“Does Mom really expect me to wear a tie to the funeral of a kid who hung himself?”
I slapped Steve on the back of the head. “Just put the thing on. It shows respect.”
He glared at me and adjusted his glasses, but I paid him no mind. I must admit I was looking pretty good in my new suit. I buttoned up the jacket then adjusted the sleeves.
Steve walked over to his bed and tossed the dark tie on top of it. “People should have been paying respect before he off’d himself.”
“Just shut up and get dressed. Look at you. Shirt tail hanging out. Button missing from your cuff. Hurry it up, Steve. We’re late.”
I combed my hair again. There was one clump in the back that refused to stay down. It ruined the whole effect.
Steve plopped himself down on the bed. “I’m not going, Tom.”
“Of course, you’re going.”
He kicked off his shoes and laid back, arms folded across his chest.
“Brian was your best friend. It’ll look weird if you’re not there.” He didn’t budge. “I’ll bet Jacob’s going.”
“I don’t want to go to a stupid funeral where everybody says nice things about somebody they made fun of for his entire life. Bunch of hypocrites. All of you.”
I felt my temperature rising. “Hey! People had plenty of nice things to say about Brian. He was smart. He played on the football team. He told me he wanted to go to Auburn in a couple years like his dad. Who knows why anybody is crazy enough to kill themselves. Maybe there was too much pressure. Now get dressed. Mom’s going to have a fit.”
Steve stayed on the bed. “Brian hated football.”
In the end, Steve didn’t go. Being the youngest, he always got his way. Mom thought it might be too emotional for him and let him stay home. The funeral really wasn’t too bad, though. I knew just about everyone there.
When Mom and I first walked into the funeral home a tall man in a dark suit handed me a business card with information on where to call for help if I was considering suicide: The Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program. Did he really think I was somebody who would do something like that? I stuck it in my pocket and scanned the room for my friends. The place was packed. Matt and Carlos stood off in a corner laughing about something then saw me and waved. Mom said I had to pay my respects before I could join them so I stood in line and waited.
Brian’s parents stood next to the casket. I thought Mrs. O’Keefe had pretty much stopped crying by the time we reached her, but when she hugged my mom, the waterworks started again. They exchanged some words, and then she reached for me. Her large frame wrapped me in a strong embrace. Backing off, she placed her hands on my face. I watched her shaky smile crumble as she bit her lip trying to hold back more tears. It was so awkward.
“He was a great guy,” I mumbled. “I’m real sorry.”
She nodded and withdrew her hands. “So are we.”
Mr. O’Keefe just gave me a nod and looked away. I was glad to have that part over with. Next came the “viewing of the body.” What a creepy way of putting it.
I followed mom over to the casket. I couldn’t believe they had him dressed in his football uniform. Like he was taking a nap before the big game. My first thought was he looked like one of those famous people in a wax museum. It felt like they’d hidden Brian’s body and put this thing in its place. This thing in a red and white football uniform.
I left mom with some women from church and made my way to the back. We had all known Brian even though he was two years younger than us, but I probably knew him best cause of Steve. They were both rock hounds. Every Sunday morning Brian and Steve would go hunting for rocks down near the creek. A few months ago they’d gone to the annual mineral, gem and rock show at the Howard Johnsons in Bedford. Steve boasts that he has a rock from every state in the Union, cleaned and catalogued. Brian had focused on rocks from around the world and had a pretty good collection of fossils and arrowheads, too.
Brian had seemed normal enough to me. No stranger than most sophomores.
“Hey, dude, where’s your brother?” Matt asked as I joined them.
“Wouldn’t come. Can you believe it?”
“He’s probably pretty broken up about it. I don’t blame him,” Matt said, tossing his dark hair out of his eyes.
Carlos whipped out a business card. “Did you get one of these?”
I recognized it as the same card the guy at the door had handed me. I tapped my suit pocket and smirked. “Yep! Gonna keep it right here in case I ever get the urge to slit my wrists.” We laughed.
