That Kind of Life

Trigger Warning: Discussion of Suicide and Substance Abuse

By Emma Gerden

When Forest started using, I was fifteen years old. I barely even knew what it was. But for all the bad rep he got in the end, Forest was a good brother. The best. I want to make that clear.

Forest wasn’t his first name—he was named William, after his father, and Forest was his middle name. But it always fit him much better—the boyish grin and dark, messy hair, a splattering of freckles across the cheeks that I had to match. A little scar on the upper lip. He was taller than me, self-assured, real cocky at times. He was a goofy kid. Maybe a little wild.

I was never the wild one. Always quiet and studious—Forest would tease me about the books I’d read, the grades I’d get on my report card, and then, when he took a joke too far and saw that it stung, he’d rustle my hair. “I don’t mean it,” he’d say. “You know I’m proud of you.”

“Whatever,” I’d mumble, a blush creeping across my face. But it made me feel good when he’d say that. I loved that he was proud of me. There I was no one I wanted to please more than Forest.

My mother worked hard, putting in long hours and late nights at the nursing home, and she didn’t deserve anything that happened. Especially not the way it all ended. Her first boyfriend left when Forest was young; the second, my father, cheated on her with a secretary. I wasn’t supposed to find out about the secretary, but I’m good at that, finding things out. My mother, she’s soft, but tough where it matters.

“What the hell is this?” she said and waved a joint around in Forest’s face. I was eleven, and he was thirteen. I knew what it was.

“It’s a friend’s,” said Forest calmly. “It’s not mine.”

My mother made a show of marching to the bathroom to flush it down the toilet. When she returned, she ran her fingers through her hair and sighed deeply. “William Forest Walker—”

He bristled slightly at this, being called by his first name. He’s always hated his father, in a very different way than I disapprove of mine. At least mine takes me out to lunch sometimes.

“—I don’t know where you’re getting this, but it’s not tolerated. Not in my house, not anywhere.”

“Got it, Mom,” said Forest, in the charming, sweet way he always said things. My mother left the kitchen. There was a shared understanding that much was unsaid, and that a lot would happen without her approval. Forest was hard to control. I would know.

But I also know that for where he was stubborn, he was gentle too, and on bad nights when I was little, he’d crawl into my bed.

“Nightmare?” he’d whisper. Moonlight slanting through the glass, or maybe a thunderstorm rocking the window panes.

“Can you get Mom?”

“No, shh. Don’t wake up Mom, she’s tired. But I’m right here.”

And so I’d eventually fall asleep again, my forehead pressed into the side of his sweatshirt, his chest rising and falling so evenly. And I never loved Forest like I loved him in those moments; so perfectly and so pure, without any hint of resentment for leaving me.

For all that Forest did behind our mother’s back, at least he never brought it home; sleepovers at friends’ houses, nights out late working on group projects, exam review sessions.

“Loosen up a little,” Forest said when I started high school. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to some of my friends.” His friends all looked the same—nameless faces blurred under the lights. The weed only made me more anxious. Forest’s life, it wasn’t for me. And he was such a good kid, too, as my mother would agonizingly repeat — such a good kid, so smart when he applies himself — how could that life be for him? But I guess it’s funny, the way we distance good kids and ‘that kind of life,’ like the rules don’t apply when you’re from an only semi broken middle class family. How could this happen?

I trusted Forest, though. I made him text me if he wasn’t coming home. Made him swear up and down he wouldn’t do anything really stupid, like drive. Sometimes he’d get home and throw up for hours.

“Don’t tell Mom,” he said.

She was tired; I wouldn’t wake her up. And besides — where my trust in Forest faltered slightly, my own responsibility picked up the slack. On nights when he couldn’t, I would be the one to drive him home. Bloodshot eyes in the passenger seat, or slurred words, or both—I’d glance over at him, dozing off against the window, cheeks blushing under the glow of red streetlights.

