Greg sits at his office desk, furiously working a calculator and flipping pages in his check register. From the corner of his eye, Greg spots a cute teddy bear poking its head into the office. From around the door jamb come the words. “How’s it goin’...Daddy?”
“Hey Carla... no. False alarm. The doctor told Amy it’s a virus.”
Carla pops in from around the corner with an encouraging smile. “Oh. It’ll happen.” She puts the teddy on Greg’s book shelf. “And we’ll just hang onto teddy ’till it does. Don’t you have a class?”
“I asked Javi to T.A. it.”
“Really!” Her eyes widen. “You trust Javi with your advanced?”
“No, but I got a problem right here in River City. “ Greg raises and waves the check book. “Thought I’d give Amy a break and handle the bills this month.” Tossing the check book on his desk, he slides a hand through his hair. “There’s something weird going on -- she’s spending a lot of money she never told me about.”
“Don’t you know women have to shop?”
“Twenty-four withdrawals in the last three months... over sixty-eight hundred dollars.” Greg says. “And I haven’t seen one new dress or a new pair of shoes...”
Carla looks and sounds stunned as she replies. “Maybe she’s saving up for your birthday.”
A downturned brow precedes his reply. “You know that was two weeks ago. She gave me a Dodger mug.”
Later that evening, Greg is perched on the couch wearing a stoic face and nursing a half spent bottle of beer when Amy arrives home from her daily activities. “Hi hun, how are ya?” Amy says.
He doesn’t look in her direction when he says. “I’ve been better, you?”
Amy can sense the tension. She knows something’s up as she moves off into the kitchen. She sets her purse and organizer down, trying not to look him in the eye. “Pretty good. I’ve got another interview set up for Friday.”
Greg replies with a dull tone. “Uh huh.”
“A beer in the middle of the week? That’s unusual for you.”
“It’s been an unusual day. And actually, this is number three. I downed the first two on the patio… watchin’ clouds roll by…”
“Yeah, they helped me put something in perspective. It’s kinda’ funny how that works sometimes.” Amy’s anxious eyes narrow. “I saw one float in that looked just like a buffalo, and only a minute later it stretched and twisted until it looked more like a lizard. And before I could even take another swallow, it spun into nothing more than a swirl of wispy white…” Greg taps his temple with a finger. “That’s when it hit me, they’re just like you; little shape-shifters.” Then his gaze travels directly into her eyes. “You think they’re one thing, in fact you’re sure of it… but then all of a sudden, poof; they’re something else.”
Amy reluctantly moves towards him. “Shape shifters? What in the world are you talking about? Did something happen at school today?”
“Yeah... it did. I found out my wife isn’t who I thought she was. She’s not that beautiful woman and awesome educator I see at home. She’s something quite different; she’s someone who lies to me. She’s someone who lies and secretly spends thousands of dollars.” His intense eyes send a paralyzing wave coursing through her body.
“What, what are you talking about...?”
Greg throws his arm over the side of the couch, retrieving a small plastic bag. He immediately upends it, spilling several empty Rx bottles out onto the floor. The little orange vials bounce and roll in every direction as Amy’s eyes expand. “Amazing what you find when you go through your wife’s things.”
Amy’s eyes start to fill. “Greg, I can explain...”
“Yeah, I’m sure you can… Wait lemme’ guess. Just helping CVS meet their recycling goals, right.” Amy remains silent, watching the vessels travel across the floor. “ Yuh know every one of those bottles has a different name. Funny, one even has my name on it...”
The confrontation seems to be hitting home; possibly diluting the spell upon Amy. “God, I’m so sorry... I tried so hard... you don’t know what it’s like...”
“Oh I know what it’s like -- I lived through shit like this with my father -- I know exactly what it’s like.” Amy nods, trying unsuccessfully to stop crying. “Here’s the thing. I love you. And not lightly. More in the gut wrenching till death do us part kind of way. ..How could you lie about our baby?”
As tears roll uncontrollably down Amy’s pained face her bewitched persona seems to be, at least for the moment, put in check. She suddenly comes to grips with her situation and opens up her heart once again. “I was trying to... protect you... oh God... I don’t know what’s wrong with me... I thought I could control it... I thought I could... but I can’t...”
Greg looks at Amy, his heart is breaking and anger is giving way to compassion. He moves to her and takes her into his arms. “It’s all right, we’ll figure it out, we’ll get through it. Together.” She nods, crying even harder, burying her face in his shirt. “Shhh, shh, it’s all right, it’s going to be all right...”
