Kirsten Anonymous

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Chapter Two

About a week went by without me seeing her anywhere. We kept up that kind of hit or miss texting thing, which, in hindsight, was maybe a little pathetic. After a week though, you kind of start to learn where you fall on the priorities scale. Or at least, I had a guesstimated idea. There were always the unknowns, especially given the situation in which we’d met. I didn’t want to be the guy that always checked in, was responsible for her sobriety. But I also didn’t want to be another guy that just left her hanging. Nobody comes to addictions meetings for fun. Believe it or not.

I was sitting in a meeting one night, it must have been a Saturday, because that was the only weekend meeting I had. I mean, every once in a while something would come up, and I’d have to go to the library or scramble to find one so my boxes were checked on the right dates, but the SHitS only met two nights a week. On Saturday nights, I usually went to the north side of town. There was a small meeting room in a country club where someone had some kind of connection and they’d agreed to rent us the space for an hour a week. Well, not us, but whoever had the connection, I mean.

The group here wasn’t totally different. And it wasn’t totally the same, but sometimes you feel like you could just pluck people from one spot and drop them in another and nothing would be affected. Same stories. Same problems. Same solutions. I suppose that’s how it’s supposed to be. Sort of like how church is supposed to be maybe.

Anyway, that night I was thinking about one time when I’d first started going, like, maybe my third meeting ever. I was in the next town over (because I definitely wouldn’t know anyone there) and this lady was telling her story. They do that sometimes. Like, instead of everybody just hanging out and talking about whatever, or reading from the book and talking about it, sometimes one person gets up and just tells their story. I’m not really sure why. I think so you don’t feel so bad about yourself, or because it makes the person feel good to tell their whole story to someone, but without having to lie or make up or skip any parts.

Anyway, this lady got up and was telling her story, and I’m really new to this whole thing. Like, I thought it would be more like a class. Or like a group where everyone just sits there going “Okay, well I didn’t drink or smoke any crack or steal any pills. Did you? No? You? Okay. Cool. Great work everybody. See ya next week.” Turns out, it wasn’t like that at all.

So there was this woman. I don’t even know her name, not because I’m not supposed to know it, but because I just don’t remember. She was really tall, I remember that. Awful dyed-black hair that I felt didn’t do too much for her drug addict appearance. Which was weird, because she’d been clean for like eight years or something. (I was a touch more bitter and/or rude at the beginning.) But anyway, she was talking about how she started out drinking when she was younger, and then doing drugs, and yada yada, the normal stuff, but then she kind of waves her hand a little and laughs a little and looks up at the ceiling and says “Well, I’d been getting raped by my step-brother for a few years. I guess I should have said that earlier.”

Just like that. Like, oh by the way, I forgot to print the flyers about the cookout, and we need to remember to fold the chairs up at the end of the meeting, and also I was violently molested by a relative on numerous, numerous occasions, for years, as a child.

So, of course, I kind of look around like maybe I didn’t hear that right. But no one is reacting. Or not reacting the way I felt like I was reacting. There were the nods and sympathetic looks and such, but nobody said “Holy shit!” like I thought was perhaps more appropriate. Maybe they knew the story already though, because, believe it or not, it didn’t get any better.

“It was one of those things,” she went on, “where I didn’t know what to do. I was a kid when it all started, you know? And like we all do, when we don’t know what to do with the feelings we have, we try to change them, or bury them, or ignore them. And like we all did, we found out it was really easy to do that by being fucked up all the time. Sorry for my language.

“So I became the party girl. I never told anyone what had happened. That was my little secret until I started coming to meetings, actually. Of course, I eventually got arrested a few times for underage consumption and possession and the like, but I was still a minor for a lot of that, so none of it really made much difference. I figured it was at least a somewhat safer place, being locked up. My mom actually told me that before I moved out, that she slept better when I was in jail. That way she at least knew where I was.

“Anyway, around eighteen, I somehow graduated high school. I was always really proud of that for some reason. Like, I may not remember most of it, but, by golly, I made it through.” She laughed. “But I didn’t stick around here long at all. By the end of the next week I was in Arizona because, why not? And not waitressing, might I add.” Another laugh. “I had pretty well convinced myself that all I really needed was a change of location, a new environment, so I could put everything behind me and just start over. But, of course, that doesn’t always help. ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’ And there I was. It took me about three days before I was out looking to buy just a little pot. Back then it wasn’t legal yet, so I wasn’t always making friends with the best possible influences. One day the guy I usually bought from asked if I wanted to come back to his place and smoke a little, and I’m sure you all know where this is going.

“I won’t say he raped me. Not technically. And maybe that’s because I was comparing it to what I had been through already. But it wasn’t exactly consensual, either. The thing is, it wasn’t as bad as what I was used to, and, in my head, I thought maybe this was just how sex was. I know, it sounds stupid, but I was stupid. I was a kid still. I mean, I had a lot of experiences, but I didn’t know what to do with them. I had a ‘normal’ family, but what does that mean really? Normal except for the sexual assault?

