Highrise It is Friday morning, 9:00 am; the tropical sun is still making wake-up calls to the inhabitants on his side, the ocean side, of the building. He sits on the scuffed wood floor of his studio apartment. The phone rings, trill after deafening trill, begging to be answered. A strong wind blows and sucks at the curtains that adorn the half open sliding glass door. Most of Hawaii’s residents are glad that the trade winds have returned, but he couldn’t care less. The T.V. in front of him hopes he is a woman or a man that has one. Its noise mingles with each push and pull of the wind and says “With Isis you can enlarge your bust size… naturally.”

Andrew Hagen is in his boxers, but should be in board shorts, slippered (Hawaii’s term for wearing flip flops) and walking confidently to the door, then to the elevator, then to his high school graduation gift, his retired grandparent’s retired Cadillac revived. Andrew has had the car for over a year. At one time, he had been grateful. Now, nothing seems to matter. The idea of going through the monotonous motions of preparing for a productive day, or any day, makes Andrew queasy. Shower, shave, dress, sit, sleep, eat, shit. Repeat.

The phone continues. Andrew stands abruptly, as if jarred from a heroin dream, startled awake by the short quick quake of each ring. He approaches the phone fearfully, as though it is the dope man coming to collect. He pulls out its cord from the wall, cautiously though, not out of concern for the phone, but because exhaustion often makes one’s movements gentler than they’d normally be. Andrew’s eyes resemble that heroin addict’s: vacant, salient signs of rapidly diminishing sanity. People on the street, in his classes, and even at stop lights, look at him, concerned, curious, as to how such an attractive young man can look as though he’s lived the life of a recycled can. He feels how he looks, a piece of metal that is reused over and over and over again, an aluminum skin constantly stretched into unforgivable shapes until nothing’s left. Andrew knows no one can understand. No one can possibly understand. Each smile he fakes, each formulaic please or thank you or hello he mutters is only meant to appear normal. These attempts drive him further and further into the closet of himself. He knows there’s no hope. Inside a monster is eating at him, a monster that loves the metallic taste of a psyche that’s almost overextended to nothing.

At 20 years old, Andrew’s teenage years are behind him. With the excitement of his twenties still ahead, he should be happy to be alive, right? Girls he didn’t know smiled at him shyly, old ladies sometimes did too; he got A’s, B’s and the occasional C and had friends, good friends. Friends who would call him at 9:00 am on Friday mornings to make sure he was up for school, on his way through the motions. Eat, sleep, shit. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Until 3 months before, Andrew had considered himself a very stable person. He took pride in the emotional strength he provided his family. In fact, his mother marveled at this when his father passed away.

“Andrew” she’d say during their after-dinner talks, “I’m so glad you’ve been here. I’m proud to have raised such an emotionally mature young man.”

Back then, he had done his best to make the huge transition smooth for the family. He took on the responsibility as if he were his father’s replacement.  He stayed up late watching Lifetime movies with his despondent mother. He helped her pack away the unused golf clubs and bag the stained ties. He grieved for his father like any 17-year old would. He cried. He laughed. He prayed. There was nothing to do, but move on. Andrew was well adjusted. Andrew was normal.

Andrew remembered this old self. This version that was able to laugh, long and loud. Over the past couple of months, however, Andrew hardly smiled. He found himself looking at pictures taken over the years, searching his own image, frozen in better times. He was looking for answers, clues, that could lead him back to the person he had been. The smiling face, staring at him was joke. This used to be you, a maniacal voice repeated in his head. This isn’t you anymore.

When trips down memory lane hadn’t worked, he tried talking about it. A few weeks earlier, Andrew made an attempt to communicate that something strange was happening or had happened to him.  Andrew called his brother Todd.

Todd talked about graduate school at South Carolina, about beautiful southern women, how their voices smoothed over the senses like butter on hot toast. He talked about what they should do for Andrew’s 21st birthday next month. It was a tradition in their family to “go big” for milestone birthdays.

During their conversation Andrew didn’t say much. He just didn’t know how to respond to Todd’s abrasive need for high pitched ooohs and aaaahs at things that seemed so meaningless. Every word from Todd seemed like a bated hook with which to draw Andrew from the dark, silent water he swam in. Andrew felt the pull, but was stuck on the bottom. It’d take a lot more than a 21st birthday party to dredge him up.

“What’s wrong with you, man?” Todd had asked, “You’re acting weird.”

Andrew thought to himself; Should I tell him? He’s my brother. Maybe he’ll have some magical solution, like only Todd can.

“I feel like shit,” Andrew murmured.

“Something’s going around over here too. I just got over a gnarly cold a week ago. Pop some Vitamin C and Echinacea. Killer combo,” Todd replied. That wasn’t the magic Andrew was hoping for.

