The Mean Reds
Joseph Michael Webb
© Copyright 2021 by Joseph Michael Webb
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash
Mean Reds illustrates the evening of the ‘surprise’
suicide of my sister many years ago; showing the crisis, despite
stigma, that is mental health care and what can happen to just about
anyone. The Mean Reds shows, in painful detail, how the events of the
story—mere hours—impacted my own psyche and foreshadows
my own grief, trauma, and psychological turmoil. Death and grief are
integral parts of life—how we handle other people’s
deaths and view our own mortality is constant background noise to the
often hectic and, what seems to be, purposeful obliviousness to what
is ‘the end’.
Mom touched the doorknob and glanced at my face. We shared the same expression of hesitant confusion. She opened the door and took a single step inside, and I followed suit.
“Gin?” she said in a soft, uncertain voice. A tone a mother uses when addressing a toddler or a sleeping child.
She took one more step—a fraction of a second—as I stood in the doorway. My heart began to strike against my ribs and sternum in a manner which I had not experienced before.
“Gin!” my mother gasped as she hurdled to the closet. Her face reddened as her brows became one—creasing her face as she began to wheeze.
The shocked intonation of my sister’s name signaled reverberations of static pitches echoing from within my ears. My vision narrowed, focused only on Gin’s bare feet on the floor in front of her closet. I did not have time to question whether I was going blind or mad—I scurried inside the room.
“Gin!” My mother repeated with palpable dread and helplessness oozing from every tone—intensifying the whirling southern cicada cries in my head. My vision became pinpoint, with blackness surrounding the scene. I felt as every hair on my body straightened outward like a feral cat protecting its territory.
She was sitting in the closet wearing jeans and a pink t-shirt she wore for power-puff football in high school. A latticework of decorative, bright belts connected the railing above to her neck. Her eyes shut and swollen. Red dots patched her face as the polka dot dress she wore—with much disdain—on Easter more than a decade before. Facing a torrent of memories of Gin’s life rushing in waves through my mind—walking the shores of Folly Beach together chatting of everything and nothing, impromptu drives to libraries towns away, to throwing grapes like basketballs in each other’s mouths moments earlier—I untangled the knots from around her neck. My breath shallow and quick, we placed her on the floor, and I bolted to my parent’s bedroom to the telephone, forgetting the cell phone in the back pocket of my new cargo shorts. The striking, vibrating tones in my head built to a crescendo as I heard my mom screech “this isn’t happening”—emphasizing each pause between the words. Her voice became one of a prayer within a nightmare—pressured disbelief thrown into bargaining.
I reached for the telephone before me sitting on my mother’s nightstand—a phone I had used countless times in my life—and could not read the numbers. It became foreign. I continued to lose my sight—my vision replaced by deep maroon shadows shifting like the amorphous amoebas under a microscope in Biology class. Memories of my sister continued to pile and race together—laughter, cries, hugs, fights, and all matters bitter and sweet—as I fought to dial the three digits everyone knows to use, yet I could not summon to consciousness. Time became worthless. I could have been holding the phone—fumbling with the decaying buttons—for two seconds or five minutes—time refused to flow in its linear fashion under the unrelenting roar of a toneless infestation.
A woman’s voice answered the phone after three rings as I began to smell sulfur burning from the floor beneath, as if I had returned to Yellowstone to view the Grand Prismatic Spring—or as I had called it, the mouth of Hell. I managed to blurt out the situation in a word-salad. Each necessary word was present, but in what order? My mouth was as dry as the clay dirt baking outside in the Carolina sunshine. How could I form coherent words when my senses had abandoned me? The woman’s voice assured me help was on the way and instructed me how to do CPR. I ran, stumbling near Gin’s door, with the phone in my hand. I glanced down and noticed the increasing pallor of my own hands. I looked at Gin, then glanced into my mother’s reddening eyes—once captivating orbs—and I knew. We both knew. Despite contradicting knowledge, mankind never ceases to stop. Love is deeper than rational truth. As instructed, I formed the hand position on my sister’s chest and began pushing down. After the second compression, I felt and heard a loud crack beneath the static insect noises swirling between my ears. I winced but continued. Mom had taken the phone and was advised to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as I performed another chest compression. There was—as both my mother and I knew by mere intuition—no response.
The doorbell—across the house—rang. Mom was losing her breath. Her face elongated, red, and became swollen. She gasped “go answer the door”. I had then realized the paramedics were still on their way. Memories of my sister halted. There was nothing. The cicadas in my head left, and the world no longer appeared ablaze of burning sulfur. The scene before me became one of what I had seen on television. This was not happening to us.
The doorbell echoed once more over the hardwood floors—penetrating the dissonance. I stared at my mom—tired and persistent—and raised myself from the floor and headed for the front door. Dizzied with trembling hands, I opened the door to find a lone police officer chewing gum with a small brown notepad in his hand. His car parked in our driveway with lights flashing red and blue. My eyes burned in the daylight while telling the officer where the scene was unfolding—but no emotion escaped my lips.
“What is the victim’s name?”
“Virginia. Virginia Webb, but she goes by “Gin”.
“Do you know her middle name?” I nearly chuckled and snarled in the fugue. Did I know the middle name of the girl who spoke for me when I was a toddler? The girl who cried on my shoulder after losing a track meet? My best friend?
“Caroline.” My bluntness startled even myself. The officer scribbled illegible notes on his notepad.
“Aren’t going to do CPR?” I asked with a tinge of scorn. I had never directly spoken to an officer before, and despite my increasing confusion and distance from the world I tried to be respectful. A piece of me wanted to grab the chewing gum from between his yellowed teeth and push him through the doorway to help my drained mom.