“Anyway, for the most part he was kind of nice, which I guess means he hurt me less than I’d come to expect, so I stuck around with him.

“Fast-forward about six months and we had moved through the options, starting with pot and then, at this point, just really loving heroin. And also from not-quite-rape to me hooking every once in awhile.” She paused again. “I know, this sounds like a bad movie script or something.” She laughed a little, or maybe choked back something that was threatening to be tears. “But it was what it was. I thought, y’know, this is my life. People work to get what they want and I was working to get what I wanted.

“Of course, nothing is ever enough. Not for me, and not for him. One night he said things in town were getting a little too risky, though I think we both knew he meant ‘insufficient,’ so he decided we should head over to Vegas and see about making some real money. Moving up in the world. We lasted, oh, I don’t know, about a week into that perfect plan. We were in a hotel one night, fighting about something, fucked up of course, and that’s when he tried to kill me. Shoot me actually,” that almost silent, strange laugh again, “I guess he did succeed at that part. A lot of all this...I mean, I know it was unhealthy and completely broken and disfigured and not a real relationship, but at that time in my life, I think I thought I loved him...I really did think that. And then he freakin’ shoots me.

“I remember the feeling of it. He hit me in the shoulder here,” she gestured above her left breast, almost nonchalantly, “It knocked me back into the wall and then I was face-down on the floor, blood pooling around me way faster than I ever would have thought. I mean, it’s not really the most fun thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t know if any of you have ever been shot before, I certainly hope not, but in a twisted way there is one thing I always laugh about when I tell this story. Some people I’ve shared this with have been on the receiving end of the bullet, and you know what they always ask? ‘What kind of gun was it?’ Like we’re in some kind of weird club together now. So, for the record, I don’t know what kind of gun it was. Had I known the importance I would’ve paid more attention, but I was busy with other things at the moment. Maybe I’m just being a ‘silly girl’, but to me, and I assume most everybody else, it doesn’t really matter. Shot is shot.” She laughed a little. “Anyway, so I was laying on the floor and remember thinking, ‘just pretend you’re dead,’ y’know? Like if he thought I was dead, maybe he would just leave and not come over and hurt me more and...this is stupid, but maybe if he could go out and blow off some steam, cool down a bit, we could get back to our original plan.

“Instead, I’m laying there on the carpet, trying to not breathe, my eyes closed. The next thing I hear is the gun go off again, and...and he’s shot himself.”

Here, of all places, a pair of tears did slip out. She wiped them away with the back of her hand. Someone brought her up a few tissues from a box on one of the tables.

“Thanks. So, there I am, you know? Completely fucked up. High, drunk, and shot. In the room with the body of my dead boyfriend. Obviously I didn’t know what to do, so like always, I didn’t do anything. The cops showed up at some point, took me in, and once they ran my background, decided to keep me for awhile. Not for the... for his death, but because of a number of other things.

“Sorry, I know I’m rambling. Am I okay on time?

“Okay. Well, needless to say, I got out, a little wiser than when I went in. Not like, more mature, but more street-smart. I don’t think I even once considered getting clean at that point. I’d met some ladies inside and we sort of had our own informal school. Y’know, do this, don’t do that. These are ways to hide needle marks; these are ways to keep yourself safe. Not being a drug addict was never one of those ways, by the way, but it would have been like saying flapping your arms was an alternative to flying in a plane. It just wouldn’t have made any sense.

“I’ll try to hurry. I know we need to wind up soon. And also, the story is basically the same for the next ten years. I’d be out for a while. Hook to pay for what I needed, get beat up or locked up, ‘study’ a little more, and get back out being sure I wasn’t going to get caught again. But either way, it was like I knew, even if I did, it wouldn’t be so bad. It’s trite, but it’s like they say, three hots and a cot. It certainly beat a lot of the places I’d slept. Y’know, you wake up in an alley a time or two, and jail really doesn’t seem so bad.

“Anyway, that was my routine. That was my life. For a long time. And one night, I’m setting up a deal with this guy to get some cash, and I climb in his truck, and he’s just looking at me. And I know something’s not right. I know that’s sort of a stupid thing to say, like, obviously so many things are not right when you negotiating oral sex in someone’s truck at 2 am, but he’s just staring at me. Not answering really. Not saying much of anything. So I think, maybe I’m making him nervous, because he’s obviously nervous about something. But then he reaches under his seat and pulls out a gun. Freakin’ guns again. I know. I guess I thought lightning wouldn’t strike twice, even though I was out there flying my kite every night.

“But he’s staring at me, this look like I’ve never seen. I don’t even know how to describe it; it was just evil. Pure evil. Barely a tiny flicker of good fighting in him. He puts the gun up to my forehead, and says I have to get out. And that’s the last thing I remember.

