by Yiorgos Solomou
As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 1, March 2013
He was standing with the other people in front of an electronics shop watching television. The channel was tuned to ‘Happy Hour’, showing unscripted candid situations; toddlers tripping over each other, kittens cuddling up to dogs, odd dancing skills and pranks gone wrong. But unlike the rest of the strangers, he was not laughing. He knew more or less why he couldn’t but didn’t really care either.
It wasn’t a specific event, a specific moment in time. It was a gradual process.
Barely noticeable. At first it began with emotions.
Not being able to recognise them in others or to feel them himself. Stimuli such as people, situations or things didn’t ignite emotions.
It progressed into colours, which were slowly losing their shine and becoming shades of grey. Then it infected his words. And that he knew, when they became too few. Food tasted what food ought to taste like, but it was never accompanied with a craving; so he ate only when his stomach told him to. Life became out-of-sync with itself while he was present. It was as if everything was happening one second later than it actually did. People became actors on a show and his surroundings the set. He never laughed with the rest of the audience but he still had the propensity for suspense, or rather fear.
Fear that once he reached out to the set, what he would touch wouldn’t be synthetic; fake; breakable. It would feel real and he’d know that it is real but it still wouldn’t be. Not for him. That was why he was so scared of visiting one of those psy-doctors. Too scared of what the doctor might tell him. He knew he didn’t feel things like other people did but he also didn’t want to get one of those dreadful sounding words on his permanent file.
It had been one year since he’d quit his job. Unable to fake it anymore he didn’t want to be sent to a specialist. It was almost two years since his live-in girlfriend had left him and wished him all the best, and she meant it, she really did. And three years since Hangera Pharmaceutical came into his city and provided them with the cure. The cure for unhappiness they said. Sure it was. For 99.5% of the population it was.
As another kitten made its way through a pipe and towards the camera, Riley turned around to go home. Strolls around the city had become less frequent and shorter and he knew that because he used to count each step. He was already at two hundred and forty two that evening. It was a coping mechanism. Counting the steps he took. He knew that 150 equated to food, and 37 to the bus stop; 999 was for the park and back, 4,010 to the city hall and 1,850 his parent’s house. The only major location he didn’t know was Hangera’s main recovering clinic. That and the fact that someone was following him that night back home.
Three years ago, the relatively big city of Everglade was picked out of a hundred similar cities that matched a specific socio-demographic profile for an experiment, to be the first of many. Its size, location and misery levels were just about right for a new drug to be given in bulk to the entire population. Triplohydrate magnesium feratin, also known as TMF or simply SMILE, was a specific component that increased serotonin levels in human organisms (in other mammals mostly small in size, it caused frenzied behaviour and an eventual death from hyperactivity, fatigue and dehydration). It was the first psychological breakthrough relating to mass consumption by groups. There was legislation of course, and protests packed with banners calling for autonomy and free will but results spoke for themselves.
Petty crimes saw a decrease in numbers, along with divorce rates and suicides. Weddings became more frequent; productivity increased. A survey showed that people were indeed at least forty-five percent happier than what they were five years ago and the experiment was deemed a success. TMF had been made freely available to everyone through public water supply and its only observed side-effect had been increased consumption of chocolate.
Hangera brought with them their ‘Happy Centres’, glassy towers with huge yellow smiley faces on each side, indoor swimming pools and facilities for ‘all kinds of fun’ (as stated in their brochure). Inside, complete rehabilitation of ‘individuals non responsive to TMF’ were given another chance to be happy. Critics all over condemned the activities occurring in those centres as invasive, inhumane and of violating personal freedoms. But no one had concrete evidence to do anything about it. Whatever they were doing in there seemed to work. Rumours said that Hangera’s five-step program consisted of brainwashing, electroshock treatment and drug therapy and that it was forcefully induced upon patients who had been admitted either by their family or the circumstances in which they were found in (almost alive). That didn’t seem to get any of Everglade’s inhabitants down, emotionally, but it did create some social reclusion for people that showed no effects to the water. And in each citizen of Everglade, no matter how chemically transfused their brain was, a nudging feeling remained but they needn’t be worried – all they had to do was smile.
