by Young Sung Hero
Lee departed the sanctuary of the rehab slowly, counting each step. He was victorious. He searched his memory for a suitable soundtrack for his walk out, but no melody was forthcoming. All he heard was silence.
He felt an odd twinge of sentimentality projecting from the building. He could hear it whispering words of encouragement. It was a magic building; that, he was sure of. He stared at it. When he squinted, it looked as if it was yawning. It hemmed and hawed, then emitted a slow creak, like an old arthritic leg. Lee smiled. Sometimes, it was better to let things go unexplained. He reminded himself that he was walking out of here clean. This really was a miracle.
A flare of sunlight bounced off a window, blinding him. It felt like a warning, telling him to keep moving. He ignored it. Then, something else caught his eye.
At the very top of the building, scanning the world below was Christabel. Her smile transported him. Suddenly, he was a boy again, back in primary school. He was transported by memory to his seat behind a wooden desk, engraving his initials in its surface with a metal compass. His grey shorts needed a good wash. Underneath the plaster on his leg, a painful cigarette burn reminded him of his mother’s drunken anger. Christabel sat beside him. She leaned against him, scribbled notes in his school books, and made him laugh and feel wanted. He felt far away from the pain and confusion of home. His best friend in the whole world whispered kind words of hope into his ear.
Christabel’s death. The headmaster stood rigidly at the front of the hall, wearing a brown tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. His grey corduroy trousers were too short. A white stripe of ankle showed above each shoe. In spite of this, his voice was deep and firm.
“We have some terrible news. Christabel was hit by a car crossing the road yesterday. She’s going to be in the hospital for some time.”
Each word struck Lee like a hammer driving in a nail.
Not long after that morning, Lee’s mother took him out of school. They moved to a different part of the country. It was a shock to be ripped away from his only friend. After losing Christabel, Lee disappeared more and more into a fantasy world. It was the only way to escape. She was dead, wasn’t she? After a while, he wasn’t sure if he’d invented the whole thing.
He remembered telling teachers and classmates at his new school about his best friend, who’d died in a car accident. The sympathy he received instigated a warm glow inside, like butter melting over popcorn at a theatre. He liked the attention, so he also told them that his mum took him to Disneyland and that his dad worked for NASA.
When he found drugs, he didn’t need to lie any more. They became his fantasy world.
In active addiction, there was no way to distinguish between truth and fiction. Lee couldn’t even be sure which memories were true.
He was sure, though, that her thick, jet black hair had made her look like a mythical Italian princess. As Lee faded through the vision, two figures materialized beside her. Bella was slightly taller than Christabel. She stood tall and proud like a statue of Medusa. On Bella’s right was Neil, wearing a purple shirt with a huge collar. A strange looking hat was on his head. All three looked at Lee, smiling. Bella’s arms were draped over Neil and Christabel’s shoulders.
Lee shuddered as the wild current of the past flowed around him. He floated back to Switzerland, past his time with Wonky and Neil, through the strange underground cave, and on toward Christabel. He remembered his first day walking into the rehab. He remembered how he’d walked through the doors and suddenly sensed that the house was alive with a thousand past spirits of recovering addicts.
And other spirits, too. Bella held out her hand, her palm facing Lee. She nodded at him. Then she, Neil, and Christabel turned and disappeared.
Lee inhaled deeply. It was just another vision. He walked down the path, feeling the images leave his mind. The real world was inviting him back. The air tasted different in reality. Cleaner, fresher. He felt as if he were breathing for the first time. He was clean. This was his truth.
It was the first time in his adult life that he was completely free of all substances. He felt exposed and naked, fresh from the womb. Lee was confused by the past, troubled, scared and resentful. He knew that the only way he could move forward was to put everything behind him and finally, fully live in truth.
As he turned toward his neighborhood, he half expected the streets to be lined with crowds of flag-waving people. But the streets were deserted. A three-legged cat was his only welcoming committee. It eyed him from the stoop. Lee crouched down and clucked at it. The cat looked at Lee with a mixture of disgust and resentment before jumping onto a wall and disappearing. Fine. There went Lee’s optimism.
