Kirsten Anonymous

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Chapter One

The place sat on Channel Street, an old brick building alongside some railroad tracks, though in Arden, that’s a pretty fitting description of most places. Concrete steps led up to the main entrance, making it one of those weird two-and-a-half story buildings where only half the basement is underground, so you can still see out the windows. It gives you the fun experience of what it’s like to be as tall as a large cat, or a small dog. Or a baby or something. If you believed the carved granite above the west main door, this was the “High School.” If you came up from the south, a top-to-bottom mural claimed it was the home of “M. Broden Publishing,” which, given the town, probably lasted all of about fourteen seconds. Most recently, sometime around 1960, I guess, the First Baptist Church bought it and set up base.They must’ve gutted the entirety, or at least enough so that you wouldn’t die from asbestos and rat poison after a few hours.

Through the large, oak, front double-doors, you had a choice. Up another set of stairs to the congregation hall, pastors’ offices, whatever else churches had. Or down, which immediately led to a couple more doors. Here you got to choose again. Right for storage. Left for the “Fellowship Hall.” Obviously, you go left. This was basically a big empty room with a kitchenette at the far end (where there was miraculously always coffee) and, scattered about, usually around six to fifteen guys and gals sitting at folding tables. Most places looked somehow like this, and most operated the same way, attendees taking turns telling you about how they used to hire hookers or steal from their kids, cook meth out in their back shed, wake up in unknown places to realize three days were missing. Some liked to drink rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer, mouthwash, cough syrup. Others preferred nail polish remover. There was always one or two who still had the classic hankering for a bag of glue or spray paint. The more tech-savvy choose to inhale their keyboard cleaner. Never fear though, even if you’re computer illiterate you could always go Ye Olde Vodka-Soaked Tampon route. It does not discriminate on class, religion, or even gender, apparently.

A couple nights a week, I showed up and sat in the corner, if I could. You never really knew how they were going to arrange it. The worst was the tables in a circle, because then you sort of had to look at everyone. But sometimes, I don’t exactly know why or how, but sometimes there were round tables instead, and these just seemed to be placed wherever somebody got tired of dragging them. If it was a lucky night, I could sit in back by myself and not say much of anything. Outside of reading, of course. But, I mean, I know how to read.

Most of the time, when you’re in a spot like this, if you wear a hat it helps. You can pull the brim down a little and put your hands on either side, and then if you just lean forward on your knees a bit and stare at the floor, everyone else thinks you’re really thinking about something. Or they at least can’t tell you’re just looking for patterns in the dots on the linoleum tiles.

A lot of places, they’ll let you just sit there. This place, depending on who showed up, sometimes the program worked in your favor, but sometimes nobody wanted to say anything, and then they’d play popcorn like it was third grade again or something. I don’t really like talking, but after a while you can figure out what to say. Or at least say something that is sort of true and that usually counts.

I was in my corner this one night, maybe four months in, staring at the floor, waiting for things to start so that they would begin to be over. This specific group, by the way, called themselves the SHitS. “Sober Hicks in the Sticks.” It was a bunch of guys who were, or at least looked like, bikers. Or girls that liked bikers. In the First High School Baptist Publishing Church, they were pretty normal, other than being in the group and all. A lot of what you would expect from this side of Arden. The type that probably barely made it out of high school, joined a decent paying union, and then miraculously learned enough chemistry to cook methamphetamines or make moonshine.

There were some just regular drinkers, too. Occasionally someone for heroin, or coke, or what have you, though not all that often. The older ones, they were there because they always had been, I think. The younger people, or the people between my age and retirement, a lot of them were there because they had to be. A DUI, a Child Services case, too many public intoxes. “Normal” stuff. But, as I had heard, and would continue to here, “Normal is just a setting on your washing machine.”

That night, just before everyone settled in, you could hear some voices out in the hall that led to the meeting room. The door was always open. Figuratively and literally. At least until everything “officially” started. There was no sign or anything; as far as I could tell, people just found out from other people who found out from other people who, for all I know, started the whole thing. I found it curious, and also a little unnerving to think that, if the math some of these old guys had was right, they’d been meeting there since, well, years before I popped out anyway. So I had to at least give them credit for the anonymity part.

I glanced over toward the door when the voices became a little louder.

“Is this the...?” A brown-haired girl started.

“Yep.”

“Yeah.”

“Come on in.”

Somehow the old guys always knew, like they could smell their own after so long.

The brunette was followed by a blonde, both maybe mid-twenties, both seemingly healthy. Or at least, no blacked-out meth teeth.

“Take a seat wherever,” Trey, the unofficial leader, said. “Coffee should be ready; we were just about to get going.”

The two sat down at a table on the other side of the room. “I’m just here for support,” the brown-haired girl said, seemingly eager to clear the air.

“That’s fine,” Trey said. “Everybody’s welcome. We ain’t gonna run ya off.”

“Nooooo, not pretty girls.” This was Yup, the oldest guy in the room, and a man whose proper name I have yet to learn. Everyone just called him ‘Yup,’ and if you didn’t, you were the weird one.

Trey did the welcome, and then a handful of ‘lucky’ participants read from the identical photocopied and laminated sheets found at every meeting. After this, as they always said, “the floor was open, free therapy.”

I stared down between my shoes, wondering if I looked like I was really churning some things over in my mind, like maybe I was going to talk in a second, but I wanted to get my words right first.

“We gotta welcome the new-comers,” Yup piped up.

“Yeah,” Trey said, “I did.”

“Well, maybe they wanna say something. We don’t get no girls in here very often.”

