Accidents never happen when the room is empty
This was going to be the last Christmas he'd spend alone. That was what Pete kept telling himself in the days leading up to his suicide.
He'd strung Christmas lights around the ceiling inside his trailer thinking that, in a lot of ways, this had become his coffin a long time ago. Like a coffin, it was cold, about the same shape, and he was alone in it all the time. His mom had stolen twenty bucks from his wallet the night she'd taken off after his high school graduation and by default, left the trailer to him. It took him another year to admit to Henrietta that he'd been living alone all that time. She'd cornered him one night after he'd started accepting her mom's invitations to join her family for dinner. For a while he used the fact that her parents genuinely wished she was dating him instead of Damien to his advantage. That was before Henrietta's failed attempt as a photography major, before she left home for good.
Sometimes he had still felt the twinge of embarrassment about living in a trailer, and for a while he'd tried to spruce the place up. He'd bought a shower curtain with the map of the world at Walmart, wallpapered his room in photocopied pictures out of his music magazines of Lou Reed, Morrissey, and Peter Murphy, and constantly burned the sage incense Henrietta sent him in the mail. There was even a period of time where he started collecting furniture from the thrift store that he'd paint on the small patch of gravel outside. Once Firkle had requested a bookcase for his dorm room, and Pete painted it black before using different sponge prints to mimic the look of a spiral constellation on the side. Firkle kept making plans to drive back home to pick it up, that was two years ago now, but Pete had just recently started putting his own books on it.
He hadn't wanted to think about other people touching his books after he was gone. He'd mailed Henrietta his collection of zines, knowing they wouldn't accept things like that at the Salvation Army. He thought that maybe she'd get some ideas from them. She was a tattoo artist, and there were plenty of images to inspire new designs. Thinking about it now though, he realized she'd probably just think he had been too cheap to get her a real present.
He'd had the prescription for Ambien and Xanax for about a year now, and it'd been struggle to hold off taking them for a month just to have enough to take at once. But when the moment came, he'd put Closer on his beat-up record player, and taken enough of the pills to shut off his mind for good.
But even as he had laid there on his unmade bed he couldn't stop thinking. The record brought back a time when things felt, not complete exactly, just fuller.
He had used to lay across Henrietta's bed like this as a teenager, Michael resting his head against the comforter, tapping his thin fingers on the ashtray to the music, leaning back sometimes to comment softly on the lyrics. Pete could still picture the way eyeliner would be smudged around Michael's brown eyes by the afternoon.
And that's when he'd turned his head into his pillow and vomited what felt like everything inside his body at once. On the way to the bathroom he had made the mistake of glancing at himself in the mirror above his dresser, and wiped his mouth on his shirt sleeve. He was red and puffy and that's why he started crying so hard he was choking before he made his way to the bathroom. He had ended up sitting on his bathroom room until morning feeling like he had to puke, lightheaded and lost, staring up at the empty towel rack across from him.
Two nights later, after a double-shift at work, he was emptying the coffee canisters after close. He had worked for Mr. Tweak since graduation, after Tweak's son had gone off to college. Mr. Tweak had wanted a way to retire from actually running the café, so Pete had stepped up and took on the managerial role. Mr. Tweak spent his time traveling to the most generic tourist locations in the continental US, and every week Pete cut him a paycheck.
It wasn't a terrible job. It was the only job he'd ever had. He had looked at the fake tree in the corner of the café that he'd only put up with enthusiasm because he had thought that he wouldn't have to take it down. Behind him were the stupid names of coffee flavors he'd drawn on the chalk boards over the register, "Holly Jolly Java." People would throw an extra two bucks at a blend that was "seasonal." Soon he'd have to erase it and put up some special Valentine's Day blend.
But he hadn't wanted to think about any of that anymore. The day-to-day things that he did alone and unnoticed like pulling ornaments off a tree, like walking to the diner in the mornings, like cutting his stupid hair in the bathroom mirror. He hadn't wanted to make another plan, set another date. He had wanted everything to stop then. He didn't cry that time, as he walked behind the coffee bar and crushed up the pills and poured them into cup of water. It'd be quick this time, no time to think about anyone—no one was thinking about him.
His concoction seemed to have worked, he slumped against the counter watching the snowflakes build up on his windshield through the café window, the world became warmer and hazier. He had stretched his arms behind him to catch himself on the padded mat where the baristas stand. Even the stainless steel mini fridge behind his head wasn't cold, and when he blinked the world really did disappear in a thickness. He remembered thinking that there were grounds of coffee stuck in the tile floor, but that he didn't need to care about things like that anymore.
