“The Nineteenth Floor” by Alexander Perry

“Mr. Smith,” the doctor said over the car’s speakers. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

Joe listened to the hum of the tires over the road.

“Are you there, Mr. Smith?”

“Yeah. Here,” Joe said. His voice filled the cabin. “What’s it now?”

He squinted and focused on the headlights’ path. Why must he always invite doctors to deliver him news? Use your words, he wanted to scream. I can take it.

“Well, sir,” the doctor said, “I’m afraid she’s escaped.”

 Joe’s stomach knotted. The back of his tongue salivated; nausea not far behind.

“How is this possible? She’s on the nineteenth floor of the hospital.”

The doctor agreed the chances were slim. The inpatient rehab center resided high in the hospital’s North Tower partly to discourage any attempts to escape by would-be fugitives from sobriety. Most often the deterrent succeeded.

“Guards are double-checking the premises, Mr. Smith. She’s probably lost, cowering in some stairwell. Heaven knows there’s plenty in the building.”

“I haven’t ever seen her cower.”

The doctor cleared his throat. “Well, yes, about that. I know there was an incident that preceded her intake,” the doctor said, and hesitated. “We just wanted to keep you alert to the development.”

Incident. The euphemism hung in the air full of pretension. An innocent word substituted for doctors and therapists to cite incidents without blushing at their inherent shame and desperation. Jane’s was not the worst he’d heard, but the professionals employed the same word across the board, expressing a wide range of fiendish behaviors committed by the patients prior to their residence on the nineteenth-floor. Joe’s shoulder tensed. He ran his fingers over the scars climbing his right-side rib cage like the rungs of a ladder. Some of the stitches still hung together.

“Mr. Smith?”

Joe shook his head, stopped daydreaming behind the wheel.

“Yeah. Thanks for the heads-up, doc.”

“Please call us if you find her. We can send an ambulance immediately.”

“Certainly wouldn’t want another incident,” Joe said.

“We certainly don’t. Do be careful.”

“Gotta worry about being found first. But I’ll call you if I find her. Fix your mistake.”

The doctor apologized again, and told Joe to be cautious. Then wished him luck.

Joe pressed the red button before the phrase transmitted across the line. The hum of the tires continued beneath him; its persistence filled the car. Joe swore under his breath.

Her eyes stuck out most in his memory. The primal, desperate need exposed within her when she lunged at him; her eyes red-hot, a malicious sneer upon her face, set with ironclad and singular purpose. She had wanted more. He told her she’d had enough. So she stabbed him seven times with a butter knife. He’d slammed her against the closet door to defend himself; had almost been charged in the back of the ambulance, but she recanted her story when he caught her eyes. Jane would never snitch, let the authorities run roughshod over their tidy set up. Without a doubt, though, she’d come back for him or for more.

Joe turned on the radio, but flicked it off after trying several stations, annoyed by the talking, commercials, and lack of music he sought. He looked at the road signs, surprised his exit approached. He must have been speeding.

Their street offered little light, illuminated by lamp posts at either end and a lone street lamp halfway down the road. Living rooms and kitchens, upstairs bathrooms and basement rec-areas spilled light onto the lawns, projected in rectangles of various sizes. The brick posts standing sentry at the beginning of his drive highlighted the entrance. The front porch light greeted him, and he could see the back hallway lit as he had left it. The rest of the house was dark.

The lock clicked back as he expected, but the door echoed strangely as he opened it and stepped inside. Joe sniffed. He peered into the dark front hallway, and into the living room. The silhouettes of furniture framed against the windows resembled cheap reliefs of mountain landscapes sold in wooden shanties back home.

He heard something. A creak upstairs. No. He hadn’t heard anything. Something concerned him though. Without explanation, self-preservation heightened inside him. A lump rose in his throat. He didn’t breathe. The hair on his neck stood up.

Joe shivered. He’d always been so imaginative. He hadn’t moved though, and his eyes, adapted to the dark, told him nothing. Before he second-guessed himself, or stood rooted to the floor all night, he reached behind him and flicked on the light.

A rapid bit of laughter burst from his lips. He smiled at his nerves. Perhaps she hadn’t made it this far. Perhaps he’d beaten her here, or she’d forgotten about his personal stash behind the liquor cabinet. Perhaps she wasn’t even planning to stop by.

The thought disintegrated as he crushed glass under his boot stepping into the kitchen. The light switched on; chaos and ruin surrounded him. Picture frames lay broken, scattered across the table, counter tops, and into the next room. Liquor bottles half empty, caps missing, lined the sink or remained shattered in a heap against the corner. The bar cart looked pristine, though slanted out of alignment with the wall.

Joe rushed to the cart, sliding on his knees across shards of glass to investigate under the bottom rack. His hands searched frantically underneath the low standing bottles. He put his head to the floor, scanned the bottom surface as his hands pulsed, fists against the floor. There was nothing there, just a strip of electrical tape once used to keep the stash secure. Now it was gone: the coke, the gear. Joe swore under his breath.

“It’s not so nice when someone keeps something from you, is it?”

Joe’s stomach turned. He tried to remain cool, but she’d caught him off guard. Jane knew right where he’d look once in the kitchen. She’d been waiting for him.

Joe turned his head, still on his hands and knees. Jane stood erect a couple yards away, a butcher knife pointed at him. A thin rivulet of blood ran down one forearm from the crook of her elbow; her pupils dilated and eyes red-hot, feral, crazed.

