He’d shown up late but he’d shown up. At least he could tell his wife that.
Dawn had yet to break and the whole town was tinted liked the brightness had been dialed back a couple notes. The meeting was in some church he’d driven by a million times. Before now, it had occupied his mind as nothing more than a backdrop to his commute. Just a fixture in the road, a chromatic aberration that blurred into the landscape so long as he wasn’t looking at it. But now he was looking at it. The flickering street lamps stretched his shadow long against the dull brick exterior until the massive silhouette dwarfed him. The left horn of the shadow was a hairline lower than its right and he thought back to the fight with his brother when he’d broken it. His father had told him he was lucky it healed, that he’d known a few minotaurs at his last construction site who weren’t so lucky. Brendon bowed his head and charged the door with an added jolt of urgency.
With one blaringly recent exception, he hadn’t been inside a church for years. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but he knew he felt strange in the worst sort of way. The door made a popping noise as he cracked it open, like breaking the seal on a jar, and the silence on the other end shook him sober. The lobby was as forgettable as any other and a lone sign greeted him. Though the church appeared empty, there was a quality of fullness to the air as if the building’s frame and foundation were radiating vitality. Through the hazy light leaking from the windows, he squinted at the sign and followed its directions. Left, right he turned down the dim hallway. He could hear voices and by their tone, knew it was small talk. He’d never been one for small talk. It wasn’t too late to leave. He’d made it in the building. He could tell Maggie about the brick exterior, the sign, the hallway. The meeting he could fabricate, flesh out the lie with a flare of details, but he thought better of it. She deserved the truth. He approached the sliver of light at the end of the hall and pushed the door open with sweaty palms.
It was some kind of conference room: off-white walls, gray carpet, and stacks of chairs against the wall. Near the doorway was a table with store-bought cookies, an air-pot of coffee and cocktail napkins. Cheap hospitality. The aesthetics were meaningless to him. Maggie took care of decorations like she took care of cooking and took care of the boys. Those were her things. He took care of the money at work and at home. At least, he had. Nothing was certain now. Nothing had been certain for eight months.
The small talk faded to a hush at his arrival. All circled up, the members glanced at him from their chairs and smiled politely. A young faun stood up and beamed at him as if they knew each other. “Why, hello there!” His voice was far more chipper than it should have been this early in the morning. “We’re happy to see you here! We’ve got coffee and cookies and plenty of room so just make yourself at home.”
Brendon snorted. He turned away from the group and hunched over the table. The coffee tasted more like water then it had any right to but it was warm and kept his hands occupied. He ran his thumb over a dry shortbread cookie, set a few on a leftover Christmas cocktail napkin, and stuffed one in the breast pocket of his suit jacket. The folding chair creaked as he sat down. It was almost comical how small the chair appeared compared to the massive build of the minotaur. Almost. He wasn’t in the mood to laugh. Rather than risk eye contact and eliciting conversation, he stared at the carpet. It had appeared gray when he walked in but at a closer glance, was a conglomerate of myriads of little threads, each their own color. Why not make the entire carpet the same color? His brow furrowed.
The faun cleared his throat. “Hello, my name is Devin and I’m an addict. Welcome to the Hemlock group of Narcotics Anonymous.” The young faun smiled crookedly. His nose wrinkled up in an endearing sort of way that bunched up his freckles and brightened his eyes.
Brendon hated him.
Devin continued. “To get this show on the road, let’s start with a moment of silence for the addict who still suffers followed by the first part of the serenity prayer.” The circle of attendees bowed their heads and recited the prayer in unison:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Eyes open, Brendon leaned back and folded his arms. He’d only peg a few as users; the wine-red nymph with stained fingertips and dark roots or the gnome with a matted beard. Everyone else could have been anyone else and he was surprised by how many were his age, older even. He’d always assumed drugs were a problem for delinquent kids not smart enough to get into college. Even the pale twenty-something with spiked hair and snake bites seemed clean. Yet here they were at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. They were addicts. This was what addiction looked like. He was surrounded by weak, shameful failures. He was one of them. Brendon’s teeth crunched under his clenched jaw and he didn’t notice the wine-red nymph by him shiver.
