Please note: This short story deals with bullying, self harm and suicidal thoughts–if any of these things are triggers for you, please use your best judgement to decide if you should read this story or not.
If you are a queer kid who is contemplating suicide, please call the Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386). There is a kind person waiting to listen to you and to help you.
“Nike,” by Sarah Diemer
Bullied to the breaking point, Beth wonders if suicide is the answer, but a call to a suicide hotline and memories of a story begin a strange change within her.
(photo by markkb120)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Fridays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
by Sarah Diemer
My knuckles are bleeding.
I punched the bathroom wall until they were red red red, white and battered and red and white and they taste like metal and they bring me back here, now, God dammit I want to die.
I sniff hard, bring the snot back up my nose, lick my lips, stare at the stupid shit written on the bathroom stall door, Tim’s a dick, Sammie’s a whore, call this number for a stupid slut. Every day they try and fix the doors, but the janitor’s not a miracle man, can only scrub off so much shit before it gets all fucked up again tomorrow.
I hear the door swing open, heels clicking across the soap-gray floor. “Beth?” she whispers, pausing outside of my shut stall door. “Beth, are you in there?”
“No,” I mutter, grab some toilet paper, try to clean up my face, my hands.
“Beth, Miss Gramone said…”
“Screw Miss Gramone,” I mutter, pushing the door open. Allison stares at me, face paper white, eyes round and big and shocked, she looks shocked, because she should. I don’t cry, you know? Yeah fucking right. Totally got it together. That’s me.
“Beth, are you…”
“No, I’m not okay.” She winces at that, and I hate myself so much in that moment I can’t breathe, my insides squeezing me. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…Jesus, I’m sorry.” I step forward, bring my arms around her and crush her to me. She lets me. She holds me, too, thin arms around my middle, and then I’m sobbing like the mess I am, my snot running down onto her perfect blonde hair.
“I hate her,” I whisper.
“I know,” Allison says, holding me up. “She’s stupid. I’m sorry. She’s stupid, you know that—don’t let her get to you.”
“Like she hasn’t already.” The words are so small, so voiceless, from my mouth, I wonder if I even said them. But then Allison is making little concentric patterns on my back with her small hands, pressing her palms to me.
“Beth, I promise, it’s going to be okay…”
I back away from her, stare down at her. Her mouth is so small, pressed into that tiny line. She’s so pretty, my best friend is beautiful, and as straight as a streetlamp.
She tries. But she has no clue.
“You tell Miss Gramone to go fuck herself,” I mutter, grabbing my backpack from the stall. And then I’m past Beth, out into the hall, sprinting down it as fast as my sneakers can take me.
If I get expelled, it won’t matter.
I can’t take this anymore.
I’m a ball of nerves, jangled, tight, spiky. I’m all spikes, all sharp things, all broken bits of glass, of knives. Everything I am is sharp, sharp, sharp. I’m shaking. I’m gonna throw up.
I kick my backpack as hard as I can so that it bounces off the wall, settles limp on the living room carpet.
I can still hear them laughing.
God dammit. I tear at my hair, and then I curl up on the couch, sobbing again, trying to breathe in and out around the wails of despair that I jam my fist into my mouth to try and stop up. I don’t manage it, but almost.
I stay shaking on the couch until I feel nothing but a great weight of emptiness that presses down on me, limitless and never-ending.
I want things to stop. Please, fucking let them stop.
Sleep takes me into dark, distended jaws, biting down.
I’m four, kicking my legs against the stairs, staring up at my grandmother who holds my hairbrush in one flawless hand. She’s beautiful, radiant. Everything’s whites and blues. We’re in the backyard in our first house, before the divorce. Bella is rolling around in the dirt, shaggy coat sopping wet and muddy. Gramma’s laughing.
“You know,” she says, inclining her head toward Bella, “things change. What once was beautiful grows ugly. What’s ugly becomes beautiful again.”
It’s one of her favorite phrases. She’s a little woo-woo, even then, even when I didn’t know what woo-woo meant. Metaphors. I just keep smiling up at her as she runs the brush through my hair. It feels good, her hands against my head, her smiling down at me like I’m something pretty and nice and worth something.
“Be a good girl, Beth,” she whispers, and kisses my forehead.
“What the hell.” My mother’s voice, hard and cold, as the door shuts. “Beth?”
I burrow further into the couch, rubbing the sleep from my eyes with scabbed knuckles. “What, Ma?” I bellow. It’s getting dark outside. I don’t know how long I slept.
“I got a call from your teacher. Again.” She’s standing over me, hands on her hips. “You’re facing expulsion.”
