“The Lepers in Your Head” / Chapter One: The Catalyst

This is the first chapter of a novella I’ve written. It will be published here one chapter at a time, probably twice a week. Trigger warning: this story is very dark, and may be triggering for those with suicidal ideation. It’s also not the kind of thing you’d expect your pastor to write. So, fair warning.

Chapter One: The Catalyst

“I just can’t do this anymore, Damon,” Amber said to me, tears welling up in both her eyes. Her face was scrunched up in a squeeze of despair, as though ready to burst in a torrent of liquid pain.

She had just come home from her afternoon walk. I met her in the breezeway as I headed out for a cigarette. She was back much sooner than expected. I reacted immediately to her despair: “What can I do? How can I help?” I wish I could say these words were calm and kind. They weren’t. They were desperate, even more desperate than hers. I hated seeing her like this. I had to fix this.

I mean, I wasn’t feeling any better than she was. But that was normal. I’m the one who’s supposed to be a wreck, not her. Oh God. This was all my fault. Of course it was. It was always my fault. I mean, not really. But in my own head it was.

She just shook her head and said, “I just can’t do this anymore.”

I asked her, “Can’t do what exactly?”

She said, “All this. COVID. All this snow and ice. Everything.” It was February 2021, and we’d been living in the bizarro world of COVID-19 for almost a year. Working from home. Kids doing school at home. Can’t go anywhere. And now mother nature decided to give us the first rough winter we’ve had in years. Snow or ice fell from an uncaring sky on every odd-numbered day, or so it seemed.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. I felt completely useless. My wife Amber – overcome by sadness from pandemic, from winter weather, from trying to work from home and teach three kids who were attending school virtually. Amber – the light to my darkness, who was always the one who kept it together while I fell apart, who was always the beating heart of our family, as my heart went out and earned a paycheck but little else. Amber – who was the kindest, sweetest human being I’d ever known. She was miserable. Broken. Shattered. She had always been the one who wasn’t broken. In a world where my job was falling apart, my friendships were long gone, and my relationship with my kids strained at best, she was the rock. And there was nothing I could do about it. Nothing.

And I knew that I couldn’t take this anymore either. When Amber said that she couldn’t take it anymore, I think she was referring to externalities. She felt like she couldn’t live with the pain and uncertainty and sterility around her. For me, it was different. For me, what I couldn’t take anymore was inside me. The darkness that filled me, and emptied me. I couldn’t take any of it anymore. What’s more, I couldn’t fake it anymore. I couldn’t be this human being that I was masquerading as every day. I couldn’t do any of this anymore. But there was nothing I could do about it. Nothing.

And don’t talk to me about therapy. Been there, done that. Don’t talk to me about medication. Been there, currently on that. Don’t talk to me about exercise, or meditation, or yoga, or support groups, or any of that. Tried all of them. They all helped for a time. Or they all triggered a placebo response, maybe. But it never lasted. The only thing that lasted was the darkness inside. That darkness will probably outlive the cockroaches and tardigrades. Long after I’m gone, the darkness inside me will still go on.

“Long after I’m gone.” Heh. Yeah, there was that one way out, of course. There was always the final way out, which would allow me to avoid any of this pain tomorrow. But if I did that, I’d just give additional pain to Amber, and certainly to my children. Childhood trauma is much worse, much longer-lasting, than adult trauma. I had every expectation that my kids would be in therapy most of their lives – hell, they got my genes after all. But to add to that inheritance the trauma of a father who died by suicide – that would be too much. I remembered the deal I had made with myself five years earlier.

Five years earlier, I had to travel to North Carolina for a three-day conference for work. I was able to take some vacation time before and after the conference. So instead of a three-hour flight, I took a leisurely three-day drive both ways. I wanted to see some of the country, enjoy the scenery.

But along the journey, the darkness went with me. The darkness crept along every highway, under each hotel bed, in every cigarette I smoked. The darkness swam through the summits of the Great Smokies. The darkness came to me in a voice, a voice I knew all too well. A voice I’d often called the Dead Voice. The Dead Voice whispered to me, “Why go back?” The Dead Voice whispered to me, “Why not end it out here?” The Dead Voice whispered to me, “There must be some excellent roads around here that go over and around these mountains. Surely one of them must have a weak guardrail on the valley-facing side.”

I had only one answer for the darkness that day: my children. No trauma for the children. The darkness accepted that, and so the he and I did some math together as we kept the car on the road. My youngest was five at the time: so thirteen years I had. Thirteen years, and she’d be eighteen. Thirteen years, and I could end it without guilt. Then she and her older siblings would be old enough to process the loss. It would still hurt them, but not the same way.

The clock was ticking. As of now, the day my wife sobbed as I stood by unable to offer anything, the timer on that clock still read eight years. I couldn’t commit to the final plan. Not yet.

But if the local legends I’d heard were true, then maybe there was another option.

The following morning, I had breakfast like normal. Special K Red Berries and newspaper. The kids were still in their rooms, likely awake but playing on their devices. Amber came in, touched my shoulder, and sat down to eat a bagel. I picked up the newspaper and threw it in the recycling bin, dishes in the sink. Weird to think I’m walking away from all this, just like that. I got dressed, found my hiking boots, and sat down on the living room couch to put them on.

“Jeans today?” my wife asked as she saw me lacing my boots. Jeans weren’t my typical work attire; even when working from home during the pandemic, I liked to dress for the office – it helped me feel more like I was really there.

“Yeah,” I said. “What’s the point in getting dressed up when I’m not going to see anybody anyway?”

“Good point.”

Boots laced, I looked over at her in the dining room. “How are you feeling now?”

“About the same.” Her face was mostly blank. She looked numb to me, or maybe I was transferring.

I said, “I have some errands to run this morning. Are you okay if I leave?”

“Yes, of course. We’ll be fine.”

“I don’t know if I’ll be home for lunch. I don’t have any Zoom meetings today. I’m thinking of just playing hooky. Would you be okay if I’m gone for a while?”

“That’s fine,” she said. “Leftovers tonight.”

I walked over to her, and gave her a hug. “Goodbye. I love you, Amber.”

“I love you too, Damon,” she said, almost automatically.

I went to the stairs, and looked up. I shouted, “Bye, kids!”

I heard a few voices mumble something.

I shouted again, “I love you!”

A little more mumbling.

And that was that. I walked out the door, and headed to the garage. In one corner, a backpack was lying on top of a bunch of cardboard boxes. I picked it up, and walked around the garage, tossing items into it: a heavy Maglite flashlight, a roll of duct tape, my Leatherman knife, a lighter, and what was left of a carton of Camel Lights. I got in the car and drove off. I lit a cigarette before I even left the driveway.

Next Chapter: The Drive

(c) 2021 Michael J. Scholtes

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