Ninth Floor

by Tom Franken

Published on June 13, 2019  10:58 AM 
DG Mag Issue 1

            As I follow Mekhi through the doorway, fluorescent lighting immediately attacks my eyes. I feel like a germ under a microscope and instantly, my breaths turn jagged. I want nothing more than to head home and hide under the covers. Unfortunately, that’s no longer an option.   

            The wide-open room looks more like a lounge than anything else.  Baby blue walls, matching chairs, coffee pot. Yet the wonderful stench of antibacterial soap and cleaning supplies reminds me of where I am.

            Victoria has already formed a semi-circle of chairs. She’s putting on lipstick with the aid of a small mirror when we enter the room.

            “It looks fine, Victoria,” Mekhi says with a laugh. His smile is easy.

            She chuckles as her small hand gives an over-caffeinated wave in our direction.

            “Good morning!” she says.

            “Hello,” I say. My tone is flat.

            Victoria catches it and immediately narrows her eyes. “Linc, honey, are you alright?”

            Sometimes, I forget that Victoria’s a patient like the rest of us. She’s definitely the mom of our little family. I try to find an answer that will satisfy both of us, but as usual, can’t find anything. I simply stare at her.

            Luckily, Mekhi fills the gap. “I’m sure he’ll talk about it once we start up.”

            Mekhi is the first friend I made in the program. His salt-and-pepper beard and dreads remind me of Ezekiel from the Walking Dead. Something compelled me to tell him that when I met him and luckily, his face lit up. He told me that I remind him of his son, “except a little bit whiter.” I wouldn’t have made it through the first day without him.

            “Yes, once we start,” I say. The thought of sharing makes me want to vomit. But it’s something I need to do.

            Victoria nods and offers a sad-eyed smile.  A wave of frustration washes over me. Why do people always have to look at me like that? I get the same look when I hit the button for the elevator each morning. I always end up next to some white coat with white teeth.

            “Which floor?” they ask.

            “Ninth,” I say.

            Their lips tighten and their teeth disappear. That fucking ghoulish smile, dripping in antiseptic kindness. The one they reserve for kids going into surgery or Alzheimer’s patients. Ninth floor? That poor kid. He’s barely twenty and he’s already crazy.

            “Anything new happen over the weekend?” Mekhi says to Victoria.

“Yes! My Lamictal isn’t forcing me into a sleep coma anymore, so I actually got stuff done!” Victoria says. “Cleaned the house, mowed the lawn, took Ava and Bryn to the mall.”

            “No way, that’s awesome! Told ya you’d get used to it,” Mekhi says. “Remeron is like that with me. Takes time to work and it knocks the shit outta ya, but once it kicks in, it’s worth it.”

            As Victoria and Mekhi exchange pleasantries, I try my best to pull my chair closer to them. I’m a pretty big guy, but even I struggle to make it budge. The chairs are heavy by design so they can’t be thrown through the window, if one were inclined to do so.

            I finish lugging and take my seat between Victoria and Mekhi when Ed shuffles into the room, the smell of spring chill still lingering on his coat. The only pleasant thing about him.

            “Good morning, Ed!” Victoria says.

            Ed responds with a grunt. His silver walrus mustache fails to conceal his grimace. He ignores Mekhi and I as we share a glance. Old bastard. Ed has only been here a week, but he hasn’t said much aside from complaining about the room temperature or the coffee. He definitely doesn’t say anything in group. I wish the counselors would address it, but whatever. He usually just alternates between glancing at his watch or fiddling with his wedding ring.

            Ed settles into his seat on the other side of the semi-circle. We sit for a few moments. Victoria finishes her makeup. Mekhi thumbs through his phone. Ed stares at the wall.

            I hear the clicking of high heels. Suddenly, Kristin is in the middle of the semi-circle. The air feels heavy. Kristin is one of the group’s secondary counselors. She’s just out of college and she usually defers to our main counselors.

            Kristin sits and writes something down on her notepad. She looks up, clears her throat, and smiles with sharp cheekbones.

            “Hi, everyone. As you may have heard, we’ll have some new people joining our group on Thursday,” Kristin says. She pauses, gauging our reactions. “They’ll be part of the Monday/Tuesday/Thursday group with you all. If you didn’t already hear about that, I figured I would let everyone know ahead of time in case there were any issues.”

            The whole routine seems practiced. I look at the closed door and hope for another counselor to open it. No one does. I guess they’re leaving Kristin on her own for today.