(This, for the most part, was true. There were always one or two who would pop in and then disappear back out into the world. Or more often, when they looked like these girls, they were students from the university in town who were required to sit in on at least one meeting for some kind of course requirement. You could usually tell though.)

“You guys wanna say anything?” Trey asked.

The brown-haired girl looked at her friend, her eyes screaming “I already said I was just here for support! Don’t let them think I’m fucked up!”

The blonde whispered something, laughed a little.

“You don’t have to,” Trey said. “Just give us your name if you want. Just so we can know who you are, not to embarrass you or nothing.”

“Okay,” the blonde started, staring at her drink can. “Well..it’s Kirsten,” she said, pronouncing the i like a double e. “And I’m an addict. It used to be Kristen, but, I don’t know... I thought, if I’m gonna change, I ought to change.”

—Hi Kirsten.

“Hi everybody,” she laughed a little again. “So, well, I’ve tried this before,” she paused for a second, actually thinking, it looked like. “On my own, I mean. Like, I just decided I was going to quit and I thought that would be enough,” (appreciative chuckles from the group), “but this time I knew I wanted to do it right. Like, I don’t want to lose my kids. I don’t want to keep struggling to find work. My parents have had their fill, and the guys I’ve been with...like, I just know I need to do it right this time. So, I moved into Second Chances. Trying to change up my people, places, and things, y’know? I know I can’t do this by myself, and I know I can’t keep living like I was. I mean, I was just waiting to die, basically. But I have my boys, and they need their mama. I’m all they’ve got.” She paused again, her nerves catching up with her, reminding her she was talking to a group of strangers. “Anyway,” she looked up briefly at the room, “I know I have to do this for me. That I can’t do it for my kids or anyone else and everything. And I do want that. I just know, like, this time, I have to do the damn thing. I don’t think I have that many more do-overs.” Another pause began to lengthen before she added the unofficial end-of-statement tag, “And that’s all I got.”

—Thanks Kirsten.

I watched her from my spot, trying to decide if I should attempt to think of something “wise” to say, something that would make me seem like I was an integral part of the group, ready and willing to help. Yup immediately jumped in though, as Yup was prone to do when anyone said anything, ever.

“Well we sure are happy to have you here. Karen, did you say?”

“Kirsten.”

“Kristen?”

“Keeeeeeersten,” Trey said.

“Kirsten?”

“Yeah,” she twisted the drink can back and forth between her palms. “It’s kind of dumb I guess.”

“Don’t worry about him,” one of the other guys said. “He can’t hear for shit.”

“I heard that! And I ain’t talkin to you, I’m talking to her. So, Kirsten, well, we sure are glad to have you here. We need more pretty girls. And your friends are always welcome. Bring as many as you want. So, let me tell you, I started comin’ to these meetin’s sixteen years ago....”

As Yup went into his well-rehearsed backstory, I flicked glances between the girls, Yup, and the floor. The brown-haired one, the friend, had pulled her phone out, the extent of her support being bodily presence, apparently. I leaned back in my chair, the keys on my belt-loop making a horrid scratching sound across the plastic seat. I immediately moved my coffee cup closer on the table, like that was the whole point of the noise, and leaned forward again. Between my hands and under the bill of my hat, I could block out everything except their table.

Kirsten had on a pair of track shorts, black, pink piping, and a running tank. Her hair was pulled back in a little punk of a pony-tail. Up and down her arms and across the tops of her thighs, like zebra stripes, were tally marks of three inch scars, indicating alcohol and/or drugs were probably not her only addiction.

In the midst of this assessment, she looked over at me. I glanced down, back at the linoleum, then around the room, over at Yup (who was still talking), at the door, the ceiling, then “randomly” back at her, and down to the floor again, like it was totally coincidental we’d met eyes. I tried my best to put on a “definitely wasn’t staring” face when I looked back up.

The anxiety of talking in front of a group of strangers apparently didn’t extend to looking at an individual stranger in the group. She smiled, her eyebrow lifting up just a tick.

I reached over and picked up my coffee cup, swirling it a little, looking at the liquid, being a completely normal person. Or at least, normal given the circumstances. I propped my feet up on an empty chair at my table and looked back at Yup. Which, probably, by then, I should’ve known not to do.

“And I just love everybody,” he was saying. This was typically the wind-up of his speech, though he circled around to it a few times before eventually committing. I wasn’t sure which repetition this was. He caught me looking, and began to stare, a habit I knew wasn’t directed at me specifically, but unnerving nonetheless.

“And I just keep coming back,” he continued. “People ask me how I do it, when they knew me back when I was drinking and drugging and not worth one single fuck, pardon my language, but that’s what I tell them. I don’t know how it works, but I know it does, so I just keep coming back. Isn’t that right?” He looked around, then back at me. “This young man here knows what I mean, don’t you?”

I smiled a little, nodding, hoping that counted as a response.

“I can look each and every one of you in the eye and tell you that I love you,” he finished up again, “And there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it.” He looked around the room, emphasizing the point. “And that’s all I got.”

—Thanks Yup.

I usually took a notebook with me; I’m not really sure why, but I slid it over and pulled a pen from my pocket, as if enlightenment had just struck me, and definitely not because I was anticipating a pause in speakers.

It didn’t work.

“What about you, Cole?” Trey said. “You got anything tonight?”

Shit.

