Chapter 6

THE house was dead.

That was how Betsy Hill would describe it. Dead. It wasn't merely quiet or still. The house was hollow, gone, deceased-its heart had stopped beating, the blood had stopped flowing, the innards had begun to decay.

Dead. Dead as a doornail, whatever the hell that meant.

Dead as her son, Spencer.

Betsy wanted to move out of this dead house, anywhere really. She did not want to stay in this rotting corpse. Ron, her husband, thought it was too soon. He was probably right. But Betsy hated it here now. She floated through the house as if she, not Spencer, were the ghost.

The twins were downstairs watching a DVD. She stopped and looked out the window. The lights were on at all the neighboring houses. Their houses were still alive. They had troubles too. A daughter on drugs, a wife with a wandering eye and hands to match, a husband who'd been out of work too long, a son with autism-every house had its share of tragedy. Every house and every family had its secrets.

But their houses were still alive. They still breathed.

The Hill house was dead.

She looked down the block and thought that every one of them, every neighbor, had come to Spencer's funeral. They'd been quietly supportive, offering shoulders and comfort, trying to hide the accusation in their eyes. But Betsy saw it. Always. They didn't want to voice it, but they so very much wanted to blame her and Ron- because that way something like this could never happen to them.

They were all gone now, her neighbors and friends. Life never really changes, if you're not the family. For friends, even close ones, it is like watching a sad movie-it genuinely moves you and you hurt and then it reaches a point where you don't want to feel that sadness anymore and so you let the movie end and you go home.

Only the family is forced to endure.

Betsy moved back into the kitchen. She made the twins dinner- hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. The twins had just turned seven. Ron liked to barbecue the hot dogs, rain or shine, winter or summer, but the twins would complain when the hot dog got even a little "black." She microwaved them. The twins were happier.

"Dinner," she called out.

The twins ignored her. They always did. So had Spencer. The first call had become just that-a first call. They'd grown accustomed to ignoring it. Was that part of the problem? Had she been too weak a mother? Had she been too lenient? Ron would get on her about that, how she let too much slide. Had that been it? If she'd been tougher on Spencer...

Lots of ifs.

The so-called experts say that teenage suicide is not the fault of the parents. It is a disease, like cancer or something. But even they, the experts, looked at her with something approaching suspicion. Why had he not been seeing a therapist steadily? Why had she, his mom, ignored the changes in Spencer, written them off as just typical teenage mood swings?

He'd grow out of it, she'd thought. That's what teenagers do.

She moved into the den. The lights were out, the TV illuminating the twins. They looked nothing alike. In vitro had gotten her pregnant with them. Spencer had been an only child for nine years. Was that part of the reason too? She had thought that having a sibling would be good for him, but really, doesn't any child just want his parents' unending and undivided attention?

The TV flickered off their faces. Children look so brain-dead when they're watching TV. Their jaws slackened, their eyes too wide-it was pretty horrible.

"Now," she said.

Still no movement.

Tick, tick, tick-and then Betsy exploded: "NOW!"

The scream startled them. She moved over and clicked the TV off.

"I said, dinner now! How many times am I supposed to call you?"

The twins scattered silently toward the kitchen. Betsy closed her eyes and tried to take a deep breath. That was how she was. Calm followed by the blowup. Talk about mood swings. Perhaps it was hereditary. Perhaps Spencer was doomed from the womb.

They sat at the table. Betsy came over and summoned up a plastic smile. Yep, all good now. She served them and tried to engage them. One twin chatted, the other wouldn't. That was how it had been since Spencer. One twin handled it by totally ignoring it. The other sulked.

Ron wasn't home. Again. Some nights he would come home and park the car in the garage and just sit there and cry. Betsy sometimes feared that he'd keep the engine on, close the garage door, and do like his only son. End the pain. There was such perverse irony in this whole thing. Her son had taken his own life, and the most obvious way to end the ensuing pain was to do likewise.