She first noticed him at the local convenience store three weeks ago. The spinning red and blue lights caught her attention, so she moved closer to the scene. He was giving the two policemen a detailed report of the robbery that took place minutes before. It wasn’t the scruffy way he looked that drew her attention, with his coat a couple of sizes too big and the grease on his hair building up. Nor was it the complete lack of chocolate in the plastic bags he was holding. It was the automated way in which he narrated the events that had taken place minutes before she had arrived. In a mildly clogged dead-pan voice, the young male that identified himself to the officers as Riley Anders, described in plain detail how a man masked in nylon pantyhose, politely asked from Mr. Chow – the owner of Chow’s Happy Happy Shop- to empty the cash register. And when the scene was all and done, Sammy, out of curiosity and idle time, followed one Riley Anders.
Ever since that incidence, Sammy stopped walking around the city aimlessly and instead chose to sit at the bus stop across his building. She knew, so far, that he lived on the third floor, and that the television was on the entire evening. She knew for certain that on Mondays and Thursdays he’d go to the convenience shop and buy frozen pizzas, frozen breaded chicken, potatoes, canned tuna, salt flavoured crisps, and baked beans. Some days, around the time the news were on, he’d go out of his building, stop at the entrance, look left, then look right, then left again and then he’d randomly choose a direction to walk. He didn’t really have a destination as far as Sammy could tell, and he didn’t always pay attention to his surroundings. He could have realized that she was watching him a couple of times but he didn’t. As days passed, his walks became shorter. He would sometimes walk across the park, other times he’d walk to the end of the road, and then back again. She thought she understood him a little.
She as well used to walk quite a bit. She needed to get away from her home, or rather the people in her home, mainly her mother and sister. Ever since her father had left them things weren’t the same. He announced to them one day, a year ago or so, that he had found true happiness in the arms of a two-metered Swedish masseur named Hans. Both her sister and mother cried, tears of joy they cried, because he was finally happy, because he deserved it. While the revelations raged on and the emotional discharge that seeped through in between, Sammy just stood in the corner of the room unable to speak or react. She hasn’t seen her father since. Blaming everything on him was all too easy, but she knew she couldn’t. She had lost her interest in everything long before that.
It was almost three years ago when she quit college and stopped painting, and that took a toll on her. At first the urge and mood were gone, yet she refused to believe there was nothing worth drawing. She spent hours at nights staring at all her old paintings and especially the one that got her into college, the one with the rushed violet strokes that were supposed to be a sea, and a ship wrecked on a shore, its sails a dirty white, ripped and flailing against the still wind, with the missing cloth becoming seagulls against rushed lilac strokes supposed to be the sky. She remembered how she had felt when she drew and painted them, and how she felt when she looked at them again all those nights in her room: nothing.
It was almost visible for her mother and sister. She could sometimes hear them talking about her. They had arranged dates for her with random boys, and shopping sprees and country-side trips. And she did her best not to make them feel bad, but at the end of those days she’d be in bed without supper and on the verge of tears. And finally one day she took all her work and stashed it beneath her bed.
The only place to hide her rainy moods, she discovered, was in a journal she began to keep. She wrote about her fears for the future, the lack of it in herself; she wrote how much she missed the dysfunctional people of the past and how surprising it was as she’d hated them through out the life she could remember. The people who dressed in fancy clothes they saw in magazines, and the people who wore only black, and the ones who got drunk and cried over a fortnight romance and the ones who bragged about their money and the ones who were constantly angry about nothing and the ones who were sad and worried about everything and made a point of telling everyone about it. And in the last few weeks she wrote about a boy she knew but did not meet, but that’s her own business.
