we left a trail of excuses as we ran with the devil

Five.

Danny’s greatest personal accomplishment to date was beating his addiction. Not getting married, not winning the girl back when he fucked up, not the movie he made with his best friend. A long, hard fought battle to clean himself up and rid himself of the demons that had been plaguing him for a lifetime had cost him a lot but in the end, he had twelve years.

His eternal battle was raging. Danny sat on the edge of the bathtub, frowning down at the small bag of powder in his hand. It wasn’t the first time he had been in its presence in the span of his sobriety, but it was the first time he was alone with it. Thinking seriously of tapping some out on the sink and letting the blissful high take him on a ride to euphoria.

He thought about it often, of course he did. He didn’t go a day without thinking about getting high. He was a drug addict and he would be one for the rest of his life, and he’d already blown through so many second chances. But the craving was always there. He just tried to take it one day at a time, there wasn’t any other way.

It wasn’t unusual for Danny to walk the halls of the theater and smell a familiar aroma late at night. He’d pace the hallways, lights low and hear quiet voices, working out whatever problem that had cropped up – or talking Matt off a ledge when he couldn’t get a scene right and was convinced he needed to throw himself off a bridge immediately because he was a hack – and get a whiff so strong he could taste it and wonder idly if a hit would be as good as he remembered. He’d walked in on someone more than a few times bent over a line, but he’d always been able to walk away. Fight through the longing, put it out of his head, and when he couldn’t, there was a circle of people he could rely on, Samantha and Matt at the top of the list.

Danny had gone to see Roger that morning. The lithe man was a jaguar in human skin who took no shit from anybody. People in Roger’s position didn’t get to where they are by rolling over. He spent his days protecting the company’s stock, meaning he spent the day yelling at anyone and everyone to put out any and all fires. He watched percentages rise and dip, and handled it all with a Cheshire smile on his face. No one saw his real face, the one he had married his wife in. And she was long gone now, her memory buried under facts and figures and blow.

That’s how Danny ended up with the powder. He had blown into Roger’s office, ignoring the poor assistant calling his name, barely knocking on the door. He’d received another text from Lily, an ex-girlfriend, and needed to tell Roger before she blew everything up even further. Danny counted Roger as one of his inner circle because he had to, rather than wanted to, and knew the help he was receiving with the press wasn’t for his sake at all, but he was glad for it all the same.

Danny found Roger with his head bent over his desk, a spray of white inches from his face.

Roger looked up, seconds away from indulgence, cold eyes meeting Danny’s, who was practically salivating at the sight. He straightened up and cleared his throat, “I assume you’re here to discuss the newest script?”

Danny dragged his eyes away from the sight on the desk and looked up. “No. I’m here about Lily.”

“What now?”

“She’s threatening to go the papers about my son.”

Ringing sounded in Roger’s ears, blocking everything else out. Another goddamn problem he had to deal with. He wanted to say Danny was more trouble then he was worth, but it just wasn’t true. Having him on staff increased profits immeasurably. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Let me deal with this,” he said, gesturing to the spread on his desk, “And then we’ll deal with you and your.. newest problem.”

we left a trail of excuses as we ran with the devil

Four.

 

The problem with coke is that you don’t always remember things when you’re fucked up on it.

The first time Danny overdosed he was twenty four and Matt found him collapsed on the bathroom floor. Danny went to rehab and it didn’t stick because he didn’t remember the hallucinations or convulsions. He was young and thought he was invincible and self-destructive creative genius was glamorous.

The second time Danny overdosed he was thirty two and he woke up in the hospital hooked up to a ventilator. He didn’t remember the powder, didn’t remember the yelling – Samantha shouting on the cliff side for him to give her a reason to stay. He didn’t remember pushing her out of the way during his drug fueled psychosis or her slipping and crashing to the ground.

He still doesn’t. Danny can’t remember a lot of things, but he does remember what followed. That June through December nightmare that slipped away into a moment of time he would never forget. It’s what sent him back to rehab, where this time he let over ten years of addiction claw it’s way out of his skin and smear itself on the walls and leave him him raw and exposed.

He was told he pushed her hard, but was just trying to move around her to get away from their argument, but it didn’t matter in the end because he did it. She fell on the cliffs, crashing onto the rocks below and in that instant the four week old life that was growing inside her no longer was. They hadn’t even known it existed.

Three months later, Matt drove him away from the rehab and back into the life he had been hiding from, not taking any visitors or calls; just Danny alone with himself and the other patients and the doctors. He was barely stitched back together.

“It doesn’t smell like her anymore.”

“Hmm?”

“I can’t smell her perfume.” Danny glanced around the apartment, noting things that were missing. Photos, the absence of her humming, the fabric swatches that were always thrown around in a seemingly haphazard way, but made total sense to her, no longer pinned up all over. How quiet and still it was, how stale the air tasted. He turned around and faced his best friend.

“How long as she been gone?” He didn’t want to know.

Matt didn’t want to tell him, but he was going to, because he had just about enough of keeping secrets. He’d watched the man who was basically his brother practically destroy himself. The scraping and fighting to get where he was in life wasn’t going to be for nothing. People recognized his name, his ambition, his ability to turn nothing into something.