“Alright,” said the young faun. Brendon had already forgotten his name. “Are there any sobriety birthdays?”
The group was silent. “No? Okay,” he said with a smile and a clap. “Let’s recite the twelve steps.”
And around the circle, the members read phrases out of a pamphlet. Brendon sat brooding and silent save for a condescending snort here and there. He checked his watch: only twenty minutes had passed. This was ridiculous. His wife should be grateful he was sticking it out because he was only here for her; here for his sons. Son. It hadn’t soaked in yet. Eight months and it hadn’t soaked in yet. Or maybe it had, in the worst of ways. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence he and Maggie had practically stopped communicating, that Sampson’s door was always shut and no one dared to touch Duke’s. His golden boy. It was an unspoken rule after the accident, like his doorknob was charged with lightning repellence. His room had been consecrated as the holiest of holies. The ordinary objects of Duke’s life -the trophies, the jersey, and the golden helmet- had been sanctified by death and Brendon couldn’t bring himself to blemish their righteousness with his touch. A jolt shot up his back and Brendon went rigid with pain.
The faun cleared his throat. “Is there anyone attending this meeting for the first time?” While the members had the decency not to look at him all at once, Brendon could feel their attention out of the corner of his eyes. “Would you mind stating your first name only so we can welcome you?”
Brendon’s hands were slick with sweat, but he didn’t let on. His lips sneered as he spat out his name like a curse word.
“Well, Brendon. We’re glad to have you here with us today.” The faun smiled crookedly and turned to the rest of the group. “In this group, we refer to the urge to use as a burning desire. Did anyone have any burning desires this week?”
Here and there, members spoke and Brendon mostly ignored them. The wine-red nymph stared at the ground, her nervous words directed at no one in particular. The pale twenty-something, his name started with a “Z”, spoke about an animal dying at the shelter he worked at. They didn’t say what they used. Unnecessary details, apparently. Brendon’s back was pulling apart, he swore it was, and he needed a shot. He’d told Maggie he wouldn’t use anymore but once wouldn’t hurt. She wouldn’t know.
After a notable pause, the faun interjected. “No one else? Moving on then. For today’s meeting, we had a guest speaker but she had an unexpected family emergency. I’ll be speaking in her place instead. Hope you’re not too disappointed.” He rubbed his palms together, fingers fanned out, but in his mind, Brendon saw Duke’s hands and Duke’s fingers. He used to rub his hands like that before his games. Nervous tick. The faun cleared his throat. “I was the disappointment. That’s how my parents saw me, at least how I believed they saw me, and that’s how I saw myself. I failed most of my classes in high school and we fought about it. After a while, I figured, why not show them how disappointing I could be? I dropped out. They kicked me out. It spiraled.”
The faun rubbed a hand across his mouth. “I wasn’t a user at first. I started selling because my roommate was a dealer. I’d get home after a double shift and he’d be playing games all the time but he’d always have rent money. So I asked, he hooked me up, and I started selling. Then people started asking questions: is this the good stuff? What do you like? Stuff like that so I started using. A lot happened after that but I’m not gonna go into detail. Friends got arrested, some died, some disappeared. I knocked up a girl, also a user. I keep a picture of my baby in my wallet but even having a kid didn’t change me. What shook me most was after I stumbled home from a party and looked in the mirror. Really looked. And everything I knew myself by, all the thing that made me, me; They were gone. I didn’t know who was in the mirror but it wasn’t me.”
