content warning: discussion of suicide
It was as he was slumped over the steering wheel that Frederick scratched at his collarbone for the hundredth time that day. The gift he was wearing was too appropriately from his mother; though it looked very warm, he knew how prickly it felt. At home he’d pull it off, ask his wife for her hot apple cider. The day’s burden hadn’t been the conference, really; it was this drive to, now from, the building at the other end of the city. It was a busy hour and he was stuck, yet again, in the slug of traffic.
He was somewhat stuck, too, in his petty grumpiness. He was forgetting that he’d known much greyer days—that if anything, this Tuesday had only been off-white. That was what was showing in the clouds, in the way that the sky seemed to be covered in craft paste: the city was dim, but there had been no rain. Compressed in his small Peugeot, though, Frederick had sweat forming in his underarms.
He cursed when the Volkswagen ahead made a stop, blocking the street unreasonably like a kidney stone. He braked and hit the horn; others also did the same, and the sounds of displeasure built up like grimy pus. The guilty driver stuck his head out of his window, yelling already—but Frederick saw, after a few moments, that he wasn’t at all addressing the street.
He followed the man’s attention towards the park, which faced north, and noticed the clumps of people forming on the thin and pale lawn. The crowd was all at once staring toward the cliff; Frederick focused to see over them and into the horizon, where the sky was finally ripping open. He spotted the man climbing over the fence, and his heart sunk to the brake pedal.
He had climbed a fence of his own, once. On that awful spring night, almost two decades prior, he’d dangled a foot and his life off of the Hersenkam Bridge, in Antwerp. Thanks to the interference of another, however, his failure to jump had signified the last major failure of his life. He parked his car in the traffic as he thought of the near incident, and he pulled his heart all the way up. He had to be brave, now, or it’d be this poor stranger who’d be sinking.
The cool breeze shocked his skin as he stepped to the sidewalk. The air was haunted by cigarette smoke; this slum, in particular, smelled most of all like death. It was worse as Frederick entered the park and jogged on the stone.
“I’ve got it,” he yelled, approaching the cliff. “Somebody ring the police. I’ll keep him at bay.”
The crowd obeyed, stagnant. Sure, they feared death enough to worry for the approacher, but they likely dreaded it too hard to ever approach, themselves.
Frederick wiped the sweat from his cheeks once he’d stopped. The rabid waves below were blasting him with cold air, which felt good on his inflamed face. He leaned over the flat metal and looked over the man on the other side; though they were close, now, the stranger did not acknowledge Frederick. His arms clutching at the black bars behind his back, he stared only forward. He looked to be in his twenties: pale, flushed skin, a raging head of auburn hair.
“Son? Hello,” Frederick tried. “What’s your name?”
The boy gathered his tears, and then something else, not quite as identifiable.
“Ansel,” he groaned.
“Hi, Ansel. I’m Fred,” Frederick spoke again, running his hands atop the cold metal. “I’ll be very simple about this. I don’t want to ask why you’re here, so don’t worry about all that. Okay? I want to tell you why I’m here.”
Ansel shied his head around. His pale blue eyes limped all over Frederick’s face, as if in judgment. Eventually, they fell into his eyes.
“I can’t not think about it,” he spoke.
“That my life’s nothing.” His face was drooping like a sad sack of blood. “My soul is too tired.”
Ansel’s words weighed further on Frederick. He knew he shouldn’t show it.
“The soul doesn’t get tired,” he said.
“There’s no such thing as a tired soul. An unhappy one,” Frederick’s hands trembled as he thought back to his time in the facility, to the things he’d been told.
“I don’t understand.”
“Souls are made of pure, vibrating joy,” Frederick said. “It’s our souls that make us want to live in the world.” His hands shook with more violence, yet he assured himself it was due to that vibrating power.
“The mind is what gets sick. Sick minds cover our souls over with dust and dirt. But that can all be swept away. It just takes some effort.”
Yet his throat turned to ash as Ansel stared back at the water. He probably wouldn’t have believed the words, either, at his deadliest point. These were only words. They were promises from a stranger. A grey, misty truth was now encircling him.
And, before he’d entirely realized it, Frederick was clasping the top of the fence with both hands, which were quivering further under the weight of the decision. He placed a foot on the bottom rung, lifted himself upwards; his heart was heaving. He raised one stiff leg over the top of the fence— another—and it felt like a plummet as he lowered himself. With sweaty hands, he clutched the cold posts now behind him, too. Pieces of his insides were ricocheting all over his body.
