Kennedy Bailey

The People Who Find You

The most annoying part of my sister’s suicide was that she chose to do it on her birthday. Like, oh poor me, I’m going to kill myself on the day that’s all about me. I am somehow going to make it even more about me. Literally the last thing she would ever do would be the most “pick me” shit imaginable. But you can’t call a dead girl a selfish bitch, even if she is one. Was. Whatever. 

We had planned this intimate surprise dinner party for her, complete with decorations and a cake from the nicer bakery downtown. My mom had asked me at least three times if I thought she would prefer something rich and decadent or something light and fresh. 

“Those aren’t normal ways to describe a cake,” I remember telling her. “Normal people just ask, like, chocolate or vanilla. What color icing. That sort of thing.”

“Reagan, please,” she had sighed, pushing her glasses up to the bridge of her nose. “I want it to be nice.” 

“It’s a cake. It’s inherently nice,” I replied. She rolled her eyes at me and walked out of the living room with her iPad in hand. She was probably going to ask my dad, who was propped up in his recliner to watch the evening news. I knew without following her that he would be partially-ignoring her as she spoke, agreeing to whatever he thought she said with a curt “uh-huh” until she got annoyed and sat on the couch to scroll through Pinterest by herself. 

I don’t remember what she had finally decided, but the cake she came home with that day had a light smear of white icing and was covered in pastel-colored edible flowers and thinly-sliced pieces of dried fruit. She arranged it on the center of the table, just under a bouquet she had bought fresh the day before. It kind of looked like some of the flowers had just dropped down onto the cake. Delicate and unintentional. 

It was supposed to be the four of us and a few of Riley’s friends—I had reached out to six or so of them on Instagram, but only four had gotten back to me. Of those four, just two said yes: Mikayla, Riley’s friend since high school, and Thomas, a guy she waited tables with for a few years. They had both arrived with a matching awkwardness—a stiffness specific to being in a room with people you only know through other people. Obligatory good cheer. The pair of them had smiled politely, made small talk, and responded appropriately at my dad’s strained attempts to reference pop culture or make jokes. When we were fifteen minutes past the hour with no guest of honor in sight, my mom had handed them each a glass of sparkling white wine. 

“Riles is always late,” she had laughed. “I bought a second bottle that we can open with her when she gets here.” 

Riley did not answer her phone, because that is not something that dead people often do. My mom, however, continued to call it, which is something that mothers who do not yet know that their children are very recently dead often do. The first unanswered call wasn’t a surprise. The second, a bit of an annoyance. The third, the fourth, you could tell mom was feeling anxious. But by the eighth call, she was well on her way to a spiral. 

“James, you need to drive over there,” she had said, grabbing my father’s arm so hard that I could see the impressions her nails had made after she let go. Mikayla and Thomas had moved to the couch with the rest of the bottle of wine and were chatting over the TV. As far as I could tell, it looked like they might even have had some chemistry. This could have been a nice “how we met” story for them under different circumstances. 

“Easy,” he had said, clasping his hand over hers. “She’s going to show up any minute. Just you wait.” My mom shook her head emphatically.

“No. Something isn’t right. I need you to go over there.”

“I think that you’re overreact—”

“Goddamnit, James!” She spat back, probably louder than she had intended. I watched as Mikayla and Thomas tensed up, returning to the stiff postures they had arrived in. “If you do not get in your truck and drive over there right now, then I will. I’m serious.”

So I had climbed into the passenger seat next to my dad. Mostly, it was because I wanted out of the house; my mom was a nightmare to be around when she was stressed, and I didn’t want to somehow accidentally set her off while she continued to play hostess to our two begrudging guests. But I also just really liked being in the car with my dad. Growing up, it had always been our thing—singing along to the radio, playing silly car ride games. Car rides as short as to the grocery store and as long as a road trip to some national park were, to me, usually better than the destination. That night hadn’t been any different. My dad had recently reignited his love for old-timey radio mysteries and was ad-libbing overtop of a noir detective story, taking liberties with the plot. 

