First Chapter: Steadfast

Chapter One

Jude

Cravings Meter: 5

The last time I drove through Colebury, Vermont, I sat behind the wheel of a 1972 Porsche 911 restored to mint condition with a sweet new paint job in Aubergine.

Compare and contrast: three years later, I rattled down Main Street in a tattered 1996 Dodge Avenger I’d just bought for nine hundred bucks. The front fender was held together with duct tape.

The ugly car wouldn’t have bothered me if the Avenger and I didn’t have so fucking much in common. We’d both ended up in the gutter, broken in body and spirit. The car’s muffler was shot. Exposed wires hanging out from under the dashboard were a perfect proxy for my jangled nerves. I was five months out of rehab and I still couldn’t sleep more than three hours in a row.

My arrogant teenage self would never have driven this heap, but that punk’s opinion didn’t matter anymore. I hated that guy. And while I was marking all the changes, I should also add that the last time I drove through Colebury, Vermont, I was high as a kite on opiates.

Today I was stone-cold sober. So at least I had that going for me.

In the minus column, I was now a convicted felon. I’d served thirty-six months for possession and vehicular manslaughter. I had very little money and even fewer friends. The one lucky thing in my life—a life-saving job at an orchard in the next county—had just ended. In November there were no more apples to pick or sell. So heading home was my only option.

There was, as usual, no traffic in Colebury. The little Vermont town where I grew up didn’t have a rush hour. It was more like a rush minute, and that hadn’t started yet. I made one last turn and the houses got smaller and the sidewalks became uneven. Three years later, the place was still as familiar as the back of my hand.

I would have never come home if I could have avoided it.

Pulling onto my father’s property, I shut off that loud-ass engine. Nickel Auto Body had the corner lot. On the left was our little old house with the sagging porch. On the right was a two-bay mechanic’s garage.

When I was a teenager, I’d thought the sign over the garage doors should read Nickel and Son. The year after high school I’d worked at least as many hours here as he did. But I’d never asked my father to make the change, because that would require conversation. My father did not converse. He also did not praise or even scold.

Instead, he drank.

I’d pulled the jalopy into the driveway between the house and the garage. My arrival brought my father out of the garage’s shadows. I saw him mosey out the door, eyeing the unfamiliar car. He was probably hoping I wasn’t a bill collector.

I climbed out, watching for some reaction on my father’s face.

He blinked twice. That’s all I got.

“Hey,” I said, reaching into the backseat for the two duffel bags holding everything I currently owned.

“You’re out,” he said.

Thank you, Captain Obvious. “Been out for six months,” I said. “I’ve been picking apples in Orange County.”

“Oh.” My whole life, he’d spoken in one- and two-word sentences. I used to think he was just a man of few words. Now that I’d spent a lot of time in addiction meetings, I’d decided that his silence was a way to avoid slurring his words. It was almost two o’clock, which meant that he’d probably drunk half his flask already.

“So…” I cleared my throat, wondering what would happen next. “There’s no more farm work until the spring. I was hoping to stay in my old room, if it’s available.” Tipping my chin back, I looked up at the narrow windows above the garage. The same faded yellow curtains still hung up there.

I saw him squint then, looking me up and down. “Yeah,” he said after a pause. “Okay.”

“I’m clean,” I added, in case he was trying to figure that out. Unlike so many of the addicts I’d met, I’d never had a fight with my father about my drug habit. He’d ignored it. He’d ignored me. The last time I’d seen my father was during the first month of my sentence. He came to visit me in prison exactly once. It was a long, stilted twenty minutes while we looked at each other from opposite sides of a beat-up table, trying to think of things to say. He’d been my only visitor for the entire three years I’d served. 

To be fair, one other person had tried to visit me. But I wouldn’t see her.

“Actually…” I dug in my duffel bag for my keys. There were only a few of them: the Dodge, the garage, my room, and a fourth one, which I extracted from the metal ring by digging my fingernail between the coils. When the key was free, I offered it to my father.

Slowly, he removed it from my hand. “Why?” he asked simply.

I glanced toward the house where I grew up. “You probably keep some liquor in the house. I don’t drink anymore. It’s easier for me if I stay out of there.”

He gave me the squint again, but this conversation wasn’t going so badly. “I can work, too,” I offered. I needed to work, of course. After buying the Dodge and factoring in the parts I needed to keep it running, my savings would take a serious hit. I’d saved most of the money I made at the orchard, since room and board were included. But I didn’t have enough to start a new life elsewhere. Yet.

I would have stayed on that farm forever, regardless. Living here above the garage, with ghosts all around me, in a town where I knew exactly where to score drugs? It was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever done.

“Not much work these days,” my father said. “Got nothin’ but a scratch repair today.”

This did not surprise me. In the bad old days, even at the height of my drug addiction I’d gotten a lot of car repair done while my father “managed” the place. He must have lost customers when I’d gone to prison. There was no way he’d stepped up to keep pace with the work after my arrest.