She had resigned to the state of feeling alone. As if everyone expected only one thing out of her, and that was to be happy. It was simple after all. Only, she didn’t know how. They didn’t care why she stopped drawing, and dropping out of college was just a phase, ‘it’ll pass’. Nor why every time she was with people she was sweating and finding it hard to breathe. When she finally started going out of the house, both mother and sister were pleased. And Sammy was pleased, especially when she saw him, because maybe she saw something, a glimpse of the future, a way in which to make sense of her loneliness. So she started following him around whenever she could, slowly gathering the strength she needed to finally act. The night she decided to do something about it, was the night her sister found the journal in Sammy’s room.
Riley and Sammy sitting on a tree
As he was approaching his street he might have heard someone calling behind him, but he didn’t turn around because he knew it wasn’t for him.
‘Hey,’ the voice shouted, ‘hey you,’ it went on and finally, ‘Hey you, turn around!’
And he stopped.
And turned around.
And in front of him was a girl he’d never seen before. She was short with brown straight hair, wearing a puffy orange jacket that made her look like a mandarin, and if Riley could relate to the word or at least remember its meaning then she might have been pretty.
‘Excuse me, but are you talking to me?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ was the simple reply.
She stood in front of him at a distance he found unsettling. A faint smell of strawberry and freshly washed clothes hung in the air, or so he imagined. They stood like that for what seemed to him like twenty-five paces.
Finally, she extended her arm towards him. ‘I’m Samantha R. Vale,’ she said without smiling, just looking at him, as if she was examining something she had only known to exist from afar.
‘What does the “R” stand for?’ he asked surprised at how easily he skipped all mandatory lines of dialogue.
‘Well,’ she told him, ‘it could mean lots of things. It once did. But right now it just stands for Riley’s.’
‘Riley’s?’ he said. ‘But that’s my name.’
‘I know,’ she said, ‘you can call me Sam or Sammy.’
He stood there puzzled.
‘How do you know my name?’ he finally asked her.
‘I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow. Tomorrow beneath the big oak tree at Avery park at three,’ she said as she leaned closer, and touched his face as if to make sure he was real and then without thinking, kissed him on the lips.
(A small quick soft kiss.)
A sharp feeling coursed through him like a lightning at that exact moment, and left him paralyzed for he couldn’t speak or walk or do anything at all, expect watch her feet retreating cheerfully from the direction they had come. He counted the steps until she disappeared, and when she did, and he could breathe, he realized, with surprise of all things, that he couldn’t remember the count when she disappeared.
Dial D for diagnosis
Looking at the mirror in the elevator, Riley had to recite the mnemonic for diagnosing a stroke.
‘F’ was for face; to check for an uneven smile, but for him all smiles seemed uneven for he hadn’t smiled in years.
‘A’ was for arm and leg; and he could definitely feel his legs failing him, and his arms, fingers especially, tingling.
‘S’ was for speech; to check if his speech was slurred, if he was saying inappropriate words or if he was mute, and he was.
And ‘T’ was for time, because time is critical and he had to call for help, but he didn’t. Instead he slapped his face a couple of times to get rid of that smile. And when that didn’t happen, he run up and down in his tiny apartment, stealing glances from the mirror to see if the smile had gone, and once his heart was pounding faster than he ever felt before, he jumped on his couch and began to think.
The Johnsons, who at the time were watching their favourite TV show about a family of twelve living in a three bedroom house (a successful formula for laughs, gags and moral stories) were startled to hear their neighbour, the recluse young man from 3D shouting at the top of his lungs: ‘I’m cured, I’m cured!’
Meanwhile, Sammy was approaching her home when she noticed an ambulance van parked right in front of her house. Jumping only to the worst conclusions she rushed inside. When she opened the door she saw her sister and her mother on the couch in tears, the kind of tears she hadn’t seen in a while. There were two men dressed in white scrubs standing by the kitchen door, while the third, an older man wearing glasses, a suit and a reassuring smile, was holding her mother’s hand. On the table lay three tea cups, some chocolate cookies, a brochure with a smiley face on it and a notebook with sparkles and stars and ‘Sammy’ written on its cover.