Ron never talked about Spencer. Two days after Spencer's death, Ron picked up his son's dinner chair and put it in the basement. The three kids each had lockers with their names on it. Ron had taken Spencer's off, started filling it with nonsense. Out of sight, she guessed.

Betsy handled it differently. There were times she tried to throw herself into her other projects, but grief made everything feel heavy, as if she were in one of those dreams where you're running through deep snow, where every movement feels as though you're swimming through a pool of syrup. Then there were times, like now, when she wanted to bathe in the grief. She wanted to let it all crash in and destroy her anew, with an almost masochistic glee.

She cleaned up dinner, got the twins ready for bed. Ron still wasn't home. That was okay. They didn't fight, she and Ron. Not once since Spencer's death. They hadn't made love either. Not once. They lived in the same house, still made conversation, still loved each other, but they'd separated as if any tenderness would be too much to bear.

The computer was on, Internet Explorer already up on its home page. Betsy sat down and typed in the address. She thought about her friends and neighbors, their reaction to the death of her son. Suicide truly was different. It was somehow less tragic, gave it more distance. Spencer, the thinking went, had clearly been an unhappy soul, and thus the boy was already somewhat broken. Better someone broken gets tossed away than someone whole. And the worst part of that, for Betsy at least, was that it actually made some sense, this awful rationale. You hear about a child who was already starving, dying in some African jungle, and it isn't nearly as tragic as the pretty little girl who lives down the street getting cancer.

It all seems relative and that's pretty damn horrible.

She typed in the MySpace Spencer's classmates had created this page for him a few days after his death. There were pictures and collages and comments. In the spot where one usually placed the default picture, there was a graphic of a flickering candle.

The song "Broken Radio" by Jesse Malin with some help from Bruce Springsteen, one of Spencer's favorites, played. The quote next to the candle was from that song: "The angels love you more than you know."

Betsy listened to it for a while.

In the days after Spencer's death, this was where Betsy spent most nights-going through this Internet site. She read the comments from kids she never knew. She looked at the many pictures of her son throughout the years. But after a while, it turned sour. The pretty high school girls who'd set it up, who also bathed in the now-deceased Spencer, had barely given him the time of day in life. Too little too late. All claimed to miss him, but so few seemed to have known him.

The comments read less like epitaphs than some arbitrary scribbling in a dead boy's yearbook:

"I'll always remember gym class with Mr. Myers..."

That had been seventh grade. Three years ago.

"Those touch football games, when Mr. V would want to quarterback..."

Fifth grade.

"We all chilled at that Green Day concert..."

Eighth grade.

So little recent. So little truly heartfelt. The mourning seemed more for show than anything else-public displays of grief for those who really didn't mourn all that much, her son's death a speed bump on the way to college and a good job, a tragedy, sure, but closer to a resume-enhancing life requisite like joining Key Club or running for student council treasurer.

There was so little from his real friends-Clark and Adam and Olivia. But maybe that was how it was. Those who really grieve don't do it in public-it truly hurts, so you keep it to yourself.

She hadn't checked the site in three weeks. There had been little activity. That was how it was, of course, especially with the young. They were on to other things. She watched the slide show. It took all of the photographs and kind of made them look like they were being tossed on a big pile. The images would rotate into view, stop, and then the next one would come circling down on top of it.

Betsy watched and felt the tears come.

There were many old photographs from Hillside Elementary School. There was Mrs. Roberts's first-grade class. And Mrs. Rohr- back's third grade. Mr. Hunt for fourth grade. There was a picture of his intramural homeroom basketball team-Spencer had been so excited by that victory. He'd hurt his wrist the game before-nothing serious, just a little sprain-and Betsy had wrapped it for him. She remembered buying the ACE bandage. In the photograph, Spencer was holding up that hand in victory.

Spencer hadn't been much of an athlete but in that game, he had hit the winning basket with six seconds left. Seventh grade. She wondered if she'd ever seen him happier.

