Not everybody plans the day they’re going to die but Salem Snow did.
Death is a punch in the gut that chases the oxygen from your lungs. It’s walking down the stairs, shrouded in heavy darkness, and missing the last step. It’s standing on the edge of a roof and looking down at the busy streets below, filled with people who couldn’t care less about you.
And he knew all these things yet, to him, death wasn’t something that lurked in the shadows of his room at night. It wasn’t the monster that would reach from beneath his bed and grab his ankle. He knew what hid in the darkness and it wasn’t death.
As his grip on the railing behind him slipped ever so slightly, he forced his eyes to readjust, trying to pick out something in the distance, something to distract himself from the fact that he could fall but wouldn’t die.
It was tempting to try it again—to feel the rush of adrenaline as he plummeted to the ground over a dozen stories below and to hit the ground with a bone-snapping thud. But in the end, he would be forced to watch the empty sky mock him, laughing at his futile effort.
He inhaled deeply, the cold wind blowing through his curls and stinging his face. Something wet slid down his face and he held his hand out to catch a raindrop but nothing landed in his palm. Realizing, he wiped away the lone tear that had escaped and leaned back, the cold metal of the railing seeping through his thin clothing and making his skin crawl.
He looked down, blinking away any tears that had gathered in the corner of his eye, blurring his vision. The city roared with life but no distinct sound reached his ears. It was a symphony of car horns and shouts, of screeching bus breaks and squawking birds, the tread of drained people as they made their way home after a long workday. It was a continuous cycle, day in and day out, the same thing over and over again as if it were a song on repeat.
Ninety-nine years and everything had changed. Except him.
The smell of burnt oil burned Salem’s nose as he kicked the abandoned dollie away. He crouched down and ran his hand along the exhaust pipe of the car, pressing his fingers against the crack where it connected to the frame. Sighing, he straightened and walked to the shelf. Pulling a pen from the dirtied Mason jar, he quickly jotted down the issue and pressed the paper to the trunk of the car.
He grabbed his tattered jean jacket from the workbench and slipped it on, leaving the shop. His footsteps blended in with the sounds around him as he made his way downtown, ready to drop onto the couch and home and wake up the next morning, just to do the same thing again.
Shoving his hands into his pockets, he pulled the baseball hat farther down over his eyes and lowered his gaze. People brushed against him, but no one looked at him. He didn’t expect them to—after nearly a hundred years he got used to people looking through him.
He watched the thick white lines beneath him as he quickly crossed the street and stepped onto the sidewalk.
“Hello, sorry to interrupt you but if you have a moment—.” They caught him off guard as they stepped out, stopping him. “We’re doing a social experiment and only need a little bit of your time if you’d be willing to help.”
Pulling his hat farther down, he lowered his gaze and went to brush past them with a quick apology but he found himself nodding.
“I have a moment.” The words left his mouth without him realizing and he found himself following the college student to where they were set up.
White tents lined the sidewalk where people stood, handing out flyers and asking people to participate. College students buzzed around, name tags hanging from a lanyard around their neck. Unease settled on Salem’s shoulders as he shifted from foot to foot, offset by the commotion around him.
A few moments later he was led to a booth where he sat down on one side of the divider.
“Hello.” A girl spoke, her voice filled with forced happiness. He heard her shift in the chair before she continued. “So I don’t know if you’ve been told what this experiment is for but we’re trying to prove that talking things out with a stranger is easier than talking to someone you know.”
He nodded silently before realizing she couldn’t hear him. “Alright.”
“So,” she hesitated. “We just talk. Tell me about your day. How’s it been?”
“Same as always,” he answered slowly, his thumb tracing the edge of brim on his hat. “Worked all day.”
“Where do you work, if you don’t mind me asking?”
His heart was racing and he struggled to keep his breathing even, wondering if she could hear him panicking on the other side of the opaque plastic divider.
How long had it been since he’d last had a conversation with someone? He was so used to leaving his thoughts on vibrant sticky notes and sticking them to walls and cars. That was how he communicated with people but now, he was forced to speak, to convey his emotions through words and he found the task daunting.
“I work at a car shop downtown.” He breathed deeply, his lungs aching from lack of air.
There was silence from the other side and he wondered if she too had nodded her head like he had a handful of seconds earlier.
“I’m still in college,” she started and he relaxed slightly as she continued. “It’s my senior year though so I’m hoping to graduate this year.” She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. “I’m majoring in professional writing and journalism and plan on going into that field when I finish. Do you have any future plans?”
He opened his mouth to speak but the words fell silent on the tip of his tongue, as ice-cold and lifeless as the plants the shrouded the sidewalk around them.
“Just living day-to-day right now.” He forced the lie into the air, hoping she would believe it.
Once again, silence was the only response he received.
“I have a few questions to ask you.” Her voice had lost the bubbly tone to it and as she flipped through pages in her notebook, she sighed. “They are a bit heavier so, if they make you uncomfortable, you don’t have to answer them.”
“Have you ever experienced a great loss in your life?” She’d probably asked the question a million times already that day but he was taken aback by the sudden tenderness in her tone.
It took him a moment to find his voice. “Yes, I have.”
“Do you want to tell me what they were? You don’t have to if you’re not comfortable.”
“My father and younger sister both died in a short span of time a few years back.” He clasped his hands tighter in his lap, feeling his knuckles pop.
She tapped her pen on the clipboard. “How did that affect you?”
“What do you mean?” He’d answered too quickly, too sharply. His chest tightened as he waited for her response, knowing she was seeing straight through his show.