When the bells of the front door had jangled he wondered why the grim reaper couldn't walk through walls or appear at will. But someone had been calling his name, shrilly—and ruined everything; "Pete did you see my phone? Pete?" It was one big string of language before the teenage girl that worked for him part time stopped in front of his body and let out a strangled breath. She didn't even dial 911, she called her parents. It was all pretty fucking sad when he thought about it now.
When he had woken up with an IV in his arm the next day he couldn't understand why he felt so weak and why he was strapped to the bed. They'd had to pump his stomach, leaving him feeling like he could barely lift his head off the pillow. In the days that followed he was moved to the Behavioral Health wing of the hospital to be kept for a mandatory 72 hour hold, meaning they gave him counseling twice a day and kept him in a white room with a bed and little else. All he kept thinking was how the other patients in the wing were allowed to wear normal pajamas. But he didn't have anyone to bring him a change of clothes, all he had was his hospital gown and socks.
When he was told that he either had to be released into someone's care or he'd be sent to a drug rehabilitation clinic, he'd called Henrietta because there was no one else to call. He tried to explain it to her in a detached way, like maybe it had been a mistake. He hadn't meant to start crying on the phone to her, it was just something that happened because she had gotten so upset.
After the phone call he sat on the edge of his hospital bed. His legs were frozen cold but he didn't want to get under the covers. It wasn't like he was sick. Maybe Henrietta would stay with him for a while. It might be hard for her to get a flight home because of the New Year. She'd probably at least spend the night, she might have to.
I should of come to rescue you, I should have should have yes
What happened in the past ten years, I coulda guessed
—The Bullet & Big D, Bishop Allen
Flecks of unused salt hit against the sides of Michael's car as he pulled into the hospital parking lot. There was a brown paper bag on his passenger seat that he grabbed before slamming the car door shut. It was full of the comics that he'd bought in one of the shitty overpriced stores in the airport. It was an unnecessary and stupid thing to do, to act like the reason he was here was to deliver comic books. But he couldn't help clutching them to his side like a ticket in the door as he stubbed his finger in the security doorbell.
There was a camera pointed at him, screwed into the brick of the building like an afterthought. He wondered, while already knowing the answer was 'no,' if Pete could see him. A middle-aged women's voice demanded who he was and why he was here and he answered her before the latch of the door unlocked and he was allowed inside.
Inside the building, tan carpet was offset by a large wood-framed aquarium. On top of the aquarium were faded pamphlets each with their own bubble-lettered self-help numbers. Michael wondered where the fish in the aquarium thought they were. He'd only ever seen aquariums in Chinese food restaurants and waiting rooms. A receptionist looked away from the nurse she was talking to and he fought the urge to share the observation. Instead, he told them who he was there to see, while looking at the unlit artificial Christmas tree in the corner. There were even some fake wrapped presents underneath of it, probably empty surgical supply boxes. The nurse had him sign his name on a form and he had to ask her for the time before scribbling it under the appropriate column. His handwriting always felt like it was working towards something. He'd never lost the third-grade enthusiasm that someday it'd get better and he cringed down at it before passing the clipboard back to her.
After he got off the elevator they'd searched him, but he'd been expecting that. His cellphone was placed in a plastic bag with his name on it. It'd been the same thing his senior year of high school when Henrietta had scratched her wrist open with a broken mechanical pencil during Honors English. It was just a way to get out of gym class, but her parents kept her under observation for 24 hours.
A nurse at the reception desk on the Behavioral Health floor shot Michael a weak smile before guiding him over to a table on the edge of the room. His own legs felt too long as he sat tentatively one of the chairs. Like the table between them, it was bolted to the floor.
"I'm glad someone finally come for him," she said quietly. "We were expecting someone named Henry, but we'll release him into your care if you are able to continue to watch over him and keep the environment around his positive and encouraging."
There weren't any Christmas decorations on this floor, not even really shitty ones. The nurse continued rattling off details about what he should say and how to talk to Pete, and pushed a bunch of pamphlets into his hands before leading him over to Pete's room. He was glad that they were willing to release Pete to him, even at twenty-seven he still felt like he looked untrustworthy to adults. He'd tried to dress nice, and traded his striped t-shirt for one of the collared shirts he used to wear to the office before he started working from home.
