I draw a picture of myself hanging from a rope from a tree, jagged branches poking, tearing holes in the smoky underbellies of clouds. I’m on the phone with my mom, who is teary and preaching, and I say “uh-huh…uh-huh,” to assure her I’m here, I’m listening.
“And, Johnny? Don’t say anything about suicide,” she warns.
I wince and drop my pen.
“I don’t want you to make people uncomfortable.” Her customary sermon follows. She hasn’t taken a breath in sixteen days.
“It’s a funeral, ma,” I tell her, opening my eyes. I retrieve my pen and add some shadow to the swollen clouds, giving them dimension. She doesn’t seem to hear me, preaches on.
Her voice dampens in my ears; words slur toward diluted syllables, like she’s talking far away or under water. Maybe I’m the one under water. I flip over my cheerless sketch, start another on the back side. Here, I’m sinking; above me, a thin trail of frothy bubbles strings upward away from my face,
my fingers stretching, reaching toward the choppy blue ink surface waving.
After forty-some minutes, we hang up. She needs to call my sister before the baby goes down for the night.
The sun just begins to dip outside my apartment window, yet already, I am exhausted. The daily phone calls, the tears, and the never-ending imperatives leave me so depleted, I don’t have to smoke a bowl to fall asleep anymore. Just hang up with mom, and I could sleep for three weeks if the fucking alarm didn’t jolt me awake at 6:15 every morning.
I should spend a few hours at my computer, work on the eulogy. Even now, the screen seems to glisten, beckoning. I look away. The truth is, I have nothing to say, and not just in tribute to my dead brother; it’s not his fault. I’m not inspired to write anything.
Two years ago, I left my steady job for a freelance gig, once my employer at the time recognized my enthusiasm to write was less than steady. I am one who thrives on inspiration, waits for it. Maybe it’s a lazy approach.
Jakob’s death occurred between projects. I had submitted the final revision to one publication, and a second magazine had just solicited an article. I agreed to take on the latter project when inspiration was surging, the night before receiving the news. As fast as I learned Jakob had died, however, that spark of creativity, of vision or motivation plunged deep into hiding.
My muse is an eleven-year-old black boy. His voice calls from deep underwater, and I sometimes barely hear him. Most of the time, though, he’s a stubborn asshole and won’t speak to me for weeks at a time—even though I sense him there, always, a shadow just beneath the surface.
Truthfully, he gives me someone else to blame for these bitter dry periods when I’m convinced that I have nothing intelligent to say. Now is one of those times. I’m parched. About to drop dead from dehydration. And rent is due at the end of the month.
I crumple my suicidal scribbles and pitch them into the trash. I head to bed to feel rested for my day job.
I dream I’m drowning. Panicked thrashing and gasping breaths. Just at the point of stunned acceptance, the final sinking to the bottom of the swimming pool, my alarm jolts me awake at 6:15. I teach part-time at the local university to supplement my income as a writer. Neither pays well. At least the teaching gig affords a stable schedule, discipline.
I’m on autopilot, reciting my lecture on writing cover letters. My students jot down notes, as bored as I am. They don’t know about my brother. I haven’t told my chair or the dean or my editor. Outside my family, I don’t talk about Jakob. For the past two weeks, I’ve been floating,
two boys side by side, yellow inflatable pool rings buoyant and bouncing on machine-generated waves
performing the motions.
Transporting a body across county lines can take a week or more: paperwork. Without pre-need arrangements, planning for cremation, funeral, and inurnment, particularly when spearheaded by an indecisive and grieving mother, takes several weeks more. Until the funeral date is confirmed, I’ll go with this flow. I’ll meet with my morning classes and spend the afternoon into evening gaping into the white expanse of an empty computer screen, anticipating that watery voice’s song in my ear.
Seventeen days ago, I got the call in class. I stepped into the hall when the familiar area code—Jakob’s area code—illuminated my phone. I’d been his emergency contact.
The blurred words and phrases “for two days” and “wellness check” and “unresponsive” flickered across the cell service like light from a poorly strung powerline in high wind. They didn’t braid together like normal, sensible sentences should. I responded with “uh-huh” before asking the woman or the man on the line, “Jakob?”
I ended the call lightheaded and with a “thank you” as if someone had told me my work would go live next Tuesday instead of Thursday as planned. My students sat slumped in their desks on the other side of the wall, drafting resumes, unaware of or unbothered by my absence. My breath grew shallow, strained, like my lungs were filling with fluid. Clutching my phone with one hand, prying at my shirt collar with the other, I fled down stairs and spilled out of the building. When I tried to draw a deep inhale, my lungs were constricted and refused the air. I was under water, running out of oxygen. My eyes stung as I squatted beside an oversized potted plant and choked, my chest heaving and sore. I had to remind myself how to breathe, that the shock of blue around me was sky and not chlorinated water.
Even then, remembering how to inhale after exhaling, flinching at the disjointed and grotesque images that kept forcing their way into my brain, I found myself hushing the black boy sinking in too blue water who wanted to know, “But what about me?”
My students turn to their computers, and I struggle to write a coherent sentence about my brother. I scribble and scratch out adjectives on my legal pad. I tear away the page, crumple it into a ball. My pen scratches against a clean page
two boys, one black, one white, floating side by side
as I add detail, small drops of moisture, water and sweat, beading along exposed shoulders and arms. Under their shining pool inflatables, below their dangling toes, I shade the yellow paper with a heavy blue. A shadow broods deep beneath them.