            Kristin looks around the room again, then continues. “Considering that a few just moved on from the program, it will be a small group today. Just the five of us,” she says. My eyes shift across the empty chairs in the circle.

            “I think it would be a good time to assess why we are here and what has changed since you joined the program. We had this discussion with the group that moved on and they really seemed to get a lot out of it,” Kristen says. Her posture is stiff and proud. “Since most of you have been coming here for over a month now, I figure that you would benefit as well.”

            Kristin is actually really nice outside of the room, but I’m not sure how I feel about her running these sessions. She’s too much of a “how does that make you feel?” therapist. A lot of nodding and “hmm”-ing. I bet she kills it in poker.

“I wanted us to focus on what areas we can still work on so you all can be the next ones who graduate from intensive outpatient.” Now Kristin is the one wearing the antiseptic smile. “Would anyone like to start?”

            Victoria raises her hand begins to discuss her ex-husband’s drinking problems and how her manic phases would always sync up with his binges. Mekhi responds and the two compare stories about moving on from their exes. Unfortunately, I zone out. Victoria and Mekhi are both wonderful people and I try my best to help them out. I just can’t handle this today. I manage to chime in with a few “good for you”s and approving smiles throughout.

About halfway through, I catch Kristin staring at me.

            “Lincoln, it’s your turn,” she says.

            Shit. “Umm, where should I start?” I say.

            “Well, what was your life the day before you joined the program?” Kristin says.

            My mind races backwards and I feel my heart rise through my esophagus.

            “I know that day. I can feel it. But I don’t think I can put it into words,” I say.

            “Just try your best,” Victoria says.

            “We’re here for you, brother,” Mekhi says.

            Mekhi pats me on the back and Victoria flashes a smile. I instantly hate myself for ignoring them. I take a deep breath and remind myself of something I learned on the debate team. Forget the emotion, just focus on the facts.

            But I can’t get rid of the emotion. That feeling of freezing warmth coating my throat, a scream refusing to be let out. It was rage and sadness and pure disappointment directed towards the world and the ones I loved and most importantly, myself. It was all jumbled and bottled up. I couldn’t put it into words. How could I?

            I remember laying on my bed, covers pulled up to my chin, staring up at the ceiling for hours. I hadn’t showered in one week, hadn’t been to class in two weeks. I ignored the alerts on my phone. They definitely weren’t from Paige. We’d just broken up for the billionth time. The only texts I got were from my friends, and it was all just vapid bullshit. And calls from my mom. My poor, sweet mother. She did care. But in my head, she was miles away.

I’d told them all that it was the flu and they all took me at my word. My family didn’t come to check on me. No one gave a fuck. I just laid there and hoped that the pain would end. That I would die.

            My dad had finally wandered downstairs that night. We hadn’t had a real conversation in months.

            “Linc, are you alright?” he said. “I heard some noises and figured I’d come down.” His look of concern will forever be seared into my memory. I’ve never felt guiltier.

            “No, Dad, I’m not. I want to kill myself.”

            I zone back in to the room. The eyes are on me.

            “Depression and anxiety were out of control, as you already know,” I finally say. It’s all just items on a checklist right now.  “If there was stuff that someone did that bothered me, I didn’t say anything about it. Which made it worse. Didn’t have the energy to keep up with school or work.”

            I feel the anxiety rising so I grip the chair and place my feet squarely on the ground. Breathe. Just breathe.

            “Paige and I weren’t on speaking terms. That hurt.”

            Something churns in my guts. I do my best to ignore it.

            “I couldn’t talk to my friends. Didn’t they wouldn’t get it. Relationships with my parents were non-existent.” I can’t manage to look at anyone, so I gaze up at the ceiling tiles, “I was on my own.”

            I can’t let myself lose control. I begin to count in my head, over and over. One, two, three. One, two, three.

             “Couldn’t eat or sleep right. It all finally got to be too much. So I told my parents and they helped me enroll here.”

            There it is, the CliffsNotes version of a mental breakdown. I decide to leave out the two holes that my swollen fists left in the drywall and the tearful plea where I begged God to do something, anything to either heal me or give my life to someone who deserves it. The group doesn’t need to know that.

            Kristin folds her hands in a steeple under her chin. My skin crawls.

            “So what do you think has changed?” she says.

            I stare out the window, yet again avoiding glances from those seated around me. Sunlight pours through the glass pane. My pupils hurt. Nausea bubbles in my stomach. I feel my fingers drum against my chair’s armrest.