“Good.” I’m standing, sharp again, everything’s sharp. “I want to be. I’m never going back. What are they gonna do? Nothing. Just like always.” My hands are in fists. I keep breathing, in and out, but it doesn’t seem to give me any air. I’m so hot, burning.
“What’s the matter with you?” she asks, mouth in a thin line. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Every fucking day is a nightmare. You don’t fucking get it. What didn’t happen would be a shorter list.” I’m brushing past her, already crying, of course I’m crying again. The weight presses down on me, choking me.
Pitifully, I wish Gramma was here. She knew. She helped.
My phone in my pocket is vibrating. I take it out when I shut myself in my room—I expected it to be Allison, to tell her I was sorry, but it’s not Allison calling me, it’s a Facebook notification. I was tagged in something. I’m so sick, suddenly, I’m going to throw up. No one ever tags me in anything. I have fifteen friends on there. I don’t want to click through, but I don’t have a choice because I’m going to throw up, I am.
Ann McKenzie tagged a photo of me. The photo from gym today.
I hit “untag” immediately, but there are already “likes” and comments.
I drop the phone on the floor. I’m shaking, everything’s shaking. I stomp down so hard on the phone that I crack the screen, pathetic little plastic pieces ricochet across the room.
I pace in tiny circles, around and around and around, everything a blur of color, the posters and postcards on the wall, the green bedspread, the rainbow rug on the floor. Tighter and tighter I spin until I sink down onto the ground, put my head in my hands, breathe in and out, stare down at my shaking fingers.
I crawl toward my bed, everything spinning. Under my pillow is the post-it note. I put it there a few weeks ago. Sharp, tiny numbers are scribbled on it in sharpie. I stare at the pile of phone in the middle of the floor, and then I pick up the landline beside my bed, the ancient thing actually giving me a dial tone.
I stare at the phone and then at the number and then at the phone again. I punch in the number and it rings.
“Hello, my name is Elle, can I please have your name?”
I can’t believe I did this. I can’t believe I called. I reach under my pillow again, feel the slick curve of the knife that’s rested next to the post-it for weeks.
“Give me one reason,” I manage, teeth clacking together.
“I’m sorry,” she says, voice soft, “I can hardly hear you. Did you say your name?”
“Maxine,” I whisper into the receiver. My middle name. “Give me one reason to live.”
“Maxine, I’m sure you have people who care very, very much about you…”
“No, they don’t. They don’t give a shit.” I squeeze my eyes tight. “They don’t understand.”
I hear a breath on the other end of the line. Elle. She said her name was Elle.
“Are you gay?” I mutter.
“Yes,” says Elle. I can hear a little smile in her voice. “I am.”
“Were you bullied?” God, I hate that fucking word. Tortured. Tortured is a better word.
“I was very much. Maxine…”
“I want to do it.” A tear leaks out of my eye, runs down beside my nose. “I really want to fucking do it. I’ve got nothing anymore. No reason.”
“Please listen to me,” says Elle softly. “I don’t know what happened to put you here. I’m so sorry you’re there. I want you to take a couple of really deep breaths with me, okay? I want you to relax a little, if you can. Are you in a safe place?”
“Yes,” I whisper, staring at the bright poster of squares and circles across from me.
“Have you self harmed today?”
I suck at my knuckles, close my eyes. “Yes.”
“Do you have a plan in place for how you would commit suicide?”
I stare at my pillow, breathe in and out. “Yes.”
“Okay, Maxine, thank you for telling me this. I want to tell you that though things are very dark right now, I promise they won’t look so grim in the morning. Do you live with someone who cares about you?”
“Yeah, my mom,” I tell Elle, closing my eyes. My shoulders lower from around my ears. Her voice is soothing. Kind.
“Your mom is okay with your being gay?”
“Yeah, she is actually.”
“That’s really great. I’m happy for you. That’s wonderful. Was there something specific that prompted your thoughts today?”
I can’t think about that. I keep breathing in and out, and I manage: “Yes. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“That’s okay—you don’t have to. Tell me about your friends?”
“I have this one. Allison. She’s straight, though.”
Elle laughs a little. “That’s okay. We’ll let it slide.”
For whatever weird reason, I smile a little at that. I wipe at my tears, sigh. “Yeah, I guess we will.”
We talk for a half hour. I’m surprised when I hang up the phone, look at the clock. Elle’s kind, gentle, talks me through everything. I don’t know why I’m surprised, but I am—I didn’t expect kindness.