Riley doesn’t actually—didn’t actually—live very far from our parents’ house, so we were pulling behind her car in the driveway just as we’d started to make some sense of the storyline. My dad swung open his heavy truck door, leaving the key in the ignition. 

“I bet she came home from work and fell asleep,” he said as he fumbled through his key ring looking for hers. I figured that he was probably right—there didn’t seem to be any lights on in the house, and from the walkway, I didn’t hear the drone of a TV. Just the sound of my dad’s keys. It took him a second to find the right one, but when he finally did, we realized that the door was already unlocked. 

This is one of those little details that pisses me off about that day—not locking her door. It was as if she wanted someone to walk right in and find her. I wonder if she ever stopped to think about who, exactly, would come looking for her. How this was going to feel for them.

Of course, there had been a note. Handwritten, not typed, which in-and-of-itself feels theatrical. I doubt she had hand-written anything in years, and here was this long letter in swooping cursive that was somehow perfectly sloppy. I bet she bought the stationary specifically to write it. Also on the table: a candle, an empty bottle of red wine, a wine glass with lipstick on the rim. Really, kudos to the set designer here, Riles. Why bother cleaning up after yourself? If you’re already going to leave a mess behind, whoever gets to find it can also do your dishes while they’re here. 

The note was a pretty extensive detailing of all of the ways that she had been wronged. By us, by friends, by ex-lovers, by the in-town Trader Joe’s that never had gluten free naan bread. I don’t even fucking remember really, because when you’re reading your sister’s suicide note, you aren’t actually reading anything that the letter says. You’re just registering that you found a suicide note. It fucks with your comprehension skills.

If I had this moment to do over, I would have stopped as soon as I saw any type of letter on the table. Riley wasn’t the type to so much as bring in bills from the mailbox—an envelope on the table should have been enough to clue me in on the fact that something was wrong. But I didn’t stop. I took my time, looking at it lying on the table before deciding to pick it up.Tearing at the adhesive strip carefully enough to not rip the paper. Reading slowly. Trying to make sense of what, exactly, I was looking at.

And I stood at that dining table, completely absorbed, while my dad walked into her bedroom to find her hanging from one of her ceiling rafters. 

The funeral home was, naturally, almost at capacity. High school acquaintances and people from out-and-about the community came in droves to talk about how sad it all was. So very sad. Poor sad girl. You must all be so sad. Such a sad thing to have happened. We are all very sad with you about this sad thing that happened to your sad daughter. We are sad to be with you in this sad room on this sad day. 

My mom clung to my dad’s arm, looking more like a crumpled receipt at the bottom of a tote bag than a woman. Every so often, some lady with heavy lipstick or gaudy jewelry would say something that sounded like it had been plagiarized from a Hallmark card, and it would cause my mom to make this awful blubbering sound, manicured hand gripped tightly over her mouth. 

I watched people as they milled about, murmuring and shaking hands. Mikayla and Thomas had come, but separately. I caught Thomas looking in Mikayla’s direction a few times, but if she noticed, she didn’t let on. I wondered if he was thinking about asking her for her number. I wondered if, were he to ask, she would give it to him. 

My dad stood and sat at appropriate times. Thanked people as they spoke to him. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for coming. That’s appreciated. Thank you. 

I didn’t approach the casket. I didn’t have anything left to say to her. Clearly, she believed she had said all that she needed to me. 

A few weeks after we buried my sister, my mom made my dad and I go with her to grief counseling. I drove separately, already annoyed that I was losing my lunch break to spend even more time talking about the only thing any of us were ever allowed to talk about anymore. I took the long way there, watching the clock on my dashboard pass the appointment’s starting time by a few minutes. 

When I walked through the door of the small building, a little bell chimed—an actual bell, not one of those electronic ones you hear in most places. A man with a thick mustache and a blue sweater smiled at me.

