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I

Alex should’ve been rushing through the halls to get to Ellen’s room, but he found his feet felt weighed down with all of the anxiety he was feeling trying to see her. He felt like he was about to vomit, or like he was going to fall to the ground at any moment. But he kept walking forward until he got to the room the nurse had said she would be in. The door was open a bit, so he pushed it forward and peered inside. He saw her, lying on the hospital bed and facing the window. He felt frozen in time.

“Ellen?” He said quietly, unsure if she was awake or asleep. She turned to face him, and he felt his face fill with emotion. Her skin was pale, almost gray, and she had deep circles under her eyes. Her eyes seemed darker than normal, and her usually voluminous blonde hair was pressed to the back of her head.

“Alex,” she whispered, and when she did, her voice shook and she let out a cough. 

He ran over to the bedside and grabbed her hand. It was warm and trembling. “Ellen,” he said again, not knowing what to do, “are you okay?” She looked away from him. “I- Is that okay to ask?” He felt his stomach churn over and over again. He was trying so hard not to get sick or pass out.

She gripped his hand tightly. “Of course you can ask. I just don’t know if you want to hear the answer.”

He put his hand on her forehead and felt how warm she was. “Ellen, I’m terrified,” he said as he tried to hide his own shaking hands. “I got this call that you had - that something had happened, and -”

“Did Trish call you?”

“I - yes.”

“Did she tell you everything?”

Alex looked down at his shoes as he stood beside her. “Yes,” he said quietly. 

“Alex -”

“Why couldn’t you talk to me? That’s what I want to know right now. Well, no, I - I want to make sure you’re okay. But of course you’re not, that’s why you’re here, right? I’m sorry, I just -” He held his breath for a second. “I love you.”

“Wait -” Ellen looked more tired than ever.

“No, I love you, I need you to know that.”

“I do know that.” 

“I can’t live without you.”

“Alex, stop.” She pulled her hand away from his and he felt like he could fall to the ground in that second. “This isn’t fair to me,” she said sternly, “you can’t come in here after I just - after what just happened and say those things and expect me to suddenly be okay. You loving me isn’t going to fix me.”

“I’m.. not. I-”

“Alex, I think we need time apart.”

The air went out from his lungs and he collapsed into a chair underneath him. The room seemed like it was spinning and he couldn’t think straight. 

“Did you hear me?”

He clutched his stomach. He was almost positive that he was going to get sick. He tried to keep everything down. He was supposed to be the strong one here after all. He was always supposed to be the strong one.

“Ellen, I- I love you.”

“I know, and I love you too, which is why you have to listen to me.”

“You just - you’re in the hospital because you just tried to… You almost died.”

“I know.”

“One more pill and you could have not been here. One more minute and Trisha might have been too late.”

“Alex, if you love me, I need you to leave this hospital and not try to talk to me until I call you.”

“That - that doesn’t make sense.”

“It does, can you just listen?”

He closed his lips tightly. He wanted to cry or scream but he did nothing. He just sat in the cold metal chair and felt his entire body shake. 

“I’m not okay, Alex. I tried to keep it a secret from you because I thought you deserved someone who was okay. I didn’t want to tell you because I was scared. But this is something I’ve dealt with before - a few years ago. It runs in my family. It’s scary, and I know that, but in order to get better, I need to focus. I need to stay here for a bit, or maybe go somewhere else. I need to - I need to just focus on me. Of course I love you and I’ll miss you, but I can’t have you coming here every other day to check in on me. When I’m not doing well I’ll hate myself more for worrying you, and you’ll worry anyway regardless. I don’t need that. You don’t need that. We just - we both have to focus on ourselves for now.” She reached over to grab his hand, and when she did he tried to hide his tears.

“I just - I thought I lost you. Then I came here, and you were here, but now I feel like I just lost you again.”

She grabbed his hand tighter. “It’s not forever.”

“It feels like it.”

“It’s not. I still love you.”

The words made his heart ache. “Ellen,” he began, but his voice cracked and he found himself incapable of continuing. He turned his head downward and tried to hide his eyes which had been becoming red. “Oh God,” he choked out. 

 

II

“I guess this is it.”

“Yeah, I guess it is.” They held each other’s hands for as long as they could.

“Alex, you’re shaking.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re not. You’re shaking.”