He didn't know what to expect. Aside from scanning the occasional Facebook post, he hadn't been in touch with Pete in years. Even though his semester at college hadn't officially begun for another two and a half months Michael had left South Park just a week after he'd graduated high school. He'd filled his gas tank with graduation money and set a course for the east coast. He was a year ahead of Pete in school, so it made for the perfect excuse to leave him behind. There was gravity in the waiting, he'd explained to his friends on their final trip together to the diner; he might just get a job in that year, and he might sign a lease, or take out loans for community college. He might get completely stuck. Everyone had been satisfied with that answer.
And without his consent, almost ten years had passed.
When Henrietta had called him yesterday and asked him to go in her place, he'd taken the quickest flight out of Philadelphia. Before this moment his mind had been occupied with worrying about flight times and securing a rental car. But now everything was crashing down on him.
When the nurse stood up and motioned him over to the room, he shot up quickly, the comics making a comforting crinkling noise at his side.
Pete was sitting on the edge of the bed like you sit on the edge of a pool, trying to decide if it was too cold to jump in. His socks were a washed out black, but still looked too dark against the white sheets, pale floor tiles and walls. Michael didn't know what to expect, but the bizarre lack of medical equipment made it seem like this was just some really institutionalized hotel.
"What's going on?" Pete said as if Michael had interrupted something profound. Pete's hair was matted down and too long, the dye in his hair was offset by faded dark brown roots. He was wearing a hospital gown with tiny blue dots patterned across it, his legs sticking out from under it, pale and skinny. Michael wished he'd gotten the wrong room; that a seventeen-year old Pete was sitting cross-legged in the room across the hall with inch-high creepers and a fresh dye-job.
"Henrietta couldn't make it." Michael explained, trying to find all the authority and certainty that he'd cultivated through work and living alone these past years.
"What about Firkle?" His voice was tight and strained. Michael acted like he didn't notice. The room smelled like hot food on old plastic.
"Look, I'm here, I can get you discharged. Does it matter that's it's me?"
Michael followed Pete's gaze to the nurse waiting in the doorway, obviously ease dropping on the conversation, waiting to see if things were okay.
"No," Pete said flatly, "it doesn't matter."
Michael leaned around to look at the nurse and she smiled contented at him before walking back to the nurse's station.
"I brought you some comics." Michael sat the bag on the bed next to Pete then he took a seat on the chair by the door.
"I can't pay you for them." Pete mumbled, his head bent as he pulled a comic from the bag.
So that's what ten years had done to them. Made money important. It didn't feel like so long ago when he'd throw a ten on the table every night to cover everyone's coffees. Or show up at school with a pack of cigarettes that he'd leave in Pete's locker.
He was glad he'd brought something though. The only thing in the room that look like it belonged to Pete was a beat-up library book balanced on the tray by his bed. It was a weird old pulp sci-fi book by an author that no doubt died decades ago.
"I'm only here until 4," Pete said, like the situation was all some illusion of seriousness. "I don't have insurance, they don't want me to stay. They only have to keep me for 72 hours."
It was hard to tell if Pete really thought that.
"That's not what your nurse said."
Pete turned to him with a look of disgust. "So haven't spoken to me in ten fucking years but you can talk to my nurses? You're fucked up Michael, did I forget to tell you that?"
Michael looked down at the comics sitting on Pete's lap hoping to remind Pete of the nice thing he'd done.
"I can take you home, okay? But you'd be released into my care," Michael said.
"Okay," Pete threw a hand in the air dismissively, "whatever that means."
Michael took a breath. "I know this is…a little unexpected but, I'm the only one that could make it before they wanted to commit you to a drug rehab facility. If you want me to leave…" But Michael couldn't make himself say "I will" because he wouldn't. He wondered if Pete knew that.
Pete jumped off the bed and walked over to the window, staring out without saying anything. Michael was reminded briefly of the fish in the aquarium downstairs.
"Is that your car?"
Michael realized that his car was the only one in the visitor's parking on what was shaping up to be the most eventful New Year's Eve in his recent history.
"It's a rental." He suddenly felt bad that the rental car had to be brand new.
"They wouldn't let me have my hoodie back unless I let them cut the drawstring out of it," Pete was, walking closer to Michael now. Under the florescent lights, it was easy to see the effect of the psycho-tropic drugs he was being fed to keep him calm, the black of his pupils was pushing back the green. "Make sure they give it back to me."
Michael realized that without actually saying it, Pete was giving his consent to let him sign him out. He nodded and stood up, "I'll be back." Even after all this time, it was so easy to fall into the pattern of doing whatever Pete wanted. He stepped out of the room.
