By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be DeadAges:14 and up Paperback: 240 pages Publisher: Disney-Hyperion; 1st edition (May 17, 2011) Language: English ISBN-10: 1423130219 ISBN-13: 978-1423130215
Daelyn has been the victim of bullying throughout her life, and now she’s simply counting down the days until she can commit her final act on Earth. It’s destiny that she finds a Web site to help her in her quest. She has the motive, the means, and the determination. Then she meets this boy, Santana, who makes her examine her choice of death over life. But is he too late to save her? And is she too damaged to save him?
The white boy, the skinny, tall boy with shocking white hair, sneaks behind the stone bench and leans against the tree trunk. Since I can’t move my head, I watch him out of the corner of my eye. He could be a ghost. For a minute I think he’s here to contact me, but that would be stupid. I don’t see dead people.
He pulls out a paperback and starts reading.
I hunch over my own book.
Mom’s black CR-V crunches to the curb and idles. I rip out the page I just read, ball it in my fist, and stand.
The white boy watches me. I don’t make eye contact. Not with him. Not with anyone.
I shoulder my book bag, walk to the car, open the door, and get in. My thighs squeeze together.
“Who is that?” Mom asks. She’s peering over my shoulder at the white boy. In the side-view mirror, I see he’s moved to the bench and taken my spot. Like he did yesterday.
“Was he talking to you? Do you know him?”
He’s into me, Mom. He likes ugly sick girls who have to wear neck braces.
She shifts into drive. “I don’t want you associating with people outside of school, people I don’t know. If anyone talks to you, go back inside the building.”
What if I talk to them?
That was a joke.
She checks the rearview mirror to merge into the street. Her face is filled with worry lines. “Your father has a late meeting with a client, so it’ll just be us for dinner.”
She smiles expectantly.
I can’t even look at her.
“I’ll be leaving for Houston in the morning, but I shouldn’t have to stay more than two days. Dad will drive you to school and pick you up. He may be a few minutes late if he can’t get away by two thirty, but you just wait for him on the bench.” We circle the roundabout and she adds, “If that… person, if anyone bothers you, tell your dad.”
Sure, Mom. I’ll use sign language.
Wal-Mart, on my right, is packed. “Oh, I really need to stop for deodorant and toothpaste.” She slows at the entrance, but doesn’t turn in. We pass the Wal-Mart. “Never mind. I’ll get them on my way to the airport.”
Her eyes betray the fear. She’ll never lose it. She doesn’t stop because she’s afraid I’ll have a wack attack. I’ve only had one in public, but it happened when she left me alone in the car. It was in our red car, the old one. I was ten. She needed to pick up a few groceries at King Soopers on our way home from school. She said a few. I had to go to the bathroom, but I figured a few meant a few minutes. She said, “I’ll be right back.” She said that: “Right. Back.”
The door shut and instantly all the air in the car compressed. I couldn’t breathe. Minutes ticked by. The walls closed in. She left me there, alone, and I knew, I just knew she was never coming back for me. My bladder ballooned like I’d been guzzling water for weeks, and even when I crossed my legs and scrunched up tight, I couldn’t hold it.
At the first dribble, I squealed. Then I exploded. I don’t remember screaming or honking the horn. The fear of being locked inside, I remember every day. If I close my eyes, I can hear the ringing in my ears, still, from the blaring horn. I see the distorted faces of everyone peering through the window. Mom’s panicked eyes. The door unlocking and her hand wrenching mine away from the horn.
“What’s the matter?” she cries.
I heave a sob. “I peed my pants.” The stretchy pink capris she just got me. Ruined.
Mom gives me that look, like, Who are you? What are you?
She has to tell the people, “It’s nothing. She’s fine. I was only gone a few minutes.”
“Why did you do that?” she said between clenched teeth as we drove away fast. She was powerless to control me. She still is. I was trapped, Mom. Why don’t you get that?
Peeing my pants isn’t the reason she can’t leave me alone now. I’m under twenty-four-hour suicide watch.
If I could speak, I’d tell her, “What can happen in a few minutes changes you forever.”
Why did I write By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead? There’s no answer to that question. How I wrote it was in an unconscious trance over a period of two weeks. One day I woke up and found a completed manuscript on my desk. It looked like my handwriting, but I couldn’t swear I’d done it. I still don’t remember writing one word of this book. All I knew was that it was a story that needed to be told.
At the time, October of 2006, I was invited to speak at the ALAN Workshops. ALAN is the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, an offshoot of the National Council of Teachers of English. C.J. Bott, a former educator and strong voice in the field of bullying, had assembled a panel of authors to address the issue of bullying in literature. A few months before the conference, she sent me the presentation title: Don’t Look and It Will Go Away: YA Books—A Key to Uncovering the Invisible Problem of Bullying.
I spent a long time with that title. For my part I planned to read letters from young readers who described the harassment they’d been subjected to at school and at home for coming out as gay. I had no shortage of material. Bullying ranged from years of taunting and verbal abuse to physical assault to family disownment. Self-injury is high among gay youth, and suicide is mentioned so often in the letters I receive it’s agonizing to know gay youth feel it’s their only way out.
All those letters, all at once. Around the same time, there was a special report on TV about kids who’d been so severely bullied in school from kindergarten on that they’d either dropped out or were forced into home schooling. Even if they’d pleaded for help, they’d received little or no adult intervention to stop the abuse. You could see the hopelessness in their eyes. Several parents talked about their bullied kids who in the end committed suicide. Later, I’d learn the term for it: bullycide.
That kind of helplessness and inability to deal resonated with me. My mother told me once I was a sensitive child. Too sensitive, she said. But aren’t all children sensitive? Why do some children survive teasing and taunting while others can’t? Are we born with an overarching sense of self-preservation? If we’re given free will at birth, when and why and how to do we begin to exercise it in self-destructive ways? If an overly sensitive child is constantly bullied and teased with no relief in sight, how long does it take before she or he loses hope? Why are eight-year-olds cutting? How can we not know our children are hurting?
In this age of technology, where so many young people live their lives as invisible isolates in cyber communities, it wasn’t difficult to invent a site of suicide completers. While researching suicide methods on the Internet for this book, I found it extremely easy to retrieve graphic details about how to kill yourself. If someone is determined, she or he doesn’t have to look far. Information accessibility is both a blessing and a curse.
I do know that many young people who kill themselves act on impulse, and I think that’s why Daelyn, my main character, was forced to wait, to count down the days, to consider all the options and alternatives. I threw everything I could think of at her; I gave her every reason to live—a loving family, trained professionals, medical science, God, a fresh start, a new friend, the possibility of romantic love. Then I left it up to her.
I hope young readers will find this book and THINK. I hope it generates discussion between young people and trusted allies—friends, sisters, brothers, parents, teachers, clergy — about life and death and the thin line between choosing one over the other. If readers have been where Daelyn is, I hope this story reflects the truth of their lives, and validates their feelings. We’re all human. Young people need to know they’re not weird, and they’re certainly not alone.
For health professionals, educators, librarians, parents—I’d want this book to act as a jumping off point to talk to young people about the effects of bullying, about adults who ignore the problem, about those who suffer in silence. Don’t look and it will go away. Don’t speak and it will vanish; the problem will not be real; it will not happen.
But it does happen and we need to speak of it. There are children waking up every day who are so hurt by life, so incapable of coping, that death is their only hopeful ending. We need to find them before they reach their day of determination.