“It’s - I’m fine.” He wasn’t fine. He was thinking of everything that could go wrong. He was thinking of the hole that had been forming in his stomach ever since he found out that Ellen was leaving for Paris. He was thinking of how nothing seemed to make sense. He was thinking of how he had hardly been able to eat since he found out, and sleep felt like something that happened in another life. He felt like once she left, his life would totally fall apart. “It’s okay.”

“Alex, listen to me.” She held one hand tightly and put her other hand on his cheek. He wanted to disappear into the sensation - to pause time so she wouldn’t leave. Her hand was so warm and he didn’t want to think of anything else. “I know you think you have to act strong all the time.” He tried to stop his body from shaking, but he couldn’t change anything. “But listen - the more you try to keep everything inside, the more you try to pretend you’re okay when you’re not, the worse things are going to get when your mind has finally had enough.” 

He felt like electricity was coursing through his body, and he almost felt like he was going to faint. “I’ll be fine,” he whispered. He knew she wouldn’t believe him, but he had to say it anyway.

“Alex, this is what I’m talking about. You’re shaking - you’re almost sweating. You’ve hardly eaten anything this past week. I know you’re not okay, but you keep saying you are.”

He knew he should tell her the truth, but all he managed to do was say again, “I’m fine.”

She sighed. “Your family loves you, Alex. They support you. If you find yourself needing to talk - about anything - please talk to them, okay?” 

He said nothing in response. The whistle of the train that was going to take her to the airport blew. He felt his heart rate spike and he felt her squeeze his hands tighter. “Oh God…” he whispered. 

She put a hand on his cheek and kissed him softly. He tried desperately to block his tears from showing. “Goodbye, Alex.” She let go of his hand and stepped onto the train. 

He could feel his insides turning over and over again and he began to have a bad taste in his mouth. The train whistle blew again and as it pulled away, he felt himself begin to hyperventilate and saw people staring at him. He ran through the small crowd and back into the terminal to try to find a bathroom. When he did, he ran inside, closed and locked a stall door and let himself vomit. Now that she wasn’t there he didn’t have to hold it in anymore, but he was scared he couldn’t make it stop. He got sick again despite hardly having eaten anything the past few days. After a few moments he let himself fall against the wall, slamming his head hard against it. He was angry at himself for letting this happen. He continued to cry until he felt he could stand again.

 

III

Alex heard a knock on his door, and he knew it was Mallory. He knew he had no reason to be angry at her, but he couldn’t help it. “What do you want?” He yelled out. Her voice was low on the other side of the door and he threw his head into his hands. “I can’t hear you. Just - just come in.” The door opened and Mallory slid into the room. She looked shy and scared and it all made Alex feel terrible about yelling, but lately he found he was unable to control himself. His heart would race so quickly and he would feel the energy pumping through him as if he was about to explode. 

Mallory brought her hands up to her hair and began to twirl it nervously. “Alex,” she began, “I wanted to see how you were doing. You didn’t come down for dinner.”

He winced as he remembered about a half hour ago, yelling down that he would be there in a minute, that he just had to do something quickly. Only he hadn’t done anything - he had just been lying on his bed, listening to static coming through the radio as he watched his chest rise and fall. 

“I.. wasn’t hungry.” He said.

Mallory let out a small sound that resembled a whimper and everything made Alex feel terrible. “Alex, you haven’t eaten since breakfast, and even then you only had half a piece of toast.” He looked down at his shaking hands and he wanted to scream. “You’ve hardly eaten anything all week and you spend all of your time in your room. No one sees you anymore and I’m worried.”

“I’m fine, Mallory,” he said with a tremble in his voice. His stomach began making sounds and he felt nauseous. How could he explain to anyone that the reason he hadn’t eaten anything was that every time he moved he felt like he was going to throw up? “I just - I have a cold. It’s fine.”

“Colds don’t usually do this to you, Alex.” He felt a tightness in his chest and wanted to die. “It’s like you’re not even living!”

“Mallory, I said everything is fine, please just leave me alone!” And that did it - when he let himself yell like that, it was as if his whole body went into shock. His hands were shaking uncontrollably now and the nausea was more severe than ever. He felt like all of the oxygen was leaving his body all at once and he didn’t know how to breathe anymore. He felt scared and sad and strange and had no idea what was happening. “Oh God,” he whispered, “I think I’m dying.”

Mallory ran over to the bed and squatted in front of him. “Alex?” She grabbed onto his shoulders and tried to get him to look at her, but he was too far out of it. He was gasping for air and sweating and his limbs were vibrating. “I’m going to get mom and dad, okay?”

