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, 9.

One year later on a sunny October afternoon, Josh found himself parked in front of his son’s house watching a young woman chase a little girl around the front yard. He smiled at their play, wondering who they were. Hoping they made his boy happy.

A year’s worth of therapy to deal with his own issues had come and gone, and he felt ready to deal with the aftermath of that awful day. He had left Christopher without realizing how low he was, too caught up in wanting but not wanting what was in front of him. His sister had called him a selfish bastard when he told her what happened. Then she hugged him. She hugged him again when she dropped him off at the airport, wishing him good luck.

He walked up to the duo slowly, trying to make a little noise as he crunched over the fallen leaves so as to not startle them.

The woman spotted him and smiled, “Can I help you?”

“I hope so. I’m looking for my son. He lives here, Christopher? I’m his dad.”

Her smile faded as she scooped up her daughter and moved to go inside. “Just a minute.”

She sent an older gentleman out, kindly but looking like he was preparing for something. “You’re Josh Lyons. Christopher Davis’ dad?,” he questioned, leaning against the door frame.

“Yes. If he’s not here, can you let him know I stopped by? He has my number.”

“My name’s Jeffrey Ogden. Come on, son, let’s sit down.” He gestured to a small swing chair off to the side of the front yard. It hadn’t been there last time.

As they sat, Josh looked around at the changes that had taken place. A different car was in the driveway and there were curtains instead of wooden blinds on the windows. “Nothing worth beatin’ around the bush for, but Christopher hasn’t lived here in a years’ time. We moved in about ten months ago, and he’d been gone for about two at that point.”

Josh sighed, “You wouldn’t happen to know where he is? A forwarding address maybe?”

Sad eyes met his, “Son, no. Listen to me. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but the young man who lived here prior passed away.” Jeffrey closed his eyes and dropped his voice. “It was on purpose. Chris worked for me. Wrote me out a letter and slid it under my office door so I’d see it the coming Monday morning.”

Josh was quiet as the old man spoke on, not wanting to understand what he was hearing. “But what – ”

“Overdose. When the paramedics found the body he was sliced up real badly too. The boy had problem on top of problem. He was a good kid though. The kind that went out of his way for people. But none of that now.” He plucked an envelope from of his pocket and held it out, “He left a letter for you too. Suppose he had a feeling you’d be back eventually.”

xxx

Josh sat in his hotel room, unable to stop shaking, feeling like he couldn’t breathe. He felt the most wretched sort of person.

Dad,

If it’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that life is hard. It was hard for you and Mom to be teenage parents, so you both did what you thought was best. You did what you thought was best as adults as well.

The truth is, it’s hard for me too. You can’t help the hand you’re dealt but sometimes you get lucky. Kelly and Reagan were my lucky hands. They kept me straight during some pretty rough times. Kelly was there when I was learning to be a normal person. By giving me Reagan she gave me a reason to keep trying.

But I wasn’t enough to save them.

And I’m too much for everyone else.

This is what’s best for me.

 

Christopher

and so, 8.

The wind had picked up since Josh and Christopher had returned home. It held the kind of chill that teased the coming winter. It was the kind of weather both men had grown weary of.

“My in-laws are stuck, too. They knew I was living with their neighbors as a teenager, and since they were good people they were kind to me. But eventually, everyone finds out your secrets.” Christopher looked at his father as he slipped down to sit next to him. He didn’t mind the cold of the concrete steps. They were something he could feel that wasn’t the ever present itch. “The night I called to tell them the girls were gone was the first time I’d spoken to them directly since Reagan was born. They almost didn’t allow me at the funeral.”

“Why?”

Chris met his dad’s eyes, “They said it should’ve been me.”

Josh opened his mouth to respond but no sound came out. He was stunned, not really comprehending that people could be so cruel, but again he knew his son had faced cruelty all his life. He pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes.

Chris continued, “They were just angry. It doesn’t matter.”

“I don’t believe you,” Josh whispered.

Christopher screwed his face up in a way that suggested he didn’t believe himself either. Silent, steeling, then “Can I tell you something?”

“Mhmm.”

“I’m afraid for when you leave.”

Stop. “Why?”

Chris bit his lips in almost the same way his father did when he was nervous, “I don’t really trust myself.”

He immediately wished he could take it back, knowing the weight of the words was too much.  Despite his best efforts, Christopher knew his dad had one foot out the door. He didn’t look back up to see his face pale or his eyes grow wide.

“Oh. Um.” Say something not stupid but shut this down. “I mean, you have someone for that, yeah?” Josh stumbled over his words, not wanting this kind of honesty. “Someone you talk to.”

Sucking his teeth, Christopher nodded. “Yeah. Of course.” No. He hadn’t had a sponsor or been to a meeting in a long time. He believed everyone had their own way of dealing with things, but despite going religiously when he first sobered, he didn’t agree with the method. Chris stopped going as soon as he moved out on his own.

He stood up to move inside, not wanting to draw out the uncomfortable moment. “I uh. I’m sorry,” he whispered.

That night Josh was on a plane back to LA; his nerves shot and angry with himself. He nursed a drink during the flight, hating himself for acting like such a coward. His own mother had berated him when he called to update her, calling his outrage on behalf of his son fake, and how she’d never been more disappointed.

Back in New York Christopher stared down the powder he hadn’t touched in years. The wind howling outside masked his own demons as the night wore on.