LA book lovers take note: Terri Cheney, LA writer and bestselling author of Manic will be reading and discussing her new memoir, The Dark Side of Innocence, a groundbreaking personal portrayal of the emerging phenomenon of childhood bipolar disorder, at two local events that you don’t want to miss!
Wednesday, March 23rd, 7:00pm
8818 Sunset Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Sunday, April 2nd, 2:00pm
BARNES & NOBLE, Westside Pavilion
10850 West Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90064
Return to Excerpt (Part 1)
Keep Reading the First Chapter of The Dark Side of Innocence by Terri Cheney
*Reprinted by special arrangement. Copyright © 2011 by Terri Cheney from DARK SIDE OF INNOCENCE published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
That settled, I went to wake Daddy. His room, unlike my mother’s, was never locked. I went in and out as much as I liked, played with his cuff links, pawed through his dresser drawers. A few of my stuffed animals even lived on his pillow, next to his sleeping head. One of his arms lay outside the covers, and I gave it a gentle shake.
“Daddy, it’s time,” I said. Nothing. I tried again. Not a flicker. I jumped on the bed and gave his arm a serious yank, just like in tug-of-war. His eyes popped open. “What the hell?” he said.
Daddy was allowed to swear because he wasn’t Catholic.He wasn’t quite sure what he was, and he didn’t seem to care. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world because it meant he didn’t have to follow the rules. He didn’t have to eat smelly fish on Fridays, he didn’t have to go to confession, he didn’t even have to kneel during Mass. While the rest of us bruised our tender knees, he sat back with impunity. Once or twice, Ilooked over my shoulder at him, and I could swear I caught him grinning.
“It’s morning!” I said, tickling him in the ribs.
“Obviously,” he grunted, and rolled on his side. “Go away, you miserable child.”
I knew my father well enough to ignore his moment of pique. I could count on one hand the number of times he’d been seriously angry with me. But that didn’t mean he didn’t have a temper. It was terrifying, like a lightning storm in summer: just as sudden and just as short-lived. He’d flare up at my mother with a big, booming voice, his face bright red, the veins bulging out of his forehead. Then the next minute, his eyes would grow quiet again, soft and brown, like my bedtime cocoa.
I tickled him again. This time his hand shot up and grabbed me by the wrist, then he pulled me down next to him and tickled me until I collapsed with laughter. “Who’s the lazybones now?” he said. “Come on, last one up’s a soggy pancake.”
I ran to the kitchen, but his legs were longer than mine, and he beat me. Ours was a well-oiled machine by now: I would gather up all the pancake ingredients while he coaxed the old griddle to life. By the time it was hot, I’d have everything waiting: Bisquick mix, eggs, milk, maple syrup. There was an annoying interruption every morning while my father fixed himself a cup of coffee. That morning, I didn’t want to delay even a minute before we played the pancake game—especially since it would be the last time I ever played it on this earth.
The game was simple and dated back to the time when I was first learning how to read. Daddy would drizzle the batter intoletters, and I wasn’t allowed to eat until I knew which letter was represented. My favorite was T for “Terri,” of course, but I also liked J for “Jack.” Now that I had learned my alphabet, the game had progressed so that I had to spell ten words that began with the letter before I could dive into my pancakes. Not little words, like go or get, but big words, like geranium and geography. “Next week,” my father informed me, pouring out the batter, “we’re going to do proper names from history.” That was okay, I thought, drowning my new batch with maple syrup. I didn’t mind cold pancakes.
“Where is your brother this morning?” my father asked, sitting down with his coffee. It was as much a part of our routine as the recalcitrant griddle.
“Don’t know,” I said, which wasn’t the truth. I knew. My father knew. My mother knew. We all knew. Zach was in his room. Zach was always in his room. What he did there, with his towering stacks of National Geographics and his enormous collection of cap guns, we had no clue. We were never invited in. I, particularly, was forbidden to enter. I think I must have offended Zach deeply just by virtue of my entry into his world. It couldn’t have been easy for him, as firstborn and sole possessor of the stage, to have the spotlight yanked away by a red-faced, squalling infant. In his defense, I must admit I really can’t blame him: from the day that I came into this world, I did everything in my power to keep that spotlight trained on me.
