The Good Daughter
by Barbara Buckley Ristine
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
I moved over to Peter’s small desk and looked at the laptop again. I started opening different tabs, not sure of what I was searching for. I saw another message dated the day before Peter died.
Peter: I’m thinking about what you said last night.
Carly: What’s that?
Peter: You said you could get pills.
Carly: Sure, I can get some. My mom’s got lots and she’d never notice.
Peter: How many?
Carly: I dunno. A handful maybe. At the hospital, there was this kid who swallowed a bottle of his mom’s Xanax. Almost worked, but they pumped his stomach. It’s probably easier than slitting your wrists.
Carly: You serious about this, dude?
Peter: I dunno.
Carly: Before, you said you were kidding.
Peter: Maybe I am.
I stared at the screen, absorbing the words. There it was-the proof that I wasn’t responsible, that Peter had planned his suicide with Carly’s encouragement. I went to my own Facebook page and started to type.
It’s been 3 months since my brother died. He was a great kid and I miss him every minute. I wish I had known what he was thinking before he made that final decision to kill himself. But someone did know, someone who claimed to be his friend. She knew and she did nothing to stop him. If she’d told someone, Peter would be alive right now. Worse, she helped him do it. And if you don’t believe me, you can read for yourself.
I pasted their conversation into my post. I sat back in the chair and took a long slow breath. Then I clicked to post.
* * *
Later that evening, I showed Dad the messages that had passed between Peter and Carly. He went into his study and closed the door. I could hear him on the phone, asking for Detective Ryan, the one who had investigated Peter’s suicide. After a few minutes, Dad emerged.
“What did the police say?” I asked.
“He said they would look into whether Carly had done anything wrong, but he couldn’t make any promises.” Dad went back to their bedroom and knocked softly. “Claire? Honey, are you awake? I need to talk to you.” He slipped inside, leaving the door ajar.
I could see into the room as he sat on the bed next to where my mom was lying. He gently touched her shoulder as he explained what I had found. I watched as she sat up and listened to him. She didn’t say a word, simply holding Peter’s sweatshirt, tears running down her cheeks.
Monday, I went to school, as if nothing had happened. As I walked in the front door, Morgan rushed over and grabbed my arm, pulling me to the side of the hallway, out of the crowds of students.
“Is it true? Did she really do what you said on Facebook?” I nodded. “Wow. Did you tell the police?”
“My dad talked to the investigator. He said there’s nothing they can do except interview her.” Which they had done on Saturday, calling at her house. She’d denied everything, of course. Said they were just talking, making stuff up.
Morgan looked at me. “Well, everyone’s talking about it. It’s gone viral.” As she said this, I noticed some kids looking over at us, whispering to each other.
* * *
As the week passed, people came up to me, asking questions, wanting to know more. I repeated what I had read, what I had posted. I felt exhilarated, lighter. All the anguish of that October night lifted away, and I could see clearly that I had done what needed to be done.
By the end of the week, the news had spread throughout the high school and beyond. I noticed that some of the kids seem to be avoiding me, the kids who hung out with Carly. Not that it mattered.
At the end of that week’s classes, I went out to the parking lot, intending to drive home. Carly was leaning on my car; her shoulders slouched, her arms were wrapped around her stomach as if in pain. She looked up as I approached. Her blotchy face was damp, her pug nose red, purple mascara forming wet smudges under her eyes. Her breathing was ragged, choked.
“Why did you say those horrible things? It’s not true. I loved Peter. I’d never try to hurt him.” She stared at the pavement, struggling to control her voice.
“I saw the messages you sent. You told him ways to do it. You told him... He wouldn’t be dead if it wasn’t for you.”
Carly shook her head as she wiped her nose on the sleeve of her rust-colored sweatshirt. “You don’t understand. It was pretend. It was this game we’d made up, you know, like ‘what if’. He was interested in the stuff I’d heard from the other kids at the hospital last summer. I’d tell him about group, about the kids who were cutters, the ones who’d taken pills. He’d laughed about it. It felt good to talk about stuff like that with someone who wasn’t in group with me.” Her shoulders shook as she inhaled.