But as good as I was at finding things out, I guess I was also good at ignoring things; I didn’t know how bad it got. Forest was always the wild kid. Maybe we just accepted it, my mother and I. Maybe we became too comfortable.

When I was fifteen, and Forest was a junior in high school, I found out from a rumor. “Forest doesn’t do that.” But I knew, even as I said it, that it wasn’t true. And that night as I rummaged through his drawers, I found a burned spoon shoved inside a sock. When he got home, I showed it off.

“What the hell is this?”

Not even a flicker of uncertainty in his face; he smiled crookedly, the scar on his lip curling. “Don’t freak out. It was just once.” He reached out to rustle my hair but I pulled away. “Loosen up.”

We were kids when he got that scar. Standing at the edge of the creek in the woods with all the neighborhood kids, the sky dimming to dusk. A freshly tied rope swing hanging from a nearby tree.

“Make Sam test it out,” said one boy. “He’s the smallest.” Others agreed. I took a step back into Forest, the soft folds of his sweatshirt.

“No, I’ll test it out,” said Forest confidently, and moved towards the rope. It swung across the creek alright, but Forest slipped on the shoreline, stumbled into the sharp rocks that lined the water. And even when blood dripped from his chin, staining his sweatshirt and his hands, boys splashing across the creek dramatically to rescue him, Forest locked eyes with me from across the water—“I’m okay, Sammy. It doesn’t hurt.”

And now, my eyes flickered from the scar to his own eyes, gray and self-assured. I could barely spit out words. “Forest, we don’t—you can’t do that. I won’t cover for you.”

“You will,” Forest said with such confidence I was taken aback, but then he softened

—“Not that you’ll have to. It was just once, I swear.”

And I did keep covering for him. At least for a while. The next week, I saw new tracks on his arms; Forest would glance at me knowingly, not quite desperately, but almost teasing in nature, a slight tilt of the head that seemed to say—I did it once more, but we knew that would happen. It was only one more time.

I was naive that year, mostly by my own doing. When I kept seeing him with long sleeves on and the way he often tugged them down around me, I said, “Forest.

He smiled crookedly. “Hey, don’t worry. It’s under control.”

“You tell me if you need something. A ride. Whatever. Don’t be stupid, Forest, okay?”

And besides other empty, meaningless conversations like that, I spent weeks doing almost nothing but studying and reading in my room and getting lunch with my father when he was in town. I cooked dinner often for the family since my mother worked late, but even then, Forest wasn’t home a lot. Forest was a smart kid, though—I thought he knew where the line was. I trusted him. And for where I didn’t, I figured my responsibility would inevitably pick up the slack, like it was some passive thing that automatically clicked into place.

“Forest has another study group?” my mother asked, picking apart my stir-fry. “Yeah, guess so.”

She chewed slowly. “He’s been busy lately, hasn’t he?” I thought about it. Shrugged.

“But he’s doing fine, you think, right?”

I felt bad — my mother was trying her best, overworked and underpaid, raising two sons on her own. I could handle Forest. “Yeah, as far as I know.”

It was about a month later when Forest was dumped on our front yard. I was up late, waiting for him; when I heard the car out front, I ran outside. It was cold, late winter, and I only had on a t-shirt.

“Christ, Forest,” I said. Marks all up his arm. He staggered little, disoriented, yellow street lights giving the neighborhood an eerie, distorted glo —I had never seen him high like that. I had never really seen anyone high on heroin before, not right in the middle of it. It scared me. I didn’t even really know what it meant—his muscles kept seizing up, then relaxing, and he talked rapidly about anything before nodding off momentarily. I stayed up with him all night.

In the morning, I told my mother. Muttered it quietly by the coffeepot, like it was an afterthought. I told her to take it easy, that junior year was hard on him, and she said we had to wait it out a few days.

“He’s on house arrest,” my mother said. She looked so tired and so disappointed. “The withdrawal won’t be fun. I’ll take a few days off work. And if anyone asks, he has the flu.”

“Can I have the flu too?”