I stare up at the ceiling. Things aren’t sharp anymore. Heavy. Empty. But the sharpness has mellowed. My stomach growls. I open my desk drawer, grab out a candy bar and tear open the wrapping, letting the soothing scent of chocolate wash over me.
My shoulder blades itch, and I reach around behind my neck, scratching under my shirt. Odd. My fingertips scratch against something soft and thin, and I grasp it, pulling it out.
I dream about Gramma again. This time, I know it’s a dream, can see myself from overhead, like the camera’s angled all weird. She’s braiding my hair and singing to me in Russian, and I’m holding Annie, my old teddy bear.
“Things change,” she tells me in a sing-song voice. “What once was beautiful grows ugly. What’s ugly becomes beautiful again.”
“Geez, Gramma, I know, I know,” I mutter to her, making the teddy bear dance in my lap.
She’s tying blue ribbons at the bottom of my braid, blue as the sky, blue as her eyes, blue as the icing on the cookie I take a bite out of, the crumbs falling into my lap.
I wake up to an email from Allison. I don’t want to read it, but I do anyway.
“I got Facebook to take it down. Do you want me to talk to Gremlin? I will. Love you, bb.”
Gremlin. I don’t want to bring him in, our principle wouldn’t know what to do with this, he’d get all stiff and awkward and wave his arms a lot. And be completely useless. I email her back, tapping on my phone: “no, it’s ok. Love you, too.”
“Are you coming to school?” is sent a second later.
I stare at my phone, panic beginning to eat the edges of my stomach. I close my eyes. I remember Allison coming to find me in the bathroom. I remember Elle’s voice from last night.
I don’t know where it comes from, but this coolness begins to settle over me. It makes the sharpness soften. I think about the gym. I think about her, and her stupid friends laughing. And I think about Allison and Elle and my mom.
And Gramma. Yes. I think about my grandmother because her picture is beside the bed, in her awesome glasses and super-awesome bouffant. She was hot. And she was amazing. And she loved me no matter what, and she still does, I guess, if ghosts come back in dreams.
“Yeah,” I reply. “Whatever. Fuck them.” But my phone autocorrects “fuck” to “duck” and I don’t fix it. I actually grin at it a little.
Yeah. Duck them, too.
When I get up, I wonder if my pillow is molting. There’s another feather on my bed, white as a marshmallow.
“Tell me a story,” I beg my grandmother for the eight millionth time. She rolls her eyes and sighs and draws me up onto her lap and presses my head under her chin.
“You know all of them,” she says, but I tug on her hands, wrap them around me. I’ve never taken “no” for an answer yet.
“All right, all right,” she groans, laughing and squeezing me. “I shall tell you the shortest one.”
I squeak with joy, leaning back against her. She smells of lemons, all bright and warm.
“There was once a beautiful Goddess,” says Gramma, her tongue rolling out the words. “But she was smart, too. The smartest in the world. Her name was Athena, and she was smart and beautiful and had a pet owl…”
“Gramma, you’re telling it wrong,” I huff. “Slow down!”
“Well,” says Gramma, squeezing me tighter. “She had many friends, but her closest was a beautiful creature named Nike. Nike was one of the last angels, and she had magnificent white wings. Athena loved Nike because Nike was always victorious…especially in the gods’ battle with the Titans…”
“You’re not telling it right!” I whine. “You didn’t say anything about Nike’s chariot!”
“If you know it so well, you tell it,” she laughs, poking my stomach with her finger. I sit up straight, puffing myself up.
“Nike had the best chariot, and the Titans didn’t stand a chance! That’s why she was victorious!”
“Now you’re telling it wrong,” says Gramma, poking me again. “Nike was victorious because she never gave up.”
“What does ‘victorious’ mean?” I ask her, placing my little hand against her big one. My fingers are so small, and I want them to be like hers someday—long and curving and beautiful.
“Overcoming,” she says, curling her fingers around mine.
My shoulders ache. It takes all of my attention in Calc., making me scratch at them with my pencil.
Blessedly, the asshole leaves me alone.
Allison comes up to me between periods, gives me the tightest hug in the world. “Are you doing okay? I got your favorite.” She presses my favorite energy drink into my hand, leans close with a smile. “And I have another in my locker.”
“Thanks,” I manage, smiling at her. She returns the grin, squeezes me again.
I drink it walking to my next class, can feel it vibrate through me. My shoulders keep itching and I duck into the bathroom to pee, leaving the can on the sink.
When I reach up to touch my shoulder blade, I feel something…wrong. Something small and pointed beneath my hand, like my bone’s broken. It doesn’t hurt anymore. It just…aches.