I kept my voice neutral, because I didn’t want to piss him off. “I was thinking I could put out a sign saying I’d put on snow tires for forty bucks.”

“Might work,” he muttered.

“I’ll try it,” I said quickly.

We stared at each other for a second. I’d expected him to look a whole lot older. I don’t know why. Maybe because I felt about a hundred years old myself.

Finished with the conversation, my dad pointed toward the garage. “Gotta get back,” he said.

“Right.”

Walking away, he pointed at the Dodge. “That’s a piece of shit.”

“I noticed.”

And that was that. The weirdest father/son reunion in the world was over. Letting out a big, relieved breath, I watched his coveralls disappear into the garage. They probably hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine since I got sent to prison.

But he hadn’t turned me away. So I had that going for me.

With my duffel on my shoulder, I walked down the driveway between the house and the repair garage. Nothing here had changed, either. The paint was still peeling, and there was dead grass poking through cracks in the asphalt.

In Vermont, we called November “stick season.” It was a dark month after all the fall color had faded from the trees. The sun went down every day at 4:30, and we didn’t yet have the clean white snow to hide all our sins.

The driveway dead-ended into an alley, where the weathered exterior stairs up to my room were found. But I didn’t quite make it that far. When I turned the corner, I nearly stumbled into a small, low-slung car parked tightly against the garage’s rear wall. It was covered from bumper to bumper by a heavy black tarp.

At the sight of it, my heart climbed into my throat. My physical reaction was the same as if I’d just spotted a dead body.

In so many ways, I had.

Bending forward, I grabbed a corner of the black tarp, lifting it just a few inches. Underneath, I saw exactly what I feared—a splash of Aubergine paint. It was a factory color at Porsche in 1972.

Dropping the tarp, I took a step back, as if caught doing something illegal. I didn’t have a clue why this monument to my stupidity would be sitting here. In my mind, it had vanished along with the life it took three years ago. If I’d stopped to actually consider its whereabouts, I would have assumed that my father sold it whole for junk. He always took the lazy way out.

But here it was, right in the spot where I’d have to pass it several times a day, trying not to notice how the front passenger side was crushed from striking the tree.

At least the tarp hid the missing windshield, through which a two-hundred-pound college lacrosse player had flown to his death, his neck snapping on impact.

Just standing there, looking at the broken shell of my former life, I began to feel itchy. Not literally itchy. But “itchy” was the closest word I had for a drug craving. I felt a sort of restless tremble in my limbs and a hollowness in my chest. Some people described it as a hunger or thirst. But that wasn’t quite right, either.

Whatever you call it, there was an ache inside me that I longed to soothe. And I moved through each day a little lost, trying to fill an empty spot in my soul. But it never went away. Five months out of rehab, I still felt it all the time. It showed up when I was stressed or bored. It showed up when I was tired or underfed. Sometimes it showed up even when everything was going well.

It was never, ever going to stop. There was no cure. You just lived with it. The end.

The edges of the tarp shifted in the breeze, as if taunting me.

At rehab they always said: “Move a muscle, change a thought.” So that’s what I did. I hiked the straps of my duffel bags a little higher on my shoulder. Then I skirted the Porsche without touching it again, and took the shaky wooden stairs two at a time up to my room.

I hadn’t been here for more than three years, but it felt oddly familiar to slide my key into the lock and push the door open.

Musty. That was my first reaction. And then, messy. I didn’t own much, but all my possessions were strewn around the room, as if an earthquake had struck in only this spot.

My room had been searched and not by careful hands. Dresser drawers were open, their contents thrown about. The mattress was askew, the result of someone searching underneath. The items on my bookshelves were topsy-turvy.

I dropped my bags on the disorderly bed and walked straight through to the bathroom. My eye snagged on a pink bottle of salon shampoo which had waited these three years in my shower.

It was hers. Sophie’s.

Reaching out, I plucked the bottle off the shower shelf and flipped open the cap. And the scent overtook me right away—green apples. Standing there, remembering how Sophie smelled, it was like a sock to the gut. Of all the things I’d lost—my good name, the chance to get a decent job, my carefully restored car—none of them mattered as much as Sophie. She was gone from my life, and it was a permanent condition. No way to fix it.

I realized a minute later that I was still standing there in my wreck of a room, holding my nose over a plastic shampoo bottle like a moron. But there’s no shame in missing someone. Trust me—I am well versed in shame. The pile of things I was ashamed of doing was as tall as Mount Mansfield. Missing her wasn’t a crime, though. Anybody would.

Capping the bottle, I set it down again. Then I turned my attention to the toilet, which was the real challenge here. First I flushed it, just to make sure it still worked, because I might have something I needed to flush down in a moment.

Now came the hard part.

