Mike spent his wedding night sitting in the darkened living room, alone, waiting for Ashley to walk through the door and come home to him. He watched the clock scroll past midnight, then one a.m., two, before his eyes grew heavy and he surrendered to sleep.
When he awoke the following morning, he found his beautiful bride sprawled face down across their bed, fully dressed, her hair a mess, snoring into a puddle of drool. Her new best friend, Anna Mae, lay passed out in the bathroom, wrapped up in the rug, one shoe in her hand, the other on the kitchen floor.
While he’d slept, they’d raided the fridge, leaving the door open, the stove on. The makings of omelets sat abandoned on the counter, mid-prep. He turned off the stove, closed the fridge, cleaned up raw egg, dried cheese and spilled milk. It wasn’t how he imagined a honeymoon would begin, but until the day before he’d never imagined getting married, so he pushed back the disappointment and walked across town to the house on Franklin Street, where he was scheduled to meet Jimmy for work.
Beyond the makeshift fence, overgrown by shrubs, past the piles and aisles of rusting metal and decaying artifacts, the house sat quiet, as though abandoned. Mike had hoped to find Jimmy’s truck parked at the curb or pulled into the drive, but the street was empty. An older, sun-faded compact car sat on the dirt lane in the side yard. An overweight tomcat perched on the roof, regarding Mike with disinterest.
He stepped closer, gave the cat a scratch behind the ears as he peered into the car. The backseat was littered with wrinkled clothing, coffee-stained paper cups and crumpled fast food bags. A tangled collection of dream catchers and other bobbles hung from the rearview mirror. On the passenger seat lay an impressive library of CD’s. At quick glance, they ranged from 40’s Jazz and classic Country, to power ballads and EDM.
“Hey!” a female voice shouted from the house. The slamming of a screen door immediately followed.
Mike jerked from the car in reflexive guilt. He half expected to hear the unmistakable sound of a gun cocking next. Instead, he was greeted by a pissed off, half-dressed beauty queen with a horrible case of bedhead.
“What the hell are you doing to my car?” she raged.
“Nothing! Nothing!” Mike rushed, his hands up in defense. “I’m sorry, I was looking for Jimmy.”
“In my car?”
“What?” Mike stuttered. “No. Just here. He told me to meet him here. He said he needed help cleaning up the yard, but I don’t know what he wants done.”
Her expression changed from anger to irritation. “Do whatever, I don’t care. The city’s going to take it all, anyway.”
“I’m here to help you.”
“Oh, no. No, no, no. Not me. My mom’s the one with the problem. And right now she’s out cruising garage sales, buying even more worthless crap to pile up on top of the worthless crap she’s already forgotten about but will never, ever throw away because it’s all priceless, vintage, collectible antiques.” Turning back toward the house, she waved him off in indifference. “Have fun with that.”
“Hey, Melissa!” When she didn’t stop, he rushed after her across the yard. He tripped over a tricycle, waded through a pile of plastic milk jugs, straddled a stand of used lumber. “You work for Jimmy, right?”
“It’s Marissa, not Melissa, and no, I don’t. Not anymore. I’m pretty sure after what happened last night, he fired me.” She whipped back around, her silk robe flying open, her eyes blazing. “No, you know what? I fucking quit! That’s what. I quit him.”
“Okay, yeah, sure, you quit. It was your choice,” Mike easily agreed. To what, he did not know, and really didn’t care. “But do you have his phone number?”
She huffed in disgust, whipped around once more, and disappeared into the house with a solid slam of the door.
Mike cursed under his breath and surveyed the yard. Grass grew long, weeds tall, haphazard among the flowers. Trees sprouted from the gutters and grew slender and crooked from under tarps, searching for sun. There was enough firewood stacked against the leaning garage to heat the house for several winters. He didn’t have to poke around in the piled leaves and fallen branches to know a couple generations of rodents had made a comfortable home amid the decay.
As nature worked to absorb the oldest trash, new had been piled on. Glass, plastic, things of value mixed with empty cardboard and moldy cans, a ceaseless ocean of stuff. When he took a step back and observed the property as an entire canvas instead of individual strokes, he could see evidence of fleeting obsessions; collections of twisted and rusty wind chimes, river stones stacked by color, long dead nursery plants still in their containers tossed aside to make room for salvaged barn wood and antique oil cans.
If he could peel back the yard in layers, he was certain to reveal a history of abuse, neglect, and abandoned dreams mixed in with futile hopes and desperations. It was as though stretched out before him, in the mid morning sunlight, lay an abstract reflection of his own life, a physical manifestation of his own pain, his addiction, his near destruction. He stood mesmerized—horrified—by the revelation.
But he also felt relief. This was territory he knew, pain he understood, fear he could empathize with. This was addiction, in all its naked brutality, and he knew exactly where to begin; Step One.
Unfortunately, the first step did not go as easily as he expected. Kitty Vasek was a vivacious, artistic gypsy of a woman who had zero interest in recognizing she had a problem, let alone ever admit she had become powerless against it. In fact, she’d derived such joy from her morning adventure exploring the community-wide garage sales, she was still on giddy high when she pulled into the drive. As Mike attempted an awkward introduction, she interrupted him with a hearty kiss, full on the lips.
“Any friend of Jimmy’s is welcome anytime.” She patted his slack jaw, chirped at his dumbfounded expression. “Especially one as cute as you.”
Mesmerized, Mike brought a hand to his flushed cheek. Like her daughter, Kitty possessed a stunning, natural beauty that defied age. He guessed her at 50, but he could have been off by as much as a decade.
“Come, come. Come see what I found!”
She was petite woman, tiny in build, appearing hollow-boned and slightly skittish as a bird, but she hoisted a cast iron school bell from the back of her minivan with ease. Proudly, she displayed her found treasure for him to see. A smile consumed her expression, but her eyes remained dull, glazed in false joy. Same as drugs had for him, scavenging provided her that numbing hit of ecstasy, the artificial thrill a momentary reprieve from her depression, her desperation.
Though she had yet to recant the tale of her discovery, her high started to fade as she looked beyond it, to the other treasures nestled in the back of her van. She cast the heavy bell into the side yard, where it knocked over a birdbath and crushed the odd assortment of weathered and faded Boy Scout popcorn tins it landed upon. It teetered for a precarious moment before rolling off the pile with a clamor, coming to rest against the cracked, clay flowerpot that housed a dead Boston fern. For one, brief, moment in time, it had been Kitty’s prized jewel. Its joy spent, she left it to the mercy of the elements, with all her other forgotten gems.
Mike stayed for a few hours, talking with Kitty, negotiating, cajoling. He worked up a hell of a sweat, though it was more from the heat of the afternoon sun and frustration than from any actual work. He left Kitty’s house in the same overgrown, hoarded out condition he’d found it, and walked home, defeated.
Bella met him at the door with an enthusiastic butt wiggle and wet kisses, then tagged along as he searched the apartment for his hungover bride. He found her standing in the middle of the bedroom, her bags packed, plane ticket in hand, her eyes bloodshot and tired.
“I can’t do this,” she said, fear raising her voice an octave. “Ky was right. I don’t have what it takes to join the Army. I can’t make that kind of commitment. I can’t be a psychiatrist, or a counselor or, like, try to tell other people how to fix their lives. I can’t even control myself! We got married yesterday, Mike! Married, like for real. We are married! You and me. Like forever. Forever-forever. That’s a really long time.”
Determined to make a difference to at least one person that day, Mike ripped the ticket from Ashley’s hand, pushed her back a step. “So quit. Divorce me. Stay here. Keep doing what you’re doing now.”
She sighed, heavy with exhaustion. “Stop.”
He pushed her back another step, two, three, until he had her trapped against the far wall, her hands pinned high above her head.
“Mike,” she protested.
“Listen to your sister. Give up on your dreams. Play it safe. Never try for anything, because not trying is easier than failing.”
“Quit,” he taunted, hovering close enough to feel her quickening breath against his skin, but far enough away that she would have to fight for it if she wanted it.
“No,” she repeated, stronger.
All she needed was that push, that nudge toward the edge to remind her of her power, her strength, her resilience.
“Quit!” he shouted.
Bodily, she shoved back, screaming out as she knocked him to the floor. As they wrestled against each other, out of their clothes, he counted aloud two hundred and forty-seven reasons why she could do anything she set her mind to. He would have counted a million more, but he didn’t want her to get too cocky. Besides, she had a plane to catch.