Don't believe that it's better
When you leave everything behind
Don't believe that the weather
Is perfect the day that you die...
- The Truth About Heaven, Armor for Sleep
Seven year old Seeley Booth balanced a very full cereal bowl in his lap as he carefully shifted on the couch, stretching his arm out for the remote on the adjacent cushion. His pudgy fingers reached as far as they could, chin lifted slightly as he willed the hunk of plastic buttons to inch towards him.
Closer… closer… he gasped involuntarily as a dribble of cold milk ran down his thigh, bowl having tipped too far to the right. He grabbed the bowl and held it up, watching the drops of liquid soak into his pants leg and the cushion beneath him. Behind him there was a long-suffering sigh; he craned his neck back as far as he could, and an upside-down image of his mother's face came into view. She shut her eyes and smiled, shaking her head.
"Here," she said, taking the bowl from his small hands into her large, warm ones. "Go get a wet rag, we'll clean it up." He sighed with relief, giving her a broad, cheeky grin before taking off towards the kitchen, tip-toeing past the hallway that led to their bedroom as quietly as possible. He hadn't seen his father yet this morning, which meant either that he'd left early for work, or was still sleeping. If the latter was true, then if spilling milk on the couch didn't get him killed, waking his father most definitely would.
He came back with the rag and she thanked him as she took it, blotting the wet spot on the couch with it. He watched with mild interest, mostly because she still held his cereal bowl in the unused hand. When she finished she gave him back the rag and asked him to rinse it out, which he did willingly, and she set his bowl up on the kitchen table next to where Jared was quietly eating his, seated on a stack of phone books to elevate him to table level.
"You should have been here the entire time," she chided as he took his seat at the table, and he smiled sheepishly.
"Sorry," he said through a mouthful of Cheerios. She ruffled his hair, then smoothed it with both hands, resting her palms on his head momentarily.
"It's okay," she said. "Hurry up and eat, though; the bus will be here soon." He didn't need telling twice, and within twenty minutes he was at the door, trying to shove his feet into his shoes as the big yellow bus came trundling down their street towards the corner. He got half-way down the walkway, then stopped abruptly and turned on his heels back towards the house. His mother watched him with bemused curiosity from the doorway where she was crouched, tying Jared's shoes before she sent him off.
"Forget something?" she asked as her elder son skidded to a halt in front of her.
"Yeah," he said. "This." He hugged her tightly, burying his cheek into her shoulder. When he released her she kissed his forehead and wondered why God had given her this boy of all boys. What had she done to deserve something so good?
"I love you," she told him, smoothing his hair one last time before giving him a gentle push towards the bus. "Have a good day, okay?"
"Love you, mom!" he shouted as he tore across the yard after his little brother, bright orange and yellow leaves crunching beneath his feet. His breath came out behind him in white puffs, and he looked like a little train speeding towards the bus stop, jacket flapping open despite the crisp autumn chill, backpack hanging half-way unzipped.
She continued to stand in the doorway, in her bathrobe, long after the bus had driven off with them. Even though it was cold, it was perfect to her. This was her time of year; the nip in the air, the turning leaves, the smell of pine logs burning in the fireplace. She tucked her hands under her arms for warmth, icy snatches of breeze nipping at her exposed cheeks and nose. There was a thin film of ice on the grass this morning, adding to the leafy crunch that was so decidedly fall. There would have been ice on the windshield of her husband's car too, if it had been in the driveway. It wasn't, though—the boys, if they had noticed at all, probably assumed that he had left early for work that morning.
They didn't know that when he 'left for eggs' the previous night, he never came back. They didn't know that when he did show up, whether it was sometime later that morning or possibly not until the early evening, there would be lipstick on his collar and remnants of Chanel No. 5 around his pants zipper. They didn't know that Chanel No. 5 and alcohol are a horrible smelling combination, and that when he came stumbling through the door some nights wearing both, she pretended to have eaten something bad just so she could retch without being bothered about it. So that she could feel her stomach turn inside out, watch the contents of it emptied into the toilet she dutifully scrubbed, and wonder what she ever did to earn this kind of punishment.
They didn't know, and they didn't need to know. That was a mother's job, to protect her children—from the heartbreak of infidelity, from the pain of addiction, from the crushing blow of never having been and knowing you will never be enough for anybody.
