Rust Never Sleeps
New Fiction by Anthony Head. "You wonder, who was supposed to save Morrison? Who was supposed to save RJ?"
You have nothing against the kid. His black hair pulled into thick, gelled spikes that make his head look like one of those floating mines from World War II movies—they don’t really bother you. Because the kid’s never been disrespectful in your home. Actually, he’s hardly said a word to you, but that’s okay. You were fourteen once. You know how it goes. But from the little he has uttered, as well as from some stories Beetle told you, it’s pretty clear the kid has a deep, cynical bane inside, spreading slowly. It devastates some kids and the people around them. This corrosion is obvious to you but not to your daughter.
You call your daughter “Beetle” because it sounds something like how she mispronounced her name, Bethany, on her first day of preschool in Abilene. That was so long ago that neither of you remember exactly what she said that morning standing in the room filled with small plastic chairs and colorful foam toys. But it caught the broad Russian woman who ran the school by surprise when “Beetle” (or something like that) slipped from your little girl’s mouth as she awkwardly introduced herself to the class. The woman’s ample bosom heaved with an exaggerated gasp as she straightened up and looked to you with feigned alarm. Your daughter laughed along with the other kids in the room, and so the new nickname stuck.
These autumn days, you two don’t laugh together nearly as often. Beetle’s thirteen, and her life is now something dramatically different than it was just… what?... six months ago?... when she still liked watching videos on the couch while you tickled her back. Now she smears the space around her eyes with black mascara, and she dusts her face with white powder—as much as her middle school allows, which isn’t much, but “some make-up is allowed.” It is her goth look, she reminds you often, even when you don’t ask about it. She harbors most of her laughter for the times when she’s tucked away in her bedroom, on her phone with friends. Sometimes she laughs with Pluto, the cat. At least she doesn’t mind that you still call her Beetle.
Her mom hasn’t been able to get away with calling her Beetle for years. Your daughter rolls her eyes while talking to her mom on the phone, shaking her head with an attitude—Now I know what you had to put up with, Dad. You think it’s because of that incredible bond you two share. Daddy and daughter. But you also know that bond is weakening with time. It may snap someday, like an old rubber band stretched too far between your fingers.
Beetle doesn’t laugh much when she’s talking to RJ, the kid with the black spiky hair. She mostly whispers to him on the phone in serious, dark tones. At dinner, she stares at her plate and—when she actually says something about RJ—talks at her food (instead of you) about how she wants to help him. Beetle is fascinated by RJ, an eighth-grader. She says he’s tortured. “He pours his heart out to me in such beautiful letters. Paper letters,” she assures the uneaten asparagus. “He’s an incredible writer,” and actually underlines the word in the air with her finger, which has a long red cut on the side that catches your eye. She says she wants to wipe away his troubles—all the troubles he’s accumulated up until now, at age fourteen, because she knows troubles too. She feels his pain.
You assume she’s talking about the time when you split with her mother, nearly five years ago. Slowly draining a tumbler of bourbon at the dinner table, you recall Belinda, Beetle’s mother, disappearing for two days and returning without explanation, looking like she hadn’t slept at all. Something snapped inside you during that time, and while you both tried to stay together, life got much worse as Belinda fell deeper into addiction. Some mornings, you thought you could see her skin slipping away from the bones of her face. You kept such a close eye on Beetle during that time, during the breakup and afterwards when she had two homes to navigate.
“He’s a quiet kid,” you finally say, although Beetle never noticed how far away your mind had been from the dinner table. It’s the only thing you can think to say about RJ, other than making another lame joke about his hair. Your daughter has made it clear how tiring those jokes are. You get up to pour yourself more bourbon and say, “Maybe you should put a Band-Aid on that finger.”
Later that evening, when Beetle is in her bedroom, you contemplate how closely Beetle was paying attention when you were splitting up with her mother; she was only eight, but she must have noticed and remembered who was in her life when mommy wasn’t. You hope so. You hope your daughter hates her mother. You hate yourself for those honest thoughts, but you hate her even more.
Beetle’s phone chimes.
A minute later, your phone rings. Beetle yells, “Tell her I’m asleep!”
It’s 6:45 p.m. Life would be so much easier if you could just let that call go to voicemail.
Last month, Beetle told you that sometimes at school RJ pries nails from the old baseball-field bleachers and slits his skin from the elbow to the wrist. “He doesn’t go too deep, but there’s blood.” She insists she’s not interested in doing that to herself, but she’s evidently curious about such behavior. RJ’s told her before that sometimes he doesn’t even feel the pain; other times, he says, it feels good.
A week afterwards, Beetle admits that a lot of her friends cut themselves, though not like RJ. She rolls her eyes and sighs heavily when forced to roll up her sleeves and show you her bare arms. “Really?” There were no cuts.
