Chapter 1: A Reason to Die
Devante knew he couldn’t tell her the truth when his mother asked, “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?”
This was it. They had finally arrived at his school. They were parked in front of the main entrance, just like so many times before, just like nothing had changed. Sleepy-looking teenagers streamed in from every direction. They were getting out of their parents’ cars or crossing the overpass and coming from the ‘L’ train station, bright kids drawn from all corners of Chicago to this magnet school conveniently located near a major expressway. Some carried backpacks weighed down with complicated textbooks, some carried lunches, some struggled with cumbersome science or art projects, others lugged musical instruments. Some wore headphones so they could listen to music, others were talking to the friends they walked with. A few wore ROTC uniforms. Some others even wore business suits.
Who are they again? Future Business Executives of America or something? He tried to remember. His school had lots of clubs like that for future leaders, future soldiers, future doctors, future lawyers…
Devante no longer believed in the future.
Across the street from the high school, the cadets at the police academy—future cops—were lining up in the parking lot, preparing for their morning run. For all of them, these hopeful students looking to the future, it was just another day at school. Just another Friday morning. It was amazing that the lives of those around him continued to go on, while for Devante time seemed to stand still.
“Look at me,” his mother urged him.
She was insistent, but she didn’t sound angry. Just worried. In the past few weeks, it had become hard for him to make eye contact with anyone, even his own reflection.
“Look at me,” she said again as she cupped his chin in her hand and turned his face toward her.
His eyelids seemed to weigh a ton. It was as if all the tears he refused to cry had collected in them. Still, he couldn’t let his mother know how much the events of the past month had affected him.
“I’m fine, Ma. Really. I am.” He grabbed his bag quickly and hoped he could get out of the door before his mother realized that everything he had just said was a lie. He flung the heavy door open and rushed out of the car so fast, the cold March air scarcely had time to come in. He slammed the door shut and was startled by the sound.
With slow, measured steps he approached his school, the place he’d been trying to avoid for the past three weeks. He turned around and saw his mother pulling away. She had driven him here herself this morning because she wanted to make sure he went back. And he had gone because he thought he would be able to pretend he was okay.
I can do this, he thought as he reached the entrance. Swarms of kids were beginning to fill the halls. He could see them through the large front windows. Hopefully they wouldn’t notice him. Maybe they would avoid him, just as they had after the funeral. So far he was in luck. He didn’t see any familiar faces…until he noticed a big poster on an easel outside the principal’s office.
It was a portrait of Monica.
It was the photo they showed on the news and in the papers, the one they had used in the programs at the funeral home. Her eyes and smile were forever frozen, looking out at him in tragic stillness. And now he was also still, standing by the front door, realizing that the numbness he’d felt the past few weeks was wearing off.
He was wrong. He couldn’t go in.
He saw a couple walk by, holding hands as if they were the last two people left on earth, or the last ones left at Whitney Park High School. They were the kind of couple that would have showed up at homecoming in matching rayon shirts from Merry-Go-Round. Their smiles mocked his misery. He and Monica had been like them once, sauntering through the halls, sharing headphones, cocooned in a private world of music. Seeing that couple was a harsh reminder that he could never return to that world. He stayed on the outside, looking in, alone, and realized he was no longer like the other students.
How could he pretend he was still one of them? How could he smile or laugh when nothing seemed funny anymore? How could he act like anything still mattered? How could he and his parents meet with the school counselors this afternoon? What good would it do now that everything had permanently changed? He didn’t have a reason to go to his classes. He didn’t have a reason to study. He didn’t have a reason to graduate. All he had was a reason to die.
He stood frozen for a moment, as though the frigid air that crept through his baggy jeans had stiffened his legs completely. Then he slowly backed away, turned around, and ran in the opposite direction.
Just go, he told himself, rushing forward on the sidewalk. Don’t look back. Don’t even say goodbye.
The wintry world around him seemed like it was already dead: gray sky, brown grass, skeletal trees. He stopped at the curb, right across the street from the overpass that bridged the expressway. If he jumped over the side of the overpass, would he die? If he fell, would anyone notice? If he died, would everything stop? Not waiting for the traffic lights to change, he ran across the street and skidded to a stop on the other side.
Now the overpass stretched out in front of him. Before, he had only seen it as a way to get to Burger King during fifth period lunch, but now it had taken on a new meaning. It was the bridge between life and death. The only thing that stopped him was the chain-link fence above the guardrails. He hurled his heavy book bag to the ground and began to climb.
I just want everything to stop. I just want all of it to be over, he thought. To die. To sleep no more. He vaguely remembered the words from a play he had read last semester in freshman English. He wondered if Hamlet had nightmares too.
As he stood on the guardrail, a part of him hesitated. Part of him wanted someone to notice him up there. Part of him wanted someone to show him that he still had a reason to live. But he had to ignore those parts of himself now.
The weight of the metal ankh pendant around his neck, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life, felt ironic. The metal links of the fence were cold in his hands. He looked down at the traffic below, wondering which would kill him: the fall or a car. Whichever it was, he hoped it would be quick. What good was hoping, though? It wouldn’t bring Monica back. There was nothing he could do to make things right. The only thing he could do was jump.
He turned to see a man and a woman from the police academy running toward him from across the street.
They’re just toy cops anyway. They can’t do anything. He turned back to face the expressway.
“Get down from there!” one of the toy cops yelled.
What’re you gonna do? Arrest me for taking my life? Was that just one of the lessons they taught toy cops, how to arrest a Black guy for no reason? Why weren’t they ever around when they could be useful?
They were on his side of the street now, but he still wouldn’t move. He held on to the chain-link fence and stared down at the sluggish river of morning rush hour traffic below. He couldn’t go back to school. He couldn’t go back home. He had nowhere to go but down.
“We want to help you,” one of them said.
“Leave me alone!”
They were breaking his concentration. How could he jump with them watching?
“Come on, kid. You’re too young to throw your life away.”
What does he know about my life?
“Just leave me here and let me die!”
But the toy cops rescued him in spite of himself.
He hadn’t asked to be saved. He didn’t want this. Once again he found himself somewhere between life and death. There were no words for what he felt.
When the real cops got involved, they asked him for his name. He showed them his school ID card. He had no reason to speak. He refused to say his parents’ names. Instead, he wrote them down on a sheet of paper, along with their pager numbers. It wasn’t long before he was rushed from the squad room where he’d sat with a policewoman who wouldn’t let him out of her sight to the emergency room of the closest hospital.
There were a lot of hospitals in this part of town, just across the expressway from his school. The doctor who had come in to talk to his health class was from this hospital, and had told them they were welcome to stop by any time for free condoms. But the place where he was taken was not nearly as welcoming as the doctor had promised. There were bars on the windows and every door locked behind him. And by the time his parents finally got there, he had locked his voice away as well.
Tiffany Gholar is a lifelong resident of Chicago, Illinois. She is the author of three art books: “Post-Consumerism,” “Imperfect Things,” and “The Doll Project.” “A Bitter Pill to Swallow” is her first novel, which started out as a short story she wrote during the summer of 1993 when she was about to begin her freshman year of high school. She studied art, creative writing and film at the University of Chicago, where adapting her story into a screenplay was her thesis project. In addition to taking classes in an MFA program in fiction writing at Columbia College, she also studied interior design at Harrington College of Design, and has a Masters Degree in painting from Governors State University. She is an artist, writer, interior designer, and Jeopardy! champion.