“Paramedics will be here momentarily.” He noticed my aloof behavior and walked over the copper-colored brick steps leading to our front door. I looked to the front yard—a field of dying grass outlined by my mom’s favorite summer flowers. Rows of daylilies and Irises rustled in a tranquil breeze. The cicadas had calmed. My mouth set ajar as my eyes continued to burn.
I reached for my cellphone hidden in my pocket—nine missed calls from Mandy and her mother. I walked over the dark pavers of the front walkway—my bare feet frying beneath me, reminding me not of pain, but our Sunday morning family breakfasts and the sound of bubbling bacon. Time had come to call my father’s office number. He answered the phone as normal, unaware his world no longer existed as he had always known.
“You need to come home now. Something’s happened.” More surprise stabbed my eardrums—hearing the coldness of the words dripping from my tongue—nearly awakening me from this surreal world. This extraneous world.
“What happened, son?” Paramedics arrived with sirens camouflaging my father’s voice. I tossed my phone in a bed of orange daylilies and alerted the paramedics where to go. They ignored me as someone may try to ignore a crying infant in a restaurant—but I was seventeen, and they had a job to do.
More police arrived. I waited for the world to come to focus again, wondering if my world could clear again. The police spread their yellow caution tape from tree to tree—locking myself and my home—inside. I wandered two feet into the yard and collapsed onto the ground below.
Dried Blades of grass sliced through my fingertips like iced kitchen knives. The yard—denied of summer downpours—glowed in a golden tint. A blank glare into the bleakness of the departing sun is all I felt should owe the day. My face drew numb, hanging in the awe of my own confounding disbelief. Sirens no longer blazed; people no longer scrambled. At once, the entire world—set ablaze—became silent. None of this could be real. Everything I knew or ever believed in had become a fallacy in less time necessary for a mere utterance—for a simple cry.
One glance—one small footstep—one door separated me from the world from which I and everything and everyone in my life had constructed as reality. That one arbitrary moment in time—the shudder of a clock—decided my fate.
Control over oneself—the core of one’s beliefs—cannot be allowed to survive the strength of such shock. Time tremors outward and away to non-existence as space becomes a title for an idealized archetype of security. One’s mind fights—strives to the point of lunacy—for old principles and will succumb to the torment of clasping an old idea in an unforeseen, impossible environment. No longer knowing to laugh, to cry, to sit silent or to die, I realized all felt the same as any other.
Our home—once a place of peace spiced with occasional brawls—was entirely wrapped in the yellow police tape. Two police cars and an ambulance continued to flash their aching lights in our driveway as neighbors joined each other along the street—begging for the chance to learn of what drama could become the new town gossip. Behind my back and enveloped in the tape connected from dotted trees outside our doorstep. Mandy and her mother came driving in their van and halted in the yard itself. Both leaped from the van with shrill screams while I stood and cut my way through the tape, feeling the plastic rustle against my skin as my dizziness returned. Amid their screams—the world once so concrete—became a reality television series. I laughed—a maniacal and uncontrolled chuckle rising in volume in the absurdity of the dream unfolding. Our closest friends falling to the ground. Our neighbors peeking and whispering to one another. My dad’s face as his car drove around the street corner. I had the misfortune of having known the truth. Gin had left our world. Gin had died. My dad, forgetting the door of his car, ran toward the house, darting beneath the tape to meet an officer. My father—a man who could never show emotion—became embroiled in redness. His hands atop his hands—begging to know what had transpired.
The last source of my judgment came to surface as I inhaled deeply. I understood how inappropriate my behavior must had been construed by intrusive neighbors and loved ones alike. Seconds or years had gone by—however long it takes madness to prove its own validity—as I walked toward the Shipmans family and their van. Mandy balled in sheer panic. Vickie’s face appeared to be the same whiteness as the first snowfall I remembered as a toddler with her jaw left open surveying the trauma. Mandy screamed—a high pitch which nearly woke me from my haze once more— “what happened?” My mind fought for an answer—but I stood silent, remembering that first snowfall.
I saw the flakes, and their gentle falls and in-air loops, thinking they were the size of my mom’s frying pans. Timid whispers seemed to call my name from a grey abyss above somewhere shy of Heaven. Light scattered from each flake, reflecting this innocence a child could Imagine. My brother and sister collected the snow—taking bites of these wondrous crystals—before throwing snowballs at one another. They laughed and ran across the field of peach trees lining the pond below our family’s first home. I caught one of the flakes on my nose and wondered how such a wonder could escape and grace us below.
“What happened?” Vickie screamed, stirring me from the memories of any incorruptibility in the lives of the Webb family—my family.
“Gin” I stammered for words. How to tell them the Hell which I had seen—what continued to happen beyond the door of our home? Another officer approached the three of us—as I replied with softness and unforgettable ease “Gin tried to kill herself.”
They were puzzled as cries dripped from their faces to the fading glow of the grass below.
“How?” Mandy argued in disgust of my answer. I asked myself the same question. She had hanged herself—and unbeknownst to the Shipman’s—succeeded in whatever goal she had. But, why?
“It…it wasn’t ugly” I offered.
Joseph Michael Webb was born in South Carolina in 1988 where he was raised by his mom, a special education teacher, and father, an electrical engineer. His sister and brother both died by suicide when Joseph was in his late teen years. During his twenties, he moved to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, for several years where he met his Bosnian husband, Sadet. Joseph worked as a medical technician upon returning to America before becoming a Realtor in Clearwater, Florida where he currently resides with his husband and cat. He loves reading classical literature, music, and, of course, writing.