My mother often argued with my father about this disparity of attention. “Jack, you’re spoiling her rotten,” she’d say. “And it’s completely unfair to Zach.” No doubt she was right. It wasn’t fair. But I wasn’t in the business of fairness, I was in the business of staking my territory. The world did not feel safe to me, and between my father and mother, my father seemed the more likely refuge from harm. Not that I didn’t love my mother, but I knew those pink geraniums in front of our house bloomed only so long as she was happy, and her happiness seemed a precarious thing, entirely dependent on mysterious words like mortgage and Rebecca.
But except for his occasional outbursts of temper, my father was uniformly easygoing, charming, and relaxed. He seemed to me to have things in hand. Best of all, he thought I was adorable: the smartest, the cleverest, the most competent child ever invented. And he told me so constantly. The most effusive my mother ever got was, “Button your sweater, it’s chilly outside.”
I never meant my bond with my father to get in the way of his relationship with Zach. But a child’s soul is inherently selfish, and in truth, I was pleased to have so much of my father’s time to myself. The way I saw it, Daddy’s love was the ultimate A-plus, and Zach was doing nothing to earn it by hiding away in his room all day. Whereas my campaign never ceased.
I’d set up my station by his big brown chair a half hour before he got home. In one pile was all my schoolwork, including any excellent grades or comments or honors I’d won that day. In another, the Daily Report, folded just the way he liked it. In a third, the amenities: cigarettes, lighter, the ashtray I made for him in kindergarten, his bedroom slippers, and his favorite heavy-bottomed scotch glass. The one thing my mother refused to let me do was fill up the glass ahead of time. “He can fix his own damned drink,” she’d say. She, as a Catholic, was not permitted profanity, so her use of it impressed me. Alcohol quickly became associated in my mind with a flagrant disregard for the rules.
Then I would wait by the door. I hated that door. No, I loved it. It was the door my father would enter from, and that, of course, made it perfect. But it was also the door that he would slam on his way out of the house after one of their endless latenight arguments. I’d be lying in bed, just waiting for it, but nothing ever prepared me for the awful sound of that slam. The whole house would reverberate with it, but I would continue to shake long after the house settled down.
I knew that he would leave one day. It was a fact of my existence, as glaring as my strawberry hair. It was the central mission of my life to make sure that when he left, he took me with him. Which was why I simply couldn’t risk coming home with a
C on this latest homework assignment. Things had been tenser than usual lately. A week ago, Daddy had slammed the door and hadn’t come home for two days.
“He’s working,” my mother had said when I’d begged to know where he was. But I knew that couldn’t be true. He was working on a nearby tract of homes, and he’d never had to leave before. Besides, he would have told me if he was going anywhere. We would have looked it up together on the map, he would have given me ten proper names to spell, there would have been a quiz on it later. So she must have been lying, and I could feel the earth begin to shift ever so slightly but treacherously beneath my feet. Now was clearly not the time to loosen my hold.
There was a flaw to my logic, of course. If I killed myself to avoid losing my father, I’d be dead, and I’d lose him forever. “Forever” wasn’t quite clear to me. Forever could be an afternoon if the Black Beast was impatient that day, or it could be a lifetime. At six, I didn’t have much of a grasp of finality. I just knew that forever sounded like a long, long time to be without my daddy.
The only way out of this conundrum was faith. I simply had to believe with all my heart and soul in what Sister Mary Bernadette had taught us about the nature of Heaven: that the moment you reach the Pearly Gates, everyone you ever loved, dead or alive, is gathered around to meet you. She assured us that this included dead pets and lost stuffed animals, so it had to apply to beloved fathers too. Please, sweet Jesus, make it so.
“Why are your eyes closed?” my father asked. I was startled—prayer had just snuck up on me; I hadn’t meant for him to see it.
“I’m sleepy,” I started to answer, and then I remembered that I needed him to call the school for me, to get me excused for the day. “No, you know what? I’m sick. I woke up this morning with a terrible cold. You should have heard me sneezing. Mom was really worried.”
“Did she say that I should call the school?”
I hesitated, not wanting to burden my soul with another lie so close to my death. “I’m sure she just assumed you would. She was in an awful hurry.” That much, at least, was true.
