this chapter includes frequent suicidal ideation and a graphic (although unsuccessful) suicide attempt.
"Mom, I really don't want to do this."
"Cathy…" Mrs. Watkins sighed, then continued: "It'll be good for you to get out of the house. Now get dressed. We're leaving in fifteen minutes."
Mrs. Watkins turned around and left her daughter's bedroom, closing the door behind her. Cathy remained in bed. A few moments later, Mrs. Watkins' muffled voice called from the stairs: "don't make me come and get you!"
Cathy huffed and threw back the covers, shuffling to her dresser and selecting clothing at random. One thing from the socks-and-underwear drawer, one from the shirts drawer, one from the pants drawer… she ended up with a tee-shirt she had gotten for free during a college visit, a pair of jeggings, and mismatched socks—one lime green, one canary yellow with kawaii cat faces on them. Cathy dressed, grabbed a dark blue hoodie from the closet, and walked downstairs.
Her mother, waiting by the door, took one look at her and sighed again. "Go drag a brush through that bird's nest on your head."
Cathy rolled her eyes and tramped back upstairs. She brushed her long hair, pulled it into a ponytail to keep it out of her face, and then returned downstairs. Her mother gave her a curt nod, and Cathy sat down on the kitchen step to put on her shoes as Mandy all but jumped up and down with impatience.
"Can we go now?" the six-year-old asked, tugging on her mother's hand.
Mrs. Watkins snatched her hand away so that her younger daughter wouldn't accidentally pull off her wedding ring. "We'll go as soon as Cathy is ready."
Mandy squatted next to Cathy and watched her half-sister tie her shoes. "Do you need help?" she asked, then parroted something she might have heard her first grade teacher say: "we can do it faster if we work together."
Cathy, with her face angled down so that nobody could see, smiled. "I'm fine," she said. Mandy would be the one thing Cathy would miss about this life, even if she was annoying sometimes. Cathy finished one shoe and started tying the other, her face growing solemn again. Mandy would take the loss hard, probably very hard, but she was a smart kid—Cathy, the oldest, had managed to grow up without a big sister looking out for her; Mandy would be fine.
"Can Dad come with us?" Mandy asked, twisting around on the floor to face her mother.
Cathy looked up and narrowed her eyes at Mrs. Watkins over her half-sister's head. If Sam went, then Cathy wouldn't go no matter how hard her mother pushed. Mrs. Watkins stiffened.
"No," the woman said, "Daddy is busy right now."
"But—" Mandy said, a pout starting to form on her face.
"He can come next time," Mrs. Watkins promised.
It clicked. Cathy had had the plan worked out for weeks, but had been putting it off—mostly because of Mandy. But at that moment, everything slotted into place. Whatever time 'next time' happened to be, Cathy resolved not to be around for the occasion. Today would be the day she ended her life.
She just had to get this stupid flea market over with first.
The drive was uneventful. Mandy picked songs from the new Disney movie soundtracks and sang along as they left the suburbs and headed into town, her voice high and quavering. Cathy stared out the window and thought about sharpening the kitchen knives. It would happen tonight, after everyone else had gone to bed. The shower was probably the best location. Should she write a note?
Dear Sam, Cathy mentally composed, fuck you.
Dear Mandy, I'm sorry, but I had to do this. You'll understand when you're older.
Dear Mom… Cathy trailed off, unsure of what to say. She glanced up at her mother, and saw Mrs. Watkins watching her in the rearview mirror. Cathy's eyes quickly flitted away.
Mrs. Watkins entered the parking garage, took her ticket, and pulled into a space. They all got out of the van and walked several blocks. Ordinarily, the lot next to the intersection of 9th and 4th Street was a sheet of badly cracked asphalt that grew nothing but dandelions and tufts of couch grass, but between 7am and 2pm on Saturdays it sprouted a maze of tents and booths. Mrs. Watkins reached for Mandy's hand to ensure she wouldn't get lost, her step quickening as they approached. Cathy stuffed her hands into the pockets of her hoodie and gritted her teeth.
There was a $1 entrance fee per person, which Mrs. Watkins paid, and then they were walking among the stalls. There were a lot of homemade crafts—jewelry, crocheted or knitted scarves and things, soaps, candles, woven baskets, pottery—as well as locally sourced produce, preserves, and handmade candies, fudge, and pastries. Mrs. Watkins and Mandy pored over the contents of every little shop, watched by the smiling owners, while Cathy wandered along behind them and avoided eye contact with passersby.
"Hey, you, girl—over here," a female voice said. The speaker used a conversational tone, not raising her voice over the hubbub of gossiping shoppers, but Cathy could hear her perfectly.
Cathy decided to ignore it.
"I've no patience for feigned apathy, girl," the voice said. "Come here."
