Thomm Quackenbush, author

The Saddest Lines | 2017 | Melissa Remains

02.10.17

"There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die."  

-Hunter S. Thompson



Melissa Dies

I get out of work and I turn on my phone. I harbor this slight paranoia that massive things occur while I am indisposed teaching and that, for whatever reason, I need to know these things before bridge the five miles between my job and my home.

There is a text and a voice mail. Texts are easier to deal with, so I check that first and find a message from my mother, asking for information because my father and she are going to have their wills made up. I roll my eyes, because I do not want to think about mortality Valentine's weekend.

I click the voicemail, tap my phone to speaker, and set to driving. It is a voice I do not immediately recognize. Telemarketers seem curiously unaware that they are not supposed to call me.

"mwmmshfh Melissa passed jjfhaseigj didn't rhehstihsghf from Facebook."

I pull my car to the shoulder and replay the message. "Hey, Thomm, this is Krista. Melissa passed away this morning. I didn't want you to find out from Facebook."

I feel nothing in the moment. Melissa's premature death is one of the scenarios I had envisioned as happening in my life and my brain immediately consults the script. One benefit of my neuroses is that my brain has already planned out most likely situations. Melissa has cycled through serious drugs in the twenty years I have known her. She has suffered from often debilitating mental illness for at least the last decade, if the drugs were not a cause or treatment. It was hard to imagine that she would survive herself long term. Ozzy and the Rolling Stones managed, but they paid people to keep them alive.

I drive with no more haste than usual. I stop and check the mail (a small package for Amber, a circular, junk mail), though I have begun narrating what I am doing with the air of ordering myself around. "You are going to stop the car and check the mail. Okay, now you are getting back in the car. You are going to drive up the driveway, park, and then ask Amber to check Facebook. And you are talking to yourself, which I think means that you have gone from formal operational to concrete operational. That probably means the trauma is beginning to hit you."

The other benefit of my neuroses is that I am keenly aware of what is going on in my brain, even if I am not in the position to stop it.

I get in the apartment, smiling, and tell Amber that I need her to check Melissa's Facebook.

She smirks coyly, "Why?" she asks as though there might be a fun surprise.

"Just do it?" I beg.

I collapse to the living room floor, the soles of my feet touching, my hands on my feet. I begin rocking. It is only seconds, but it feels so long as Amber opens my computer, then her own tablet, to get to the profile. She is pointedly quiet.

"Is she dead?" I whimper. "Did Melissa die?"

She breathes in and out through her nose. "Yeah, it looks that way."

I stand up and look at the screen, seeing her fiancÚ Rob breaking the news to the world at large, the flurry of consolatory replies he has already received. I scroll down, to the night before, where Melissa asked if the roads were clear from the snow storm and I told her that there are White Walkers everywhere and that she had better stay put. This is the last thing I will ever say to her.

I begin my pacing - I have to move right now - and dial Angela. She picks up after a few rings. "Hey, Thomm," she answers, sounding small and exhausted.

"So you know."

"Yeah."

I immediately ask the most pressing question. "Overdose or suicide?"

"Overdose of heroin," Angela admits. "Rob found her this morning between 4:30 and 6:30. She... she was already gone by then. There was nothing he could have done."

I don't doubt this. During one of my trainings for work, I was given a dose of naloxone, a medicine that reverses opioid overdose. It sat around my apartment since, as I cannot very well bring it into my facility and it would take a monumental series of monumental misjudgments for my residents to even get an opioid, let alone too much of one. I think what might have happened if I had just passed this off to Melissa the last time I saw her, but I had not taken the training then and did not have the kit.

I did not know that she was taking heroin, but I did know she was taking drugs. I do not think there was a moment in our entire friendship that she wasn't at most a few weeks away from a drug. Usually it was pot, something I consider relatively unproblematic. She had taken meth for a few months, while missing a boy she loved who mistreated her, e.g. her type. She once accidentally smoked crack, because someone gave it to her and told her it was something else. For a couple of years, she was addicted to cocaine and, at far as I knew, considered this the most brutal drug she had ever faced. She used to get free cocaine by daring men that she could snort more than they could. Even if she lost, and she won more than she lost, she still walked away without paying anything. Years ago, she boasted to me that she had never prostituted herself for drugs. This was a point of pride with her, though she admitted that she had come close at least once.

She beat cocaine addiction, for the most part. This was a genuine source of pride. She had nearly overdosed and, having hit one of several rock bottoms, shook her mother awake and said she needed to go to rehab. She celebrated the date of her sobriety, days either before or after her birthday. She meant only sobriety from cocaine, because it made her feel so good that she knew it would eat her whole life if she let it.

She had tried heroin a few times before, a decade ago, and then cut herself off because she had clarity enough to know it would kill her. I take no satisfaction in knowing she was right.