My mother’s opinion as to matters of physical health was absolute and final. Anyone seeing her in her shining white uniform would have followed her instructions to the letter. “Hand me the phone,” my father said.
While he dialed, I studied his face: the high curving forehead, the broad Cheney nose, the endearing gap between his two front teeth, the wayward lock of sandy brown hair. I wanted to commit every detail to memory. I’d never gone anywhere without my daddy before, and death was the longest journey of all. Sure, I believed he’d be there to greet me in Heaven, but who knew how long it would take me to arrive? Even Disneyland had lines; maybe Heaven did too.
A flutter of emotions kicked up inside me: fear, doubt, loneliness,regret. For all his years of single-minded devotion, I felt I owed my father something. An explanation, perhaps. At the very least, a good-bye. Trembling, I opened my mouth to speak—and Zach walked into the kitchen.
“Where’s breakfast?” he asked, slinging his book bag onto the counter and pulling up a chair as best he could with his bandaged hand. I avoided looking at it.
“We already ate. Get it yourself.” I didn’t mean to snap, but his timing was lousy.
“What’s with you? And why aren’t you dressed?” He got up and clumsily poured himself a heaping bowl of raisin bran.
“I’m sick,” I said.
He snorted. “Again? What is it this time? Lung cancer?”
My father hung up the phone. “Okay, you’re all set. But Anna Marie can’t come for an hour. Will you be all right until then?”
I nodded. Since they both worked, my parents were sometimes forced to leave us alone for short periods of time. It was no big deal. We lived on a quiet cul-de-sac, and the neighbors all kept an eye out for one another. It seemed unlikely that anything bad could ever happen in our peaceful, middle-class neighborhood, with its neatly trimmed hedges and meticulous flower beds.
Anna Marie was the girl down the street who came and sat with Zach and me after school until my mother got home. Sat was literally all she did. She parked her hefty carcass on the sofa and watched TV while simultaneously eating potato chips and flipping through the latest teen magazine. Zach was in his room, of course, so she had nothing to do with him. Once or twice, I’d tried to befriend her, but short of discovering that we both liked extra salt on our potato chips, I couldn’t find much in common. So Anna Marie wouldn’t hinder my plans. She barely even noticed that I was alive; I doubt that she’d know I was dead.
“I’m halfway through Misty of Chincoteague,” I reassured my father. “Plus I’ve got an overdue homework assignment.” I regretted the words as soon as I spoke them.
My father’s face turned serious. “What’s this?”
“You know. I’m supposed to write a story about myself.”
“I can’t think what I should write.”
“Write about anything. Write about—” His eye caught the vase on the dining room table. “Flowers. Say what kind of flower
“Okay.” I shrugged. What did it matter now, anyway?
“Come on, Zach, we’re late,” my father said.
Zach stayed in his seat, frowning. “My hand hurts. And I think I’m getting a sore throat. I should be able to stay home too.”
“Forget it,” my father said.
“Why is she the only one who gets to lounge around all day?”
“Because she’s not the one who just got a D-minus on a math test. Out with you.”
My father scooped up his keys off the counter and held out his arms. “Give us a kiss, princess.” Knowing this would be the very last kiss nearly undid me. I hurled myself into my father’s arms and hugged his waist so tight I could feel his belt cutting into my skin. Then I burst into tears.
“Whoa, what’s this?” He stroked my hair. “You’re not afraid to stay home alone now, are you? A big girl like you?”
I didn’t want him to remember me like this. I’m not sure I knew the exact words yet, but I wanted him to remember my dignity. Grace. Poise. “No, of course not,” I said, shaking my hair back out of my face and cracking a lopsided smile.
“That’s better. Give ’em hell, baby.” It was his signature line, the one he always said before we had to part. As always, it stiffened my spine and made me feel like a soldier on my way to the wars.
“Bye, Daddy,” I said softly to his retreating back. Zach sped by me, saying, “Don’t cough up any blood on the couches. Mom’ll kill you.”
“Bye-bye, Zach,” I said with far more tenderness than I had ever mustered toward him before.
And then they were gone, and the house was all mine. My footsteps echoed on the hardwood floors. I caught a glimpse of myself in the living room mirror and decided not to look in mirrors anymore. I looked far too small for the big deed that I needed to do.