“Apparently he pistol-whipped me and dumped me on the side of the road. At least that’s what the cops said, because, obviously, me laying at the side of the road, I didn’t look like your typical damsel in distress. I always kind of wondered if, or how many, people passed by before they got there.

“But, about a week later, I get called out of my cell, because, well, they always liked to keep me for a little bit. I always assumed it was my charming personality,” she laughed. “But they bring me down to see if I can identify the guy.

“So, I look through the pictures on the desk, and yep, there he is. The cop goes ‘are you sure?’ and I say, y’know, it was dark, but yeah, pretty fuckin’ sure. When somebody holds a gun to your head, you tend to remember them. Even if you don’t remember the model of the gun,” actual chuckles from the group here.”So he goes, ‘you have no doubt?’ and I’m like, ‘what the hell? No, no doubts. Zero doubts.’ The cop says, ‘do you realize you shouldn’t even be alive right now?’” She laughed here. “I know that’s not funny, but I mean, how many of us have had that thought? Like, I was probably just as surprised as he was, even if our reasons differed. Anyway, it turns out the guy who had kicked me out of his car, the guy that I was just trying to get some cash out of, and was mostly just kind of pissed at for getting me arrested again (y’know, because it was definitely his fault I got arrested), it turns out, he was connected with two other prostitutes in the area (though at the time, I never thought of myself this way). Except in these other instances, he picked them up, had sex with them, and then shot them in the head.

“To this day, I have no idea why he let me go. I mean, I wasn’t, I’m not, anything special. But I will never forget sitting in that room, hearing the cop say that. It was like he was saying I shouldn’t be dead because of drugs; I shouldn’t be dead because of my addiction. Not because of never eating. Not because of some sexual disease. Not because of a thousand other near-misses and sheer-luck moments. I should be dead because, after all the choices I’d made or not made in my life, at the end of it all, I was in a truck with a guy who killed hookers.”

She looked down at the podium in front of her, hugging herself a little. She had some papers up there, but she hadn’t looked at them once during her story. She glanced at her watch and looked back up at the crowd.

“I wish I could say that was the moment I got clean. That I listened and really got it together right then in that chair. I didn’t. Obviously, I didn’t. Because of a lot of other things I don’t have time to say. But I do know that was the moment I started to get clean. I know that sounds like a cop-out in a way, or like I just want the story to end at the most exciting part. But, I’ll be the first to tell you, I’m no hero. I kept struggling for a while. A long while. I still struggle, every day. But I at least know how to handle it a little better now. And that’s because of these rooms, because of you guys. I guess I hope that by telling you all this, you’ll see that there’s always a chance to change. Thank you.” She laughed again. “That’s all I got.”

—Thanks, ______.

And there I sat, automatically saying thanks with everybody else.

So then they wound up the meeting. Somebody read the little sheet they read at the end, and everybody said the Lord’s Prayer, and that was that. Just like it was any other meeting. And maybe for these guys, for the people that had been coming for twenty years and never missed a meeting and had longer drinking runs than I’d been alive, maybe these things were ‘normal’ to hear.

I’d gathered up my things and went out to the car. I didn’t have my license back yet then, and mom had waited in the parking lot.

“How’d it go?” she said.

“Um...I don’t even know.”

She’d looked over but didn’t really say anything. One thing my folks did do, they would let you process things on your own for a minute. They never forced you to say anything.

But, like I said, that was at a different meeting. I didn’t go to it anymore after that. Not because of that lady, but I was always afraid she might think that was why.

The meeting I was at though, my off-night meeting, was much more tame. Not to say it wasn’t often startling, or less outside of my regular perspective (this one guy had ended up in the hospital because he thought he found a jar of moonshine—turned out to be anti-freeze. oops.) The thing about it, though, was that it really wasn’t so different from the meeting with that lady. I still felt like the person who was sitting there, not quite fitting in. Not that I felt I didn’t belong. In fact, the state had provided some extremely well-paid and experienced people to decide that I indeed “ought” to be there. But belonging doesn’t always mean the same thing to everyone.

These guys were more the too-many-DUIs crowd. The occasional drug user. As opposed to a few meetings I’d tried, this group didn’t care what you were, as long as you were there. Addicts is addicts, as they say.

This night, the guy leading it had brought his kid. Every once in a while somebody would do that. Sometimes it was an actual baby, which was weird, because some person would be telling this long story or trying to make a point or something, and then the baby would start crying and all and you didn’t know if you were supposed to stop talking and wait for the baby to be quiet, or talk louder, or crack a joke or something, or what.

The good thing about this meeting was, they never made me talk. Sometimes they would say “Cole, you doin’ all right?” And I’d say “yeah, pretty much” and then they would laugh about how I was always just thinking things. I think they thought I was really smart or something, though it was closer to that Abe Lincoln quote about opening your mouth and proving you’re a fool.