“But it wasn’t a game, was it? He told you what he was planning. You were going to get him pills. That’s not pretending. You knew and you didn’t do anything to stop him.”
She glared at me. “You can’t say that... Those were private conversations. You don’t know me. You don’t know what it was like... I didn’t do anything. He was my friend.”
“You killed him.” I could tell she was on the edge of a meltdown but I didn’t care. She was the one responsible for Peter’s death. I wasn’t going to let her talk her way out of it. I pushed her away from my car as I got in and slammed the door. Carly stood back as I drove away. Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw her standing, crying in the parking lot.
* * *
A couple of days later, I passed through the hall where the freshman lockers were located, near the row where Peter’s locker had been. A knot of about ten kids huddled around one of the lockers. A couple of the bigger jocks were in the group, and someone was laughing. As I walked by, the crowd parted slightly, revealing an upper locker dripping with red paint. Murderer.
I stopped, not sure what to do. An oversized blond guy I didn’t know by name, one of the seniors, a wrestler I think, saw me. “Hey! Like the artwork?” He grinned, a wide grin that revealed crooked teeth restrained by silver braces. He turned to his friends, slapping a tall dark-haired boy on the back. “We thought we’d let that bitch know she’s not welcome here.” A few of the kids in the crowd nodded in agreement. “We’ve got your back.” My chest tightened, acid rising in my throat, threatening to choke me. I turned and hurried away.
The story continued to circulate through school. Classmates, friends, people I didn’t know, all posted comments on Facebook: She gave him pills. She gave him the gun that he used. Peter called her just before he shot himself. Someone tweeted #MurderedPeter. Suddenly there were hundreds of tweets about Carly and what she had done, or rather what they imagined she had done. As the weeks passed, the stories grew and transformed, like a giant game of telephone, until there was little resemblance to the truth.
The police investigation lasted a few weeks, but it was inconclusive. The detectives said that Carly denied knowing that Peter intended to kill himself. They said there was nothing incriminating about the messages, that it was just teens acting out.
For a while, Carly continued to come to school, passing through the halls like a ghost, not speaking to anyone. She wore the same wrinkled shirt and torn jeans day in and day out. Her hair was matted and uncombed. She refused to use her locker. The janitor had washed off the paint, but a trace of the word remained. People stopped and stared at her in the halls, whispering. She didn’t seem to notice.
Then one day, Carly didn’t return to school. Rumors flew through school, some bizarre, others more believable. Someone said her folks had pulled her out of school and that she was going to transfer to another school. Some kids said she was back at South Oaks, the hospital where she had been last summer, that she’d had a nervous breakdown. I heard from another that her folks were selling their house and leaving town. I didn’t want to know what had happened, I didn’t care. She deserved whatever happened to her.
I felt tense around the kids at school, but I couldn’t say why. I just pushed that worry to the back of my mind and tried to pretend everything was normal.
* * *
Time passed without a word about Carly. At home, Mom was still drinking herself to sleep at night. She continued to write long rambling posts on Peter’s memorial page. I miss you, my sweet boy. My poor Peter, I knew you didn’t mean to do it. There is only one person responsible for your death.
Peter was gone, but now she knew who was responsible, that it wasn’t my fault. I thought things would be better now, but they weren’t. She still wouldn’t hug me or talk to me. Despite everything, I realized that she still blamed me.
Monday morning. I didn’t have class until noon. The parking lot was only half-full when I arrived, which seemed odd. I grabbed my books and walked in the main door. Some kids were standing in the hall; they turned towards me and immediately turned away. I saw Morgan up ahead and called out to her, but apparently she didn’t hear me because she kept walking, not looking at me. I headed towards my locker. The halls were strangely quiet.