“Dude, I feel fine physically.” Andrew whispered. The two might have been brothers, but that didn’t mean they had regular gossip sessions about their feelings. Andrew was already ashamed that he’d said anything. This wasn’t his role in the family.

Finally Todd spoke up, thinking he’d got it, “I know how you feel. When Anastasia dumped me, I didn’t think I’d ever feel good about anything again.”

Todd had always been expressive, especially when it came to women. Andrew remembered when he had locked himself in his room for an entire weekend listening to Bon Jovi. Todd had been dumped by his first girlfriend at 14. Andrew had been 11. Andrew couldn’t understand, though he had tried to. It bothered him to see his brother so distraught and Andrew was lonely. Bored. So he slid comic books under Todd’s door, and made up ridiculous stories about the adventures of their neighbor’s three legged cat – Super Gimp. When Todd finally emerged, Andrew just smiled and handed him the Nintendo game console. Back then Mario Cart could solve everything.

Now Andrew remained silent. He wished this was about a girl. He wished he knew back then what he knew now so that he could warn his later self. Life only gets harder.

“You’ll be fine Andy,” Todd reassured him, “everyone goes through their down times.”

Andrew couldn’t take it, “Yah, well, I gotta go. I’ll call you next week or something.” With that, he hung up. He felt worse than before he called. It was if talking to someone made his anguish a fact, confirmed that he was alone in the universe, an ugly alien creature that didn’t fit.

Without the incessant ringing of the phone, the ranting T.V. gobbles up the vacuums of unused space in Andrew’s apartment. Plastically beautiful young adults dance to the 90210 theme song, their fabricated names fade in and out on the screen. Andrew feels like them, trapped in a rerun, a constant stream of bad writing and bad acting. He sits facing the television, but doesn’t watch. Before today, it was impossible for Andrew to be diverted from his goal. Trying to figure out why he felt the way he did and what he could do to get rid of it, consumed him. How could he kill the monster? Movies, books, T.V., music, none of it facilitated an escape. None of it quieted the voices that told him he shouldn’t exist. He didn’t belong. He sucked. He would always suck

Three months to the day, when it began, he hadn’t wanted to get out of bed for class, but had anyway. Though he had risen from sleep, it was almost as though he were still in a dream. This dream robbed him of identity, scraping every bit of self from him like a painter preparing to paint over some drab shade of blue. His movements, once fluid and masculine, marked by the electric energy of youth, were suddenly meek and cautious. Each step he took seemed designed to avoid contact with the elements. The sun grilled him, sweat dripping down his face like melted cheese. His eyes couldn’t adjust to the light, but the shelter of his hand wasn’t enough. He needed darkness. The wind that infiltrated his apartment, circling around and around, seemed to Andrew an egg beater further scrambling his unclear thoughts. While the moist Oahu air grabbed at his skin, clawed at his lungs, nearly suffocating him; it wasn’t the temperature that made his stomach turn, but the fact that there was air there at all.

That evening Andrew was to take a girl in his Physics class to a movie. He cancelled. He lied, telling her he had an appointment he had forgotten about with one of his professors. Now, interacting with people was like dropping sugar on an exposed nerve. He noticed them all looking at him, searching his face for the old Andrew, as he had when he faced the mirror each day. Unable to find him, they’d look away disappointed, quickly excusing themselves. He wished he could do that, excuse himself from the sadness, but back then, he was sure it would go away on its own. Eventually, fade like a paper cut. Evaporate like a puddle. Go away!

Each day after that first one, however, his apathy grew. It enveloped the handsome, smart young person that had been Andrew Hagen. As a result, he began trying everything to ease himself of the pain, even for just a moment.

One night he had a homeless man buy him a bottle of vodka. He finished over half in an hour. He got drunk yes, but his melancholy did not subside. Instead he had double vision, couldn’t walk without stumbling, and finally broke down. Andrew cried and cried and cried like his father had died all over again. But he used all his tears up. There would be no other release.

Another night he had a friend come over with some marijuana. Usually the drug made him feel philosophical made him think he had the answers about God and death and reincarnation. This time, he got paranoid. The proprietor of the weed, one of his best friends, became a spy, one who could see through his gray skin into the tombs of his empty mind. Andrew pretended to fall asleep. It worked. The friend left 10 minutes later, leaving behind the remainder of the joint, an unraveling roach that unnerved Andrew so much he flushed it down the toilet.

He then tried exercising, running 6 miles two days in a row. These long runs only gave him more undistracted time to think about how fucked up he had become.

Andrew began going to bed very late only to awaken before the sun came up. Soon, sleep couldn’t be found, so he stayed up all night. He then stopped eating meat, then started again, then stopped eating at all. Nothing changed.