He’d watched Danny with women. Things usually ended badly, either because he was an addict or because he was never around or the girl was enamored with the idea that he was going to make it big, and then realized he was still years away from that. He’d watched Danny pick up a loose stray of a girl and devote himself to her. He was different with this one, whether it was because he was eleven years older than her or because she was strong minded, firm in her beliefs and not afraid to stand up for herself. Then it went to hell again and Matt tore her down with a few simple words because he didn’t think she was good enough for him. It bothered him and he didn’t know why, but he wasn’t going to let her ghost haunt him. He couldn’t tell if a storm was coming, or already came.

“Weeks now. Something about a semester abroad and maybe she wouldn’t come back, I don’t know. I came by to grab some of your stuff and she was packing up. Don’t worry about it.”

Danny’s stitches came loose.

 

The devil rolled the dice on Monday morning. Samantha headed her mother off by sending her a link to the story with a text that told her she was fine and to stay where she was. Danny was right, she would be on the next train up, and fuck if she was dealing with her face to face too.

“Are you ever going to forgive me?”

Startled, a bit too in her own head, Samantha stopped herself from sighing, and rolled her eyes at the board she was looking at. “Stop blaming yourself, Danny. Don’t worry about it.”

“You say ‘don’t worry about it’ a lot.”

“I learned from Matt.”

“He learned from me.”

They were sitting in the kitchen, Danny with his laptop open watching nonsense that was frying his brain, his feet kicked up on the table. The late morning sun streaming through the windows was making him squint but it was also casting a glow around his wife that made him think of beach days in Newport and long walks through Audubon Park in the afternoon. Once, during that spring break long ago, Danny had taken her to where he grew up. While walking through the outskirts of the Garden District, a homeless person tried to stop them to tell Samantha that she had the brightest aura around her. She grabbed Danny’s hand tightly and pulled him away, but he had wanted to stop and chat with the guy; he was right.

Samantha had set up a project she was working on against the row of windows in the kitchen because the natural light was good for seeing color. She was trying to match a piece of fabric but all Danny could see was a woman in her element. Her messy hair had fallen out of its ponytail, the tie attempting to reign it all in having lost the battle. He loved her when she was dreaming, but he loved her the best like this. In ripped sweaters and loose shorts, so focused on her work that she forgot everything around her. It wasn’t unusual for her to forget there were other people in a room with her, so absorbed she could get.

“Why don’t you let the design team handle that?”

“Because they won’t take into consideration the price and send in a velvet. The customer will love it and I’ll be annoyed later trying to cost it out. It’s too expensive.”

Danny understood that, price margins were a part of his job, but he wished she had just taken the day off instead of working from home. Their morning had been mostly pleasant. After Samantha shot off a text to her mom they had both turned off their phones. They had set up with coffee and toast and spoke to each other quietly, just enjoying being together like they always did when time allowed.

Eventually, Samantha put her swatches down and turned back to Danny. He was watching her with crinkled eyes and rumpled clothes; he’d never bothered to change this morning. He looked soft and tired, but smiled sadly and sweetly at her as she made her way toward him. Reaching out to push his feet off the table, she felt herself smile back and climbed into his lap.

Pushing her forehead into his and meeting his eyes, she said “I’m happier to have you then be mad at you. I’m.. really sad this is happening, but Danny this isn’t your fault. Listen to me. I hate this. So much. And it’s not okay. But I’m not blaming you.” She pressed her lips to his slowly, letting the kiss linger before pulling away. “I don’t know why all of this is such a big deal or what we did to piss someone off, but if you’re waiting for me to fall apart, I’m not going to. You’re out of luck.”

“I feel like we’re on our way to being burned down,” Danny admitted.

we left a trail of excuses as we ran with the devil

Three.

 

When the press decided her age was no longer bringing in views, they attacked Samantha’s hospital records instead. That turned into an even bigger mess, and when Roger showed up, she retreated even further into the house to block out the never ending unraveling that had become her life.

Why the chairman of the board, Danny’s fucking boss, was in her house, and this whole shit storm had not been taken to the office, she didn’t know. They lived in those buildings, in the theaters and studios, but they all descended to invade her personal space as she became company property instead of a person.

“I don’t care that your wife can’t pop out a kid, I care that the drama is causing a drop in the company’s stock price.”

Samantha’s mother always called Danny the devil, but if she ever had the misfortune of meeting Roger Chadwick, she was sure she would change her mind.

 

The sound of glass breaking as Samantha made her way into the kitchen later that night broke the quiet calm that had settled over the house. Roger was gone, not before looking at her like she was an infestation that needed to be taken care of, and Matt was back and in the guest house with a bottle of something and a pack of cigarettes. She could smell them across the lawn and she reminded herself to do a deep cleaning after his visit was over.

Danny looked up from the shards he was picking up, “I knocked a bottle over.”

“Then why’s there glass on the floor across the room?”

“I threw that one.”

“You’re bleeding. Let me see.”

 

“PR is going to have a statement released.”

“I don’t want to release a statement.”

“It’s not up to you.”

