by: Michael Proctor ((Header art is a photo manipulation by Jan Oliehoek.))
That’s the thing about what you say or don’t say. It can change your course, set you free…
That taste of metal, bitter and artificially sour, filled my mouth in the most uncomfortable way. It’s strange, isn’t it, the things that trigger memories of the past? Remembered: once, my words ran away from my brain and a larger gentleman reminded me of my place in the food chain by filling my mouth with a cocktail of teeth and blood. In the years since, my words learned to stay tucked away unless absolutely called for. That got me through graduate school and even a doctorate program. That’s the thing about what you say or don’t say. It can change your course, set you free.
My teeth: throbbing and loose in a couple places. Gritty, a slight taste of industrial grease. My words: gone, replaced by blooming eyes and half-nods. What most survivors don’t talk about are the things you instantly forget and forsake when the barrel of an automatic weapon is rooted in your mouth. I had wished it was cold, the barrel. The obscene clatter, the spray of bullets, these things made the barrel of the gun slightly hot. Not enough to scar my lips or tongue, but enough to show me that death is as warm as it is cold.
A patient had targeted his psychiatrist, Dr. Rolofson. Pushed the man’s skinny frame against a window, where the daylight would watch him die. When the doctor gave up, he stopped crying, just kept himself pressed against the glass, waiting, repeating three words. He spoke slow, calm and quiet, as if he were performing a rosary.
I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.
The patient spoke back in rehearsed and measured words. When he was done, he pulled his finger back on the trigger and held it there for three seconds. The doctor’s insides burst, spitting onto the window. Pinks and reds, some sticky pieces as thick and black as tar. Knees buckling, he slid down, pulling a single vertical blind with him. He didn’t die instantly. The body folded limp, contorted. His face still halfway pressed to the glass, I watched the moist cloud of Rolofson’s last exhale fade from the window’s surface. Held my own breath for too long while he gurgled and wheezed and then slipped away. When I looked up, the patient was standing over me, the gun barrel quickly moving toward my mouth.
7:44 a.m. (nine minutes earlier)
My flight delayed for three hours meant going to the office to grab a book for the trip. Breezing past an artsy-looking kid in the lobby with pale skin and a dark mess of hair, I didn’t think much of his thick jacket in the summer. He didn’t seem out of place, just a college kid. Probably an art student. Probably awkward around people. Those are the types of things we tell ourselves to explain away abnormalities. Perfectly natural and normal.
I wasn’t going to work, so I had traded my chinos and button-up for jeans and a plain white tee-shirt. My first real vacation since starting my practice eighteen months ago. I rummaged around and found the novel, plucked it from underneath a stack of textbooks, a DSM, and a couple of neuro references. I slipped it into my back jeans pocket and closed and locked the door. Moving back down the hallway, I headed toward a much needed mental break.
The artsy kid and his dark tangles were in the lobby, standing as if waiting for someone to come back. His arms looked poised, held in place. He saw me coming casually down the hall, flinched and spun around, pointing a matte-black rifle at my face. My legs locked, refusing to move, keeping me still based on an instinct never engaged before. The kid kept the gun leveled at my chest with his right hand and clenched his left fist into my hair. My legs went limp and he easily pulled me down the hallway like a dog that had pissed the carpet. He kicked my feet out from under me and pushed me down against the reception desk. Rolofson stood across the waiting room with his back to the window, tremulous. His eyes as wide as quarters and locked onto the weapon his patient was holding.
I raised a hand. “Wait, I can….”
The kid threw the butt of the rifle into my open mouth, pain traveling quickly through my jaw and out my eyes in a teary burst. Scanning his eyes across the room, he leaned down, leaving his face an inch from mine, and spoke in a gravelly whisper.
“You….can’t do anything. Don’t speak, don’t move.”
The kid’s eyes were sunken and gray with sleeplessness. His shoulders and hands ticked and twitched in a way I’d seen before, like he had stopped taking his meds. He inhaled slowly, holding his body perfectly still for a moment. In that second, I knew that he’d do it. He exhaled and raised the gun at Rolofson.
When the noise of the gunshots filled the room and the doctor shook against the push of bullets perforating his body, I looked away. Up and to my right, to the digital clock on the wall glowed red. Five minutes to eight.