She had, or said she had, convinced doctors she has a host of pain-related conditions. The latest was fibromyalgia, which I know is difficult to prove. She complained dozens of times over the years about how this doctor or that wouldn't approve the medication she wanted and certainly not at the dosages she wanted. She had spent her teens and twenties proving how high a tolerance she had for chemicals. She complained of having to take an amount of sleeping pills a night that would, without hyperbole, probably stop my heart.

Maybe she was just in so much pain and retreated to heroin as the only thing that could take the edge off. I don't know. You cannot ever really know someone else's pain, physically or psychologically. Even then, I tended to side with her doctors, but I said nothing to her about that. Our friendship felt so tenuous, just a matter of avoiding those issues she had cited as reasons to stop speaking to people. She cut Angela out of her life for half a year because Angela had lent Melissa several hundred dollars. Melissa, trying to guilt her in a text fight, demanded her bank account information. When Angela finally relented, Melissa said she was proven right, that it had only ever been about money. I don't know if she actually transferred any money to Angela, just used her "trump card." They had only tentatively bridged that chasm again and I would be lying to think that their rift would not reappear. I would never give Melissa any money and she never really asked, aside from public fund-raising on the internet.

I know Melissa received a lot of money from her parents over the years and that they finally stopped paying, according to her. I do not know how Rob and she could have much of a life on his salary and her benefits, but they managed.

As a teenager, her cocaine habit reportedly cost several thousand dollar a week and, once clean, she couldn't figure out how much she could rally that amount of money so consistently. She half-joked that she sold middle schoolers baking soda in baggies, though I think she did do this. That prank doesn't pay for the habit, but I didn't pry.

When I was maybe sixteen or seventeen she came over to my house. When she threw her bag in her back seat, a eddy of dust whirled up and danced in the light. Melissa and her friend cast almost cartoonish glances at one another, then dove into her car and snorted her back seat. At the time and in subsequent retellings, this was a funny story. It wasn't "clawing at your skin, shaking and sweating" addiction around me. It was the addiction of the stoner background character in a frivolous comedy. You never see Silent Bob having to save up his one speech in the movie to eulogize Jay.

I call my mother, because she had known Melissa as long as I had. She usually liked Melissa and, when she didn't, she tolerated her. For the last few years, she pitied her because she thought Melissa had let herself get so lost, had left behind the spark of her potential.

I don't know the reaction I expected to this news, but she seemed resigned. She wasn't surprised, because this was all inevitable. Melissa could have come back from the edge of this abyss. It wouldn't have been easy, but she could have worked and made it back. She had a strong enough will to accomplish anything she wanted to do. She didn't. Now she was dead and that was all there was to it.

"It is like that movie, Final Destination. She escaped death that one time, but it was always coming for her. It just finally got to her."

She didn't commit suicide, but Melissa absolutely killed herself. I joke with myself that Melissa was the only force in the world that could kill Melissa. A car explosion didn't do it. So many things in the last twenty years - cocaine overdose, smoking crack, hooking up with random men she met on the internet, driving while barely conscious on nitrous oxide - could have killed her and barely left a dent. Maybe that made her feel adventurous to see what might do the trick, like a bored immortal.

All this makes Melissa sound awful and one-dimensional, like someone destine for this early tragedy, but she wasn't ever to me. She had more issues than most, but she never made them my issues and so I absolved her from my frantic moralizing. I couldn't handle that girlfriends of mine would drink, smoke, or do drugs (usually in moderation, I realize in retrospect). I didn't want these things done in my presence - though I could never stop her from lighting up cigarette after cigarette - but I didn't apply these judgments to Melissa. She was grandfathered in.

We were not nearly as close as we had once been. She seemed at times almost housebound for one reason or another and it did not seem she wanted company there.

I harbored this hope that she would get better one day. She wouldn't be the girl she once was, the one who initiated so many of my adolescent adventures, but she could become a woman worth getting to know all over again. That obviously won't happen now. I will never get the chance to fully repair my relationship with her.

It is a cruel blessing that the distance her addiction or mental illness (if they are not the same thing) put between us these last years makes this slightly easier. She was someone I spoke to, online and on the phone. She is someone whom I invited to go to art walks or come over for parties, though she never managed either. She had ceased to be an aspect of my everyday life so that doesn't have to change now. In a way, I can persist in talking to her. The only difference will be that she will never again reply.

Life goes on, as it must, though I would prefer it not so immediately. Amber has spots in the back of her throat and has for days. Since it is Friday and she doesn't have school in the morning, she tells me that we need to bring her to the urgent care.

I sit in the waiting room while she is checked out, wondering when I will start feeling something and then fearing that I might. On the television in front of me is some home makeover show. I stare at it without really comprehending anything but their false cheer. I may breakdown, I know, and I do not want to do it here.