I eyed the tank cover, wondering what I’d find inside. Probably nothing. It hadn’t been a very original hiding place. But when I’d squirreled away my pills, I wasn’t trying to conceal them from the cops, who would know exactly where to look. I was only hiding them from Sophie.

I used to be so proud of the way I kept my two loves separate from one another—the drugs and the girlfriend. Even when I was snorting an unsustainable quantity of oxy, I was still functional in the garage and still a good lover. What an achiever! 

Until the night it all went wrong.

Since then, I’d played the what if game many, many times. What if she’d known? What if I’d been forced to admit my problem sooner? What if I’d slipped up in a small way, which prevented the ultimate disaster?

What if was a pointless exercise. Ask any addict.

Slowly, I lifted the dusty tank cover, peering over the edge as if there might be a serpent inside to bite me. And really, the pills I’d kept out of my life these past months were worse than any snake.

But there was nothing there. My old hiding place had been discovered, and whatever stash had been here on the worst night of my life was long gone—discovered by the police and parked in an evidence locker wherever they kept the contraband found on losers like me.

And thank God. Today I would not be truly tested. 

Sure, I’d probably have flushed the pills right down. But you don’t know until you’ve got them in your hand. There was a chance that I would have pocketed one, just in case of emergency. But to an addict like me, that emergency would inevitably have come within the hour.

In rehab, I’d learned that the relapse rate for opiate addicts was over fifty percent. Lately that depressing little statistic rattled through my mind all day long. “But that means almost half of us don’t relapse,” some cheerful soul had pointed out in group therapy. “You can choose to be in that half.”

Easier said than done.

Feeling the first hit of relief since I’d rolled into town, I set the tank cover back in place. Then I got to work straightening up. When I stripped the bed, a cloud of dust rose up, making me cough. So I opened the window in spite of the November chill. I needed to air out my room. Air out my lungs. Air out my whole goddamned life.

* * *

It took me several hours to get the place halfway to inhabitable. I dragged the shop vac up the stairs to attack the dust. I made a trip to the laundromat, going to a fast-food drive-through while my sheets and towels dried and eating in my awful car. It was nothing like the home cooking I’d been eating on the Shipley farm, but it got the job done. 

By nightfall, I was able to put clean sheets on the bed and then collapse onto it. I shut off the lamp and let my eyes adjust to the shadows of my old room. These days, falling asleep was always tricky and staying asleep was impossible. On the Shipley Farm, I’d roomed in a bunkhouse with three other guys. I used to lie awake listening to them snore.

My room here at home was going to be much quieter—just quiet enough to make room for all the demons in my head. Lying here made me think of her, too.

Sophie.

I wondered where she was right now. New York City, probably. She’d have a small place somewhere, because singers who were just starting out didn’t make any money. She’d have roommates.

Or a boyfriend.

I forced myself to imagine who she might choose as a partner. He’d have to be my opposite, since Sophie wouldn’t want to be reminded of her unfortunate choices. That made him a dark-haired guy, maybe with olive skin, and wearing an Italian suit. Hopefully he had a high-paying job—in finance or real estate. He’d earn enough to live in a safe neighborhood and take Sophie out for expensive dinners.

Of course, the Sophie I knew wouldn’t want to date a banker. That smacked of her father’s choices for her. But maybe she’d met this guy during intermission at the Metropolitan Opera. Her banker had an artsy side and season tickets in a private box. He probably invited her to watch from his excellent seats. And since Sophie had a standing-room ticket, she accepted…

My brain snagged on one detail. Were private boxes even real, or were those just in old movies?

In prison I’d had to entertain myself like this for hours. When there was nobody to talk to, I went on journeys inside my head. Before prison, I was a talker. Too much of a talker, probably. But these past three years I hadn’t had a lot of conversation. Even at the Shipley Farm, where there were always people to talk to, I didn’t say a whole lot. They were such a nice, normal family. I preferred to listen. Who wanted to hear a lot of sentences that began, “In prison, we…”

Nobody, that’s who.

A single set of headlights illuminated an angled section of my ceiling from left to right. Then it was dark again. The nighttime sounds were different here. I was used to the call of the barred owls on the Shipley Farm, punctuated on some nights by coyotes howling nearby. 

I missed the bunkhouse. Privacy was not a luxury for me. If I got out of this bed and went to find a fix, there was nobody who’d notice or care. I’d needed those six AM milkings to keep me on the straight and narrow. I needed the watchful eyes of Griff Shipley on me while we worked the farmers’ market stall.

This was going to be so hard—every minute. In Colebury, a fix was always in reach. Some of my druggie friends were probably within a mile of me right now. Still getting high. Still dealing. Colebury reeked of all my old mistakes and desires.

The itchy void in my chest gave a throb, and I rolled over to try to quash it. But that only reminded me of another absence. I stuck my nose in the pillow and took a deep breath, wondering if any essence of Sophie might remain.

But she was long gone.

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Sarah Pinneo