The rifle exhaled a dancing ribbon of translucent gray as it swung towards me, angry and powerful, with a skinny-looking kid attached at the other end. Competing undertones of red and blue fought for real estate on the boy’s mostly pale face. His pained expression was more than sadness but less than fear. Already open in a slack-jawed droop of astonishment, the kid threw the barrel of the gun into my mouth. Staring at me silently for a couple of minutes, the kid just held the gun wedged there between my teeth, a look of childlike curiosity upon his face, like watching monkeys at a zoo for the first time. The kid was all nervous ticks, quick glances left and right while running his hands across his face, pushing the sweat from his eyes.
“What’re you doing here?” the kid exclaimed. His sharp staccato speech filled with rapid breaths weaving in and out of his words. He pulled back, leaving my mouth empty to offer a reply.
I left the look of stupidity on my face until the last second before I thought he’d pull the trigger again. I was stalling for time. “I….just. I was…”
The kid stepped closer and re-aimed the rifle at my face, shouting to cut me off.
“Fucking tell me! What are you doing here? You a doctor?”
Maintain eye contact. Force a nervous laugh. I threw my hands up to ask for a truce. “No, man. Ain’t no doctor,” I said, channeling the twang of some of my more loveable redneck relatives.
“Bullshit, don’t lie to me. I’ll cut you down right here. One body, two bodies, doesn’t matter to me.” The kid dropped his finger to rest on the trigger and shook the gun at me again.
“Jesus-fucking-Christ, man, take it easy with that thing, I ain’t a damn doctor. Listen, here’s the deal. I came in to try and sweet-talk this lady doc into giving me a ‘script refill on some Xanax. Thought maybe I could catch her before any patients was around, that’s all.”
The kid clenched his jaw against the gun’s flat-black polymer stock and considered me.
Sell it. Close the deal. “Straight up, man, that’s the truth. I was just trying to catch a high, maybe sell a few on the side for beer money.”
The kid pressed his eyes shut tight for two or three seconds and then opened them again, staring wide to adjust to the fluorescent lights above. The kid combed his fingers through his black tangled mat of hair. He smirked and laughed through his nostrils, the way you do when you have to giggle at life’s irony. Like when you can’t fight the boss about having a shitty day at the office.
The kid dragged a chair over and sat down a few feet away, resting the rifle in his lap, finger still next to the trigger. The gun’s killing end still pointed at my synapses. He exhaled a heavy breath, the kind that had been waiting for years to come out, then clamped his eyes down again.
Headaches, light sensitivity, was my guess. I was a psychiatrist after all. Discontinuance of neuroleptics will sometimes affect patients in physiological ways.
He caught me studying his face and body language and he sat up straight in his chair, trying to show me he was stable, postured, poised. Trying to show me he had control of the situation.
“You wanna know why, don’t you?”
I showed my palms again. “Hey, man, that’s between you and him. None of my business.”
“I had to,” the kid said, shifting his eyes up and left, then right. He spoke easily, as if he were discussing ripping up a dying patch of daisies in his garden. “He was poisoning me.”
Some things you can’t put a mask on. My throat constricted. It warbled a sound somewhere between fear, nausea, and fake interest. “How so?”
The kid asked, “You ever take a science class and see the video of a butterfly escaping from its chrysalis?”
“I don’t think so. Wasn’t much good at school.” I said.
His eyes widened. “The way you know it’s about to happen is that the pupa skin starts to go clear, like a window. Like the butterfly inside has to live for a while with only a foggy view of the world around him, but then he gets to see it all in detail. Like, clarity.”
I made a low-volume, non-threatening vocal acknowledgment. “Mmm hmm.”
Active listening. Eye contact and facial feedback to match his cues. Aligning.
Those words, I had heard them before. This was Rolofson’s metaphorical spiel, used when he’d want to recommend meds. I could almost hear his voice coming out of his patient’s mouth. Former patient now, I guess.
The kid paused and swallowed. He looked to be on the edge of crying, but ignored it. He pushed it down and came back, pointed a finger at Rolofson’s limp body across the room and held it there. He projected, trying to show me a strong resolve. “The butterfly is then supposed to emerge from the cocoon so that he can fly.”
He used his trigger-finger to rub his temple. He shut his eyes again for a few seconds. The bluish-white light buzzed and glowed above us.
