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Death by the Choking Game

When my best friend lost her son, she discovered the awful truth behind the "Good Kids' High."

It was the kind of day you’d never remember if it hadn’t ended the way it did. A mother with her two sons, 13 and 11, on a Monday in August. Shopping for school supplies and clothes at Target and Abercrombie. Lunch at Subway. Grocery shopping at Whole Foods. The mom helping the younger kid with his summer Spanish homework in the family room; the older kid upstairs in his room.

After a while, Alex came downstairs and leaned over Susan and Zach to see what they were working on. “I was doing homework, too,” Alex said. Then he called out the answer to the question Zach had been working on. “Hey, don’t give him the answers,” Susan said and poked Alex in the ribs with a Nerf sword, pretending to stab him. Alex laughed. As Alex was walking out of the room, Zach asked him to set up a board game, Settlers of the Stone Age, so they could play it that night. “Sure, I’ll do it later,” Alex said and left. That was the last time Susan and Zach saw Alex alive.

Zach finished his homework about 10 minutes later, and Susan told him that he could play on the computer before dinner. Zach ran to the foot of the stairs and called up to Alex. No answer. Zach yelled again, “Alex, Mom’s giving us screen time,” and started to walk upstairs. Later, Susan would wonder if things might have turned out differently if she hadn’t stopped Zach, thinking that Alex — a teenager about to start high school in a few weeks, after all — might want some privacy. She would ask the ER doctor who tried to revive Alex if he could have been saved if they’d found him then. And although the doctor would assure her that no, death came quick, no more than a few minutes after they saw him last, she won’t be able to stop thinking of that moment, of Zach agreeing to leave his brother alone for now. “But I’m gonna wait for Alex for screen time because it’s not as much fun by myself,” Zach said and went back to the family room.

Some time went by — 20 minutes, maybe 30 — and Susan started thinking that it was funny they hadn’t heard anything from Alex. Dinner would be soon, so she went upstairs. His door was open, the room empty. She knocked on the bathroom door and went in. Nothing.

She checked the other bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs. She went up to the attic, checked the guest room. She went back downstairs and opened the basement door and called his name. No answer. She went outside, yelling his name now, running through the backyard, the pool area, the garage, the driveway, the front yard. Her heart thudded against her chest, her neck, her temples, her hands growing cold, but she told herself that she was being silly to worry, that he was a big boy, not a toddler. She imagined Alex laughing at her paranoia.

She went back in the house and called his cell phone. It went to voicemail. Zach said to text him; Alex always checks his texts. She typed in “Where r u.” No response.

Susan remembered that she hadn’t actually checked the basement. She walked down the spiral staircase, scanning the room. Drumset. Ping-pong table. Treadmill. All empty.

It wasn’t until she reached the bottom that she saw it: Alex’s body, hanging, something green around his neck, his toes brushing the ground. “Stop it, you’re freaking me out,” she said and slapped him on the shoulder, thinking, hoping, praying that he must be faking it.

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