Samantha looked up sharply, but saw no demands in his eyes, no anger, just apologies. She went back to cleaning Danny’s wounds. He had cut himself picking up the glass, his normally steady hands a trembling mess. They had been for days, but only when they were alone, just her and him and the sounds of crickets in the distance. She pressed a soaked cloth against his skin, perhaps not quite as gently as she could have.

“That stings,” Danny grimaced.

“This whole situation stings.”

“The press is ahead of us at every turn, Manny. We need to get ahead of the story before it consumes us.”

“It already has.”

“It hasn’t yet.”

She knew the weight of his words and knew he was right. She also knew the potential impact of letting it continue. Still, would they ever get back to normal?

“This isn’t.. me, getting caught with a dollar bill up my nose. This is you, us, what we have together. What we haven’t been able to do.”

“Not Roger’s percentage dips?” Shaking her head, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“We should.”

She finished wrapping his hand and stood up. “Does it always feel like this?”

“It’s never felt like this.”

 

For as long as Samantha could remember, she loved to wear nightdresses. The kind with ribbons and no lace because it itched. The kind that made her feel like a lady, and not a little girl playing dress up. Loose and flowing, she imagined herself walking around in the twilight lighting lanterns to guide the souls on their journey. As she pulled her favorite over her head, she wondered not for the first time when she landed in a Gothic horror film.

Danny was there, on the other side of their bedroom, grimacing through his fifth water bottle of the evening, a sign that he was wishing it was something else. In flannel bottoms and a cotton tshirt because he was Danny, and he was reliable and warm and steady. She loved him despite his faults and he loved her, and that’s all that mattered. He was hers.

“You wore that one that first time we spent the night together.” His eyes were full of stars at the memory, a small smile on his face, his wavy blonde hair a jumbled mess from rubbing his hands through it all day.

“Please don’t speak. I’m mentally composing the musical score to go with my nightmare.”

Danny’s lips twitched in a smirk, a ghost of a smile, this is why he loved her. She was funny in a way no one else he knew was, a little sarcastic, a little out there, and said the wildest things without meaning to.

“There were no good moors to wander across near your apartment, so your bedroom had to do.”

“There were the cliffs by the water. The beaches were empty at night.”

“The beaches were full of the sounds of drunken college kids up at the campus. Not conducive to good nighttime strolls.”

“I had to build you a house instead to wander around in your nightie.”

“You didn’t build this house. You bought it from some old man who died. I can feel his presence at night.”

“Did you get into Matt’s tequila?”

“I had tea.”

“You don’t like tea.”

“It fits the mood. I can’t wander around in a nightdress without a cup of tea.”

“This might be why Matt thinks you’re crazy.”

“Matt will be forever alone because his imagination is wild on paper and hidden away in a stone castle by Dracula himself in everything else.”

Chuckling, “Okay, okay,” Danny put up his hands. Bracing himself, “Do you want to read the press release before it goes live tomorrow?”

“No.” Samantha switched from dreamer to locked down fortress in an instant. The saltiness in her voice matched the tears threatening to fall because everything came back to this.

Danny barreled on anyway, “They’re going pretty deep. They’re going to talk about the baby and my overdose, and I’m pretty sure your mom will be the next uninvited guest once it hits. You sure you don’t want to know?”

“Which one?”

“Wh-what?”

“Which baby? Which overdose?”

and so, 0.7.

Hunched over the toilet, Christopher plunged two fingers down his throat, tickling the opening of his esophagus, then harder, rougher, up and down up and down. He was holding his breath, almost choking, and when the bile finally rushed up he moved his hand away and let it spill. No time to brace himself or catch his breath, he slammed his fingers down again, willing the act to continue lest he lose momentum.

Finally he leaned back on his heels, hand raw, head pounding. Using the wall for support, he stood up and went to the sink. Thrusting his whole lower arm under the water, he rinsed it, then cupped a handful and brought it to his mouth to rinse, and splashed another handful over his face.

Slowly turning his face up, he looked into the mirror. It was easy to not think about what he was doing while he was actually doing it. It required too much preparation and effort, and total concentration. Afterward all the thoughts he pushed away came rushing back.

Seeing his reflection was like coming out of a fog. His skin was pale. His eyes were wet and red and they looked like he had burst another blood vessel again, and he could tell by the way his throat hurt that it would be sore all day tomorrow. He reached up to feel his neck, ran his fingers over the swollen nodes, and sighed. He couldn’t do anything about that, but some drops would help his eyes, although probably not as well as he hoped.

Trying not to think about the new atrocity he was engaging in, he took a swig of mouthwash and let it burn. Later on, he would brush his teeth and hope they wouldn’t hurt too much. It would be a couple hours until then, hours of forcing himself to smile and talk and answer questions.

Taking one last look around the bathroom to make sure he hadn’t forgotten to clean anything up, he exited, took the stairs slowly, and went to the family room. It was Sunday and dinner had ended, but it would still be a long time before anyone went home and he could escape to his room. Sunday dinners were the worst because all the adult Reagan children came, with their wives and girlfriends and boyfriends, kids of their own. They would stay; watching football, finishing homework, and chatting about the week and the one to come.

