Fatal Reveries: A short story

A woman holding a glass of wine and a card that says "love you"
Annika Constantino/Staff

Content warning: The following short story contains mentions of depression and suicide. 

Mae Franklin planned on killing herself today.

She was now determined with the idea, though for so long it remained a distant promise — like when she planned on moving to Aruba or pursuing a PhD in literature. No, this would not be like those other failed fantasies. This would be her ultimate achievement. The idea was implanted in her mind a few months ago, when her husband had invited a colleague over for dinner as a thank you for taking over his classes when they had gone on her latest book tour.

Greg Something, was it?  She recalled that after the kids had retreated to their rooms, Greg and Harry had begun discussing one of their students who had attempted suicide.

“My god, he was pretty quiet in class but definitely one of my top students,” Harry said, swishing his wine glass.

“Yes, well, you never do know,” Greg Something replied. “Did you not read his personal record emailed to his professors? He has clinical depression.”

Harry shook his head. “I didn’t think to. I feel terrible.”

Greg shrugged, “In the end, what can you do? Thank god he didn’t take enough Morphine and someone found him in time.”

Greg then took a long sip of his wine, before saying, “You know my sister-in-law killed herself just last year.”

“Oh my god,” Mae said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Aw damn, Greg, I had no idea,” Harry said.

“She was brilliant. A lawyer from Yale,” Greg continued. “Depression ran in her family but no one, not even my brother or my nieces, believed she’d kill herself with all of her success and popularity. I mean, she was the only in-law universally loved by my whole family, including my own wife.”

With that, Greg chuckled darkly and took a gulp of his drink. Mae and Harry nodded, taking in more wine as well.

“You know, my brother and their kids were obviously a wreck. My brother –– Jesus, did he feel guilty. But there was only so much he could do. It was an illness none of them had control over.”

“How are your brother and nieces now?” Mae asked.

“Oh, they get by. I think some guilt still stays with them, but they’ve done so much for her now; fundraisers for those with depression and suicide prevention organizations, scholarships in her name at Yale, her daughter wrote a beautiful opinion piece on mental health in her honor for the Times.”

Mae drank more, envy for this dead woman pricking at her.

“Well, here’s to…what was her name again?” Harry asked, beginning to raise his glass.

“Rebecca,” Greg responded.

“To Rebecca.”

Mae drank more, envy for this dead woman pricking at her.

Later in bed, as the wine dragged her into sleep, Mae still fixated on Rebecca –– the depressed, brilliant and adored Yale lawyer whose family loved her more than Mae’s family loved her. All the times her husband shrugged off her mood swings, the tantrums her kids pulled, the lack of care during Mother’s Day and her birthday, the general disregard towards her, it all gradually mounted to a suffering that made her dissatisfied with her life. Though Mae knew she was not clinically depressed, she found her present life unbearably bland and people indifferent to her now. It was almost cruel. What had Harry said about her earlier this week, when she was too tired to take the kids out of school early and spend the day at the museum?

“Oh c’mon, Mae. You’re becoming that stereotypical, dull suburban parent with no surprise or spontaneity left in her.”

After Harry said that, it disturbed her that he didn’t intend to begin a fight or to insult her. He uttered it offhandedly, as if it were a simple fact and not her greatest shame.

She was resentful that he had become more sensitive to his students than her – she would look at his comments scribbled on their essays and see mild critiques brushed over by his praise and admiration for their work. Why was it natural to gather more sympathy towards those we do not know intimately and thoughtless to our spouses, children and parents? She didn’t know but her bitterness with Harry lingered.

Mae basked in the idea of Harry coming home, wandering around the house when she did not call out a hello to him like she usually did. He would look to make sure her car was in the garage, then peek into her office, hoping to find her writing again only to come across her empty desk, then try to listen for the shower running. When he wouldn’t, he would trudge upstairs, his worry escalating, breathing deeply, and praying to himself that he was simply being paranoid.

Then he would open their bedroom door, discovering her on their bed, wearing his favorite lavender, silk nightgown of hers. She would appear serene and gentle, loose tresses of her hair framing her ethereal face, reminding him how elegant she was. At first, he would be confused as to whether she was asleep or dead. Then he would notice the bottles of pills strewn around her and her note written on her favorite stationary, opened neatly next to her.

