Jack stepped into the freezing December night and instantly regretted not wearing a larger coat. After taking several steps away from his front door across the crunching snow, he abandoned the notion of turning back. His black Chevy truck emitted a cloud of exhaust as it grumbled in his driveway. At least it’ll be warm in the truck, Jack thought as he found gratitude in its remote auto-start feature. He gripped the cold door handle and realized that he was not wearing gloves.
Jack’s brother, Teddy, sat in the passenger seat ferociously rubbing his hands together to generate warmth. Teddy’s frail, gaunt build was not conducive to the cold.
“I see you forgot your gloves as well,” Jack said as he climbed up into the truck.
“I don’t think I own a pair of gloves anymore –” Teddy realized.
“Really? Did you pawn those too?” Jack teased as he shut the door behind him.
“Don’t think you can pawn gloves,” Teddy countered. “If you could, most of the hobos in town would be bare-handed.”
The hot air erupted from the vents. For a moment, Jack didn’t want to put the truck in gear. He let himself sit there as the heated seat thawed his core.
“Are we going to an actual AA meeting, or is this like another intervention?” Teddy prodded as Jack closed his eyes in relaxation, tuning out his younger brother. “Because, I’ve already asked for help. There’s no need for another intervention if that’s the case.”
“Shhhh,” Jack said as he reached his arm across the console to cover Teddy’s mouth. Teddy jokingly slapped Jack’s hand away before it made contact.
“Alright, I’m ready,” Jack said, shaking off his fatigue. He put the truck in reverse and just as he was about to back out of the driveway, he noticed his wife staring at him from the living room window with a look of grave concern.
A few miles down the road, Teddy broke the silence.
“It’s not your fault, you know?” he said.
“Never said it was,” Jack replied.
“You don’t have to,” Teddy began. “You do that big brother thing where you assume responsibility for my actions. You can stop now. I’m twenty-six years old.” Teddy lit a cigarette and cracked his window.
Jack just sighed and stared ahead into the night as they drove down the rural road. Three more long minutes passed with nothing else said. As they got closer to their destination, Jack’s palms started to sweat. He nervously wiped them on his jeans as Teddy noticed from the corner of his eye.
“Nervous?” Teddy asked.
“Why would I be nervous?” Jack said with a tone. “I’m not the one that relapsed.”
“Almost ten years sober and still a self-righteous prick,” Teddy scoffed.
Jack wanted to reply but just exhaled deeply. This irked Teddy more than anything Jack could’ve said.
“When your friends in recovery relapse, you’re the first one there to offer them a hand up, man. Hell, I’ve personally seen you hold other people accountable for not doing more for newcomers,” Teddy continued.
Jack could sense where this was going and squeezed the life out of the steering wheel.
“So why is it so different with me?” Teddy asked, getting to his point. “Why do you have so much patience and understanding for others, but look at me with disgust?”
“I don’t look at you with disgust,” Jack began but was cut off by his phone buzzing. He picked it up and unlocked the screen. His wife had sent him a message that said, “Are you OK?” He sat his phone back down without replying.
“Watching you spiral out of control was the worst time of my life,” Jack finally said. “All of my experience working with people in recovery went right out the window when it came to how to deal with my own family. I guess the real reason I didn’t have any patience is that I had higher expectations for you.”
“You thought I knew better or somethin’?” Teddy asked.
Jack thought hard about that question.
“Yeah,” he realized. “I guess I did.”
“Jack, you know as well as I do…you can have all the knowledge in the world, but if your heart isn’t in it, you’re a timebomb.”
The yellow porch light hummed atop the side entrance to the church. Jack coasted the truck to an open spot in the crowded parking lot. He liked this meeting. He knew everyone here, and newcomers from the local treatment facility came by as well. He enjoyed seeing old friends with multiple years of sobriety but also felt like he was being of service to the people just coming in off the streets. The truck’s headlights landed on a group of older men standing in a circle drinking coffee and shooting the breeze under a cloud of cigarette smoke. Jack knew all of them well.
“They’re going to be happy to see you,” Jack said to Teddy before shutting off the ignition.
“I’m not worried about it really,” Teddy replied. “Are you?”
Jack jerked the keys out and hopped down out of the truck, slamming the door behind him. As soon as he approached the group of old timers they gave warm greetings as they extinguished their smokes and headed inside.
It was about thirty minutes into the meeting, and Teddy had not shared. Jack figured that he wouldn’t. Teddy had the ability to spout pearls of wisdom in a down-to-earth way that almost everyone related to; however, Jack was curious to see if his relapse had humbled his mouth shut. Old Man Joe, a giant of a man in his sixties, sat beside Jack hunched over and rattling on about how he was grateful to be an alcoholic today. As soon as he finished talking, Jack realized that he hadn’t listened to a word the man said; he was only concerned with his brother.