“Um,” I rubbed the back of my ball cap, leaning forward on my knees like I was really thinking. “Not a lot really. I mean, things are kind of going like they go I guess. Or I mean like you guys have said they go...” I scrambled for something smart, one of the stock phrases everyone always used but sounded clever if you’d never heard it before. I glanced over at Kirsten, trying to make this more of a I’m-here-to-help-you moment, than a spotlight-on-Cole moment. “I think she really said the main thing. Change, I mean. And for me, really, I guess a lot of that was done for me. I lost my job, of course, so rent payments disappeared and the landlord didn’t really care for that arrangement. Thankfully my folks were okay with me coming home, because otherwise I don’t know what I’d do. Probably be locked up again I guess. But, I mean, I feel like I’m sort of cheating sometimes, y’know? Like, I have to be here or I get arrested. And I didn’t really enjoy that the first time. Or any of the other times.” I laughed a little, thankfully supported by a few of the others. “But, I guess...I don’t know. I’m just doing what I have to do and people are being paid to make sure I do that. So I don’t really know if I have anything ground-breaking to add. I look for work. I come here. My family has an eye on my pretty well every other minute. So. Yeah. I don’t know, I guess. Just plugging along.” I looked down at the tiles again, waiting for my brain to come up with something.

After a moment, it did.

“I can tell you one thing, though,” I smiled, “It hasn’t been anything like in ‘Mighty Ducks.’”

A single laugh, but it was the one I was shooting for. Kirsten put a hand up to her mouth, afraid of drawing too much attention.

“Well, yeah... Anyway, um, I guess that’s all I really got. Sorry about that.”

—Thanks, Cole.

The silence settled in again, but I was at least off the hook. The Unofficial Rules stated you weren’t supposed to speak twice. Thou Shalt Not Double-dip.

Exceptions allowed.

“Well,” Trey sat up to the table, “I guess if nobody’s gonna talk I can for a minute.”

I settled into my chair a little, toying with my pen for no discernible reason.

“I don’t know,” he went on, “I don’t think you’re just doing what you have to do.” I glanced over, this portion apparently directed at me specifically. “I mean, I saw you walk in here and there wasn’t nobody with a gun to your head, y’know?” Laughs all around.

He went on for a bit longer, me pretending to listen politely but mostly just messing with my notebook and pen, scribbling nonsense to myself.

Trey finished up and the monologues bounced around the room awhile. Most of these guys had known each other since high school, worked together, knew each other’s kids and ex-wives and parents. I was out of the loop, but I didn’t really mind. It was a place to hide, a place to sit quietly, a place to check off boxes on a long, long list of boxes. Three boxes a week for two years.

At the end of the meeting, after another reading and the prayer circle (complete with held hands, so I could check off my Human Touch box as well), I gathered up my things and started for the door. It wasn’t a run necessarily, but I wasn’t known for sticking around for “the meeting after the meeting.”

As I slipped by Kirsten’s table she glanced up at me. “Hey, here.” She held out a slip of paper.

“Oh,” I looked at it. “Thanks.”

“Just in case you need it,” she said.

“Okay, cool. I’ll shoot you a text here in a minute so you have mine, too.”

“Great.”

I stood for a second, sticking the paper in my notebook. “This is a pretty cool group. I mean, I know you’d said you’ve done this before, I guess, but, I mean, if you hadn’t been out here, it’s pretty good. Everybody’s real...cool.”

“Yeah. I like it.”

Zero nerves for her now. She looked me right in the eye, smiling.

“Cool,” I said. “Um, okay, well, I gotta get back to the place. But, like I said, I’ll text you.”

“Can’t wait.”

I walked out and down the hall, up the steps, pushing through the heavy doors at the front of the building. The night wasn’t dark yet; the evenings had been stretching further and further the last few weeks. I unlocked the truck and sat for a moment.

People gave out phone numbers all the time, to be honest. Sometimes, when there was a new person, they would actually pass around a sheet for everybody to write on, in case of, well, I don’t know what. Relapse or something. I’d be damned before I’d call up a stranger and spill my guts, especially about something like this, but it wasn’t abnormal for the phone numbers thing to happen. And I have to admit, I appreciated not having to introduce myself or think of how to break the ice.

Really, they usually kept it pretty gender-specific. But, too, “everybody works their own program.” Or so I’d heard numerous times.

I started the truck and headed back across town. It was an almost twenty-minute drive, one of the selling points, I’d been told. “Nobody will know you in that part of town.” As if on the west side I had friends hanging out of windows and waving banners when I’d moved back. It’d been almost ten years since I’d had a mailing address in this town, and for the time being, I was quite all right with no one knowing I had one again.

Three boxes a week. Two years. Hell, even less than that by then. Three boxes a week for twenty months. Eighty weeks. Two hundred and forty boxes. Or so. Minus that meeting. So really only two hundred and thirty-nine. But who’s counting?

I walked in the front door of my parents’ house, saying hey as I locked it behind me and headed down to the basement to put my things away. I sat my keys, wallet, and pen on the dresser, flipping through the notebook until I found her slip of paper. I tossed the notebook on the bed and pulled my phone out of my pocket.

I stared at the screen and laid back on the bed. I was probably overthinking it. People don’t pick up people at addictions meetings. Right? Do they? Or does it make more sense to? After all, the worst part of meeting a stranger was already out of the way. “Hey, yeah, I’m great. Everything’s fine. There was just that little prison hiccup, but, y’know, everybody makes mistakes...”

And plus, maybe she needed more help than a sixty-minute meeting provided. She didn’t necessarily say she did, but maybe that’s what she’d been seeking—a sympathetic ear, a late-night “pull me out of this hell” openness. Either way she definitely didn’t say she wasn’t looking for something. And besides, I’m a helper. Right?