I thought about preparing one last grand meal, full of everything I was usually denied: chocolate chip cookie dough, a great big root beer float, Cheetos, corn chips, and an economy-sized bag of M&M’s for dessert. But I just wasn’t hungry. There were things to do, and Anna Marie was coming in an hour. If I was going on this journey, I needed to pack. I realized that packing for the afterlife might be futile, but those mummies had been pretty smart, and they had brought along a thing or two.
I had my very own suitcase: a small pink one that my mother had bought me when we visited her family’s farm in Canada afew years before. Standing on a kitchen chair, I wrestled it down from the closet shelf. It was empty except for one photograph tucked away in one of the silk-lined compartments. I remembered that photograph, although I wished that I d
idn’t. It showed what appeared to be a wild child, a seething mass of hair and bared teeth. Her mouth was open, clearly screaming. The child was locked in an empty cage.
The Black Beast had been upon me then. I’d been bad: I hadn’t wanted to go to a livestock show with the rest of my cousins. I hadn’t wanted to do anything, just wallow in bed. But I was maybe four or five, and of course, they couldn’t leave me behind. One of my cousins joked, “Let’s put her in the cage”—the one they used to carry the pigs. They tossed me in there and locked the door. It was a sweltering day, and the smell of shit was so thick and strong I thought I’d suffocate. Flies swarmed all around me, buzzing angrily in my ears and crawling in my eyes, my nose.
The Black Beast went berserk. I didn’t know any swear words then, I only knew how to scream. And scream I did, so loudly and so long that I lost the use of my voice for days after.
It was the first time I remembered ever losing control. In spite of my fury, in spite of my righteous indignation, the abandon felt delicious. It was like I lived on a freer, wilder plane than my grubby, earth-bound cousins, who by now were gathered around laughing, snapping photos of me. I played to the camera, loping around like a crazed gorilla, beating my chest, banging my head against the bars. I lost myself entirely in the part, leaving behind the immaculately dressed little girl in her polka-dot socks and Mary Jane shoes. I scooped up some dirt (mixed with pig dung, no doubt) and smeared it across my face, my dress. I was just about to start eating it when my aunt caught sight of us from the farmhouse window and made my cousins release me.
I got a lot of attention after that: a warm bubble bath, an extra helping of my Aunt Dolores’s famous mashed potatoes, and the right to keep the light on if I wanted. My dreams were full of cages from that night on.
I slipped the photograph back in its place and lugged the suitcase into my room. What to pack? Daddy had read me an article once about King Tut, the boy king who’d been buried with his gold. I had no gold, but I did have a genuine pearl pinkie ring from SeaWorld. In it went. There wasn’t much else in the way of treasure, so I just took what was most precious to me. Toto, of course; maybe God could restore his missing ear. An old picture of my mother with her arm around my father’s waist—it was one of the few times I’d seen them embrace. All seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia. (I left the lives of the saints behind, figuring that I could interview them in person.) But I didn’ttake a single honor or award. There were lots of them lining my bookshelf: plaques and trophies and parchment scrolls. The best of this. Most valued that. In Heaven, I was sure, none of this would matter.
I shook my head in wonder. Imagine: a world without grades, without prizes. How would God know that I was the best? Would He still love me anyway?
I shut the suitcase and snapped it closed. The house was quiet. I could hear the clock out in the hall. I could hear the leaky faucet in my mother’s bath, the one she kept nagging my father to fix. Our house abutted the freeway, and the sound of the traffic was sometimes so loud it made conversation difficult. But it was strangely muted that day, as if all the cars were running on velvet. The world was hushed and waiting.
I sat on the bed and pulled the pill bottle out of my pocket. I tried to read the label, but it was an unintelligible mass of mostly vowels, followed by “Take as directed.” It didn’t really matter what they were called, I supposed. Everyone knew that pills were dangerous; that’s why they hid them in the lingerie drawer or on the very top shelf of the medicine cabinet.
I went in the bathroom and filled my toothpaste glass with cold water. Then I opened the bottle and emptied it out on my bedspread. Damn. There weren’t nearly as many as I’d hoped there would be: twenty-five—no, twenty-six—little blue pills. Was that enough to do the trick? Or would I end up a vegetable like my mother’s great-aunt Rosemarie, with the perpetual spittle in the corners of her mouth that nobody bothered to wipe away?