But she was failing. Every time one of her children saw her take a blow in their name, every time she patted concealer over a bruised eye, every time she ushered her boys into the step-in closet in the guest bedroom with a pair of coloring books and a box of crayons and told them to play quietly, she failed. One day they would be too big to fit into the closet. Then where could she hide them? And where could she hide from them? How could she then, when she barely could now?
When they saw the cuts and bruises, they knew where they came from. She could lie all she wanted, but it didn't make a difference—when Seeley gave her that sad nod and smooched the afflicted area gently, to make it all better, there was no doubt in her mind that he could see straight through her. It was a farce, and a bad one at that, and her sweet boy—so perceptive, so keen to know what ailed her—knew it too. Jared was still too young to really see what was happening around him, but Seeley was not, and every time she saw his brows knit together in that troubled way when her husband's voice rose, it killed her. She actually felt a part of her fall off and die inside, wither away and rot. Her insides absolutely festered.
The sky was so beautiful. So deep, so blue, pristinely untouched by any cloud. The few remaining leaves that clung to the maple in their front yard flared a brilliant red, even in the weak morning sunlight, and contrasted against the sky like flecks of blood, or fire. Like the tree was on fire—a cold fire, a warmth that she could not touch, that would not touch her. She was damned to the cold. She exhaled, a long, weighted sigh, and it came out as white vapor in front of her face, as if the pain were something tangible she could breathe in and out. Knowing she had let enough heat out of the house already, she stepped inside and pressed the door shut gently, hand lingering on the worn brass knob.
She wandered down the hallway, through their bedroom—a once sacrosanct place that was now stale with vodka and something long broken—and into the master bath. It was time to take her medication. She opened the medicine cabinet and pulled out the two small bottles labeled with her name, stashed between her husband's aftershave and a bottle of nail polish remover. She shook out the two pills, one Tofranil and one Valium, and set them carefully on the edge of the sink as she screwed the containers shut and placed them back into the cabinet. These, the doctor said, would make her whole again. One of each, twice a day, would settle the vagarious demons in her mind and subdue the panic that constantly tightened her chest.
Last year, after slitting her wrists in an unsuccessful way, major depression had been an easy diagnosis for the psychiatrists to make. Why she was so depressed, they had never stopped to wonder. It was 1977, she was a pretty thirty-something with two boys and a handsome husband, what did she have to be depressed about? What reason did she have to try to end her life? She had to be a deeply disturbed individual, to go to those lengths to end what looked like the perfect life.
So they loaded her up with the antidepressant of the age, threw in a top-notch tranquilizer, and pitied her poor doting husband, who sat at her bedside, holding her hand and promising that things would be better. He is such a nice man, they said. So worried about his crazy wife, so concerned for his two little boys. Thank God they're too young to know what's going on. He doesn't deserve that. They pitied him, and they pitied the boys, and they pitied her in a disgusted sort of way. Then they sent the piteous family home with an endless supply of pills and a smile.
That was a year ago. She stared into the mirror on the front of the medicine cabinet, and looked exactly the same—same face, same bathroom, same husband, same life. What was different? What had changed? Her husband was still an alcoholic, he still cheated on her, he still beat her and her children, she was still essentially a slave to his whims and fits of rage. She still had nowhere to go.
Nobody else was home. If her husband went straight to work from wherever he was, he might not be home until much later, long after the children came home. She screwed her eyes shut, white lights popping in the dark—the children. Every time the possibility gripped her—every time she considered how many pills she would have to swallow until she reached the point of no return—she was immediately drawn back to their faces, always floating on the surface of her thoughts. Jared's shy, lopsided smile; Seeley's wide, unabashed grin. What would they do without her? Who would protect them? She had been selfish enough to forget them once; she would not do it again.
She flicked off the bathroom light and took the pills into the kitchen. She pulled a cup out of the cupboard and filled it half-way with water. Outside the kitchen window she could see the maple tree in the front yard, burning red leaves fighting to stay attached to their branches despite the breeze that tore at them. They would not let go. They were like fire, like an inextinguishable flame, like the flames of the burning bush. Like a sign from the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Do not give up. Do not let go.
She took a sip from the cup, then dropped the pills into her mouth and swallowed, feeling them scratch her throat the whole way down.
Hosanna. Hoshia na. Deliver us.