There is so much I don’t know. I’m lying on a hospital bed, wondering why the pillow smells of baby powder and why the rain sounds muffled against the glass of the window. It’s cold in here. The nurses let me keep a notebook by my bed, but I haven’t written in it for days—the ink is clogging in my veins, it’s made my heart stop beating. They don’t let you use pens in here, but I’ve got a pencil, worn down to the nub. It hasn’t got an eraser, so I’ve got to make every word count. And if there is a Hell, it’s that—not being able to take anything back, not being able to change anything. Perfection. It should be a curse.
My roommate, Clive, is pacing the room from the bathroom to the door, back and forth, back and forth, like a target at a shooting range. He’s got his hospital gown still on, shuffling in his hospital socks across the linoleum, back bent under some invisible brace. “They’re doing something to the food,” he’s muttering, “I swear to God, Max.”
“They’ve gassed mental patients, but they’ve never poisoned their food,” I say, watching him make his turn to the bathroom. “The Nazi’s were efficient.”
“Whatever,” Clive mumbles, clutching at his hospital gown. “All I know is, I’ve been getting sick ever since I got here. Look at my eyes, man, they’re red!” Clive stops in his pacing to bend over my bed, baring his eyeballs at me like some kinky type of stripper. His eyes are a light honeyed brown, veiny but not bloodshot—and they look like two glazed vases implanted in his skull, the kind you’d see in some museum.
“They look fine,” I say, “they’re nice eyes, man—you should model eyeglasses or something.”
“Shut up,” he says, going back to his pacing. “They’re red, I can see them!”
“Didn’t you tell me you, y’know, hallucinate things?” I say, resting my hands behind my head. “Maybe it’s just in your head. Get a grip and stop bothering me.”
“Well, you’re real sympathetic,” he says, turning towards the door. “No wonder nobody ever visits you during visiting hours.”
“Hey—nobody visits me,” I say, raising myself up on my elbow to stare into Clive’s twisted face, “because I don’t want anybody to visit me, okay?”
“Yeah, all right, whatever,” Clive says, pushing the door open. “I’m going to watch TV.”
“You do that,” I mutter, leaning back against my pillow atop its cement mattress. My back aches from lying on this hospital bed for so long, every day for the past week. They bring me my pills, they bring me my meals—I don’t need to go out. All that’s out there anyway is a blaring TV and a bunch of catatonic or hyped up mental patients, all clamoring for some magic spell to get them out of here. Spells like positive thinking. Whatever that means. It’s what you say at goals when you have no idea what your goal should be. Positive thinking, yeah, I’d like to try me some of that. I say it with a frown on my face and a tear in my eye. That shows I’m trying, right doctor?
Clive comes swinging through the door, his robe coming lose round his shoulder so that his black skin shines in the fluorescent light of the room. His eyes are bulging out of his sockets, and he looks at me with horror contorting his face into a Halloween carnival mask. “A plane,” he gulps, flails his arms, as if his words are flying from his throat and he’s trying to catch them before they disappear, “a plane just hit the Twin Towers! Terrorists, they’re attacking us!”
“What?” I hear shouts coming from the hallway, the sound of running feet as people rush into the common room where the TV is. “What d’you mean, terrorists are attacking us?”
“Come on,” Clive says, grabbing my arm and hoisting me up from my bed. “It’s happening right now, Max! The plane just hit, it exploded! We’re under attack!”
Clive drags me out the door and into the hallway. It’s eerily empty, everything is silent except for the sound of the TV in the common room. All the mental patients are gathered round, some open mouthed, some crying, and all of them are quiet, expectant, as if waiting for the doctors to tell them what to do. But the doctors look just like the mental patients—they’re clustered round the TV with wide eyes and chilled expressions, frozen solid. On the TV one of the Twin Towers is smoking, a gaping hole with flames pouring out of it taking up most of the screen. Clive is gripping my arm so tight I can feel his fingernails digging into my flesh, but I’m too shocked to really notice. My spine is ice-cold, and it’s with a jolt, an electric convulsive shock to my system, that I see the second tower get hit.