“There’s been some good stuff and some bad stuff,” I say. “Had to drop out of school for the semester, gotta get all the paperwork so I can get my money back. Had to quit my job, too. I’ve talked about that before. But my parents are helping me out. I’m lucky. So hopefully I can handle all of that.”

            I instantly turn my focus to the semi-circle, hoping that someone, anyone says something. Victoria rubs her hands together. Mekhi twirls one of his dreads. Kristin rests her pencil against her chin. The three of them look at me expectedly and I feel like the walls are closing in.

Ed is the only one who pays no attention to me. He fiddles with his wedding ring and for once, I appreciate his complete disinterest.

            “For good stuff, I’ve been eating better, getting some exercise,” I say. “Lost a few pounds, in a good way. The Remeron is helping. I’m napping less and sleeping more at night.

            “Had a talk with Paige, I think we finally got some closure. I’m talking a lot more to my parents. My friends, too. They know I am suffering fro— that I have depression.”

            “How did they react?” Kristin says.

            “Better than I thought. They were surprised, but they were supportive,” I say. And then I blurt out, “which makes me feel even shittier.”

            Here we go. “Shittier about what?” Kristin says. I’ve never heard her swear before. She manages to make profanity sound professional.

            “About what I could have put them through,” I say. “What I did put them through.”

            “Linc, you’re a good kid,” Mekhi says. “You care about people, man. They gonna stick with you, no matter what.”

            “But what if I don’t deserve it?”

            Victoria leans forward. “Everyone deserves to be loved, especially you. Nobody’s perfect.”

            “And what you put others through ain’t worse than what you put yourself through,” Mekhi says.

            I say nothing. I feel myself bite at the nail on my middle finger instead. Victoria runs her hand through her dark hair. Mekhi bounces his leg. At least they aren’t smiling. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Ed inspecting his watch. For the moment, I manage to smother the irritation that swells up inside of me.

            Kristin breaks the silence. “Your perception of what you put your loved ones through may be much different than how they view it. Do you think this could possibly be a cognitive distortion?”

            I spit out a piece of cuticle. “I mean, I guess some parts could be. I had been isolating myself, which hurt all of them. But they seem as if they understand.” My lungs feel like they are dipped in lead.

            “I never thought this would happen to me, you know? I mean, look at me. So many people don’t have family or friends,” I say. “They’re busy worrying about where their next meal is gonna come from. Or how to pay the bills. I have it so, so easy. Why do I make it hard?”

            “Linc, it’s okay. Having good things in your life doesn’t mean that your feelings don’t count,” Victoria says. “You have a chemical imbalance, same as the rest of us.”

            “I know, I know. And I get that we’re supposed to view all feelings as valid.”

            “Absolutely,” Kristin says. I open my mouth to respond, but then I hear a whooshing sound. The air conditioner kicks on and my words dart away from me.  I pick at the nail bed of my ring finger and try to corral my thoughts.

            “That night before I joined the program, I told my parents that I wanted to die, and that I was gonna kill myself if I kept doing what I was doing,” something that sounds like my voice says. “I don’t know if I wanted to end it or not. But I was close. Really close.”

            The first time I admitted that I was considering suicide, it felt taboo, as if it were a thought that was reserved for someone else. Even now, it hasn’t gotten easier to say.

            “I wrote a note, you know. I just… wanted everyone to know that it wouldn’t have been their fault if I—”

            I stifle a sob, choking it down before anyone notices. My intestines turn to soup. No one says anything. I chew harder at my nail and then stop.

            “So I wrote it, about three pages. Took longer than I expected. I fucking signed and dated it. Can you believe that? That’s what I was thinking of. Not how I would ruin my parents’ lives, or destroy my friends, or break my ex’s heart.”

            Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t fucking cry.

            “In that moment, I only thought about myself. And I’m stuck on that. I’m just so fucking angry at myself and I don’t know how to fix it,” I say.

            My skin tingles as if pins and needles have taken control of my body.

            “That’s what I’ve been dwelling on. I’ve been making progress and I’m learning to forgive others. So why can’t I forgive myself?”

            My eyes are glued to my tattered shoelaces. I usually share a decent amount here in group, especially once I get going. But this was a lot, like I just emptied my mind. I feel naked. I wish I would have shut up earlier. Someone clears their throat. Reluctantly, I look up to see who it is.