One thing was for sure: I couldn’t do this alone. I pulled Toto out of the suitcase and held him tight, careful not to crush his ear. Then I knelt down on the floor and prayed for guidance: “Dear God, I’m sorry if this is a sin, but please don’t let me mess it up.”
Not a very eloquent prayer, but deeply sincere. I got up, slipped off the robe with the big yellow daisies, and packed it carefully in the suitcase. Then I put on my First Communion dress—or rather, I tried to put it on. There was a row of little pearl-covered buttons in the back, which I couldn’t quite manage by myself. I felt an intense and sudden longing for my mother, with her efficient, nimble fingers. It was not the most auspicious start, to arrive at Heaven half-buttoned.
I checked the clock. Eight-thirty, and Anna Marie would be here at nine. If I was ever going to do this, now was the time. Now, now, now, the Black Beast commanded.
All at once, I felt a curious sensation, as if my body had split in two and was watching itself. I observed my right hand reach out and pick up one of the little blue pills. It was strange: I wasn’t afraid. In fact, if I had known the word, I think I would have said I felt serene: the decision had finally been made. But I noticed that my hand was shaking, and my fingers were icy white. I placed the pill on the tip of my tongue and waited, tasting. It was bitter; so bitter it made my eyes squint. I took a long, cool drink of water and felt it course down the back of my throat, sweeping the pill along with it.
Now it was just like homework: I simply had to dive in and finish. I attacked the pills like potato chips. Over and over, I picked one up, placed it on my tongue, took a sip of water, and swallowed, until they were all gone. Around about the seventh pill, I noticed that my hand was still shaking. But other than that, I felt no different. I saw no visions, I heard no trumpets. Death tasted familiar, like toothpaste.
This wasn’t what I’d expected. I’d thought the pills would kill me instantly, and I’d be whooshed straight into Heaven, like in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is swept out of black-and-white into glowing Technicolor. But I looked around, and the room was unchanged. Same old macramé wall hanging, same old faded pink sheets. I looked under the bed. Same old dust bunnies too.
I was pretty sure I knew why I was still here. God didn’t want to take me yet because my homework wasn’t finished. reluctantly, I got out of bed and walked over to my desk. I contemplated the horrid white paper. It looked even whiter and blanker than I’d remembered it. Write a story about yourself, Sister Mary Bernadette had said. I’d halfway promised my father at breakfast that I would—a story about flowers, I think he had said. What kind of flower was I?
My left temple was pulsing, and I felt slightly woozy, but I forced myself to sit down and face the page. The assignment seemed absurd to me. If I’d known what kind of flower I was, no doubt I wouldn’t be in this predicament. I’d be happy, in the right kind of garden, content just to be a daisy. But all I knew, all I’d ever known, was what I was not.
I grabbed my favorite crayon, burnt sienna, and started writing:
I’m not a rose like St. Thérèse
Or a lily like Joan of Arc
Here I stopped. I knew the image I wanted, but my mind was beginning to slip sideways and I couldn’t remember the name of the flower. It was shy and grew between the cracks—probably the last thing anyone would ever expect me to say about myself, but with death on my shoulder, I felt compelled to tell the truth. That was me, that little yellow flower always about to be crushed underfoot.
A sudden wave of nausea struck me, and I ran to the bathroom and was p
romptly sick. Plus I’d never had to pee so badly in my life. Once I did, the nausea lifted somewhat, and I made my way back to the desk. My legs felt as if they belonged to someone else, but my hands still worked, although the trembling was worse than ever. I examined what I’d written. Sure enough, it was wildly imperfect, the printing scrawled all over the page. I wanted to cry, but I was too preoccupied by the sensations erupting in my body: dizziness, thirst, and a violent buzzing in my ears. The paper was growing whiter by the second, the room began to spin and throb, and I barely made it back to my bed before I knew no more.
I woke to discover that Heaven looked just like my mother’s eyes. They were enormous; they filled the whole universe.
“You were sleeping so soundly, I didn’t want to wake you,” she said. “Anna Marie told me you were out like a light all afternoon.”