There used to be a really crotchety old guy at this one, but I guess he didn’t like it much, or thought everybody was too new, or maybe just the scheduling didn’t work. You never knew with things like that. You’d sit there assuming somebody was out tied off in a gutter, and then run into them at some other meeting you didn’t usually go to. They really took the anonymity thing seriously like that. I never figured out if I was supposed to say hi at the grocery or wherever, or if you were allowed to ask like, anybody know what happened to so-and-so? But, that was kind of the appeal in a way I suppose. Like a spy meeting or something.

This night, there was really nobody saying much of anything, and the two talkers were basically just passing things back and forth, and occasionally saying “I guess if nobody jumps in here, I’m just gonna keep going, so...”

I had my notebook in my lap, open to a page that was already scribbled on so it looked like I was writing things down. My handwriting is pretty bad, so I didn’t have to worry about people reading it at least.

Anyway, we were in the meeting room, and this guy’s kid, he was maybe nine I guess, he had brought this big bag of toy soldiers and things, and there was a total battle royale going on at the table across from us. He had tee-pees (decked out with confederate flags somehow), cannons, cavalry, World War II guys, tanks, covered wagons, pine trees, a canoe. It looked like it was some kind of time war, the old versus the new. The tee-pee side had one of those large-wheeled Civil War type cannons; the new side had a Stealth Bomber.

So I watched him set this up early on, and in the course of the hour, this battle just becomes more and more complex. The old-timey guys start acquiring modern weaponry. The modern guys are moving forward (well, all except the flag-bearers, for some unknown reason) until the field of battle is lined all the way across. Green, blue, gray, brown, laying, standing, kneeling in the midst of one another, facing all directions in their various poses of battle. He’s all over the place with this thing.

I keep checking in with the meeting occasionally. The nice thing is, after a while, even if you bounce around different meetings, you learn to sort of subconsciously pay attention, waiting for verbal cues or clues that mean somebody might be winding up. Then you just recycle something from your cheat sheet or try to wing it. Worst case scenario, you’re always allowed to pass. Which, I did not know the very first time I went.

That was at the sobriety house in town, the one I assumed Kirsten was staying at, and in that place, if nobody talks (which nobody ever does, because they’re all about 72 hours out of lock-up) they just go around the room. So I’m sitting there totally confused in the first place, and also on the side of the room they’d decided to start the talking circle with. The first girl goes. She’s in again, DCS case, really gonna get it right this time. So on and so forth. The next person talks, this guy who looks like he’s not entirely unfamiliar with the routine either, and he gives her the standard “you have to do this for you, not for anybody else, not your kids, nobody” spiel. Now I’m sitting there even more confused, because here I was thinking another person as a motivator would be a good idea. But, that shows what I know.

So he winds it up, and then it’s on to me. I say “Hi, I’m Cole,” and then just go straight into it, figuring, if I start talking fast enough, nobody will notice I left out the label. Not because I was embarrassed or anything, but because I was thinking, number one, I’ve never considered myself anything worthwhile enough to actually label and file, and two, if I were gonna pick a label, why on earth would I pick one that would just start the cycle all over again? Like, who wants to wake up every day saying to themselves, “Well, first off, I’m a piece of shit. Let’s see how this goes.”

Anyway, I start talking. I’m not a big talker to begin with, and I don’t have the slightest idea of what I’m supposed to be saying anyway. I don’t have any kids. I don’t have any hard drugs on my record; I don’t even know anything about them at this point. I’m kind of sitting there thinking, like, wow, I need to do a lot more bad things to even deserve to be here. Not like I didn’t earn it my own way, but it sort of felt like taking up a seat when somebody else could have used it more, like going to the gambling meeting because I bought a lotto ticket one time when the jackpot was really up there.

But I keep talking. I say how I got there, how bad I feel, all the changes I’m going to make, had even already begun to make. Basically a bunch of stuff that I realized later, everybody says at first, and nobody thinks you’re clever for it. They’re all just being nice and not pointing out that everything you say is exactly what a new person would say. I go on for like five minutes with all this.

When I’m done, they all say “Thanks, Cole,” and then the guy next to me, he says, “I think I’m gonna just listen today.” And they all say thanks to him, and it just moves right along.

What the hell?

For all the reading and “unorganized” organization, you’d think somebody would do like Trey and say, y’know, “Hey, if this is your first time at a meeting, you don’t have to talk.” I even heard people say later that they were told not to talk for the first three months. I guess that’s what I get for flying solo. But it’s kind of personal, you know?

Anyway, as I was saying, I was sitting there watching this kid and sort of listening. By the end of the hour, this whole battle, it’d become total chaos. But slowly, without me even really noticing at first, everyone started to return to their original sides. The gray guys went back to the teepees. The green guys moved back into platoons or squads or whatever they’re called. And suddenly, they were all lined up facing one another again. The no-man’s-land in the middle was clear. The cannon had been wheeled back next to a piece of split-rail fence. The Stealth just sat, taxied into position behind a row of green. Everyone stood there, blankly staring, waiting to return to the box.