I feel weird, but I pee, wash my hands and get to my class. It’s stupid—when isn’t it stupid?—but when the period is over and I get up to leave, I stare down at the feather beneath my seat.
I hate gym.
And she’s there. With her stupid groupies. And they’re talking behind their hands and looking at me.
“Ignore them,” Allison mutters, brushing past me, her hair high in a ponytail. I breathe in and out, stare down at my sneakers.
“Mrs. Anderson,” she says, raising her perfectly manicured hand. Mrs. Anderson turns and looks at her, and suddenly I’m so sick again. She’s going to say something, I know it.
“Mrs. Anderson, Beth was looking at me in the shower yesterday. I feel really unsafe around her.” Her smile is so pretty and lip-glossy, you’d never know it’s hiding a snake underneath.
Mrs. Anderson sighs, turns and glances at me, shaking her head. “If you have a problem, Ann…”
“I shouldn’t have to shower with a dyke,” she says, clipping the words so that they fall between us, around all of us, sharp and jagged and infinitely stupid.
“Class…” says Mrs. Anderson, raising her hands as people begin to laugh. I feel myself redden, redden, and then I just…stop.
“I mean, what if she tries to touch me? I mean, that would be the most disgusting…”
“Why,” I say, the word soft and loud in the stillness that descends, “would I ever want to touch you, you asshole?”
The silence is so absolute I can hear my heart hammering against my ribs. Ann stares at me, the girl who has tormented me my entire fucking life stares at me as if she’s seeing me for the first time.
I’m turning, following Mrs. Anderson’s finger pointing toward the door which will lead to the principle’s office, surely.
It’s going to get worse. They’ll step up their game now. I know they will.
But I’m not going to sit there, silent and defeated.
One more year. That’s all there is. And then freedom. And Ann McKenzie-less days. And the rest of my life, stretching out with possibilities, rampant and wonderful and possible.
I close the gym door behind me, a single white feather falling to my feet.
I pick it up and keep walking.
This story, though incredibly fantastical in the end, is based on real life events.
As I have my main character, Beth, call a suicide prevention hotline in the story, I had been doing research on hotline prevention scripts and what they can do.
And one night, I called the Trevor Project hotline myself.
(The Trevor Project Lifeline is a crisis intervention and and suicide prevention service for LGBTQ youth. It can be reached at 1-866-488-7386.)
“Hello, this is Paul, how can I help you?” answered a kind man’s voice after two rings. I was surprised. I didn’t think it would be answered so quickly, and without any sort of menu.
“Hi, Paul, this is Sarah Diemer—I’m a lesbian young adult author, and I’m working on a short story about a teen lesbian with suicidal thoughts. Can I ask you two or three questions? I promise it won’t take more than a minute or two. I totally understand if you’re busy taking calls and can’t answer.”
“Absolutely I can answer!” said Paul. He went through the scripts they use, how they respond to specific questions, like “I’m thinking of killing myself right now, please help me.” Throughout it all he was wonderful and engaging and kind. I was so impressed that at the end, I thanked him profusely and told him he’d be mentioned at the end of the short story.
“I know you said this was for a short story, but this is a question I have to ask every caller,” said Paul. ”Are you thinking of contemplating suicide?”
“No,” I told him.
“Have you in the past?”
“Yes,” I said truthfully. ”When I was a teen, I came out when I was fifteen, and it was very, very difficult for me. That’s why I’m writing the story.”
“We’re here twenty-four/seven, and we will talk with anyone, anytime,” said Paul. ”Please know that, okay?”
“I do,” I promised him. ”And I’m going to tell others, too.”
Regardless of what you think of the Trevor Project, the grace and kindness of those who answer their Lifeline is top notch and nothing short of amazing. The lengths they go to to help a teen on the phone are astronomical.
If you are a queer kid who is contemplating suicide, please call the Trevor Project. There is a kind person waiting to listen to you and to help you.
I am very grateful to Paul who took a few minutes out of his day to help this author with her story—and who spends time in his day to help people who need it.
If you liked “Nike,” you can now enjoy entire months’ worth of stories in the Project Unicorn short story collections on your eReader, and support the project at the same time!
Sarah Diemer is an award-winning author of lesbian young adult (YA), speculative fiction. Her debut novel, The Dark Wife, the YA, lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth won the 2012 Golden Crown Literary Award for Speculative Fiction, and was nominated for a Parsec Award (first two chapters of the audiobook). She writes her lesbian adult fiction under the pen name Elora Bishop, including the Sappho’s Fables: Lesbian Fairy Tales series, which she co-writes with her wife, author Jennifer Diemer.
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