She was right—it wasn’t fun. By the second day, my mother had to bolt his bedroom windows. By the third, he was screaming. Constantly sweaty and nauseous, muscle cramps that made his eyes roll back. When I wasn’t catching up on schoolwork, I sat with him, pressing wet cloths against his forehead.

“Just a little,” Forest said. “I just want a little. Sammy—please?” When his voice broke, I would look down at the floor. “Sammy—please!”

Once during the week, when my mother ran to the grocery store, he punched the window.

Glass all over the floor, blood blossoming all over his knuckles. “Sammy, please,” he choked, and then he started to cry, all slumped up against the edge of his bed. He swiped his hand against his cheek, blood mixing with tears and sweat, hiding his freckles. “Please, please.”

And I didn’t know what to do. I should’ve done something more drastic, and way earlier—but all I could do then was sit beside my big brother, wrap up his hands. “Shh. I’m right here.”

When the worst of it was over—it took six days, an entire week off school—my mother and Forest had a chat. But it wasn’t long before it turned into a fight, and I heard the whole thing from my bedroom.

“The danger you put Sam in,” shouted my mother, her words stinging and sharp. “The burden you place on him!”

Forest was moaning. “I didn’t mean to! Mom! I didn’t mean to!”

I felt bad. He wasn’t a burden. I climbed into his bed later that night. He was staring at the ceiling.

“Are you okay?” I said. “I’m not mad. Mom was kind of harsh. We just want you to be safe, is all.”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” he said. “I’m sorry, Sammy.”

We fell asleep like that—the bed seemed so much smaller than it did when we were little, but when I woke up, my head was pressed against his sweatshirt. He wasn’t sorry, though. He couldn’t have been that sorry.

When he relapsed the first time, he escaped. My mother was furious. “He can find himself another home to fuck up,” she snapped as we looked for him—and then she apologized immediately, glancing at my face like the comment would sting me the most. Maybe it did.

But to some degree, I did understand. There were only a couple of rehab centers nearby, and they were both expensive. My mother and I thought we could handle it on our own. I thought I could handle it on my own.

“Is your phone tracker turned on?” I asked. It was a new rule, that my mother and I could see his location at all times. He was only allowed at school and the public library down the street.

Forest nodded, not meeting my gaze, and I leaned against the doorway as I scanned his face. “Hey, you okay?”

I should’ve sensed he was angry. He was a little angry at everyone, including my mom, including me. Even his father. It’s probably his fucked up genetics I got.

“Stop looking at me like that,” he snapped, his face turned towards the window. I looked down at his hands where the scars scabbed over. “And just leave me the fuck alone, for once.”

I never got the chance to ask how I was looking at him. Probably with some pity, because my big brother looked a little bit broken. With concern, undoubtedly. But maybe with some anger, too—shameful anger, and guilt. Or maybe I was just looking at him normally. I don’t know.

When he overdosed, I was studying in my room. I had just turned sixteen. According to his phone, Forest was at the library. But when the police pulled up in front of our house, with the red and blue lights flashing around my bedroom, I knew right away. My mother started crying—how could this happen? quickly turning into I let this happen, and then the screams—that’s my son, please no, please, please—because families like ours don’t deserve a dead son. And Forest didn’t deserve to die.

But I don’t like to remember Forest like that, slumped over in the back bathroom of someone’s shitty house, on the east side of town, without a phone, marks all up his arm and eyes drooped over. He was a good brother. The best. Even when I wasn’t. And I like to remember him, more than any other time, when he would crawl into my bed when I was little and put his arm around me. And I’d fall asleep with my forehead pressed against the folds of his sweatshirt, breathing in the clean scent that clung to his clothes as moonlight shone through the glass, or maybe it was a thunderstorm that rocked the window panes. And his chest would rise, steadily, evenly, freckles across his cheeks that matched my own.

Emma Gerden is a senior studying English and sociology. She was born in Ontario, Canada, but has spent most of her life in North Carolina. She loves writing, iced coffee, and her cat, Luna.