            Strange enough, Victoria, Mekhi, and Kristin aren’t looking at me. Their attention is turned to Ed. He’s staring at me with a strange intensity. He clears his throat again and the rasp of his voice startles me.

            “What did you do with the note?” he says.

            My eyes break from his and I stare at the sun again. “I hid it. Put it in a shoe box under my bed. Not to use it, though. I don’t plan on it. I guess I’m keeping it as a reminder.”

            “Son, you’re a goddamn fool,” Ed says. “What the hell are you doing? Throw it in the garbage. Burn it. But don’t keep that note.”

            I gulp hard to extinguish the fire in my throat. What is his problem? Just go back to your wedding ring and shut the fuck up.

            Victoria immediately jumps in. “He’s not saying he’s going to use it, Ed. Maybe it’s a type of coping mechanism that, you know, helps him keep his perspective,” she says. Her voice had some surprising bass in it.

            Ed doesn’t give Victoria a second glance as he focuses his pupils on me. “There’s nothing good that can come from it,” he says. “It leaves him an option in case he wants to do something stupid and unbelievably fucking selfish.”

            His jaw juts forward and he reminds me of a tiger hunting his prey. Kristin tries to pipe up in the background but something wells up in my vocal chords. I won’t give either of them the satisfaction.

            “What the hell do you know about it, huh? About me? You haven’t said more than two words to me since you’ve been here,” I say. My voice carries through the room, commanding it. Did that come from me?

            Ed and I are on an island as I peer right into his eyes. His brow is furrowed as he bites his lower lip, but I don’t care.

            “You sit here everyday like a statue and look at your watch until it’s time to go home. Like this place is a prison to you,” I say. My words continue to overflow and I can’t stop them. “If you hate it so much, if you hate us so much, then why are you here?”

            “Linc,” Mekhi says, but I cut him off.

            “No, I want to know. What makes him so special that he gets to judge everyone like this is some fucking joke?” I say.

            Ed snorts like a bull and my fist clamps around the arm of my chair.

            “Lincoln, you need to calm down,” Kristin says.

            I want to leap up, yell, throw a chair, punch a wall. Instead, I bite my tongue and clasp my hands together. My fingernails scrape against my knuckles. Victoria sits there, wide-eyed, as Mekhi scoots forward in his chair, as if he were ready to jump in between us. Kristin crosses her arms and looks expectantly me and Ed.

            “Kid, you know nothing about me,” Ed says. His voice is snappy.

            I scoff. “Tell me about it,” I say.

            Kristin interjects. “Ed, Lincoln, both of your concerns are valid. Lincoln, I understand your frustration, but you shouldn’t attack Ed like that.”

            I feel the muscles on my face relax. She’s right. I don’t want her to be, but she’s right.

            “Ed, I’m glad you decided to say something, but you can voice your concerns in a different way as well. There will be no attacking behavior tolerated here.” Kristin says. Her voice is firm. “Would you be willing to share why you’re here? I think it would help everyone out, including you.”

            I turn my focus to Ed. He grimaces and his left eye is twitching. He looks at Kristin sharply and crosses his arms. But to her credit, Kristin’s expression is unyielding. We all wait for something to happen, for Ed’s rage to erupt. Maybe he’ll storm out.

             “It’s my kid, alright?” Ed says, “I’m here because of my kid.”

            It’s as if a tsunami just rolled through the room. We sit there for a long time. Could be seconds, could be minutes. Everyone is still, no nervous ticks to be seen. Ed’s brow gradually unfurls. He unfolds his arms and drops them to his side. His grimace disappears. His face is moon-like.

            “Lucas was… he was a lot like you. Quiet, unassuming. Kinda hardheaded,” Ed finally says. A wry smile flashes, the first one I’ve seen from him. It immediately disappears. “He started drinking early. We clashed a lot over it. I threw him out of the house. Tough love, right? We didn’t talk for a while.”

His eyes move from mine to Mekhi’s, and then to Victoria and Kristin and all of the empty seats. For once, he seems to take in his surroundings.

Kristin fills the gap. “That had to have been hard,” she says. The words actually seem to register with Ed. He nods and takes a deep breath.

            “He was an addict, plain and simple. Every time he seemed to get back on track, he’d relapse and have to go back to Betty Ford. We tried everything,” he says. He spins the ring around his finger. “Paid for every rehab trip, paid the lawyer for his court hearings. I read him the riot act more than once. Threatened to cut him off. It did no good.”