By now people are screaming, their cries mingling with the shouts of the news announcer, and it’s like all the insanity I’ve been holding back inside me is being let loose, is finding its way to get at me from the outside. My head feels fuzzy, as if it might detach and float away, and I lean against Clive, my knees going weak. “Oh shit,” I mutter, “oh Christ.”
A nurse snaps out of her frozen stupor, pushes her way through the crowd with all the command of the Spanish Armada, and snaps off the TV. “Everybody back to your rooms!” she says. “And—breakfast is in thirty minutes!”
September 4th, 2001
They’ve got me sitting on a gurney out in the hallway of the ER, so the nurses can watch me. I’m wearing a hospital gown with a paisley pattern thrown-up all over it. It makes my eyes swim, and the fluorescent lights of the hospital are humming so loud my ears are throbbing. It’s 5:45 AM, and they’re still searching for a bed for me. I’ve been up all night. The hallway is beginning to turn into a fun-house mirror—everyone’s face looks stretched-out, about to break, about to snap in two. And it’s cold in here, so cold the hairs on my arms are sticking up. I feel like a feral animal penned up in a cage, my eyes can’t stand still, they’re roaming the hall for something to cling to. I tried to kill myself—everything stopped making sense after the cops busted down my door and dragged me here, still in my pajamas, still ready to die. The nurses keep looking at me, checking up on me, like I’m some suitcase left unattended in the airport, and I could explode at any moment. It’s making my skin crawl.
A young nurse walks up to me, carrying a clipboard stuffed with forms. “Mr. O’Hara, we’ve found you a bed at our Chinatown facility. We’ll be taking you down as soon as the ambulance gets here. I just need you to sign these consent forms.” She proffers the clipboard at me, and I grab it from her well-scrubbed, pale hands. She stuffs a pen into my fingers, and I sign the forms without even reading them. Maximilian O’Hara. I scrawl the name across the dotted lines, as if I were signing them in my sleep—none of the signatures look alike. She takes the clipboard from me when I’m done, asks if I’d like any breakfast. I don’t say anything. She walks away.
It’s 7:45 AM when the EMT’s from the ambulance arrive. One of them’s wheeling a gurney that looks like some kind of Medieval torture device or some BDSM play thing—it’s covered in thick, black straps. “Good morning, Mr. O’Hara,” one of them says, a big guy taking up most of the space in the hallway from his tiny partner. They look like two characters from a cartoon. “We’re your transport,” the small one says, lowering the gurney. “We’ll need to strap you in for the ride, it takes about twenty minutes.”
“Okay,” I sigh, getting shakily down from my gurney. I climb aboard the torture device and the big guy straps me in, starting from the bottom all the way up to my chest. I feel like I’m being submerged in water, like I’m drowning—but I don’t say anything as they wheel me down the hallway to the elevator. The faces passing me by are as lost to my eyes as a blank map, and it’s with a chill that I realize I’m only here because my neighbor called the cops on me. I could be on a slab, I could be getting ready for the mortician to clean up. I’m on borrowed time. It feels like it could run out at any minute, and the world would stop existing, I would be nothing—just a blank, a void.
For the first time, I wonder if anyone would have showed up at my funeral. The thought makes my throat clamp up, and I know I’m about to cry. I dig my nails into my arm, grit my teeth—I look like Hell, like some bug you’d find under the bottom of your shoe, and I’m not about to start sobbing in front of these two. If I do, I’ll know I’ve lost it, everything, my dignity, my last shred of control—that is, if I haven’t hit bottom already.