I typed the number into my phone, fighting the auto-correct to allow me to spell her name correctly. Her new name. I should’ve thought of that.

“Hey,” I started. “It’s Cole.” I stared at the screen again.

No, that was too much like I expected a conversation.

And people don’t pick up people at addictions meetings.

“Just in case you ever need this number, now you have it.”

I looked at the screen a minute longer and then just hit send.

It was a safe message. No smiley’s. No flirting. Just the straight-forward passing along of harmless information.

My phone buzzed back almost immediately.

“Kewl.”

I cocked my head to the side. Maybe I had misjudged her age.

“The coolest,” I typed and tossed the phone back on the pillow behind me, skirting out of the room before I could hear it buzz again.

I jogged up the steps and popped in to talk to mom and dad for a second. The conversation was pretty much always the same.

“How’d it go?” (Sympathetic tone from mom)

“Oh, y’know.”

“Well, you’re one closer to being done; you just have to remember that.” (dad)

“Yeah.” Then I’d stand there for a second and see what they were watching or doing, before exiting slowly, backwards, out the way I came in. “I’m gonna make some soup or something. Then off to work, I guess.”

“Ok.”

A quick rummage through the pantry, then back downstairs with a package of noodles mom said were made of plastic but she still bought because she was afraid I wouldn’t ever eat food again. But cooking for yourself is kind of dumb. So it’s not like I swore off food. I just wasn’t ever that hungry.

Anyway.

The basement was kind of its own apartment. I’m not sure who designed it that way, but it was like that when we moved in. Bathroom, shower, bedroom, pool table, bar. The last wasn’t totally helpful, not that it had ever been much more than a large shelf or holding table. When I was moving back in, I’d found a hot plate and a coffee maker that I hadn’t thrown away or given to Goodwill and squeezed them into a small space on the bar top. Along with the mini-fridge that was already down there for no apparent reason, it made a reasonable living space.

I filled the little tin pot for the hot plate in the bathroom sink, then turned the dial to boil, and waited. I cracked the sliding door (walk-out basement) and switched on a fan to blow the steam away from the drop tile ceiling. A few weeks previous, I’d moved a stack of my parents’ college LPs over enough to make sitting space for one, my “office.”

While the water tried to boil, I went to the bedroom, grabbing my laptop off the floor and my phone from the bed. Three new messages.

I walked back to the bar, sitting my computer down and swiping open the phone.

Kirsten—“So what’re you in for? Haha”

Kirsten—“Actually you don’t have to say. I was just joking, bro.”

Kirsten—“Okaaaaay. Kewl.”

Take a breath, girl.

I sat the phone down and walked over to turn on the tv. What was I in for? People never even asked me that when I was actually “in.” “What’d’ja do,” maybe. Or the more accidentally literary, “Yo, man, so what’s your story?” People still say yo. Who knew?

The tv was on TLC, where it’d been since dad first plugged it in. I turned the volume up just enough for background noise and went back to the bar. Non-watched pots also never boil, apparently.

I thumbed the phone screen awake again.

“Hey. Sorry, I was...” (not talking to my folks...) “getting some food ready.”

I hesitated, considering more, but, people don’t pick up people at addictions meetings. I hit send.

Impatient, I dumped the noodles in the water anyway, killing the slight boil the water had been attempting. I opened my laptop and stared at Google.

I didn’t have any actual work to do, considering I didn’t have an actual job, really. But dad had always said, “If you don’t have a job, then your job is to be looking for a job.” So, kind of a job. Right?

I’d been out for four months. Not that I woke up every day whistling. One thing you can do when you’re in is read. A lot. In hindsight, I probably could have taken advantage of the time to learn a marketable skill, but there’s all those funny jokes Capote and his friends made about reading Proust in prison. So. Yeah.

And plus, for the time being, I was still sort of what one might call a “felon.”

Not that that is a huge thing. I mean, it’s not like I was a bank robber or a murderer or something.

I’d had exactly three job offers since I’d been out. One at a recycling sorting facility that paid seven bucks an hour. One at a hardware store, part-time, that paid seven twenty-five. The big spender, a brick-laying company in town, had offered me a whopping eight bucks an hour till they saw if I would show up or not. They were even going to pay me under the table, the sweethearts. Because what a guy really needs when he’s just out of a state facility is to start jacking around with his income taxes.

Even mom and dad had sided with me on that one, saying maybe it was better to keep looking; these types of jobs were always around. And I know beggars can’t be choosers and all, but it would be summertime soon. When it’s ninety degrees outside, who really wants to carry hod in that mess? Or, just, ever?

I glanced over at the pot and the phone. Neither were doing anything.

I know I sound spoiled, and to be fair, I pretty much was. Or am. But, I mean, it’s not my fault my parents were nice, y’know?

I opened a tab for a job search site, a tab for part-time jobs, a tab for “as needed” labor. Most nights at this time, I really got my shit together and was sure I’d be the first guy in town up in the morning, checking the As Needed posts, bright and early and getting the worm and all that. True, day labor was probably still technically “under the table,” but it felt less like, conniving.

I scrolled down the lists on each page, keeping one eye on the non-boiling water and one on the list of dark blue links I had already clicked in the days before.

Tutor Needed. Yes, but probably no. I’m not sure if you have to tell people you’re a felon for that type of thing, but it’s probably not something they like to find out later.

Assemblers Needed. This is just code for factory work. Be warned.

Babysitter Needed. To be fair, I could probably do this. But then again, see Tutor Needed.

I had a friend and a cousin (two people) who did computer programming. Supposedly those companies don’t even care if you went to college as long as you can do the work. But, since I am “smart,” I read Tolstoy instead of coding manuals.

