Fiction: Black Velvet

By Alex McMillin

Xander laid on the doubled foam pad that served as his bed and watched as the morning’s relentless light filled his bare room. Sleep had eluded him entirely, as it had all too often in the past month. The little digital clock beside the pad read 8:03; its alarm would sound in 27 minutes.
He stared at the hideous popcorn ceiling and cursed the anti-depressants that had exacerbated his longstanding insomnia. The night had passed at an agonizing crawl—Xander had been kept awake by a maelstrom of anxiety about the insomnia itself.
What a nice bit of irony, he thought. If there is a God, he’s playing some sort of cruel joke on me.
He checked the clock again. It was now 8:04.
What the fuck am I supposed to do? I’ve already missed too much work. I’m going to get fired for sure if I keep this up. 
He groaned and rubbed his face.
I’ve already missed five days of work this month. This is going to be the second day this week! Phil was already mad when I called in sick on Monday! FUCK! What am I going to do if I lose this job? It’s literally the only job I could possibly enjoy! FUCK, FUCK, FUCK! I’d literally rather kill myself than go back to working some meaningless copywriting job! Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m fucking this up! I finally get a chance to tutor at the college and I’m throwing it away within a month! NOOOOOO!
Xander found himself stumbling out of his bedroom and into the adjoining bathroom. The bathroom door’s rusty hinges shrieked as he slammed it shut. He saw himself in the filthy mirror and stopped cold. His face was deathly pale, his eyes shot through with tangles of bloody thread. 
His knees buckled and only a desperate grab at the sink’s rim kept him from crashing to the piss-stained tile. He hauled himself up as best he could and leaned against the counter, trying in vain to catch his breath.
Whatever you do, don’t look in the mirror.
Xander closed his eyes and concentrated on the breathing technique his therapist had taught him.
Inhale slow and deep, feeling my stomach expand. Pause for a moment and let the breath out slowly.
He managed to stop hyperventilating, though his breath still felt dangerously shallow. Points of cold sweat broke out on his forehead and across both cheeks. 
He looked in the mirror.
Oh, God. Oh, this is bad. There’s no way I can go to work like this! I’m going to get fired for sure! Oh my God, what am I going to do?
Agonizing convulsions seized Xander’s body and doubled him over the sink. He heard drops splattering on the porcelain basin and momentarily believed he was bleeding. Only when the convulsions passed and he could stand did Xander realize he’d been sobbing.
He leaned against the counter and watched glistening tears track down each cheek.
I’m in big trouble.
Another tearful convulsion wracked Xander’s body, somehow leaving him with his forehead pressed against the mirror. A pitiful whimper escaped his lips.
Please let it end.
He gathered what little strength he had left and pushed himself upright. For a moment, he believed the fit had passed. 
A final convulsion tore into his body just as he began to wipe his cheeks dry. He retched and pitched sideways into the door, somehow managing to grab the knob and avert a bruising fall. 
Xander leaned against the flimsy wood and prayed that his brother, sleeping deeply in the next room, might wake at the crash which still reverberated through the rickety old house. Freddy, though, was dead to the world when asleep and couldn’t be woken short of a slap in the face.
This has to end. I can’t take this. I’ll do anything to end this.
It was then that thoughts of suicide pierced the pain and fog in Xander’s mind. He had a crystal-clear image of his own pale corpse hanging from his room’s ceiling fan by an orange extension cord, the very cord that lay coiled in a dark corner of the house’s attached garage not ten second’s walk away.
Xander burst out of the bathroom and stumbled not toward the garage, but into his bedroom. He grabbed his phone from its place beside the pad and called his mother, collapsing into the foam as he listened to the ringer sound once, twice, three times before she finally picked up.
“Hi, honey. This actually isn’t a great time. Can I call you back?”
“Uh, Mom…”
“What’s wrong, honey?”
“Umm… well… I’m not exactly feeling too well.”
“Do you mean… depression... or is it something physical?”