The oak tree
The city of Everglade was once famous for its parks. There were small parks, the size of a tennis court, with just a few swings, trees and a couple of benches. There were also bigger parks; some had miniature ponds and others had statues, but they all had trees. Those parks slowly deteriorated, either due to shortage of city funds or simply because the city didn’t care. The swings were covered in rust, the trees slowly dying, and the benches were just pieces of carved wood. Only one park was kept in good condition and that was Avery Park. People said it was because of its oak tree, that its roots fed the other trees and that its shade attracted more people for their afternoon picnics. When the ‘Happiness Act’ was enforced, the mayor at the time sought to re-establish the parks that the city owed its name to, to their former glory. The council planted seeds of maple trees and elms and white ash in all the parks, but only one oak tree in each. The one in Avery was different of course, as it was older, larger and up until then, very much unappreciated. Countless were the people who sat beneath its shade in the spring and summer and some of them even left their mark on its bark in forms of hearts and letters, vows and dates.
Riley was standing beneath that tree at the time, examining its many carvings, unable to remember if he’d noticed them during his last visit years ago. It was five minutes past three and she still hadn’t showed up. He hadn’t slept well the night before. He felt sick in his stomach, as if there were all sorts of things fluttering about making breathing difficult. Now he waited patiently with the tree on his back, wearing clothes he hadn’t seen in years.
After the sun had set he went home to change and wear something that didn’t smell like sweat. He changed as fast as he could and once more went to the park. He stayed there until half past three in the morning, in case she meant that three, and not the other three. When he realized she wouldn’t show up Riley went home. He went home feeling things, all kinds of things, things that resembled drowning and broken glass, musty clothes and torn pages, things he just couldn’t put into words.
For almost two weeks, if people weren’t so absorbed in their activities with their children, their lovers, their pets, or their books, they might have noticed a young man standing beneath the oak tree at Avery park, every day at three o’clock sharp.
There was that awful cringing smile they all wore. They seemed a little too perfect for Samantha. Just like the cartoons her parents must have watched when they were young. Two dimensional people with sharp angular features; an interconnecting white smile, huge beady eyes and with a hair colour that wasn’t blonde or gold, rather just plain yellow.
‘Will you wipe that freaking smile off your face? God, what is the matter with you people.’
Sammy kept screaming at them, screaming until her voice became a duck’s squawk; something they had found amusing. On her first day she had had to be sedated. It wasn’t standard practise, especially with patients who had been committed by their family, but they had no choice. They had never encountered someone as unruly as her before. They had called in a specialist specifically for her; a point they had repeatedly mentioned.
Samantha was in a room with white walls covered in a pillow like material. Directly across from her was a big mirror, divided into two parts, a small square cut out at the centre. The left mirror was seemingly normal; it reflected exactly what was ahead of it. The one on the right wasn’t a mirror at all but a glass surface plugged to a computer that was able to manipulate whatever was reflected on its surface. In the middle was a camera.
As she was tied down in a chair in that room, struggling to break free, the specialist smiled and knelt next to her.
‘Sammy honey,’ she said speaking with a soft soothing voice reserved for dogs and children, ‘can I call you that? I know you’re scared, I know you miss your family very much but we are just trying to make you normal. Do you understand?’
Samantha understood. She replied by biting the woman’s cheek until blood run and she passed out.
After a month or so, Riley’s stable condition of care-free apathy went through a bumpy ride straight into a brick wall. A psy-doctor or happiness specialist would have called Riley’s original condition: ‘an on going depersonalisation experience caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain’. When Riley had finally found a spark that set ablaze the wooden floorings of the low-ratings show that had become his life, his behaviour included untimely bursts of laughing, crying, screaming and for some peculiar reason, scratching the linen sheets of his bed.
If he had visited any kind of doctor specialized in pharmaceutical medicine they’d have called it ‘an on going manic-depressive episode caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain’. The end of the month had found him breaking his weekly schedule of filling his cupboards with essentials, a declining habit of taking care of himself, neglecting to shower, shave or clean his apartment.
While as a month ago he’d be perfectly fine (not happy, but fine) to let things take their course in their colourless existence, where he knew something was missing but just didn’t care, now he had become a piece of room furniture that spent most of its time sleeping. A psychiatrist would have him classified as ‘depressed because of a chemical imbalance in his brain’.
