This story is paired with “The Story of King Shahrayar and Shahrazad” from 1001 Arabian Nights. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
It wasn’t that she was depressed, necessarily. Nor was it something she had been contemplating for ages. On that particular day, it all just seemed too easy. A perfectly pleasant eighty degrees, cerulean sky so cloudless it felt like a cliché, birds chirruping, kids screaming in kickballish delight. It was all so goddamned Norman-Rockwell-summer, she kept waiting for the tinkle of the ice cream truck. (Later, as she laid out her methods, that fucker indeed drove right under her third floor window and set up camp while every kid in a two block radius screamed with incoherent ecstasy.)
She knew that, yes, technically, she was depressed. After the last round of happy little soldiers failed to keep her on a sunnily even keel, she had given up on the troops of psychologists and psychiatrists and decided to work from within the mire. Though every step was a trudge, she accepted the good days and made the most of them, never passing up an invitation to drinks or an opportunity to tell or hear a funny joke. It helped her forgive herself for the days she felt just as capable of sinking her teeth into someone’s ripe flesh for no reason as she did smiling at them and buying them a coffee “just because.” It wasn’t that people were doing anything wrong, either. Sherri knew it was some disaster festering in her, but for the most part she was able to swallow the bullshit bile and move on and through her life.
This day in June, however, she just couldn’t take it. It was so illustrated. She suddenly felt like the witch ostracized and alone on the outskirts of some kingdom that was celebrating with balls and merriment. A villain in her own fairy tale. And suddenly she hated it all. The air was too easy to breathe, too fragrant. In July, the humidity soared to the point where breathing became difficult, so every inhale felt like an accomplishment, every deep sigh a reward for perseverance; the effort made living at least feel like an achievement. She just couldn’t bear the grandiosity of this one day in June.
She laid out the pill bottles meticulously: generic Sudafed, leftover Percocet from having her wisdom teeth out earlier that year, a random bottle of Ambien (nearly full) she found in the back of the medicine cabinet. Largest pills to smallest, the blue ones, then the red ones, and finally the white ones. The American flag. How apropos on this apple-fucking-pie-type-day.
The only problem with her plan was Henry James. She had just started Daisy Miller the day before. It wasn’t that long, but she had spent so much of the day mulling over the end of her life that she hadn’t managed to finish it like she had intended. Sherri figured she’d make some tea—chamomile, smirking at the homeopathic irony (it was irony, right? She couldn’t remember)—and finish the novella first. Unfortunately, the tea worked too well. She dozed off somewhere around the second-to-last chapter.
The next day punched her in the face with its even-more-gorgeous-ness. She finished Daisy Miller over toast and coffee and spent the rest of the day deciding whether or not it was a sign that she had fallen asleep too soon to kill herself. Sometime after lunch, when Sherri had nearly given herself a migraine re-weighing her options, she decided to distract herself with another book. Another short novel, reasoning that, should she decide to kill herself tonight, she would at least finish this book first rather than fucking it up like she had with Henry James (later, she’d wonder why she hadn’t read Turn of the Screw instead. It seemed far more appropriate, the descent into madness and all. Or not.) The problem with the Kate Chopin she had chosen, The Awakening, was that it ended in suicide. Sherri could not bear for her body to be found next to a book that ended in such a way. It was just too trite. She was willing to kill herself on a sunny day, go out in tragic beauty, but this was too much. If she wanted obvious, she decided, there was always Mrs. Dalloway.
The next day was cloudy and miserable, an acceptable day for living. Besides, she had to work in the dingy little City Hall office. Everyone would get it if I did it today. Who wouldn’t want to kill themselves after spending a day in this place? She went home and plowed through Dubliners. Not bad. Two days later, having abandoned Ulysses, she put off suicide for one more day. How can I allow the last image in my literary life to be some Irish dude jerking off behind a rock? It seemed both too funny and too tragic. Her goal wasn’t tragedy. What Sherri wanted was to stop feeling, every day, every minute, as if she were drowning in the same things that drove other people to live. Even on days she was happy, there was a hole in the pit of her stomach reminding her how fleeting her joy would be. On these good days, especially, suicide seemed right, if only to go out on a high note, knowing she would never again have to sink back down into the wallow.
It continued like this into July, and then August: Sherri couldn’t kill herself because she fell asleep reading her Last Book or the Last Book was so awful she refused to have it be the Last Book. One thick, densely-written, well-reviewed, award-winning novel by an incredibly famous author was so pretentious and awful, Sherri vowed to read at least three more books before she killed herself, reasoning that no one really cares about the fourth-to-last book someone read. Though she did consider, for a brief moment, sending her suicide note to the author, blaming his book for her demise, she quickly decided against it. If it got out, and it surely would with the internet and morbid asshole suicide groupies, it would become even more popular. She could see it now: The Book That Drove a Woman to Suicide. An article, a subsequent cultish following. She wanted it to remain as insignificant as possible. It was that bad.