“Missed once, did you?”

Jane poked the knife in his direction. “Shut up. Don’t move. I’ve got a bone to pick with you. About withholding,” she said.

“Honey, look I wouldn’t ever withhold. You’d had too much, baby. It had to stop or you would’ve killed yourself.”

“You don’t know that,” she yelled, and took a step closer, stabbing the air. “It’s not like I was going in for a big one. Just needed a little more coke to ease me down. But you,” she said, holding the knife steady.

“It was enough. You’d been at it for three days, baby,” Joe said.

He never understood why some—the real addicts—could never abandon the feedback loop: get high as shit, euphoric beyond belief, start coming down, finagle ways to come back up or prevent going down, fight the urge to do more already, do more already, get high as shit, start coming down. Joe loved his three shots of cocaine thrice weekly as much as any addict, but stopped it there. Sometimes he made them stronger, sometimes he took Xanax and drank himself down. He always balanced on the wire.

“Don’t tell me what’s enough,” Jane said. “We get this house, have our side business—everything’s great. You’re the one who introduced me. The one who wanted me to lighten up, relax, party a bit. Now you also get to tell me when to stop. Should I call you Daddy?” she asked.

“What do you want, Jane?” Joe replied. He shifted his feet, pulled his knees under him, and sat up. Blood dribbled off his knuckles. Joe pecked glass out of them and waited for an answer.

Jane’s eyes welled up; she gasped.

“I just want more,” she said softly. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

 “Baby, I’ll give you more. I can get more, but you gotta put the knife down.”

She stopped crying, and her face pickled. Jane pirouetted and stomped her foot. The blade shook in her hand.

“Give you the one thing that keeps you honest to me? Great idea,” she said. “Tell you what. Gimme an eight-ball and I’ll drop the knife.”

“I’m not inclined to acquiesce to such…”

“Did I fuckin’ stutter?” Jane asked, and stepped to him.

She placed the blade against his cheek and ran it down his jawline, pressed it into his throat. “You tell me where the coke is, or I’ll slit your fuckin throat. How about that, Daddy?”

“Baby. We agreed it was me…”
“Deal’s off, baby,” Jane said.

Joe flattened his palms to keep his balance. Thin puddles of blood surrounded him, connected by little red drops like a Pollock done on the floor.

“Please, Daddy,” Jane whispered in his ear. “I just want a little bit more.”
He loved it when she blew into his ear, and brushed it with the tip of her tongue before kissing it as she did now. The urge to be with her grew, but the blade pushed against his windpipe tempered his reaction. He closed his eyes.

“Upstairs,” he said. “Upstairs. It’s upstairs in your bedside table.”

“You sneaky fuck,” she said. “Don’t move,” and with that flipped the knife in her hand and slammed it through the back of his hand into the floor. The hilt pressed against the bone; the pain locked him onto the floor.

Joe screamed. Blood oozed from beneath his palm.

Jane scampered off toward the staircase. Her steps didn’t tarry, and he listened as she crossed the upper level into the bedroom. There wasn’t much time.

It hurt too much to extract the knife. He was nailed to the floor.

Rummaging upstairs.

Jane screamed.

She’d found out he’d lied.

Jane turned from the staircase: malicious, frustrated, hollow. His Bowie knife pointed at him. He’d forgotten it was in her bedside drawer, also. Her left hand clenched something.

“You call this a ball?” she asked. She spread her palm open. “This isn’t hardly nothing,” Jane said. She put the bag on the counter, then a demitasse spoon and a syringe. “I’m gonna pop this and stab you,” Jane said, removing her belt with one hand.

Three hard knocks on the front door resounded through the kitchen. The police announced themselves. Joe yelled, ashamed to be inviting the cops inside. Jane slashed him in the face as the door burst open. The bullet hit her in the leg, and she dropped immediately.

Jane writhed, but reached for the small baggie on the floor. A black boot stepped on her wrist. She began to cry.

Bandaged, Joe waited for the ambulance to take him to the hospital. An officer peeked in the back. After confirming Joe would survive, the officer turned to him.

“Your wife’s going to the detox cell. Then we’ll take her back to the hospital.”

“The North Tower,” Joe said.

“She may have earned a transfer to the South Tower’s nineteentha more purely psychiatric unit, if you will. But not to worry Mr. Smith. Her bed in the North Tower should be open.”

Joe stared at him. “I don’t understand,” he said.

“Mr. Smith, we received a call about a potential domestic disturbance. During our routine check of the premises, we found what appears to be cocaine, a controlled substance, and syringes through an open door in the passenger seat of your car. You’re under arrest. After your hospitalization, you’ll be booked and stand before a judge.”

“You can’t be serious, officer. That was obviously planted…”
“Save it for the court,” the officer said, and turned away.

 Joe shook his head.

He could wait. There hadn’t been an incident in twelve years. Even a month up there would be nothing. Maybe he’d find another plug. All the time waiting. Waiting for the next shot until again graduating the program awaiting him on the nineteenth floor.

Originally from Alabama, Alexander earned a Master’s degree in Philosophy from Colorado State University in 2010. He wrote his thesis in the philosophy of language, with emphasis on the subject of meaning. Though he had two poems published in the Deronda Review in 2006, he committed himself to studying philosophy in academia. This is his first fiction publication.