The Last Way Out

This fictional narrative is based on the real-life story of Jeremy Delle.

***

By Jeremy Styron

… By the time you get this letter I will have blown my head off, aka suicide, better known as (last way out). … I was just writing to see if you wanted to go to the funeral. … At least you didn’t have to hear the boom. — Jeremy Delle

***

They resembled specters swirling and then fading into the howling winter air. Tufts from her labored breaths followed behind as she carried her frame deep into the heart of the Rocky Oaks Cemetery just west of town.

Rainwater pushed through her plastic frames, darted her eyelashes and blurred her vision. She blinked, pulled at her coat, and then peered up the grassy knoll to the resting place of hundreds of once-living, laughing souls lying in wait for friends and relatives to visit. Entire lives here were reduced to fragments, a few words here and there, or at most, a sentence, in long-forgotten epitaphs.

“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. — Revelation 21:4,” was etched into one stone.

Sarah quickly made her way toward another.

Armies of drops exploded against the cold stone of another: “Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death! — Virginia Woolf.”

And on his, only this: “O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.- Thomas Wolfe”

She cast her own round, petal bright eyes across the heavy air of the cemetery, the streetlights creating orange halos in the translucence, and then down to his now 12-month home. She crouched and ran her fingers over his soaked name and sounded out the letters.

She stayed with him 15 minutes before finally whispering:

“Silly Boy,” addressing Jeffrey by a school nickname, her tears mixed with those from above. “Where are you now, Jeff? You know how it goes, right? Remember? We used to sing this by the lake together.”

She would never forget the lyrics:

Pussy willow that smiled on this leaf. When I was alone, you promised the stone from your heart. My head kissed the ground. I was half the way down …

She paused, barely able to sound out the rest.

Won’t you miss me? Wouldn’t you miss me at all?

“Well, wherever you are, I hope you are happier than you were here. I’m sorry for all they didn’t do … for all we didn’t … for all I … But we had some good times, didn’t we, you and I?”

Her tiny mouth formed a half smile.

“Don’t you remember how we would ditch school and go down to the 7-Eleven on Campbell Street and get slushies? Anyway, I just wanted to come here tonight, one year after … well, you know … to wish you happy Valentine’s. It’s today, ya know? If you would have stuck around, I was planning to bring you a card after school. Did ya know that, Jeff? I just needed more … time. Bobby and I didn’t stay together long. But it’s over now. If you can hear this, just know that not everyone hated you. They maybe thought you were quiet or strange or whatever, but as for me, I wasn’t afraid to call you my friend, and I’ve prayed and thought about you ever since.

“I will always remember our time together. I’ve still got your journal, too. It sits by my bed stand. But I’ve gotta go. My parents are probably wondering where I am.

“Write back, OK. … someday?”

Her thin, pale legs rose against the night. She breathed slowly and hid her hands in her pockets. Looking out among in the field covered in iron, grass, and granite, she thought of that Tuesday morning and shut her eyes. The precipitation had now turned to ice on that rare, frosty day in Richardson, a rural town just north of Dallas, Texas. She listened and tried to empty her mind of everything but of that moment, there with him, far removed from that day, exactly one year ago, when darkness gushed down his spine.

“Write back,” she said again, turning back down the hill toward the halos that burned through the fog and mist.

***

They were effeminate, oval eyes ordained by long lashes and thin brows. His eyelids flipped up at Mrs. Barnett through strands of amber hair, which was neatly combed with one wave hanging to the right.

“Jeffrey, I’ll ask you once more. What does the carousel scene in Chapter 25 of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ represent?”

Raising his head from its former parallel position with the desk and notebook, he became aware of the clock’s movement, ticking just past 9:30 a.m., the other students’ breaths in back of him, the stirred hush, the waiting. The heartbeat inside knocked hard against his chest like so many spirits trapped in the ether.

“No more innocence. Growing up,” he softly answered from his desk at the front of the class, giving the girl to his right a sly glance.

“Very good! I knew you had it in you,” Jeffrey.

