He dreams of past friends cackling as he plunges into a dark pool. The rippling water contorts their faces, transforming their spiteful laughter into mute expressions of agony. He flails, but finds his ankle chained to something heavy, invisible. They will not help him, and as the last air escapes his lungs in a maelstrom of bubbles, it seems that their grimaces only widen.
Stephen Leer twitches in his sleep, spot-lit by cartoons cycling quietly on a laptop on the table before him. His blazer lies half-folded on the couch beneath him, forming creases that his brother will never quite manage to iron out. There are no books on his particle-board wall of shelves, just a photo of his family squinting and smiling in the face of direct sunlight, the Vatican in the background. The glossy print rests on the bottom shelf, its edges smudged from handling. Dust cakes on the novelty bookstands he gave up cleaning months ago. A canvas leans against the coffee table, bearing just a stain of coffee that could possibly look like a cloud. Nearby, a brush stands in a plastic cup, the water long since evaporated, leaving only flaked residue of a paint that’s not quite purple. An icy breeze crawls into his studio apartment through an open window, and the tabby cat at his feet curls a little tighter. Stephen shivers, pulling closer the quilt his mother had sewn for him in her hospice bed, as a part of the tumor in her lung broke off and rode her bloodstream to her heart. Netflix stops at the end of an episode and asks if everything is alright.
His phone vibrates, nestling closer to the hive of empty glasses on the coffee table. The tabby glances up at the sound, but loses interest and goes back to licking itself. Stephen twitches. He dreams that he stands at the entrance of his office building. Crowds of faceless men flow in and out from its maw, parting around him like a stream around a stone. The dark glass façade stretches upward, shrinking to a speck in the clear sky.
Something brushes against him. His brother stands beside him, his hand on his shoulder. “Don’t do it,” he says. The sound seems distant, above him. Stephen looks up. The speck has become two. He squints, but he can’t make out what it is. The crowd has stopped, too. They all stare upward in silence. The speck seems to be growing.
The ground begins to shake, growing into a grand tremor that tears chasms into the pavement before him. The faceless men have vanished; he is alone. With a groan, the building tips forward; the debris and the distant falling speck rush toward him.
Stephen awakens with a start, dislodging the cat, which stalks into the kitchenette. He stares at the phone as it scuttles across the table. After a few moments, it stops, the LED in the corner winking blue. He blinks. It is 5:37 on a Monday morning. The phone gives out one last shudder and falls still.
He spends a few minutes considering who might have made the call. Perhaps it was his boss, calling to let him know that his theft of 11” x 17” sheets of paper from the copy room had not gone unnoticed, and that he should not bother coming to work today. Perhaps it was the police: had they found his father’s bloated corpse washed up on the bank of the Hudson River? Perhaps it was a call center in Alabama, reaching out to inform him of a very special offer to lower his credit card interest rate.
He plays the voicemail without bothering to check who sent it. It’s probably David. It’s always David.
“Hey, Stephen, it’s David. Sorry about the early call, but I was cleaning the guest bathroom and I found one of your little orange pill…things? You know what I mean. Anyway, it’s mostly full and you were here, what, two months ago? Aren’t you supposed to need these? Look, whatever. Just text me your address or something so I can ship it to you. Or tell me if you don’t need them so I can throw them away, but I don’t like having stuff like this around the girls.—Oh, and Dad keeps calling me about when you’re going to visit again. It took me five minutes to find tickets from O’Hare to JFK for, like, two hundred bucks so don’t give me that shit about ‘it’s too expensive.’ And do me a favor and call Dad sometime. He’s worried about you.—Alright, I gotta go, but let’s actually talk sometime. I’ll see you.”
Stephen looks at the phone when the message ends, then returns to staring at the ceiling. He’d like to want to sit up. He does not enjoy staring at the ceiling. It makes him feel like a piece of shit. How hard could it be to get up, he wonders. Nobody else has any trouble with it. Is he just lazy? He tries to find some feature in the anonymous drywall to think about instead of how much he feels like a piece of shit.
Time passes. David sits in his minivan, silently cursing his fellow commuters. His father grimaces at his too-hot, too-bitter coffee, reading a magazine in bed. The roses on his mother’s headstone are beginning to wilt.
Sunrise’s pink fingers crawl across the ceiling of Stephen’s apartment. He draws his knees up to his chest and turns away from the dawn. It is 8:13. Were he to sprint to his dark green Honda now, and floor it, he might get to work on time. But that would be ignoring traffic. If he leaves now he can probably expect to pull into the company garage at 9:30 or so. But he has to shower and change his clothes, and maybe eat something, too. So a better estimate might be about 9:50. Is it even worth it to show up today?
His calculations are interrupted by the cat jumping onto the couch. They make eye contact and it meows. Craning his neck, Stephen can see that its food bowl is empty. He is not sure how long it’s been that way, and reproaches himself for letting it go hungry. It meows again, and jumps off the couch. After a moment, Stephen follows.
