Written by Michael Lagace in December of 2007.

I started smoking when I was nineteen. Then in the seventies when all those ads came out saying cigarettes cause cancer, I quit. Cold turkey, just like that. Wanted to live to be nice and old, retired on a beach somewhere sunny. And now every time I light up, I think about that and laugh. Shouldn’t have quit.

I stopped looking both ways before crossing a street. Worst-case scenario is that I end up on a little hospital holiday, maybe with some insurance money. Not so bad. Sure beats waking up every day at the same time, taking the same bus to the same building to the same desk for eight hours, and do it all again. The only mail I ever get are bills and the only calls I get are from my parents. Did you meet anyone? Has Lisa called? Most times I lie, tell them I’m dating someone new. Tell them I’m happy.

Never really figured out when my life went down. Might’ve been college, might’ve been high school, might’ve been before that. I wasn’t dumb, I just never tried. People used to tell me I could be anything I wanted to be. It’s not true. Not everyone can be a doctor or an actor or this or that. No, it’s more like what grandpa used to tell me. The world needs ditch-diggers too. So that’s what I’ve been doing my whole adult life. Digging a ditch.

I work at a business accounting firm on the ninth floor of a ten-story building on the outskirts of the city. It should either be torn down or fixed up, but the owners are waiting for it to fall on its own. Until then, new paint covers the rotting wood. My desk is in a cubicle with walls close enough to touch at the same time. There are three other people working around me whose names I sometimes forget. I never bothered to get to know them. This was supposed to be a temporary job, just something to pay the bills. Well I’ve been paying bills for twenty years and I’m still here. And that ditch keeps getting deeper.

I had a girlfriend for a while. Lisa. The only girlfriend I’ve ever had. I always figured she’d end up marrying me sooner or later any time I asked. Even kept a ring in the back of my dresser drawer. I came home one day and found it on the kitchen counter with a note beside it: you should have asked me sooner. I had no idea where she went. For years I thought she’d be back. I tried to keep myself from thinking about her. It was hard. I had jigsaw puzzles, and books, and I collected coins. And now I’ve got a bedroom full of puzzles and half-read books and coins from places I’ve never been. Places I’ll never go. The only thing I do is eat, sleep, and work.

Every month I stay late one night. After everyone leaves, right at 4:58, I pull out my smokes and get to work. Two hours and a dozen cigarettes later, I empty the ashes into the trashcan and walk around the room to the window. It’s broken so it opens further than it should but wide enough to feel less trapped. I lean out of it, breathe the air, and get lost in my thoughts.

The smoke is thick when I finally smell it. I can hardly see my desk. The trashcan is in flames, paper burning dry and hot and fast. The walls, the door. Everything is on fire. There’s no way to the hallway. I’m trapped.

I pick up the closest phone. The operator tells me to get as far away as I can. Back to the window. I stick my head out with the escaping smoke. Fresh air. The fire burns hotter. Closer. I see the window of the next room open, maybe open enough to fit through. I can reach the stairs from there. It’s not far. The fire is getting closer.

It’s awkward to stand up on the ledge but I struggle to my feet. It’s windy. The ledge is narrow. I grab the brick, but there’s not much to grab. I keep shuffling sideways, back to the wall. Don’t look down. I repeat it over and over. Don’t look down. But then I do.

It’s dark down there. A perfectly gentle darkness to catch me. It’s waiting. Maybe I am too.

I can feel the heat from inside, but still, it’s cold out here. I didn’t have a choice. I was trying to get out. It’s just so windy and the ledge is so narrow. If I fell, it wouldn’t be my fault. Mom and dad would know that I had no choice. In one brief, painless, ending moment, my legs go weak. And that would be that.

I hear sirens a minute away. A minute too late, maybe. My legs seem weaker, the wind seems stronger, the ledge seems smaller. I can see it getting further and further away, the darkness catching me.

Just… fall.

My hands clutch the window frame. I tell them not to but they keep holding on. I want out of this ditch.

I fall to the ground and I stay there until I catch my breath. I’m in the next room. My hands are shaking, my fingers are sore. They don’t look like mine. They look like someone who’s been digging for a long time. Someone who will wake up tomorrow morning, take a deep breath, and find something new for his hands to do.