Blue Hamburger Hour

When Alex’s son Brian entered the master bedroom after his third suicide attempt, Alex was already awake. His eyes were peeled and dry as he watched nighttime molecules settle on his face.

Carrie, Alex’s wife and Brian’s stepmom, was asleep. The sudden light from the open door caught the planes of her nose, her cheek. Brian’s chubby frame swayed in the hall. Alex knew Brian would speak softly this time, just to him. There was no sense waking Carrie.

“Dad,” Brian said. “Come on.”

Carrie’s lips parted, exposing a cluster of bubbles like frog eggs. She rolled over, her shiny auburn hair spreading across the pillow. Carrie and Alex had been married for three years, and Alex had never been so in love. She dismissed all the tension from his long days at the think tank with the tips of her fingers on his back, the way she could make him laugh with schoolbook jokes. But she wasn’t as great with his son. She’d treated Brian like a fourteen-year-old lodger ever since his trouble started. She stood at a distance from him, cringing when he spoke too loudly. Alex couldn’t blame her, in a way. Alex could barely manage Brian’s attempts himself, though he was generally efficient and cool-headed.

He dragged his head off the pillow like it was full of lead shavings. He couldn’t face the chaos ahead. But he had to get up, fast. Brian needed to get to the emergency room. Before he got out of bed, Alex allowed himself one last look at Carrie, delaying for a split second to let her wake up. She’d been difficult at the hospital the first two times, but maybe she’d be used to it by now, maybe she’d calm down, give Alex the support he needed, placing her long fingers on his neck and leaning against his shoulder, even if she couldn’t do anything for Brian. Alex held his breath as her sleepy hand flopped into the warm shadow he’d left behind. But then she rolled over onto her face.

Alex had taken better care of Brian when it was just the two of them in the years after Brian’s mother died. Back then, without Carrie’s needs and distracting appeal, Alex could pay attention to Brian’s rhythms. Now there was a divided front. Carrie acted like she never knew being a stepmother was hard, like she’d only signed up for the highlights. She loved seeing Brian get a 1560 on the SATs last year in seventh grade, carry his team each season in the Science Olympiad, take first place in the New England’s Gifted Youth Playwriting Competition.

Alex had to admit that win was a highlight. He’d never felt prouder of his son, had bear hugged him when he dismounted the stage with his jouncing, uneven gait and the trophy hanging from his fingers, though Brian disliked being touched. The play was a one-act called Blue Hamburger Hour about radio station DJs in love. The dialogue was so wise and adult that Alex couldn’t believe that Brian really wrote it himself. But the whole thing was even more surprising once Alex trolled Brian’s computer for the notes on DJ payrolls in the 1980s, banned song lists, jockey slang. That his own son, a fourteen-year-old kid, could write something so startling and specific and strange. Could write lines like, On the airwaves, our hearts are free.

In certain moments, Carrie morphed into a real mom. Alex had to give her that. Her neck balanced straight over her spine, her expression focused and hopeful. That spring, at the award production of Blue Hamburger Hour on the Boston City Stage, Carrie had grinned the entire run. She grinned when the DJs bungled the targets of their airwave vows and ended up marrying the sound mixer and the office intern, respectively. She grinned when the producers reconceived the show to embrace sentimentality. She even grinned when the Blue Hamburger Hour was canceled due to a decline in listernership, and the jockeys had to serve frozen yogurt at a mall kiosk. But when it came to Brian’s problems, the pills and everything, her ears were dead bulbs, the filaments rattling. Sometimes Alex wanted to shake her by the shoulders and say, “He’s a kid. Of course he makes us cry.” But if Alex could have stepped back, if he had any excuse, he would have. Just seeing a kid, even a kid as self-possessed and intelligent as Brian, lying back on a hospital pillow with that grimace, and knowing what he’d done to himself, it was too much. Alex had to stop himself from not slamming his own face into a wall.

He tried to keep calm. He didn’t want Brian’s circulatory system speeding up, sending whatever pills he took through his blood any faster than necessary. “Hold on, Bri. Let me get dressed.”