In Arden, it turns out, what you really need are your CDLs. However, what you really need for your CDL application is a clean driving record. I leaned back in the chair, picking up my phone.

“Hey, do you work anywhere?” I paused over the send button. Had I said I needed a job? Actually who cares, I could just say I was always looking. That was pretty much true. I hit send and watched the steam come up out of the pot. There was a bowl in the bathroom sink, another thing mom hated but tolerated. I went and grabbed it, scratching a dry noodle off the side.

I tapped the screen on my phone. No response. I dumped the plastic food into my bowl and went over to the couch.

According to the television, it was up in the air about who actually killed Rasputin. According to the crunchiness of the noodles, I definitely should have let them cook longer. According to my looming 29th birthday, I had really made a grandiose and yet wildly uninteresting clusterfuck of my life.

Timing is everything

* * *

A couple days later, it must have been three because it wasn’t the next day, but I didn’t have a meeting, so it couldn’t have been two, but anyway I was sitting downstairs on the couch again. I had my notebook open on my lap and the tv, of course, was on, and I was trying to figure out how I wanted my funeral to go. It’s harder than you would think.

What I was debating right then was, did I really want the song “Crossroads” by Bone Thugs N Harmony in the service, or was that too stupid? I knew for sure one guy would laugh, but I hadn’t seen him in about four years, so who knows if he’d even be there. (Actually, technically, I had seen him. He was up at the apartment for a business trip before I got picked up, but I don’t know if that really counts. I sort of recall kind of making an ass of myself on the phone somehow. And then I think he may have come back again at some point, but I’m not a hundred percent sure if I remember or imagined that one.)

But anyway, he would laugh. Probably. Hard to be totally positive on most things, really. And it’s the same with your funeral. If you mess it up, you don’t get another shot. And you can’t even be like, “Oh sorry I thought that would be funny.”

I guess I could leave a note, but then maybe it wouldn’t be as funny if I had to explain the joke. Probably even less funny if I had planned far enough ahead to cover that contingency.

And then too, and this was the real problem, was I supposed to find a lawyer and like, make all this official? What if I changed my mind? I was thinking I could leave a note saying to find the notes about the funeral, but then I’d have to make sure someone always knew where the first note was, and that would be a weird thing to admit. Plus, what if I didn’t die for twenty years or something, and I had changed my mind, but then forgot to change the notes, and then had to float around at the funeral, tapping people with a ghost-finger and moaning “noooo, I didn’t meeeeeann for it to beeeee like thiiiiis....“?

I wrote “(possibly)” in the margin next to “Bone Thugs?” and closed the book. Problem solved. Ish.

I grabbed my phone off the arm of the couch and swiped the screen open. No new messages. I’d been doing pretty good about not carrying it around for awhile, but ever since Kirsten I had found myself patting my pockets and always being more aware of where it was than I really wanted to be.

She’d never written back that first night. Or, I mean, not while I was awake. When I got up the next morning I had three messages from her, sent between 2:30 and 3 in the morning.

“Yeah. I’m at Re-Plan” (the recycling place) “with everybody else in the house. It’s stupid. Good workout tho. Got a freal 6 pak.”

The second message was just a picture of her abs, which I looked at for an oddly long time. Not like stomachs get me all wound up or anything. I mean a nice stomach is nice, but I had time to sit and try and figure out exactly why everything was the way it was in the shot. She was laying on a bed, and you could only see from the top of her running shorts to the bottom of what I assume was a sports bra. It wasn’t really a six-pack, more like four, but she was doing a decent job. Zebra stripes on her stomach too, which, was I supposed to notice those? Not notice those?

Her third message came about five minutes after the picture. It just said, “Okay...” again.

I’d messaged her back when I got up, the normal “hey sorry I was asleep” type thing, and then not heard from her the rest of that day. The next day was a meeting day, so after lunch I’d sent the friendly, non-hitting-on message “Going to the meeting tonight?” And then after not hearing back, had a mild freak out and sent “I just didn’t know if you needed a ride or anything.”

I’d spent the majority of that night’s meeting listening to creaks in the building and floorboards that I had never noticed before, mistaking each of them for the sound of footsteps, despite the ever passing time on the wall clock. I’d been able to dodge talking that night at least. When I’d walked in, Trey had given me the longest opening paper to read, so I felt like that counted.

I don’t want to sound like I missed her or anything. I mean, I barely knew her, but sometimes when people show up for the first time, you can tell everyone else is wondering if the new person is going to make it, or if they’ll just be there once and disappear. The most of them disappear. I probably would have disappeared too if it weren’t for my legal obligations. Actually, to be fair, I never showed up until I was forced to, so I felt like you had to at least give the new-comers a little bit of credit. Later on I would try and encourage them more, but who was I to say what somebody else should do? They could show up or not show up; everybody knows you can’t force somebody to get it together. Or at least that’s what they always said. And that was one thing I couldn’t really argue with, all things considered.

Earlier that morning, the day after she didn’t show up at the meeting and before I was debating the validity of Bone Thugs, I’d texted her. Just a normal “hey, missed ya last night. Hope all is well” type thing.

Then I’d tossed my phone on the bed and gone for a bike ride.

Ever since I’d been unemployed and forced into sobriety, I had a lot of time on my hands. When I was locked up, you could go lift weights or go to the track or whatever, because that’s how time goes by. Monday-weights. Tuesday-track. Wednesday-basketball. (I skipped this one but Wednesday was also mail day.) Thursday-weights. Friday-track. Saturday they would show movies sometimes. Sunday was Laundry. There was other stuff, but after a while you only needed one thing per day, really. You could look forward to it, and then experience it, and then think about it and get ready for the next day’s thing. In some ways, it was more than what I usually did on the outside.