At the sound of stifled, collective movement, I gape up at my students who stand from their seats. Our hour is up.
I’m obsessing over the wrong dead boy.
Once home, I am determined to draft my eulogy. A detailed outline at least.
I shut off my phone; my mom knows my teaching schedule, knows I haven’t been accomplishing much work in the afternoons. Likewise, I’m avoiding my editor, ashamed to admit I haven’t started my article. Elbows on my desk, a blank document open before me, I cradle my forehead in my palms. A moment later, I look up to see the sun has set outside my apartment window, and hours have passed.
Jakob, I type. I stare at his name, cursor winking, waiting.
Fingers poised over the keyboard, I squint into the white of the monitor. My mom expects this of me. This is my job, after all, so she is right to expect this of me. Who better to write a fitting homage for the boy—the young man—I tormented and adored for thirty-four years?
“Goddamn it, ma,” I mutter under my breath.
The lights in the apartment are off, so I sit in the dark, but I don’t move to turn them on. I will my fingers down onto the keys and start writing.
Jakob once pitched a rock through our dining room window. We kids were home alone, and it was two hours before Katie and I found him up in our old treehouse. None of us had climbed up there in a year at least. The ladder was short a few rungs, and the splintered space was filled with cobwebs and leaves. Jakob had pulled a tattered, dusty bean bag chair over himself and hid in the far corner from the lopsided entrance.
“I just wanted to land it on the roof,” he told us, “to see if I could do it.”
I pause, remembering his fearful little face, peeking out from behind the sun-faded cushion.
Katie and I had owned up to the rock. We said we were aiming at a wasp nest and missed; we weren’t even sure which one of us chucked the unlucky stone. Like Jakob, we comprehended our parents’ impending wrath over the mess and the cost, but as the older siblings, we also knew Jakob should be spared. We cleaned up the glass and taped up the pane, and we didn’t receive allowance until the new window was paid for. Fortunately, no one remembered to search for the wasps.
I decide to write about our sibling dynamic, how the three of us deplored and treasured each other concurrently—the way most siblings probably feel; how we older two felt an unspoken obligation to stand in as buffer between our parents and Jakob; how we would have and should have done anything to protect him.
Instead, I write about our trip to the water park. This was thirty years ago. One summer, our mom had treated us to a day at the park in Rockford, and in late afternoon, our stomachs full of overcooked pizza slices and ChocoTacos, we settled in at the wave pool, Katie and me racing for the giant yellow inflatable rings. In the soft monitor glow, I almost make out blue-black fingers guiding mine. His voice is a sunken whisper, his breath damp on my face.
The pool was packed, I remember, the deep end especially crowded with bumper to bumper screaming children atop their innertubes, lurching up and down and into each other over the artificial waves. Five-foot swells gathered and pitched above the indiscernible depth that grew darker as you stared down into it.
My fingers move quickly as I recount the afternoon, sweat breaking out on my face. The boy is with me,
side by side, floating, bouncing atop the magic waters until only one
and I don’t slow until I feel him pulling away, receding deeper down into murky water until his shadow and the depth are the same and I no longer pick him out against the undercurrents.
I blink at my paragraphs and pages.
Jakob wouldn’t even remember this day. As Katie and I bobbed and paled in the slackening waves, Jakob was back in the ankle-deep wading area with our mom, pretending to be a submarine and probably peeing into the chlorine until the lifeguards blew their frantic whistles and demanded we all hustle to the edges of the pool.
Jakob wouldn’t even remember.
This was my memory, not his, not ours. Katie and I had never even acknowledged the incident beyond childhood. The stranger who smiled and glided beside me before vanishing, before sinking into the wave pool and drowning
a body at the bottom!
haunted my childhood, my mind into adulthood. Without consciously thinking of him, I knew or I felt this boy had hovered, close and always, nearby. He had been the first to show me that kids could die, kids my own age; kids right beside me one moment could suddenly slip away without warning, without a sound or a splash or a note.
I blink again. Without breathing, I hit the backspace key and watch it all dissolve, unravel in reverse letter by letter.
A pulsing cursor remains, a single ripple on a smooth white surface which once writhed and thrashed, sloped and swelled, pitched and poured, the black boy bouncing atop a golden innertube, his skin radiant, shining, glowing against a beaming sun, pearls of water beading his naked arms and chest. In seconds, he has disappeared, the generated waves stilled with the swift flip of a switch. As though he’s been swallowed, no trace even of his inflatable innertube. Only a ripple, a sporadic shadow, a fading column of black, a flashing cursor. He’s gone.
He’s gone, swept away, erased, and I have nothing to show for his sudden, desperate existence.
Amy L. Eggert is a writer, a teacher, and a mom. She is the author of Scattershot: Collected Fictions (Lit Fest Press 2015), a hybrid collection that re-envisions the trauma narrative. Additional recent publications can be found in Del Sol Review, Beliveau Review, Midway Journal, Verse of Silence, Cardinal Sins, and Unlikely Stories. Eggert teaches for Bradley University in Peoria, IL.
© 2022, Amy L. Eggert