"You're looking like hell," I say to Em, the first words we've spoken in months escaping before my brain can veto them.
He laughs, running his hand over a newly shorn head. Not so different from his normal hair, but made more severe by his orange jumpsuit and the grey, drab surroundings.
I dig my nails into the polystyrene of the coffee I've not touched. I needed to do something with myself while I waited, and since I've limited myself to smoking only in the evenings, and don't have enough patience to sit and wait, I wasted a dollar on a piss poor excuse for a caffeine fix.
"How've you been, E? Still making group?" he asks, his face valiantly keeping his smile up.
"Yeah, still going. It's not the same without you there, though. Marcus is a fucking leech, no change there, and Maggie plys me with cookies. She thinks I'm too skinny."
Em looks me up and down and frowns. "She's right. What's going on?"
I sit back and push the coffee away, folding my arms. Em's not lost his ability to read me at a glance, like I'm a badly crumpled newspaper. "Just been busy. Spending time down at Jasper's gym, boxing and running. Trying to give up the smokes."
He laughs loudly at this and shakes his head. "A changed man is before me. You working?"
"Yeah, doing some pieces for a local paper. Nothing special."
"You're writing, though … that's good."
"Like getting blood out of a stone."
"Always was. At least it's the stone and not you this time."
"Well, I guess." I shrug his concerns away, not ready for them. Undeserving. "Forget me. I've come to see you."
"I'm okay. Taking it a day at a time. Rose comes every week. Brings me pictures the kids have drawn, stuff like that. It kills me but later, when I'm alone, I guess it also keeps me alive." He blinks too quickly and clears his throat, throwing me another practised smile.
I feel as if someone is squeezing my throat. It makes the next words hard to get out. "I'm sorry, Em. I wasn't there when you needed me."
He waves me away exactly as I knew he would. "Bullshit, E. You shouldn't have to be. I was your sponsor. You aren't mine."
"That doesn't make it better. If I'd answered the door-"
"Shut the hell up. Seriously." He huffs a breath through his nose, reminding me of a bull about to smash some shit up. "It's your fault because you didn't open the damn door? Are you kidding me, man?"
He's laughing again but nothing about this moment is remotely funny. It's pain. "I did this." He stabs a finger at his own chest. "Me. You know how this shit works. I can't blame anyone else for my actions. I chose to drink. I chose to ignore everything I knew and risk everything I love, and for what? I messed up and no one is to blame except me. If you'd opened that door, what would you have done? Maybe you could have talked me down for a while, but ultimately I was going to make a bad choice. I'd already decided. I was going to meetings, I was lecturing and guiding you to make the right choices and then you know where I was going?"
I have a vague idea but I shake my head, sensing it's more important for him to say his piece then to speak.
"I was spending my night watching Rose's house, waiting for her to give me some reason to drink. And you know what she said the first time she came to visit me?" He rubs his fingers against his temples and looks down at the old formica table top." She said the same as you. I'm sorry … I shouldn't have done this, done that." He taps a finger against a name scratched into its surface from a past life and then looks up. "She wanted to take on the blame too, but I can't let her do that … or you. It was me. I fucked up, and now I'm dealing with the fallout. And it's shitty but I'm okay. Okay?"
"Alright then." He nods, his eyes flicking to the clock hanging above the door, its hands almost at noon. "We haven't got long left, so tell me about your girl."
I let out a sigh and scratch the side of my neck. "Yeah, there's not much to tell you there."
I think about the last time I saw her, and all the times I've skirted around her presence at the gym, leaving and arriving just before and after her, reassured that she's there, that she's okay, but giving her the space she wanted and I needed. The weight from my shoulders is less each day, the desire for her there as always but not all-consuming, just burning a steady flame instead of the wildfire ready to cause more destruction than either of us could survive.
My life has softened around the edges, the jagged pieces are less likely to cause harm. The poisonous guilt and hatred of myself has done its damage but I've learned to weather the effects, to survive even the deadliest dose and keep on my feet.
"Don't tell me you messed it up?"
I shrug, and he looks like he's going to smack me round the head but thinks better of it when the guard with his middle-aged pouch and starched blue uniform yells that we've got two minutes left. "You gonna sort it out?"
"Yeah," I say, my decision rubber stamped by Em with a curt nod. A man I will spend the rest of my life rectifying my bad decisions for. I will do my best for and by him. "Yeah, I will."
The next day, I hang around outside the gym talking to Jasper. Their baby, Elsie, arrived a few months ago, so Alice and Jasper are both walking zombies. He relaxes into the sunshine that's pouring into the courtyard, lowering over the city as it sets. I usually avoid listening to all the ins and outs of diapers and rashes and spilt milk, but not today, as I know the longer I hang around the more chance I have of bumping into Bella. Her name hammers against my chest when I think about what I'll say when I see her. But even though I delay leaving for almost an hour, I'm disappointed when I don't see her in the back office on my way out. Ben, a trainer, chats to me as we walk outside. I wade patiently through the small talk until we're about to part ways and then ask about her.
"Is Bella in today?"
"She's taken the day off, back tomorrow," he says, heading left as I go right, leaving him to avoid any other questions. Disappointment hits me like a right hook to the gut, but I take it and carry on with my day.
I'm willing to go the rounds this time.
The AA meeting goes quickly, Maggie pulling sweets out of her bag and forcing them on me through the difficult session with Mary, a young addict trying to get her kids back from the state. Some would say she doesn't deserve them - me too - but I can't deny that her pain is real.
For once I see myself amongst the others as more than just hopeless. I see how far I have come but don't underestimate how long I have to go or how hard it will be.
It is what it is. A part of me that no amount of tokens or pouring out of stories can ever erase.
A part of me I carry but not who I am.
Not at this minute, this second.
Today I can breathe.
Outside, the moon dominates the sky, watching over the city. I shove my hands into my pockets and head to the bus stop, hunched against the cold. The Red Lantern is busy as always, and as ever, I find myself searching for the familiar dark hair, a flash of a red, silk dress in the smoky windows. A funny sort of nostalgia draws me to look, though any glimpse would be a ghost.
I wait for half an hour before I concede the bus isn't coming. So instead, I walk toward the Meridian bridge. Bella's bridge. There is no wind today, so the moon is reflected in the water, slowly unravelling into the Sound, and there is no one else around other than the occasional flash of a car driving by, oblivious to what this place could have been.
I find myself stopping where I first laid eyes on her as she swayed precariously over her death. The memories come rushing back and I realise in their wake it's almost a year since that day.
A year since I pulled her back and then almost pulled her under with me.
A whole year yet we are both still here.
Fate or lucky hand, I couldn't guess, but maybe it's time to find out. I set my mind on finding her.
To be the person who could stop her from wanting to fall again. That will be enough.
Almost there with this one lovelies. Thank you for sticking around. Kim and Choc are my grammar angels as always xx