XXX

Later, Will slid a piece of pie towards his foster brother, pulling a chair from the kitchen to sit with him. Christopher was in the squashy leather armchair that sat near the stairs, legs curled up under himself, slightly away from everyone else but close enough to be seen by them. He was totally engrossed in a book, lost in the world of Louisa May Allcott, who Kelly insisted he read for the betterment of his soul.

“Little Women?” Will questioned.

“Mhmm,” Chris said simply, hoping he would be left alone but knowing he wouldn’t be that lucky. Still, the youngest Reagan sibling was better than Davy or Dana.

“Ma wanted me to bring you that,” Will nodded towards the pie.

Chris looked at it and tried not to grimace, turning a shade paler, “Thank you.” His chest had felt funny since earlier, which wasn’t a new thing, but it clenched more at the idea of having to consume and rid himself of something else.

“So… the book?”

“Kelly asked me to read it. She wants to see the new movie next weekend but doesn’t want me to judge her choices or something.”

“Sounds like she thinks the movie’s going to be bad.”

Christopher just nodded.

Trying to meet his brother’s eyes, “You gonna eat that pie or keep looking at it like it’s a bomb? Or is it something I said?”

Embarrassed, Chris looked up and smiled guiltily. “Sorry. I’m – I don’t know. I don’t feel great, I guess.”

Will looked at him for a long moment. He picked up the plate and stood. “Yeah, I imagine you don’t.” He turned to go but then looked over his shoulder. “The vent in the bathroom connects to my room.”

 

and so, 0.6.

“Where are you going to stay?” George Reagan asked his foster son. The quiet anger hadn’t left his voice but years on the job and raising children of his own had him well versed in controlling his temper. That morning while looking for change, he realized all the spare cash they kept in the coffee can in the kitchen was gone. It didn’t take long for him to realize a few other things were missing and, living with only one son these days, who the culprit was. Finding the stash took even less time.

Putting an old backpack down onto the bed, Christopher started throwing things in haphazardly. “I don’t know. Not here.”

“You have nowhere to go.”

“I guess that’s not your problem anymore, right? Eighteen’s long since passed.”

“That doesn’t matter to me. What you’re doing now matters to me. When did you fall off?”

“It doesn’t matter to you or it didn’t matter to her?” Chris sneered. He hadn’t mentioned his foster mother since she died, and doing so he knew he had struck a nerve. It was never a secret in the Reagan house that his fostering was something Mrs. Reagan wanted and everyone else obliged. He threw his wallet into the bag and zipped it up. Mr. Reagan stared at the boy as he crossed the room.

“Let him go.” Davy said from the doorway.

Christopher, half inside his coat, looked back at him.

“He’s faded now anyway. You’re wasting your breath.”

xxx

Mr. Reagan stood looking out the kitchen windows, snow coating the backyard in a thick blanket of white. It lit up the night to the point where he hadn’t needed a light to come down the stairs, and was heavy enough to keep him upstate despite not planning to spend the night. He sighed contentedly, thinking of the day.

Christopher stamped his feet on the ground and looked up, his breath rising in the cold winter air. He looked at his foster father, his eyes full of worry and fear and faintly, hope. So different from the emptiness that was there last time they met.

“Dana calls every now and then, Davy texts sometimes. But we don’t talk about anything really. I wanted to see you. I just wanted you to know. Um. That I’m okay, I guess.”

“That you’re not dead in a ditch.”

“No.”

“You’re sober.”

“I am.”

“And you’re a father.”

“I am. And a husband.”

Mr. Reagan nodded at the boy. He smiled at him, “Good.”

“I’m sorry.” Shrugging, Chris clarified, “For everything.”

xxx

“I am incredibly proud of the man you have become,” Mr. Reagan whispered as he hugged his foster son to his chest. Pulling away but still gripping Christopher’s shoulders, he said more clearly, “Don’t forget that.”

“I won’t. Be safe. We’ll see you soon.” With one last look at the boy and his little family, he got into his car and backed out of the drive, careful of the ice.

Snapping the front door shut and locking it against the cold evening, Christopher allowed himself to smile as he moved to his daughters room to check on her. There was always a little tension between himself and his foster father, especially after Amelia died and he started using again, but their first meeting since Chris got clean again went well.

He ran his fingers through Reagan’s curls as she slept, amazed at how much bigger she looked. She was more toddler than baby now, and it was happening much too fast.

“Daddy?”

“Shh. Go back to sleep.”

“I see you.”

“I see you too, Reagan. I love you.”

 

“How are you doing?” Kelly asked him later, as they moved around the kitchen putting things away.

Chris looked over his shoulder at her, “I’m alright,” he nodded. Knowing exactly what she was angling for, “I’m glad he’s not still mad.”

“George was never mad at you. He just wanted you to be better. And you are.”

“I know,” he said quietly. “I think a lot about the last time I saw him. I was awful.”

“You weren’t you. He understands.”

“I was a disaster, Kel.” Pausing to sink into a chair, Chris folded his arms across his chest and stretched his legs out. Tilting his head back, “I hate that I think about it so often but I’m glad I do too. You and Reagan, you two are why I stay clean, but remembering the lying and stealing I did – from such good people? That reminds me why I can’t go back to it, even a little.”