His landlord visited one day to enquire whether he was alive or dead. There was a thick ‘Happy Yellow Pages’ book on the outside of his door for quite some time, and naturally, the landlord was concerned about the wellbeing of a tenant late on rent. It took Riley a good ten minutes to explain that he wasn’t a homeless man, that he didn’t kill the current occupant and that he was indeed Riley Anders, the young accountant that had moved in with his girlfriend in that apartment five years ago. The landlord had laughed at his own foolishness, told Riley to keep up the good work and left, leaving Riley checking for a pulse to see if in fact he was dead or alive.
It occurred to him that Samantha stood him up on purpose. That she just wanted to toy with a man who was obviously unable to feel, and that she had succeeded; but she couldn’t have known, he kept telling himself in the mirror, she couldn’t have known.
He checked for missing people going by that name, Samantha R. Vale, after plotting entire abduction scenarios in his mind. At some point he drew a rough sketch of hers and walked around his area and Avery Park showing it to random people. It never occurred to him that he had her full name, and that by then he also had a means of browsing through an entire registry of names in order to locate her.
Someone who had spent years of training, earning a couple of initials before their names, becoming a professional exploring the depths of the human psyche would have called him paranoid, schizoid, obsessive compulsive, all because of a chemical imbalance in his head; easily fixable with a dose of the happiness drug. On the other hand, a layman would have simply called him in love.
Five steps: the happy-core mode
“For all intents and purposes this is a general summary and an in-house extension of the radical version of the five steps targeting uncooperative individuals. It serves only as a guideline and each centre may choose to implement it as they see fit.
Step one: Admitting unhappiness and identifying the causes.
The subject (with the help of a staff member) locates all current behaviours that compromise their lives. In the Realization Room he or she will be shown the error of their ways through the Window of Truth. They will not be told anything about the function of the Window of Truth.
Six to nine days, five to nine hours each day, left to the discretion of the primary psychatrician.
Step two: A change is vital to the beginning of a new life.
With the help of a staff member, the patient is made to understand that their way of life is harmful and unpleasant, to themselves and especially to others. Further on, they will address the root of the problem, embodied by the divided being that is themselves.
First, the subject will be shown images from the Realization Room Experience and they will be made aware of all the conclusions their doctors have made of them. Secondly, they will be shown images of the fulfilled individuals that they can become. Treatment will take place in the Self Examination Room.
Six to nine days, five to nine hours each day, left to the discretion of the primary psychatrician.
Step three: One cannot move ahead if one is stuck with their old self.
The Cleansing Rewiring Process should begin once the individual has attended at least twenty sessions of steps one and two combined. The treatment is divided into two parts.
First, dried rhizome and ipecacuanha plant roots will be administered to the subject three times a day for five days until the patient has been cleansed of all dangerous toxins currently in their system.
Secondly, the patient will undertake electroconvulsive therapy for no more than three hours every day for six days.
Step four: A happy mind is a calm mind.
Assuming the subject has emerged with at least their main functions unaltered from step three, then they can begin the Sea-breeze Therapy in the centre’s room of choice. For previously uncooperative patients, the use of calming drugs is mandatory. Subjects should be kept on 24 hour surveillance in a drug induced state. Periods will vary and it is thus left to the discretion of the primary psychatrician.
Step five: The path to happiness is a path lived in unity.
Once the primary psychatrician has deemed the subject able and willing to reconcile the broken parts of themselves into a new happy whole, then they will be released to the care of centre-controlled patient-doctor groups that take place within the facility. After a period of no more than forty days, and after the subject has shown characteristics of intrinsic change, subsequently they will be re-evaluated and if considered fit they will be allowed to check-out and re-enter society. If they fail the final test then the whole Five Steps procedure should resume again.”
By the time Riley had managed to locate Samantha R. Vale’s residence, an extremely difficult task to achieve considering his social skills, both on the phone and in person, she was already in the beginning of step three.
