Content warning: Suicide, self-harm, depression, strong language
Thorns and Roses
“Joan? Are you okay? Joan? Mrs. Chrysalis, Joan is really out of it.”
A dull thud from the back of the classroom instigates clusters of sharp gasps and gossipy whispers. Mrs. Chrysalis whips her head towards the sound and asks, “Crescent, could you lay him on his back? I’m going to call the nurse.” Quickly rising from her desk, she scans the classroom, phone in hand. “Everyone, get back to reading Chapter Five.”
“You’re lucky your mother is at work, Joan.”
“I know.” Water seeps through the ice pack, sliding down Joan’s arm. His fingertips tingle as numbness sets in. In hopes of clarifying his fuzzy vision, he squeezes the bag more tightly against his head. Unfortunately, that invites more water to trickle down and onto his sweatpants. Frowning, he looks down at a now entirely noticeable and infinitely unflattering puddle. Crap.
His grandmother shuts the car door and walks toward the driver’s side. For a moment, she looks outward, hands on her hips, as if searching for something. There is a sober concern on her face, formed with squinting eyes and sagging skin.
I should’ve eaten a fucking granola bar or something. None of this would be happening.
Joan’s grandmother displays traits characteristic of most grandmothers, with a few deviations. Her hair is a long, natural gray, adding a genuineness to her complexion. Years of labor are remarkably invisible to the eye, as her hands are delicate and her posture remains intimidatingly straight. Despite the weathering of her face, her features exude powerful, ageless strength. Like coffee beans, her eyes are a rich brown, and her jawline is smooth but strong. Most notable, though, are her arms. Intricate tattooing runs from her palms to her shoulders. Each arm dons striking, all-black patterns, detailed line work, and undoubtedly, layers of history.
Joan sinks in his seat, bargaining with God to let him fall through the floor and melt into the blacktop of the parking lot.
With an emphatic exhale, she hops in and starts the engine. The car roars to life, causing it to jostle in place. “Are you feeling a bit better now, Joan?”
He stares aimlessly out the window and replies, “Mhhmm.”
“I was talking with your mother, and she said you’re not eating enough. Are you sure you don’t have… oh what’s it called-?”
“Anorexia?” Joan turns to face her, choking down a laugh. Or is it a scoff at the suggestion?
“Right. Well, do you? Because when I read that article your mother sent me I-.”
Towards the window, he says, “I don’t, Grandma. Stop worrying.”
“Okay then.” She purses her lips with that concerned look again before pulling out of the parking spot.
The school remains unchanged and miraculously still. Rows upon rows of cars sit within neat lines. The hedges lining the building are unbothered. Trees stand guard, only moving slightly in the breeze. Each brick on every wall is aligned and content in its placement. All is fine and perfectly ordinary. No crowds, no sirens, no eager students peering out classroom windows.
Thank God. That would be embarrassing as shit.
Despite the school’s orderliness, the sky is a twisted gray, and in it hang heavy clouds. The clouds look as if they are clutching each other, pleading to stay in place. The pools of water that form their very existence also weigh them down. It is in their nature to collapse into pieces and plummet to the Earth. All one can do is wait for the inevitable.
“Darn. I should’ve grabbed an umbrella. It looks like it’ll be pouring soon.”
Joan mumbles something beneath his breath.
Chaos will erupt shortly. All it takes is one drop that cascades into two and then three, four, and five. Soon after, there will be no stopping it. An onslaught of showers will pummel the dirt and drown grass blades. Roads will become rivers and intersections ponds. Rushing from the sky, they will fall.
As Joan’s grandmother maneuvers the car into the left lane, she reignites the conversation. “Honey, you know you can tell me absolutely anything. I don’t know what’s going on with you, and your mother is worried sick. We want to help.”
Finding himself buried in his seat, Joan pushes into his palms, lifting himself to her height. “You can’t.” He pauses before muttering, “I’m sorry.” Is she really that worried? Mom seems more pissed off than anything. Oh, how I love our nightly screaming matches.
She stops at a red light, sighing. “Can you at least tell me what’s going on? This is the second time you’ve fainted at school, you hardly leave your room, your friends haven’t been by the house in months, your grades are dropping-.”
“And you’ve been fighting with your mother, Joan,” she adds tersely.
Silence lingers, weighing on Joan’s chest. Why is this such an issue? Everyone’s in interrogation mode all of a sudden. I mean, why shouldn’t I be pissed off? They both need to just leave me the fuck alone.
“What’s going on, Joan?”
Joan chains his gaze to a telephone pole on the side of the road. He stares as if it would rescue him from impending doom. Maybe I could climb one of those, swing on the wires, and see how far I could get before my nerves fry.
Unmoving, he observes the enchanting features of the pole.
The graffiti really highlights the missing persons’ posters. Captivating.
“I know you’re vaping.”
Whirling around, he faces her, wild with fear. After a few seconds, he shrinks inward and looks away, groaning. “Shit,” he says under his breath. He brushes his hands through his hair and rubs his forehead. “Oh my God, please don’t tell Mom. I’m begging you. She’ll kill me. Does she already know? Shit. God, there’s no air in here. Please tell me she doesn’t know.”
“She doesn’t know.” After a moment, his grandmother says, “And if you tell me what’s going on and promise to throw that thing out, I won’t say anything to your mother.”
“I’ll throw it out as soon as we get home, I promise,” Joan says with trembling hands. The familiar click of the turn signal settles in his ears, accompanied by the pounding of his heart.