Before they officially let him sign Pete out of the hospital, a counselor who'd been working with him talked him through how to communicate with Pete for the next couple days. It was all bullshit anyway, but he found himself paying more attention to what they said then he'd planned.
The two of them walked out of the hospital together about an hour later. Pete had changed into the clothes he'd been brought in in; a black zipper-up hoodie over a t-shirt and jeans. He got into Michael's car and tossed the comics in the back.
"So is this what you're in town for?" he asked as they sat at the stop sign at the edge of the parking lot.
Michael couldn't tell if that was a joke. "Are you fucking with me?"
"No." Pete slouched down in the seat before sighing. "I don't know."
"The reason I'm in town is for you, obviously." Michael didn't mean it to sound as harsh as it came out. But Pete pressed his head against the cold glass window and shrugged his shoulders like it didn't matter to him either way.
"Are you taking me home?"
"Shouldn't I?" Michael said, but he was already on his way to the trailer park. Each of the street names became more familiar the closer he got to Pete's home, something about the familiarity put him on edge. He used to drive Pete home from school this way, the two of them would camp out in front of the TV to watch X-Files, or he'd just listen to Pete rant while he finished shading in his art homework. How had life somehow gone down hill from there?
He sometimes thought that it would be hard to imagine what his life would be like having never left South Park. But had he really left? Was he really changed? It's not like his life now wasn't different. He was a graphic designer for several publications, which afforded him enough money to be comfortable and enough free time to feel like living was worthwhile.
"My mom took off after graduation," Pete said, probably to put Michael at ease. She hadn't been the easiest woman to get along with. "I guess Henrietta might have told you that. I know it's still the same trailer I grew up in, but I don't have to pay rent."
Michael wanted to tell Pete that any explanation was unnecessary, that all it was doing was making him feel like complete shit.
The trailer park almost seemed abandoned and Michael wondered if everyone had already started celebrating New Years by leaving for the bars. Frozen snow crunched under his boots as he stepped in Pete's old footprints. Maybe these would have still been here if he'd flown back here for a funeral. God, how pathetic would that have been—the last mark Pete left on the world, but he knew he would have cherished it.
"I'm not going to kill myself, so you can just fuck off now." Pete's head was bent as he unlocked the front door.
"I just want to catch up," Michael said, "can we just hang out—talk?"
Pete sighed but all the fight had gone out of him, or never even fully formed. "I'm just going to go to sleep." Michael followed him inside. Maybe an argument would have justified years of distance. But Pete's shoulders were slumped, defeated, as he walked towards the bedroom. "I couldn't fall asleep while I was in there, you know," he mumbled, "I feel dead."
He didn't seem to register the irony of the statement before he disappeared into his bedroom. Michael could hear sheets rustling as he stood in the living room. He decided to wait a few minutes before checking on him.
Inside Christmas lights were strung around the ceiling, still shining bright from whatever moment Pete had last plugged them in. The trailer wasn't too different from what Michael remembered from high school, and he didn't know if that should make him glad or not. Not that Pete's mom had been around all that much even then. There was a stack of second hand records sitting in a milk-crate next to the sofa and mismatched end-tables bookended an olive green rocking chair.
After several minutes of waiting he gingerly made his way to Pete's bedroom. Pete was laying on his side in his bed, several pillow and the comforter from the bed were strangely balled in the corner of the room. Pete had a thin sheet pull tightly around himself, his head resting on the mattress as he breathed evenly. Michael couldn't deny in this moment, that he still loved him, had probably always loved him all those years he so busily worked to forget him.
He turned away from the bedroom, feeling anxious and immensely tired at once. He needed to make some coffee and maybe eat something. But Pete's fridge was empty except for expired sandwiches from the café and a few unused condiments. Michael was at least able to put a pot of coffee on before sitting back on the sofa. He tried to focus on the crackling and bubbling sounds from the Mr. Coffee to hold onto consciousness. But the events of the last 24 hours were catching up with him. Yesterday he'd been in the middle of a project for his newest client when his cellphone went off with Henrietta's name popping up on the screen. It was unusual to get a call from her, it'd happened less and less in recent years. But it was something he always enjoyed, it was usually a summary of the latest ridiculous thing she had to tattoo on some pretentious asshole, and would lead swiftly into album recommendations. She was living in Vancouver in an apartment over the tattoo studio she co-owned with her fiancé.
"Are you listening?" Henrietta had said on the phone, as Michael leaned a hand against the cool surface of his drawing board, his head bent down. "Like I said, I'd be there but it would take me another couple days to get this shit sorted out with my passport and in that time they'd want to admit him to a drug rehabilitation clinic. I didn't know who else to call." She'd just explained how they'd found Pete on the floor of the café where he worked.