“I’d like to say it got better after that, but it didn’t. I’d already lost contact with family but then I had to cut contact with friends. I had to keep looking at myself, keep reflecting. And I’m back at step eight now. I always get hung up at eight. Every time I make a list of people I’ve wronged, I get to the bottom and I know I need to write down my parents. The first few times I called, no one picked up. And that hurts. It hurts to feel that rejection, but I also recognize the pain I’d caused them. I’m not responsible for their actions, just mine and honestly, I can barely handle myself. It took two years for my mom to pick up. I cried, she cried. But my dad didn’t want to talk. I’ve been through the steps five times now. I don’t know how many calls I’ve made, dozens probably. We still haven’t talked. That’s his decision. I’m going to keep trying. That’s mine.”
“But I guess one good thing came out if it.” The faun rubbed his palms together. “I can’t rely on other people’s’ perspectives. I have to forgive myself before I can move forward. And forgiveness, it’s not a destination. It’s a journey. It’s a battle. You gotta battle daily with the self-pitying, the guilt, and the resentment. I’ve been fighting for custody of my baby for the last six months now. Every day, I worry if I’ll be a good father because I wasn’t a good son. I look at the picture in my wallet and she makes me want to be the best version of myself. She makes me want to fight.”
A few charged seconds passed before the other members clapped. Devin -that was his name- Devin looked up with his crooked smirk, eyes smiling, and shot Brendon a sideways glance. And to Brendon, who was a little more salt than pepper, Devin looked so young. Late twenties, but still a child. Duke had just been a child. Brendon’s back continued to knot up, continued to rebel. Duke was dead. His oldest son was dead and it was his fault. The car accident was quick and clean. Glass burst outward when the windshield popped, like the breaking of a seal on a jar. A can of worms. The impact killed Duke, but morphine had steered the wheel. Brendan’s morphine. Brendan’s prescription. The shot was taken from the medicine cabinet by young, eager hands, by a boy in his prime too naive to recognize the slaughterhouse. Brendon stared at the not-so-gray carpet and tried not to notice his nose was running.
The meeting was mostly over after Devin’s speech. A plate was passed for donations. Affirming words were spoken. Then the members circled up, arms around each other, and Brendon joined in to avoid standing out. As a unit, they prayed, they laughed and it was difficult to tell one from another unless he looked at them, really looked at them. They didn’t look similar, but something about their mannerisms, their posture, their smiles made them seem the same. They had something he didn’t and he wasn’t sure he was ready for whatever it was. After prayer, the unit dissolved into members. Pockets formed by the snack table, the chair stacks, anywhere he wasn’t and he preferred it that way. As Brendon turned to leave, Devin called his name. Without looking, Brendon could hear the smile in his tone but it did not bother him.
“Have a good one. Hope to see you next week!” said Devin.
Brendon glanced blankly and left the conference room. Right, left he turned down the hallway. He followed the light at the end of the hallway and stepped into the empty lobby. Sunlight reached through the windows and the glass doors, baptizing the lobby in a soft, pale light. Though the church had a quality of fullness radiating from its frame, he was alone and he was lonely. An aching, sore sort of exhaustion stuck to his ribs. He hadn’t felt this tired since he’d snapped his horn in that fight with his brother. Back when they were young. Back when the commanding presence of their father was sufficient to snap them to sobriety. As they grew older, and their father, frailer, they learned to argue like adults. They fought until their father died, then they didn’t speak at all. For the first time in years, Brendon wondered if the silence was worth it.
He moved forward without hesitation until he stepped out into the daylight. Standing under the arctic sky, he watched the sunrise through soft puffs of hot breath streaming from his muzzle. The sun rested on blue mountain silhouettes and its beams were just beginning to peek through the bare branches of the winter woods. He reached for his keys and pulled out his wallet on impulse. A quick flip and there, younger and simpler, was a family portrait of four with the edges worn down. He ran his thumb over a corner gingerly, as if his touch would desecrate its magnificence, and the dull throb in his back seemed less urgent during the ritual. Seconds, eternities passed before he folded up his wallet and tucked it away. Brendon stood up a little straighter, a little bolder as he walked to his car.