Trigger Warning: This story alludes to drug use and overdose. This is not romanticized or described explicitly.
We sat on the couch that night and watched Cars with Zeb. You and Zeb cackled repeatedly, even though we already saw that movie over thirty times. When the movie was over, Zeb ran around the house yelling, “ka-chow!” and you chased him every which way: down the hall, up the stairs, around the bed, down the stairs, and through the kitchen. I backed up out of the way and told you both to be careful because I worried you would smack your head on something or slip on the floor chasing around a four-year-old. I told you I did not want to spend the night in the hospital trying to explain the ridiculous reason you got hurt, but I laughed at the two of you sliding around and running in socks anyway.
I put Zeb to bed after his bedtime; in fact, it was close to 8:45. You looked radiant galivanting around our little piece of the world with him, and something looked free in your eyes in that moment. It was worth the risk of a cranky preschooler in the morning to let you two play together until someone grew tired. At nine o’clock, I realized we were out of Zeb’s kwispies, so I threw on a coat, hopped in the car, and went to grab some. After his going to bed so late, I knew I needed to make sure he had the right cereal in the morning for breakfast. You kissed me goodbye, and I told you I would be right back. I asked you to queue up some Fringe reruns. You said, “You got it. Just drive safe.”
At the grocery store, I realized we needed a few more things, so I took longer than I intended. At the register, I felt exhausted and ready to be in the comfort of our home again. When I pulled in our driveway and brought in the bags, I did not see you. Your car was still outside, so I knew you had to be home. I tried to call to you quietly to avoid waking up Zeb, knowing it would be a feat to get him back to sleep if he woke in the night and saw us awake. You did not respond to me, so I went down to the basement, hoping I would not find you there. I thought those days were behind us, though I knew I was choosing willful ignorance sometimes to avoid holding up my ultimatum.
The lights were on, so I wandered down the steps, slowly. I hated seeing you down there. It had been many months since I had to see you like that, and I did not miss it. I peered into the basement from about halfway down the staircase, saw what I hated just enough to tell me what I needed to know, and went back upstairs. I did not feel like I needed to see more. I tried to watch the episode you queued up, but I felt sick to my stomach and could not. I texted your sponsor, aware he was asleep already. I figured he could deal with it in the morning, given that you would not have made a great conversationalist in that state anyway.
I went to bed, and I closed and locked the bedroom door to avoid having to look you in the eyes if you crept upstairs. I struggled to sleep for an hour or so as I thought about how I would find the nerve to tell you to get out of my life and Zeb’s. Eventually, I felt so riddled with fatigue that I fell into a comatose-like sleep. I did not dream of anything but static and silence.
When I woke in the morning, the world felt uncomfortably stiff and still. Zeb had not come to knock on our bedroom door yet, which was out of character given his usual morning habits. I attributed it to the fact that we stayed up late, but when I peered in his room, I realized he was not in his bed any longer. I rushed downstairs to the kitchen, thinking he raided the cabinets and ate junk food, but he was not there either. I did not see him anywhere. Even though I knew you would be a shell of yourself, I wondered if he was with you.
I went into the basement, somewhere Zeb always knew he was not allowed. You were still in the same position I left you. I went down all of the steps this time and wandered over to you. I tapped your shoulder, but you did not respond. I brushed your hair out of your face, but you did not respond. You were cold. I placed my ear on your chest and heard nothing but silence. I feared this day since we met, and you swore to me you would never do this. I untied the cotton from your arm, and I sat on the floor with it. This was the last thing to touch your skin, and I hated that piece of fabric for that. Your eyes were already closed, and your arm was visibly bruised. I realized I had not seen your bare body in so long that I had no idea this was happening again. Or maybe I did. Maybe I wanted to believe you were spending late nights working when I knew you were doing this all over again. I wanted to hate you as I sat with the little bit of cloth between my fingers, but your icy skin and silent chest were not you. All that was left was an empty, cold vessel. I did not try CPR. I did not try anything.
I went upstairs and down in search of Zeb again, trying not to panic that he was lost and trying not to panic that I lost you. As my eyes danced around in search of him, my mind curated ways to explain to Zeb what you did. When I walked by the kitchen again, I saw the back door was ajar with a small rock wedged between the door and frame. I went out to Zeb’s clubhouse and saw his back resting horizontally on the floor across its front door. I knocked on the little window to wake him, but he did not respond. I bent down, rubbed his shoulder, but he did not respond. I tilted him slightly and touched his face, but he did not respond. He was not as warm to the touch as usual, and his heart was beating so slowly I could hardly hear it. There was something stuck to his little lips, lips that lacked their usual vibrancy. I saw a spoon on the floor with a misshapen handle, and I realized what I did to our family by trying to pretend you were okay. I realized what I did to our family when I left you in the basement and went to bed. I thought of all the times you worried your son would hate you, though he never did, and, ultimately, your carelessness gave him a horrid final memory of you that came coupled with a life-threatening experience. It felt like a self-fulfilled prophecy. I wondered if you subconsciously wanted him to hate you to make his life easier if you left us behind in one way or another.
I carried Zeb into the house and placed him on the couch. I put his head on the pillow, faced him to his side, and covered him in a blanket. His body tremored ever so slightly, and I heard the sobs of his body as it rattled and gurgled. I called for an ambulance. I called for the police. I called and called and panic overcame me. I ran down to the basement and told you how much I hated you and your empty, cold vessel. I told you how I wished I never met you. I meant it, but I also loved you and loved the boy we created together. I went back upstairs and sat at the kitchen table. I held Zeb’s backpack against my chest like a child: hugging it, cradling it. It was warmer than your skin. It smelled like Zeb was supposed to smell. I could not look at our son. I waited for the sirens, and when I heard them, I feared they would take him from me. I worried you doomed me to lose everything, and I felt paralyzed with fear.
When they arrived, they banged on the front door, but I could not move my body. They rushed around the back of the house and walked through the open door. They saw me in shock, sitting motionless. They did not ask me to leave or move. They asked me if I was okay and tried to look into my eyes. I looked at them with a hollow glance and uttered no words. They understood. One man pointed to the basement, and I nodded my head. The other man walked into the living room and saw Zeb. He immediately ran outside and came back with more men. I closed my eyes and placed my head in my hands. I sobbed with a level of silence I never knew possible, my sorrow severing my ability to make even the slightest sound.
As they pulled Zeb into the ambulance on a stretcher, an EMT asked if this was something you did regularly in our house. As sirens wailed, he asked if I knew and let this go on. He asked if I had the same habit, now or in the past. As the sound of sirens faded, I took a breath and told him I knew it once and threatened to end our marriage if it became an issue again. I told him you were a wonderful father that laughed at Cars and spent the night bonding with his son before all of this; as the words left my mouth, I hated you more. My sorrow turned to anger, and my cheeks felt as though they burned and pulsated. I asked without emotion in my voice if Zeb was going to wake up, and he told me the hospital would do everything they could. He made no promises, and I never tried to make him.
No matter how many questions the police and the EMT asked, I did not have answers or excuses—only apologies and self-blame fell from my lips. All I knew is that I got kwispies for our son, and you left him a spoon. I sang him to sleep to keep him grounded, and you accidentally gave him flight.
independent, like the cocoi over argentina,
strength in wings that float the body
through air, through time, seeking
a whitemouth croaker, lying lifeless,
floating above the water, pale and grayed
so far away from the white-faced heron,
the one that dances slowly through the air
and ventures into forbidden places,
yet connected by a kingdom and a family.