By Stephanie Austin



At age 11, I became Peggy Ann McKay in my elementary school talent show. Though I couldn’t sing, dance, or play an instrument, I could speak from my diaphragm and memorize words. “I cannot go to school today….”

Shel Silverstein’s “Sick” was my ticket to the top of the hierarchy. My costume was an unflattering but humorously mismatched pair of pajamas. My prop was a teddy bear. To make sure I was playing sick authentically, I messed up my hair. From my spot backstage, I watched other kids perform. One of the popular girls So You Think You Can Dance?-ed to Mike and the Mechanics’ “In the Living Years.” She wore a white flowing tutu and did graceful things with her arms. I was solid with the poem, but that first swirl of negative self-worth crawled up my leg. At the last minute, I worried I’d panic and forget, so I taped some notes with cue words to the front of my teddy bear.

I have the measles and the mumps.

After my performance, some of my teachers were like, “good job” because that’s what teachers are supposed to say. They’re adults. Encouragement is their game. This kid David, one of the kids from the gifted class, came up to me and said, “I saw you looking at your bear. Did you have notes?”

After listening to my defensive explanation, he asked, “And don’t you think my face looks green?” Then he laughed. It’s a line from the poem.

David was super smart. Super talented. Super everything. He was sixth in our graduating class with accolades in wrestling, band, and clubs like FBLA. We all knew he would change the world, it was just a matter of time. He almost proved us right. In 2002, he went to get his doctorate in molecular biology, but killed himself before he could change any world other than his own.

David and I were peripheral friends throughout school. Sixth grade moved on to junior high—a hellish assault of mean boys.  This tall kid used to follow me to my locker and call me his girlfriend and try to hug me. I was not his girlfriend, his hugging hurt, and he pulled my hair. Boys tease. But David’s teasing, calling me Peggy Ann every time he saw me, was different. Intellectual teasing. I’m in this and you’re in this type teasing. David’s teasing didn’t make me want to change myself. It made me want to rise up and answer back.  Junior high became high school. David took off into the mega advanced classes but we’d pass in the hall that connected his band room to my drama room, and still he’d call me Peggy Ann in this half mocking/quarter amused/quarter friendly tone, and I’d laugh or say something uninspired like “I know” or “yeah, funny” but I always tried to match him, like we were in sarcasm school training.

My tonsils are as big as rocks.

We sometimes sat at the same lunch table. He choked once, on a sandwich or a bite of an apple or some other choke-inducing half-eaten thing and before a teacher could get to him, he’d gotten on one knee and coughed up whatever was obstructing his airway. He waved the teacher off and finished his lunch like he owned the Heimlich and wasn’t going to allow anyone else to use it. David took care of himself.

And don’t you think my face looks green?

We had mutual friends. Kari and David had classes together and were long-time friends. Evan and David were Eagle Scouts together. Evan was the kind of Scout who also might accidentally set the desert on fire because his fire had to be the biggest. David explored his fire from all sides. He quietly contemplated and observed his fire.  He found new direction for his fire that no one had considered. The Odd Couple, those two.

In the later part of high school, most of us ended up at Evan’s house because Evan’s parents were like, peace out, and we were like, here’s a place to freely drink booze. Sitting in a lounge chair looking down on me while I was drunk in the pool, swimming in the deep end fully clothed, probably a half second away from drowning, David smiled wryly. That’s a lot for me, that adverbial tag. I flip out on my students who use adverbial tags. Convey your emotional intent through dialogue and action. David’s smile warrants that adverb. David put the wry in smile.

New Year’s Eve 1996. We were all midway through our first year of college.  David studying the smart things with me figuring out that boys liked me in a way they didn’t like me before and not knowing how to handle it. David sipped dark beer while the rest of us shot Absolut Citron. In one of the only pictures I have of us together, we are in front of the plain pantry door.  Backdrops in the 90s didn’t matter so much because no one was hearting you on Instagram. I am wearing a large Styrofoam hat. It is green and has something to do with the Irish. David is collected, grinning, in control, healthy. I am sloppy, hanging, red-faced and oblivious. Older brother’s friends of friends brought us a truckload of alcohol for that party. I ended up puking my guts onto the rocks outside because I was 18, and at 18, I only knew to drink until I threw up.

My mouth is wet, my throat is dry.

My body stopped me because I made sure my mind was too sloshy to think. A friend helped me into the house and brought me downstairs where I threw up in a trashcan. Some guy—to this day I only have a vague idea of who he was because I was so blasted—came downstairs and put his hand up my shirt. He said, “I’ve been waiting for this.” I pushed him off, and he didn’t stop, and I pushed him off again, and then I started throwing up again and he left. The following morning, I drank real Coke and rationalized my behavior and talked about how much goddamn fun I was having. David wry smiled himself in such a way that proved he wasn’t one of those kids who needed alcohol or loud parties to feel good about himself.

I’m going blind in my right eye.