“I’m such a fucking loser...”
Squeezing her a little tighter, he says. “No you’re not... you’ve got a problem... we can get help... we’ll get help...”
Greg drives his SUV along a sizzling desert highway. The landscape appears desolate; only scrub, rocks and dirt as far as the eye can see. Although the scenery is uninspiring and Amy is seated right next to him, the cab remains silent. Greg glances over occasionally, wanting to say something encouraging; she looks pale and frightened. A cliché or two run through his mind, but he just doesn’t know what to say.
The Desert Valley Clinic is a sprawling ranchero style complex on about ninety acres of rural desert. It has a very pleasant and serene appearance from the outside. There’s a lot of mature vegetation, walking paths that meander down to the river and even an on-site stable. Greg researched this facility on-line and was pleased to find: it had a large number of positive testimonials. Even with the high marks, Greg knows these establishments are loosely regulated and success is in no way guaranteed. But he wants to trust the hype because he needs to believe: everything will be okay. As he pulls into the parking lot he tries to reinforce that hope in his own mind by saying it to Amy. “Everything will be okay” Amy gives Greg a weak grin as she exits the car.
Greg and Amy enter the lobby and walk to the front desk. They’re greeted there by the director (Jan) and one of the orderlies. Jan wears a caring face and welcoming smile as she slides a registry book in Amy’s direction. As she signs in, Greg takes a quick visual scan of the area. The interior is pleasantly designed, tastefully furnished and all appears well maintained. You might even mistake the place for a spa if the orderly weren’t searching Amy’s suitcase for contraband. Although none of the guests truly want to be here, it looks like you could do a lot worse. The visuals give Greg a slight sense of relief with this very difficult choice, but now, giving Amy that final hug goodbye, they both get misty-eyed. A parting glance and Amy is off on her quest for reclamation.
Four days later Amy staggers from the bathroom, looking exhausted as she wipes the remains of vomit from her chin. Wearing only a sweat drenched nightgown she collapses upon her bed in extreme discomfort. She wants to sleep, but these days sleep has become fitful and often accompanied with night terrors. Yesterday she awoke screaming her head off while being restrained by an orderly; so a nurse could administer a shot. The medication she receives is intended to provide some symptom relief, but each day thus far has been spent in misery.
On this cold moonless night, an indigo sky hovers over the clinic. From over the blackened mountains a chilly and stiff desert wind swoops down upon the facility. The strong currents pick up countless grains of sand, hurling them furiously through the wispy Manzanitas. An incessant ratta-tat-tat is heard throughout the complex as the small projectiles bite into windows and doors. Unfazed by the powerful gusts that send cold waves coursing along his fur, a lone coyote prowls the grounds of the sleepy complex. In search of easy prey, he slinks cautiously by the lobby doors. Foraging in the scrub, near dim window light, a Kangaroo Mouse catches the predator’s eye. The preoccupied rodent is too slow to notice the approach of the stealthy hunter and is quickly run down and consumed.
Inside, the clinic is fairly quiet during these minimally staffed sleeping hours. Those who aren’t staring at a cellphone screen are softly conversing with their peers, occasionally reacting to wind-whipped windows. Half way down the pale yellow corridor in room 43, Amy doesn’t so much wake up as ‘come to’ when she realizes there’s a visitor in her room. Soaked in sweat and barely conscious she stares upward at the orderly (Manny) smiling down at her. Manny is a tall dude with a lanky build, shaved head and a missing canine tooth that provides an unmistakable smile. Up until now he had been just another member of the staff to Amy. But as his dark eyes survey the contours of her body, admiring her feminine form through the clinging wet gown, a palpable sensation of creepiness is realized. “Look at you... You’re in bad shape girl - all achy and stinky.” Manny shakes his head. “And you got three more days of this detox shit to look forward to...” Amy, in all her misery, is catching every word. Manny slides a chair close to the bed, sits and strokes her hand, creepy-friendly. “Why would you put yourself through such torture when I can make the pain go away, darlin’...” Manny takes something out of his lab coat. Amy sees the vial of Oxycodone in his hand. He leans real close. “You’re gonna’ go to all these classes here, hold hands, say prayers, all that bullshit just to learn what we already both know: you’re an addict. You can’t live without it. So don’t.” He holds out the pills.