            Silence echoes off the walls. The room seems bigger than ever. Ed’s stare comes back to me. I feel Mekhi and Victoria’s eyes on me as well, but I can’t break away from Ed. For the first time, I notice that his eyes are a deep, sad blue.

            Victoria interrupts. “Where is your son now, Ed?” she says. Ed doesn’t break eye contact with me, but he seems like he’s in another place, somewhere far away from this room. His lips tighten and his features narrow.

            “A month ago, he relapsed again,” Ed says. He scowls as if his words had betrayed him. A siren wails softly in the distance. The sound pierces the air as it gets closer and closer until it abruptly stops. 

             I hear the sole of my shoe tapping against the floor, so I lift my foot and rest it on top of the other one. Ed clenches his ring in between his fingers. His jaw juts forward again.

            “He crashed his car, got charged with a DUI. They were gonna take away his license and put him in jail, for real this time. The next day, he shot himself in the head,” Ed says. Each word sounds more strangled than the last. “Went into a coma, died two days later. My baby boy.”

            I feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck and I instantly feel sick. Through blurred vision, I can still see Ed’s stare. It’s focused, as if he were boring a hole into me. He fiddles with the ring, rolling it around in his palm. 

            “Fuck,” I say. I can’t manage anything else. Nothing else seems appropriate.

            Ed sucks in a breath, then lets it go. His eyes are familiar. Suddenly, I see a clear image that has been seared into my brain for the past month. My dad’s face after I told him that I wanted to die. That look of desperation, helplessness, pain. I slam my eyes shut and only open them when Ed speaks again.

            “He left a note. All it said was ‘I’m sorry that I couldn’t be the man you wanted me to

be.’ There’s nothing that can heal that. Nothing,” Ed says. His open hand pops against his chair’s wooden arm, the ring clattering and echoing over and over again.

            “And I wish I could have let him know that no matter what, he was loved. He coulda sat on the couch all day and did nothing for the rest of his life and I still woulda loved him all the same.” The rasp of his voice dissipates as its pitch heightens.

            My eyes break away from his for a second and scan the room. Victoria is sniffling as Mekhi’s tears pour like sweat. I feel hot tears trickle down my own cheeks. I look back to Ed, who says nothing for a while. We follow his lead.

            “I think he had the same problems I did. I guess you would call it depression. I would always just bury it. Suck it up, you know? But I can’t do that no more.”

            Another siren blares, starting close, but it gradually fades away. I turn to Mekhi, who is dabbing at his eyes with his barehand. Victoria’s mascara dots her cheeks. I instantly feel hot. Ed turns back to me. His eyes are pleading.

            “I know what you mean when you can’t forgive yourself. But you gotta,” Ed says. “Your family, your friends, they won’t hold any of the bullshit against you. You’re here, aren’t you? Strong enough to ask for help. You’re here to try and get better. Not everybody can do that.”

            He finally breaks the stare and looks down at his ring. His voice is merely a whisper. “Not everybody can do that.”

            All I can hear is the whirring of the air conditioner. As usual, I struggle to find words.  I look to Mekhi, who is sharing a box of tissues with Victoria. Kristin’s eyebrows are raised in surprise. She wrings at the pencil in her hands. I feel my face flush and I paw at it with my sleeve.

            “Thank you,” I say. It’s all I can manage.

            Ed responds with a nod. His frown is still visible but his eyes say something else.

            “That was… very kind of you, Ed,” Kristin says. Her voice is thick. “We’re gonna take a short break and we’ll pick up where we left off. Thank you, everyone, for sharing.” She sounds genuine.  

            We all get up from the semi-circle and Victoria immediately gives me a tight hug. Mekhi laughs at the sight, as her head is directly under my chin due to the height difference.

            “Such a mom,” Mekhi says.

            “Always,” Victoria says. “I’m proud of you for sharing, Linc.”

            “Thank you,” I say. She releases me from the hug.

            “Yo, Ed,” Mekhi says, “I’m sorry about your son. If there’s anything I can do to help…”

            Ed cocks his head at Mekhi and half-smiles, then turns and heads to the door. Victoria, Mekhi, and I look at each other, then proceed to follow him. As Ed steps out into the hallway, he turns around and looks towards me.

            “Shut the door behind you on the way out.”

Tom Franken is an alumnus of Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. He is the co-founder of bone&marrow, an upcoming online literary magazine. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming in Penguin Review, Havik, Eskimo Pie, Hare in Flight, and Volney Road Review. You can follow his ramblings and memes on Twitter and Instagram @TomFranken21

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