When my folks picked me up on my out-date, they said I looked more fit, like I had been working out. Nobody had said that before. Usually it was “you look sick” or “you need to gain weight” or “are you eating?” So it was kind of nice. And since I had no job once I was “free,” other than looking for a job, I needed something to burn off the anxiety and trick my body into making serotonin.

I didn’t really like biking. But, everyone had been bragging on Facebook about running a mini-marathon in the state capital one day. So I ran thirteen miles on the treadmill and tore a ligament in my hip. And then I didn’t really do anything for a bit. I had “a real hitch in my giddyup.” That was my grandpa’s diagnosis anyway when I saw him the first time. I don’t think he thought I got raped a lot or anything.

Technically nobody was supposed to know I was locked up anyway. It was going to be this hilarious thing later where I was like “oh, yeah, no, did you not know that? Ha ha ha.” But I guess my parents were stressed out about it.

I suppose that’s fair.

Anyway, I went for a bike ride. It turns out you can go a lot farther on a bike in an hour than I thought. Arden isn’t gigantic, by any means, but if you wind your way around it you can get a decent amount of riding in. Plus, if you ride as fast as you can the whole time you are always completely exhausted at the end and it feels like you did something good.

I took a new route that day. I had to ride uphill for the last couple miles and almost threw up, so I knew I did even better than usual that time.

When I got back, I went down to take a shower and kind of catch my breath (and be around a toilet in case I did actually throw up). I checked my phone. Blank as always. But, since I’d caught my breath a little, I did some push ups and sit ups. When I couldn’t push up at all anymore, I crawled over and sat on the floor of the shower till the water got cold.

My dad usually came home for lunch, but I was rarely hungry that soon after exercising. Sometimes I would sit on the counter and eat chips or almonds or something while he was there. He was a pretty good dad, as far as dads go. I mean, he was my actual dad. And she was my actual mom, which was almost unheard of. And I do have to give them credit; they didn’t even yell at me when they picked me up, from prison, for crying out loud. I told them they could, but dad just said, “Well, if this happens again, I will have plenty to say.” And that was it. Mom asked what I wanted to eat for dinner.

Dad worked as a medical supplies rep, but he wasn’t one of those annoying salesman type guys. Like, he wasn’t always “on.” I think he kind of hated it, to be honest, but it paid well, and he was able to schedule his days so he could always come home and see mom at lunch, which I thought was pretty nice of him. They were both nice like that. I kept thinking sooner or later they would do that thing where people set their knives and forks down and say “Okay look, you’re not sixteen. This thing you’re doing, it’s really cute, but you’re not in the Glass family, and you’ve never even seen a prep school. You should have a kid by now. A wife. Your own house. Anything. Like, one small thing that says you didn’t just stop at tenth grade. Look at all the people you know. Pick one person. Any person you know. They are all doing actual things. You dropped out of grad school and work shit jobs because you are too self-involved to even try one actual thing. Because you might fail at it. And now you’re a felon and you live in the basement. Get it together.” But they were more Montessori, or something.

Dad said he had a client dinner that night, so mom and I were on our own for a meal, but he wouldn’t be late and maybe we could go get frozen custard when he got back. They were that type of nice people.

When I went back downstairs, I had one message waiting, so, of course, I immediately kicked myself for not having had my phone with me.

“Sorry, ben workin”

I glanced at the clock. Just after one. I sent back a “no problem, how’s work?” text and then commenced waiting.

For what exactly, I wasn’t sure. Godot, I guess. It’s not like I was all nuts about her, but she was a new person, and maybe she just needed a friend. Or at least a better friend than that girl who had gone to the meeting with her. Everybody could see she wasn’t going to be much help. And I’d been going for a little bit. I could show her the ropes and all that. Plus, she’d said she had kids, and that was pretty much the most obvious sign that I wouldn’t be good for her, romance-wise. I mean, I like kids and all, but I didn’t have any need to be playing dad. And maybe the kids’ dad was crazy or something. I’d made it through prison without having to fight my way out of anything, so it’s not like I was scared, but I didn’t really need to be getting arrested again for something equally, if not more, stupid.

TLC was doing a marathon on aliens and how they made the pyramids. And everything else, apparently. I think that’s how I got on the funeral deal earlier that day. There was somebody in town who had a little five-foot pyramid made and put in the graveyard. They weren’t even dead yet, as far as I knew, but I guess they were afraid somebody would read their note that said “And I wanna be buried in a pyramid” and not believe it. Which is fair. That sort of seems like begging for a lot of attention. I wondered about the funeral though. Like, will they be mummified? I don’t know if anyone even knows how to do that anymore. Maybe it’s a specialty at morticians school. Like being the best pediatric hip surgeon or the best Celtic folklore guy. I don’t even know where you go to be a mortician. Maybe it’s like culinary school, like its own special thing. I didn’t really want to do either of those things, food or dead bodies, but maybe that was what I needed. A niche. One really weird thing that I could be the absolute best at.

I read one time that there was a guy who knew so much about the Game of Thrones books that George R. R. Martin would call him up and ask about past details and things while writing the new books, to make sure they all jived. Or there were always new “Stephen King’s Universe” type books. It seemed like a lot of the good stuff was taken already though. And like I said, I didn’t really like computers, so that wiped the list of potential cool jobs pretty much clear. Then again, maybe that shouldn’t be my total focus. The cool part. Maybe jobs that make money. Jobs that you can get quickly with no knowledge, experience, or skills. Or maybe just, jobs.