He would begin to heave out sobs, nearly choking on his surprise grief. He would embrace her lifeless body, so fragile and lovely. He would begin to frantically think of the times he slighted her, fought with her, ignored her and then he would think of his insensitive comment about her having no surprises left in her.

Well, here was her last surprise for him.

The scene would soak of cinematic drama, like it was a scene in one of her novels. Lillian and Owen would come home, annoyed that no dinner was on the table ready for them. Then, they would hear their father sobbing upstairs. She found it more difficult to imagine how the kids would react, as their tendencies and emotions were not permanently ingrained in them yet.

Yet she still could gain pleasure in trying to fantasize.

Perhaps Lillian would not sob, but she would be so surmounted with anguish that she would collapse on seeing her dead mother. She was relentlessly apathetic and hopefully Mae’s suicide would cultivate a compassionate quality in her.

“Why could I never just listen to my mother when she wanted to talk?” Lillian would reflect to herself or possibly tell her future therapist. “At that age, I was so stupid.” Her daughter would think about the week before her mother’s suicide when she was moody after receiving her low SAT scores and B+ in AP World History, ignoring her mother’s sadness about the poor sales of her newest book.

Owen was too young to experience the regret of not doing anything to help his mother, but he would most likely break into profound cries upon seeing her lifeless. When he would become a teenager and learn how his mother was a mystery and genius to the world, maybe he would mourn over being too narrow-minded to consider how his mother was more than the person who packed his lunch everyday and nagged him to wash his dishes.

The daydreams of what would occur because of her suicide compelled her to move forward with her plan. She took even more joy in mulling over how those who panned her work would react, especially now when the glow from the high sales of her previous books had died. The money had silenced the poor reviews, as young girls flocked to her books. But these girls had grown up, scoffing at how they had once embraced her words –– just as Lillian did now.

Now, she had to face that she was, according to the New York Times, “a writer (in the lowest definition of the term) who embraced clichés, ignorantly thinking she originally created them,” or as The Atlantic wrote, someone who “embarrassingly reached for depth, when she clearly held no ounce of wisdom,” or that she merely was an “awful author,” as her old professor put it.

Her unfinished work would be unearthed and her death would gloss over the flaws, smoothing and perfecting it in critics’ eyes. “A tragedy unfairly critiqued in life, and now we must miss her greater potential,” The New Yorker would declare in her obituary. Her Wikipedia page would say she “died thinking she was a failure, but after her death critics found her posthumously published works outstanding and revolutionary.”

The fantasies satisfied her, corroborating her decision. After the kids left for school and Harry went off to teach his morning classes, Mae leapt out of her bed.

In the weeks leading up to her final day, Mae had arranged her will and requests for her funeral preparation. The sales for her books would inevitably skyrocket, but a portion of the profits must go to Red Cross or to some village in Zimbabwe or something noble like that. Everyone at her funeral must wear white, adding some original flair to this ceremony for her. Even after her death, she wanted to remind everyone she was one of a kind.

After arranging the papers on her desk for Harry to see, she grabbed the Advil from her medicine cabinet and the Ventolin for Harry’s asthma, though she left a handful for him. She didn’t want him to die because she had taken all his medicine. How selfish that would be of her.

Resolved, she dug through her nightstand drawer, remembering that she had bought a pack of Nyquil a few days ago. Faded receipts, old journals and encrusted coins slid through her hands, but an aged, red construction paper caught her eye.

Mae dropped the rest of her life’s debris back into her drawer, taking only the red paper. It was folded in half and too thick to stay closed. She opened it, messily cut snowflakes and “MERRY CHRISTMAS MOMMY” popping up across the page. Beneath the pop-up art, in loopy, careful cursive, was written, “Love you. Love, Owen.”

A warm nostalgia crept into her, as she remembered that Christmas five years ago. It was the first Christmas Lillian decided that she and Owen were old enough to give separate gifts to their parents. Owen had made a card for Harry at school but forgot to make a card for Mae, confirming her theory that Owen loved Harry more than her.

As Owen realized his slip-up on Christmas morning, Mae recalled getting up and leaving the living room, too upset to acknowledge that Owen had begun crying out of guilt.

Later in the day, while she was taking refuge in her office, Owen slipped the card under the door. She loved that although the card possessed the typical, clumsy qualities of an artwork done by a six year-old, she knew Owen had placed more care into it than he had for his card to Harry.

“I loved the card sweetie,” Mae told Owen after she had dropped her grudge and came into his room during bedtime.