Mr. Hansen, the vice-principal, came out of his office as I passed by and called out to me. “Can you come into my office, please, Sara?” His face was pale, the fluorescent lights reflected in his eyeglasses. He shut the glass door behind me. “Please sit down.” He pointed to a chair facing his desk, facing the office door.
He coughed slightly and rubbed his hand on the back of his neck, not looking at me. “I’m not sure how to tell you... We’ve had disturbing news this morning. Carly Preston’s parents called. We don’t have all the details yet, but apparently she tried to kill herself last night. She’s in the hospital. The Prestons want the police to speak to you. Something about posts.”
The words didn’t make sense. This wasn’t happening. No, this was another wild rumor; someone was playing a bad joke. Mr. Hansen was still talking, but the roaring in my ears drowned out the words. I felt a wave of nausea, a crushing sensation in my chest. The office walls were closing in, the fluorescent lights getting brighter, hotter. I had to get out.
I pushed myself out of the chair and opened the door, not quite sure of where I was going. I ran down the hall, toward the exit. Past the freshman lockers. As I ran, I saw Carly’s locker out of the corner of my eye. The red paint was gone but there was still a shadow of the word. Murderer.
I drove straight to the hospital after I left school. As I drove, I formed a vague plan in my mind. I realized now that Carly had told me the truth, she believed Peter was joking around. I would apologize for what I’d posted. Hopefully, she would understand that I hadn’t meant for all this to happen, for everyone to gang up on her. I wanted only to call her out for not telling anyone about her conversations with Peter, for not trying to stop him. Now I wasn’t sure that anyone could have stopped him.
The hospital elevator opened on the pediatric floor. A cheerful mural covered the walls with bright flowers and cartoon animals. The corridor smelled of antiseptic and bandages. I was surprised when the woman at the information desk told me where to go. I didn’t think of Carly as a little kid, but apparently this was where the doctors sent you if you’re under eighteen, even if you’ve swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills.
I stopped outside the door to Carly’s room and looked inside. She lay in a hospital bed, her eyes closed. A monitor stood next to the bed, flashing lights keeping time with the rhythmic beeping sounds. Tubes and wires connected her arms to an I.V. and the flashing monitor. A man and a woman sat on hard plastic chairs placed next to the bed, staring at Carly in silence. I knew they were her parents even though I’d never met them.
Her mother’s feet didn’t quite touch the floor. Her hands were folded in her lap as if in prayer. She looked tiny and vulnerable, her face white with exhaustion. She had that same look of fear and loss I had seen on my mother’s face. I knew that look would never disappear.
Carly’s father leaned forward in his chair, his hand resting on the bed, stroking her hand in the one place where there were no tubes or needles attached. His face was flattened by despair.
The pain in my stomach returned. What had I done? I backed away from the doorway and hurried to the elevator. I didn’t know if Carly was conscious yet. I couldn’t go in her room, not with her parents sitting there. I couldn’t face their anger. Even if they let me talk to Carly, I knew that she wouldn’t want to speak to me or forgive me. Why should she? I would have to find another way to try to undo the mess I’d made.
Back home, I sat in the living room, my iPad in my lap, thinking of what I could say, how I could make amends. I needed to let everyone know that what I had done, what everyone had done had crushed Carly. In my mind, I saw the words as if they were unfurling on a screen.
I told everyone that Carly helped Peter kill himself because I was angry and I needed to blame someone. I couldn’t understand why Peter wanted to kill himself.
I was wrong — we all were wrong — to punish Carly for something she never did. She isn’t a monster or some murderer. She’s just another messed-up kid who tried to kill herself because she couldn’t stand the pain.
I wish I could take back the things I said, but it’s too late for that. All I can do is say I’m sorry, Carly. I don’t expect you to accept my apology or to forgive me for not believing you. It will be a long time before I can forgive myself. But maybe I can stop the lies and the bullying.
Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Buckley Ristine