Matt nudged me, nodding his head at the entranceway. We all watched Jacob stumble in the door with his parents and three brothers. The boys looked like Russian stacking dolls, all the same, each one slightly smaller than the next. Jacob, the oldest, kept his head lowered and looked mighty awkward in his dark suit and long blond hair as they lined up to see the body. He wore dark sunglasses.
“What did your brother say, dude? Didn’t he have any clue Brian was planning this?” Carlos asked.
“I have no idea. Steve’s not saying much. He’s been down the basement most of the time on the computer.”
Carlos, who wrote for the school paper, jotted something down on a notepad. “I heard Brian hung himself from the Swinging Tree down at the creek. How’d they know to go to the park?”
“I heard some kids found him,” Matt said.
I bristled, having heard the same thing. “I think that is one the cruelest, most selfish things a person can do. His folks must be crushed.”
“His dad’s worse than his mom. Won’t look anybody in the eye. He had high hopes for that boy,” Carlos said.
I flashed on Steve’s comment about Brian hating football but kept it to myself.
Matt shook his head. “What moves somebody to do something like that?”
We didn’t have an answer so we just stood there uncomfortable like.
“I’ve been thinking about this,” Matt said. “Tom, you’re on student council. Think you can get them to do an assembly or something about suicide?” He took out the card again. “This Yellow Ribbon Program is all over the internet. Maybe we can get some kind of group started here. You never know who else might be thinking about this. And I read that teen suicides go up when somebody they know commits suicide. It’s too late for Brian but maybe we could do something to try to help somebody else.”
I told him I’d give it some thought.
Starting a Yellow Ribbon Program would look great on my college applications. At our next student council meeting, I laid out my five point plan which included a school assembly (which the principal already had in the works), a parents’ night, and some fundraising to buy videos on teen suicide prevention. I also suggested that the health teachers include suicide prevention in their curriculum and the coup de grace would be getting the mayor to declare the second week of November Yellow Ribbon Week.
Within a month we had an informal club which met once a week. The first meeting drew about thirty people. Unfortunately, every week fewer and fewer kids came till eventually the core group seemed to center around six students. I wasn’t deterred. The more I read about teen suicide, the more concerned I became. I kept an eye out for lonely kids who might be suicidal and passed out lots of Yellow Ribbon cards. I paid particular attention to Jacob.
The first time I approached him was right before the Christmas holidays. He just laughed and said, “Whatever, dude!”
In January, he shoved me hard then stormed off, flipping me the bird for good measure.
By February, Jacob, who had a reputation as a pot head, had begun missing more classes than he went to. I decided to try one more time. After all, he, Brian and Steve had all been close friends at one point.
“I am not suicidal, dude,” he sneered at me. “What’s your problem?”
He stood across from me in his black leather jacket, arms folded across his chest. I hate talking to someone wearing shades.
“Just want you to know there are people who care, Jacob.”
He laughed. “You care about me? Looks like you just want to be Mr. Hero, saving misfits and screw ups.”
“I don’t think you’re a misfit. Is that how you see yourself?”
He turned angry. “You know these cards are an insult, dude. Like you’re passing judgment on us and think since we’re not like you we must need help.”
“You do need help. You’re abusing drugs, skipping class. Counseling might help you.”
“You know what, Tom? You need to shut your fucking mouth and open your ears. Then you might learn something. You think only losers kill themselves. Let me tell you something, dude. It takes a lot of guts to commit suicide. More guts than I’ve got. And Brian wasn’t a loser. He was a smart kid. He knew everything there was to know about rocks, minerals, fossils, you name it. He just cared too much about what others thought. Anytime someone teased him, he took it to heart. I can guarantee you would never have handed him one of your stupid ass cards because you considered him ‘normal’.”
The truth of his words landed like a slap across my face. I blinked but stood my ground. “That’s not necessarily true, Jacob.”
“Leave me alone, okay?” He turned to leave, twirling the card over his shoulder at me. “If I hear of anybody thinking about doing it, I’ll let you know.”
A few weeks later as I cleared the dinner table, Steve started to slink out of the kitchen and head for the basement again.
“Just a minute, young man,” Mom said. “I’d like to have a word with you.”