So every day, for months, Sherri plucked another book from her shelf. It paid to be hopelessly addicted to library book sales. There were at least a hundred books on her To Be Read list, all at her disposal should she decide to pluck it from the mire of secondhandness. She read The Bell Jar, knowing that, like The Awakening, she wouldn’t let it become her Last Book, but she also couldn’t bear dying without having Plath’s Only Novel. The Colossus and Ariel then demanded rereads.
As the leaves began to crisp and fall, Sherri became increasingly agitated with her predicament. She couldn’t decide if she kept delaying for honestly bibliophiliac reasons or because she was scared or if she just wasn’t suicidal after all. She’d read The Princess Bride in early September, just after her birthday (an event which prevented her from finishing Great Expectations for a party in her honor, a point which was not lost on her). She felt like the Dread Pirate Roberts threatening Wesley every night with death in the morning, for three years, until he finally bequeathed everything to him to go live a normal life in East Buttshire. Whatever, no one ever cared where he went. But it was the idea of it, threatening herself with life if she couldn’t get through this book or that book or if one book was shitty.
Just before Christmas, her book pile running low for the first time in years, Sherri bundled herself up on a blustery Saturday morning to wait outside the library for the semi-annual used book sale. You had to get there early. The vultures, as she called them, lined up at least an hour in advance with their massive Rubbermaid tubs to work their gluttonous way through all the glorious piles of classics and coveted new releases, cast off by people who read things once and discarded them. These people came with their little scanners, checking to see how much these books were worth and threw them into their bins, scuffling them across the floor, blocking aisles, elbowing true book lovers, like Sherri, in order to snatch up the best books for resale on Amazon. These people were the “Other Sellers.” Sherri was usually no more than fifth in line to get in and did her damnedest to outwit and outgrab these people, sometimes buying a book only because it pissed off the other person. She once grabbed the most recent Gillian Flynn out of a box, even though she already owned a copy, simply because she saw two vultures sizing each other up before they both went for the carrion. S’cuse me, she swooped in with a brief smile, snatched it, and left them with open mouths, still salivating over the possibility of the book they’d just missed.
This sale was no different. Sherri fought her way through the crowds, crawled under tables to look at the boxes that hadn’t been put up yet, balletically leaped over and pivoted around the vultures’ disgustingly full bins. By the end of the first hour, as she checked out, she realized she’d filled both her backpack and a paper grocery bag. Twenty-four dollars and at least another two months of life.
“What was that, dear?” The old lady volunteer smiled up at her as she counted out change.
Sherri gave a tired-looking smile and waved in the direction of the vultures milling about the nearby romance table. “I said, good luck.”
April. Now she was fucking pissed. Now, every time she bought a book, Sherri forced herself to buy another suicide mechanism. She’d started with rat poison in late February, after reading it contained cyanide in The Poisoner’s Handbook. (It was not as helpful a guide as she’d hoped, but still an excellent read. Still, she thought she could only allow that one to be her Last Book if she hung herself. She still had a sense of humor; unfortunately, she had no rafters in her apartment. You needed rafters, right?) Then she’d begun amassing over-the-counter sleeping pills, sure that the pills in the bottles now gathering dust on her nightstand had lost their potency.
A guide to brake service she’d stolen from the auto shop where she’d tuned up her car, having driven over three thousand miles since deciding to kill herself, wondering if she could cut her own brakes. A pile of pretty rocks she’d begun collecting to fill her pockets, should she choose the Woolfian route. Turpentine, in the absence of wood alcohol (another Poisoner’s Handbook idea). A box cutter she stole from a grocery store clerk stocking shelves. A gorgeous old hand mirror she’d found in a Goodwill in the event she wanted to glamorously shatter it and slit her wrists with the shards, or, alternatively, watch herself die in close up. A butcher block knife set. Extra bleach, bought on sale. A key for the storage unit just big enough to hold her little car and shut the door.
She was working her way through the classics now. She wasn’t quite sure why she’d bothered with Anna Karenina since everyone knew that ending and she’d already rendered a verdict on that, but it seemed important she read Tolstoy. She’d reread Diary of Anne Frank, thinking she’d go the ironic route, but it seemed too fucked up and disrespectful by the time she finished it. Post-Lolita was too creepy, Wuthering Heights so cliché. Hamlet could go fuck himself. She was putting off Jane Eyre. Jane seemed a bit too perfect.
As the warm nights began to hum again, late May, she began fairy tales, reasoning that, at the heart of it, fairy tales were probably the source of all disappointment in the world. The lack of magic and fairy dust a disturbing realization for anyone, enough impetus for anyone to want to leave this world in search of a better one. However, she’d been so pleased with a book of original—grotesque, bloody, even cannibalistic—tales from the 19th century, it had given her a glimmer of hope. She’d gone from Europe to Japan, where each story was just crying to be made into resplendent manga she would have truly appreciated in high school. She kept promising herself, by the end of June, how appropriate in June, this June. She was currently working on African folk tales. Should nothing feel appropriate, she was moving on to the Middle East next.
Jillian M. Phillips is a poet from Northwestern Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, Cellar Door Anthology, and others. Her chapbook, Pretty the Ugly, was published by ELJ Publications. Jillian earned her MFA from the University of Nebraska. She is also the founder and managing editor of Villainess Press and its online journal, The Plot.