The edge was so close, the water so far down—yet, somehow, the salty taste of the air overwhelmed him already. The glassy blue waves below were curving and sinking, too, like they were trying to grab at him. Frederick felt a crashing chill as he watched them, and yet it was almost thrilling. His heavy, sinking feeling was increasing, but it was filling him whole. A seagull as white as the sky passed over the water, and as it was only as it started to cry that he remembered what he’d meant to do.
“Now, the reason that I’m here,” he coughed, his head sticky with mud. His heart thrashed when he turned to Ansel, again; the boy’s sunken, watery eyes looked too much like the water below. “I was in this position before,” he managed. “At your age.”
“You’re lying,” Ansel said.
“No. I was ready to give up, because I thought that I had nothing left. And it was true. I had nobody.”
“But it made me realize that I had nothing to lose if I took another chance,” Frederick continued, feeling sticky in his stomach, now, and in his legs. “I agreed to take just one more. It was at my disposal. Now, I have a nice job. I have a wonderful wife, and two boys. So, this,” he nodded his head towards the water, “it just no longer tempts me.”
Ansel blinked slowly, at that, and then he turned his gaze back over the fence—which gave Frederick a ring of hope. He looked over too for a moment, then another few: a new crop of people had cultivated on the grass, staring at them with scarecrow eyes.
“You’re telling the truth?” Ansel muttered, his grip on the fence tightening. His voice was strained, which only meant that something in him was fighting and alive.
“Of course,” Frederick said.
The screeching sirens were approaching harder, too. Ansel’s eyebrows dipped, then curved.
“What are their names?” he asked Frederick.
“Your family. Tell me about them.”
Frederick understood, finally, and he smiled vigorously. He’d have him, soon. He’d reel him back to land, like fish on a hook.
It was only a moment later that he felt a hook had entered his own brain, had lobotomised him.
Ansel watched Frederick, with life in his eyes, as he awaited his simple answer—yet Frederick was waiting alongside him. The man was paralyzed, almost—though, internally, he was spastic and grabbing at the air for words that seemed to have evaporated. He became only concerned for himself. Any man would know the name of his wife, of course. Of his own children. He’d remember their faces.
Heaving the increasingly salty air, Frederick was sure that everything would return to him, within only a few moments—but the moments left with increasing force. Soon, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever had children, or even a wife. He supposed that he didn’t. He’d been mistaken…
“Oh my god,” Ansel’s voice shook Frederick out of his mind, or his lack thereof. The boy’s face had been re-ignited with dread. His eyes had flatlined. “You are lying,” he spat.
“Wait,” Frederick struggled. He was too dizzy.
Ansel’s face screwed downwards, then, and he made the ugliest whimper that Frederick had ever heard. Such a sound could only signify death.
“Oh, god,” Ansel repeated.
He jumped a moment later.
Frederick was greeted that evening by the smell of burnt chicken, the noises of Nikolas and Emeric throughout the halls.
“Darling?” Mary called, from the living room.
Frederick let down his briefcase. “Yes,” he said.
“I’ve been worried.”
Frederick went to her, coming up beside the brown leather couch. She’d been sitting, her wavy black hair draped over a book. She looked up at him and smiled.
In the fourteen years that Frederick had known her, Mary’s smile had never burnt out a touch. Before his death, her father had warned him that many had looked down on her for it; she’d grinned, always, at all of the homeless people on the street, at every rude client or stranger. She was still always joy and giggles, in their home: whenever she played with her children, for instance, or every time she and Frederick tried for another.
Frederick didn’t mind, too much, if people believed Mary was odd, or even if she was. Her smile, as always, brought him a luminous joy—even if no flame would be catching tonight.
“Work kept me,” he told her.
“You’re starving.” She put her book down on the couch. “Let me—”
“No. I’m tired,” he said. His mouth and throat were so dry, and every word was a razor blade. “We’ll talk tomorrow. Okay?”
Mary furrowed her brows. She approached him, touched his cheek.
“You’re pale,” she told him. “I hope you’re not sick.”
He grunted, backing away from her and going to the stairs.
“Say good night to your boys,” she called.
He did, but their faces hurt him harder.
Frederick and his family had been, for a long time now, the twinkle in the eye of all of their social circles: the literature club, Mary’s relatives, the church, their colleagues. They were the guiding star, the goal that everyone else was set to reach. It was always, remember Fred and Mary’s wedding? Fred and Mary are so in love. Aren’t their sons so beautiful? Most importantly, Frederick’s family was the light of his own spirit: the gaslight that had kept it alive.