Kelly looked right into his eyes. “Christopher, if you ever touch anything even a little again, I will take our daughter and not come back.”

“I know.” Reaching his hand out, he pulled her to his lap and kissed her. “Kel?”

“Hmm?”

“My dad called me. Like, my real one.”

and so, 0.5.

Scarecrows lined the pathway of the Beckett house and glowing pumpkins were in the windows. Orange garbage bags with painted on faces sat at the curb, filled with fallen leaves. They had put a plastic punch bowl outside, filled it with candy, and left a note that said Take One.

It was Halloween night. Kelly sat on her dresser with Christopher pressed against her. Black streamers and dark lighting, they were behind a locked door while the party went on below them. They had been alone together for awhile, ignoring their friends; kissing, cupping faces and exploring hands.

And talking. Kelly was surprised how much Chris spoke when they were intimate. How much he opened up when he was at his most vulnerable. She loved this side of him.

Christopher tensed, hard, breathing deeply. He tasted her and wanted her and he couldn’t catch his breath.

“Are you sure?,” he breathed.

Kelly pushed against his chest, her lips brushing his, “Shhh. Yes.” She reached down to undo his jeans, sighing against his mouth. “Let me show you what I want.” Then, searching out his eyes, “You’re trembling.”

Chris looked up, lips quirking into a ghost of a smile. “I’m okay.” He bent closer to her and lifted her off the hard wood and onto the bed. Rolling the condom up his length, he then steadied himself on top of her. “I want this. With you. I’m glad it’s you,” he said nervously, leaning down.

xxx

Christopher walked slowly over the crunching leaves that littered the grass he had raked earlier that day. He would have to do it again tomorrow. Checking his phone and seeing he had ten minutes until curfew, he felt around in his jacket for a cigarette. It was surprising to have that ten minutes, since he had stayed to help Kelly clean up after their friends had left.

“Hey.”

He looked up and saw the oldest Reagan son on the front steps of the house. Sighing inwardly at the loss of a hit of nicotine as well as having to endure Davy, he stepped around him and nodded in his direction as he made to go inside. “Hi,” he said softly.

“Now I know there’s no Reagan alive who wants to head inside before curfew.”

Faltering at the door, Chris turned around. “I’m not a Reagan.”

“You’re as good as. Come sit with me. You’ve got a few.”

Sitting down, Chris looked up expectantly. “Yeah?”

“You gonna tell me about what you got up to tonight? Ma and dad might already be in bed, but ol’ Davy remembers the ways of teenage boys well.”

“What?”

Nodding to the Beckett house, “No cops had to show up, that’s good.”

“Why would the cops come? The music wasn’t that loud. Nothing was out of control.” ‘Party’ was only used in the loosest of terms.

“No nonsense I gotta tell the parents about?” He sniffed obviously, “You did a good job of cleaning any scents off you.”

“Do you want to breathalyze me?” Chris snapped. He reddened, realizing he had maybe gone too far. Breathing deeply, he looked up again. “What do you really want? Don’t you have kids of your own to harass?”

“In bed already. Sugar comas. Lindsay and I took them around for candy earlier.”

“Tell me about the blonde,” Davy smirked. “You did have that well satisfied look on your face walking over here.”

“I don’t – ”

“It’s good, you know. Spend time with a girl, especially one like the Beckett girl. Her head’s on straight, which is far from what I can say about you most of the time – ”

“Are you congratulating me or talking shit?”

Davy stopped, staring at the kid. “She’s good for you. I know you. Don’t screw it up.”

“Davy. You don’t know anything about me.” Christopher deadpanned. He stood up, brushed off his jeans, and went inside.

Shutting the front door, he leaned his head back against it. The hallway clock chimed midnight. Time to turn back into a pumpkin.

xxx

Christopher was pulling on a clean pair of pajama bottoms to sleep in when his bedroom door slammed open.

“You know, Chris – ”

He couldn’t help flinching as his brother bulldozed his way into the room. Startled, his vision started tunneling before he remembered to breathe. “Don’t you knock?!”

“You’re going to wake up ma and dad, quit yelling.”

Blinking hard, “I’m not?”

“Christopher. You’re shaking. And white like paper. What’s going on?”

“Nothing, you just scared me, barreling in here like that. What’s wrong with you?”

Davy turned and walked out without answering. Chris sank onto the bed, his heart still pounding. He listened to the sound of his own breathing for a few minutes. “Get a grip,” he said to himself. “It’s just Davy being an asshole.”

“I am frequently an asshole but in this moment, I’d like you to reserve judgement. Here.” Davy shoved a cup of hot chocolate in his hands. “Drink it.”

Breathing in the scent, Chris wrapped his hands around the mug, savoring its warmth. He stared down at it, trying to figure out why it smelled vaguely like cinnamon. “You didn’t spike this, did you?”

Lips in a thin line, Davy rolled his eyes hard at his brother. “No. Drink.”

“Why am I drinking hot chocolate?” He took a small sip.

“You don’t like tea and you don’t need caffeine this late. And chocolate’s good for shock. Your color’s better already.”