I hadn’t really expected to see my mother in Heaven. I thought she’d be so mad at me for stealing her pills, she’d never want to see me again. But here she was, and her voice was so soothing—soft and low and vibrant with concern—that I knewall must be forgiven. The whiteness of her uniform dazzled me. Clearly, she was an angel, and I’d never done her justice before.
I held out my arms to embrace her, but the motion unnerved me and I threw up all over the pillow. With one swift yank, she pulled off the pillowcase before it could soil the sheets. Then she kicked into nursing mode, laying one cool hand across my forehead, checking my pulse with the other. I loved it when my mother checked my pulse: she didn’t often touch me, and it felt like she was sending filaments of empathy straight through my wrist.
I leaned in to kiss her. She pulled back, let go of my wrist,and wrinkled her nose. “You’d better go brush your teeth,” shesaid. “And get out of that dress so I can fix the hem. I won’t have people saying I neglect my children.”
Shaky and dizzy, I went into the bathroom. I had a tremendous urge to pee again, but as I sat down, it occurred to me:there shouldn’t be toilets in Heaven. Nor should my mother pull away from my kiss. I realized then that I had failed—I had not scored an A-plus at suicide. What was I going to do now? I felt a sudden wetness on my cheeks, but I didn’t even look in the mirror to confirm that I was crying. I knew what I would see there: eyes like dead coals. I took off my dress and crawled into bed, careful not to let my mother see me cry.
“Dinner’s at six,” she said.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Suit yourself,” she shrugged. “It’s corn dogs.” She knew that was one of my favorite meals, but the prospect of food didn’t appeal to me. The thought of getting up and getting dressed was just too much to handle. I nestled Toto against my cheek and let him sop up my tears.
Sleep consumed me, and cages haunted my dreams. I was trapped and in danger, and there was no getting out. At some point, I thought I heard a man’s voice—my father’s, perhaps?—and felt familiar lips brushing my forehead. But it didn’t matter. The cages only grew smaller and tighter, the locks more cruelly intricate.
When I woke the next morning, I was seven.
I felt a burning thirst and that same insatiable need to pee. On my way out of the bathroom, I ran into my mother. She looked harried. “Have you seen my pills?” she asked.
“What pills?” I smoothed my face into a blank.
“You know, those little blue pills I take every morning. My diuretics.”
“My diuretics. My ankles are going to swell like elephants’ legs if I can’t find them. Come help me look.”
“I don’t know where you keep them.”
“In my lingerie drawer. Mind you don’t mess it up. And hurry.”
It was impossible to hurry. My arms and legs felt like sacks of bricks and didn’t want to move. I spent the next ten minutes pretending to look for what I already knew wasn’t there. I’d hidden the bottle in a shoe box in the very back of my closet. There was no chance of it ever coming to light. But I sifted and sorted most diligently while my mother tore the rest of the room apart. Naturally, she found nothing.
“This means I’ll have to wear support hose today,” she said finally. “I can’t stand support hose. I don’t even know where they are. I hate this stupid house, where you can never find anything.”
I felt a little guilty then, but not enough to tell her my secret. Besides, the Black Beast had hold of my tongue, and it was difficult to speak. I wanted to say, “Don’t you even realize that I’m seven today?” but there were too many syllables in that sentence and too much emotion required to voice them. I left my mother ransacking her drawers and burrowed back under the covers.
Seventh birthdays are highly overrated. I slept almost the entire day. I didn’t have to resort to the pepper trick or stick a thermometer under my arm. Nobody expected me to go to school. My mother had left a note, so my father didn’t even try to wake me. He told Anna Marie to give me two aspirins when I woke up, but I never did. “I tried to call you all day, but you were asleep, and your mother thought it best that we leave you be,” he told me later that evening. I guess I must have looked as sick as I felt.
I was still a bit queasy from all the pills, but of course, that wasn’t the problem. It was the Black Beast, sitting on my chest. Each and every one of my bones felt too heavy for my body. Blinking and breathing, no longer automatic functions, had turned into strenuous acts of will. It was all I could do just to pull in my ribs and push them back out again, over and over. And always, behind each labored breath, was the knowledge that I had failed. Like it or not, I was going to live.