Alex had begun wearing cleaner sweatpants to bed, t-shirts without tiny windows onto his hairless chest, so he could leave the house as quickly as possible. He’d stopped short of packing a carrying case. That would’ve been tempting fate. He yanked on a sweater and shoes and closed the door on his wife.

Brian had dressed inadequately for the previous attempts, in boxers and undershirts bought at K-Mart so long ago that his belly bottomed out. But now he stood in the bright hallway wearing nothing at all.

The heat of panic raced up Alex’s throat. “Where are your clothes?”

“Downstairs, I guess.”

Brian just stood there, palms out. Alex tried not to evaluate his body as he herded the kid toward the staircase. But he couldn’t help noticing that Brian was shaped like a tiny middle-aged man, big paunch under a flat chest, soft with fur between the nipples, feet splayed on the floor, toes curled to grip the carpet. Alex and his first wife were thin. Brian’s body wasn’t the result of genetics but the heavy meals he favored: tuna noodle casserole with mushroom stock, fettuccini Alfredo with ham and peas, some kind of Puerto Rican layered meat lasagna. Brian prepared his own meals, obscure photocopied recipes crinkled and grease-stained, held down by spice bottles while he worked. Alex outlawed Brian’s cooking for a while, but it was one of the few things the kid invested in. Sometimes he accepted a scoop of Brian’s meal with his salad, as a nod. But the food was hard to stomach.

“What did you take?” Alex asked, when they were halfway down the hall. Though they were moving quickly, Alex felt like they were in gelatin, like he had to force a path through the air.

“Advil.”

The last time it had been Advil, too. The first time, Brian’s own Prozac, assigned to him at age eleven for his disruptively dark worldview (Brian had famously asked his fifth-grade social studies teacher how rapidly World War III would be entered into the curriculum after it took place.) The family didn’t keep pills out in the open anymore. The Prozac and Carrie’s Klonopin were padlocked in a tin cash box by the bed. If they had headaches, they suffered instead of fussing with the lock, pinched the flap of flesh between thumb and pointer that was supposed to be a pressure point. But Brian couldn’t be watched all the time. He could have stopped at Walgreen’s on his way home from school or gotten something from a friend, though he didn’t really have any. All his stories from school seemed to be witnessed at a great distance. Brian was never an active participant, not even in his own reports.

“Come on,” Alex said, when Brian halted at the top of the basement stairs. “Let’s go. You have to get dressed.”

“I don’t want to.”

“You want to go to the hospital like that?” Alex would take him naked if he had to, though that would be humiliating. The whole incident was humiliating if you thought about it, because what worse reflection on a parent is there? Yeah, teenagers are unhappy. But your own kid wants to actually die?

Brian just shrugged. He wasn’t a sullen kid, usually. But he was very internal. Alex wanted him to give that up, at least for a minute. He wanted to grab him, to yank him down the stairs, to forcibly pull the clothing on him so they could get out of here. But that wouldn’t work. He had to move carefully, had to respect that, even despite being so young, Brian already felt he could make his own decisions in life.

“Come on, buddy.” Alex touched Brian’s shoulder, which was filmy but not wet, like a half-dried fish. He willed himself not to jerk away. He had to remind himself, as Brian grew bigger and less cute, that even though teenagers were awkward and smelled bad, they needed affection the same as little kids. Brian would never hug him, but Alex patted and tapped him as often as he could, to remind the kid he was loved.

Brian caved to the touch – sometimes his childishness was startling – and they descended to his room. Brian had moved to the basement the year before. Alex should have moved Brian back up to the first floor when the hardships started, so he could keep a closer eye, but it felt wrong. Brian’s room was an extension of himself. He’d painted the walls black. He’d even painted the ceiling black. But he’d only applied one coat, so fingers of gray wove into the walls. The room appeared translucent, like some bright light burned beyond.

Brian bent into the heaps of fabric on the floor, rooting around for an outfit. The room smelled like pheromones, like a mob of teenagers had been down there, head banging or sexting or whatever they did these days.