Cathy jerked her head up as though stung, her eyes searching out the speaker. It was an old woman, her hair tied back in a steel-gray bun into which a brass comb adorned with resin cherry blossoms had been stuck. She sat on a folding chair behind a table just within the entrance to a weathered canvas tent.
"You're a difficult one," the woman commented.
"So?" Cathy snapped, slouching deeper into her hoodie.
"I have something for you."
Cathy said nothing.
The woman set an object down on the table in front of her. Cathy glanced over at Mrs. Watkins and Mandy, who were three yards away looking at a display of ceramic mugs. Cathy took a step towards the old woman's stall, and when her mother didn't look up she went the rest of the way.
The object on the table was about the shape and size of a chicken egg, colored a deep, mossy green with black speckles. Cathy gave it a cursory glance but didn't reach for it.
"Not interested," she said, and turned to leave.
"This will save your life," the woman said quickly.
Cathy stopped and narrowed her eyes at the old woman over her shoulder. "I don't need saving."
The woman cocked her head to the side and smiled. "Oh, but I think you do, and this will do it."
Cathy turned back around and looked at the object more closely, but saw nothing new. "I don't have any money."
"So, it's worthless?"
The woman's smile grew wider, revealing a set of snowy white teeth. "Priceless, actually."
Cathy scoffed. "Sure, fine, whatever." She scooped up the object and gave it an experimental toss from one hand to the other. It felt about the right weight for a rock and fit comfortably in her palm, but was warm to the touch—maybe it had been sitting in the sun before the old woman had presented it? Cathy tucked it into a pocket of her hoodie, but kept one hand curled around it. She rubbed her finger over the surface; it was mostly smooth, but pitted just enough for a good grip. It felt… nice.
"What's it made of?" she asked.
"Hope," the old woman said. Her smile didn't waver as Cathy rolled her eyes in response.
"Seriously," Cathy prompted, but the woman refused to elaborate.
"Cathy! Did you find something?" Mrs. Watkins called.
Cathy flinched away from the old woman's stall, her shoulders hunching as she ambled back to her mother and half-sister. "Nah, I was just looking," she said.
"Look what I got!" Mandy said, holding up a hexagonal jar of apricot jam. There was a spotted pink bow tied around the neck.
"Nice!" Cathy said, forcing a smile onto her face.
"I got us some cherries," Mrs. Watkins said, hefting a small cardboard box that was maybe six inches by six inches. Dark red cherries filled the paper-lined interior. "Do you want some, Cathy?"
The teenager wrinkled her nose. "I don't like fruit."
"Fine. Well, we're about to leave. Is there anything you want to look at?"
"Puppies!" Mandy gasped, and dashed to the stall being set up by members of the local humane society. There were indeed three puppies inside a playpen, as well as older dogs wearing vests with the legend "ADOPT ME." Mandy petted all the dogs, and pouted when she was told she couldn't get any of the puppies because of her half-sister's allergies.
"Can't Cathy get those shots? The ones that make your allergies go away?" she asked.
"That takes years, Mandy, and it's expensive," Mrs. Watkins said.
"You could get a pet fish," Cathy offered. "That's what I did."
Mandy's pout deepened. "I can't cuddle a fish. And your fish always die."
Cathy shrugged and carried her half-sister's jam for her as they walked back to the van. Her other hand was still buried in her pocket, her fingers worrying over the surface of the warm rock.
The rest of the day was simultaneously an uphill slog and a blur. Cathy retreated to her room after returning home and read manga on her laptop, wiping away the occasional tears that unexpectedly formed in the corners of her eyes—she would never read the next installment of The Way of the Househusband or know how Berserk ended. She messaged her online friends to talk about nothing in particular, feeling too shy to outright say goodbye to them. She skipped dinner in favor of talking to kennex19 as he puttered through his morning routine in Australia, and by half past eleven o'clock at night there was only her singular real-life friend to talk to.
how was ur day? Cathy texted, once more sitting propped against the headboard of her bed.
played with cats n watched netflix mostly, Sonya texted back.
Cathy stared at the glowing screen of her phone, knowing that it was a bad idea to video call her best friend—everything would come spilling out if she did, and Sonya would call emergency services and the whole plan would be ruined.
i miss you, Cathy texted.
wanna call? Sonya asked.
no sorry mom n sam are sleeping down the hall.
Sonya didn't reply after that, and after a few minutes Cathy was flicking through the other apps on her phone. There were no interesting videos on offer with YouTube, and Facebook had the same old memes from fake friends she barely knew. Snapchat and Instagram were the same—just people showing off carefully crafted fictions of their lives and pretending everything was perfect. Cathy was sick of it.