"Maybe they should— put him in rehabilitation," Michael said, not didn't mean to come off as harsh as he sounded. But none of this had fully sunk in. Even now it felt like something that had happened to a character in a movie, not someone he had commiserated with for ten years of his life.
"Please, Michael, do you know what those places are like? I remember when Damien was admitted. It's like a prison. It'd just fuck with Pete more. I know he wouldn't have asked me to come unless he was scared."
"I'm sorry I don't know what to say—I wasn't expecting this, I'm in the middle of—"
"Yeah well I feel so fucking sorry to inconvenience you. You know Firkle doesn't have the money to suddenly buy an airline ticket."
"No, Henri, it's just. I don't know what to say, you know? I haven't talked to him in so many years. He won't want to see me."
There was a long pause.
Her breath hitched and he could tell she was crying away from the receiver. It made him feel terrible that somewhere in another time zone she had a hand over her mouth trying to stop him from hearing how upset he'd made her.
"We all just sort of left him there," she said through a sob.
"We all just lived our lives—" Michael had already walked through this conversation with his own internal guilt a long time ago.
"You loved him, you loved him and you left him because he couldn't shut up about Mike fucking Makowski." He wondered as she said it how she'd stopped herself saying this to him year after year, when it was bubbling across the line like venom now.
"That's not true." Michael said quickly, looking around his suddenly obnoxiously intricately decorated apartment. His framed Eraserhead poster loomed over him next to his extensive film collection.
"Isn't it? Can you honestly say that your whole life hadn't been built into some sort of safe house for your feelings for Pete?"
"I don't want to talk to you about this," Michael said evenly.
"Really? I think we should! Not for Pete—for you!"
"Just tell me where to go, okay? Henrietta? Okay I'll go?"
He was still mouthing "okay" when he woke himself up and he lifted his head off of Pete's sofa. He was alone in the warped colored lights of the trailer, his pea-coat wrapped around his body like a strait-jacket, and he had to untwist his arms to get it re-situated. It was disorienting for a minute and he couldn't remember when or how old he was supposed to be. What was real, Henrietta on the phone or Henrietta rolling her eyes at him from across the room during study hall. He could hear the shower running in the bathroom and sat up quick, running a hand over his face. The smell of burnt coffee hung in the air of the trailer as he raced back towards the bathroom, hitting his fist against the door.
"Jesus! What?" Pete yelled from the shower.
"Are you okay?" He was already twisting the doorknob, "can you unlock the door?"
"No, fuck off dude!"
But the door swung open and a cloud of steam formed against the freezing air of the rest of the trailer. "I'm done anyway. God, I smelled like a hospital okay?" Pete muttered as he huffed past Michael with a towel wrapped around his waist. Michael stood in the hall for a second before retreating to the living room. It struck him in that moment how easy it would be for Pete to do what he'd done again. He couldn't be so careless, he couldn't let himself sleep without being sure that Pete was safe. It's just that it'd been a rough 24 hours. From the phone call to the cab to the airport and the flight that lasted for good knows how long to the drive from the airport. He made a mental note fully search the trailer for more pills before the day was through.
"So," Pete said, reappearing in the hallway, dressed in a fresh pair of black jeans and a grey flannel shirt pulled over a band tee. His hair was still wet and plastered against his cheeks. "How's that whole adult thing working out for you?"
Michael was taken aback for a second by his friend's casual tone. "You know…there's not gym class anymore."
"Yeah," Pete said, with a forced laugh as he walked over to the coffee maker and shut it off. When he walked back towards the living room Michael moved over on the sofa but Pete sat on the floor.
"So how are you feeling now?" Michael asked.
"This conversation. It isn't going to happen." By now the drugs seemed to release their clutch on him, and his eyes had returned to their typical mossy green. They were both still so young, but now Pete's jawline was more defined, his face thin and sharper than it'd been high school.
"What do you mean?" Michael asked, wishing that the shower would have washed away the sickly grey color of Pete's skin.
"If you want to talk about 'our feelings' than let's start with you. Why the fuck did you stop talking to me after you left? You stopped answering my calls, you—"
"I was busy, in college, I had an internship and—"
"Oh okay." Pete leaned his head back against the floor, the TV remote was lying next to his ear and he pushed it aside. Outside, teenagers were revving the engine to their car in groaning intervals. In between, Michael could hear some girl was laughing the way that only drunk people can.