“No, depression. And it’s worse because I didn’t sleep at all last night.”
“Oh. So are you calling just to talk or… is this an emergency?”
Xander felt his life hanging on this line, 100 miles of cellular connection dangling him above eternity. Something deep in his subconscious shifted and he sighed in resignation.
“It’s an emergency,” he said quietly.
“Like you might… do something to yourself?”
“Yeah,” he whispered.
“Okay,” his mother said calmly. “Where are you right now?”
“Freddy’s there?”
“Yeah, but he’s asleep.”
“Okay. I don’t think you should be alone right now.”
“Let’s think… where could you go?”
“Maybe the counseling office on campus? They’re open early.”
“Yeah, I think that’s a good idea.”
“Okay,” Xander said. “I guess I’ll get going now.”
“Text me when you get to campus,” his mother said.
“Okay. Bye.”
“Bye, honey. It’s going to be okay.”
“Okay,” Xander said, and hung up.
He got dressed as quickly as possible, lest he reconsider his choice to live. Ninety seconds later, he was stumbling down the driveway to his little hatchback.  He was fairly sure that he could make the two-mile trip to the campus without crashing.
Xander white-knuckled his way to the college as slowly as he dared. 
A few minutes later, he found himself parking in the staff lot. He sent his mother a text that simply read at campus.While he had his messaging app open, he texted Phil to say he was missing work again and muted the conversation immediately.  He had a pretty good idea of how Phil would respond, and that was the last thing he needed to see right now. 
Finally, he climbed out of his car and started across campus to the counseling office. It was a long walk, especially in Xander's current state, but at least his destination was nowhere near the writing center where he worked. The sight of a familiar face would only intensify the crushing shame he already felt.
Xander kept his eyes down and walked as quickly as he dared. Breaking into a run would only draw attention, especially when he inevitably stumbled and crashed face-first into the cobblestone sidewalk. He was not a praying man, but now he prayed that none of the students he had tutored would see him in this state.
The walk to the counseling office, which Xander knew to take no more than five minutes, seemed interminable. He was on the verge of passing out when the health services building finally appeared in front of him. The help he needed awaited him on the top floor—all he had to do now was ask.
Now he found himself shaking uncontrollably in the ascending elevator. To get the help he needed, Xander would have to tell the receptionist—who happened to be an attractive young woman—that he was on the verge of killing himself. The mere thought of this nightmarish prospect terrified him, yet—as the elevator doors slid open in front of him—it was seconds away from becoming reality.
He shuffled out of the elevator and into the counseling office opposite. His blood ran cold at the site of the pretty receptionist, who was engaged in conversation with an employee he didn't recognize. Xander simply stood in front of her desk and waited for her to notice him. He reflexively looked down when she finally turned to him.
"Can I help you?”
"Um…” Xander took a deep breath. "I really need to see someone right away. I'm feeling like I might hurt myself.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
"I'm a patient here, but I don't have an appointment right now. It's an emergency.”
"Okay,” she said. "Please have a seat at that computer and complete the questionnaire. We’ll see what we can do.”
“Thanks,” Xander said automatically, though he didn't feel particularly thankful. He sat at a computer just off the waiting area and began completing the standardized questionnaire. It included several nearly identical questions about his current intent (or lack thereof) to hurt himself. He submitted his answers and waited for something to happen.
Almost immediately, he heard a soft beep come from the receptionist’s computer. She checked her screen and her eyes went wide in alarm.
"Okay, Xander, I'm just going to go get someone and we'll be with you in a minute.”
He nodded. Time for them to come take me away.
A moment passed and the receptionist returned—alone.
"If you'd like to wait in our relaxation room, someone will be with you shortly.” She gestured at a nearby office.
“Okay.” Xander stood and walked mechanically to the room she had indicated.
"Please make yourself comfortable in the massage chair. You can turn on the aromatherapy machine if you like. Please keep the door open, just so...”
“Okay,” Xander said. He entered the room and sat in the huge, thickly padded chair, not bothering to turn on its massage function. 