Shrouded with nausea and pain, Amy’s foggy mind tries to process this offer. “How much?” She asks weakly. Manny says nothing, just floats that creepy smile. “What do you want?” Amy says.
“I just want you to feel better.” They both know that’s a lie. He holds his smile. “Up to you...” He slowly closes his fist around the pills. Then he starts to get up. She grabs his wrist. Four days of absolute misery push her into another poor decision. Just the way Manny planned it.
“Wait...” He lets her hold his fist, while she tries to pry it open.
“...please.” Manny’s unique smile spreads out wide, along with his hand.
A small group of patients, Amy among them, sit in a semi-circle in one of the clinic classrooms. The twelve steps of Narcotics Anonymous are displayed prominently on the wall, along with a few posters embracing inspirational messages. The clinic director/counselor, Jan, is seated in the center. She gets right to business. “If you think this is gonna be easy, think again. If you think you’ve hit bottom, you can’t sink any lower, think again. It took me sixteen years, five jails and three re-habs before I finally got it.” Amy’s high, but she’s listening. “If you’re the praying kind you might want to start praying that you have hit bottom -- that you don’t have to go back out there and lose everything...” Amy absorbs Jan’s words and they quickly initiate second thoughts, regarding her critical decision of a few nights before. Yeah, but what can I do now? -- using unauthorized drugs gets you expelled from the clinic… and Greg mustn’t ever know I failed. -- I’ll just have to play this new hand.
After the meeting, Amy enters her room and finds a young woman unpacking a travel bag. The woman’s tattooed arms slide in and out of the dresser drawers as she throws Amy a smile. “Hi, I’m Amy. You must be Melissa.”
“No...” Shaking her head. “I’m Laura.”
“Oh... sorry, I thought they said I was getting a roommate named Melissa.”
“You were. But we got a mutual friend who worked the switch.” Amy looks puzzled, before Laura continues. “Manny… the orderly.”
With a subtle nod, Amy asks. “So... is Manny helping you out, too?”
“Oh yeah, he helps me out -- then he helps himself.”
It takes a moment for Amy to decipher that phrase, but then a vicious sneer emerges. “If that bastard touches me, I’ll rip his eyes out.” That makes Laura giggle.
“Right. What, you never turned a trick for drugs?” Amy looks scared as the true gravity of her situation is sinking in.
Another crisp desert night brings a wicked wind that mercilessly flings tumbleweeds across the landscape while composing a taunting howl--daring anyone to come out and play. Thousands upon thousands of sand particles ascend into a darkened sky, for whirlwind trip of unknown destination. Many will remain airborne for miles, while others ricochet from the clinic’s walls and windows, settling into ever growing drifts around the building. The ferocity of intermittent gusts becomes unsettling, inciting shudders through doors and occupants alike. Most on-site feel lucky to be indoors, but others worry about what is yet to come. Wearing a clean white uniform and carrying a couple of blankets, Manny strides confidently down the long hall. His black Nike’s squeak with each step he takes along the freshly mopped tiles. The squeaks subside when he stops at the nurse’s station. “Blankets for 43.” The nurse hits the button that unlocks the door; the squeaking shoes moves on.
Within room 43, Amy sits on her bed (arms around her knees) rocking a little. Laura lies on her bed, reading a woman’s mag. She glances at Amy, noticing the rings on her finger. “You married?” Amy nods. “Good guy?” Amy nods again.
“I miss him.”
“You wanna call him?”
Amy throws an inquisitive look. “How? We don’t get phone privileges for fifteen days.” Laura smiles, sends one of her illustrated arms under her mattress, returning with a cell phone.
“We do if we have connections.” Laura tosses Amy the cell. There’s a knock on the door. Amy quickly hides the cell under her pillow as Manny walks in with blankets. He moves to Amy’s bed, flashing that unique and creepy smile, as a wind gust savagely rattles the windows in room 43.
Ignoring the disturbance, Manny says. “You’re lookin’ good tonight darlin’. How yuh feel?”
With a tone of apprehension, Amy says. “Okay.” Laura walks over and stands next to Manny.
“Glad to hear it.” Looking over at Laura. ”You lookin’ fine too, momma.” Amy winces as Manny rubs his hand up Laura’s thigh and ass. “I brought you ladies some goodies.” Manny unfolds the blanket, removes two baggies of Oxycodone and two Visine bottles. He passes them each, their own bottle and baggie of pills. Laura quickly scarfs her pills. Amy looks mystified as she studies the bottle of eye drops.