The kid, he stood by the middle of the table, looking over both sides, thinking who knows what.

About then, somebody pointed out it was time to wind things up. Someone else read, the prayer was said, and I headed out to the truck.

Back at home, I stopped in to say hi to mom and dad, gave my report, and disappeared to the basement.

I didn’t even bother trying to look for a job that night. I just laid down on the couch, turned on the tv, and tried not to think about anything.

* * *

Three days later I got a message from Kirsten.

“You going to the meeting tonight?”

At first I wanted to say something shitty like “duh” or “show up and you’ll find out,” or, be a real child about it and just not say anything at all for a couple days. Taste of her own medicine.

But of course, I didn’t. I was excited about seeing her, as stupid as that sounds.

So, I sat there for a second, and then said, “Yeah. You?”

“You know it. I was hoping I’d see you there.” Winky face.

I thought, okay, and wrote “Oh yeah? I was hoping that too. We’ve missed having you around.” (I was kind of proud of that. See, I figured the ‘we’ made it sound a little less needy and weird. ”We are all a group, and we all worry about you, and we all want to see you succeed and whatever.“)

“Yeah, work got kind of crazy but I ended up quitting that job anyway.”

I looked around the basement for a second. I’d accidentally slept on the couch the night before and, besides lunch, hadn’t really moved much since then. I needed to go ride the bike or do sit-ups or something, but I had eaten a little bit when dad was home, mostly so mom wouldn’t worry, and I didn’t really wanna puke at the beginning of a ride.

“That sucks,” I typed. “So what’s your plan then? You’re at Second Chances, right?”

“Yup. How come you never come visit me?”

I smiled a little, in spite of my good intentions, and typed “You never invited me, goofy.”

“Well what are you doing right now?”

And almost immediately my good spirits crashed. I’m not OCD or anything, but I do prefer to have time to plan ahead a little. And plus, what was I gonna say—‘hey mom, gotta run down to the sobriety place and talk to this chick’?

I guess, technically, that wouldn’t have been that bad, but at the same time, mom knew I wasn’t really Johnny Helper. Plus, ever since this “criminal” thing had started, it was a mountain to climb, not a hike to enjoy. Or even admit to being on, if it at all possible.

“Just getting ready to go ride the bike.” I paused, then deleted. “Getting ready to work out.”

“Oh reeeeally?” Smiley-face with hearts for eyes. “You looked pretty good last time I saw ya.”

I actually laughed, so when I typed it wasn’t a total lie. “Haha. Well thanks. You’re not to bad yourself. Those were some pretty nice abs.”

I hit send right before I noticed the missing ‘o’ and had a brief, forty-second freak-out before she responded and seemed not to have noticed.

“Aww, well aren’t you the sweetest? You can come see them sometime.”

“I just may have to do that.”

“I hope you do.”

At this point, obviously neither of us was actually saying anything of value, and I “had to go work out.” But at the same time, I didn’t want her to stop talking to me. Maybe it was just the glimmer of realization that I hadn’t talked to a person outside of my family or meetings in months.

Of course, I couldn’t think of a damn thing worth saying, though.

“Count me in,” I said. “But right now I need to go get all fit. I’ll see you tonight, right?”

“Duh.”

“Awesome.” I hesitated a minute. “Glad to see you’re not dead.” No. I deleted that. You never really knew if someone might actually be dead, especially in these situations. “I’m glad you got in touch. I’ve been wondering about you.”

“Aww, you miss me.”

“Oooookay. I’m going to go do something. I’ll text you when I’m back. Talk soon, K.”

I wandered around the basement for a few minutes, debating on actually going for a bike ride, but I didn’t want to be a liar either. So, I slowly changed into gym shorts, found my earbuds, and put on a pair of old running shoes.

When there was still no response, I had to assume she took my goodbye as a goodbye. I went upstairs and hollered up to mom that I’d be back in an hour.

“Okay. Be safe.”

“Always.”

I started riding too fast that day. I do that sometimes, if I’m excited, or if I’m frustrated with myself. Usually you can use a good helping of self-hatred and make almost any workout better. It becomes less about improving yourself and more about just beating the shit out of the awful person you are. It’s pretty effective, really. And even if I started out excited, like I did that day, I usually felt really stupid for being excited, and not pacing myself better, and so in the end it turned out to be pretty much the same thing either way. If you can clear your mind of everything but disgust, time stops. You just see the road and the hills and feel your legs burn, the way your eyelids are raw from wiping sweat out of your eyes. When you see people, you know they think you look like an idiot, because your gym shorts and track shoes are obviously not what actual cyclists wear and you’re just some jackass pedaling like mad for no apparent reason. They probably don’t even think you’ll keep up with it. They probably think you don’t have a license, or you’re one of those guys who has convinced himself he’s going to become something really good, even though the important part of becoming anything in life is already a decade behind you.

