Tiffini offered to drive me home but it was nice outside, so I decided to walk. The clinic was on Hall Street and I lived about a mile away on a little side street called Prospect. The neighborhood was terrible. While it wasn’t the worst neighborhood I’d ever lived in, it was pretty close. There were lots of drug dealers and a few hookers on nearby street corners.
Editor’s note: This is the second chapter of Charles Thomas‘ 2017 novel “Headcase.” Watershed Voice will publish a chapter each week until the story is complete. What you are about to read is not the original Headcase text but an updated version, with editing from WSV Executive Editor Alek Haak-Frost. You can read Chapter 1 here.
The hookers often stood by one of the abandoned warehouses that littered that part of town, and stared into the eyes of the men that passed by in their cars. Those women had the same kind of desperate, hollow eyes that I saw in my fellow mental patients.
It was unseasonably warm that day, for Michigan in the middle of March, that is. The sun was out and all the normal people seemed to be in a good mood. Everyone seemed to realize how lucky they were not to be freezing to death right then. It was usually so cold this time of year.
Because it was sunny and beautiful out, I decided to take my time heading home. All I had to look forward to was Johnny Chen anyway. Johnny and his dance music at all hours. Johnny and all his strange friends.
Johnny was a little younger than me, about 20-years-old, and fairly new to being in the public mental health system. He didn’t know how it worked yet. If he would have asked, I could have saved him from making some of the mistakes that I’d made, but he didn’t think he needed my help. Johnny knew it all already.
He was a recently diagnosed manic-depressive and he tended to get out of control sexually when he was manic. He would have sex with any man that was willing, anywhere. He’d only been manic once since we became roommates and, thank God, he was staying with a friend during most of that episode.
Johnny’s family had taken care of him for quite a while before giving up and throwing him to the public system. He’d told me he’d seen private psychiatrists and gone to private hospitals since he was a teen, and his parents had let him live at home until about three months ago. But eventually they’d gotten sick of hearing the moans of their son and strange men reverberating through their house, and threw him out.
Johnny ended up on Tiffini’s case load and after meeting with his family, Tiffini decided he needed to get out of the family home as soon as possible. She said it wasn’t healthy for Johnny to be living there anymore, but Johnny and I both knew that was crap. This happens to a lot of us with mental illness. Our families try to help but when it becomes clear that we aren’t “going through a phase,” and that this is a long-term situation, they bail on us.
That weird, warm winter sun is shining down on me as I near my apartment. I live at 555 Prospect, a few houses down from a boarded-up fish fry. If you squinted, my place looks like a stately brick Victorian house that, in its day, might have been a real palace. Unfortunately for me, it had slowly fallen to pieces by the time I moved in.
The house was two and a half stories tall, with a complex roofline with lots of peaks, and a big porch out front that was so decrepit no one dared step onto it. It had been converted from a single-family dwelling into apartments years ago when the area started to get rough. I knew some of the people who had apartments in the main building and they weren’t bad. My apartment, however, was an addition to the back of the main house.
In order to have more units, the owners decided to put on an addition about thirty years ago. They had some outfit build two more units as cheaply as possible and slapped them onto the back of the building. Instead of brick like the main house, the addition had white vinyl siding that after years of aging now looks like an old dingy t-shirt. If it was possible to make the addition look more out of place, I don’t know how they could have done it. It was an architectural marvel of ugliness.
My apartment is on the second floor and accessible only from a rickety outdoor set of wooden steps that crawl up the back of the house. If you happen to weigh over a hundred pounds and want to walk up them, the steps will sway under you like a wooden ocean. God must be watching over me because I’m still alive after ascending those steps hundreds of times.
The apartment itself is, well, a deathtrap. There is only one entrance and one window, a picture window that doesn’t open. No way to get out of it if there was a fire or if those damn wooden stairs happened to fall down. Johnny and I each have our own bedrooms but share a bathroom. The floors are all warped and I swear there isn’t a level point in the whole place.
But as they say, beggars can’t be choosers, and I am nothing at this point in my life if not a beggar.
When I walk in the apartment it is as stuffy and dusty as always. No matter how often I clean the place, a thick layer of dust mites fill the air. I’m afraid to go and look, but I’m certain there must be terrible things growing inside the air ducts.