Amy questions. ” Eye drops?”
Laura giggles before saying. “Nooo. It’s for your pee test. It’s got urine in it.”
“From my sister’s kid.” Manny chimes.
Amy, still not clear. “We’re supposed to carry these around so we can make a switch?”
“It ain’t quite that simple, sweetie.” Laura explains. “When your time comes, they’ll pat you down, then a nurse plants herself in the doorway and watches you sit on the throne. ..And she won’t be leavin’ until you hand her a nice warm cup.”
“How do I make the switch?” Amy’s eyes dart back and forth between Manny and Laura.
Laura cracks a smile. “It’s not so hard.” Then she slowly positions the bottle near her crotch. “You just slip it inside and when it’s your turn, you squeeze tight - like you would on your man.” Laura giggles. Manny runs his hand up and down Laura’s receptive body; never taking his dark sinister eyes off Amy.
A reserved atmosphere hovers within the Garrett family dining room. Even though everyone is present, for their weekly Sunday dinner, including Greg, no conversations are percolating. Today, not much is being eaten either; they seem to be mostly just pushing food around their plates. Finally Al breaks the silence. “...she’s gonna be all right... that’s a good clinic...” The land line rings and Evy moves to answer it.
“Hello?... Amy! How are you, sweetheart?” Everybody races to the phone.
“Put her on speaker.” Al says. Evy does as asked. “Hey kiddo, we’re all here...”
“We’re all doing fine.” Evy adds.
Hank joins in. “We’re not even worried about you, we’re not even thinkin’ about you at all.” Tina swats him. “What?! I’m trying to make her feel better.”
Amy sits in the bathroom, holding Laura’s phone and wearing a frightened look. “Is Greg there?”
“I’m right here.” Greg responds. “I love you.” The bathroom door is cracked and Amy can hear moaning mixed with the unique and rhythmic sound of flesh smacking flesh. Another window rattler hits when she peers back into the bedroom. With horrified eyes, she sees Laura on all fours as Manny rides her for all he’s worth. Expelling a soft gasp, Amy pulls herself back around the corner.
“I love you too. I just wanted to hear your voice. I can’t talk long, I just wanted you to know...” Tears spill down Amy’s cheeks. “...I miss you...”
“I miss you, too. We all do.” Greg replies.
“I gotta go.” Amy hangs up, miserable and alone.
On the other end only dial tone remains-- Evy clicks off the phone. They all stand there, a little shaken. “She sounded all right... “Al says. “You know, as good as can be expected...”
“Excuse me...” Greg says. He moves off into another room. He stands there looking very lost and alone. It’s not their fault, but he knows no one in this house can help him through this ordeal. But maybe someone else he knows can. He digs out his wallet, finds the card his father gave him: CHUCK KINGSLEY, AUTO BODY AND REPAIR. Greg looks at the card, his mind racing.
Chuck Kingsley stands near a workbench vigorously scrubbing auto parts with a wire brush. Another man, installing tires, fills the garage with the high pitched whine of a pneumatic wrench. The tire guy, who has an earbud protruding from each side of his head, appears to be slightly older than Greg, but significantly lighter. His head bobbles about, to the beat of whatever tune is pulsing though his ears. Freeing the wrench from his hand, he bops over to a stack of tires and rolls another Michelin toward the car. In the midst of temporary silence, Chuck hears some approaching footsteps. He casually turns around and finds Greg silhouetted in the garage doorway. Immediately placing both part and brush on the bench, Chuck moves toward Greg. He wipes his hands into his overalls before saying. “Greg... good to see you...” Chuck continues moving up, but stops when he sees the distressed look on Greg’s face. “What is it?”
“It’s Amy...” Greg says.
“Is she all right?”
“I don’t know...” Greg shakes his head, unable to explain.
Within Chuck’s little apartment, over his repair shop, the two men sit at a small kitchen table, each with a glass of cola. The place is small, but clean and neat. A re-run of the ‘Simpsons’, with the sound turned off, plays on a little T.V. in the corner and an aging family photograph hangs on the wall. The colors within the photo have faded with time, but the sentiment it holds is as rich, fresh and vibrant as a morning sunrise. “When I was a kid and you were…” Greg says. “… you know...”
“...a raging asshole?” Chuck replies.