As Mrs. Barnett turned away and addressed another student on the other side of the room, a piece of paper lilted across his notebook.

“Hey Silly Boy! Don’t sweat it. I know you’re the smartest kid in here. I don’t know why she likes to pick on you like that. Teachers always give the brightest students the hardest time. She wants to challenge you. K? – Sarah.”

He returned the note.

“I guess so,” he wrote. “She thinks I don’t pay attention, but I’ve read that book at least five times now. Hell, I know more about it than she does.”

“I know. I know. Don’t let it bother you,” she replied.

“Well, class is about over. Talk to you soon. Write back. – S.B.”

His nervousness turned to calm, and the spirits relented, as he returned to his pencil and pad and flipped to the back page. He always thought it strange that the clock in this room had Roman numerals, rather than cardinal numbers clocks as in the cafeteria and other classrooms.

After carefully spacing the Is, Vs and Xs that adorned the circumference of the clock face, he opened the small desk drawer and grabbed a protractor. He thought of the hour and minute hands. Of the former, he used the tool to draw a straight line out to the leftmost dial. Fixing his gaze on the notebook’s fibers, he moved his hand in quick jerks, and with no attempt at neatness, again to the left to overlap the other. Lost in his sketch, he was shaken back to himself by the class bell as classmates grabbed their bags and shuffled past.

“Jeff, you comin’?” Sarah said, remaining behind and playfully kicking at his sneakers.

“Yeah, yeah. Sorry, was thinkin’ about something and had to write it down.”

“Oh yeah! And what was that?” she said with a wide smile.

“‘Dark Globe.’ Have you ever thought about what it means?”

“The song? No, I can’t say that I have. So, you’ve been writing lyrics instead of taking down English notes, again, ay? Come on, silly! We’ll be late for algebra.”

***

Battered bones carried him and his backpack from the double wide to the grove of pecan trees on a neighboring lot, a frequented spot, where he slouched against the bark of a sycamore. When counting acorns along the ground became a bore, he turned upward to conjure figures in the clouds.

“Jeffrey!” came a shout from the edge of the field. 

“Your dad said you were out here,” Sarah said running up to meet Jeffrey, who was now sitting cross-legged and plucking up bits of grass from the dry and cracked dirt.

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Sure?”

She knelt down and craned her neck under his shagging hair to meet his eyes.

“He did it again?”

“Did what?”

“Come on,” she said. “You can tell me. I won’t tell anybody.”

“It’s nothing,” he said, rubbing his jaw.

“Let me see your face, Jeff.”

She ran the back of her tiny, white hand over a cut at the top of his jawbone. He closed his eyes and slumped toward the earth.

“He had already buried half a bottle by the time I got home from school. He was bitching about where I had been and why I was an hour late getting home and all of that. The same old shit.”

“Have you told anybody?”

“Nah.”

“How come?”

“It would just make it worse if he found out I said anything.”

“Was he like this before, you know, before they broke up?”

“Yeah, but not as bad. The ‘other’ guy Mom was with thought I was a loser too, so they split and left me with him. And after, you know, he’s done throwing things and ranting, he pulls this teary-eyed pitifest about how Mom did him wrong, and that he’s sorry for taking it out on me and on and on. Fucking loser.”

“It’ll be all right, Jeff,” she said, caressing his cheek once more and then taking his left hand. “Please tell someone. You don’t have to put up with that. They can get you help and shelter if you need it.”

“I may. I don’t know. What are they going to do? Put me in some lame ass foster home? I’d rather get this shit beat out of me. And you know what’s worse about the whole thing? He drags me to church every Sunday morning, and like clockwork, wanders up there to the alter draped in tears and bows a knee, probably mumbling something about forgiveness and grace, as if God hasn’t already left him for dead …”

“And what do you think?” she interrupted.

“About what?”

“God,” she said.

“God in this wasteland? In Richardson? Now, that’s funny!”

“Ahh, come on Jeff. You’ve gotta have some faith somewhere in there,” she said, prodding him playfully in the chest.

He smirked, looking up at her finally.

“You might be the only reason I have to believe. I mean it. You know how the verse goes: ‘Whatever is lovely, think on these things.’ I do pay attention at church some of the time.”

She giggled and sat cross-legged in front of him, holding his hand.

“I’m praying for ya, Jeff. Hang in there. Believe me, God is watching you and knows exactly how you feel and what you are going through. You aren’t the only person to have suffered some pain in life, ya know?”

“Yeah, it could be worse, I guess. But still …”

“Still what?”

“Nothing. Let’s get out of here. Wanna head down to the lake?”

***

“Wow, Jeff. We should come out here more often. So peaceful,” Sarah said, watching tree shadows play in the water.

Reflections on the lake were sometimes fractured by passing quail on that warm February day.

“Sure is,” he said, laying with his head in her lap and his pupils bent skyward.

His mind again twisted ordinary forms from the otherwise arbitrary clumps above.

“You ever wish you could get another deck of cards, Sarah? You know, a different playing hand than the one you got?”

“Sometimes,” she replied, casting her vision over the barren lake. “I mean, I hate that my family is so strict and that I have to be home at such-and-such time every night. And this town! It’s such a drag. Why couldn’t I have been born on the West Coast or maybe in New York?”

“But that wouldn’t work, Sarah. We might not have even met.”

“That’s very true.”

A minute passed in silence until she finally looked down at him.

“Jeff, what’s your favorite thing about me?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, drifting his eyes away from the sky to her.

“You know, physically. What do you like the most? Breasts, butt, eyes, hair, what?”

“Uhh …”

“Come on, you can tell me. It’s OK.”

“You know, I’ve been thinking about something,” he said. “You go to church and read the Bible and all that right? Isn’t doing the stuff that we sometimes do kind of wrong? Or is everything just all right up to the point of actually having sex?”

“That’s a good question! I don’t feel bad about us messing around, Jeff. It’s fun, and it feels good, right? And, hey! Anything to keep you out of real trouble, right?”

“I suppose you’re right,” he said, giving his largest grin in days.

“So …”

“So … what?”

“The question, silly.”

“Oh, umm. I don’t know. You’ll think it’s stupid.”

“No I won’t. Come on! What is it?”

“Maybe … I like laying my head on your stomach. That might be my favorite part,” he said timidly.

“My stomach? Didn’t expect that one. Why my stomach?

“I don’t know. It’s not too thin, not to pudgy. Just right.”

He winked up at her.

“Wow! You never cease to amaze me. So, butts, breasts, none of that stuff does it for ya, huh? Just tummies.”

“I guess. I mean I do like that other stuff, but there’s just something about … I don’t know. It’s weird. I’m weird, I know. I can’t explain it.”

She laid back on the grass and pulled her shirt up just below her bra.

“Come here.”

He crawled up to her and rested his head on her body, his right cheek nestled in her warmth amidst bright sunshine and passing breezes.

Calm minutes passed in silence with the towering sycamores gazing down.

“So, I guess you haven’t told Bobby that you’ve been, you know, hanging out with me?” he said.

“I haven’t. I’m just not sure what to do, Jeff.”

She ran her hands through his hair.

“Torn, I guess is all.”

“Yeah,” was his somber response.

With eyelids shut, he thought of the incident from a couple hours before in which his adopted father, Jim Barker, clutched the bottle in one hand and a picture frame in the other.

“She did us wrong, Jeff! Do you even realize that? She did me wrong. And now you want to go live with her?”

“I didn’t say I wanted to live with her. I just said I wanted to leave this town.”

“And go where, huh? Tell me that! I read the damn diary. And just tell me where you would go? You’re 15, and until you’re 18, you’re stuck with me, do you hear! Stuck! And what boy, what man, keeps a diary, anyway?”

He hesitated and looked his son squarely in the eyes, who returned the gesture with a defiance that more infuriated the elder. Jim, stumbling forward slightly, in a moment of scorn, growled and heaved the frame overhand. Jeffrey didn’t make a sound but just winced, covered his face in his hands and ran down the dirt-covered wooden steps to the grove’s cooling arms. 