Alex found the bottle of Advil on Brian’s bed. The container had once contained forty time-release capsules. Now it contained air. Alex tried to breathe, tried not to yell out, tried to remember the facts. He had done his research by now. Forty capsules. That was more than last time, but still. They’d be okay. Something like sixty were needed to shut down the liver, seventy to kill. The time release may not even have started releasing yet. For a moment Alex considered taking Brian into the bathroom and giving him an ipecac, or shoving his own finger down the kid’s throat, sparing them both the ordeal. But that wasn’t safe, they had to do this the right way.

As soon as Brian was dressed in yoga pants and a t-shirt that read, I’m fortyish and you’re not, they headed out to the garage. Alex walked quickly while trying not to panic. He didn’t want Brian to shut down, to change his mind.  They put on their seatbelts in the Saturn like it was any other ride, like Alex was taking Brian to rehearse Blue Hamburger Hour or to a Science Olympiad tournament in Braintree. Alex tried to control his hands, to stop them shaking. He tried to remind himself that they were on their way to get care. Everything would be all right.

Alex got on Route 2, passed the think tank where he had to work in the morning. They were going to Children’s. They’d taken Brian to Children’s the first time, but the second time had gone to Lahey. Alex had decided that if it happened again—he said God forbid but he knew it would—Children’s was worth the drive.

Only when Alex saw how empty the highway was did he check the time. It was after three. “Have you been up all night, or did you just wake up?” He tried not to bear down too hard on the accelerator, forcing his foot into a gentler angle. He allowed himself fifteen over.

“I woke up,” said Brian, eerily calm. “I was like sitting up before I knew I was awake.”

Alex wondered if he and Brian had woken at the same moment. Maybe the cat had fallen off a table or a coyote had howled outside. They were going downhill on Route 2 now, dipping toward the Boston skyline. Most of the lights in the skyscrapers were off. Weren’t they supposed to be on? In postcards the lights were always on, the buildings winking at you. Alex flashed on an image of the hospital with a closed sign on the front door, though that wasn’t possible.

“I was thinking about a story,” Brian said. “It woke me up.”

“What story?” Alex passed a car on the right, a little too swiftly. The driver looked over, startled. “For a play?” Alex wished Brian would write a new play, but tried not to show his hope too nakedly. Blue Hamburger Hour had run in April and now it was May, school almost over. Brian hadn’t written a thing since. When he was writing, nothing could sour his mood. He hit the keys on his old desktop so hard that Alex heard them from the kitchen. The clatter would have been annoying if it weren’t so cheerful. Brian would bluster down for dinner like a charming little executive, pinching Carrie’s cheek and telling her she was a doll. He only got along with her when he was writing.

“Just a story from a kid at school,” said Brian.

“What was it?” Alex tried not to be depressed that this sounded like another anecdote that Brian had witnessed from afar.

“This guy Cecil was telling someone at lunch. I guess he had a dog. It was like a Great Dane. Or a mutt with Great Dane in him. Anyway, a really big dog. Like, over a hundred pounds. Maybe closer to two hundred. I forget.”

“Okay.” Alex wanted Brian to hurry up with the story, though that wouldn’t get them to the hospital any fasterf.

“And the dog died. I don’t know how. And they don’t have a dad, I guess, over there. It’s just this kid Cecil and his mom. And Cecil’s, like, a shrimp. So they put the dog in a box for a flat screen TV. They curled his limbs and fit him in. They had to crack the joints because of the rigor mortis.”

“That sounds a little raw for lunch talk.” But what do fourteen-year-old boys talk about at lunch anyway? Alex couldn’t remember.

“He didn’t say that part. I just figured it out. Because how else is he going to get it in? Great Danes are spindly, you know?”

Alex tried to picture a Great Dane but all he could see were German Shepherds.

“So anyway,” Brian said. “They got the dog in the box and they had to drive to the ASPCA in Brookline. That was the only place that burns a dog that big. That’s got the right facilities. That isn’t going to charge them three hundred bucks or something. So they parked their car and pulled out the box and Cecil was trying to help his mom get the box out, but he’s pretty weak and she’s pretty old.”

