title to this latest edition and when she stopped to read it, all it said was,
... over and over again, going on for several pages.
She rubbed her eyes and looked again, hoping the words would be gone. They were still there. She even tried closing the binder, waiting a few moments, then looking again. She got the same result.
She time she glanced down and realized they were still there made her hopes that it was just her imagination dwindle.
She threw the binder onto the bed and left the bedroom, walking down the stairs and out the front door, hoping some fresh air would clear her mind.
No one else was outside, which made her glad. She didn't want anyone to notice she'd been crying, mostly because she always saw herself as a strong person and regarded crying as a sign of weakness. But also because she couldn't handle people feigning concern to conceal their nosiness at the moment.
The fall breeze felt and helped her relax a little and helped to reduce the stinging she felt in her eyes from all the crying. She paced back and forth along the sidewalk, not wanting to venture too far away from the house with the children inside, enjoying the night air.
Her mind a little cleared and the tears finally at bay, she walked back into the house. Everything was silent.
She decided to have a little snack before bed and walked into the kitchen. She wrapped her hand around the handle of the fridge door and was about to yank it open when something caught her eye.
The magnet letters on the refrigerator door, the ones she had bought for her young daughter for her to play with as she was learning to spell. Some of the letters had been rearranged to spell out, “IM IN HELL.”
Was it one of the older boys being funny? She doubted it, but tried to make herself believe it to keep her mind from going haywire again.
What the hell was going on?
She left the kitchen, forgetting her hunger and sat down at the dining room table. She rested her elbows on the table, holding her in her hands, hoping all this would just go away, wanting it all to end.
She glanced up to see a face looking back at her from the window. At first thinking it was her reflection, then realizing the angle was wrong and it wasn't possible.
It was Jason's face, again reaching out to her and mouthing the words “Help me.”
This time she didn't run out of the room. She stood up and walked toward the window, studying the image.
She reached out to it, placing her hand against the window, against his hand, thinking for a moment she could feel his warm touch through the glass. His eyes pleaded with her, wanting her help. She remembered the letters on the fridge.
IM IN HELL
Could it be true? Could Jason have gone to hell after his suicide and was somehow reaching out to her for help?
She never really believed in hell. She'd been raised Catholic, but she had spent most of her life not wanting to be believe in God, since she couldn't bring herself to believe in a creator who would allow her to go through the suffering she had. No loving God could put one his children through any of what she had been subjected to. Believing in hell would mean believing in God too.
But if this image wasn't the product her mind slipping, then she was witnessing proof in, perhaps not an actual heaven or hell, but at least life after death.
She pulled her hand away from the window, still looking into Jason's eyes, wishing she knew what it was he wanted her to do. He wanted her to help him, but she didn't have the slightest idea as to how to go about it.
She shook her head, apologizing for not being able to pull him out of his misery and turned her back on him, walking into the living room. She plopped herself back on the couch and turned on the TV, flipping through the channels until she found something she could tolerate enough to distract her.
She finally came upon a reality show and watched until she couldn't keep her eyes open any longer and passed out.
A nightmare—one who's memory was gone as soon as her eyes snapped open—brought her awake. At first she was disoriented, not knowing where she was or the source of the noise she was hearing. Slowly, the memory of falling asleep on the couch came back and the noise changed into a discernible voice and realized it was only the televison. She lay back again, closing her eyes, hoping to fall back asleep again, but too exhausted to find the strength to go upstairs to the bedroom.
Her snapped open once again. She listened for the voice again, trying to pinpoint it's location.
Her eyes fell on the television and there was Jason's face, looking at her with that same pleading look he had in the window.
“Yes. It's really me.”
She wanted to get up and move closer to the screen but found herself frozen in place, her fear dominating her curiosity.
Naomi, help me.”
“Help you? How?”
“Naomi, help me. I'm in hell.”
“Jason, I can't help you if you don't tell me how to do it.”
“Help me. I'm in hell.”
What was going on? Could he not hear her?
Jason's image reached out to her on the TV. It looked as though his hand would come out of the screen.
“Please, Naomi. Help me.”
He was staring at her, as if he could see her. When she found she could move again, she scooted over to the other side of the couch. His eyes followed her.
Then, the image on the screen changed. She saw Jason, lying on the floor of what she recognized to be his bedroom. He was sprawled out on his back, a bag of white powder inches from the tips of his fingers.
She couldn't believe her eyes. Five years of being clean were thrown out the window. He'd mentioned that with everything going on, the temptation had come back. He had told her before how being high helped him to forget his problems, or at least not care. After he hit rock bottom and finally realized what they were doing to his life, he quit. But then came the challenge of having to face reality and deal with it on his own. He told her he couldn't do it.
She told him he could. He had the strength; he just had to find it.
Now she regretted not listening to him. Not trying to help him cope with life. She was right. His death was her fault.
The image changed back to Jason reaching out for her.
“Help me, Naomi. I'm in hell.”
She stood up and walked to the television, placing her hand over his once again, tears streaming down her face as she wished she could pull him out of the screen and hold him, comfort him.
She stared into his eyes, seeing the pain in them. Seeing a lifetime of hurt showing through, but also the regret of what he'd done. The knowledge of those he'd left behind who would always wonder why and if it was their fault.
“Jason...” She didn't bother to finish, as he didn't appear to hear her, but apparently could see her. He stared back at her, his eyes telling her everything she needed to know. “I'm sorry.”
The screen went black and Jason was gone in the blink of an eye. Naomi was left kneeling on the floor, her hand on the blank screen, confused as to what just happened.
She was startled by another noise coming from the television. This one definitely wasn't Jason. It was a loud, booming laughter. An evil laughter. It startled her enough that she jumped back from the TV, throwing her hands behind her to catch herself as she landed on her butt.
The laughter stopped and Naomi found herself sitting in complete silence, wondering what had just happened. After a long stunned silence, she managed to pull herself up off the floor and make her to bed, wondering if she would ever get to sleep.
Joseph Mulak is the author of several short stories which have appeared in such anthologies as Dark Things II, Dark Light (a charity anthology to benefit Ronald McDonald House), Death Be Not Proud, and the forthcoming Christmas in Hell. His collection of stories, Haunted Whispers, is available in print and ebook formats on amazon.com. He lives in North Bay, Ontario with his four children where he is at work on a collection of two novellas, Angel Dust, as well as several other projects.