They wheel me out into the parking lot. The sun is spilling across the cars, making them shine bright as Christmas ornaments. The light touches my skin, the hairs calm down, I can feel the sun warming me up, and it’s like I’ve been betrayed, spat-upon, humiliated—how can everything make no sense, how can I have put a gun to my head, pulled the trigger, misfired, got dragged to the ER by the cops—how can the world still be here? Everything’s going to collapse on me, I know it, and then there’ll be the funeral no one will show up to and a grave that’ll grow old, fade away, and it’ll be just like I was never here. No one will miss me, no one will remember me—I’m not dead yet, but I’m a ghost anyway.
“Hey, watch your arm,” the small one says, grabbing my wrist. “You’ll draw blood if you scratch any harder. Listen,” he opens the door of the ambulance, “I know you don’t want to be here right now, but these people you’re going to really do want to help you. Think about that on your way over, okay?”
The two EMT’s hoist me up into the back of the ambulance, and with one of them watching me we drive our way onto the freeway, to Chinatown.
January 1st, 2000
“It’s okay,” she says, setting aside my manuscript onto the coffee table. It hits the wood with a thump, making me think of road kill smacking against the wheel of a car. The window is open, and I can hear the fireworks of New Year’s bursting in our neighbor’s backyard. “Yeah,” she says, “it’s all right…” She picks up her cigarettes, lights one with a match. It flares against the matchbox, lighting up the shadows of her face.
“It’s just ‘okay’,” I say, pacing the living room. My feet are bare, and I can feel every notch, every crack in the wood. “That’s all you got out of it?”
“What?” she sighs, breathing in smoke. “Okay is good, Max. I didn’t say it was bad.”
“You didn’t say it was good either,” I mutter, crossing my arms over my chest and leaning back against the wall. “You might as well just not have read it, if you can’t even decide if you liked it.”
“God!” She billows smoke into the room—it dances towards my nose, curls into my nostrils, like she’s invading me, like she’s weaving a curse on my head. “This is why I don’t like reading your stuff—you always make me feel like a total bitch afterward! Next time you write something, find someone else to be your punching bag—because I’m done!”
She picks up the manuscript, her red nail polish violent against the white, and throws it at my face. The pages burst into a hurricane of paper against my skin, billowing round me. They flutter to the floor in a pile, all mismatched, none of the words making sense now, standing still in the silence between us. Her face is blank, too smooth, like a pebble washed up on the beach—no history, everything gone, erased. I stare at her, watch her stare at me, and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck spring to attention like soldiers under enemy fire.
“You fucking bitch,” I say, and my feet are walking across the broken manuscript, and I’m standing over her, my fists balled up, and I can feel the strings are being pulled—and I don’t care, I grab her arm and yank her up off the couch, to her feet, so she can see into my eyes, these eyes that are hardening into bullets as she watches me. My breath is coming out in gasps, and it’s like I’m falling without even moving an inch. “I dare you to do that again,” I say to her, my fingers digging into the flesh of her wrist so hard I know I’m digging into the bone. She grimaces, her eyes are wide—but what did she expect? She picked up the strings, and she yanked them good.
Max? He isn’t here anymore.
Now she has to deal with me.
“Dear, calm down,” she says, “take a deep breath, okay—you don’t want to do this, I know you don’t want to hurt me!”
“Shut up!” I grip her tight, feel her body constrict into ice. “Shut up!” My hand is moving, so slowly I feel my heart might explode waiting for it to stop, and it slams across her face, her mouth convulses, rips, is torn by my fingers. “Shut up!”
She’s crying, the tears are spilling down her cheeks, and I’m shaking, shaking so bad I think my body might fall apart. And the fireworks are still going off, throwing bright colors across the walls, as if we were in some club, some party—and the rockets going off are drumming against my spine, making me jerk with every burst, making me remember where I am.
I’m in our living room.
“Jackie,” I whisper, letting go of her wrist, “Jackie…”
“Go to Hell,” she says, clutching her face. “You go to Hell, Max!”