“Like, what, forty?” Alex asked. “Am I old?”

“You’re thirty-nine. This lady’s like sixty. Minimum. I’ve seen her get Cecil at school. She’s got, like, liver spots right on her cheek.” Brian pressed a finger into his own cheek, so hard his flesh went pink, then white. Alex wanted to bat his hand away, tell him to be careful with himself.

“Yikes.” Alex wondered if he’d seen her before. There was a time, before Carrie, when he sought potential partners in the single mothers of his son’s classmates. He’d often had fantasies about marrying into a family with kids, getting Brian some siblings to even him out.

“So they’re struggling with the box and it’s almost hitting the pavement cause they can’t carry it too well. And then this guy comes over. He says, you guys need help? They say, yeah, actually, we do. The guy looks pretty strong. He’s got like a gold earring or something.”

“I know the type.” Sometimes Alex was astounded by the worlds that unfolded from Brian’s mouth. He sometimes forgot his son was human, too, on his way to adulthood, that he saw and thought about some of the same things as Alex.

“So, anyway, they let the guy help. He picks up the box all by himself. And then he runs down Huntington.”

“Really?”

“He takes off. He thought there was a television.”

Alex put a few feet of pavement under them before he laughed.

“It’s not funny,” Brian said.

“Yes, it is,” said Alex. “Think about it. He wanted a TV but he got a dead dog.”

“That’s what’s sad,” said Brian. “He didn’t want to help and he didn’t even get anything. It’s sad.” Brian leaned his cheek against the window for the rest of the ride. When Alex suggested the story might make a good play, Brian rolled his eyes at his own reflection.

“Right, Dad. Sounds awesome.”

Alex parked in the emergency lot at the hospital. At first Brian didn’t want to take off his seatbelt.

“What’s the point?” he said.

“Come on, Bri.” Alex longed to press the orange seatbelt button himself, throw Brian over his shoulder. But he tried to think more strategically, in a way that would convince his kid. “Think about Blue Hamburger Hour. Think about writing that scene with Mitchell and Jeanine.”

“You mean the first scene?” Brian lit up that easily. “When they spar over the airwaves? And you understand implicitly that their bond runs deeper than that of creative partners?”

Alex loved how his son could speak as animatedly about his own work as the most loving critic. He hoped he wouldn’t grow out of that. “Exactly.”

Brian put his hands on his knees. He unbuckled the belt. Alex tried not to rush him across the lot. He kept the red cross in sight like a target.

Alex always felt awkward entering the emergency room. Especially without blood or burns, not even a limp. You should run into an emergency room, sweating and yelling for help. You should windmill your arms, spitting at the receptionist. Your entrance must factor into how quickly you’d be seen. But that didn’t matter now, since the waiting room was empty.

There was a girl at the front desk who looked younger than Brian. Her hair was an ashy blond, bundled on her head. She was leaving a message about pork prices and cuts.

“My son tried to kill himself,” Alex said.

“Okay,” said the girl, hanging up the phone. She watched Brian like he was an unpredictable animal. “Is he still in danger?”

“He took this.” Alex held out the pill bottle.

“Someone will be with you immediately.” The girl handed Alex a clipboard and they sat down, but before he could enter more than their names, they were called. Brian stood up off his plastic seat. “I want to go alone.”

His extra-soft t-shirt and yoga pants hugged his outline so tightly that he might as well have come naked. Alex wanted to throw a blanket over his vulnerable form.

“Are you sure, Bri?” Alex tried to keep the longing out of his voice.

“Fine,” said Brian, rolling his eyes. “If you’re so desperate.” He pivoted to follow the nurse.

Maybe because Carrie wasn’t there to cry and yell, this visit was more comprehensive. The nurse weighed Brian in a hallway, pushing the metal bracket to the right and then left until she found its mark. Alex tried not to compare the number to his own weight. Besides, Brian had his shoes on, heavy, steel-toed boots.