Last week, RJ walked Beetle home from school for the first time. His shirtsleeves were shabbily pushed up to the elbow and flecked with red. While Beetle was in the bathroom, you looked hard at the marks on RJ’s arms. Some were dried, and dark, like lines on a map. Others were fresher, with pink blood smearing the skin as watercolors would a canvas. Beetle once said that RJ has entire words carved into his flesh, but she won’t say what or where they were. When you asked him about the cuts, RJ replied he was just fooling around and that his parents “kicked my ass” for doing it. He’s through with it, he said, but he didn’t look at you. He looked at the floor the whole time. You saw the pale skin on top of his head, where the hair was pulled into thick syrupy spikes.
After changing her clothes in the bathroom, Beetle beckoned RJ and the cat into her bedroom and closed the door.
RJ never returned to your apartment, but he kept calling Beetle regularly.
You have nothing against the kid, but you want to keep your daughter away from him. Energy transfers from one mind to the next—you know that’s true.
She never used to do this, but now Beetle uses the word “suicide” nearly every day. She tries dropping it into conversations, usually where it doesn’t belong—“Mr. Levengoode just wants us to commit suicide with all this homework”—and you’re sure she picked up the word from RJ.
You know about suicide.
But you don’t kid yourself: You don’t know about suicide just because you cut your wrist with a dull pocketknife when you were Beetle’s age. You still have a thin scar, maybe half an inch long and only visible under a bright light. But you hardly think about it because it never felt like anything real. It was just what a bored teenager did while living in San Angelo, listening to too much Pink Floyd to escape the flat, dry, West Texas malaise and parents who more closely resembled furniture than people.
Resting on the couch, a magazine on your chest and a drink in your hand, you keep an ear pointed toward Beetle’s bedroom. On the other side of the door you think you hear her assuring RJ that he does matter in this world.
You close your eyes. You think of Morrison. Because you do know about suicide.
Back in the day, you figured you’d always be living in San Angelo with your wife and Bethany—and Morrison, your best friend since sixth grade. Grandparents watched Bethany every weekend as you three went out and did nothing, usually ending up at the Saddle Bronc for the last beers of the night.
Belinda worked in customer service at Target. You were writing the metro crime column for the Standard-Times, which consisted of cutting and pasting information from police bulletins and repeating what you tallied from the television news the night before.
Morrison was the real writer. More brilliant than you ever hoped to be. His poetry—the first time he read it to you in seventh grade—was like the language of some kind of dream. He was gifted and humble, always insisting he admired you for making a living with words instead of just filling up useless black notebooks.
At some point in time, you came to the conclusion that Morrison was somehow “tortured” or something, but you didn’t know why. He stayed drunk and high most of his days and nights, just like he’d done in high school followed by one lousy year of technical college over in Sweetwater. Alcohol was a smothering monster, robbing Morrison’s days of their momentum and rhythm. He became just one more burnout around town who couldn’t hold a job for more than six months, or stay committed to a relationship for any length of time. Every attempt, work and love, ended with something—usually a bottle of booze or Morrison’s fist—smashed against a wall.
You wanted to help him out and make things easy for him even though your wife insulted him and insisted he stay away from the apartment. You spent hours in his family’s garage, sometimes drinking with him. Sometimes just listening to his bellyaches about his life. He knew his problems were his own fault, he typically stated, mostly with sincerity. He’d stopped opening his notebooks, though; at least when you came ‘round. He hanged himself in that garage nine days after you left San Angelo for a job as a copywriter in an advertising agency in Abilene. Naturally, Bethany and Belinda moved the ninety miles away as well.
After his death, you drove back to San Angelo and walked across the creaky wooden floors of the breezeway in Morrison’s family home and opened the door to the garage. The barstool he’d stepped off of was still on its side on the cement floor. The CD player on the workbench was turned off, but earlier, Morrison’s mother told you he’d set it to keep repeating Mozart’s “Requiem,” ensuring an appropriately haunting mood for whoever discovered his body, even if it took days.
Morrison’s black cat, Pluto, emerged from its shadowy hiding place in the corner with a soft mewl and stopped at your feet.
You didn’t gasp or cry. But you noticed that—if he had wanted to—Morrison could have put his legs on the workbench, just to the left of where the noose had held him, and stepped up.
You took Pluto back home to Abilene and gave it to Bethany. Over the years, her young mind lost track of Morrison’s memory.
Beetle told you that RJ took some pills and was in the hospital. She began calmly, but grew frustrated the more she kept insisting that only she could help him because “no one else understands him.” You tell her to ease up. Not give up, but ease up. “RJ has parents, and doctors, and there are guidance counselors, and he has other friends,” you replied.
She looked up at you like she was looking into a stranger’s eyes. “Are you saying I shouldn’t care?”
“Of course not.” You bent down to one knee and took her hands in yours. “It’s just that you aren’t qualified to diagnose RJ. This is serious. He needs real help.”