“So where do we go from here?” he asked her, shaking himself back to the present. “Sarah, you’re all I’ve got. They pick on me because they think I’m a dork at school. Home is hell. What am I supposed to do? When I’m not with you, I want to be. And when I’m with you, I never want to leave. We’ve been hanging out for months now, and it’s almost too much to bear when I see you with him. This whole school year has been a nightmare. Bobby’s cool and all, but when he’s all over you at lunch or when we’re hangin’ out in the courtyard, I just want to disappear.”

“I know, Jeff. I’m sorry. I’ll figure it out. I guess we should have never kissed that first time. I think that started the whole thing. And now, I don’t know what to do either. I mean Bobby and I have been together for over a year now. I do love him. I guess I just never thought how us messing around might affect things. I’ll tell him that we shouldn’t do the PDA stuff so much at school. I’ll say I don’t want us to get in trouble. Is that OK?”

“I guess, but it doesn’t solve anything.”

“Let me think about it, K? In the meantime, maybe we should just stop messing around and just be friends for now. Bobby would freak if he knew anyway, and you don’t want to lose your best friend, do ya?”

“Not really since he’s the only one I’ve got, except you. But I would if it came down to it.”

“Oh, hush, silly! Just hang in there. It’ll be all right.”

His emotions rose briefly and then fell to perdition as he buried his gaze beneath the setting sun.

***

The next morning, his breath was leaving condensation on the school bus window from which he viewed his house, shrinking, seemingly forever, into the distance.

“Hey Dader!” came a voice from behind, accompanied by a firm rap to the back of the head.

“Yes,” Jeffrey replied with a sigh.

“Whatcha got there,” Douglas said, pulling himself up and glancing over Jeffrey’s left shoulder. “Oh, an apple!”

Jeffrey gave a quick glance down at the opening of the backpack to make sure its contents were hidden.

“Here, take it,” he said, handing his breakfast to the boy behind him.

“Ha! That was easy. Be sure to bring a banana tomorrow, though. That’s my favorite.”

“I won’t be here tomorrow. Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Oh, is that right? And just where will you be, smart ass?”

“I don’t know. Here, there, everywhere.”

“What are you talking about, loser? You aren’t making any sense. So, you’re ditching tomorrow?”

Silence.

Douglas popped him on the back of the head again.

“Speak up, Jeffrey! Did your Dad beat the shit out of your sorry ass again last night or something? Or, do you just fall down stairs a lot. We all see the marks. It’s no secret.”

Jeffrey, beginning to grin but then suppressing it, thought a unique twist might be to preempt his plans and just turn the .357 Magnum in his backpack against his interlocutor. But that would just complicate his other plan, he thought.

“Just leave me alone, OK?”

“No! You’re going to talk. Did your Dad kick your ass or not?”

“No,” Jeffrey said calmly.

“So, where did that bruiser on your eye come from?”

“Life,” he whispered as the bus pulled up to the breezeway.

“Huh? Oh well, you’re lucky we’re here, Dade my man, or you might have had two fucked up eyes.”

“My lucky day, I guess!”

Jeffrey followed the line out of the bus and to the school. He sat in the back of Spanish class and opened his journal, as the teacher rattled on about verb conjugations.

“Sarah,” he wrote in the middle of the page, not bothering to stay within the lines, “I want you to have this journal. I would probably be embarrassed to let you read it now because you make frequent appearances, but I guess afterward, what the hell difference will it make? I enjoyed our day on the lake yesterday and the many others in the past. Sometimes, I want to stay. But most days, I just want to go. Far away. And I don’t know if it’ll help, but you can pray for me. I won’t mind.

“Thanks for being there and for helping me think on that which is lovely. Phillippians 4:8, right? See, I have been reading.

“Your friend, SB.”

***

Jeffrey snuck into his father’s bedroom about 11:30 p.m. that night after Jim had surrendered to his drink, eased his journal back off the nightstand and set out for the kitchen table. He skipped to the back page and thought about what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. The faucet dripped. The house log house creaked in the wind outside. In the dim lighting he could see the table cluttered with empty soda cans and dirty forks and plates gone unwashed for days. He cleared a space on the table and took down his thoughts.