“I.. ”

“I know. Stop. Keep breathing and drink.” He placed a hand on Chris’ back. “It’s okay. I wasn’t thinking.”

“About what?”

“That barging into your room like that would do this to you. You don’t have to say anything. I know it put you back there. I am an asshole, I’m sorry.”

Christopher slowly looked back at his mug, and drank some more so he wouldn’t have to say anything. He kept it up until the chocolate was finished. “I don’t mean to be such a mess,” he whispered.

“There are things in your past that most of us don’t have. I didn’t realize how easily you could get sent back there.” Davy looked at the teenager.

“How’d you know?”

“Believe it or not I am an adult and a father. And a big brother. And I didn’t need the physical reactions, I could see it in your eyes.”

Chris cleared his throat. Placing the mug on the nightstand, he stared out the window. “What were you coming in here to say? Before, uh, this.”

“I was going to say things that were out of line and unnecessary. Don’t worry about it.”

Christopher turned to look at him. “I like her. She doesn’t deserve to be talked about the way you started to. And I haven’t touched a drink in four months.” He could see Davy doing the math, calculating how long he had been here as Drunk Chris versus Sober Chris.

Davy looked at him. “Good. Try to sleep, kid.”

and so. 0.4.

“Are you a virgin?”

Wide eyes, then sheepishly, “No.”

Christopher’s hands shook as he reached for his pack of cigarettes. They did so a lot, tremors remaining from his former habits, but the smokes helped. His foster family, the Reagan’s, didn’t fight him on it too much if he didn’t smoke in the house, so he kept the one remaining vice. Lighting up, he saw his girlfriend crinkle her nose before looking thoughtful.

“Was she someone special?” She asked.

Exhaling away from her, “It’s not like that,” Chris whispered. “I’ve had a lot of partners, but it’s not what you think.”

Kelly frowned at the idea that her boyfriend was that much more experienced than her.

“Don’t look like that. I – do you know the reason why I came here?”

“No.”

“Some would say I’m lucky. I’m sixteen, but only on my second foster. And I guess it could’ve been worse, kids can go through lots of them.” Christopher started, then stopped. He looked at her. “I don’t really talk about this unless I have to. I don’t want to, don’t even like to think about it, and that’s probably why I’m so messed up all the time.” He hugged his knees to his chest. “If I tell you some things, will you not tell anyone? People talk enough, y’know?”

“I won’t tell anyone unless you want me to.”

They were against their tree in the dense woods behind their houses. This tree saw a lot, first kisses and clumsy hands and broken bottles and empty bags from nights where nothing was enough. Taking a deep draw off his cigarette, Chris leaned all the way back until his full length was against the ground. He began.

“I lived with my mother until I was about six years old.”

“You knew your mother?” Kelly exclaimed.

Chris looked at her with dark eyes, “I just kind of need to get through this in one shot? Otherwise I won’t.”

She looked at him apologetically and agreed to hold all potential outbursts.

“These people I ended up with. They took in a lot of kids, you know? All ages, but mostly younger. As I got older, less and less of the kids that were first there stayed. But they took more young ones. They had friends, um. Ones they let in our beds at night? They paid to. I know it now, but didn’t really get what was going on when I was little. If we satisfied our ‘customer’ we got ‘candy’ before bed. Um. I don’t know what it was at first, but in the end it was heroin.” Christopher shuffled his feet and sat up, looking for another cigarette. Realizing he’d smoked the last one, his fingers reached for the rubber band around his wrist. Kelly winced as he started snapping it against his skin. The tender flesh was so red.

He looked at her without meeting her eyes. “So no, I’m not a virgin in the sense you’re asking. I’ve had a lot of sex, but not with anyone I wanted to.”

“You don’t have to worry about catching anything from me,” he continued. “The Reagan’s made sure I don’t have anything.” Chris rolled his eyes. “I had more needles after withdrawal than before.”

Kelly grimaced at the joke, and reached for his hands. His wrist was starting to look raw. Putting hers over his, she met his eyes.

“What happened to them?”

“The other kids? I don’t know.”

“Your foster parents,” she clarified.

“They’re in jail. Um. That’s how I came here. Mr. Reagan was the detective that did the investigation.” Christopher looked thoughtful, “I guess he’s Detective Reagan, but he told me not to call him that.”

“Does your mom know about all this?”

“Kel, it’s not like that. We’re… we don’t have a relationship. She gave me up and I haven’t seen her since.”

She looked at him, not knowing what to say.

Sighing, “The Reagan’s tried to reached out. It’s nothing doing. I wonder about her sometimes though. She was getting married. I don’t think she wanted me to know, but I did.”

“What about your dad?”

“Never met him. Don’t even know his name.”

“Davis?”

“My mom’s last name.”

“Oh. It’s all so awful.”

Christopher stood up, “It’s life.”

 

Mrs. Reagan was in the kitchen when Christopher came in later that evening. Noticing that she was washing dishes, he went over to help dry.

“You missed dinner, hun.” She chided gently.

“I’m not very hungry.” Then, “Sorry.”

“Teenage boys are always hungry,” she said wisely. “I’m glad you found someone you like to spend time with, but you still have to follow the rules. Dinner at 6:30, Christopher.”