Andrew’s tryst with the telephone cord was his first movement from this spot on the hardwood in hours. He returned to it quickly though, not wanting the warmth he’d left behind to absorb into the cold wooden sea that spread around him, 400 square feet of unbearable scratches and scrapes left by some other more vibrant life.

Andrew returns to thoughts of ending it all. He is done. He is done chasing his own non-existent tale for answers to a problem he can’t solve. His family loves him, he knows, but will be better off without him. He is no good to anyone now. He tries considering what he has to live for: Graduation from college, marriage, and the birth of a child to a woman he loves, buying a home, watching his mother wrinkle like silk. He won’t experience any of it and this is the only thing that excites him. He looks forward to nothing. He’s lost that ability, to look forward. He’s lost the outlines in his mind; the plans for his future are nothing more than the paint by number poster he never finished, now rolled up in his mother’s basement. He’s lost the comfort of memories; they’re like vividly colored childhood books that are blank years later. Washable crayons don’t make memories. Permanence cannot be expected of something that’s meant to be wiped away.

Andrew is ready to go. He is ready to purge himself of the toxicity of the living. And he won’t die entirely alone. The ants on the sidewalk below will flatten into the concrete as his body smacks upon them, his warm blood will splash away the particles of their bodies, pushing them back toward the dirt where they belong. They’ll die with him; he won’t be alone.

Andrew stands from the sweat stain on the floor. He ponders leaving a suicide note, but decides against it. If he can make his fall look like an accident, his family will not have to wonder what they could have done differently. They will not have the burden of questioning themselves again and again as to whether or not it was their fault. He even leaves a cheerful message on his brother’s machine, hoping to help him forget their uncomfortable conversation from earlier. He’s amazed at how easy it is to sound happy, now that he knows the end is near. What he doesn’t realize is, however, is that it’s very difficult to make an adult man falling from a high rise look like an accident. It’s either murder or suicide.

He walks gingerly to the balcony and flings the flapping curtain to the side. The sun wraps him up, capturing all but the soles of his feet. He does not shield his eyes, but forces himself to look directly into its glare until black spots cloud his vision. The sun is no longer his foe, but an ethereal being, an angel, calling him home, beckoning him to fly. Andrew places his hands on the balcony railing. He looks out at the surrounding high rises. Both buildings, to the left and to the right, seem angled in towards him, as though the one in which he lived was the center of some serious conversation between the edifices. He scours them for signs of life. Andrew wants no one to see him fall.

On his right the structure stares at him solemnly, the mirrored windows reveal nothing. To his left, he scans a wider, higher building with larger balconies. He sees a child, perhaps two or three playing with a beach ball, on a terrace about two stories lower than he on the 20th floor. He looks down and across at the child, whose wispy curls reflect the sun almost as brightly as the other building’s mirrored windows do. A current of air carries the child’s carefree laughter into Andrew’s earshot. He watches as the ball bounces out of the child’s hands into the arms of the wind, flying free, away from the kid forever.

Andrew can feel the child’s distress. He watches the kid grasp the iron railings and stick his head out forlornly. Then, the almost baby, who Andrew has decided is a boy, begins climbing through the open spaces, unaware that there is nothing but a free fall on the other side. Andrew begins to scream, his heart is beating fast, no longer for himself. He screams, hoping to scare the boy back on to the porch, hoping to get the attention of someone inside.

Suddenly, an adult, a tall slender woman with the same white hair, emerges from the house. Immediately she rushes towards the boy, screaming his name: “Jonas,” she shrieks, “Jonas! DON’T MOVE.” Simultaneously the boy loses his grip on the railing. His mother wails; the realization of her son’s fall hitting her before his body actually smacks the concrete below.

Helplessly, Andrew watches him drop, watches his bones, skin, hair, collide with the ground, watches his sticky blood spread around him, an angel’s halo, trickling quickly into the blue swimming pool. Fingers of blood fan out in the water as the mother screams and screams.

Andrew vomits. Bile meets the air and blows back into his pale face, clinging parasitically to his short, unwashed brown hair. He is doused in the acidic stink of his insides. Jonas’s mother stands on the neighboring balcony sobbing, her cries entangling with the sounds of morning traffic. She does not see Andrew who feels stuck standing their like a shameless gawker.

Wiping the vomit from his face with his arm, he finally darts inside to the unplugged phone. He slams the cord back into the jack, bringing this old enemy back to the grid.

“A little boy in Barrington Rise has fallen from the 18th floor to the pool area,” he says to the 911 operator on the other end.

As he sinks back down into his spot on the floorboards, the phone still in his hand, a violent gust of wind bursts into his apartment bringing with it the boy’s red ball.

Originally written in 2002. Recipient of the 2002 Stan Cowley Writing Prize for Fiction, 2nd Place.

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