A local policeman had found Spencer's body on the roof of the high school.

On the computer monitor the pictures continued to swirl by. Betsy's eyes grew wet. Her vision blurred.

The school roof. Her beautiful son. Scattered amongst the debris and broken bottles.

By then everyone had gotten Spencer's good-bye text. Text. That was how their son told them what he was about to do. The first text had gone to Ron, who'd been in Philadelphia on a sales call. Betsy's cell phone had received the second, but she was at Chuck E. Cheese's, the arcade-pizzeria where parental migraines are born, and didn't hear the text come in. It wasn't until an hour later, after Ron left six messages on her phone, each more frantic than the last, that she found the text sitting on her phone, the final message from her boy:

I'm sorry, I love you all, but this is too hard. Good-bye.

It took the police two days to find him on the roof of the high school.

What was too hard, Spencer?

She would never know.

He had sent that text to a few other people too. Close friends. That was where Spencer had told her he was going. To hang out with Clark and Adam and Olivia. But none of them had seen him. Spencer had not shown up. He had gone out on his own. He had pills with him- stolen from home-and swallowed too many of them because something was too hard and he wanted to end his life.

He had died alone on that roof.

Daniel Huff, the town cop who had a son Spencer's age, a kid named DJ who Spencer hung out with a little, had come to the door. She remembered opening it, seeing his face and simply collapsing.

Betsy blinked away the tears. She tried to focus again on the slide show, on the images of her son alive.

And then, just like that, a picture rotated into view that changed everything.

Betsy's heart stopped.

The picture was gone as fast as it had come. More pictures piled over it. She put her hand to her chest, tried to clear her mind. The picture. How could she get to that picture again?

She blinked again. Tried to think.

Okay, first off. It was part of an online slide show. The show would repeat. She could simply wait. But how long until it would start up again? And then what? It would fly by again, staying in view only a few seconds. She needed a closer look.

Could she freeze the screen when it came back on?

There had to be a way.

She watched the other photographs swirl by, but they weren't what she wanted. She wanted that other picture back.

The one with the sprained wrist.

She thought again back to that intramural game from seventh grade because she remembered something a little odd. Hadn't she just been thinking about that moment? When Spencer wore the ACE bandage? Yes, of course. That had been the catalyst, really.

Because the day before Spencer's suicide, something similar had happened.

He had fallen and hurt his wrist. She had offered to wrap it again, as she had back when he was in seventh grade. But instead, Spencer had wanted her to buy a wrist sleeve. She had. He had worn it the day he died.

For the first and-obviously-last time.

She clicked on the slide show. It brought her to a site,, and asked her for her password. Damn. It had probably been created by one of the kids. She thought about that. Security wouldn't be great on something like this, would it? You were just setting it up and letting your fellow students use it to put whatever photographs they wanted into the rotation.

So the password had to be something simple.

She typed in: SPENCER.

Then she hit OK.

It worked.

The pictures were laid out. According to the heading, there were 127 photographs in here. She quickly scanned through the thumb-nails until she found the one she wanted. Her hand was shaking so badly she could barely get the mouse on the image. She did and then she clicked the left button.

The photograph came up full size.

She just stopped and stared.

Spencer was smiling in the picture, but it was the saddest smile she had ever seen. He was sweating; his face had the sheen of someone high. He looked drunk and defeated. He wore the black T-shirt, the same one he wore on that last night. His eyes were red-maybe from drink or drugs but certainly from the flash. Spencer had beautiful light blue eyes. The flash always made him look like the devil. He was standing outdoors, so it had to have been taken at night.

That night.

Spencer had a drink in his hand, and there, on that same hand, was the wrist sleeve.

She froze. There was only one explanation.

This picture had been taken the night Spencer died.

And as she looked around, into the background of the photograph, and saw people milling about, she realized something else.

Spencer hadn't been alone, after all.