The routes I usually went, it wasn’t hard to add another mile here and there in the middle, which was a really good place to do it, because then, when you’re starting to feel puke-y, you’re still on the other side of Arden with seven or eight miles between you and the driveway. And if there’s one thing you absolutely will not do, it’s be that guy who’s too tired and is walking his bike. If you get stopped by a train, that’s one thing. But even then, it’s better to just turn around and deal with what you’ve got to deal with. Sometimes you can accidentally add three or four miles just from trains.

Then, when you get back and your legs are refusing to return to walk motion because you just rode around the sub-division two more times to completely use up everything, when you get downstairs and your phone screen is still blank, you remember that your legs are tired, but you didn’t do any kind of arm work-out, and you can do push-ups till you can’t push up anymore.

The best is if you actually do get sick. Then you can skip out on eating for a while without raising too many eyebrows. You just can’t do that very often because people think you have yet another weird problem. Plus, I end up with a headache if I don’t eat for a couple days.

The good thing is, I was still tired when I got ready for the meeting that night, so I knew I’d done a good job. I also didn’t get there too early or anything.

Walking in, I went over to a corner table and sat my notebook and hat down, saying hi to a couple of the guys. I took my attendance sheet up to the main table, looking around. It was pretty obvious she was nowhere to be found, unless she’d gone down the hall to the bathroom, which wasn’t entirely unlikely, I figured. I checked my phone and turned the ringer to silent. The windows on my side of the building looked out to the railroad tracks. They sat on the other side of a little alley and a small scratch of trees, which served more as a trash catcher than a sound block. Usually there weren’t any trains during the hour we were there, but the schedules were never entirely predictable either. On the off-chance one did come by, it was almost like somebody’s kid crying, except a little better. Nobody felt uncomfortable about the noise, but nobody could really talk either. I always kind of hoped for a train. It gave me something to look at, even though trying to see what the graffiti said made my eyes hurt after a while.

But the point was, odds were not high I would see her car when she pulled in. If she pulled in. If she could even drive. Could they drive at the sobriety house? I knew most people had jobs there, so they had to get to work somehow. There were definitely cars in the lot when I’d driven by before (it was kind of on the way to everything from where my folks lived). Then again, one of the old guys in the SHitS said he would go down and taxi people around sometimes. I’d always assumed it was just because he liked to hang out with the “kids” though.

Just before they started the meeting, I caught her voice in the hall. Just hers, although she was definitely talking to someone. A moment later she poked her head in the door, pointed to the phone at her ear and held up a finger toward Trey.

“I guess we can wait a minute,” he said, beginning to sign the papers in front of him.

I smiled to myself a little, like, ‘oh this new girl, she’s just gonna be one of those kids…,’ figuring that was what the older guys would do. I didn’t really see, though; I was looking at the floor.

A few minutes later she came in, slightly more dressed than last time, wearing a work-out type jacket over her top. “Sorry,” she said, “I was talking to my boys.”

“No problem,” Trey said. “We’re just glad when people show up.” Everybody chuckled a little like we would have had to cancel the whole thing if she hadn’t made it or something.

She settled into her previous seat, giving me a grin across the room and eyes that did nothing to hide her excitement at seeing me.

I smiled back, trying to be cool, and rearranged myself in my chair.

About halfway through the opening readings, my phone screen lit up on the table. “TXT from: Kirsten.”

I let it sit for a second. I had never actually had any reason to silence my phone in the meetings before, but it seemed like what everybody expected you to do. For once, that was paying off. I let the screen go dim, then dark, and then waited another minute or two before ‘just happening’ to glance at it. I figured nobody could see if it was lighting up or not from where I was, so who’s gonna know the difference? Besides her, I mean. Plus this way it wouldn’t seem like I was Mr. Eager Beaver.

I swiped the screen on and opened the messaging app.

“Hey handsome. Glad to see you made it.”

I smiled again, glancing over at her. She caught my movement and smiled back, eyebrows raising just a touch, in what I was starting to think of as her signature look.

I pulled an extra chair over and propped my legs up so I could lay the phone on my thigh, typing with one finger, slowly, and with a look of “this is important” on my face, so nobody would think I was just slacking off and not paying attention.

“Well hi. I’m glad you made it too. I was starting to wonder.” Send.

She apparently truly wasn’t paying attention to her phone, which seemed weird since she had started the conversation. It took her almost five minutes to write back.

“I wouldn’t miss out on seeing you.” Winky face.

I glanced up at the clock, wanting to give a little time before my response, and also give myself a little time to think of one. Yup was talking about something, probably his grandkids or whatever, and I didn’t want to just totally ignore him. So, I looked over his way and listened for a few minutes, thankful to note someone else was currently the target of his never-ending stare.