There was a cake—a fancy one, with ballerinas pirouetting all over it. Chocolate with buttercream icing, my favorite. While everyone sang the birthday song, I closed my eyes and pretended to make a wish. But there was only one thing to wish for, and I think I had already exhausted it: “Please don’t let me get a C.”
I even got the presents I wanted most: an Easy-Bake Oven and a beautiful hand-tooled red leather diary with its very ownlock and key. I was a creature of secret thoughts; now I had somewhere to put them. I forced a smile and tried to sound gay, but it came out rather lugubrious.
“You’re still not feeling well, are you?” my father asked.
I shook my head.
“Do you feel too sick to go to school tomorrow?”
I nodded, hard.
“Jack, she’s already been out almost ten days,” my mother said. “You’re indulging her, as always. And don’t forget, her First Communion’s on Sunday.”
That was three days away. “The only thing she really needs to show up for is confession on Saturday,” my father argued. “She’ll be good and rested by then. Won’t you, princess?”
I threw my arms around his neck. “I’ll sleep all day, I promise.”
My mother shot him a look of disgust, but he got on the phone to Anna Marie. “Terri Lynn’s having one of her spells,”he said. “We’ll need you tomorrow and Friday, okay?”
“One of her spells.” I’d often heard my parents use that phrase, but I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. Was I simply being ungovernable? Or was it possible, however unlikely, that they knew about the Black Beast? I immediately dismissed that notion. No one had ever mentioned it, and ours was too small a household for diplomacy.
Anna Marie was available, so I was all set. I’d rest up Thursday and Friday and go to confession on Saturday. Confession was, of course, mandatory before a First Communion. All sins must be cleansed, all impurities banished, before one could receive the body of Christ. I’d have an awful lot of confessing to do, I realized. I dreaded to think what Father Joseph would say, or what kind of penance he’d give me for attempting suicide—that most mortal o
f mortal sins.
I worried about it the whole next day, and the whole day Friday too. That’s all I did: worry, lie in bed, and eat myself into a stupor. As always, I went for anything sweet: apricot jam and Oreo cookies, chocolate chip ice cream drenched in pancake syrup, powdered sugar straight out of the box. My face and hair were covered with sugar, my precious robe spattered with chocolate, but I just kept shoveling it in—I couldn’t stop. Anna Marie didn’t care what I ate. She even helped me polish off the rest of the birthday cake.
When everything obvious was consumed, I grabbed the box of raisin bran and picked out all the raisins. They tasted all the sweeter when I imagined Zach’s face in the morning.
“Dad, she’s done it again,” he’d say, when he poured out his favorite cereal.
My father would look sympathetic and shrug. No matter how many times they ordered me not to vandalize the raisin bran the Black Beast wouldn’t let it alone. It amused him too much to antagonize Zach—a dangerous game, I thought.
When I woke up Saturday morning, it was raining so hard that I was certain I’d been granted a reprieve. Surely no one would expect the students to go to confession in a torrent like this. But my father called the convent, and it was confirmed: if I didn’t go to confession, there would be no First Communion for me tomorrow.
Southern California so rarely has weather, the thunder and lightning would have been thrilling if it had been just any old day. But that day, the storm seemed like proof of God’s displeasure with me, rattling my eardrums and stinging my skin. We had to drive so slowly on the slick, flooded roads that the trip to St. Madeleine’s took forever, and we passed a bad accident on the way. I was thoroughly frightened and miserable by the time we reached the church. Despite my entreaties, my father stayed in the car to smoke a Camel. “Give ’em hell, baby,” he said.
Father Joseph had apparently been caught in the rain. His cassock was so wet it was streaming, leaving a dark trail behind him. The soaking hadn’t helped his disposition either, which even on the best of days was dour. “Line up!” he barked at the twenty or so shivering students waiting to confess. “No talking! No fidgeting! Contemplate your sins!” Probably none of us knew what “contemplate” meant, but like puppies listening to a master’s tone, we knew enough to stay quiet.
I was one of the first in line, which was good because it meant I didn’t have too much time to think. The light over the confessional went off, and Johnny Zinn stepped out. He was the toughest kid in class, and he was in tears. “Next!” Father Joseph shouted.