He didn’t quite understand the terminology on the leaflets of the Happy Centres that Sam’s mom had given him. Yet she was more than willing to elaborate as the doctors had explained almost everything to her. Riley listened patiently before raising his voice and asking why, why did they send her there. The older woman excused herself and returned holding a book with SAMMY written in glitter and stickers on its front. On and on she talked about unhappiness and the dreadful sounding word depression, how Sammy was confused and unstable (urging him in the meantime to eat more cookies), how she wouldn’t bother him again since chances are (and she chuckled at that point) she wouldn’t even remember him.
Riley couldn’t hear her though, his eyes fixed on the last line of the last entry on a date so familiar: “Rain or shine, tonight, I’ll kiss him tonight.” Finally he snapped out of it, his lips quivering and cheeks tinged with colour. He slammed the journal and picked it up as if it was a fragile treasure, and then headed for the door in big fast footsteps. Out of the house now he was running, his blazer and tie flapping like flags against the wind. Still he couldn’t hear the mother, shouting, ‘Mr. Anders, you forgot your cookies!’
We want information
The journal mentioned a man, dressed in clothes a couple of sizes too big, looking left and right like a boy before choosing to randomly “walk and walk and walk”. She had observed how he didn’t like cooking, or chocolate for that matter, and that she would cook everything for him when they were together. They’d have ice-cream for dessert, and raspberry cake, and cream and strawberries and jelly beans, anything but chocolate. They had their first date in Avery Park, the journal said, talking about art and books, holding hands and each other until sunset. She’d draw him pictures and he’d do nothing but watch; not knowing him didn’t matter, Sammy wrote, she knew he’d understand.
Riley wasn’t much of a reader. He couldn’t judge Sam’s diary on its qualitative merits, other that for him, it was the most beautiful thing he’s ever read. The life he never had. He was but an empty character given depth and colour by the musings of the author. Someone, without knowing him, imagined a fictitious scenario where he was both an extra and the star. With every line read, a heavy leaden knot tumbled down his stomach. He as well had imagined for the past month the life he could have had. Day-dreams in the morning while lying on the couch or on the bed; in the afternoon as he walked, and day-dreams before he slept.
‘Maybe,’ he whispered to himself, ‘maybe when she’s out’. And then he bellowed into laughter. And then he mimicked crying, and saw how in the mirror the expressions finally made sense. Still he knew there was no cure. So he did whatever a sane individual in his position would do. He made a list.
Memories of objects blurring as he was racing with his bicycle when he was younger led to the first item: car. Bullet-points followed after that. Crushing the car, falling down a cliff with one, stepping in front of a car and finally letting it run, with him inside a locked garage. How he wished he had passed the driving exam all those years ago.
He drew a line across the page, from cliff towards the next item on the list: falling. The bridge at first seemed ideal; it’d definitely cure his fear of heights. But what if the impact did not kill him, he wondered. Drowning was not supposed to be even on the list. His own building perhaps? But how about the sight he would make on the pavement in front of his building; would he be mocked, would he scar an innocent bystander, will the house price index go down? Nodding his head, he began writing a word, scribbled over it and then connected a line from his previous pointers to the brand new entry: suffocation. Writing down the various methods he couldn’t help but attach next to them a monetary value. Only the rope was an item he didn’t own. Sighing, he crunched the paper and threw it on the floor.
He went for a walk, or rather his feet went for a walk as his mind whirled around the least painful methods of suicide. After 1,841 paces he glanced up at a familiar road. The freshly-mowed grass, plastic toy cars and wooden fences screamed suburbia. A man watering his lawn waved Riley by as he knocked on one of the house’s doors. Disappointed at first from the lack of a response he turned to leave. Instead a thought occurred to him, and so he went around back to find a key beneath an empty pot of clay meant for his mother’s sweet pea flowers. He didn’t stay long inside the house he grew up in. All the pills were behind the mirror in his parents’ bathroom.
He didn’t run back to his apartment, nor did he slowly walk.
