I've mentioned before on this blog and elsewhere that mental health issues are very important to me. I've seen a lot of people I love struggle with mental health challenges over the years, and had some deeply personal experiences with them myself in my twenties I don't talk about nearly as often as I should.
When I heard about the Bell Let's Talk initiative taking place today, January 28th, I wanted to do something to help. I went back into my old short stores, from when I was at my lowest, and I found this short fiction piece below. Full disclosure: I wrote this for a friend I lost to depression very early in my 20's, someone I never talk about, whose name I haven't said out loud in years because there's no one in my life anymore who remembers her but me. But if we're going to talk about mental health, it's good to bring these things up, and so I'm sharing this short story, a fictional account about how I found out she was gone.
Full disclosure: this short has some swearing and adult themes not present in my Indestructibles books. This isn't about superheroes; it's about two friends sharing a moment of remembrance.
I still get tears in my eyes when I hear the song "Angel from Montgomery" because of the real story behind this fictional one. Every single time I hear it.
Full disclosure, part 2: I didn't realize until I went back to look for this story that the characters names are Billy and Emily, and they are friends from childhood, and they have grown out of a relationship not unlike a grungier version of the one Billy Case and Entropy Emily share in the Indestructibles. While there is something eerie and strangely nostalgic about that coincidence, I've changed the names, because the characters are so very different.
I miss my friend. It's something I don't say often enough, and never to anyone else. We need to know it's okay to talk to each other. It's always okay to talk.
Click the Read More link below to read the short story.
I count to three
Matthew Phillion, written in 2004
I almost didn't recognize her when we passed in the pit. Emma had crystallized in those hazy summer memories into an underweight girl with dreadlocks and stained concert tees, her nails stubby from guitar-playing and her eyes forever glazed with the paste of too much weed.
It was the dreads that made her nearly unrecognizable. Her hair was a lighter shade of brown without the grime that held it in its old tendrils, brushed back long and simple from her face. Her skin was still the gentle brown of just enough time in the sun, and when I looked her in the eyes, my own glance that of a stranger looking to another stranger, they were clear and free of the weight of childhood drugs.
"Em?" I said, and suddenly she was sixteen again, launching herself into my arms, whispering my name and muttering "I didn't think you'd make it" over and over again.
We went to her apartment in Central Square, boxes from her move home still unpacked and scattered across the floor. She told me, with staggering frankness, that she thought I was dead, and that she had carried with her guilt from that afternoon in Harvard Square these ten years.
"I thought you hated me," she said, and I wondered, not for the first time, which of those sons of bitches we called friends elected our little pothead sidekick to tell me that Casey had killed herself.
But I had hated her, just a little, for not telling me sooner, for not knowing where she was buried, for not giving me the chance to say goodbye.
But we talked of other things, of what happened after Casey was gone. Emma had gone to college, become a writer, returned to Boston to write for one of the local alternative papers covering the music scene. She had cleaned up, too; no drugs, not for five years, though, she told me, it got worse before it got better.
Neither of us knew what happened to the others. She had heard that Ronnie was in prison for trafficking. I stumbled across a rumor that Brandon was married with two kids. The rest of them were little more than abstract thoughts to us now.
We were little more than abstract thoughts to each other, before today.
And then Emily went to a box filled with CDs and pulled out an old cassette tape. She smiled at me innocently and slipped it into her stereo, lying on the floor waiting for a more permanent home.
"Look what I still have," she said. Her eyes glowed.
Casey's voice flowed out of the speakers, alternately tremulous and ferocious, her faint Southern accent kissing all the right notes.
My hands began to tremble; before the end of the song, a John Prine cover, my entire body was shaking violently, as though I were bitterly cold. Emily's expression faded in slow motion, and she shut off the tape.
"Jamie... are you...?"
"I haven't heard her in..." I turned away, looking out into the street below. Casey, all crooked smile and lilting voice. Emma didn't understand, but the reason I never joined Casey was because we always said one of us wouldn't make it. It would have been an insult to everything we ever shared if I'd done the same thing she did.
Or maybe it was because living without her hurt more than not living at all, and it gave me some stupid, sadistic pleasure to miss her every day of my life.
Emma grabbed my hand with both of hers; she looked at me, horrified as my shivering body, and led me to her sofa.
"You can cry if you want," she said softly. "I'm sorry, I didn't know--"
"I don't cry," I said.
"You never? Jamie, she's been gone... she was your best friend and you never...?"
"She wouldn't have cried for me," I said. Emma dug her nails into my arm. They were longer than I remembered, and I thought, absently, that she must have given up playing.
"She would have cried for you every day," Emma said.
We sat on the couch for a long time, in silence, scrawny Emma all grown up seated beside me, legs tucked beneath her. Some time after midnight we went to her bedroom, and in the shattered and soundless dark we clutched at each other, the tender and fluid lovemaking of old friends, trying desperately to chase away a ghost.
Human beings crave sex after funerals. Sometimes it's to put one in the eye of death itself. Sometimes it is an instinct-deep need to replace the dead with the living. And sometimes it is just a matter of reaching out for a sweet and purposeful distraction.
If Casey's ghost was in the room that night, she said nothing at all.
"I can't listen to some singers anymore," Emma said as we watched dawn's first silver light creep between her shades.
"I haven't listened to John Prine in years.Not on purpose," I said. "Or people who sound like her. It's strange."
"Eva Cassidy," Em said.
"Folk," I said. I smiled, but there was no humor in it.
"None at all?"
"Not at all." Emma's hand slid up to rest over my heart, and I placed my own hand atop hers. "I lie about it. I say I hate folk. Tell people I'm too rock and roll. Truth is I don't want to accidentally hear one of her favorites."
Emma took a deep breath and rolled over slightly to look me in the eye.
"I'll destroy the tape if you want. It's probably... it's probably sort of creepy to keep it."
I shook my head.
"No. No it's not." I smiled, thinking of one good year, one stupid summer, and the sound of guitar floating over foot traffic and idling cars in Harvard Square. "I'd like a copy, if you could make me one. It's probably the only thing she really left behind."
I felt Emma's thumb running up my cheek, touching my eyelashes softly, brushing away a single tear caught there. I knew what she wanted to say. But Emma had learned subtlety among all the other changes she had been through.
"She would have cried for you too," she said. And together we fell asleep for a while, letting the world wait for us as we mourned ten years too late.
Matthew Phillion is the writer of "The Indestructibles," part-time actor, occasional filmmaker. Currently on the lam in Salem with his trusty dog, Watson.