by Tom Altreuter
His plane had been full back in October, no one happy with the forty-five-minute bumpy last leg and no in-flight service. Nick was starting to get a bit of a hangover after spending his layover at Logan slurping whiskey sours in the lounge. They hadn’t even served water on the plane and he was cottonmouthed during the long wait for the shuttle. Once checked in at his destination, water was again available. Step one was gratitude. The sign behind the registration counter said as much in warm glowing letters.
If asked, after his return, Nick would say that New Hampshire was amazing in the fall. In truth, he only remembered waking up to harsh granite grey winter skies sometime in late November, possibly Thanksgiving when he was allowed a phone call from his family. He never saw the fabled fall colors as he was busy sweating out all the reasons his family had sent him there in the first place.
The sudden deprivation of substances from his body brought on a cold and shiver, then a burning furnace. His head felt the way a squeezed grapefruit might feel. A thousand and one hangovers gathered like an angry mob. He was strapped in a bed because of his thrashing body. His arms were restrained to prevent him from tearing out the I.V., slow-bleeding him drugs to ween on. Beeps and whirs of the monitoring machines, even soft padded feet approaching were tactile sensations that brought suffering. At night, the machines would blink their lights—making patterns on the far wall—which Nick’s mind, when present, found unpleasant.
Cool, damp cloths to his forehead were a brief pleasure when they occurred. He longed for a taste of something other than water or Jell-O. Couldn’t even be sure if he was talking when he tried or if he was even speaking to a present human being. He began to understand he was blackout drunk sober.
He had no idea of how time passed. When released from what he discovered later was called the “ward,” he had been placed in a small room with a single bed, no sheets, a sink and toilet, plastic bottle of non-alcoholic mouthwash, no toothbrush, and a single washcloth. Very spare. There was a small window, the size of a mail slot, made of glazed opaque glass. It could be opened a crack and when he did cold, frosty air flowed in and burned like a hot stove on his hands.
There was no way to mark time. The single glaring light bulb in the center of the high ceiling, protected in a steel cage, burned until it was switched off externally. Attendants would come in, check his stats, administer drugs, drop off food on trays made of soft material. They would try and orient him to the time of day or day of the week when he could remember to ask. They knew his name, but he only knew them by designation of what duties they performed. Needle Guy. Food Tray Guy. Stat Nurse, who was one of the few women who would come in. His therapist was also a woman, but she was condescending. Nick had a crush on the nurse, which he came to know as Shir. She was the only real person he saw. On her days off he felt bereft by the indifference the male nurse showed to his plight.
Back in another world he would never have been anything more than polite to Shir, the only person he met in the first iteration of his stay whose name he could hold. She was large, pushing retirement, and well past any profile picture on Tinder he would have paused on, but now he loved her. Shir was his only contact to the human world. When he moved into the general population, he wrote her cards of thanks that went undelivered. No one knew a Shir or anyone who matched his description of her. Released into mainstream mingling, Nick was assigned a resident guide to monitor his well-being. The facility was segregated by gender. Nick was a “he,” but his minder wasn’t happy at all to be lumped into that category, and as soon as they were in the common area Nick received a brief discourse on what kind of rehab he would endure. Nick was just doing time for substances. Others were being reeducated in a different way.
On his first day out of the ward, Nick’s legs were too shaky to walk so he was ferried around by his minder who said to call him Fred, but should Nick need a friend, they preferred Fiona. That last part was whispered low sotto and Nick just nodded. Already he was tired of the future. The light in the common area was standard cafeteria fluorescent. The room was large, and sofas and chairs were arranged around tables. At either end were rows of folding chairs facing big flat screen televisions. Nothing was on at the moment. Fred explained that the TVs were used only on movie nights or for group presentations of little value. “Outside the Wall” sermons was how Fred dismissively referred to them. Nick would come to agree after the first two he had to sit through.
Shelves on the walls were stacked with various board games. Stuff you played as a kid, like Clue, where deeper motivations as to why Plum might kill Mustard with a wrench were ignored. Nick asked about books and Fred shrugged. Soft focus posters of beaches, mountains, streams, and fields of wildflowers hung. Each poster bore a slogan like, “One day at a time”, “Easy does it”, or some other banality. One wall was filled with large windows. Nick tried to peer outside but it was raining, late in the day and the interior lights glared against the water streaked panes.
Only after turning back around did Nick notice the room was occupied by a few dozen people. Suddenly he heard them: a quiet murmur, sniffles, low coughs, dice rattling, cards slapped on a table. People moved sluggishly. It reminded him of visiting Gram at the place his folks put her. Everyone looked haggard and defeated. He wondered just how much research his folks did before sending him here.
The night of the intervention had caught him completely off guard. He had been staying with his parents while between places, a minor setback, but not uncommon among his peers. He was buzzed on coke and weed, along with a couple of after-work drinks. In retrospect it should have struck him as strange that his sister was there and everyone was up so late.