Way things are, he figured, most ways of efficiently killing oneself are too public or too painful. A pill overdose would surely knock him out before his organs began shutting down. There was no point in a suicide note he felt; his family would miss him, for a short period of time of course, but plenty of children and grandchildren to replace him. He switched off the lights, drew all the curtains down, made sure all the taps and faucets didn’t leak, and then laid on his bed after swallowing every available pill.
Thirty three hours later he woke up on the bathroom tiles, unable to move his hands and legs. At least five minutes were spent with his face on the floor, next to a sticky substance and grimy pieces. It seemed that the kind of diet Riley had been accustomed to the last two years had built enough fat deposits to absorb any effects he was expecting the pills to have. Giving himself at least five hours to recover, he pondered about an alternative method of carbon dioxide poisoning. After spending at least another hour trying to figure out how his dusty oven operated, he gave up. He toyed with the thought of calling his ex-girlfriend and asking for instructions since she was the only one who could decipher its complicate machinations.
With the number of choices suddenly diminishing, he panicked. Frantically searching throughout the apartment, he tore cupboards apart searching for something to kill him, nice and quiet in the privacy of his own house. He found the answer in the cutlery drawer, taking knife after knife and testing their sharpness against his left arm. Still weak, he fainted at the sight of blood.
He woke up once more, and let out a slow depressing moan. This time he didn’t even bother with recovering. Dizzy, he stumbled outside and rushed to the nearest survival shop he could find. There, he bought a rope and a book called “Everything You Need To Know About Knots”, paid in cash and left without receiving change.
Once at home he glanced at the book and without further examination he concluded that the hangman’s knot was the best choice. After tying it wrong twice he went for the much simpler running knot. While perfecting the noose, hanging it from the ceiling, and choosing the tallest chair on which to stand on, he couldn’t help but feel relief.
Even as he placed the knot around his neck he didn’t feel bad. It was a choice after all; didn’t Sammy talk about choices in her journal, he thought, didn’t she mention words like autonomy and different kinds of pancakes? It wasn’t a specific event you see, a specific moment in time, acknowledging what he was feeling. It was a gradual process. And now, with a noose around his neck, everything was clear; day in, day out, divided only by the next welfare check; not caring at all, then caring too much, then inability to care for anything; stepping up then stepping off was striving for happiness after all; stepping up then stepping off,
and the chair hitting the floor became nothing but a thump and his gulps became nothing but muffled sounds, and the rope cut deep in his skin, and his larynx was pressed against it and he could feel the blood surging like a tide in his face. His hands stopped fighting with the rope and gravity, and his entire body became a dead weight he could hardly feel. Loud thumping noises rolled in his ears, it must have been his heart fighting against the inevitable, he thought. His vision was distorted with stabs of blurred pictures and black dots, and he thought that his life would flash in those last moments but he saw nothing but blurred pictures and black dots and what seemed like blue figures bursting through his door.
When he woke up it was unlike any confusion he had ever experienced before. It took time for his eyes to adjust, there was a white light hurting them and he was unable to turn away from it. He was also unable to move his arms.
‘Good. You’re awake,’ said a female voice to his right. He turned towards it and a woman in white was standing there with a smile on her face. ‘I’ll go get the doctor.’
He couldn’t speak at first. Everything that he tried saying went out of his mouth in forms of slurred whispers.
‘You’ve bruised your neck,’ said a male voice, the doctor entering the room. ‘But that, young man,’ he said joyfully, ‘is the least of your problems. A couple of police officers would like to speak with you. It seems that while your parents were away, someone broke into their house and stole their medication. The neighbours identified their youngest son.’
Riley could feel his eyes burning with hot liquid that had began running down his cheeks.
‘Now now,’ said the doctor while patting Riley’s leg, ‘I’m sure they won’t press charges.’ The doctor got up and pulled the curtains. ‘About the other thing,’ he said and paused for a moment while he sat down. ‘We here at the Happiness Centre, operate a trust-and-understanding policy. So, Riley, I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to answer truthfully. Will you try and kill yourself again?’
Whatever he was thinking, he could only shake his head No.
‘Very well then. I will give you some of our sedatives to calm you down, and tomorrow you will be able to speak to the police and your family. I must insist that you join our Five Steps Rehabilitation Program. What do you say?’ he asked.