He gave a small smile and nodded. “I am sorry, I’ll try harder.”

Mrs. Reagan watched him closely as he finished drying. The boy had filled out a little, no doubt from a steady diet instead of one supplemented by hard drugs; his hair was shiny and his skin wasn’t so pale. He looked human, so unlike the skeletal thing he was when George brought him home. “There’s nowhere for him to go tonight,” her husband had said. “I put him on a list.” Little did they know that they’d end up playing such a large role in getting the child’s life under control.

Putting a hand on his shoulder, she steered him towards the table. There was a covered dish waiting for him. Chris looked surprised, “You saved me a plate?”

“Of course. Eat, and tell me about your friend.”

Catching sight of his wrist as he sat down, she sighed inwardly. The boy was improving but still fought so many demons every day. Mentally reminding herself to put Band-Aids and an anti-bacterial on his nightstand, she turned her attention to the story Christopher was telling.

and so, 0.3.

The music was so loud Kelly could feel it vibrate in her bones. She didn’t much like parties, but the need to let off some end of semester steam was alluring to both her and Christopher. They had decided to attend her best friend’s end of the year blow out, for better or worse, and it was turning out to be for worse. She had lost sight of her boyfriend as some of his friends pulled him outside while she chatted with her girlfriends. Much later, she felt his arms slide around her as he dipped his face to hers for a kiss.

“Hey,” he smiled sweetly at her. “Been missin’ you.”

“I can taste rum on your lips,” Kelly started, pulling back from Christopher’s arms. “You’ve been drinking?” She frowned.

Chris felt a little hazy, but his senses sharpened as the tone in his girlfriend’s voice turned accusing. “Just a little,” he admitted, playing with her long blonde hair. “C’mon, it’s ok.”

Kelly turned away from him, trying to hide her disappointment. “You’ve been doing so well.”

The buzz Chris was feeling receded faster. He took a deep breath, “I’m trying to have a good time.” Looking bashful, “I am having a good time. We’re having a good time.”

“I’m not. I’ve barely seen you all night. This is why?”

“Do you really have to do this with all these people around? I’m fine.”

Realizing he was gone, “You’re drunk.” Hurt, “I’ll find my own way home.”

She left, and Christopher stared after her before turning to head deeper into the throng of people. Searching out something stronger, he didn’t go home that night.

xxx

“Christopher, a drink? You look like a Captain man.”

Kelly’s eyes darted to her father, flashing.

God yes. “A soda would be great, thanks.” Christopher replied smoothly. He had almost five months clean and sober, and damned if this dinner with his girlfriends parents was going to push him over the edge. He smiled at Mr. Beckett as the familiar itch ran up his arms. He understood they were weary of him, but he was trying.

“Thank you,” he said quietly as a coke was put in front of him.

“How are your courses?” asked Mrs. Beckett.

“School’s good, thanks.” Nodding. “This semester is going better than last.”

“Well you don’t look strung out, so one would hope so.”

Chris said nothing, but he breathed deeply as he focused on steadying his gaze. He wanted to give away nothing in regards to how he was feeling, they didn’t need anymore ammunition. Under the table, Kelly squeezed his hand.

“Mom.”

“It’s fine,” Chris said. “Really.”

“Is it?” Mr. Beckett countered. “I’m failing to understand what’s fine about any of this at all.”

“Dad”

“Why are we pretending to have a nice meal together? We certainly aren’t.”

“Please.”

“Am I supposed to sit here and ask him to pass the potatoes? I’d rather ask how he plans to be good for you. He’s barely good for himself.”

Chris snapped at the rubber band around his wrist as he listened.

“This is not what we had planned for you.” Kelly’s father slammed his fist on the table. “An addict for a boyfriend? A drunk.” Bitingly, “A prostitute.”

“That’s enough!” Kelly cried, angry now.

“I am right here.” Christopher said. Quietly, to Kelly, “Maybe I should go.”

“I’ll go with you.”

They both got up from the table, one saddened that the wedge between them was driven in more deeply, the other heated. Neither said anything as they left the house, or drove away.

Later, on the drive home, “Can you pull in here?” Chris asked.

“What is it?” Kelly had pulled off the main street and parked in the lot of a darkened building. People milled around the entrance where a solitary overhead light shone.

Quietly, “It’s a meeting.”

Kelly was surprised he wanted to go in as he disliked AA meetings immensely, but knew if he was asking, he was hurting a lot. Itching even more so.

She looked at her boyfriend’s profile. He looked a little beaten down and his fingers were twitching. She’d seen his hands go to his jacket pocket a couple of times as they drove, but Chris would stop them before pulling out the cigarettes she knew were there. It was too dark to see, but she knew his eyes were probably sad.

“I need it,” he whispered. Whether he meant a smoke, a drink, or the meeting, Kelly didn’t question. Probably all three.

“Do you want me to come in with you? Or wait?” she asked.

Shaking his head, Chris made to undo his seat belt. “No, it’s okay. I’ll be okay, I’ll get a cab or something.”

“Christopher?”

He turned toward her.

“I love you.”

“I love you too.” He smiled.

and so, 0.2.

