Lacy was on her knees when you found her—six days shy of thirty-five years old and ninety-one days sober. The cats had been chewing the callouses on her feet for two days but were still shitting in their overflowing litter box tucked behind the brand new front-load Whirlpool washer. The warranty tag was still taped over the handle. It had never been used, and this unsettles you, confirms that she had never meant to do it. That it was a baffling, powerful moment of desperation. And before that moment, there was a future where she planned to carry out the banal task of washing her soiled clothing, but with a brand spanking new washer. She had even plugged it in. Attached the water hoses to the spigots and fed the plastic drain pipe through a hole in the kitchen floor, down the basement wall to the French drain.
And then hanged herself.
It shouldn’t have taken you that long to agree to participate in a well-check. Lacy’d stopped showing up at the River Street meeting three weeks ago, citing an upper respiratory infection that just wouldn’t shake. She was always sick—terminally unwell, always on the mend from something trying to kill her. But the text responses had gotten shorter each time, and no one could seem to get her on the phone, not even Peggy. And then that long silence finally came, the one you hear about in the rooms too often, the one that you could not fill a little over a year ago.
Peggy was the one who spotted the body through the barely parted shades—just enough to make out the top of Lacy’s head tucked forward, the oxygen long expired, her last breath sealed inside by the Ethernet cable she’d used to twist-tie herself to the bedpost. It all happened in jump cuts from there. You became all action. Dislodged the screen, forced yourself through the window like you used to do when you were using. But this time was different. This time, your heart was on fire and you could feel what you couldn’t feel before—your fear of the static in the air and the cats, irremovable in their grotesque and frantic chewing. And the pain in your shins where you leveraged yourself over the sill into the tidy kitchen sink, knowing before you really knew it that you were too late again. Just like with your mom. And David.
You are standing outside of Trinity Lutheran when Peggy tells the story for the fifth time. As if you hadn’t been seeing and smelling and standing there, too.
“Goddamnit, I thought she was praying when I first saw her,” Peggy explains, smoke from her menthol hanging hard on the image of prayer.
Just then, a white van pulls into the church roundabout and a group of young people emerge from the back. They are all wearing gray sweatpants and oversized T-shirts turned inside out to hide the logos, but you can still read them—Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger, Aeropostale. There are five of them. Four guys and one girl. None of them make eye contact with you or Peggy when they pass through the double doors into the hallway leading to the meeting room.
“Hill House is getting a lot of traffic lately,” Peggy says, and it isn’t until she says it that you realize that none of those kids looked old enough to buy cigarettes. “IOP saved my life. I don’t think I could’ve stayed sober if I had had to bunk with a bunch of underagers. I mean, it’s enough to have to parent Glenn, and he’s fifty-six—”
Peggy’s phone chimes. She looks down, dismisses the text with an irreverent tap.
You scan the dark parking lot. Where is everyone else? You want the meeting to be big so that you can hide in it. You want it to be full of people whose stories you have never heard, people who make you feel like less of a monster, people who did not know Lacy. You want distractions. You doubt that the Hill House group will be enough, but you hope they are. Maybe one of them will share something so honest and powerful that people will forget to ask about Lacy and whether you and Peggy are okay after finding her.
You have no desire to share details, and it bothers you that Peggy keeps recalling that image, that Peggy never seems to stop talking. But you don’t say anything because your sponsor tells you that you need to stop seeing people for their defects, that you need to pray for tolerance and love. Right now, though, the thought of prayer fills your stomach with marbles. Lacy isn’t the first woman you’ve known who hanged herself, but she is the first woman whose story felt like it could be your story, whose transparency and doubt and desperation could have been mistaken for your own. Lacy was the first woman to ask you to be her sponsor and the first woman you said yes to.
“I just don’t know if I’ll ever believe in god,” she’d said during your first meeting over coffee. “I’m more afraid of him than dying.” You knew what she meant, and that frightened you. Lacy was the kind of addict you were, which triggered you hard. During that first meeting, you couldn’t stop staring at her distressed Target jeans. You had the same pair, probably in the same size. You hadn’t worn them since your last relapse, and you should have thrown them away, but there they were, tucked fashionably into those tall riding boots of Lacy’s, reminding you what the last time was really like—and, that was it, you tossed them in the trash that night. That’s when you told her that it wasn’t going to work out, that you were sorry. You didn’t think you could give her what she needed, but Peggy could. Peggy with the fourteen years and eight grandkids. Peggy with the government pension and the summer house in Rehoboth.
“Do they know whether she was using when she did it?” everyone had asked.
“Nope,” Peggy would say, then, eyes narrowing over the tops of her Betsey Johnson readers. “But one would hope so.”
It sounded awful, and you hated her for saying it, but you knew what she meant. It was scarier to think Lacy offed herself while sober, like David did. Because who wants to give in just to give up? That was the real reason you wouldn’t sponsor Lacy. David was all it took for you to go back out. Death leaves a frightening emptiness in the chest, and you faced that fear the way you have faced everything in your life. You were high that afternoon, the coffee in the Styrofoam cup from the police station still hot enough to melt the ice on your windshield. Some part of you knew deep down that you couldn’t have stopped him if you’d tried, but now Lacy is gone—Lacy with the Target jeans and the story like yours—and you feel closer to a drink or drug than you’ve felt in the past year since you went back out.
“Thank God it was Evan’s weekend with Chase,” Peggy says. She stubs the cigarette out on the bottom of her Louis Vuittons. “She and I were just out buying him one of those sand and water tables for his fourth birthday on Thursday. She seemed so good then, so excited that they had the Paw Patrol wrapping paper on sale. Goddamn, I can’t even.”