I’ve often wondered what it must be like to sprint downhill through a field of heather, to feel soft stalks tickle your legs and hands, warm in the evening sun and my face alit with dreams as if toward some limitless path. And there, to meet me out among the thistle, she waits in a sun dress, waiting and waiting … for someone … like me. And I lunge, arrest her with my arms, and we tumble over the bank in frolicking laughter. I’m yours, she whispers, tightening her legs around my body and pressing close in the water. I’m suddenly struggling for breath, as my heart heaves. I knew you would. I just knew you would come around, I say, beaming brighter than that peeping Tom of a sun god.

Yes. That’s how it might have gone. That’s how the dream plays out, every day and night. And then, the curtains close, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get her away. I often watch them from the courtyard balcony. Sitting on a bench of the front of the library, talking and laughing, grinning and flirting. What are they talking about with such joy? I would give anything to know, to swoop down, as a gnat, to catch a word or two in passing. There’s no one for me here; the whole world’s sun shines for someone else, and here I am. Alone in this black home at this table and it is my despair that’s burning orange and bright.

But no more of that — the endless cycle of longing and hoping, hoping and longing. It’s just me, this loneliness, the smell of his whiskey in the kitchen and back there, my dumb dad snoring, his mind flooded in liquored up sleep. Such a forlorn shack, town, globe! No, I don’t believe I’ll miss it. Just her. And when it’s all over, I hope to hell somebody has sense enough to just dump my ass into Cottonwood Lake and forget it all ever happened. That would at least be poetic, right? After all, as Holden Caulfield said, who wants flowers when you’re dead?

Nobody. Oh, how I long, a final longing, for that glorious nothing before my parents hurled me against the world. 

But so be it. And when the former things are passed away, I hope in heaven or hell — it doesn’t matter which — I just have little girl in a sun dress waiting for me there. 

Whatsoever is lovely, think on these things. Angels are no longer in this place, and neither am I. – Later days

He peeled back the tuft of hair from his red and wet eyes. The metallic drops from the faucet rang louder in his ears, as he carefully tore the page from the notebook and crumpled it into his pocket for someone to find the next day.  

***

Feb 14, 1992: I went to visit him the other day. It’s been an unusually cold winter here in Texas, but I stayed with him in the rain, sleet and mist, huddled there, as if those lonely stones and fake flowers would somehow keep me warm.

His mother showed up at the funeral dressed in black and crying something awful, and at times, burying her head in her boyfriend’s chest. His dad stood across the church, appearing not to know whether he wanted to pay more attention to the service or his wife. Some of us students and teachers from the school got together and thought up a literary epitaph for him, since literature was his favorite subject.

That morning, Jeffrey showed up very late for English class. Mrs. Barnett was finishing up her boring lecture on “Catcher in the Rye.” She had almost finished writing the Holden Caulfield line, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything” on the chalkboard and got as far as, “If you do, you start missing …” when Jeffrey suddenly burst into the classroom more than 40 minutes late. Mrs. Barnett really laid into him and said for him to go get a pass from the office before coming back.

Jeffrey returned a few minutes later carrying a gun in one hand, the pass and a notebook in the other.

I’ll never forget the look on his face. That sudden empty gaze makes me shiver to this day. He carried the gun against his right leg, and I looked up with confusion as he, in a fluid motion, dropped the journal on my desk and the hall pass on Mrs. Barnett’s. He began to raise the gun, saying, “Miss, I got what I really went for,” as strands of amber hair were draped across one eye. He glanced down at me and then to the back wall. His petal bright eyes that had once soaked up my body, my eyes and my lips so many times before, as we sat there by the lake, now at once swirled with color, green as the knoll in which he rests.

And then something changed. Moist eyes froze and became fixated on the back wall. Nothing in him was left but a dark globe and glassy stare. A blink. A twitch. Soft tongue to steel. And the knock of two hearts.

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