“You must be Reagan,” he greeted. I looked around the lobby—mismatched paintings and two worn-in love seats, one occupied by my parents. They stood up, my dad turning his gaze to offer me a little nod. My mom was still looking at who I assumed to be the grief counselor. 

“I’m Dave. Come on in,” he ushered. 

I sat down in the small room on an ottoman, my parents sitting on a sofa. Dave made himself comfortable in a floral armchair, crossing one of his legs over his knee. He did the normal counselor things—introduced himself, made small talk. I tried to nod along, to put on my best “good listener” face. My mom was talking at length about Riley and what a wonderful daughter she was. She talked about ballet classes and about prom, about trips to the nail salon—all things that I never had the desire to do. She talked about Riley’s laugh and how close they used to feel, and how difficult it was to watch her struggle. She was four tissues deep before we were even fifteen minutes into our appointment. My dad rubbed her back in slow circles as she hunched forward, her elbows on her knees. 

“Reagan,” Dave turned to me, hands clasped. His voice reminded me of Mr. Rogers, and I half-expected to see cartoon birds flying behind him. “How are you doing?” 

I shrugged my shoulders. “I mean, things have obviously been better.” He nodded, leaving a silence between us. I didn’t make an effort to fill it.

“Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” I shook my head.

“Reagan has been taking this all very hard,” my dad spoke up. I rolled my eyes, my skin flushing. I hated being told how I felt. I hated being spoken for. Dave nodded. 

“Grief comes in many forms. Losing someone in this way can feel especially hard. A lot of people feel as though they have things left unsaid, or are seeking closure.” Again, another long pause. I listened to him shift in his chair. “Reagan, do you have anything you wish you could say to Riley?”

I considered not answering him at all, but then thought better of it. 

“I would tell her that you shit all over yourself if you choose to die by hanging.”

“Reagan,” my mother sat up, her voice angry and her face horrified. She looked terrible. 

“It’s true,” I snapped, turning to really look at her. “You wouldn’t know because you weren’t there, but I was. I walked in with dad, and it smelled awful. Like a sewage leak.”

“Reagan, I think that’s enough—”

“I’ve been reading about it,” I turned back to Dave, who was now looking at me with wide eyes. “It’s apparently super common with hangings. The muscles relax, and the body releases shit and piss. And then you’re just suspended like that while all the blood pools downwards because of gravity, so your legs get swollen and your feet turn black. It’s gross. And she would have never done it that way if she knew.”

For a moment, the only sound in the room was the hum of the air conditioner. 

“What is wrong with you?” My mother hissed. 

“Amy,” my dad’s voice was soft, pleading. She sat up, shoving away the hand that he had been resting on her leg.

“Why do you always have to act this way? What have we ever done to you?” 

“Why do you always insist that I’m acting?” I responded, my volume matching hers.

“We’re hurting. You’re hurting me, and you don’t care.”

“Oh, I’m hurting you? I’m not the one who fucking killed myself. I didn’t traumatize the entire family—” 

“Reagan—”

“—but I’m the one causing problems because you don’t like how I feel about it. Riley would have sat by you on the couch, right? Held your hand? That’s what you think?”

“Why don’t we try to engage in a more productive—”

“Obviously that isn’t true, mom.” I spat. “Because she’s not fucking here now, is she? If she wanted to be, she would’ve been. She didn’t, she isn’t, and I am. And that’s not good enough for you.” My cheeks were burning. My heart was beating so loudly that I wondered if Dave could hear it. 

“You can be so mean,” my mom spoke, her voice barely above a whisper. “Who made you such a cold person?”

“You would have let Riley be cold,” I said to her. “You would have let Riley be angry for as long as she wanted.”

“Will you get over yourself? Your sister is dead!” She leaned forward so quickly that I thought that she was going to stand, to drag me up like a child and shake me. “She is dead and she is never coming back, and you’re somehow still jealous of her. I’m tired of it!” 