The kid regrouped. “That sick fuck. That liar. He clipped my butterfly wings. He poisoned me so I could never fly. And I’m not the only one. He needed to be stopped. So you wanna know why I did it? Somebody had to.”
Knowing there weren’t any words that would have been effective here, I just nodded.
“What kind of pills did you say?” He shifted in his chair, started his foot into a busy jump. “That you were trying to get from that woman.”
Grin, guilty. “Oh, Xany-bars. I get anxious sometimes, but I told her I don’t want none of that zombie-brain stuff. They just help me relax. Pretty good for coming down off coke. Good for headaches, too. Shit, man. I wish I had some right now. My face is still humming pretty good.”
The kid shrugged. “Sorry about that, I guess. Nothing personal.”
He chewed at a fingernail, not necessarily looking at me, but not averting his eyes either. He exhaled slow breaths from the deepest parts of him, trying to control his breathing. Control the breathing, control the heart rate. Control the heart rate, control the desire to react to negative stimulus. It’s animal instinct, really. Pain leads to weakness leads to death.
“You know, man, we could check her office, see if she has a stash of samples or something,” I said, trying not to sound overly eager.
He stood up quickly, aimed the rifle at me. Once again, I got a good look at the inky discomfort protruding from the barrel.
His pale skin flushed from cream to red. “So you can find a letter opener to stab me with? You think I’m fucking stupid?”
“No, nothing like that. Look, I got no beef with you man, and I hope you got no problem with me. My face and head are just pounding. I mean, they’re fucking singing to me dude. You know, just one Xany-bar would give you a little relief too. Seems like these lights are bugging you some.”
He shook his head, a quick no. “What do you know about it? You trying to diagnose me now, is that it?”
“Not at all, man,” I said. “I get ‘em too, headaches from shitty lights like these in this office. I had a job at a call center once, lasted maybe three days before I said fuck this fluorescent bullshit.”
The kid’s eyes were telling. Like he was trying to talk himself into doing it, conducting a personal inventory of all the ways he could kill me if I tried anything heroic.
“The door’ll be locked. You’d never get in,” he said.
“Shit man, give me a paper clip and five minutes, I’ll get in there.”
The kid hesitated, made me think of a bully being asked to read aloud in class. Then he flipped his head back to throw the tangles out of his eyes and waved the rifle at me, directing traffic. “Stand up. Slow.”
“Steady as she goes, man. Like I said, I ain’t got no beef with you. Just trying to get a little medicinal comfort in my head is all.”
He tightened his grip on the stock. “Your hands go on your head. Three steps around to the other side of the desk. Slowly.”
“I got no problem with that. Slow as you like.”
“Look on the desk, do you see paperclips?” he asked.
“Uh, yeah, there’s one of those holder things with the magnet in the lid.”
“One hand down, the other stays on your head. Pick up one paper clip.”
“One’s all I need,” I said, reaching down slow, keeping the character alive.
He waved the gun toward the hall, a fully automatic leash with extended magazine. “Put that hand back on your head. You take two steps at a time down the hall and show me which door it is. You take more than two steps at a time and I’ll shoot you where you stand.”
“That’s loud and clear man,” I said.
I reached the door and put myself in front of the handle, keeping my hands on my head.
“Dr. Andy Tarrant.” The kid studied the nameplate to the right of the door. “What kind of woman is named Andy?”
I shrugged. “I think it’s short for Andrea. Maybe she’s a feminist, whatever that is. I haven’t been seeing her for very long.”
The kid just looked disgusted and nodded to the door. “Open it.”
I unfolded the paper clip and knelt down, wrapping my fingers around the handle, hoping I had forgotten to lock the door as was my usual bad habit. I inserted the snaking paper clip and danced it around in the lock, faking the intention and know-how of a casual lockpicker. I’d never picked a lock in my life. After a time – not too quick and not too long – I exhaled a deep prayer and pulled the handle down. The door opened and I let out an inaudible sigh. The air inside was stale and warm and smelled better than it ever had.
“Okay, get up.” The kid tightened his grip on the gun and waved it into the office. “Go in. Slowly.”
He kept the weapon pointed at me and followed me in and pulled his left hand off the stock to flip the light switch.
I kept my arms raised, fingers spread at chest level. I must have looked like a pop-up-tent revivalist in the deep south, sweating for the Lord and receiving His glory. I thought about the odds of him getting a bullet into my heart or a main artery if I were to rush him. I tried to think of a play to get around or under the gun’s trajectory, but he had enough distance between us to spit out an entire burst.
The kid nodded indirectly into the room, signaling to me to start looking. I went to the filing cabinet and found most of the things I had expected. Patient files, intake forms, pharmaceutical brochures. On top of the cabinet was a lanyard clipped to a plastic casing with an ID card and Andrew Tarrant, M.D. next to my stupid smiling face. An audible “fffuck” bubbled up from under my breath and the kid stepped closer. My back was turned and I felt his distrust swell up behind me. Thoughts of becoming Rolofson number two pressed into my lungs like oxygen was being suctioned out of the room.
“What’d you say?” His voice cracked a little and pitched up in tone. “Turn around. Now. Right the fuck now!”
I shook and spun around quickly. I threw my ribs into the side of the cabinet hard enough to tip it, one side raising three inches off the floor before it fell back down. The whole thing retched and groaned and clamored back down to the tile. He had the gun raised and aimed at my throat.
“Hey, take it easy, man.” I put my hands in front of my face. Stupid to think two inches of sparse muscle and thin bone would stop bullets but we try to survive however we can, I guess.
The kid took two steps closer and the greased black barrel came with him, pausing half a foot from my eye. His face dropped, looked like it did right before he shot Rolofson. “Hands back on your head. On your knees.” He jerked his eyes back and forth between me and the cabinet, taking visual snapshots without looking away for more than a second. When I got to my knees, he kicked me in the back, pushing me facedown. My chin hit the floor and answered the knock with a magnesium flash. The white faded in time for me to be conscious of his boot landing on my ankle in a stomping fit.
Strange how in a moment of chaos, your mind can expel all noise, leaving a silent gap to be filled by the sound of your bones breaking.
Felt: his boot-foot planted at the back of my neck, rubber sole digging the skin raw.
Heard: his rummaging through the cabinet, opening and slamming each door.
Quick breathing. Objects on top of the cabinet being shuffled.
Then he spoke quietly, collected. “Guess what I found, Andy?”
The kid lifted his boot from my neck. I kept my head on the floor and said nothing. I had never wanted see my own death coming, even if I had the opportunity to speak directly to it before time ran out. Waking up this morning was nice enough for a last day, I suppose.
“I guess you kept a secret after all. Well, I found it,” he said.
He nudged a boot into my ribcage. “Hey, up here. Look at me.”
I lifted my head off the floor to look up. There was a half-inch between the filing cabinet and the wall, black and shadowed. Peaking out from the dark was the edge of a plastic casing. The kind you put an ID badge into.
I swiveled my head to look up at the kid and he tambourined the pill bottle in the air, smiling like an idiot. He fixed his eyes on the orange bottle’s label. “Doctor Andy, you may be clever with your man’s name, but your drugs were a little too easy to find, dummy. Guess you’re not as smart as you think.”
The kid knelt down next to me, smiling, with the rifle in his left hand. With his right, he petted me on the head like a hurt dog. His eyes, glassy and rapid. “Listen, I’m sorry about your ankle, but you can’t be too careful, right? Can we still be friends?”
I grunted something other than words, breathing fast through my nose.
“I know it hurts.” He combed his fingers through my hair, kept petting, rubbing my back. “I know.”
I rolled onto my back, my ankle screaming all the way. The kid laid the gun down on the desk and hooked his arms underneath mine to prop me against the wall. He saw the wet running down my cheeks and used his thumb to wipe it away. He touched me gently, sensual, and his stare dug graves into my eyes. He was slipping and looking as though he wanted to take a travel companion with him.
“You look so sad, baby. Why the tears?” His eyes glowed in the manner somewhere between mother and lover.
I took in and let out as slow and large a breath as I could. “Just the ankle, man. It’s screaming pretty good.”
His lower lip curled down and his eyes welled into glimmering orbs. “I’ve mistreated you, I know. Now baby, I know I have a temper, but it doesn’t mean I’m upset with you. You know that, right?”
He waited for a response, receiving none.
“Right. You need something for that boo-boo.” He pulled the pill bottle from his jacket pocket and sat down, leaning against the wall next to me.
He smiled like we were besties at camp. After this, we’d spot each other on a weight bench and play hand-slap games. When nobody else was around, we might explore deeper. And when we grow up, we’d never talk about sucking each other off in the shower, but we’d talk every other month and commiserate over work.
The rattle of the orange bottle brought me back to the fire at the end of my leg.
“So, you said you know about these, what’d you call them again?” he asked.
I just nodded and winced.
He tapped a handful of pills into his palm. “So, which ones are the, um…”
“Xanax.” I cut him off and leaned forward to sort through what I knew was there. “These.” I tickled at a baby-blue oval, scored down the middle on one side and embossed with Roche on the other.
“You first then.” The kid pinched a pill between his fingers and stared, his eyes daring me to prove it.
No hesitation. Don’t flinch. “Sure, man. I could use the relief.” I threw the tablet into my mouth, faked a swallow, and used my tongue to flick the thing between my cheek and gums and opened my mouth before he could tell me to. The coating started to dissolve, bitterness seeping out and onto my teeth, enough to get my gag reflex to protest. While the clock was ticking in my mouth, the kid considered me, then considered the pills in his hand for far longer than I wished he would.
He squeezed his eyes shut and put his head down, the headaches back for more. When his eyes were shut and facing down for more than a second I spit the deformed pill out into my palm, smeared the remnants against the inside of my jeans.
When he opened his eyes, he unclenched his hand and squinted to make out the whites, blues, and pale greens resting in his palm. He focused on the same baby-blue color that I had thrown into my mouth and weighed it for just a second longer before he put it on his tongue and swallowed.
He leaned back against the wall and asked me to tell him about my life, tell him about my family, where I grew up.
I told him, going as slow as I could. I told him about the Midwest. About the expectation to get a factory job and have kids and keep drinking. Told him about how my mother and father were blue-blooded Americans with no spectacular backstory, just kids who met young and repeated the same lives as their parents.
“My mom, she was always going on about how education was so important and how it’d be a shame for her son to not go to college. Whenever I’d start fucking up in school, she’d try to scare the shit out of me by telling me ‘you can’t even pick trash up off the street without a high-school degree’, like I listened.”
The kid had his head tilted back, the slits in his eyes shrinking, so I mirrored him, letting him know we were having a good time together.
“Did they love each other, your parents?” His words dripped out in a cough-syrup mumble.
“Oh, no doubt. They had a pretty traditional marriage, you know. Mom made the home and the kids her job, had dinner on the table when my Dad came home from work. The only thing they ever fought about was the college thing.”
I shifted, turning to face him directly, gauging the sedation on his face, and laughing to emphasize the funny part of this story. “When I told her I wanted to go to medical school, she hugged me so hard I thought I’d suffocate. She just kept saying, over and over, ‘Oh, Andrew! Oh, Andrew!’.”
His eyes, like stupid little crescent moons, opened wider, his face molding back to bare his teeth like a pretend animal. He tried to reach for me and the gun on the desk at the same time and fell over, landing hard on his side. I used my good foot and hands to move and dropped an elbow into his temple. He whined and his eyes closed again.
With the half tablet of Dormicum dissolved in my mouth, I felt heavy, tacked to the floor, but managed to crawl to the desk chair and climb up. I slowly started to wheel my way out of the office but stopped at the door’s threshold and waited. After he didn’t move for a couple minutes, I rolled back to the desk and picked up the gun. It was heavier than I had expected it to be and felt clumsy in my hands. Where he was lying on the floor, the kid’s hands were exposed and poised, as if ready for handcuffs. I pushed the barrel against the soft skin behind his chin and tucked the stock between his knees. His thumbs lined up just right with the trigger and fit there like it was meant to be.
What traumatic thing happened to this boy; that he ended up in a suicide pose? The cable networks would ask this rhetorically while a news crawl at the bottom of the screen spit out stock prices and sports scores. Followed by a commercial for the latest in anti-depression medication, complete with soft lighting and a beach.
I thought about dropping my one good foot down on his hands right there. In fact, I raised it above him a couple of times, before I decided not to. Instead, I thought I’d play a game on my vacation. I’d leave his fingers resting on the trigger, his dreams resting on the barrel, and try to guess the outcome when the black boots and tactical gear came charging in.
Because we all know how softly they knock.