Fourteen year old Kelly Beckett watched from her window as her new neighbor slipped out his back door and walked quickly towards the trees. He was very skinny and probably around her age, but so far that’s all she knew about him. Putting on her flip flops, she moved to leave her own house and follow.

The thing about living upstate was that there was just so much property. Houses weren’t closed in on each other and their yards all led to the edge of dense woods. Because of this, Kelly didn’t catch up with Christopher until almost ten minutes later. When she finally came across the boy she almost turned back. He was crouched against a tree trunk, head bent over so she couldn’t see his face, and sniffing something off a key. He wiped his nose when he was done and looked up.

“What are you doing?” She asked with large eyes.

xxx

“I haven’t been clean this entire time,” Christopher admitted, wincing at the spoken truth. “I’ve slipped.”

“When?”

“A couple of times since I was fifteen. But I haven’t used at all in the last five years.”

Raising his eyebrows, “You got clean at 21?” Josh questioned.

“Yeah, that was the last time. I uh.. yeah. Not to say I haven’t thought about it now and again.” Every day almost all day. The itch never fully goes away.

“It’s hard.” Josh whispered, nodding. Then, “Your wife knows?”

Memories rushed to the surface as Chris remembered first seeing Kelly Beckett, then first meeting her.  Blushing slightly, “She knows. She lived next door to the Reagan’s, didn’t I tell you?” Josh shook his head. Grimacing, “She knew me before I was a real person.”

Josh frowned at that, hating the way his son characterized himself. He did it a lot, referring to the person he was as a child as not real.

Sensing his father’s frustration, Christopher continued. “We’ve been together for awhile. She’s seen me newly sober and not at all. The last time I was using she said flat out she would leave if I kept going.” Looking up, “I didn’t want her to go.”

Sighing, “Josh, look. It’s really hard. I was stoned basically my entire childhood. And when that was taken away I found drinking a decent substitute. It just made everything I hated about myself and about my life go away. But I can’t have that either because I’m not the person I want to be when I drink, and I don’t want the life I have now to go away.”

“But now you’re clean.”

“Now I’m clean,” Chris confirmed.

 

and so, 0.1

Christopher smiled so widely his eyes almost disappeared. It was June, and it was his birthday, and his little daughter had just finished helping unwrap her gift to him. It was a framed photograph of the two: Chris rocking her to sleep when she was newly born, and he thought it had gotten deleted from his phone a year ago. “I missed this,” he whispered into her hair. “Thank you.”

xxx

Later, Josh sipped on a beer while he and his son enjoyed each other’s company. They sat near the low wooden fence in the backyard talking idly. It was their third time meeting, but the friends and neighbors hanging around for the days’ celebration provided enough distraction when things grew quiet.

Christopher started, “Mrs. Langley asked me three times today if you were single. I, uh, wasn’t actually sure so I told her you were with someone.”

“Which one is that?,” Josh questioned.

“The older lady telling the little kids a story by the trees. With the blue hair.”

“She pinched my ass earlier.”

Chris startled, then snorted. Thoughtful, “She would.”

“I do actually have a girlfriend though. Her name is Emma.”

“Maybe don’t introduce her to Mrs. Langley if you ever bring her around. She’s ‘staking her claim’ or whatever that means.”

Josh glanced at his son, “She could be my mother!”

“Kelly says she’s a cougar.”

xxx

They were alone; husband, wife, and child lounging around after the small party was over. Mostly asleep, Reagan had crashed on the couch shortly after the last of their friends left. Happy and full of cake, Christopher yawned and then stretched, showing off a small sliver of tummy as his shirt rode up, his wife staring appreciatively. His lean form left her hungry for something other than the day’s sugar.

“Did you have a good birthday?,” Kelly asked, moving closer to her husband.

Smiling shyly, “I did.”

“Dana called. Wanted to say ‘happy birthday’ but I suspect she wants the dirt on your dad. I told her you’d call her later. Or tomorrow.”

“My dad?”

Kelly shrugged, “I posted some photos. He’s in the background.”

Rolling his eyes, Christopher dipped closer to her, “… call her later,” he mumbled into her hair.

xxx

That night, pressing his forehead against his wife’s, Christopher kissed her gently on the lips and rolled off of her. They had been laying together quietly, spent, just breathing. Normally he would drift off to sleep too, but he was too wired, too full of sugar, and a little annoyed at how often his phone had gone off that evening. While never very close, his foster sister, Dana, had called nonstop. Knowing her it was more to do with wanting gossip than actually wishing him a good birthday, something she didn’t even do when he lived with her parents.

Grabbing the cigarettes he had bummed earlier, he rummaged through his jacket for a lighter and his phone. He had quit a couple of years ago, but still liked to indulge in a good smoke now and then.

Stepping outside, he drew hard as he clicked the lighter to life. He exhaled quickly then breathed deep, relishing the hit of nicotine. He liked smoking, really hadn’t wanted to give it up, but knew he needed to when Kelly became pregnant. Still though, he had very few vices left. He put all thoughts of potential disappointment out of his mind as he dialed his foster sister, feeling around his jacket pocket for the second cigarette, just in case.

“Dana, hi.”