The apartment is just as odd inside as the building looks from the outside. The front door opens directly into the kitchen, and smacks right into our small stove. Every time, without fail, when someone opens the door, you hear a tinny bang proceeded by the sound of the door closing. As soon as you close the door you are standing on the green vinyl of the kitchen, which probably looked great in the 1970s.
In addition to the stove, the kitchen has a mini-refrigerator, a sink, and a small white microwave that sits atop the fridge. That was about it. There are no cupboards or any kind of pantry. We keep most of our non-perishable food in our bedrooms.
The living room is covered in a brown Berber carpet that does a nice job hiding the sloping floors. We don’t have any real furniture, just a few white plastic chairs that should be on some suburban deck instead of in our living room. Johnny brought a 27-inch television along with him when he moved in, which replaced my old 19-inch. Johnny’s family is also paying for cable for us. Of course, that makes Johnny think he can watch whatever he wants, whenever he wants to.
The place is quiet. It is never this quiet. Johnny is always screaming into the phone or playing some terrible electronic music.
I sit down on one of the white plastic chairs to watch some TV, but before I can find the remote control, I hear a strange gurgling sound coming from Johnny’s bedroom. I’d never heard anything like it before. It was a sick, liquid noise.
“Johnny,” I call out. There is no answer.
I try to convince myself the noise was the furnace kicking on, but even I know that whatever that noise was, it came from a living thing. An animal or a person. Someone hurt.
“Johnny,” I try again.
I’m starting to get scared. My heart is beating like the relentless bass of Johnny’s techno music. Boom, boom, boom.
I think for a moment that he might be playing a trick on me, but I’ve never known him to be the joking type. As I sit on that plastic chair thinking about what to do next, I hear the noise again, this time louder.
I start to feel it. My vision is getting a little blurry, and the other white chair and TV suddenly go out of focus. Something runs across the wall, a shadow but white like smoke. Is someone else in the apartment?
I’ve had more than my fair share of hallucinations, and even then, I knew pretty well how they affected me. This fit the profile. When I hallucinated, most of the time I just heard things; but once in a while I saw things, usually just movements in my peripheral vision that weren’t there. Most of the time, I knew what was going on and ignored it. This time I wasn’t quite sure.
I decide to try and find a weapon just in case, go check out Johnny’s room. I glance around the living room, but don’t see anything that fits the bill. Tiffini frowned upon her clients owning anything that could hurt someone for fear that, well, someone would get hurt. That was probably a good policy for the Community Mental Health Agency, but it didn’t do me a hell of a lot of good at that moment.
I slip off the chair and step gently toward Johnny’s room. The floor creaked and I froze.
I think I heard something. My name spoken softly in a murmur.
jack, we see you.
I start to sweat and my heart beats faster in my chest. Not knowing why, I take my shirt off and wipe my brow. The shirt is already soaked with my sweat.
“Keep it together, Jack. Keep it together,” I tell myself out loud. I’m starting to panic and when I panic all hell breaks loose. I know I need to calm down. I stand in the middle of the living room and close my eyes. I pray the Lord’s Prayer because that helps me sometimes.
“Our Father,” I say in a whisper, “who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
I take a deep breath and ask for peace.
“Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”
evil jack. we’re evil.
“For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, now and forever. Amen.”
I sit down on the floor and my breathing starts to return to normal. I say the Lord’s Prayer out loud again, and then a third time. Slowly clarity returns. The voice and the gurgling sound were just hallucinations. I’m going to be okay. There is no one in the apartment but me. The shadow was a hallucination.
I sit there for another few minutes before returning to normal. The sweat is now cold on my skin. I put my shirt back on.
This is why I’m not in college. This is why my life has gone to hell. This is why Tiffini and Patel think I need to take those pills. I’d been able to bring myself back to reality, but how long had it taken? I glance at the clock and realize it’s been about 15 minutes.
How am I supposed to attend a lecture on microeconomics when the slightest creepy noise makes me lose touch with reality for 15 minutes? Maybe Tiffini has a point about taking my meds.
Although I know the noise that started all this had not been real, I still feel the need to go and peek into Johnny’s room, to be one hundred percent sure. I rise my feet and walk down the short hallway to Johnny’s door. It’s slightly ajar.
I knock but there’s no response, so I walk in.
Johnny is there lying in the middle of his bed. His throat slit, his neck lying open like a clumsily gutted fish.
Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected].