Authors: A. Meredith Walters,12 NA's of Christmas
Tags: #find you in the dark, #na, #light in the shadows, #Romance, #E.M. Tippetts Book Designs, #new adult, #christmas
know you think the story has been told. That the demons have been slayed and the battle had been won.
That would be a lie. Every day was a fight. And every day served as a reminder of how I had almost lost everything.
Even after I had made the right choices, I was still crippled by second-guessing.
But I’ve told
tale. The beleaguered boy that fought for the love of the only girl who could save him.
No, this story is something else entirely. It’s a story of self-realization. Of understanding.
Of how one winter’s night I was finally able to see that all of my insecurities, all of my doubts had no place in my heart.
A story about how I embraced the fact that even though emotions
loving someone can be so painful it incapacitates you; it’s so much better than the cold. The ice in my soul that freezes everything.
But there is warmth in ice. A flame that became an inferno.
Because Maggie is my fire. The passionate heat that consumes everything in its path, incinerating me in a perfect, unyielding death.
And during the heat of a Florida Christmas, I was reminded of why I needed fire to survive. To exist. To breathe.
The one that matters.
The one with the happy ending.
Ruby said, parking her car on the street across from a two-story brick building. I looked over at my aunt as she chewed on her bottom lip. I knew she was trying to be positive. This was her first time seeing the place where I would be living now that I had been discharged from the Grayson Center.
I had been by several times in the last few weeks to check out my new apartment. It was in a building block reserved for transitioning patients out of mental health treatment. Five other people with varying degrees of mental illness shared the building. It was a far cry from the over the top opulence of my parents’ home or the comfortable shabbiness of Ruby’s house in Virginia. But I wasn’t there to put down roots.
I was there to start over.
Because I was the king of motherfucking second chances.
Ruby pulled a duffle bag off the back seat of my BMW, the car she refused to sell after being sent to a treatment facility in Florida last year. She had stubbornly kept it, even after I had insisted she get rid it.
After she sold her house and shop in Virginia and moved to Key West, she brought the damn thing with her. And now here it was, back where she said it belonged. At one time that car had represented everything I hated about my life. It was a symbol of the million and one ways my crappy parents had tried to buy me off and shut me up.
But now it was just a set of wheels. Metaphors and symbolism be damned.
“You know you could always move in with me. Key West is great. I’ve just opened my new shop and I could really use the help,” Ruby suggested. I slid her a sideways look.
“I’ll be fine, Ruby. Stop worrying so much. This is temporary, not forever.” I slung my arm around my tiny aunt’s entirely too frail shoulders. Lisa’s death had destroyed a huge part of what made Ruby,
I knew with absolute certainty that loving and losing wreaked havoc on the heart and the soul.
I had been there done that. I had gotten the stupid “I fucked up” T-shirt. I was going to make it my mission in life to never lose the other half of me again.
But Ruby…she was trying.
Not long after I had checked back into the Grayson Center at the end of last school year, she had sold the house in Davidson, Virginia, loaded the back of her car up with only the bare essentials and headed south to Key West, Florida.
Losing the one place that had always been my home was hard. I could admit that I lost it for a while over the thought of being displaced. But I was a man set on reframing and focusing on the positive shit.
Because drowning in the negative wasn’t an option anymore. The dark didn’t hold the sway that it once did. Not now that I had a future that meant something.
Ruby handed me my bag, grabbed the Target bags off the backseat and followed me to the flight of steps off to the side of the brick building. I had nothing to my name but a duffle bag of clothes, my laptop computer, and my car. I had to start my new life with cheap towels and scratchy sheets. But it was
life and that made the fact that I didn’t have a clue as to what the hell my next steps were a bit easier to swallow.
We were met at the door by an older Hispanic woman with greying hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Her lined face was serious and no nonsense as she regarded me.
“Clayton Reed?” she asked in a rough voice. She was scary. It didn’t make me a pussy to admit that a woman intimidated me. Christ, she looked as though she’d gnaw off my testicles and have them for dinner.
I fought the urge to cross my legs protectively. Ms.
raised an eyebrow when I had yet to answer her. “Uh, yeah, that’s me,” I said, trying not to stammer like a five year old.
Scary lady held her hand out for me to shake and her hard and unyielding face split into a surprisingly easy smile. It made me feel off balance. “I’m Roberta Silva, your case manager. I wanted to stop by and introduce myself.” She took several of the plastic bags from Ruby after handing me a set of keys.
“You’ll have your own room but the rest of the house will be common use. You have three roommates and there are two staff persons who will be here to provide support and assistance in all areas of independent living. They are here to alleviate any stress this transition might cause,” Roberta said as she followed me into my new home.
I didn’t miss the underlying meaning. The less stress, the less likely I’d go off the rails and flip the fuck out.
I felt my jaw stiffen at the implied judgment. I hated any reminder of how much I had messed up in my life. Now, how at nineteen years old, I was a guy who should be going to college, partying, loving my girlfriend without a care in the world. Instead here I was just outside of Orlando in a crappy neighborhood, moving into a group home for people with a severe mental health diagnosis who had just been released from in-patient treatment.
My entire world had to be focused on being better. But those pesky feelings of resentment and bitterness acted like the chick you dumped that just wouldn’t go away. You keep telling her she doesn’t have a place in your life anymore but she tries to convince you that you belong together.
“It’s cute, Clay,” Ruby said excitedly, dropping the rest of the bags onto the counter. I looked around, having not bothered to notice anything about the place that would be my home.
Roberta dropped her purse on the coffee table in the common living room. It was a large space with an open floor plan. The living room bled into the kitchen and there were huge windows that let in light in every direction. Who ever had been tasked with decorating had taken their job seriously.
I was surprised at how nice it was. There was a sectional sofa as well as a recliner in front of an entertainment center complete with flat screen television and I could see an Xbox on the floor. Nice to see how taxpayers’ money was being spent, I supposed.
A young guy came in from a door off the kitchen carrying two bags of groceries. Another guy who looked about my age followed him.
“Just put those over there, Oscar,” the first man instructed, pointing to the counter.
“Jason, Oscar, come over here please,” Roberta said in a way that said
don’t give me a reason to slap you.
I wasn’t sure who was who but both guys looked up. Though only one smiled in greeting. The other one looked at the ground almost immediately after making eye contact. Something told me that was a roommate.
The less socially awkward guy came over and held out his hand to me. “Hi, I’m Jason Frank. I’m a behavioral aide here at Rose Heights.” I shook his hand before he turned to shake Ruby’s hand.
“This is Oscar Martin. He’s a resident as well. Come on over here, Oscar,” Jason urged kindly as though talking to a Kindergartner.
Oscar shuffled forward but finally looked up and gave Ruby and me a timid smile. “Hi, I’m Oscar,” he said, stating the obvious. I blinked in surprise. His voice was totally at odds with his appearance. He sounded like a gruff, scary biker dude when in reality he looked more like Dwight from The Office.
“There are four of you living here. Ryan and Kyle are at school but you’ll get to meet them later tonight for the house meeting. Greg is the other behavioral aide that you’ll see around. His shift is tonight,” Jason informed me. I nodded, trying not to look as fucking overwhelmed as I currently felt.
Roberta made a clucking noise before interrupting. “Okay, well thank you Jason. I’ll show Clay and his aunt around now,” she said curtly. Jason didn’t seem perturbed by her brusqueness.
“Happy to have you here,” Jason said before returning to the kitchen with Oscar to unload the groceries.
“Let me show you the rest of the house,” Roberta said, heading toward the stairs. I glanced at Ruby, who was chewing on her lip again. We followed our less than enthusiastic tour guide as she showed me my room.
I was at least happy with the size of it. The bedroom was more like two rooms combined. There was a space with a bed and a dresser and then a side room with a sofa and desk. There was a door off to the side that led to a bathroom I would apparently be sharing with another of my roommates.
While Ruby and I were looking around, my other roommates showed up. I heard Jason call out a greeting but there was no response. Roberta, Ruby, and I were leaving my new bedroom when we passed by two guys, again about my age, with their heads down and heading toward the only other door on this floor.
“Ryan, Kyle, come over here and meet Clay,” Roberta called out. Ryan and Kyle didn’t look up, nor did they come over as they were requested. Almost simultaneously they lifted their hands in greeting and then went inside the room at the end of the hallway, closing the door behind them.
Roberta made a frustrated grunt but didn’t comment on my less than sociable housemates.
Ruby gave me a worried look and I knew she was debating whether she could bundle me up and put me back in the car so she could take me to Key West with her.
I gave my aunt a one armed hug, trying to reassure her. Though if I were honest, I needed reassuring as much as she did. This was not what I would call an ideal living situation. And I would be expected to endure it for a long ass time.
We started to head back downstairs and I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. And just like that the heavy weight in my chest lessened just a bit, because there was only one person who could be calling me. It’s not as though I had a lot of friends; at least not those out mingling with the general population.
Only one person would call me just when I needed her most.
The beginning and ending of my entire fucking world.
Before I could pull my phone out to see her name dance across the screen, Roberta handed me a sheet of paper. I looked down, seeing a crap load of words.
“These are the group home rules and guidelines. The staff here at Rose Heights works closely with the Grayson Center to ensure you achieve a successful acclimation. Coming out of treatment is tough. We’re here to support you as you move from one environment to the next. I’ve spoken at length with Dr. Todd Trimble about your outpatient plan,” Roberta explained and I nodded.
Dr. Todd had been exhaustive in going over my continued treatment plan. After six months at Grayson I had been released into outpatient care within the setting of an independent living facility. I was deemed “high-functioning” enough to warrant some slack on the reins. I was no longer a threat to myself, so the staff at Grayson thought living on my own would be beneficial for my progress.
So why, do you ask, did I not get into my car and head straight back to Virginia? Back to the girl I had promised my future to.
Because I had come a long way from being the selfish, self-centered prick who would launch himself back into Maggie Young’s life before I was 100% ready. I had done the second chance with Maggie and it hadn’t ended the way we both had hoped. And I wasn’t going to screw this up again.
My shit would be sorted before I took up residence in her world again.
So I was staying in Florida. I would follow my treatment plan. I would stay straight on that damn path until the only way to go would be back to Maggie.
I’d get there. I had to. Failure was
Roberta was still talking, going through the list of rules like I had lost the ability to read while I was as the center. She was being purposefully slow as though I didn’t understand what she meant by no loud music and parking only in my assigned space.
“Staff reserves the right to unannounced searches of the property if it is suspected you are using drugs,” Roberta stated firmly, pressing her mouth into a hard line. I tensed again at another one of her implied assumptions.
Though I guess I hadn’t earned the right to be exempt from them. There was a reason I had been institutionalized three times since the age of sixteen.
“I understand,” I said, tapping the paper against my palm, feeling more than a little agitated. I had stupidly expected today to be low key. That maybe Ruby would help me unpack. I’d order a pizza, maybe read a book. I’d call Maggie and remember why I was doing all of this to begin with.
Apparently Rose Heights was more hardcore than the brochure had led me to believe. I had yet to see the smiling residents sipping their coffee or a friendly game of badminton on the lawn that graced the advertisements. Reality wasn’t the pretty pictures on glossy pages. This reality was wariness and distrust until you earned otherwise.
“I’ve penciled you in for ten on Monday morning for your first case management meeting. My office is across the street. I’ll see you then,” Roberta said, handing me a thick folder of information and flashing me that genuine smile of hers that was so at odds with her scare-me-shitless demeanor.
Roberta called out a goodbye to Ruby, who had gone into the kitchen and was chatting with Jason. Oscar was parked in front of the TV and hadn’t acknowledged me since I had come back into the room.
I can tick off becoming BFFs with my new roommates on my list of delusional expectations.
After my case manager left, I had the urge to chuck all my good intentions for a better future in the trash and get the hell out of there. Because this was going to be hard. This was going to hurt. And I was terrified that I wasn’t able to handle everything that my real life wanted to throw at me.
Ruby came in carrying a cup of something and put into my slack hand. “Drink. It’ll help you settle,” she insisted. I gave the cup a sniff and tried not to cringe.
“It won’t kill you, Clay. It’s just a little catnip tea to help with your nerves. I drink two cups every day. I sweetened it for you,” she said as though a boatload of sugar would help.
I sipped and gagged, making a face. “I’ll drink it later,” I promised, trying not to hurt her feelings.
Ruby gave me a stern look but didn’t comment. “Let’s get the rest of the things out of the car and get you unpacked. You’re looking tired,” she commented, pushing me gently toward the door.
When Ruby had picked me up from the Grayson Center that morning I had been hesitantly optimistic. Dr. Todd and I had met and we both felt confident in my progress. But as with every time I checked out of residential treatment, those warm fuzzies slowly faded into teeth gnashing self-doubt. I tiptoed on the edge of a full blown freak out.
What if I had gotten so used to being locked up that I didn’t know what to do once I was given the key to get out? I was expecting to build a life out of the ashes of the old one but I didn’t even know where to begin.