“Did you suffer from depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and other such things?” Her voice showed no sign of annoyance or anger but he was positive it was there—it always was.
He opened his mouth to answer her but nothing came out. The collar of his dirty work shirt strangled him as he sat there, staring at the many passing people, all unaware of his presence.
“Once again, if you’re not comfortable—.”
“Yes, I have.” The words tore out of his mouth, making his throat burn as if he was holding down a sob. “And I still do.”
The plastic curtain between them parted as she stuck her arm through, offering him a small business card with a phone number on it. His finger brushed her hand and he noticed the scars that laced around her fingers and wrist, trailing up her arm.
“This is the suicide hotline,” she said as he took it from her. “There are people here for you, I promise.”
For a moment, he almost believed her. She sounded so sincere, so honest, and yet he could tell she didn’t believe what she’d just said.
He tucked the card into his coat pocket and as she fixed the divider, he spoke. “Have you ever used this number?”
“I might have at one point,” she answered slowly. “But, because of personal reasons, I really wouldn’t remember.”
“Fair enough.” The sun was starting to set behind the skyscrapers causing bile to rise in the back of his throat. He forced himself to take a deep breath and stood. “Sorry if this isn’t over yet but I should be heading home.”
“Of course. Be safe.”
She watched his back as he walked away. With a sigh, she set her clipboard to the side and stood, pulling her phone from her back pocket. Panic spiked in her chest when she saw the notifications for 14 missed calls.
The dial tone was drowned out by the sound of the crowd around her she pushed her way through to her friend.
“Hey, Roman, I gotta head out.” The call went to voicemail and it was all she could do to keep herself calm.
“Is everything okay?” Concern washed over the girl’s face making Parker’s stomach sink even more.
“Yeah, I think so but I should hurry.” She tapped the small girl’s nose with a small smile. “I’ll be home late.”
“Be careful!” She called after her as the seething mass of people swallowed her.
It took Parker longer than she expected to reach the institution and in the three-hour drive she’d called her aunt a hundred times only to be forwarded to voicemail.
As she pulled into a spot, she glanced at the broad sign that sat in the front lawn, glimmering in the remains of the setting sun. The words ‘New Hope Hospital’ seemed taunting as she walked into the building.
Her aunt met her at the front desk.
“What happened? Is Dad okay?” She felt herself swaying from side to side as the adrenaline kicked in again, making her stomach flip. “Why didn’t you answer my calls?”
“It’s okay, everything’s fine now.” Her aunt steadied her. “My phone died I’m sorry.”
A sigh of relief left her mouth as Parker collapsed against the welcome counter. “What happened?”
Teagan shook her head slowly, massaging her temples. Her fire-engine red hair was pulled into a messy bun that was slowly coming loose, its strands framing her face. It looked like she hadn’t slept in days but the longer she thought about it, the more she realized it was probably true.
“He attacked a nurse again. They had to heavily sedate him.”
“Can I see him?” Although she didn’t want to lay eyes on the man, she knew she had to. He was her father after all and she was his guardian—it was her job to watch after him.
Her aunt nodded down the hallway and Parker stepped around her. When she reached the door, her hand rested on the handle, its cold metal quickly turning warm within her grasp.
Steeling herself, she opened the door and slid in, quickly shutting it behind her. The soft click of the lock hooking in place sent a shiver up her spine as she stepped towards the bed in the middle of the room.
An IV was plugged into his arm and an oxygen mask covered his face. Safety straps had been secured into place to keep him from moving when he came to.
She dropped into a crouch by the side of the bed, her hands grasping the railing as if they were her lifeline. She didn’t want to look at him so she turned her gaze to the floor. It wasn’t her father that was lying in front of her no matter what she told herself. Her father was long gone.
Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to stand and take his limp hand in hers. She tried to give it a reassuring squeeze but instead, she let his hand slide from her hold and fall onto the startling white sheet.
She turned and walked away, forcing herself not to look back. Her aunt was waiting for her in the hallway but didn’t speak until she did.
“He looks good.” It was a weak attempt at positivity.
“He doesn’t look like himself.”
Anger boiled inside of her, spreading through her veins like a wildfire. “He never does, Teagan.”
She drew back, shock washing over her face. There’d only been a handful of occasions when Parker had talked back and she instantly regretted it when she saw her aunt’s reaction.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized, hanging her head. Her shoulders ached and her neck burned and although she’d already maxed out the amount of painkiller she could take for the day, it hadn’t touched the pain that was radiating up her back. “It’s been a long day.”
“And probably a long week.” The hurt was gone from her face, now replaced by the familiar half-smile she knew. “It’s okay, we all have our moments.”
Silence hung in the air around them as darkness settled outside. With a sigh, she glanced at the clock on the wall and ran a hand through her hair. “I should head out now. It’ll take me over an hour to get back and I still have assignments to work on.”
Her aunt nodded. “Good idea. I’ll stay a little bit longer to see if he wakes up.”
Parker turned to walk away but stopped. “Have you heard from Jaz at all?”
She shook her head. “Not since you talked to her.”
“Oh, okay,” she trailed off. “If you talk to her, let her know I need to speak to her.”
“Just call her. Please.”
A bitter laugh left her throat before she could hold it back. “We don’t work like that. We never have. I’m required to answer her calls but she couldn’t care less about mine.”
Without another word, she left. As the front doors slid shut, she stopped, squinting at the gloomy grey of the overhead clouds as they threatened to let loose the tears they’d been holding back.
“Please, not right now. Now’s not the time,” she pleaded. “Let me get home first.”
She knew the clouds wouldn’t head her prayers. Instead, they would leave her to race the rain.