You haven’t asked Peggy a single question since the two of you found Lacy, but the answers keep coming and you don’t know what to do with them, what you have to say to get her to stop talking.
People are coming now, two here and three there. While you wait to see whether you know anyone, the image of the cats chewing on Lacy’s feet enters your mind again, and suddenly, out of nowhere, the question that has been haunting you for days comes barreling out of your mouth before you can stop it: “What’s going to happen with the cats?”
Peggy looks at you as if you’ve been asking unanswerable questions all along. “I have no idea,” she says. She sprays herself with patchouli. “Goddamn,” she sighs—but not to god or you. “We better go get a seat.”
“I’ll be in in a minute,” you say.
You want to be alone. All addicts want to be alone.
But just as Peggy enters in through the double doors, the Hill House girl emerges, wearing a jacket one of the boys she came with was wearing.
“Can I bum a smoke?” the girl asks. Her voice is softer and more polite than you expected, which unsteadies you.
“I don’t smoke. Peggy does. I’m just an innocent bystander.”
The girl smiles a big smile that suggests she is even younger than you thought. Closer to fourteen. Your knees give out a little because she is young enough to be your daughter, and you can’t imagine what this girl looks like when she’s fucked up. When she isn’t smiling.
“Hello.” You hold out your hand, and she takes it.
“Callie. I’m only twenty days. I mean, I only have twenty days.” She laughs uncomfortably and wraps herself deeper into the jacket that isn’t hers.
“Not only,” you say, and you say it because you had been told the same thing when you came in. “Just…twenty days.”
“Be proud of that.”
Westminster Quarters sounds from the bell tower, marking the hour, but neither you nor Callie move towards the double doors.
“I like your shoes,” she says, pointing at your purple slip-on Chucks. “I have the same ones at home. They’re my favorite pair. I miss them.”
“Thanks. They’re my favorite, too.”
You’ve worn Chucks since you were twelve. You wore them to prom. You wore them to your graduation from the most prestigious film school in the country. You wore them in your brother’s wedding and at your mother’s funeral. You try to stop yourself from feeling the feelings before you feel them, but you can’t. You imagine Callie’s mother slipping freshly laundered clothing into a child’s dresser, placing a new pair of shoes beside the canopy bed you slept in until you were sixteen. Does Callie know how to start a fire without kindling? With licorice sticks? With dryer lint cartons that smelled like your mother when you put a match to them? Does she know how to make a slipknot or the proper way to cool a burn? Did she know that soothing one with ice could cause frostbite?
“When I was a Brownie,” you say, pointing up. “We sang this at the end of every meeting.”
“Cool,” Callie says. “I’ve never been in any, like, organized thing. Well, until now.”
She looks like she is going to ask a question, and the marbles in your stomach start banging together. You want to talk to her, but you don’t want to scare her. And then, you want to scare her. You want to tell her about your mother and filling your underwear with Snickers bars to take to her when she was institutionalized. You were fourteen. Is that how old you are, Callie? You want to show her where you burned your wrists with cigars in college, to explain how Ivy Leagues and terminal degrees couldn’t stop your disease from trying to kill you. You want to tell her about Lacy and how you haven’t been able to sleep for five days because when the sun goes down, the cats are everywhere you look, gnawing the baseboards apart, chewing through the electrical wiring, and then hanging themselves in your windows, their tails hard from rigor mortis, curled violently into a question mark.
You want to tell her that you will answer any question she has. That you wish you had asked the ones you wanted to ask when you had twenty days. That, since then, you have not answered the ones you should have answered.
Callie opens her mouth. Allows the night air in.
The bells are quiet now, but their sound memory hovers over you, fills the parking lot, the street, the neighborhood, connects you and Callie to everything beyond the dark, beyond time, to that place where a clock melody becomes words, words you imagine Lacy’d sung without thinking, without questioning whether she believed in God. A song sung for the pure pleasure of singing, for the pure sense of belonging:
Oh Lord our God
Thy children call
Grant us Thy peace
And bless us all.
You’ve heard Westminster Quarters a million times, been to hundreds of meetings where it signaled the hour, the quarter hour, the half hour—always the measure of arrival and departure and the reprieve in between. How had you never made the connection before? Why were you only making it now?
Callie looks over her shoulder towards the doors. She still looks like she is going to ask a question, but this time, she does.
“Not to be weird, but would it be okay if I sit with you? I’ve never been to one of these outside of Hill House, and the guys are like, sorry—this is so weird—I mean, god, I’m so weird—but you know guys. I don’t want to do anything, but they—you know. And this jacket? They’re always talking, and I’m, like, I can’t hear myself think, let alone have a conversation, which might be a good thing. I don’t know. My head is so full, and I’m trying to empty it out, all of the shit that’s in there, you know? Does that make any sense? I am so sorry. That was probably the most awkward way to ask a stranger for help.”
“No, not at all,” you say. It is, hands down, the fastest you have ever answered a question in your life. “I’ll go in with you.”
“Yeah,” you say. She smells wonderful. Like fresh laundry.
And as you lead her through the double doors, you feel yourself growing lighter in step, as if you have been given the answer to a burning question you had been too afraid to ask, as if she is helping you more than you are helping her.
Tara Stillions Whitehead has had fiction, essays, and hybrid texts published in Chicago Review, Fiction International, Red Rock Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Texas Review, New Orleans Review, Sleipnir, and elsewhere. She has received a Glimmer Train Press Award for New Writers, an AWP Intro Journals Award nomination, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. A former assistant director for film and television, she now lives in Central Pennsylvania, where she teaches English and Film Studies.