By Alexander Brown
The young pharmacist’s assistant had placed the prescription on the counter in a way that suggested I wasn’t the right person for the medication, that there had been some kind of mistake.
“Are you sure you’ve taken these before?” The faceless girl had wondered. “Sir, hello?”
I muttered something before heading back out into the snow.
It was October in Toronto, the city I grew up in and still called home. Winter had come early, and I wasn’t sure why. The previous night the news was on in the background of another bar, but I hadn’t the energy to tune my ear. I was busy working on another highball of bourbon.
“This is going to sound ridiculous, but we’re out of ice. If you want to go somewhere else, I totally understand.”
The young bar-back had shared with resignation.
Lucky for him ice was no longer a luxury I cared for. It slowed me down. There was work to be done.
Back in the cold the car started slowly, as if it hadn’t been ready for the weather either. Thunderclouds formed in my head, and I struggled to open the bottle resting in the passenger seat. The lightning began to strike, and I closed my eyes, gripping the steering wheel with frozen fingers. The world was a raw nerve.
I washed the Naltrexone down with sour coffee left over in the cup holder, and I turned on the radio. Some pop group was regurgitating the same old song and for a moment I laughed to myself. I had already become the grumpy old man that hated what was on the radio.
I was all of thirty-five imperfect year’s old.
Those years had passed like exits on a highway.
Spadina Road was crawling north. The soccer moms had forgotten how to drive in the snow once again. It was a distinctly Torontonian ritual.
I was hitting every light and the storm in my head had started to roll away. It wasn’t the Naltrexone, that was just to help with the cravings and sensations – part of the “program”—but the thought of doing something, anything, would often help.
I had been sober eight hours, and it felt like a lifetime.
The stale coffee sat on my lips, and the radio was off now. Before me through the oscillation of the wiper blades lay walls of snow. The city had disappeared.
I arrived at my office on Eglinton, parking in another garage below another building. The engine in my meek import evaporated with a whimper with the turn of the key, and I sat in the darkness for a moment or two. The digital clock on the dash told me I had five minutes to spare.
When I startled back to life on the couch of my single apartment at dawn I had been very close to calling in sick. At some point it had caught up with me. There were no details but I knew I had done some damage. The past was an impenetrable blur.
I came in though. Mostly because I knew he would be here today: my first appointment. A boy I cared for very much. A boy I desperately wanted to help.
And the only one who could possibly help me.
I was a psychotherapist of some regard. That could mean anything, but I partnered in on a practice and an office with an older woman I rarely saw, with a name I still can’t pronounce. It might have been Czech or even Greek. She lost me at the ninth vowel.
I had gone to two schools: one on the ocean, one in the heart of Middle America. I was indifferent to both but I still remember the waves. And now I was back home, in a place I always loved, but I always doubted the feeling was mutual.
The boy’s name was Adam, and he wasn’t much of a boy at all. He was twenty-five and I had been seeing him ever since I had started two years ago. He wore a kind look that blended nicely with his dark, handsome features. He had the build of a former athlete that didn’t take it seriously enough, and he wore his long, wavy brown hair just barely off his face.
But above all his most striking feature was his eyes. They were large, almost Disney-like in scope. And they were black. So black you could often make out your own silhouette from across the room. It was an abnormality I had never even heard of and one even he would laugh about. Even though there was power to them—an uneasy melancholy.
I often found myself awake at night, wondering if the light could pierce them.
And now he was in my office, with a smile on his face. The same honest smile he always wore. Sitting forward on the couch as always. The only sound between us was the faintest ticking of a clock.
It would be the last time I ever saw him.
That morning the dawn had been ugly, the sky a sickly hospital grey. The air hung thick as napalm. The light and the cold had cut through the recesses of my brain, flooding the cavernous darkness with unwelcome light.
I had no use for blinds. Sleeping off a hangover was a luxury reserved for college kids. I preferred the penance of a waking nightmare. There was always work to be done and lessons to ignore.
The drinking had started as it often does. There had been no trauma, but an undiagnosed mental illness grew deep roots in the years in which I should have been free. Instead of cutting loose, having fun, making friends, I was trapped. My mind and body wound so tight there were times I had to pry my trembling hands open so I could do something as simple as answer the phone.
In time I started to see the right people, and I grew fascinated by the human brain. I considered mine a lost cause, but, as the psychology electives in college continued to mount, I realized I had made up my mind in regards to a career. Something I never thought I could do. The proverbial they say that depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder leads to an emotional flatness, making routine feelings inaccessible, and real decisions near impossible. I was lucky then to discover that the instrument of my ennui had become my one true interest.
Drugs and alcohol came into the picture then, though they never interfered with my studies. I self-medicated daily, but I was disciplined. I respected the power of the clock. Class at nine a.m.? Bottle down by midnight. No exceptions. It was a bruised, beautiful system. It never failed.
It was a lie. One I carried with me into my thirty-fifth year.
I had told myself the work was fine.
Trust the system.
It’s gotten us this far.