It was in the middle of this, some story about when he first started coming that I’d heard forty times, that he started to tear up. Which wasn’t unusual either. Apparently he’d been coming to meetings for almost sixteen years, but only sober for thirteen. So, the math there wasn’t too tricky. But you can only see an old guy start to cry for so long before you start to think about it. Three years of actually trying, and failing, over and over, but really truly wanting to do something. I hadn’t tried at anything that long in my entire life, let alone all the while being unsuccessful at it. School was school. College was college. Jobs sort of fell into my lap. Not that they were amazing jobs, but they weren’t fast food, and they were for the most part in climate controlled buildings. I tried to think back to where I was three years ago.

It wasn’t the clearest picture, to be fair. I usually kept track of years by where I lived, or later, who split up with me around which birthday. It got a little tricky during those last three, because I was letting people drop left and right, never living anywhere for a full year. I basically bounced from place to place, wearing out my welcome, then being all up in arms about it and trying to keep as many people on my side as I could. But you can only hear ‘I love you’ so many times before you’re just like, ‘c’mon.’ Even Yup with his “I love you and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it.” I mean, sure that kind of love, I guess I can see that. But is that even love, or is it just loving the idea of loving, loving that you can present a personality of love-ability? I think I loved that maybe I could be loved, or at least loved the idea that I could be intriguing, but looking back, I don’t think I would go so far as to say I was loved. Love is supposed to last. Infatuation though, that clearly has its irritation level limits, as I had found out numerous times.

Not that I’m blaming anybody. It was kind of my thing. But choosing to love, to change, to do anything requiring effort, that was something I was probably even less familiar with. Although on another day I’d probably tell you otherwise. The truth is, though, that night, thinking about three years ago, thinking about sitting there, I knew I still wasn’t doing anything. I hadn’t chosen anything. I was just being a felon. I was told to come to these things when I got out, or I’d have to go back in. And that seemed like a nuisance. So I did what I had to do to not go back. I hadn’t wanted to clean up. I was forced to. I hadn’t wanted to be different. I was legally obligated. And the thing is, none of it really mattered. None of the people who swore they would always love me would answer my phone call. Nobody who’d said “oh if you could just be like this or that everything would be fine,” none of them were even around to see if this or that was better.

I mean, sure, supposedly it was, but at the same time, you dig these holes and you realize eventually you are down too deep. Of course, at that point, you don’t care anymore and you start digging faster. But then, right at that moment when there is no hope of getting out, no point of even trying to get out, to be honest, that’s when all of a sudden the stupid law steps in and says ’ok, now it’s enough.’

(And don’t think I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have not taken somebody down with me. But I hadn’t, so that’s all I had to work from.)

The thing is, there I was, getting all these pats on the back from a group of addicts, or my family, and it all felt just like what I imagine the last guy in the race feels like, when he’s worn out and dragging and in no shape to be seen by anyone, and then everybody stands around clapping, like they’re so proud of you for finishing. Hey, buddy, just so you know, they aren’t proud of you for finishing; they’re proud of themselves for being so nice as to wait for you. So noble, so sympathetic. And then also, so glad they aren’t you.

I glanced over at my phone and ran a hand through my hair. Yup was still talking. I looked out the window for a little bit and let my phone sit, deciding I really didn’t have anything too much to say in response to a winky face.

Of course, with about ten minutes to go in the meeting, I changed my mind.

“You sure seem to like flattering me.” I hesitated, then added “haha.” Send.

A lightning quick response this time. “That’s not all I’d like to do.”

I laughed a little under my breath and glanced over at her. She was suddenly fully engrossed in listening to a lady talk about her husband’s problems. Sometimes you get those, the people who don’t know what to do about somebody else. I never know who to believe. I don’t know if people did that about me or not either. I hope not. Because it turns out, there really isn’t an answer for what to do. You let them keep floundering and hope to high heaven they don’t maim somebody (else) before it’s all said and done.

The lady pretty much talked us up to the end of the meeting. People did their little readings at the end and then everybody got up to join in the prayer circle. Kirsten somehow futzed around at her table till the group was almost formed and then slipped in between me and another guy. She smiled and took my hand, and about halfway through, loosened her grip so she could lace her fingers between mine. Outside of my mom hugging me when they picked me up from prison, and holding hands with these strangers, it was the first time a person had touched me on purpose in over a year.

After the “amen,” she gave my hand a quick squeeze and we all split off to gather up our things. I grabbed my notebook and ballcap, picked up my sheet from the stack at Trey’s table and slowly made my way toward the door. Kirsten was over at her table still, talking to Yup, giving hugs to everyone as they left, saying something about how much she liked the group. I slipped out, down the hall, up the stairs and to the truck.