The floor between his feet suddenly became incredibly interesting, interesting enough that it held his attention until someone finally knocked on the door some time later. He looked up to see a beautiful blonde woman gazing at him with deep concern in her ocean-blue eyes.
As if this wasn't humiliating enough. Just ridiculous.
“Xander? Hi, I'm Ashley. I heard you weren't feeling too well.”
"I'm going to see what I can do for you.  Can you come back to my office?”
"Okay,” Xander said. He followed her out of the room and down the hallway to her office.
"You can sit here," Ashley said, indicating an easy chair against one wall. She rolled her desk chair over and stopped so close that Xander could smell her shampoo.
“So I'm just going to ask you a few questions, okay?"
She proceeded to run through the same questionnaire that Xander had just completed on the computer. He stared at his feet and gave monosyllabic answers whenever possible.
“Do you feel like you might hurt yourself if you leave here alone?” Ashley asked when she was finished with the clinical little quiz.
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Okay,” she said. “It sounds like you need a higher level of care than we can provide here.”
He nodded. Time for the padded room.
“So we have two options. We can either have you committed to St. John's Hospital, where they have a mental health care unit.”
Xander sighed.
“Or we can have a member of the university police department take you to our local mental health crisis center, where you can stay overnight. I think this might be the better option.”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“I'm just going to call the UPD and have them send an officer,” she said as she rolled back to her desk. She made the call and printed something out after she'd hung up.
“Now all I need is your signature on this form,” Ashley said as she rolled back over, “Just authorizing the university to transfer you to the mental health crisis center.”
Xander took the form and scribbled his signature, not bothering to even scan the legalese above the dotted line. Ashley took the form and filed it in the bottom drawer of her desk.
In with the rest of the crazy people. Where I belong.    
Ashley spent the next couple of minutes trying to comfort Xander, though he didn't really hear her. He was concentrating—insofar as he could concentrate—on holding back a hot flood of tears.
At least I still have a little pride. That's a good sign.
Finally, a knock sounded at the door and a cop no older than Xander stepped into the tiny office. 
“Transfer to the mental health center?” he said, turning to Ashley. 
She nodded. He stepped forward and offered his hand to Xander. “Hi, I'm Officer Jackson.” 
Xander shook his hand weakly. “Xander Tabb.”
“So I just want to let you know that you're not in any sort of trouble. It's our job to keep all of the members of the university community safe. I'm just here to help, okay?”
“Do you need to get any stuff before we go? I don't want to rush you, I just want to make sure you get the care you need as soon as possible.”
“I don't need to get any stuff,” Xander mumbled.
“Well… we can go whenever you're ready.”
“Umm… I guess I'm ready.” He slowly rose from the chair, using its arms to steady himself as he gained his feet. Jackson turned and strode out of the room with Xander trailing in his wake. Ashley squeezed his arm and smiled at him as he passed, a tiny unscripted act of kindness that again brought tears to Xander’s eyes.
He followed Jackson down the hallway into the waiting area, where one of his students sat as if waiting for him. The girl looked away after the first flash of recognition, though Xander had ample time to read the shock on her blanched face.
Great. She probably thinks I'm in some sort of trouble with the police.
Strangely, Xander felt no shame at all. Instead, he felt an all-consuming exhaustion that threatened to bring him to his knees with every step. He managed to make it into the elevator, where he leaned against one bulkhead while Jackson leaned against the other and tried to make small talk.
“I'm parked right around the corner,” Jackson said when they finally reached the ground floor. 
He hustled through a side door with Xander shuffling pathetically after him. A hulking UPD Explorer was parked just there on the single-lane service road that ran through campus.
“Sorry,” Jackson said as he turned back to Xander, “But I'm going to have to pat you down before you can enter the vehicle. UPD policy.”
“Please put your hands on the hood of the vehicle and bend over.”
Xander did as he was told, noticing as Jackson patted him down that they were in full view of dozens of kids meandering through a packed student parking lot not 50 yards away. He nodded. Seems about right. 