She herded him into the living room.
I scraped and rinsed the plates as quietly as possible but her tone was so low I couldn’t hear a word. As I poured detergent into the dishwasher I saw Steve close the basement door behind him. I dried my hands, wandered into the next room and found Mom sitting with her head resting on the back of the sofa, eyes closed.
She peered up at me but said nothing so I sat next to her and waited.
“He’s missed school twice this week.”
That caught me off guard. “Doesn’t sound like him.”
“He and Jacob both. He says they went down to the park to do some rock collecting.”
“I thought Steve and Jacob weren’t really friends any more. He hasn’t been over here for years.”
“Well, since Brian died Steve hasn’t talked to anybody so I’m kind of glad he has someone to share things with. But he can’t be cutting school.”
“Plus,” I added, “Jacob might not be the best guy for Steve to be hanging around.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Tom. Jacob was always a nice boy. Remember when the three of them would come rushing in here with some new stone they’d found. They played real nice together.”
“Mom, they’re not ten any more. They don’t ‘play’ together. They ‘do things’ together. I just don’t want Steve getting involved in whatever Jacob is now doing.”
Mom sighed. “Everyone has their own way of mourning, Tom.”
That conversation got me thinking. Drug or alcohol abuse is a sign of potential suicide. Jacob’s appearance had changed so much Mom almost didn’t recognize him at the funeral. Now he looked like something out of the 70s—long, stringy hair, jeans all ragged and frayed. I couldn’t imagine him rock collecting any more.
But Jacob had started changing at least a year before Brian committed suicide. I headed downstairs to see what Steve had to say. He looked up from his computer but then ignored me. I checked out his rock collection which ran the length of the entire wall, three shelves high.
Petrified palm wood from Texas. Marble from Georgia. Rose quartz from South Dakota. Then I noticed some new additions. Green malachite from the Congo. A beautiful pink and black rhodonite from Russia. Pink and red tugtupite from Greenland. I had never seen half of this collection.
“You have some nice pieces here, bro.”
Steve kept typing something into the computer.
“Are some of these new?” I held up a nicely crystallized blue indicolite tourmaline marked from Afghanistan.
He didn’t respond so I walked over behind his chair, and he quickly minimized whatever he’d been doing on the internet.
“Where’d you get them?”
He stood up and tried to take the piece from my hand. I held on tight to it, but he stared at me until I released it. Walking over to return the rock to its spot he muttered, “Brian gave me his collection.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “When did he do that?”
“That’s a sign of potential suicide—giving away your possessions.”
He remained silent.
“What did he say when he gave it to you? Didn’t you think it was weird? Didn’t a red flag go off in that little brain of yours?”
Steve shrugged. “It didn’t seem strange to me.”
“It didn’t seem strange? Are you nuts? He’d been collecting rocks since he was five!”
“I already knew he was going to do it.”
I stared down on him. His hair needed a good cut and looked like he hadn’t washed it in weeks. His clothes hung on him. Mom’s words echoed in my brain: We all mourn in different ways. I lowered my voice.
“He told you he was going to kill himself?”
Steve headed towards the stairs. “We discussed it.”
I grabbed his arm and made him face me. “You discussed it! Why didn’t you tell someone? How could you be so irresponsible as to not tell anyone?”
He glared at me. “It was his life. His decision.”
I felt my hand ball into a fist, and, I swear to God, I wanted to hit him right in the face. It took all my will power to control myself. I ended up just wagging a finger and sputtering. “You’re sick! You know that? You’re as sick as he is! No one has the right to take his own life. It’s against the laws of nature!”
He smirked, then laughed, and then I snapped. My fist landed hard on his jaw and his glasses went flying. He fell back into the shelves, breaking them. Polished rocks showered down on him. Two seconds later I focused and saw him sprawled on the floor, blood dripping from a cut near his eye. I immediately regretted my rashness and held a hand out to help him. He swatted it away.
I grabbed his arm and pulled him up, muttering apologies. Taking him by the shoulders, I shook him. “You could have saved him, Steve.”