I waited in the parking lot for a few minutes, trying to think of some boring excuse to give my parents if I was fifteen or twenty minutes late getting home. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say the meeting went long, or that I got to talking to people afterwards. Hell, they might even like that. Taking charge. Making the best of a bad situation. But then again, is anybody really proud to say their son is friends with a bunch of geriatric dope fiends? I started the truck and looked around once more. People tended to either jettison out the doors as soon as the meeting was over, or linger for who knows how long talking about whatever else they didn’t talk about during the last hour.

When the first group began to trickle, I turned on the radio and drove back to the other side of Arden, the one where people might recognize me.

I sat with mom and dad for a while that night, fighting an urge to make every comment into some bullshitty “woe is me, don’t you hate me, why do you even let me live here” type tripe, but also not wanting to sit somewhere else not talking. Around 10:30 they began their nightly going-to-bed routine, and I went down to the basement. I turned the tv on to the same program we’d been watching upstairs (always TLC in that house, though ironically never the band). I kept thinking maybe there would be some interesting part in the show that they missed and I could explain it to them the next day at lunch. Kind of point out that I wasn’t totally useless, just ‘differently abled.’

A little after eleven, my phone lit up on the coffee table between the couch and the tv. I hadn’t remembered to turn the ringer back on, apparently.

Kirsten— “You disappeared quick.”

“Yeah. Sorry. Did you need something?”

“Just you.”

I could feel myself split in two, partly wanting to believe she meant she just couldn’t resist me, partly wanting to believe she actually needed me for something real.

I played the third option. Right down the middle. “What’s up?”

“Just hangin out at the house. Wanna come by?”

I glanced over at the clock, trying to remember if she and I had come to any conclusion about whether I had actually found a job or not. Not because I wanted to go, but because I didn’t want to be a total dick and just say no.

“I can’t tonight,” I typed. “Got a lot to do tomorrow.” That was at least sort of true. I had to wake up, shower, eat probably. The list was never-ending. “What’s going on over there this evening?”

A few minutes went by with no response. Then,

“Sorry. I was running around naked.” Big smiley face.

“Um, what?”

“Just got out of the shower. Wanna see?”

In spite of myself, I laughed. “Well... one, duh. But more importantly, two, aren’t there guys there also? Or am I confused?”

“LOL. It’s two different wings, bro.”

“Ahh, ok. That makes more sense. So, what is this, a sorority party?”

“You should come by and see.”

“It sounds like I won’t be allowed in for the fun parts.”

“I’d sneak you in.” Winky face. Then almost immediately, “J/k. They’d kick my ass out for that.”

There. That, at least, was some kind of grounded reasoning. She wasn’t totally crazy. Just messing with me. It was starting to make more sense.

“Oh I see how it is.”

“You could be seeing it.”

“That’s what you keep saying.”

“Just sayin. If you wanted to see me that bad, you’d make it happen.”

I glanced at the clock again. Somehow in the constant but varied pauses between these messages, almost forty minutes had gone by. “It’s closing in on midnight,” I typed. “Don’t you guys have a curfew?”

The pause this time felt even longer, like I’d accidentally shamed her or something. When my phone lit up again, instead of “Text,” it said “[IMG].”

I looked at it for a second, trying to anticipate, or rein in, a reaction. Not that anyone was going to see my face, but I also didn’t want to wake up in the morning and reread this whole thing, only to find I was a complete child about it all.

I clicked the icon, and there she was. Big smile, clearly caught mid-laugh, with her eyes grinning almost as much as her lips. Wet hair pulled back, a few drops still shining on her collar bones. Naked shoulders, just the hint of her chest, and there the picture cut off. Whether she was really naked or not, I couldn’t tell you. In hindsight, I’d have to guess absolutely. But, as I looked down at the picture in my hand, I also realized the reason for the laugh was wildly evident. For all I knew, she had on a strapless evening gown.

I shook my head, smiling, and trying to regain my standing.

“Ornery.” Send.

“What?”

“That’s all I can say. You are one ornery girl.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“Haha. No. It just means I’m going to have my hands full with you.” I hesitated and then hit send. If we were sending possibly naked photos, surely we were at a place of playfulness that could handle a mildly, slightly, minutely flirty response.

“You better beleve it.”

And I’ll admit it, the typo probably bugged me more than it should have, but she’d let mine slide. The important thing was I had someone wanting to talk to me. Someone that wanted to tease me and hold my hand and text with me at midnight. Granted, maybe it wasn’t the best situation in the world, but then again, everybody’s got their secrets. Everybody’s got their weird ‘how’d you meet’ stories. And at least it wasn’t like we’d met because of an “active” addiction. Or at least not one we recognized at that moment. Plus, if anybody was going to “understand” me, wouldn’t it be another person that totally, truly understood?

“I think I’m looking forward to that,” I typed.

Apparently I was too slow, because by then, for some reason, she’d gone silent for the rest of the night.

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