She runs from me like she’s fleeing a fire, like she’s jumping from a sinking ship into a lifeboat, and she’s crying as she runs into our bedroom, slamming the door behind her. I hear the lock turn, a bolt that shoots through my ears like a gunshot.
I’m in our living room, and the fireworks are still dancing across the walls. Nineteen ninety-nine is gone. It’s a new millennium, I think hazily as I stare at the broken manuscript.
The fireworks stop.
I feel cold.
In our hospital room, Clive is pacing again—violent swings from the door to the bathroom, like he’s caught in some cyclone. I’m sitting on my bed, my head in my hands, feeling my body shake, feeling my insides go numb. “What the Hell is going on, man?” Clive is muttering, wringing his hands. “What the Hell, what the Hell, what the Hell, man? This is a fucking movie, this isn’t real life!”
“Sure it is,” I sigh, pressing my fingers against my temples. “This is exactly what real life is like.”
“God damn you, Max,” Clive growls, “why you gotta be so fucking nihilistic all the time, even now—even when everything’s going crazy!”
“Sounds like the perfect time to me,” I say, leaning back against the bed, closing my eyes to the fluorescent lights. They still burn into my retina, even through my eyelids, and it’s like I’m in some interrogation room, waiting for the CIA to break me, waiting for that inevitable crack to take place. “Talk to yourself now, Clive, I’m going to sleep.”
“You can fucking sleep at a time like this?” Clive says, and I can hear his palm slam into the wall. “We’re under attack, and you’re taking a nap? No wonder I found you in a psych ward!”
His words are a slap against my face, making my cheeks burn red, making my fists bunch up. I can see this empty week trailing behind me like an unraveled spool of yarn, all tangled and lost in itself so that you couldn’t knit anything with it. “Leave me alone,” I say, and my words come out shaky, as if an earthquake were taking place inside me. “Seriously, just leave me alone.”
“Shit,” Clive mumbles, and I can hear him shove his way into the bathroom. The rush of water sounds, and Clive is splashing his face in the sink, violently by the echo of the splashes. They slam against the walls, clogging my ears, shoving into my skull and grating against my hindbrain, making me shake more. “God damn cold-blooded bastard,” he says, shutting off the faucet. I pretend to be asleep when he walks out, slow my breathing, get that Buddha mask on my face—but it comes off, and I can feel the lump in my throat bulging, ready to burst.
“Dude, if you’re gonna cry, cry,” Clive says, plunking down onto the bed next to me. “This is a fucking mental hospital, you think anyone’s gonna care?”
“Fuck you,” I say, but it comes out high, like I’ve swallowed helium, and the tears are creeping out from under my eyelids, and the sobs are trembling on my tongue. I’m falling without moving, and even with Clive inches away I know I’m falling alone. “You have no idea what I’m like, you have no idea why I’m here,” I say, the sobs escaping now. “So just shut up! Shut up!”
“Max,” Clive says, and when I open my eyes I can see he’s got his hands spread wide, “I don’t know those things because you haven’t fucking said a word about anything since I got here! Jesus,” he slaps his knee, giving me a weary look. “All you do is lie on that bed and say mean shit to me, what do you expect—seriously?”
His hazel eyes are on me, and trapped in his gaze I can feel myself growing smaller, trying to occupy as little of the bed as possible. “I don’t know,” I say, grabbing a tissue from the box by my bed, “I’m so fucked up, can’t you just…tell?”
“Hell, I can tell that,” Clive says, rolling his eyes, “it’s just the details, man—the details. I can’t see inside your head!”
“Oh,” I say, blowing my nose. “Um…” I gaze at Clive, watch him gaze back at me. He’s got an eyebrow raised, an inquiring look in his eyes. I’m reminded of my twelfth grade Calculus teacher, her gaze hungry for an answer, any answer, while we stared at her blankly, so small in front of the equation she drew before us. “What?” I say, wiping at my eyes. “You’re looking at me like my ex-girlfriend used to do when she wanted me to walk the dog.”