“I’m Teddy, and I’m an alcoholic,” Teddy blurted out. Jack looked up from the floor at Teddy who continued to speak before anyone had the chance to say the customary, “Hello,” after his introduction.
“About a year ago,” Teddy began, “I relapsed. It started off with a simple fleeting thought: ‘Is this all there is?’”
Jack noticed that the men sitting in the circle of metal folding chairs didn’t seem phased by what Teddy was talking about. “That fleeting thought wasn’t so fleeting after all, apparently. I started to fear that my life at that moment was as good as it was ever going to be, and that terrified me. I was almost five years sober, I was working full-time, and I was completely miserable. I know now that I lost gratitude for my recovery and everything that I had gotten back in my life. I stopped coming to meetings – you all know this. I started isolating myself and not returning phone calls. It’s obvious now that I ceased growing spiritually, and, wouldn’t you know it, I had the insane idea to get a little buzz on.
“I felt like I was outside of myself looking down at myself driving to the store to get some beer. I knew it was a horrible idea, but once I had made that decision, there was no going back. Before I knew it, I was home with empty beer cans on the floor and a head full of guilt,” Teddy admitted. Jack couldn’t take his eyes off his brother. This is the honesty he had been wanting to hear for a year now.
“I think I made it a week on just the booze,” Teddy continued. “After some successful nights of drinking, the idea to go get what I really wanted snowballed until it became reasonable. I think it may have been day eight of my relapse that I decided it was OK to bring heroin back into my life. From that point on, I just strapped myself in and went along for the ride.”
Time seemed to be frozen as Jack listened intently to his little brother’s confession. Everyone else in the room might as well have been ghosts.
“It’s true what they say though: this disease is progressive. Right after I picked back up, I was worse than ever. I burnt through any money I had saved up. Started stealing things again — burning people and avoiding phone calls. It got ugly quick,” Teddy said as he let his head drop to the floor in shame.
Jack looked around at the old timers. They’ve heard it all, he thought as Teddy resumed sharing his story.
“My family knew something was up because of my disappearing act. They tried to reach out, but I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t had enough yet, I guess. My older brother here showed up at my house a few times trying to strongarm me into treatment, but I wasn’t having it. The last thing he said to me was that I was going to die,” Teddy said as he made brief eye contact with Jack.
“The last time I got high was a little over two weeks ago. I told one of my running buddies that I found a good deal on some H. He gave me money and waited for me to come back. Needless to say, I did not come back. I ended up getting some strong shit – stronger than usual, anyway – and pulled over in a Macdonald’s parking lot to cook up a nice, big shot to wash away the withdrawals. The pinch of that needle is the last thing I remember. I died right there in my car,” Teddy said as he looked across the room at Jack who was tearing up. “I died alone and cold in a Macdonald’s parking lot, and it’s no one’s fault but my own.”
As soon as Teddy finished talking, Jack felt Old Man Joe lightly elbow his ribs. Jack looked over at the big man beside him and the curious expression on his face.
“What?” Jack said.
“You gonna share or pass?” Old Man Joe asked.
Jack looked over to where his brother was sitting across the room, but the chair was empty.
“I — uh,” Jack stammered. “I — pass.”
“Thanks, Jack,” the group said in unison, and then the man on the other side of Jack introduced himself and began to share.
Jack stared at the empty seat and felt brief bewilderment; it took him a moment to realize that he had gotten lost in his head again. A tear rolled down his cheek. He quickly looked to the floor and discreetly wiped his face. He felt a massive hand pat his back, and he looked over at Old Man Joe.
“It’ll be alright, son,” he whispered. “Time takes time.”
The group knew what Jack had been going through the past year, these last two weeks especially. Jack did his best to stay focused for the rest of the meeting. The longer the meeting went, the more he latched on to what was being shared. For a few hopeful moments, he even forgot about his own troubles as he listened to others share theirs.
As the meeting was winding down, Jack let his eyes drift back over to the empty chair. He looked up at the door leading to the outside smoking area and stared at the frosted windows beside it. A silhouette stood on the other side, impatiently smoking a cigarette in the cold. Jack quietly shoved his hand in his pocket and pressed the auto-start button on his truck keys. He looked up at the clock. In a few minutes the meeting would end, and he would have to go back into the cold. At least my truck will be warm, he thought, and Teddy will be there waiting.
Nick Roberts is a resident of St. Albans, West Virginia. He graduated from Marshall University with BA in English and an MA in Teaching. His works have been published in The Blue Mountain Review, Teen Ink Magazine and The Herald Dispatch.