The events of that afternoon had ruined him, now, had overturned all of the heavens in his mind.
In official terms, Frederick had always been an atheist. He’d participated in the church only because it pleased his wife, and pleasing his wife had been his only real religion. Yet things were changing, tonight: the turbulence inside of him was knocking down all of his sturdiest beliefs. He was certain that his amnesia on the cliff, that afternoon, had represented a grand act of God. There was no other real explanation to the fact. There had been the pressure of the moment to speak, yes, but that wouldn’t have been enough to crush his memory completely. What had happened to Frederick had been more than an idiot accident. This truth was as clear to him as the lake water, now: he’d been punished.
And as he lay in his bed, that night, the guilt was growing in his mind like a sickly itch. He spent the night with his fingers in his hair, pulling at his scalp, trying to distract from his bursting pain.
It wasn’t long before he concluded that he should have gone and killed himself, all of those years ago in Antwerp. He’d been shown, today, what it was like to not know his own family—and for the very simple reason that he never should have come to know them. If he’d rightfully jumped off the Hersenkam, he wouldn’t have lived to later take Ansel’s life.
The boy, after all, had chosen to climb the fence during the day, when the park had been thickly populated. That was the behaviour of someone who needed attention. His acts had been but a cry for help, which Frederick had violently gagged. He’d decided that he needed to be the one, out of the crowd, to take control, to help the boy off of the edge. In consequence, he’d coaxed him off of the wrong end.
Frederick had tried to be the hero, and now he was guilty. Now, he had killed. It was undeniable: he’d used his sleeve to remove his fingerprints from the fence before he’d climbed back over. He’d run past all of the bodies of shock, back to his car, still before the sirens could get too close. There was no innocence.
The rash sizzled in Frederick’s mind when the sun reached his eyes. His hands hadn’t left his scalp; clumps of brown hair had gathered by his head. There was no worse agony, he’d come to find, than an itch underneath the skin, one that couldn’t ever be scratched. It felt like a taunt, a Godly mockery. He wanted to dig his way into his brain, to pull it apart.
The static pain also reminded him, strangely, of what it felt like to have a limb burst from its sleep. It could only signify that his brain, for the first time in two decades, was awake.
“Fred? Are you alright?” Mary gasped, in response to the groaning that he could no longer cage. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “You’re in pain?”
Frederick clamped his eyelids shut. Mary’s voice was stomping on his brain, as would definitely her face.
“I’m fine,” he croaked.
Still, he felt her approach. The bones on the back of her hand were knives to his forehead.
“You’re sweating,” she tried. “I need—”
“No,” Frederick growled. He grabbed at her wrist, threw it to the pillow.
There was a pause. A cold silence came over Mary as she backed away off of the bed, then toward the door.
“I’ll call your work, and mine,” she said, in a single breath.
As she stepped out to the hallway, Frederick vomited.
Mary left him alone, after that, save but to clean up after him and to bring him food. He didn’t need to leave the bed to plan his death, after all—and he’d decided that he’d jump off of the same cliff as Ansel had. It’d be only right. And while he’d never before tasted this flavour of pain, Frederick and his previous self still agreed on one thing. Jumping to one’s death—jumping, hence, literally into death—was the most dutiful way to go.
He decided that he’d drive to the cliff when it was dark, when there was no more audience. The cliff would be an open crime scene for another day, or maybe two. He couldn’t take the public’s attention away from Ansel; he’d already stolen too much from the young man.
Frederick stayed in place for his two waiting days, but he also still didn’t sleep. Even once he had decided his fate, the shame in his mind kept growing like prickly bark on a tree. As much as he begged for sleep, the pain was much too grating. Now that his mind was truly awake, it wouldn’t let Frederick forget again—not even for a moment—that he was meant to die.
He never hungered, either. He didn’t thirst. Sustenance was for survival, and survival was no longer Frederick’s purpose. And so he hid all of Mary’s cooking under their shared bed. She’d be alerted to it when it began to rot, of course—but the smells were masked, for now, by his lingering vomit.
There was nothing left that Frederick wanted to taste except sleep. He thought of nothing but sleep. He lusted for it: for its curves, the ups and downs, the vivid feeling of it, of being inside of it. On his final morning, as he watched Mary change out of her nightgown, he felt even more sickness cooking in his throat. He didn’t know how he’d ever been attracted to that custard-like flesh; nothing at all was erotic to him, now, but the perfect softness of slumber. This was true, of course, because he was meant to have the best kind, the ultimate coma: the kind in which he’d soon plunge the deepest and never have to leave.