“I wasn’t taking the piss, you twat. Fuck you!”
Lee wasn’t sure if he was shouting at the cat or himself. He looked around to see if anyone had heard him, then stuffed his hands in his pockets. He was utterly scared. Scared of himself, scared of making the wrong choices, and scared that his insane way of thinking would eventually overcome his logical brain. He was no longer sure where he belonged in the world, or if he belonged anywhere.
He wandered, trying to shake off his self-pity. When he found a cafe, he was relieved. Inside, plenty of talk filled the air. He slid into a chair, hoping nobody looked too closely at him. Self-pity and self-obsession were an uncomfortable duo. He reached into a pocket, taking out his new phone. It was the first time in months he’d had a mobile of his own. However, when he stared into its screen, he felt like he may as well have been holding a paperweight.
He could barely remember the correct keys to press, but fumbled with it anyway, trying to look normal. If he contacted his friends, they’d ask prying questions. How are you? What’s up? He wasn’t quite ready for that. He thought about looking on social media, but even this brought up anxiety. He wished that he could talk to Neil or Wonky: they’d make things right. Even surrounded by people, Lee felt alone and frightened. He hid his head in the menu, pretending to scan it while he listened to those around him.
“So, I said to him: we’re not getting that, it’s disgusting! I mean bright green might be okay for a frog, but not a car!”
“Yeah, Terry’s like that. His taste is awful. He brought a shirt the other day with shiny, silver buttons.”
It was too much. Lee was about to get up and leave when he heard a familiar voice.
Lee looked up. In front of him stood Cagney, Wonky Lee’s missus.
“Fuck me, what you doing here?” he said.
Cagney sat down across from him without waiting to be invited. Her green eyes locked to Lee’s, predatory. She wore a tight black top. Lee took a deep breath, trying to suppress his illicit thoughts. Her perfume was soft, expensive, and French.
She smiled like a cat with a bird. She’d picked up on Lee’s weakness. Her hand caressed his. Her touch was like a splash of the freshest mountain water landing in desert sand. Her long, painted nails were clawed delicately at Lee’s fingers.
“What a coincidence." Cagney spoke with a hint of sarcasm.
Lee knew the right thing to do: fold his menu, say goodbye, and walk away. However, he had no control over the dark, lecherous creature inside him. His better nature was bound and gagged by his lust. In reality, he was so hard up that the situation’s outcome was decided before Cagney even sat down.
“We’ll go back to my place,” Cagney said. “It’s much more comfortable there.”
After the noise of the crowded cafe, Cagney’s car was as silent as a coffin.
Lee tried to reason with himself, although he knew he was out of control. He thought he’d have a cup of coffee, ask about his friend Wonky, and then leave. It was fruitless. The argument inside his head would only ever have one winner.
Cagney drove them back to the flat she shared with Wonky. Part of Lee wanted to shout stop! He didn’t. His words failed him. He could sense the train wreck unfolding in front of him. It wasn’t hard to imagine the destruction he was about to unleash, but the illicit excitement of was far too appealing. Every step he took up the stairs behind Cagney killed a little more of his common sense.
Sex with his friend’s wife was the best and the worst, at the same time. After, Lee sat up in bed, smoking. He felt like he’d just taken some very good bad drugs. By the bed, a framed picture showed Wonky and Cagney walking through an autumnal forest. Their wide smiles looked unbreakable. What had he done? Grief consumed Lee’s spirit.
“It’s a bit too late for that.” Cagney said, stealing a cigarette.
“Too late for what?”
“For your sentimentality.” The words leaked from her mouth like smoke. “Wonky deserves everything that’s coming to him. I’ve given him chance after chance, and he’s put me through hell. Nobody knows what it’s like to live with an addict. You get all the help, but what about us? We’re left picking up the pieces while you get therapy and sit in a fucking circle talking about your feelings.”
Her face was like a shiny, red apple. “Let’s see how he deals with this pain.”
Lee barely had time to admire her naked back as she turned away from him. Before he could say a word, the doorbell rang.
Wonky Lee was coming home.