The nurse took Brian’s blood pressure, checked his pulse and temperature, and drew blood. She put a clip on his finger to test his oxygen saturation. She was moving efficiently, but not fast enough. Alex could see how this information might become relevant later, but right now they needed the pills out.

The nurse gave Brian a cup and sent him to the bathroom down the hall. Alex watched Brian’s heavy hips retreat through the door. The moment his son was gone, his breath caught. Until now, Alex had followed the script of emergency. He’d kept calm for Brian’s sake, but all the activity calmed him, too. There was always something to do next: get clothes on the kid, find the pill bottle, drive the car, fill out a form. Now that there was nothing more for him to do, sweat dragged down both sides of his face. He wanted the nurse to raise her eyes, let him know everything was okay. But she was labeling the blood.

“You let them do that?” Alex’s voice came out too nasal.

“I’m sorry?”

“You let them pee alone?”

“Of course.”

“But what if he drowns himself in the toilet? Or just walks out?” Alex didn’t know if this was a legitimate concern. If Carrie were here he could ask her.

The nurse shook her head. “He won’t.”

Alex wasn’t so sure, but he held his knees down with white knuckles and forced himself to wait. When Brian returned, Alex scrutinized him for physical signs of poisoning. The kid hopped onto the table without difficulty. The nurse counted his respirations and asked how old he was.

“Fourteen.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“He took this,” Alex said, thrusting the bottle at the nurse. “Forty Advil.” He didn’t want to wait for Brian to spin out what would be a needlessly lengthy version of the story.

The nurse took the bottle.

“We need to get his stomach pumped, right?” Alex asked. He didn’t know why they couldn’t get to the procedure, discuss the details later.

“First I have to finish counting the respirations and get the full event from the patient. Brian. Can you describe the event?”

“I woke up and I was thinking about a story.”

“A story?” The nurse sounded like she was ready to hear the whole Great Dane thing, all over again. Alex couldn’t bear that.

“Please,” Alex said. “It’s not relevant. Let’s get this moving.” Heat radiated off Alex’s cheeks. The longer the kid sat there, the longer the pills were affecting him.

“A story about a dog,” Brian said.

“Forget the stupid dog.” Alex said it fast, before he could think. He sounded like an asshole, and the words stung the air.

Brian looked at Alex. Alex had messed up. Brian’s stomach shook, loose under his worn t-shirt, like he was containing some enormous energy. But he didn’t cry.

“Brian,” the nurse said. “It’s all right. You’re going to be all right.” Why couldn’t Alex have said something like that?

They traveled to a room down the hall. Brian got into the bed, pulling the sheet to his chin and aiming his eyes at the ceiling. The nurse left.

“I didn’t mean to say the story was stupid,” Alex said. “It was a good story.” He didn’t know what else to say. The story had been kind of funny, but it had also creeped him out, all that talk of mangling and stealing a dead dog.

Brian didn’t unfasten his eyes from the ceiling. “That’s the thing, though,” he said. “You’re right. It is stupid. It’s not even real. I looked online, after Cecil told me. It’s a fake story. I got all sad about something that’s not even real.” He shook his head. “It’s a stupid urban legend. Invented by some idiot.”

Alex put his hand on the mattress next to Brian, hoping he would allow that. The first time Alex and Carrie brought Brian to the hospital, they were terrified, wouldn’t stop falling all over the kid with questions. Brian had always been odd but had never seemed unhappy, and Alex was blindsided. Brian wouldn’t talk no matter how many times Carrie said, “Bri, Bri, why didn’t you tell us something was wrong? Don’t you have everything, really, actually? You’re so talented, sweetheart.” Despite her obvious approval at his play, she had never said such a thing before. Brian had even blushed.

The doctor decided the first attempt wasn’t serious, as Brian had only taken ten pills. They enrolled him in counseling, armed him with the number for a peer hotline. At the second attempt, Carrie cried softly, as though the situation were hers to suffer privately. She wouldn’t look at Alex or talk to him and that was worse than her hysterics. There had been talk of a short hospital stay, but the psychiatrist deemed it unnecessary.