Sick3By 2001, I hadn’t seen David in a few years. Kari and I went out for drinks because I was in Havasu for Thanksgiving and that’s what you do in Havasu if you don’t know anyone with a boat and you’re not in AA. You go out for drinks. We went to this bar because Evan was bartending, and the bar had trivia. I like to play trivia because I get one out of every ten questions right, which is at least more than zero. Kari was waving at someone and then this guy with wild, dark roots under strands of unnatural blonde comes over wearing a flannel that was too big for him. He looked like he was about to go shoplift at the Stop ‘N Shop. This bulky flannel on a guy with David’s build made him look like he was about to be swept out during high tide. He smoked Marlboro Reds and had this huge glass of beer.

“Who is that?” I asked.

“David,” she said.

I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke.

Get. The. Fuck. Out. David looked feral. Almost seductive. But sometimes people evolve and it’s ok. Sometimes you herald a new side of someone and then maybe think later it was a flag. David and Kari and I played trivia, and David drank Guinness after Guinness, and I got one question out of ten right. I talked about the novel I was writing. We talked about karaoke. I said I had a character who liked karaoke. I wrote down notes on a napkin like a good cliché, and David asked to see my notes, and Kari asked to see my notes, and I said honestly, they’re not even real notes, I wrote that I thought one of my characters should do karaoke. I stuffed that napkin into my purse because I felt pointless.

I hardly whisper when I speak.

Kari asked David if he cured cancer yet, and David said no, and I asked him if he’d come up with a vaccine to combat AIDS and he said not yet and then we ordered more drinks.

My tongue is filling up my mouth.

Kari and I went to the bathroom and talked about the change in him. We used the word dramatic. We liked how his mouth looked when he smoked. We liked how he tapped the tip of his cigarette with his thumb. David had always been, to us anyway, a quiet observer. And New David was loud, brazen, bold. We decided it was nice to see this side of him because he was more like us now. More drunky, more cussy, more who-gives-a-shitty.

“Late bloomer,” she said.

When the bar closed down, we went to Evan’s place but Evan never came home. We drove out to Wendy’s at the I-95/I-40 interchange to get French fries because that’s the other thing you do in Havasu. You drive around. You get French fries. We talked about people we went to high school with, people we’d slept with from high school.

By the end of the night, with everyone sober, we went back to Kari’s parent’s house because that’s the final thing you do in Havasu. You go back to someone’s house and sit outside, depending on the weather. Her parents had a small indoor pool. We smoked cigarettes inside and let the damp air settle on our skin.

“I’m trying to quit,” I said. “It’s taking me a long time. I smoke when I drink.”

David gave me one of his Reds and said, “Maybe that will help.”

Marlboro Reds will kill you in one puff. The stabbing in the lungs, like the lungs are launching their defense of a thousand knives, is enough to make you give up the poison for good.

My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear.

I drank water then went to sleep because it was like 3 in the morning. Kari and David stayed up. Later, Kari told me that David tried to walk home at first and they argued about letting her drive him home. David didn’t like to impose. But she ended up driving him anyway. He asked her to come inside to continue their conversation. She declined. We never saw him again. He was dead a year later. He used a gun.

There is a hole inside my ear.


2002. His funeral was the middle of the week, and I didn’t go for some reason I can’t remember. I was back in school finishing a second degree, trying to put right what once went wrong, getting healthy both in mind and body. The middle of the week is hard to get out of so you can drive three hours to face your own mortality. All of us on speaking terms gathered at Evan’s house two weeks later, the weekend of Thanksgiving. Six years out of high school, and some of us had done terrible things to each other. We’d lied and said we were home when we were sleeping with the boyfriends and girlfriends of our friends. We backstabbed. We lost trust. We took sides. We stayed up for hours and bitched about people we said we loved. Now a person we knew was dead. Now David was dead, and what did that mean since David was better than all of us?

We told stories. We told the story of how Kari and I kidnapped David last Thanksgiving, how grabbed him at the bar and held him all night, and we didn’t want to let him go because we liked that new side. We regretted liking the new side.

We had the standard circular conversation you have when someone dies unexpectedly. Where were you when you got the call? Why do you think he did it? Was there a note? What did it say? David wasn’t the type. What is the type? Someone who wears black and shuffles around bridges? Evan smoked and announced he would get an answer. He knew of a friend who’d visited him a week or so before he died. “I’m going to call her,” he said, “I’m going to figure it out.”

And what do you say, really? I don’t know how David suffered. I wasn’t close enough to him. I saw him from a distance, hung out with him on holiday weekends. David’s demons got him, right?

What is that you say?

Those demons.

You say today is Saturday?

Those evil outside forces must have invaded.


That’s the only answer.

I’m going out to play!



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STEPHANIE AUSTIN's short stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, American Short Fiction, Washington Square Review, the South Dakota Review, Eclectica, fwriction: review, and Extract(s), among others. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New England Review,'s Digital Series "Secret Americas" and at Used Furniture Review. She is a Community of Writers at Squaw Valley alum and has an M.F.A. from the University of Nebraska.

5 responses to “Sick”

  1. Nicole says:

    Beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Theresa says:

    I love your writing and want to read more of it.

  3. Laura Orem says:

    This is everything a personal essay should be. Brilliant and beautiful work. Thank you

  4. Amy says:

    A fantastic read. Beautifully done.

  5. mike says:

    I’d like to know if the poem was written by Shel Silverstein or by Stephanie Austin?
    Is this essay an explanation of the poem because she maybe knows the writer?
    Beautiful read btw!

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