“Thanks, mommy.”

“It’s so good .You should make more art,” She said, weakly trying to make him feel better about his negligence.

He nodded eagerly, more excited that his mother had forgiven him. “I want to be an artist when I grow up.”

“Do you think you’ll make something for Mommy again?”

“Yes. I’ll make you lots and lots of paintings.”

Mae wondered if he still wanted to be an artist. Maybe it was too early to tell. He was still a child, open to uncountable paths. Perhaps he would fail and settle as an art teacher, eventually happy with the rewarding sentiment of teaching or succeeding but suffering from self-doubt and overwhelming ambition. The notion that she would never be able to know struck sadness in her for the first time since deciding on her suicide.

How unfortunate it would be for Mae to never see Owen’s new art works for her, to never watch him work and decide what to do, to never know what he would be.

Mae gripped the card.

Perhaps now wasn’t the time to go through with the suicide. Maybe it was best to wait and gain a clearer glimpse as to what would become of Owen.

But she couldn’t endure the cruel criticisms from the public, her family’s apathy towards her and the sheer monotony her life was becoming. No, not any longer. The end could not wait.

Leaving the card on her bed and hoping that Harry would know to bury this with her, she continued her search for drugs. She did not want to fail at this as well.

Perhaps now wasn’t the time to go through with the suicide. Maybe it was best to wait and gain a clearer glimpse as to what would become of Owen.

Mae knew Lillian still had a bottle of Hydrocodone from when her wisdom teeth were removed. She hated to be the common mother that goes through her children’s room without their permission, but she needed this from Lillian –– one last gift from her to her mother.

Lillian inherited Harry’s organizational skills, allowing Mae to easily find where she placed her medicines on her vanity set. Combing through Lillian’s box of perfume bottles and unopened shampoo samples, she not only found the Hydrocodone but a familiar circular container of colored pills centered around black letterings of MON., TUES.,WED. etc.

Mae grabbed the birth control pills, doubting what was in her hands.

She had never considered Lillian was having sex. Lillian was how old? Seventeen? Almost eighteen years old? Of course she was having sex.

Sinking onto Lillian’s bed, Mae stared at the circle of pills. She wondered with whom her daughter was having sex with. Lil seemed more like the type to have a boyfriend, but whom would she date? Lil was so serious nowadays, consumed with grades and college applications. How could she have a boyfriend? How could Mae or Harry not gain even a vague suspicion?

As she lay on her daughter’s bed, she envisioned Lil going off to Princeton or Stanford, leaving behind her boyfriend, maybe solidifying him as her first love and whispering “oh, if only…”

Mae allowed herself to imagine the horrible possibility that Lil would forget to take her pill or to use a condom, ultimately getting pregnant. Lil would not get an abortion. Irritated with her parents’ obstinate liberal standings, she had expressed once that she would, “hate to exterminate” her own growing offspring and would never get an abortion. And with Lil being exasperatingly pragmatic, she would choose to stay at home to raise her child –– Harry and Mae’s first grandchild.

For a moment she enjoyed the image of Lil and Owen sitting together in their sunroom when they would visit Harry, telling her grandchildren of how their grandma was an “extraordinary person but she died in a very sad way.” Harry and the children would attempt to gently tell the grandkids why their grandmother killed herself. Or perhaps they wouldn’t. Would they tiptoe around the marred truth and simply not mention their grandma, too sad or regretful to tell them about Mae’s fate?

And what if, following their guilt and grief, only anger permeated them?

What if, when they were grown and asked about how they felt about their mother as adults, Lil and Owen would express how their mother was a “depressed woman with inner demons,” and console themselves with declarations about how they have “tried to forgive her.”

Maybe the kids would remain bitter, continuing to neglect her on Mother’s Day and her birthday, their memories tainted by this one final act, and her descendants pushing forward to forget this blemish in their family.

She did not like that unknown future. The questions of what Lil and Owen were to be, what her legacy would be, poured in through her. Even as the sunlight darkened and lowered until it receded from the room, Mae remained lying on her daughter’s bed, looking up at the darkened ceiling, thinking of what was to be after her.

It took her a few moments to even notice the footsteps downstairs.

“Hello?” Harry called, his voice echoing through the house. “Anyone home?”

Mae sat up.

“Hi honey! I’m here.”

Contact Katrina Fadrilan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katfadrilanDC.