He wanted to scream no, please don’t. He wanted to say that he didn’t want to worry them even more than he probably already had been, but instead he just sat on the bed and continued to shake. When she walked away, all he could do was mutter out “please don’t go.” He saw visions of Greg’s face and he clutched the sides of his head with his hands and wanted nothing more than to just pull his hair out of his head.

Mallory ran out to the hallway as fast as she could. “Mom, Dad, please come here, something is happening to Alex!” She yelled as her voice began to crack. Within seconds, Elyse and Steven were upstairs, and Mallory leaned against the wall with her hand covering her mouth. 

Steven dropped right next to Alex on the bed as he continued to gasp for air through sobs. “Alex!” He clutched his arms. “Alex, talk to me.”

Alex wanted to. He wanted to be able to convey what he was feeling, but instead he just said, “I’m so scared, dad, oh my god, what is happening? Holy sh-” And his voice stopped as he began to choke on the air and cough. 

“Mallory,” Steven began, “go get a glass of water please.” She ran out of the room as quickly as she could. “Elyse, can you go into the top right drawer of my dresser and get -”

“I’m on it,” Elyse said quickly as she too ran out of the room.

Steven gripped Alex’s arms tighter. “Alex, you’re going to be okay,” he said. Alex felt the world slipping away more and more with every second.

Mallory and Elyse reentered the room at the same time. Elyse handed Steven a small white capsule and Steven gave it to Alex. “Swallow that,” he dictated. Upon seeing how wary Alex was of the pill, he repeated, “swallow it, now.” Mallory passed the water over to Alex and he put the pill in his mouth. “And drink the whole glass,” Steven said. Alex did as he was told. “Close your eyes, and count backwards from thirty in your head - slowly.”

As Alex closed his eyes and counted backwards, he could feel something happening within his body. He felt his mind shutting down and his arms began to shake less. His hyperventilating became less severe. He still felt a little nauseous, but not so badly that he felt as though he would vomit at the slightest movement. He felt as though he could hear his heartbeat audibly getting less manic, less loud. As he was approaching zero, Steven told him to keep repeating the countdown until he felt completely mellow, and he did. 

Several moments later, Alex opened his eyes. The world seemed fuzzy but he felt less terrified. “What -” He went to speak but found his mouth was dry. He cleared his throat. “What was that?” He asked, his voice still shaky but more from the shock of everything.

“What do you mean - the pill or what happened?”

Alex looked at his fingers and noticed that they felt tingly. “Um, I guess both.”

“Valium,” Steven stated calmly.

Alex nodded. It’s what he had expected. “So was that a-”

“A panic attack, I’m guessing.”

Alex was in shock again. He couldn’t believe that that had just happened to him. Wasn’t he supposed to be able to know his way around things? He felt sad and angry at himself. “I can’t believe it,” he mumbled. 

Elyse sat behind him on the bed and wrapped her arms around his stomach. She pressed her chin against Alex’s back. “It’s okay, sweetheart, you’re going through something. These things can happen to people. Sometimes there’s a reason - sometimes there’s not. But either way, it’s okay. There are things you can do.”

“Things?”

Elyse nodded. “Therapy, medication, other things - you are not without hope.”

Alex let himself fall into his mother and father’s arms a bit more as a feeling of calmness began to take him over.

 

IV

Skippy walked up the stairs to Alex’s room and when he did, he felt sick. The Keatons had let him in and they looked just as worried.

“He stumbled up there a few hours ago, and we haven’t seen him since,” Steven had said. “Maybe he’s asleep. But I don’t know - he hasn’t slept in what seems like weeks.”

Skippy reached Alex’s door and knocked. There wasn’t any noise on the other side. He looked back down the stairs and saw Alex’s parents looking up - quietly, worried. 

“Alex?” Skippy started. “Are you there?” He put his hand on the knob, tried to twist it but knew it was locked. He sighed deeply. “Alex, I’m coming in.” He braced his body, twisted the knob as much as he could, then slammed his side into the door. He stumbled forwards as the lock popped open and he was thrown into Alex’s room.

The first thing he noticed was how dark it was. He rubbed his hand along the wall and flipped on the switch. When he did, he saw Alex’s head poking out from under his blanket. Skippy thought the sound of him breaking into the room and the flash of bright light would have been enough to wake Alex up, but he just continued sleeping under the blanket. Skippy went over to the window, pulled back the curtains, and a flood of light came streaming in, highlighting the mess that was Alex’s room. He usually kept it so clean and tidy, so the clothes and dishes everywhere continued to make Skippy more concerned.