He did nothing on that day but lay on his side facing the alarm clock, watching time die and waiting for the time to die. Sometimes, the numbers on the clock would start to swirl and curve, and he’d have to readjust his eyes. The world, in all of its corners, had become too ugly and deformed to bear.
Frederick woke the next morning in a bed that was not his own. Even his body didn’t feel like his own. He was swollen and smothered with pain; he moaned as he opened his eyelids.
He hadn’t thought that Hell would have tile ceilings.
“Sir?” a woman’s voice scraped at his mental wall. Frederick turned his head, with some expanding pain. Yet he noticed that the pain on the inside had cleared, and that the world was no longer turning. As he looked to the young lady, he saw her hair was in a tight bun that pulled at her skin, making white lines. She was wearing all white, too. Yet there was no way that Frederick had been sent to heaven. He looked down, next, to himself: above the blue cover, his arms were draped in yet even more white. His legs felt fatter.
This is a hospital, he thought. Alright, alright, that makes some more sense.
“Do you remember what happened to you?” the nurse asked while Frederick squinted. With some distant nausea, he passed his eyes over her nametag: DANICA.
“You were in an accident,” she informed him. “You fell asleep at the wheel.”
Frederick looked back to the ceiling.
“You’re lucky to have survived,” she told him, and she dampened her voice. “Can you remember your name, sir?”
“Was anyone else hurt?” he asked. Reality draped over him, a coarse blanket.
“No,” she told him. “Your name, please.”
“Frederick Ivey,” he spoke. It was difficult. He felt as if he were breathing in smoke, again.
“Mary Ivey.” Ignoring the clawed rip of pain, he sat up as much as he could. “Where is she? My—”
“Your family’s waiting. They’ll be very relieved,” Danica smiled down at him. “Just a few more questions, first. Do you remember where you were going?”
“I don’t know the name. It was by the lake, after highway E12.”
Danica’s face looked, in the next moment, to have jumped and drowned for him. “Oh,” she said.
Frederick felt a pull in his stomach. “What?” he said.
“You haven’t heard about…”
“I have, I have. Someone died there just the other day.”
“Many people have.”
“What?” His patience was trickling.
She went to a large grey bin near the door, leaning down and fiddling through.
“There.” She returned to him, presenting him with a page in a newspaper. The headline was, Hetistil District Shaken by a Self-Killing—Again. She pointed to the third paragraph. “Now. Your family,” she said, and she went to the door.
Frederick took the news between his rough hands.
“My brother had precious things in his life. He had so many people and things that he loved. He was going to teach primary. We were meeting for lunch to discuss it,” Remi told us. “Above all things, he was terrified of heights. So, I simply can’t believe he would ever do this… thing willingly.” When we asked him if he believed in the cliff’s supposed curse, however, he presented no pointed answer. “I’ve heard so much in this past day,” he admitted. “People insist Ansel touched the fence for too long and that it convinced him, somehow, in some way, to climb over. They say my brother probably didn’t know that he shouldn’t ever touch it. But I still have trouble believing that whole myth.”
“It’s no myth,” one superstitious local had insisted, earlier in the day. “Many of us call that fence Hell’s Gate, and it’s not just a funny nickname.”
Frederick’s confusion was a whirlpool in his chest.
“I am a bit offended by the speculation,” Remi had added. “But I’m glad that that man came to the fence when no one else would dare go near. I would have thanked him, too, if he hadn’t run.”
When asked what exactly this curse could be doing to convince healthy minds to jump—and to convince them so quickly—the local became flustered.
“Well, I can’t know that,” he claimed. “That, you might want to ask the runaway man, if you can find him. He’s the only one, after all, who has ever climbed over that fence and then climbed back. Maybe he was too focused on the other fellow.”
Frederick’s confusion turned to realization, then, and then repugnance, and finally a widening relief.
It flooded his throat.
an earlier version of this story was previously published in New Reader Magazine, Issue 5 (March 2019)
Pascale is Editor-in-Chief of Wrongdoing Magazine and an Editor at a few other publications, including CHEAP POP and Walled Women Magazine. She’s also Staff Contributor for The Aurora Journal and The Jupiter Review and has placed further work in Eclectica Magazine, Maudlin House, BlazeVOX, Witch Craft Magazine, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, and many others. She has a BAH from Queen’s University, and she is working on a budding book series. You can read more about her at pascalepotvin.com or @pascalepalaces on Twitter.
photo by Louise Hill (via unsplash)