“I’m expecting you to share, dude,” Clive says. “We just had this heart-to-heart fucking moment. Come on, I know I’m a nutcase, I’m not gonna judge you. Seriously, this is better than thinking about how fucked up the world is, right? At least yourself you can change.”
Clive’s words are like a precipice, and as I look over the edge all I see is fog. “All right…” I say, shrugging my shoulders. I take a deep breath, and it’s as if I’m plunging myself into an ice-cold pool. “Well—I tried to shoot myself, but I fucked it up and got the cops called on me.” I glance at Clive, who stares at me calmly, a smoothness to his bony face. The hairs on the back of my neck rise, but I can’t make out what Clive’s thinking—and as he stares at me it’s as if my heart became a weight, pulling my chest to the floor.
“Yeah?” he finally says, patting my shoulder. “Glad you fucked up, man. So, why did you try to kill yourself?
“Um…” I can still feel Clive’s eyes on me, boring into my skin. And it’s like his eyes are an X-Ray, seeking out the shadows, the breaks in my makeup. “Because I’m evil,” I say, gripping the edge of my bed so hard I think it might break. Clive rolls his eyes again, huffs a sigh.
“What the Hell kind of answer is that? “he says, clucking his tongue. “You’re evil? What have you done that makes you evil?”
“I don’t want to say,” I mutter, taking in Clive’s pale green hospital socks. In a second they become my world, they become all I see, and it’s like the words I’m saying are being dragged out of me, yanked out by their roots. “You’ll think I’m even more of a bastard than you already do. Just trust me.”
“You can’t tell me you’re evil and not back it up, that’s not fair,” Clive says. “Okay, I’ll tell you the worst thing I ever did and we can compare,” He clears his throat, a rumbling sound of a volcano, and I wonder for a second if I’m Pompeii. “One time, I got really drunk, okay—I was wasted—and I thought, hey, I don’t have far to drive, I’ll just drive slow, so I drove my car—on the freeway, okay—down the 101, and I drove right into a minivan, a big crash. I was okay, but the lady driving it wasn’t. It’s lucky she didn’t die. I got arrested, okay, and I did my time—but I’ve got to live with that for the rest of my life, that I did that, that I almost killed someone.” He stops and looks at me, the lines of his face sticking out like the lines on a map. “So, what have you done that’s so terrible? he asks me.
“Um,” my throat’s dry, and the words come fluttering out like birds, small and frightened, before I can stop myself, “I—I used to beat my ex-girlfriend,”
“That’s fucked up, man,” Clive mutters, shaking his head. “So that’s why you think you’re evil?” he adds, his eyes boring holes into my skull.
“Yes,” I say, tightening my grip on the bed.
“And that’s why you tried to kill yourself?” Clive says.
“Yes,” I whisper, and it’s like I’m falling without moving again, only this time I don’t know what direction I’m going.
“Dude…okay, if you feel that guilty—there’s hope for you,” Clive says, and he touches my knee. “Seriously—just live, okay? Stop thinking you’re evil. That’s not gonna make you change.”
I try to speak, but the door swings open and a nurse pokes her head into the room. “We’re having a community meeting now,” she says. “Come along to the common room.” She closes the door, and I can hear her shoes squeak against the linoleum as she makes her way to the next room. Each step is like a seed being planted in my skull, reminding me where I am, giving me roots. Clive raises himself up, grabbing my hand and yanking me to my feet —and I feel faint, as if I’d traveled a long distance in too short a time.
“Come on, maybe they’ll explain what the fuck is happening,” he says. And we walk out into the hall.
Samuel Archer is a freelance short story writer and poet from Los Angeles, California. He attends Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he is helping to start an undergraduate writers’ collective. He currently lives in (and wanders around in) Philadelphia with his camera. He has also lived in Bristol, England.