“Sorry about that,” Jackson said when he'd finished, “You can go ahead and get in the back now.” He even opened the door for Xander. “Watch your head.” 
Xander climbed in and half-collapsed onto the vinyl bench seat. Jackson slammed the door and started his journey around the hulking SUV.
“Alright back there?” he asked as he climbed behind the wheel.
Am I all right? Are you fucking kidding me?
“Good.” The Explorer’s massive engine roared into life. “It's only 15 minutes to the mental health center.”
The drive may well have taken no more than 15 minutes, but it seemed much longer. It was all Xander could do to keep himself upright for the duration. Jackson was on the radio for much of the trip, so Xander was at least spared the burden of small talk.
The mental health center was hardly the prison-like compound Xander had imagined. It looked more like the rundown office of a struggling dentist. 
He took a moment to orientate himself after getting out of the SUV—he hadn't really been able to pay attention to their route. Eventually, he realized that they were in a shitty part of downtown near the courthouse.
“Ready?” Jackson asked after locking up the Explorer.
“Ummm… yeah,” Xander mumbled.
He followed Jackson to the doors of the facility, which were made of thick bulletproof glass and could only be opened from the inside. A burst of static came from a wall-mounted intercom.
“Can I help you?”
“Yeah, I have a transfer from the University Counseling Office,” Jackson said. “I believe they should have called ahead.”
The door buzzed and Jackson yanked it open before the lock could re-engage. Xander shuffled into a tiny waiting room with a few chairs in a messy row and a glass-enclosed reception desk looming just beyond. He stopped and turned in the hope that Jackson could deal with the receptionist, who’d sounded more than a little irritable. Jackson crossed the room in three paces and put his elbows up on the counter. Xander took a seat and put his head in his hands.
“Name?” said the irritable voice.
“Xander, with an X, and Tabb with two B’s.” 
“Yes, ma’am.”
“For an overnight?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Let me see if we have a bed.”
Xander sat up and stared at his reflection in the glass.
If they don’t have a bed, it’s over.
He listened to the receptionist type a few words and click on something.
“Looks like one just opened up.”
He sighed and rubbed his face.
“Glad to hear it,” Jackson said.
“I need him to sign this,” the receptionist said, “And I need his insurance card.”
Xander struggled to his feet and slowly approached the counter. He finally got a good look at the fat, middle-aged receptionist as she shoved a pen and a stack of papers through a slot in the bulletproof glass.
“I need you to sign and return the top one with your insurance card. The rest of it is for you.”
Xander searched through his wallet before finally finding the insurance card behind his least-favorite credit card. He slid the card through the glass and signed the form as the receptionist glared at him, apparently angry that someone was making her do her job. He pushed the pen and the document through the slot just as she started to enter his insurance info.
His vision suddenly went blurry and he leaned heavily on the counter lest he collapse backwards and crack open his head. After a moment, his eyes cleared and he took a deep breath.
Almost there. I just need to hang on for a little longer and I’ll make it through this.
“Alright,” the receptionist said as she returned his card. “Someone will take you back in a minute.”
He shuffled back to his chair and was surprised to find Jackson taking a seat beside him.
“I’ll stay with you until they take you back,” he said.
They passed the next few minutes in silence, though Xander was glad for the company. He tried to read the literature that the receptionist had given him, but the words swarmed and danced on the page til he grew dizzy and gave up.
“Mr. Tabb?”
He looked up from the filthy linoleum to the kindly brown eyes of an average-looking white guy in his mid-30s.
“I’ll take you back now.”
He stood a little too quickly and nearly lost his balance. Jackson put up a hand to steady him—or maybe just to protect himself.
“Thanks for giving me a ride,” Xander said.
“You got it,” Jackson said, and left.
Xander took a deep breath and shuffled toward the next person who would hold his life in their hands.
“I’m Mike.”
“Xander. That’s an interesting name.”