He scratches the cat behind the ears as it eats, not noticing that it moves to avoid his touch. The water dish needs refilling, too. He snatches his blazer from the couch and trudges downstairs to his car, forgetting to shut the front door. While he is at work, the cat will squeeze through the gap left by the door. After an hour of wandering, it will find the door blown closed by a gust of wind. It will wait outside for Stephen to come back. A tenant will assume the cat is a stray, and chase it away. The cat will be picked up by Animal Control, spayed, and released; after a while it will be adopted in all but name by a college student who will note with only casual interest its domesticity. When David moves Stephen’s things to New York, he will not realize the cat was ever there.
Time passes. David is in a meeting, doodling increasingly violent deaths of a stick-figure version of his accountant. His father, between forkfuls of eggs cooked sunny-side up, flirts with a waitress who puts up with him only because he tips well. His mother isn’t doing much of anything at all.
Stephen pulls into his assigned space. It is 10:07. He drains the cold coffee from the foam cup he had left there the night before, and exits the car. It’s cold, but his blazer is too creased to bring into the office with him. He worries that he looks too much like a disaster already.
His footsteps echo, the lone sound bouncing around the concrete garage. The rows of empty cars appear to him like bodies in a morgue. From fifty feet away he already cannot pick his own out from the crowd.
Stephen remembers that, as a child, he would imagine himself a survivor of some apocalypse whenever he couldn’t see any signs of life around him. He wonders why he has stopped doing this. He remembers how in high school he would walk at night in the middle of the empty roads by his house, savoring the solitude. He tries to remember when he started to dread this feeling.
No crowds of smartly-dressed businessmen greet him as he reaches the front door of his building. Aside from a pudgy, balding man in a white polo shirt and an expensive utility belt, the lobby is empty. Stephen’s footsteps echo as he pushes to the bank of elevators beyond the security desk. Frank the security guard barely looks up from his book.
“Can I help you?” he asks, flipping the page. Frank is this close to finding out what Snowden’s secret is, and he’d rather this man leave quickly.
Stephen can’t think of anything to say that won’t come across as combative, so he gestures vaguely with his ID badge. It seems to be enough, because the guard doesn’t tackle him before he steps onto the elevator. He congratulates himself on a situation well-handled. As the elevator rises, he considers what he would do if it stopped, trapping him between floors. He’d like to think that he’d keep his wits about him. His tie is a little askew. The last few seconds of the ride are spent fixing this.
The elevator dings, cuing the quiet cacophony of his office that rushes in as the doors slide open. Compared to the soothing hum of the last minute, Stephen finds the noise unpleasant. He sets off for his cubicle. His tie is still askew.
The chair squeaks when he drops into it. A pamphlet rests on his keyboard, pleading with him to him to save his soul. He throws it into the wastebasket with the others. For the most part, his desk is bare. A stack of sticky notes competes with a framed photo of David and his kids for halves of the desk. The cubicle walls are adorned with scattered pencil sketches on sticky notes. On one, an astronaut drifts away from his space station, his tether severed and curling inward toward itself, serpentine. On another, a man sits alone on an island, watching a ship in the distance sink. A third note bears an image of a cigar, smoldering in a crowded ashtray. Stephen turns on his computer and stretches. As he waits for it to boot up, he sketches idly on the notepad.
He has just completed the outline of a castle when his manager taps twice on the cubicle wall. It is out of politeness, not permission. Stephen swings around in time to catch the gray-haired woman lean over the top of the cubicle wall, arms folded. A gold-painted plastic name tag bearing the name “Frances” hangs from the breast pocket of her ill-fitting suit.
“Are you feeling alright?” she asks, her eyebrows furrowed, accentuating the wrinkles she has tried and failed to hide for years.
“Oh, yeah.” Stephen’s voice sounds strange to him. “I just felt kinda sick this morning.” He doesn’t feel very convincing. “I’m alright now, though.”
Frances steps into the cubicle and leans against his desk, refolding her arms. “Look, Steve, I’m fine with you taking the day off every once in a while, that’s what your sick leave is for. Just shoot me an email or something if you want to use some of it.”
“I’m sorry. Won’t happen again.” Stephen can feel his face becoming flushed.
“Yeah, about that…” Frances pinches the bridge of her nose, eyes shut tight, sighing deeply. “I really don’t want to do this, but protocol is protocol and if the guys upstairs catch me playing favorites it’ll be my ass. I gotta report this to HR.” She stands and scratches her head. “I’m sorry. You’ll get an email in the next couple of days.”
She waits for Stephen to respond, but is met only with the sound of a pencil scratching at the notepad. The castle on the sticky note has been engulfed in flames. Frances jams her hands into her pockets and starts to leave. At the entrance she pauses, as if to add something, but walks away. Stephen posts the picture on his wall.
He works in silence. At 1:07, Stephen eats in the cafeteria alone. The food is tasteless to him. After an hour, he returns to his desk. He draws on more sticky notes: a rat, missing its lower half, eating a bloody hunk of cheese; a man sitting on a bench, his face twisted; a child sporting a flowing white beard, leaning heavily on a cane. He misses a call from his father, but does not call back when he realizes this. Shadows outside lengthen, but the incandescent lights above him eradicate any trace of the aging day. Stephen hears the sounds of a birthday party elsewhere on the floor, but does not stand up to join. Instead, he sits, leaning heavily against his elbows. He remembers the day he burned the rejection letters from the five colleges he had applied to. He remembers meeting Frances at his father’s fifty-somethingth birthday party. He leans back and stares at the ceiling for a while. Eventually, his eyelids droop and he falls asleep.