You wouldn’t quit now.
You can’t. I know you can’t.
The work wasn’t fine. The thing most drunks will tell you is that in the depths of whatever fresh hell you’ve introduced to yourself, time has a way of melting. Moments and mornings disappear. Hours are days. They’re right. I told myself I’d never miss an appointment, and I hadn’t. But I was getting close. And with that had come a fresh, lingering feeling that had taken root in the marrow of my bones.
I needed to go. This place was different now, every room a lesser version of itself. I had become nothing more than a shadow, darkening everything I touched.
I needed the road.
Trust the system.
You can’t go.
Bottle down at midnight.
It still works.
But I had to.
Just not yet. I needed to speak with him.
He was late again, that therapist of mine.
A few minutes had turned into ten, ten into fifteen.
It was October then, and I remember the early snow. In the months to follow I remember the ice and how it blanketed the city. I ended up spending Christmas in the dark, but I spent most of my time wondering if he made it out.
I never saw him again, and I had wondered if he was happy. I had thought it strange at the time when we didn’t schedule our usual follow up, but it felt inevitable. I visited once, a month, maybe two, later. His office had been all boxed up. A kind Greek woman told me he had left, and that it was for the best.
“He seemed happier,” she had said.
And I believed her.
In my previous visit I had told him of my trips to the doctor. He had known about the depths of my psychoses when I went away to college— also to the sea—but I always left the specifics out.
This time I had told him a story. In it was a boy who was very sick, who visited the school doctor once a week, each time requesting a different kind of blood work, each time asking for a new referral. If it wasn’t a tumour then it had to be organ failure. If it wasn’t organ failure it had to be a parasitic disease. The days felt like dreams and the nights were alive. He would count the tiles above his bed over and over again, making sure they hadn’t changed in the night. He would chew on cough drops because his tongue would burn, and he would keep ice packs on his hands to numb the clenching of his muscles.
As the weeks turned to months, the doctor, a kind man who said little but wore his compassion with ease, began to suggest that perhaps there was some other force at work.
“Maybe,” he had put gently, “it’s all in your head.”
That’s not possible.
I’m sick. I know I’m sick.
When graduation came and it was finally time to go home. The boy went home with a smile on his face, relieved that he would no longer feel alone, but even in his own bed he found himself now counting the cracks in the ceiling. Wherever he went, there he was. There I was. And I hated it.
Then I found Nick. Referred to me briskly and off-hand by a pre-occupied family physician.
From the moment I first set foot in his office I sensed a connection. Like some unforeseen hand had pierced a hole in the world, giving us just enough time to find each other before all the noise swallowed the city once again.
He was empathetic and charming, and he wore every one of his thirty-odd years on his face. He had lived and loved and told stories of his own struggles often, always with a laugh. Only recently had that light faded. The years were catching up to him.
I would often catch him looking at his reflection in my own eyes—once a defect, now a peculiarity I’ve chosen to embrace—tilting his head as if he was exploring the very curve of the earth itself, wondering if he was on the right axis, seemingly never happy with the result.
His smile had faded but I hadn’t let mine go. I could still see him trying to muster up the energy to help. The gears were still turning, but there was no one left to pull the levers. He had to go, and so did I. It was time to let Winter come for someone else. We would be okay, the two of us, even in spite of ourselves. He was the family I never had.
Free of Toronto the earth becomes electric. For every rock a tree, and every tree a stream. The breeze carries sweetness. Its touch is soft. The light is pure.
It feels like a lifetime since I’ve seen the boy. It’s only been years.
Long, good years.
It’s October again and I am sober. When you give up the drink time unravels like a garden hose. If you use it wisely, those small, lucid moments become the greatest gifts. A reward you never knew you could receive.
I went north, and now I’m here. Life is quieter and the lake is my hole in the world. No storms can touch it. This time of year the air is cool and charged with caffeine. The smell of the dying leaves clears my head.
The weatherman said it should be a fair winter, and I’m inclined to believe him. There’s been no unwanted snow, no ice to strangle the trees.
At dawn I bundled up and took my old birch canoe out on the lake. The surface was glass.
I still see him in my office, Adam, telling me it will be all right, that both of us will be fine. Just a young man with eyes of black, already so wise beyond his years—the father, brother, and son I’ll never have.
I wrote him a letter last year around the holidays that was returned to sender. It worried me then, but less so now.
In the letter I had listed off every little thing that I had ever punished myself for: the depression, the anxiety, the emotional distance, the drinking, the fear, the doubt. All things I couldn’t change—at least not then. But there is a now, a beautiful, wonderful now, that exists far removed from all that weight and all that pain. I told him I would see him there one day, and that it was the thing I looked forward to most.
You’re not sick, he’s not sick.
And I believe that now. Wherever he may be.
Back on the lake the sun had burned through the clouds, opening a hole in the world, and the light crashed down upon the glass. It blinded me at first, but then it began to dive, deep down through the darkness.
I thought of the boy with eyes of black and smiled. I knew the light had pierced them.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.