“Yeah, okay... I kept thinkin’ if I just tried harder and did everything right, then somehow you’d get better.”
Chuck sits back in his chair with a grin. “How’d that formula work out for you, son?”
“Not so good.”
“I’ve been sober eighteen and a half years and I can’t tell you why some people make it and others don’t…You were a big part of it.”
Greg shoots him an inquisitive look. “Me? I wasn’t even around.”
“Yeah you were...” Touches his chest. “in here… On the worst days, the ones I just knew I was gonna’ drink again, I’d cling to the thought, that if I didn’t, then I had a chance -- someday -- of makin’ up for some of the rotten things I did to you.” Greg’s a little overwhelmed by that and his eyes show it.
“That’s all in the past.”
“I don’t know... the people you really love, all that good and bad that went on between you? I think that’s bigger than what we think of as the future or the past.” Chuck lets out a heavy breath. “ Your mother’s been gone twenty-two years. I still talk to her -- and sometimes I hear her talk back.” Points to his head. “Granted, I’m a little dinghy in the old cabasa...”
Greg stares at his father, not quite sure how to respond. “You hear mom?” Chuck shrugs. “Now I want a drink.” Chuck smiles at that.
“Did you see that guy down stairs, installin’ tires?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Do you know who that is?”
Greg shakes his head. “Should I?”
A retro image of a skinny car thief flashes through Greg’s mind. “Death metal Lenny?”
Chuck’s eyes widen. “Bingo. That’s why the headphones. Good kid, horrible taste in music…tries to tell me it’s an acquired taste. ” Shaking his head and exposing his tongue. “It just sucks.”
A narrow grin grows across Greg’s lips. “Wow, you two workin’ together again. Never woulda’ guessed that. ”
“Yeah, well the reason I brought that up was to make a point. Lenny and I did our time in the joint together. And as odd as it may sound, it was a blessing. That place, at the time, was where we needed to be. It forced us to get our act together. Now I’m real sorry ’bout Amy, but she’s where she belongs. I wouldn’t worry too much. If I can get sober, anyone can… It’s all ’bout desire.” Chuck puts a reassuring hand on his son’s arm.
In the activity room of the Desert Valley Clinic the same re-run of the ‘Simpsons’ consumes the time of a few patients; others converse, some draw, work on puzzles or play board games. Amy, sitting at the end of a sofa, is dully watching Homer cower, once again, to Mr. Burns. Suddenly she feels an ominous shadow and looks up to see Manny, hovering like a hungry vulture in the doorway. He gives her the slightest nod of the head and moves on. Amy’s face turns to stone.
Inside the dimly lit bedroom, Amy’s vacant eyes stare at the ceiling, the consequences of owing a debt to a legitimate monster now being realized. With her head gliding slightly in rhythmic fashion and hot labored breath washing over her ear, Amy effectively disengages her mind from her body. Although a morally corrupt man may be currently lying upon her naked body, collecting a perceived sexual obligation, Amy is oblivious. She has packed-up all her meaningful thoughts and emotions, secured the lock and stashed the treasures lightyears away.
A warm sunny day at the Desert Valley Clinic has prompted the humming birds and black throated sparrows to dart in and out of the trees and bushes with excitement. The pleasant weather means that multiple feeders will be filled with seed and nectar today; an appealing opportunity not to be missed. The excitement of the day extends to Greg and Amy as well; today is discharge day. Optimally, it’s time to go home, apply what you’ve learned and rebuild your life. But for those who ‘game’ the process or leave too soon: danger lurks. Greg stands in the lobby, with Amy’s suitcase already in hand. Amy gives Jan a big hug goodbye. “Good luck, Amy.” Jan says. Amy nods and walks over to Greg.
With a broad appreciative smile, Greg says. “It’s really good to see you.”
“You, too.” Amy hooks Greg’s arm. “Get me out of here.”
As the re-united couple, approach the front door, Manny is strolling in. Hoping for the best, Amy doesn’t even cast an eye his way. But when they pass each other, Manny, using a smart-ass tone, smirks as he says. “See ya later, darlin’.”
“Darlin’?” Greg spins around with irritation filling his face. “Who is that guy?”
“He’s nobody, just part of the staff.” She pulls Greg along.
“Darlin’?” Greg glances back again.
“Forget it, Greg. Manny calls everybody that.”
Eager for a return to normal, Greg does let it go. He wraps an arm around Amy and says. “Let’s go home.”