Time passes. David pretends to be interested in a coworker’s fishing story. His father is idly searching for plane tickets online. Six men in uniform trudge past his mother, struggling to maneuver a lacquered pine box.
It is 5:47. Frances walks by Stephen’s desk, but leaves him be, for fear of having to speak to him if he awakens. The sun peers through the bank of windows as it sets, adding a brilliant fiery tinge to the grid of gray carpeting. The last of her coworkers filter out through the entrance in an unbroken stream. Frances is the last of the crowd. She will buy a plastic bottle of bourbon on her way home and work her way through most of it as she re-reads To Kill a Mockingbird. She will consider giving Stephen’s father a call, but will think better of it as she waits for him to pick up. She will spend her few remaining years at the company without incident, and retire to Kentucky to work on a manuscript for which she will never find a publisher.
Stephen’s father will resume shopping for flights the next day, after he receives a call from the Chicago Police Department. He will detour on his way to the airport to visit his wife’s grace for the first time in over a year, but will struggle to find a reason to stay longer than ten minutes. He will retreat to the outskirts at the medical examiner’s office, letting David speak to the police for him. On the flight home, he will realize that he has forgotten a box of Stephen’s things at his hotel. He will not try to retrieve them. Months later he will sign up for cooking classes, and make a real effort not to look down on the sad, lonely old men taking the class with him.
David will watch his daughters carry their hockey team to victory in the regional championships. He will never get around to throwing away Stephen’s pills, and his wife will have the presence of mind not to press him on the subject. He will continue to place a fresh bouquet of roses on his mother’s headstone every month, though he has long stopped feeling the emotional catharsis from it that caused him to begin the habit in the first place. In the years that follow, his daughters will come to forget about the young man who, with a grin on his face, embraces their cap- and diploma-bearing father in a photograph on the mantelpiece. They will not think enough of the picture to ask David who the stranger is.
Stephen drifts back into consciousness, unsure of the time and his place. The office is quiet, illuminated only by the sunset and the glowing exit signs. He stands, stretches, and follows the angry red arrows to the stairwell. On the landing, he pauses. He’d never been to the roof before, he realizes. He had always been afraid that opening the door would set off some sort of alarm, and the security staff would escort him from the building, detouring through his office so he could hear the jeers of his coworkers. The stairs up seem better-lit than the flights leading down. And there are much fewer of them to the roof than to the ground.
He sets foot on the first stair and climbs. His thinking becomes clearer. He knows what to do. He can’t remember feeling this sure about anything else. The door is old: it looks like it will groan when he opens it. It does, but no alarms follow. Frank the security guard will never finish his book, and it will remain in the security desk drawer long after he is laid off.
The first thing Stephen notices as he steps onto the roof is how cold it is. For a few seconds, he wishes he hadn’t left his jacket in his car, but he remembers that he won’t be spending much time up here anyway. Hands in pockets, shoulders pressed against his neck, he paces to the rusting precipice. The wind’s tendrils push and pull at him, one moment throwing him off the side, the next tugging him toward safety. As if it has any say in his decision. He looks down. The sidewalk is a thread of grey against the roiling off-black of the street below. He thinks of some drawings he did in the fourth grade: well-meaning attempts at capturing a three-dimensional perspective from this same sort of angle. From what he sees now, he can tell that he had made the road too narrow and the sidewalks too wide.
Stephen glances over his shoulder. Perhaps a coworker, long holding a deep and secret respect for him has followed him up here to confess his admiration. Maybe the pretty receptionist on the fourth floor has come to see if he wanted to get a drink with her later. The flimsy metal door bangs shut in the stiff breeze, as if the building itself shakes its head in disappointment.
He turns away, shrugs, and steps off of the edge in a manner that would have struck the receptionist, had she seen it, as calm, maybe even graceful.
As he descends, he remembers a movie he once saw in which the protagonist kills himself by overdosing on heroin. He thinks that the guy had the right idea; he made a significantly smaller mess and wasn’t ruining anybody’s day by rocketing into the pavement in front of them on their way home from work. Then again, it’s not like he knew where to buy heroin in the first place. Or how to use it. The point is moot anyhow. He remembers the time he broke his arm falling off of a set of monkey bars, and thinks about how it hadn’t really hurt until a few moments after he had hit the ground. He is comforted by this. He remembers an article he had read, or perhaps it was a radio story he had heard, about how most people who attempted to kill themselves regretted it immediately. He spends his last few conscious moments wondering why he doesn’t feel the same.
Time passes. David is picking up his daughters from their hockey game. He will eventually forgive himself for failing to see it coming. He will never forgive Stephen. His father is watching M*A*S*H re-runs in his living room before dinner. He will cry in front of Stephen for the first time at the funeral. His mother won’t think much about it at all.