“He didn’t want to be saved!” He shoved my hands away. “He’d been told what to do and how to do it his whole life. His father pushed him hard to do better at football. His mother grounded him if he brought home a B. Kids made fun of him. I was the only person who ever listened to him. Who ever respected him enough to let him be himself.”
I stared at him. “Congratulations, Saint Stephen! Now he’s dead.”
He turned his back on me. “It’s what he wanted.”
I headed for the stairs but as an afterthought stopped and added, “You know what, Steve? Maybe you’re right. Maybe some people just aren’t worth saving.”
About a week after that conversation, I was walking towards my car in the school parking lot with Matt and Carlos when I saw Jacob in the distance leaning over my windshield. I called to him, but he scurried away, long hair flapping behind him.
I pulled the note he’d left under my wiper.
‘D Day. 4:30. Swinging Tree.’
The three of us stared at it.
“D Day? Like Death Day? You think somebody’s going to kill themselves at the tree again?” Carlos asked.
Matt frowned. “We gotta tell someone about this.”
I wasn’t so sure. “It could be a trick. It would be just like Jacob to set this whole thing up to make me look like a fool.”
“What if it’s not?” Matt said.
“Let’s meet there at 4:30 and see what’s up. We can always get help if we need it.”
That’s the plan we went with.
Not far off the trail, the Swinging Tree juts out over the creek that runs through the park. In the summer, kids tie a rope to one of the branches that hangs over the creek and swing from it before dropping into the water. A ring of large stones surrounds the area making it a perfect place to picnic.
That cold afternoon the park seemed oddly quiet. An occasional startled squirrel would scamper across the path and up a tree or into the woods. Snow had fallen a few days before, and I swore as my new sneakers squished in the mud. If Jacob had sent us on a wild goose chase, I’d get him back.
I arrived a little early and kept an ear out for Matt and Carlos. As I neared the worn path that leads to the Swinging Tree, I heard rustling noises so I crept quietly towards the clearing, pushing aside the branches and bushes reaching out on either side.
At the edge of the brush, I saw a boy in a parka, his back to me, under the tree placing a wooden crate on top of another. The shadows made it hard to see details, but when I realized a heavy rope with a noose already hung from a tree branch, my stomach clenched.
“Hey!” I yelled, rushing towards the kid.
Now standing on the top crate, noose in his hand, the boy spun around. I stopped dead in my tracks. Steve!
We stared at each other. My hands turned to ice.
In a flash, my brother loped the coil around his neck and pulled it tight. He kicked off the crate as I ran to him. In my rush, I tripped over a rock and sprawled on the ground. I glanced up. Twenty feet away Steve hung from the noose like a rag doll kicking once, then twice. I don’t remember how I reached him, but I found my arms wrapped around his legs, pushing his body up, up, trying to free him. I struggled to get on top of one of the crates while shoving his heavy body up in the air. I couldn’t see if he was dead or alive. How long does it take to strangle to death?
“Carlos! Matt!” I screamed, as my heart pounded.
Somehow I got on top of the crate, and Steve’s face was just above mine. His eyes fluttered open then closed. I couldn’t hold him up and reach the noose at the same time. I readjusted my hold and felt him slip. I wrapped my arms around his waist and shoved him up in the air again.
“Help me, Steve!” I stared up at my kid brother and felt tears falling down my face. “Don’t do this.”
I pushed him up again, angry at my inability to save him. Then suddenly I felt frantic motion about me and saw Carlos by my side on the second crate. Matt stood below me hoisting Steve higher, taking some of the load off me. Carlos worked to loosen the noose. Where did Steve learn to tie a knot like that?
We finally freed him and lowered his limp body to the ground. I held my ear to his chest but heard nothing through the heavy clothes and jacket. Carlos had more sense, searching for a pulse on his neck.
If you had asked me a week earlier how I would have reacted to a moment like that, I’d have said I’d be furious, unforgiving, but it didn’t play out like that at all.
As Matt and Carlos ran for help, I rocked my baby brother in my arms and cried. God knows there was no one on the planet more worth saving than Steve.
Beverly Black asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work