He followed Mike down a long, dark hallway. They cut through what looked like a commercial kitchen and ended up in a brightly lit little cubicle. He was thoroughly disoriented but well past caring. Mike sat at an ancient desktop computer and Xander took a folding chair set up within arm’s length.
“I just have a few questions to ask you.”
He answered the same standardized questionnaire that he’d answered twice at the university counseling office. As it turned out, he was still intent on hurting himself.
When they were finished, Mike handed Xander a lidless plastic box.
“Please put your things, including your belt and shoes, in the box. You’ll get them back when you leave.”
“My phone, too?”
Mike nodded.
“Can I just text my mom real quick first?”
“Yeah. That’s fine.”
Hey Mom the university transferred me to the mental health crisis center downtown. I'm just going to stay here for the night. I know I'll feel better after I get some sleep. They're taking my phone so I'll talk to you tomorrow morning. <3
“Thanks,” Xander said as he put his phone in the box with the rest of his belongings.
“You got it.  If you're ready, I can take you back.”
Xander nodded and Mike sprang to his feet. “Right this way.”
Just need sleep. I just need to get some sleep and I'll be alright.
Mike turned down a nearby hallway and disappeared just as Xander shuffled out of the cubicle. He sighed and quickened his pace as much as he could. 
The hallway led to a space seemingly designed for a dozen more cubicles. Instead, it held a large plastic table with a complement of empty folding chairs. A cheap recliner was situated in each of the room’s four corners, though only the one in the near corner was occupied. An obese, unkempt black man sat in that chair with his feet up, reading a children's picture book. As Xander passed, he noticed that the picture book was upside-down.
Mike led Xander to the far corner of the room. As they approached, Xander noticed a bare twin mattress on the other side of the recliner. A quick look around the room revealed that there were mattresses behind three of the recliners. In fact, someone was sleeping in the opposite corner, a young white guy who looked like he would otherwise be sleeping under a bridge.
Loony bin lite.
“I'll try and find some clean sheets for you,” Mike said. “Breakfast is in about 15 minutes.”
Xander sank into the recliner and watched Mike disappear through a side door. He found himself staring at the young man opposite.
Give it a year or two and that’ll be me. Though I guess I would probably just kill myself if it got to that point.
The young man stirred and Xander quickly looked away. Mike reappeared with an armful of linens and made the shitty little bed.
“I’ll see if I can find a pillow later. I’ve gotta get the food now.”
“Okay. Thanks.”
“You got it, buddy.”
Xander collapsed onto the bed, which was made of a strange rubbery foam. He kicked off his shoes and curled up into a fetal position.
He was just dozing off when he was brought back by the sound of someone tearing open a bag of chips. 
Xander swallowed a curse and hauled himself to his feet. He wasn’t particularly hungry, but he’d skipped last night’s dinner and it seemed that he should eat something.
The other guys were already seated at the table with mouths full of food. Xander wondered when they’d last eaten.
Breakfast consisted of a cold ham panini, a bag of Lays, and a little cup of unidentifiable fruit chunks. 
Last night’s leftovers? Whatever. Could be worse.
“You alright, Xander?’’ Mike asked.
He stood by and watched as Xander choked down the panini in about four bites. It didn’t seem to taste like much of anything. Nor did the chips, nor did the fruit chunks. When he was finished eating, Xander headed back to bed.
He spent the rest of the morning chasing after sleep as it receded before him, always just out of reach. Why did that blissful darkness always elude him when he needed it most?
Eventually, Xander gave up on sleep and listened to the black man—James— tell his story to a young woman who sounded like a social worker. She was helping him fill out an application for some sort of housing program. He told her that he’d never known his father, that his mother had been a crack-addicted prostitute, that she’d abandoned him and left him homeless at 14. He’d been on the streets for 28 years, minus a couple of short stints in jail for stealing food. James had been diagnosed as bipolar but rarely had access to medication. 
Fuck me. Hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for James. At least I have a family.
Xander eventually managed to drift off to a peaceful place just south of dreamland. He skipped lunch and simply rested till dinnertime.