She scrolled through her contacts with one hand, looking for someone to talk to. The other hand held the rounded rock the old woman had given her. It was still warm to the touch, which was weird, but running her fingers over it soothed her anxious, circling thoughts a little bit.
After fifteen minutes Cathy shut off her phone. Alone in the dark, she took a deep, shaky breath and clenched her fist around the rock, surprised to find herself forcibly swallowing a sob. She curled up on her side on the bed, making her body as small as possible, and gritted her teeth as tears pricked at the corners of her eyes.
Enough was enough! Cathy uncurled and sat up, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. She set the rock on her nightstand and stood up from her bed, then padded out of her bedroom and down the stairs. She went to the kitchen and selected a paring knife from the block. It was smaller than the other knives, but adequate for Cathy's purpose. She brought it back upstairs and went into the bathroom situated between her room and the room Mrs. Watkins shared with Sam. Cathy could hear the man snoring through their closed door.
Cathy looked at herself in the mirror by the dim light of the nightlight, and saw an older teenager with dark roots showing against her dyed blonde hair, bearing sunken hazel eyes and a downturned mouth. Cathy grimaced at her reflection and turned away, stepping into the shower stall. It was darker here, so much so that Cathy could barely make out the outline of her bared wrist. She set the point of the knife against the soft flesh and took another deep breath, then began pressing down.
There was a bright, burning pain, and dark liquid appeared around the point of the knife. Cathy gritted her teeth and pressed harder. The liquid trickled along the curve of her arm and dripped slowly onto the shower floor next to her foot.
There was a small but definite crack from Cathy's bedroom, and Cathy jerked the knife away from her wrist. She exhaled sharply from the pain, and another crack sounded. Cathy stepped out of the shower, grabbed the towel next to the sink, and held it to her wrist as she left the bathroom. She closed her bedroom door behind her and turned on the light.
On her nightstand, the rock was rocking back and forth. It had broken open, and a tiny reptilian head poked out. It blinked a pair of huge golden eyes at Cathy, then opened its mouth and let out a high-pitched squeak. It resumed rocking the rock—egg, it was an egg—back and forth, widening the cracks that had appeared all over the surface. It was rocking closer and closer to the edge of the nightstand…
Cathy lunged forward, letting the towel fall away, and grabbed the egg and its inhabitant. She sat down hard on the edge of her bed. The reptile squeaked again, and a piece of shell dropped off. It kicked away the fragment with a tiny clawed foot, which was red. Its head was red too, though its throat was cream-colored. It looked up at Cathy with those huge eyes, then fell over onto its side as Cathy shifted her grip on the crumbling egg to pull apart the last bit of shell.
The baby lizard rolled away from the eggshell. It had a body that was about three inches long, red on the upper part with a cream underbelly, with four limbs, a boxy head, and a stubby tail. There were two prominent nubs on its back, one of which Cathy nudged with a gentle fingertip. The lizard squeaked again, and the nub unfurled into a small but unmistakable wing.
Cathy sucked in a breath through her teeth, her eyes widening.
"What are you?" she whispered, but the answer was obvious: in her cupped hands she held a newborn dragon.
The dragon squeaked again and nibbled on Cathy's finger. It didn't hurt. Cathy's mouth twitched in a brief smile. The dragon rolled around in Cathy's hands, flailing its limbs as it tried to figure out what was supposed to go where. It flopped onto Cathy's wrist and smeared its snout with blood, which caused it to let out a shrill cry that made Cathy glance towards the door. The dragon pawed at its face and cried again.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Cathy mumbled, retrieving the dropped towel. She wiped at the dragon's face with one hand, then used the towel to cover her wound—it was still bleeding, albeit slowly—and applied pressure. The dragon got its legs under it and began an unsteady but determined crawl across Cathy's arm. It encountered the soft fabric of an unbloodied section of towel and laid down on it, burrowing into the folds. Cathy hesitated, then stroked her finger down its back. The dragon rolled over and latched onto Cathy's finger with tiny white teeth, nibbling again.
"Are you hungry?" Cathy asked in a soft voice.
The dragon paused long enough to squeak at her again.
"Mm, I guess that's a yes," Cathy said, cradling the dragon in the portion of the towel that wasn't wrapped around her wrist. She stood up and turned off the light, then left her bedroom and avoided the creaky step as she went downstairs to the kitchen. Cathy left the dragon sitting on the towel in the relative confinement of the sink, then hurried down the basement stairs to unearth her empty ten gallon aquarium from the piles of exercise equipment and old toys. When she came back up the stairs, the dragon was crying again.