They park in an abandoned lot. The yellow lines are patchy, having long since faded into the pavement. The ground is best likened to swiss cheese, sporting massive holes and thick chunks of uprooted gravel. Vines and overgrown foliage line the edges of the property. The abandoned building itself is uneventful, aside from some artist renditions of a particular body part. Along its walls is the occasional shard of broken glass or slab of peeling wood. They sit there, mute.
Joan shuffles anxiously in his seat. By the second, the pit in his stomach enlarges, causing acid to creep its way up. He clears his throat. Shit. Where are we? Maybe I should book it and find a dumpster to dive in and die in?
“Joan, you’re a good kid. You know that, right?” His grandmother turns to face him, but he avoids her delicate eyes. “So, what’s going on with you?” She lifts her hand and gently places it on his shoulder. “I mean, how many times am I going to have to ask for you to just tell me?” she asks with an exasperated laugh.
Joan shifts to look at her. To keep the thoughts from spilling out of his mouth, he holds the air in his throat. Fuck. He looks to the window, hoping to find a haven from this invasive inquisition. Though, considering he was comatose on a gum-adorned tile floor thirty minutes ago, it is proving difficult not to give in. Finally, the fuzzy pounding in his head compels a cough.
“I don’t know!” Joan pants. “God.” He lets out a sigh and rests his head on the window. “I don’t know. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. And the fucked up part is, I don’t even know why. I’ve been stuck in this limbo of not feeling anything for years and it scares me that I don’t even care anymore. Maybe I never did. I should be happy right? Or at least I should want to be happy but I… I don’t want that.” He shifts in his seat before continuing, more softly this time, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m tired of pretending like we all live in this magical fucking kalediscope when everything is so… grey.”
He swallows dryly. “I don’t want to be here. Or anywhere. Not dead or alive or in some weird in-between. Just nowhere.”
Joan shifts roughly in his seat, avoiding his grandmother’s eyes. Barely audible, he starts, “All I-.” He exhales sharply. “All I want is to climb a tall building and jump off,” his breath hitches.
Why did I say that? Shit. Now I’m going to be forced into a fucking mental hospital, and I’ll have to make a pact with a serial murderer and a quirky side-character there for comic relief to help me break out after I grant them my chocolate pudding stash.
Silently, Joan sits and lets the words hang in the air, waiting for them to harden and crush him.
After what feels like hours, Joan turns to observe his grandmother’s expression. Surprisingly, she looks calm. Then, it hits him: She gets it. She knows these words swimming in stale car smell.
Her eyes meet Joan’s before she pulls him into a hug. “I’m so sorry you’ve been dealing with this. I know how difficult it can be.”
Over her shoulder, Joan’s face is stricken with confusion.
Sighing heavily, she asks, “Have you ever wondered why I have these tattoos?”
Joan pauses, then his face curls with discomfort. “Oh Jesus, Grandma. I just assumed you had them because you wanted to be ‘not like those other grandmas’ or that you made really poor life choices in your twenties or something.”
His grandmother chuckles, “Well I’m flattered that you thought that and, for the record, I’m not like other grandmas. I’m cool and you can’t fight me on that.” She nudges him affectionately to relieve the tension. “So, you can guess where I’m going with this but I think it’s important that you know.”
“When I was in high school, things got difficult for me and my father. Your great grandmother had just passed before the summer of my senior year. As you know, my father took up drinking and he wasn’t always pleasant to be around. Things got dark, and I didn’t see a way out.” Her brown eyes dull, and her skin pales at the thought. “I tried to take my own life. But, thank God, your great grandfather found me.”
“Shit indeed. But I just want you to know that I’m happy I’m here today, telling you this. I would have never met you or your mother. There are so many moments in life that make it worth all of that pain. You just have to be patient and know that things will get better. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I guess so.”
“Alright,” she says, pursing her lips definitively.
“I do have one question though,” Joan says.
“What is it?”
“Do the tattoos mean anything or are they just to cover up the scars?”
“Well, this large one right here,” she points to the center of her right arm, “is a rose covered in thorns. Your great grandmother adored her rosebush. She tended to it everyday. I had never seen her so full of joy as she was with those roses. It reminds me that you can’t have those extraordinary moments without some bad ones. To embrace the struggle of life is to find beauty within it, even where you thought there might be none.”
She squeezes Joan’s shoulder and says, “I love you and I want you to stick it through. It’s okay to feel low. Even when there may not be a clear reason for it. But I need you to know that you bring a lot of happiness to my life in spite of those thorny parts. And, even though it might not seem like it, your mother loves you more than you could ever imagine. You’re her rosebush.”
A tiny water droplet strikes the gravel, leaving a perfect circle. Then another. Another. Another. A chain reaction begins in the sky as thousands drop to the Earth. The dark clouds hang low, heavy but lifting, as they release piece after piece of themselves.
“Thank you, Grandma. For everything.”
“You are very welcome. And… if you think therapy would help, we can do that. Or, if you just need someone to talk to, I’m retired,” she says, laughing.
Joan smiles with relief.
Suddenly, a small creature materializes, flying through the storm. A small mourning dove lands, lightly chirping as it finds sanctuary. It shakes its feathers beneath a rotting piece of plywood propped against the abandoned building. Although the current state of the world should inspire fear in the little bird, it hops around, pecking curiously at the wood fibers, unaffected by the loud crashes and vigorous rain.
“I think that bird has the right idea. Why don’t we drive around the corner and get milkshakes to wait out the storm?
“That sounds great, Grandma,” Joan says sincerely.
Reaching over, she ruffles Joan’s hair and starts the car.
Please reach out if you or someone you know is in immediate danger or experiencing suicidal thoughts. You are not alone.
988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
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National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.TALK (1.800.273.8255)
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Crisis Text Line: 741741