Dinner was a bowl of beef ravioli with a bit of bread on the side. James was gone, hopefully to his new home. The other guy, however, was at the table brandishing his plastic fork and looking wildly around the room. Xander put his head down and started shoveling ravioli into his face.
“What the fuck did you say?”
Xander was relieved to see that this outburst was directed at Mike.
“I didn't say anything, man.”
“Yes, you did! You just called me a motherfucker! I ain't a motherfucker!” 
“Earl, I need you to calm down, please. I didn't say anything.”
“I heard you! Now you're going to try to tell me I'm crazy! I ain't crazy!”
“No one is saying that you’re crazy, Earl.”
“Now you just called me a bitch! And don't say that you didn't!”
“What's all this shouting?”
Xander looked up to see the receptionist standing a few paces away with her hands on her hips. 
“Ma’am, he called me a bitch and a motherfucker.”
“St. Johns?” she said, looking at Mike. He nodded. She approached Earl and gently put her hand on his shoulder. “We're going to take you somewhere where they can help you better.”
“What's St. John's?” he asked, suddenly terrified. 
“It's the hospital. They’ll take real good care of you there.”
Xander, who was half-expecting a violent outburst, was shocked to see Earl break into tears. 
He finished eating his ravioli, which had grown cold.
Could always be worse.
Two men came and took Earl a few minutes later. He went with a minimum of fuss, seemingly resigned to his fate. Xander watched them go and shuffled back to his bed.
Sleep finally came and spirited him away from that wretched place. He fell through dreamland in a cocoon of black velvet and emerged, thirteen hours later, with a newfound measure of peace.
“Sleeping the sleep of the dead,” Mike said when Xander rose.
“Something like that, yeah. Anything for breakfast?”
“Some granola bars on the table.”
“Cool, thanks.”
Xander ate all six granola bars without an ounce of self-reproach. He was, after all, the last man left. 
When he was finished eating, Mike escorted him to the resident nurse practitioner, telling him on the way that she dropped by once or twice a week to see if the patients in the mental health crisis center needed medication. It seemed that he was luckier than James or Earl.
The haggard old NP took Xander through that same standardized questionnaire once more.
“So I see you’re no longer experiencing any suicidal intent or ideation,” she said. continuing to stare into her monitor.
“Thankfully, yes, that’s correct.”
“Okay, so I think what we’re going to do is up your dosage of escitalopram to 20 miligrams and start you on trazodone for insomnia. Now trazodone was originally an antidepressant, but it actually works better as a sleep aid. Which pharmacy do you use?”
Xander told her. She clicked her mouse a few times before signing a form and handing it to Mike.
“I’ve sent the script to your pharmacy. Someone will call you to set up a follow-up appointment in a month or so. Your scores have improved, so I’m authorizing your discharge. Any questions?” she asked, finally glancing at Xander.
“Uh... no. I don’t think so.”
“Okay, have a good day.”
Mike took Xander and led him down the hallway toward the front doors.
“Do you mind if I use the bathroom?”
“Ummm… now that you’ve been officially discharged, you aren’t really supposed to be on the premises. Liability reasons. Sorry.”
“Oh... what about my stuff?”
“It’s at the front desk.”
Xander had to sign about a dozen forms before the receptionist let him take his things. She stood over him all the while, snatching each form away as soon as he’d signed it. When he was finally finished with the paperwork, Mike took him through the front doors, wished him a good day, and left him standing on the sidewalk.
It took Xander a moment to get his bearings. His bladder was screaming for a piss, and the bare morning sun was absolutely crushing. 
After a while, he dialed his mother and started walking toward a nearby gas station.
Xander received an $875 bill in the mail a few weeks later. His insurance had refused the claim on the grounds that his night in the mental health crisis center had been an “elective visit.”

Alex McMillin is an American fiction writer from Florida. He hopes that this story will be included in a collection in the near future. Follow him on Twitter @McMillin_Writer.