When I first got out, I was convinced I was going to teach myself Russian, because I’d never met anyone that knew it (which probably made this inherently stupid). But then I figured, you could just get a Russian person to teach you Russian. Why would you want an American teaching you Russian? Plus they have their own alphabet. And it’s pretty hard. So I thought maybe Spanish, just because somehow I had convinced myself a second language was the key to career success. Or at least people had said that. Dad was saying you could pretty much pick where you wanted to work in the medical field if you knew Spanish. You didn’t even have to do any actual medical stuff. Which was good, because I think I would always be afraid I’d kill somebody on accident. But, Spanish isn’t that interesting. Like, besides Don Quixote, name one classic of literature that is in Spanish.

When I was a kid I thought it would be “so rad” to know magic tricks. Well, mostly just card tricks. Or maybe just tricks. It would be cool to be the guy who knew how things worked. But, as far as jobs go, I think you could only be a magician, which I didn’t want to do, or a conman, which would be pretty neat, but I think you have to find an actual conman to teach you how to do that, and Arden wasn’t rife with those. To the best of my knowledge. Plus I would have likely ended up in the same position, with the lock-up time and all. Though it would have been a much more interesting story.

I had convinced myself once that I would take my unemployed/probation time and hike the Appalachian Trail, but then I remembered I wasn’t allowed to leave the state. So, beyond one eight-day gig installing shelving for some guy dad knew the first month, I hadn’t discovered a whole lot to do.

I knew a guy who had become a painter. A girl who moved to New York City. Some people who decided they were going to go to Europe and just went. But I think there are types of people that can do those things, and then there are types of people that are more like me, the ones who have to really try to get anything to go right. Which, to be honest, was kind of annoying, because what I really wanted most was to be left alone, and doing things correctly usually meant I’d need help.

I remember at my final court date, the judge had said something like “oh you have problems and blah blah and we need to get you straightened out and get your life back to what it was,” and I thought, “well, what the hell’s the point of that, unless you want see me again.” It doesn’t even make any sense. ‘Help’ me or leave me alone, but don’t promise to just move me back a few spaces on the board.

But so pretty much, I knew a number of things I didn’t want to do, and that it wasn’t likely I was going to find something that I did want to do. So then I was thinking about how long I would have to keep being alive until I died, and that maybe that was something I could plan out. Which is why I was thinking surely nobody would have the gall to deny you your chosen funeral.

Unless it involved Bone Thugs maybe.

I thought about texting that guy to see if he really did think it would be funny, but he was one of those people who had been doing Things in the last ten years, and so on a Friday at 1 in the afternoon, he was probably at work. Y’know, so he could pay for his house and family and all that.

About then, mom hollered down the steps to say we were going to meet my little brother and his wife for dinner since dad wasn’t going to be around. I spent the rest of that afternoon actually looking for jobs online. Jobs anywhere, doing anything. There were only so many boxes left unchecked.

Mom and I met them around six at a steak place in between the two houses. Chris and Christy. And I know the names and the steak house thing make them sound like total assholes, but they really aren’t. He was actually kind of distraught about the whole thing when they first started dating. I’d already moved out of town at that point, and it turns out I was thinking of a different Christy from high school anyway, so most of what I’d had to say about it doesn’t really matter right now. Chris is two years younger than me, and this Christy is two years younger than him. So I didn’t know her from anything. Which is good though, because the Christy I was thinking of, somebody had said she did a total one-eighty in college and became some kind of pothead hippie chick. Not that I have a lot of room to talk about substance abuse, but I really do hate reggae.

This Christy did something in business, I’m not really sure what. She had explained it a couple of times. It wasn’t HR exactly, but I had the feeling it was kind of like that, somehow. Chris had followed in dad’s footsteps, sales-wise, I mean. Technically, he’d originally been a copywriter for some big advertising agency, but that had been a lot of hours. So, since he was exceptionally good at it, he decided to start freelancing and go into business for himself. I wasn’t totally clear on what he did anymore either, truth be told, but apparently it was lucrative. In both of their defenses, neither had offered to hook me up with a job since I’d got out (probably due to an ill-timed joke where I once asked if they were going to start a Music Factory), and I hadn’t ever stopped being thankful for that. Embarrassing for them, embarrassing for me. The whole thing would have been wretched.

They walked in right after we did, and then the guy led us to our table and the other guy took our drink orders. They all had iced tea; I had water. It wasn’t symbolic or anything. I just don’t like iced tea.

“So another week down, huh?”

This was the other thing I was always thankful to them for; Chris and Christy both (this time it was Chris talking) had a way of treating the whole Legal Matter as a simple legal matter, with no emotional or dire, foreboding overtones. Maybe it was because they were both so involved in big businesses or something. But it always made me feel a little bit better about it, like I was simply working on a big project too, just like they usually were.

“Yeah,” I rubbed the back of my neck. It’s just a habit, not a tic or anything. “Slowly but surely.”

“I can’t believe how quickly it’s going,” Christy said. “I mean, well, I don’t mean that that way, but like, it’s been a little while since it all started, y’know? From a Whole Thing perspective, you’ve got to be about halfway done or so, right?”

“Yeah, I think,” I looked up at the ceiling, “If you count from when I got picked up and all, probably about that.”