I was shocked. We stared at each other, mother and remaining daughter, while my dad and the grief counselor shared a nervous stillness. 

“Amy, I think—”

“No,” I interrupted, holding my hand up towards Dave. “Let her say it. Clearly, it’s what she believes.” She was no longer looking at me. I stood up, my knees cracking. “I’m leaving.”

No one bothered to follow me, not like I expected them to. The bell chimed again on my way out, and I shoved my key into the ignition as soon as I slammed my car door. The clock on the dashboard let me know that there was only ten minutes left in my lunch break. Still, I drove in the opposite direction of my office, pulling my car into a drive-thru. I was so unbelievably hungry. 

“Hi,” a voice broke through the staticky speaker. “You can order when you’re ready.”

“Can I get two burger meals, one with ranch and one with honey mustard? Regular fries on both, and both with waters.”

“Can I get you anything else?”

“No, that’s it.”

“That’ll be $26.38, you can pull up to the first window.”

I tossed the trash from my cup holders into the backseat to make room for the waters, placing both bags of food into the passenger seat. I drove slowly to keep them from spilling out. When I finally pulled up to the cemetery, there were only two other cars in the lot. Ideal. I got an old towel out of the trunk, grabbed the food and the cups, and started my walk to the freshest patch of dirt. 

RILEY MARIE MILLS

17 JULY 1994 17 JULY 2023

For a moment, I just stared at the headstone. It felt weird to be here by myself, without people watching to see how I would react and offer sympathies or pity. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been alone with my sister.

I spread out the towel like a picnic blanket; it had stains on it from the last several spills it had been used to clean up. I ripped open the paper bag with my meal in it, laying it out like a plate so that I could dump my fries. 

“I have never been angrier with you in my life,” I said to the engraving of her name. I continued arranging my food, crumpling the wrapper from my burger and setting it aside. “I figured you’ve had so many people come to you since this whole thing—at the funeral and now here—to say nice things to you, and you probably need to be knocked down a little. I’m mad at you. I’m always going to be mad at you.” I started to do the same for the second bag—dumping her fries, opening her burger for her. I arranged things so that her makeshift paper plate looked like a mirror of mine.

“They forgot your honey mustard,” I said, tearing the foil off of my ranch. I dipped my fries into it, shoving them into my mouth by the fistful. I took a greedy bite of my burger, the sauce smearing onto my face, and wiped it off with the back of my hands.

“This is stupid,” I told her. “Birds or squirrels or something are going to eat your food. I spent like ten dollars to make the animals here sick.” A sip of water, another few bites.

“And then what? You’re rotting down there. Worms or bacteria or fungus or something will finish off whatever is left of you, until there’s nothing. Just bones in an insanely expensive padded box.”

I finished the rest of my food, then reached across to steal a few of Riley’s fries. I wiped my hands onto the towel. Then, I stood up, moving her food and her water back onto the dirt so that I could gather my trash and roll up the towel. I looked down at her headstone.

“This is the longest I’ve talked to you without you interrupting me.”

I went straight to my apartment afterwards and turned off my phone. I knew that my mom was going to be incredibly upset after today, and I wasn’t ready to field the texts I would get from my dad telling me that I needed to come over and apologize. It could wait. For now, I wanted to relax and rest. I wanted to believe that I would feel better tomorrow. 

So I took a long shower, letting the hot water turn my skin soft and wrinkly. I picked up the clothes from around my room and shoved them into the hamper, promising myself that I’d do the laundry tomorrow. I did the dishes, I lit a scented candle. I got the plastic baggie out of the top drawer of the side table next to my couch and I packed a bowl. When I hung my head out of the kitchen window to smoke it, I inhaled slowly, allowing myself to feel my lungs inflate. I held for as long as I could before exhaling, little clouds evaporating as my body relaxed. Normally, I rushed this, eager to get back into the house before my neighbors could take notice. Tonight, I took my sweet time. 