Riley shook his head affirmatively while trying to speak. The doctor leaned closer to hear Riley whispering, ‘I want to be happy, doctor’.
‘I know Riley, I know,’ he said smiling while pushing the sedative into Riley’s drip.
The next morning when Riley woke up he realized that they had moved him to a different room. Also, he was no longer tied to his bed. It must have been early in the day for he could hear the nurses making their rounds. He stood up, feeling weak on his feet, and examined the outside world through the window. He could see the sun reflected on the buildings ahead, creating a playful picture of shades and light. He couldn’t have felt more miserable. If there was any doubt in his mind about the only act that mattered in his life it was all gone.
He stood by the window for a while, taking all the calmness that the picture before him could provide, knowing for certain that today was the day he could finally be free. He noticed an indoor swimming pool that was on the bottom of the building below him slightly to the right. From that angle he couldn’t make many details, only people in white, lying on beds around the pool. He once more thought of how he hated heights and how much he loved the water. The swimming pool wasn’t a choice. The answer was staring him in the face.
A nurse had come in to check on him, interrupting his thoughts. ‘Are you alright dear? Do you need anything?’ she asked him.
‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘can you open this window for me? I’d like to get some air.’
‘Sure, I understand. Poor thing,’ she said with a gentle voice. ‘Do you need me to get you anything else?’ she asked while opening the window for him using a key on her waist. ‘Some eggs? Toast with jam? Anything?’
‘No,’ he replied, ‘thank you so much,’ he said and cringed, confusing the nurse with the expression on his face, an expression that was hard for him to fake.
‘Alright then. Remember, you have visitors in an hour. You might want to shower first. See you later!’ she said, waving her hand as she was exiting the room.
Riley had to wait for five minutes to make sure that they weren’t testing him. Everything seemed too easy to be true. He checked the corners and the television for hidden cameras, he checked the cupboard and the clock on the wall, and once satisfied, he placed a chair beneath the door knob. He opened the window wide and climbed up on the ledge. It wasn’t as high as he had imagined but as long as he didn’t hit the glass dome covering the pool he would be alright – he’d be just fine in fact. The torrent of air hitting his face and naked legs managed to help him with his traditional fear of heights; he was no longer afraid.
Savouring the moment a little longer could mean his discovery, and that would mean another failed attempt at killing himself, the simplest thing ever and he was doing it all wrong. The only thing he regretted was not attempting to jump from a building sooner. The personal environment of his home had defined him, even in its minimalistic untidiness, but the present situation he had found himself in, was much more thrilling, much more meaningful. He didn’t feel guilt for not leaving a suicide note but he had to do something to finish off that grand action. He felt the need to do something like people feel the need to offer condolences. So he raised his hands, examining the skyline ahead, and began to speak.
‘Goodbye sun. Goodbye sky. Goodbye building-whose-name-I-do-not-know.’ He lowered his gaze, ‘Goodbye streets, goodbye cars, goodbye lamp-posts.’ He turned to his right, ‘Goodbye world, goodbye people, goodbye swimming pool, goodbye-’ he stammered, almost losing his grip, forcing his body to lean back towards the glass. ‘Sammy?’ he mumbled under his breath, his gaze locked to a figure lying by the pool staring up into the sky towards him. In his attempt to place one leg back in the room to get a better grip and lean at least a bit closer over the edge to see the face that was looking at him, he slipped. His leg got trapped on the curtain string, and his body leaned completely out of the window. The curtain base snapped and broke, causing him to fall if only for a few yards with his leg still trapped on the string. His whole body was hanging by the building, the only thing holding him from falling was that string wrapped around his leg. In the distance, three floors below him, Sammy’s face looked so serene and yet unnatural at the same time. Her eyes were moving erratically, which he could only tell by the glimmers of light caught as they were filling up with water – her lips slowly changing their resting posture, trying to open, trying to speak. Even her arms were slightly twitching as her expression was changing. She was looking at him. She was looking straight at him and he knew it.