“The relatively adjusted ones,” he said, nodding a head toward Brian’s room. “We like to keep them away from the rough cases.”

Carrie had been hard the first two times, but maybe this time would have been different. Maybe he should have woken her. Maybe it took longer than a few years to really join a family, to adjust to everybody’s needs.

The doctor came in. He was young, wisps of hair growing out of his cheeks where a beard should’ve been. Everyone in the hospital seemed like high schoolers, classmates of Brian’s dressed up as professionals to get first crack at the gossip. The doctor shook Alex’s hand and then Brian’s, which emerged from the hospital sheet like a pink fish.

“So, Brian,” the doctor said. “You’ve been in some trouble?”

“I guess,” said Brian. “I tried to kill myself.”

Alex was always surprised at how easily Brian could admit this, like he didn’t comprehend the magnitude of the act.

“The nurse gave me this,” the doctor said, holding the bottle. “When did you take these?”

“Right before I woke my dad.”

“About an hour ago,” Alex said.

“I took a few more than that though,” Brian said.

A cloud of color blocked Alex’s vision. He stepped back from the bed. “What? Why didn’t you tell me?” Brian had never been dishonest before.

“You didn’t ask,” Brian said. That was right. This time, he hadn’t. He’d seen the bottle, and he’d assumed. He wanted to hit himself in the face.

“How many pills did you take, Brian?” the doctor asked, so easily, like Alex should have right away.

“Seventy or eighty.”

“Oh my god. Which is it?” Alex’s lungs stiffened in his chest, stopped working. He wanted to grab the kid and shake the information out of him. Carrie would have calmed him down if she were here. She was at her most reasonable when he was his most freaked out.

“I don’t know. Jesus, Dad.” Brian’s eyes were blurring and he was holding his stomach.

“Hurry up,” Alex said to the doctor. “Get this thing going.”

The doctor put his hands up flat in the air, like a mime against a wall. “Don’t panic, now.”

“Are you okay, Bri?” Alex leaned over.

“I’m fine.” But Brian was clutching his stomach with both hands and squinting, as though talking about what had happened made it real.

The nurse emerged with the charcoal, filling Alex with relief. Brian didn’t even look at the mixture before he poured it down his throat. On their first visit to the hospital, pain had crossed his eyes as he swallowed the chalky glop, slower than the nurse would have liked. Now he took it easily.

The nurse gave Brian a local anesthetic and helped the doctor thread the tube down Brian’s nostril. That’s what they called the process. “Threading the tube.” That way it sounded like Brian’s nose was the eye of a needle made especially for thread. But the tube was too thick to go down easily, and even though the nurse was adept at the procedure, she couldn’t disguise the general jamming-ness of it.

Alex tried not to look at Brian’s face as he sipped the water that lubricated the tube, but when Alex caught a glance by accident, he saw that Brian was defiant. Not just defying the pain but defying Alex. Like no matter how much it hurt, no matter how much you were actually supposed to vomit, expected to vomit, during the threading, Brian would hold it down. Alex missed the terrified boy from the first attempt, sweating and nervous, too shy to thank the nurses.

For a second, just a second, Alex wondered why he didn’t just do it. Why the three attempts—and there would be more, Alex was sure—why the three aborted attempts and not just one opening of the wrists or freefall from a skyscraper? Or if he’s going to take the pills, why wake Alex? Why not let the chemicals cut through the stomach lining, bleed to death downstairs in your black room?

But that was a horrible way to think. Here in the hospital, Alex’s thoughts were starker than they were at home, in his warm bed with Carrie, crying and picturing a short casket, a house free of typing. One day when he was watching a rerun of Full House with Brian before dinner, Michelle Tanner’s stuffed animal got cut up in the food processor and Alex started crying. He couldn’t even look at the blond actress cradling the pieces of diced bear. He leaned into his hands and bawled, and Brian watched. Didn’t make fun of Alex but didn’t comfort him either. They both knew why he was crying.