By the time I finished, I was properly cooked. My skin tingled and buzzed, my brain comfortably foggy. I rummaged through my refrigerator until I found the most delicious thing imaginable—leftover Chinese food from two days ago. I popped it into the microwave and went to go turn on the TV in my living room. 

I was nearly finished with the first episode of a new series when I heard the knock on my door, firm and rhythmic. 

“Police,” a man’s voice called.

Shit.

I froze for a second, fear kicking in to kill my high. The knock started again, a little harder. 

“Police department, open up.”

I shot up from my couch, tripping over a blanket in my scramble towards the living room. My breath hitched in my throat, my heart pumping so hard that I could feel my blood moving. My head was spinning. I fished the leftover Chinese box out of my trash can, grabbing the baggie and bowl off of my kitchen table and shoving them inside. I threw the container into my freezer, rearranging a few things to cover it. Again, the knock. Hard.

“Coming!” I shouted, running into the bathroom to grab my robe. I drenched myself in cheap body spray and tried to focus on my breathing. I threw back a cap of mouthwash, swirling it once before spitting it all over my sink. 

A quick look through my door’s peephole confirmed that the police were, in fact, outside. I eased it open.

“Hello,” I said slowly. “Can I help you?”

“Hello, ma’am. We were just responding to a call. A wellness check. Are you Reagan Mills?”

“I, uh—” I stammered, still nervous as I processed what he had said. “I’m sorry, wellness check?”

“Yes ma’am. Your parents called. They seemed really worried about you and wanted to make sure you were all right. Can you confirm that you are Reagan Mills?”

“Yes, that’s me.” I pulled my robe tíghter against my body. “I don’t understand.” The second officer fished a hand into his back pocket, offering me a pamphlet. 

MENTAL HEALTH: YOU MATTER. 

RESOURCES FOR TAKING BACK YOUR LIFE. 

“Thank you,” the first officer said. “And can you confirm that you are not in a state of distress, and that you have no desire to cause harm to yourself tonight?” I stared at him, opening and closing my mouth like a fish. The officer who had handed me the pamphlet was now scrolling on his phone. 

“Did my parents call you to see if I had tried to kill myself?” I heard my voice crack. The first officer looked at me, his eyebrows furrowed.

“Mental health is incredibly serious. We try to respond to any such reports as quickly—”

“Why would they do that?” I interrupted him. He blinked at me.

“I believe it was mentioned that you had an adverse interaction today and that you have failed to answer any phone calls. It was also reported that you’ve recently experienced a loss.” I shook my head.

“My parents live like fifteen minutes from here. If they were worried, they could have come themselves. They have a key.”

“It can be difficult to confront potentially sensitive outcomes. That’s why trained responders perform wellness checks.” In that moment, I felt the blood rush from my face to my feet. My stomach dropped, my shoulders suddenly slack.  

“Of course,” I nodded. Of course. The officer who wasn’t on his phone continued to stare at me, expectant.

“I’m fine, I’m not going to hurt myself. You can go,” I told him flatly. He nodded, rocking on his heels.

“Glad to hear that. If there’s anything on your mind, that pamphlet lists out some great resources we have available in the area. And you can always reach out to the National Suicide Hotline, 988.”

“Thanks.” He nodded again, and the two walked back down the hallway. I closed my door, locking the deadbolt. My hands were shaking. I thumbed through the pamphlet, tracing my fingers over the various helplines and hotlines and emergency numbers. HERE TO LISTEN. YOU MATTER. WE CARE. 

Yeah, I thought, ripping the paper in half, then in half again, before tossing it into the trash. It sure feels like it.

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Kennedy Bailey is an Appalachian writer currently living and working in Oslo, Norway. She is a creative writer of poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction, a lover of weird and uncomfortable stories, a collector of library cards, and an avid enjoyer of overpriced coffees.