"Hush, you'll wake the whole house," Cathy whispered. She set down the aquarium on the table and picked up the dragon, which caused it to stop crying. It swarmed up her arm with twice the coordination it had possessed five minutes ago, hooking its tiny claws into the material of her shirt. It hurried upwards through her hair until it came to rest on top of her head, where it let out a squeak. Cathy could feel its feet against her scalp, and was smiling as she opened the refrigerator and selected a packet of ground beef that Mrs. Watkins had been planning to make into meatloaf.
She opened it, set a small portion on the cutting board on the counter, and gently disentangled the dragon from her hair. She set it down in front of the meat and waited.
The dragon sniffed the ground beef, looked at Cathy, looked at the meat, then turned away.
"So, you're not hungry?" Cathy asked.
The dragon sniffed the air, then arrowed along the length of the counter to the box of cherries that Mrs. Watkins had left sitting out. It crawled over the side and into the box, grappled with a cherry about the same size as its head, then tore into the fruit with gusto.
"What are you doing? Dragons aren't herbivores," Cathy whispered.
The dragon ignored her and continued eating. After several minutes it had whittled the fruit down to just the pit and stem, and its entire face was dark and sticky with cherry juice. Its belly bulged with food. It closed its eyes and appeared to go to sleep in the box next to the remains of its meal.
Cathy smiled, then left the kitchen and went to the bathroom. She covered her wound with gauze from the first aid kit and wrapped a bandage tight around it, then cleaned the knife and put it back in the block. She wiped the floor of the shower stall with a sponge and rinsed it out. She returned to the kitchen to pick up the towel, rubbed stain remover into it, and then tossed it into the washing machine and started the cycle. Finally, she picked up the dragon, set it gently into the aquarium, and brought the aquarium upstairs to her bedroom. She put the aquarium on her desk and then turned towards her bed.
The dragon let out another of those shrill cries; the move upstairs had woken it up. It pawed at the glass wall between it and Cathy, its paws slipping over the slick surface.
"What? What is it?" Cathy demanded.
The dragon let out another cry and continued pawing at the glass.
"Cathy? What's that noise?" Mrs. Watkins called softly through her door.
"I'm, uh, playing a video game!" Cathy said.
"Will you turn it the fuck down, then? Jesus!" a male voice said.
"Sam!" Mrs. Watkins scolded.
"It's midnight! She needs to have some respect for other peoples' sleep!"
"I'm sorry," Cathy said towards her door, and scooped the dragon out of the aquarium. It stopped crying as soon as Cathy did so, yawned hugely, and arranged itself in the teenager's cupped hands.
"Please do not poop in my bed," Cathy whispered into the darkened room.
The dragon didn't respond.
"Look, I'm terrible with names. My first betta fish was blue, so I called him 'Blue.' And then he died and I got Ruby, who was red. Your name will be... um, Cherry, I think."
Cherry rolled over in its sleep, still cuddled against the teenager's neck.
Cathy's mind was whirling. Cherry's body was cool against hers, which probably meant it was a reptile. Did baby dragons need heat lamps like geckos and snakes? And what would happen if Chery grew—the dragon was cute and pocket-sized right now, but what if it grew to be skyscraper-sized? What if Cherry learned how to breathe fire and burned down her mom's house? There were so many unknowns; Cathy didn't even know if Cherry was a boy or a girl!
"I need to talk to that woman again," Cathy whispered, "because you're a dragon and I have no idea how to take care of you. Do you even know you're not supposed to exist?"
There was no reply, and Cathy's eyes slid shut.
She would have to wait until next week's flea market, and then... Cathy, whose musing had turned almost to dreams, startled into alertness. Her head twitched, and Cherry let out an indignant noise. Cathy stroked the dragon down the curve of its spine to soothe it, her eyes wide and staring sightlessly in the dark of her bedroom. She was alive! She had planned to kill herself, but instead of bleeding out in a shower stall she was falling asleep in her bed—all because of Cherry.
It didn't have to be this way; Cathy could give Cherry to the old woman and proceed with her plan to kill herself. That was reasonable, and returning to her original plan felt comforting and safe. But something akin to dismay gripped Cathy's heart, because there was now a flaw in that plan: she didn't want to die. The black despair and overwhelming hopelessness that had plagued her for as long as she could remember was still present, but Cherry's arrival had ignited her sense of curiosity. She wanted to see what would happen with her baby dragon.
Being alive hurt, and Cathy was tired of hurting. She wanted it to end.
But, for now at least, she would stick around.
Thanks for reading! This story has an illustration of Cathy and Cherry together; you can access it by clicking the link to the WordPress blog on my profile page, where "Beneath the Surface" is also posted, and navigating to the end of the first chapter.
Also, I know the suicide attempt was graphic and emotionally heavy, so if you need someone to talk to please feel free to PM me. I was writing that scene from experience, so I know how it feels to be in such a place and I don't judge.