I stepped in, knelt, and crossed myself. It was dark and dank and close in there, the air a mixture of Johnny Zinn’s sweat and the incense lingering from the morning Mass. My body temperature began to rise, my heart began to flutter. As always, I worried that I would faint before Father Joseph could speak to me. I could hear him breathing through the screen; it sounded like he had a bad cold. Then he shot the secret panel back and said something in Latin. My cue.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been three weeks since my last confession, and these are my sins.”
I’d already decided that I wouldn’t use the word suicide. Instead I would just state the facts and let Father Joseph come to his own conclusion. It wasn’t really a lie that way, just a softening of the truth. I took a deep breath and said, “I stole my mother’s diabetics.” Then I added in a rush, “And I took them all.” There, I’d said it. The ball was in God’s court now.
I expected Father Joseph to be outraged. At the very least, I thought he’d ask me why I did it and then lecture me on theperil to my mortal soul. But there was silence on the other side of the panel, followed by a very great sneeze and a copious amount of nose blowing. When he finally spoke, he sounded congested and bored.
“Stealing is a serious sin,” he said. I wondered how many times he had to say that in the course of a week’s confessions.
“Yes, Father, I know.”
“Search your heart, child. Are you truly sorry?”
I searched my heart, but the truth was, my only real regret was that I hadn’t succeeded. So I decided to be sorry about that.
“Yes, I’m truly sorry.”
“Then I absolve you, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” He assigned me penance: something like twenty Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers. Mumbling another mouthful of Latin, he bid me to “go in peace and sin no more.” The panel slid shut, and I was free.
I stepped out into a newly made world. The rain had stopped, and a single ray of sunshine pierced the Annunciation stained glass window, lighting up the altar and the very first pew. A man sat there, not kneeling, not praying, but nonchalantly reading the newspaper. I rushed to him and gave him a hug.
“How’d it go, princess?”
“Perfect. What’s that?” I pointed to a cardboard box at his side.
“Another little birthday present for you. While you were in there”—he jerked his thumb toward the confessional—“I stopped by the convent to see Sister Mary Bernadette. I told her how concerned you were about not having the right paper for that latest homework assignment, and she gave me this.” He handed me the box.
I opened it slowly, afraid to be disappointed. But I should have trusted the setting: God’s house, my father’s hands, that single ray of light. It was indeed a miracle: twenty, maybe thirty pages of clean manila paper, marked across with those thin blue lines that made it so easy for me to print to perfection. I would get that A-plus after all. My father wouldn’t leave me, at least not for the foreseeable future. I was so overwhelmed I sank down to my knees.
“I have to say my penance now,” I said.
But instead I gave thanks: for the paper, for my father’s thoughtfulness, for Sister Mary Bernadette’s generosity. For the sunlight, which was now beginning to flood all the stained glass windows. For surviving yet another day, despite my fears, despite my imperfections, and despite the Black Beast.
My exaltation flickered for a moment. Who was the Black Beast, anyway, and why did he torment me so? Why did he make my moods plummet and soar, so quickly and intensely? Why did everything seem to matter so much? I looked over at Johnny Zinn, surreptitiously picking his nose in the next pew. I was sure he would never care enough about a homework assignment to want to kill himself. Why couldn’t I just be a normal kid?
A shadow fell across the nave, and for a moment I shivered. But it passed, and the light that succeeded it was so brilliant, I let my dark questions be swallowed up for yet another day. I was only seven, after all. Maybe life would get simpler by the time I was eight. I decided to put off saying my penance, and reached up and tugged on my father’s sleeve.
“I’m ready now,” I whispered.
“That was fast,” he said. “You must not have been very bad.”
I didn’t respond. Clutching my paper tight to my chest, I walked down the aisle, followed by the glittering eyes of saints.
*Reprinted by special arrangement. Copyright © 2011 by Terri Cheney from DARK SIDE OF INNOCENCE published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
THE DARK SIDE OF INNOCENCE: GROWING UP BIPOLAR
By Terri Cheney
Simon & Schuster/Atria Books
March 1, 2011
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Frank Mundo is the author of The Brubury Tales (foreword by Carolyn See), which is available on Amazon.com in paperback and in eBook. The Brubury Tales won
Reader View’s 2011 Reviewer’s Choice Award for Poetry Book of the Year and the 2011 Bookhitch Award for Innovative Poetry Book of the Year.
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