Amber comes out some time later, though I do not have a comprehension of time passing as much as a deadline looming. Dezi's girlfriend Samantha invited us to see the Lego Batman Movie days ago and Amber agreed for the both of us. My oldest friend's untimely death would seem to give me an excuse to sit this one out, but Amber doesn't wish to and I do not have the will to overrule this momentum. She asks what I want to do about dinner - the plan had been to make pasta before I found out about Melissa's death and Amber decided that we ought to get her throat checked out - but warrants that we could get something from the grocery store. I tell her that I cannot make this decision right now and will panic if she presses me.

I think we go into the grocery store and maybe do not find the sort of food we want to eat, but I cannot recollect if this is true. My mind is frantically tracing paths, so I could have imagined this while figuring out what to do.

We end up back at our apartment, where Amber sets to making us spaghetti and I sit in front of my computer, refreshing social media in hopes it will give me more information about Melissa's death, though it doesn't.

We eat quickly, while watching something of Youtube, and then rush out to the theater.

I still do not feel the weight I expect, but feel it looming above me like the sword of Damocles. When we get there, I search my bag for the book of tickets we always have and cannot find it. I feel the tension rising.

"Thomm, people are waiting behind you..." Amber begins.

"I understand that!" I snap. "Let them go ahead of us!" I regret being short with her, but I cannot tolerate that. I shouldn't even be here right now. I should be home under a blanket. I throw down my card and buy the tickets.

Amber gets us seats. I settle in one, then immediately get up to throw out my gum. However, once I am in the lobby, I wander to the far corner, near the windows looking out into the parking lot, and just feel frozen. I stare at the machine that crushes pennies into useless copper slag, the world beginning to implode.

I don't know how long I was out there. It felt like several minutes - far too long to just have been throwing out my gum. Amber doesn't come out to look for me. Dezi and Samantha haven't arrived yet. I urgently will myself to get up and go back into the theater, though I do not think I manage to say anything to Amber in excuse.

We put on our 3D glasses and I wonder if the silliness of them will improve my mood. I wonder then if my tears will stain them somehow. I do not think I will be able to make it through the movie.

Dezi and Samantha come in after a few minutes and sit beside us. I try to distract myself from the emptiness that is welling within. It is a cute movie, though I could have done without a film where the moral is about how friends are family and never leave you.

When the lights go up, Dezi and Samantha greet us. Dezi asks how we are doing. I look to Amber mutely, wanting her to explain, but she doesn't because she doesn't feel she has the right to speak to me. Finally, I squeak out, "My oldest friend died of a heroin overdose this morning, so I am having a hard time."

There isn't much one can say to that, though they offer their condolences. We part soon after. I return to my apartment, where I do not feel the severity of what has occurred and what will come next.

I look up what Melissa's death might have been like, because I am a masochist and a writer and I need to know so I do not imagine anything worse. I want it to have been painless, a drifting off into nothingness. The few pages I find assure me that, though she likely was not pretty from the outside, she just fell into bliss and sleep until her heart stopped. If she was at all aware that her death was coming, she wouldn't have had it in her to care.

Having gotten the kindly answer, I do not search further. I do not want to see a contradiction.

I finally get ahold of Emily, my ex who had been one of Melissa's friends when we were together (I basically insisted upon their friendship). Once Emily left me, as she herself was quick to point out, Melissa turned every ounce of positive regard in their friendship to bile and hatred, but I still felt that Emily needed to be told in person. I could not think of anyone else who needed to hear it from a phone call instead of a message. I had waiting to post anything about it until she had heard.

I called only to let her know, though Emily asks what I need right now. I don't know what I need, particularly from her. I might have been satisfied if she just said, "That sucks. Message received. Poor Melissa."

I do not feel that I deserve the outpouring of sympathy I get when I finally do post about it. I am not her blood family - though I do not know how close she was with her family anymore. I am not her fiancÚ. I do not feel I was even a particularly great friend to her in the end, though I do not doubt I was all she really required of me at this point.

I tell Emily of the last contact I had with Melissa. "I wonder if I could have done anything to stop this," but I know that isn't true the moment it is in the air. There was nothing I could have done about this. I had no idea she was intending to take a fatal dose of heroin that night. I could not have even sworn that she was taking heroin. I would have instead credited too much of a prescription medication or a few illicit pills acquired from men whose names I would never know.

I am so overwhelmed by things to mourn in this that I freeze in picking a place to start. Slowly, the idea of her death will melt over me.

I can only write all this because I do not yet understand the reality of her death. I hope that, by writing this all out, it will become sufficiently real. The truth is likely that I am making it more and more a story, something I can hold in my hand. Something that doesn't really hurt because I know its contours well enough to no longer nick myself on its sharper edges.

Soon in Xenology: Processing. No Such Convention.

last watched: The Killing Joke
reading: Black Orchid
listening: Die Antwoord

The Saddest Lines | 2017 | Melissa Remains

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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Works by Thomm Quackenbush

Anthologies

Find What You Love and Let It Kill You by Thomm Quackenbush
Pagan Standard Times: Essays on the Craft by Thomm Quackenbush
A Creature Was Stirring: A Twisted Christmas Anthology by Thomm Quackenbush
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