He inched closer to Alex’s bed, and saw a smile pile of trash under where his hand was dangling. He kneeled on the ground and an empty bottle caught his eye. After picking it up, he read the label: “ALEX P. KEATON, VALIUM 5MG, TAKE AS NEEDED FOR ANXIETY.” Skippy felt himself becoming overwhelmed with emotion. He knew Alex had been struggling a lot after Greg had passed, and as much as it hurt him to know that Alex was in pain, he was comforted by the fact that his parents had helped him get the help he needed.

“Alex, it’s Skippy,” he tried in an attempt to wake Alex up. He reached out to touch Alex’s arm and upon doing so found it warm and clammy. “Alex?” He tried to shake him but he didn’t wake. Skippy picked up the bottle again and saw that it had been filled and picked up yesterday. Yesterday - and now it was all gone. 

“Alex, please wake up,” Skippy began to shout. Alex’s face began to twitch but he didn’t fully wake up. 

“Leave me alone,” he mumbled.

“Alex, did you swallow this whole bottle?” He was shaking his friend who had tears forming on his cheeks. “You have to wake up.”

“Leave me alone,” Alex mumbled again, “you’re going to ruin everything.” As he spoke Skippy called down to the Keatons to call an ambulance. “No, leave me alone, I want this to happen. Please,” he was saying through choked sobs, “I can’t do this anymore. Please, no, I’m so scared.” His voice trailed away.

“Alex, no!” Skippy yelled as he heard Alex’s parents rushing up the stairs. “Not yet - please no.” He saw Alex blink his eyes a few times before closing them and passing out again.

 

V

“Do you know why you’re here, Alex?” The doctor said. Alex looked around while stewing within his own foggy mind. He felt dizzy and exhausted and just wanted to lie down. He felt like he was on the verge of screaming or crying or some insane combination of the two.

“No,” he stated firmly. It was a lie, but he let it slip out anyway. It was some sort of instinctual reaction. His head began to throb. He threw it into his hands and pulled himself into an upright crescent shape.

“Let me rephrase,” The doctor started calmly. “Do you think you can tell me why you’re here?” Alex curled himself tighter into a ball. He knew why he was there, but he wanted more than anything to forget - to forget everything. He was scared and ashamed and he just wanted to feel less sick at this point. 

The doctor moved his chair closer to Alex and leaned forward in his chair so that the two were only about half a foot apart. “Alex, can you hear me?” His voice was soft but serious, and Alex knew he should say something, but his mouth was dry.

“I…” he squeaked out, “I’m so scared,” he said as his face started turning red and his knuckles turned white from clenching his hair.

“That’s okay,” the doctor replied. “Alex, you’re here because you swallowed a bottle of pills. Your friend found you and brought you to the hospital.”

He knew it was true, but the answer still scared him. He let out a gasp and a small sob. “I didn’t mean to,” Alex said. “I mean, I did. But I... I don’t remember anymore.”

The doctor moved his chair back. “It’s okay that you don’t remember, and you don’t have to right now. But I do want you to be aware of what’s going on.” 

Alex moved his arms and wrapped them around his knees. “I… everything just happened so fast.”

“Do you regret it?” The doctor asked. 

Alex remained silent. He wasn’t sure. He tried to sink further into the chair and squeezed his eyes shut more in an attempt to block everything out. He moved his arms so they covered his head as he tucked it between his legs.

“What do you remember?”

The doctor’s voice was soft and Alex felt so guilty. “It’s all so blurry,” he began.

“That’s ok, just say whatever comes to your mind.”

“It was the afternoon. I… I saw Skippy for a few seconds. It felt like a dream.”

“That was right before your parents called an ambulance.”

“He was yelling at me. I couldn’t see anything. Everything was so foggy - it still is.”

“That’s normal.”

He could see the memory forming in his mind and he hated it - he hated himself for it. He could see Skippy's concerned face looking at him again and he winced away.

"I can't do this. I'm sorry." He looked around the room, wanting to leave, but knowing he couldn't.

"Alex, can you just tell me what you were thinking when you did it? Before your friend came in? What did you feel?"

Alex tried to think back to it, but he couldn't. "I think I just felt... nothing."