By now the doctor had the tube in place and it was churning, hooked up to the suction. Brian couldn’t talk. That was a relief. At least for the moment, Alex didn’t have to try.

He wondered how far back the stomach vacuum went. Definitely it would have taken last night’s spaghetti carbonara, with its egg-thick sauce and bacon, which Brian had prepared in a separate saucepan from Alex and Carrie’s steamed vegetable medley and turkey sausages. But did it take his school lunch too, probably Domino’s Pizza? And breakfast? What if the doctor turned up the power and the machine took his fourteenth birthday cake last week, or the Skittles Alex brought home last month, like a treat for a dog, because he knew Brian couldn’t say no to Skittles no matter how deeply he was brooding?

The doctor removed the tube, slick with mucus, and Brian settled into bed. He looked vulnerable again, like a little kid. Empty now of poison.

The nurse gave him an IV. She said a social worker would be in momentarily, and she and the doctor left. The room was quiet, the chugging vacuum shut down.

“I better call Carrie,” Alex said, though he didn’t feel like talking to her.

“Okay.” Brian kept staring out the window. Even though it wasn’t even five, some of the skyscrapers were lighting up. People getting to work early, janitors tidying for the day ahead.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” Alex said. “With all this?” The words came out awkward. But he had to know.

“No,” said Brian.

They looked at each other. The room was green with fluorescent light. Alex tried to understand what was tucked behind that sweet, soft brow.

“This sounds stupid,” Brian said. “But can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“If I die, don’t put me in a TV box.”

“You’re not going to die.”

“But if I do.”

Brian turned to settle his face against the pillow. His nose was starting to bruise, a yellow bloom around the nostril. Alex wanted to get in the bed, to hold Brian, to whisper words that would solve everything.

“I won’t,” Alex said.

“I think I can handle anything else.”

Alex looked at Brian’s open, earnest face, and he was glad Carrie wasn’t there. If she had been, Brian wouldn’t have made this appeal. He hadn’t asked his father for anything in who knows how long. Alex thought about Carrie, about how he felt saved by her, about how she was the first person since his first wife whose company he’d enjoyed almost as much as Brian’s. But maybe Carrie wasn’t right for Brian. Maybe she wasn’t ready to take him on. Maybe they should go back to being alone again, the two of them, at least until the air cleared. Just because Carrie felt right to him, just because she felt almost unfair with how smart and gorgeous she was, didn’t mean she was right for the family.

Before the social worker arrived and Brian was transferred to the teen unit, before Brian made a fourth attempt, and then a fifth, and long before he wrote a play about all of this, funny and sad and a magnet for accolades, before anything else that happened, Alex took Brian’s hand and they shook on the stupid pact.

Lydia Conklin

Lydia Conklin

Lydia Conklin is the Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Fiction at the University of Michigan. They’ve received a Stegner Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, three Pushcart Prizes, a Creative Writing Fulbright in Poland, a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Creative Writing Fellowship from Emory University, work-study and tuition scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, Djerassi, the James Merrill House, and elsewhere. Their fiction has appeared in Tin House, American Short Fiction, The Southern Review, and The Paris Review. They have drawn cartoons for The New Yorker and Narrative Magazine, and graphic fiction for The Believer, Lenny Letter, Popula Magazine, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. Their story collection, Rainbow Rainbow, will be published in May 2022 by Catapult in North American and Scribner in the UK.
Lydia Conklin

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Author: Lydia Conklin

Lydia Conklin is the Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Fiction at the University of Michigan. They’ve received a Stegner Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, three Pushcart Prizes, a Creative Writing Fulbright in Poland, a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Creative Writing Fellowship from Emory University, work-study and tuition scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, Djerassi, the James Merrill House, and elsewhere. Their fiction has appeared in Tin House, American Short Fiction, The Southern Review, and The Paris Review. They have drawn cartoons for The New Yorker and Narrative Magazine, and graphic fiction for The Believer, Lenny Letter, Popula Magazine, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. Their story collection, Rainbow Rainbow, will be published in May 2022 by Catapult in North American and Scribner in the UK.