Her dark eyes looked puzzled, partly—you think—because she wasn’t completely familiar with the term “diagnose,” though she likely knew it had something to do with doctors. Partly because it’s not often you tell her that she’s not good enough to figure things out and make them better. This contradicts everything else you’ve told her about herself. And partly because she must have thought she was providing “real help” to RJ all along.
Three days ago, she told you that he was getting worse. She shows you more letters from RJ with blood splatters on the paper and little hand-drawn arrows pointing to them. “Now that’s just plain dramatic,” you said, pointing at the blood.
She agreed with a small nod. She looked into your eyes.
Were you disappointed in her?
No. Just worried.
Belinda dated (chased you would call it) a lot of bad men after the divorce. She allowed herself to lose control with drugs even when Beetle spent the weekend with her. You’d call Beetle and Belinda spent a half-hour sobbing into the phone about her own problems. Drugs. Men. Poverty. Jobs. You had to endure it all before she handed the phone to her daughter.
After a few months like this, Belinda’s tone turned more desperate. She spoke of killing herself. Each time, you calmly talked her back from the ledge. You called a suicide-prevention organization and the man who answered told you that whether or not Belinda was looking for attention or if it was more serious, the best and only thing to do would be to tell her that you’re the wrong person to talk to. “You aren’t qualified,” he told you, “to diagnose her, much less treat her. You can only help her by giving her our number, or the number of a doctor. Or take her to the emergency room.”
Belinda called your work the next afternoon, crying and saying things like she would rather be dead than alone. When you told her that it would be best to call someone else, she hung up. She called back three more times before the day ended. It was her night to watch Beetle, but you insisted on keeping her.
After a few days passed without more calls, you felt relieved that maybe someone else was shouldering that burden.
Beetle came home from school and said she was really worried about RJ but she doesn’t want to encourage his behavior, just like you told her. She doesn’t return his calls, or write back to any of his notes if there are blood splatters on them. “I didn’t even go to the baseball field at lunch,” she said. “But I saw him in the hallway and his arms were all bloody. There was a small cut on his face. I told the nurse.”
You were proud and you told her so. She’d learned, just like she always had. And she seemed happier, lighter in the shoulders, afterwards. She talked with other friends more often on the phone—and laughed the way she used to. RJ stopped calling and texting her. For several days, almost a full week, the dinner table was a place free of both RJ’s and Belinda’s drama. Beetle looked at you instead of her plate for conversation.
The phone call came from Kaylee.
An ashen pallor creeps into your daughter’s face as she drops the phone on the table. Kaylee is crying and shouting.
Beetle’s nose quivers. Her mouth hangs in silence. Her eyes are staring right at you—the person who told her to not care quite so much about her friend. You told her that self-mutilation was just drama for attention, even if that’s not really what you said. You told her that she wasn’t the person to save RJ’s life.
Your stomach drops as a wave of hot blood rushes up your face. You see before you the garage where Morrison hanged himself. You smell the cinderblock walls and the dust on the wooden rafters overhead. Mozart’s “Requiem” fills the memory with deep, somber notes. Morrison feels no more pain as he hangs, quiet and still. Did he die because you didn’t care? Or?
“Couldn’t you have cared just a little bit?”
Beetle’s eyes swim with tears as she slams her bedroom door. And you wonder just who was supposed to save Morrison?
Who was supposed to save RJ?
Beetle spends many more nights at her mother’s apartment, where Pluto now lives. She says her mom understands her life. She informs you that RJ had been calling her mother, even when Beetle wasn’t over there, just to talk to someone. “Mom has tried to commit suicide,” Beetle says to you over the phone, “so she knows what it’s all about. But I guess it’s too late for RJ.”
You have no way to respond.
“You should never have told me to care less for him. Mom said you did that to her too.” Beetle hangs up.
November’s afternoons are getting darker. Having covertly finished off the bourbon from your flask, you leave work and drive to check on Beetle, even though she’s been walking after school to your home by herself since starting the eighth grade lasts August. You spot her with some friends at the baseball diamond and she tells you to go home. She’ll follow in five minutes. Then she turns her back and shakes her head.
You stop the car at the only red-light intersection between your apartment and Beetle’s school; it’s where you once taught her how to safely cross the street with the light. You roll down the window, feel the dry air across your face. You remember that yesterday, while snooping, you discovered a steak knife in the footlocker at the bottom of Beetle’s closet. You remind yourself that you must somehow check Beetle’s arms when she gets to your apartment, before she goes into the bathroom.
The light turns green. You wonder if you should tell Beetle’s mother about the knife when she comes by tonight to take her daughter home.
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Anthony Head mostly writes about Texas.
A story I read with creeping dread, knowing things wouldn't end well.
The dad's love for his daughter and his longing to protect her collide with the boy's death.
As a parent I was thinking Call call the boy's parents! Call the school! Set up an intervention! We are our brothers' keepers. As a writer I was thinking Moving and well-written.
A wonderful style, Anthony, clean and sharp but not forced. I want to learn more about the narrator. I hear him, but I want to know who he is. I want to know what he has lost and what he might lose.