“That’s good! And plus, I feel like the worst of it is over, y’know? Now you can just focus on what’s next. Have you thought about what you want to do at all? Go back to what you were doing? Or something else entirely? This is weird but in some ways I’m almost a little jealous. You have this chance to just pause life and become something completely different if you want. Chris was saying you were thinking about going back to school?”

“Yeah.” (Shit.) “I’m not sure what for, but I mean, like you said, right now is the perfect time to do it.”

“Dad and I were thinking that, too,” mom said. “I know you want to work and get back out on your own, and I know you feel weird being at home but if you want to just go to school, we’d be happy to help you out.”

“Did you think any more about what you’d want to do?” Chris.

Me in my head—“don’t say mummification guy.”

Me out loud—“I really have no idea. I saw a thing today about mummification—”

“Oh.” Mom.

“I mean, I don’t want to be a mummy.”

“Well, that would be down the road.” Christy.

“Haha. Yeah. I know. I mean, it just had me thinking about a lot of different things. Like, I don’t want to be a mortician, but that is a job, y’know? People do that. And it just made me try and think about what jobs there are that, like, I don’t know, maybe I hadn’t thought of before...” I trailed off, perhaps the least convinced of our group by that train of thought.

Christy stirred her iced tea. “Weren’t you thinking about computers at one point? Or am I making that up? I feel like you could get a job doing that almost anywhere, and plus, nobody would bother you. I thought that would be a big plus for you.” She laughed.

“Yeah. Well, it’s not like I don’t like people,” I said. “I can get along with people if I have to.”

“I’d say you’ve proven that in the last six months,” mom said. I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.

“Yeah. I don’t know. It’s like Christy’s saying, anything is an option, but I guess sometimes when anything is an option, it’s too many options. I wish I’d been able to just know, like you guys, or like dad or whatever.”

“I don’t know if I’d say that,” Christy said.

“Your dad doesn’t necessarily love his job,” mom said. “He just goes to it because it allows him to do what he wants to when he’s not there. He can’t wait to retire.”

“I think that’s how we are, too,” Chris looked over at Christy. “I mean, you’d quit if you could, wouldn’t you?”

“Absolutely.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said. “I get that. I don’t know. Maybe it’s super childish of me, but I guess I thought that when I ‘grew up’ there’d be something that I wanted to do. Like, people always told you you could be anything in the world. Colleges taught you how to do whatever you wanted, and if you didn’t learn it in four years, okay, maybe you needed six, or eight, or however long it takes to be a surgeon or something. So, I guess I thought if I had a higher degree to find something. But, I mean, obviously I was wrong about that.”

“Well, maybe it’s like you’re saying. Take a minute and take a step back. There is a lot out there. School’s just one option.”

“Yeah. I think the last thing I need right now is more of the same from those places.”

The waiter showed up about then and took our food order. I don’t remember what I got. Probably chicken or something stupid.

The point is though, it provided a natural break in the conversation, which was then able to organically pick up on an entirely different topic and, having had my time front and center, I was able to keep pretty quiet for the rest of the meal.

Chris and Christy had a trip planned to San Francisco or LA or something in two months, so that was a thing. And then there was the normal ‘how’s grandma and grandpa’ thing. And then the “oh gosh no we are way too full for dessert but everything was so good nom nom nom” thing and then it was pretty much time to go.

We said our goodbyes at the door and I got in the SUV with mom.

“They seem like they’re doing pretty good.”

“I hope they aren’t working too much,” she said. “I know he works a lot of odd hours, so it’s hard to gauge with him, but he’s said she’s been bringing a lot of work home lately, as well.”

“Maybe it’s just that time of year or something. They have that trip planned at least. Surely they won’t go crazy and become workaholics or anything.”

“Oh I know. I didn’t mean that. I just know they both have that drive, and it’s good. I mean, you both do.”

I laughed.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Well, what?”

“It’s not that funny. I was just thinking, we both have addictive personalities. He just picked a better thing to be addicted to.”

“I’ve thought about that before.”

“Really?”

“Your dad’s the same way.”

“Huh.” I looked out the window. This side of town was mostly trees. And then railroad tracks, of course. “So are you some kind of balance? For dad I mean? Because, let’s be honest, you’re not exactly a slacker, either.”

“No, I wasn’t thinking that. I’m sure you each get traits from both of us so I try to keep an open and curious mind about each of you. As individuals.”

“I probably could’ve done a little better.”

“That’s not what I’m saying.”

“I know. But that’s what I’m saying. Somebody needs to say it.”

She sighed. “It’s just a bump in the road.”

“A bump I should have hit about ten years ago.” I laughed, though I wasn’t really entertaining myself.

“Better now than later.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

We rode the rest of the way in silence. Not because we were fighting or anything; I think we both just had no idea what we were supposed to be saying.

Dad’s Lexus was in the driveway when we got back. I went inside and sat with them in the living room for an episode of some historical mysteries show (did Richard the Third kill his nephews to secure the throne? [spoiler: this guy thought no]). Then, custard plans having been nixed, I went down to the basement. Somewhere around the time our food had been brought to the table, I’d felt my phone buzz in my pocket. That wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of anything, but given my limited social circle, and the fact that three of the four people I talked to in town had been sitting at the table with me, I had a decent guess of who was sending me a text.

I’d thought about checking it at the time, but didn’t want to be rude. And truth be told, there was a part of me that thought, oh hell, let her wait awhile this time. Fair’s fair and all. Plus it was weirdly fun to anticipate the message, try and guess what she’d said.

I laid back on the couch, turning on the tv and running through the potential conversations in my mind. I swiped the screen open.

“Google Maps successfully updated.”

Well, joke’s on me.

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