He had called out an “I’m home” and disappeared to his room. He kept his old dorm fridge in there which he opened to crack a beer. A soft knock on the door was followed by his mom’s voice asking if he could come to the living room for a minute. Nick got up from his bed, which was also for all practical purposes the only seat in his room, and walked down the hall. Mom, dad and his sister were on the couch, looking furtive and embarrassed. In the armchair his dad favored sat a complete stranger in a suit. The man asked Nick to have a seat. Once seated, his mind tried to find a plausible reason for what was happening and turned over nothing. He pulled at his beer and waited. The suit cleared his throat and then he heard his mom, speaking in her nervous voice.
He remembered very little of what was said, only how often his family would say “I feel” or “We love you.” Numbly he agreed to go to a treatment center and the suit gave him some papers to sign. His parents’ names were already on it along with Shana’s. The suit talked past him to his folks and then left. Shana hugged him, tears in her eyes, and took her leave. Mom told him to go pack, that his flight was early the next morning. Dad sat silent, not looking up, hands in a ball hanging between his knees.
Nick had no idea what to pack or where he was going. He had a co-worker who had done a four-week stint at some place on the eastern slope and even though it was early October and still warm, he filled his bag with winter gear while drinking the rest of the beer and snorting lines he had been saving for breakfast. There was no sleep.
Mom drove him to the airport, got him to the security line, crying softly the whole time. She gave him a crushing hug, said “I love you” one more time, and walked away. Only then did he look at his ticket to check his destination.
“Hey, you smoke?”
“Like cigarettes, dude.” Fred was giving him a hard stare like Nick wasn’t all there.
“Sometimes, after a few drinks maybe.”
Fred made a motion and Nick followed him down a short hall through a door, which led to a high-walled courtyard. The yard had about six people leaning on the whitewashed walls, all in T-shirts even though the air was damp and freezing. Fred—or Fiona—offered him a smoke and explained what was available at the commissary along with some of the unwritten rules of conduct that Nick would be wise to follow. Looking at the groupings he felt kertwanged back to a high school that no one had ever left.
The cig tasted like shit. The nicotine rush was welcome. He offered a sloppy high five to Fred. A bell rang. Fred said it was time to eat. Eating time. Things to look forward to.
They headed to the actual cafeteria filled with long rows of tables and shuffled down a line where trays featured the morning’s offerings. Nick would sit with Fred. He was pretty sure his presence was only tolerated because Fred had to mind him if they wanted to keep climbing the steps that would lead to an exit. Nick suspected he’d eventually have to do the same.
After breakfast, there was Group. Group was small cells held to deal with specific sets of addiction problems. Group had a facilitator who would try and prompt the others into sharing some insight into why they were there. The stories they told made Nick really wonder why he was in this place. Harrowing tales of meth and heroin choices with tragic consequences of multiple lives broken. He was only twenty-four. Sometimes blackout drunk and kept ambulatory through modest amounts of blow. Pissing himself in the back of an Uber did not strike him as bottom after the testimonies he heard.
After Group there was a break. Nick began to always grab a cup of watery coffee and learn the habit of smoking sober with Fiona. Break was fifteen minutes followed by individual counseling on the second floor. He had to take the stairs. Elevators were off limits to clients. He was only alone when he took a shit. Counseling was a forty-five-minute session. He had nothing to say early on, so he made nervous jokes to dead air.
He slept in a room with no door, which was shared by four others. They were all mid-to-late thirties with deeper problems that Nick struggled to fathom. Their depths unknowable as he had yet to acutely destroy his family in the manner most had done to spouses and children. He could only be listed as a disappointment in the eyes of those who loved him and a mere example of having yet to fail completely in his bunkie’s eyes. They didn’t talk much but Nick got the sense that they were there to put it all on the table and beat the house odds.
Nick chose to labor in the kitchen as his daily work requirement. He’d been employed in a restaurant before his life had been interrupted. Four of his endless waking hours were spent washing dishes. After lunch there was a twelve-step thing that ran for two hours and was just like Group only everyone was there to hear the hardcore tales of descent, past the wallows of depravity and desperation. No details were spared. Fiona was never in this group. She told him she attended a very small “special” group, making air quotes. Said it’s co-ed and fucking evil.
Within a few weeks it was noted that Nick had yet to speak productively in Group. He felt he would be mocked and insisted he still needed to process. What he really thought was how much it reminded him of his Catholic upbringing. The idea that on Saturday all sins committed during the week must be admitted to in order to receive the body of Jesus, in wafer thin form, on Sunday. He would rack his mind in line to the booth in those past afternoons, seeking Lord-offending transgressions. Once in the booth he would make up things he imagined the priest would find unholy enough—technically a sin, but once started the tactic seemed far too convoluted to admit to—hoping for light penance. The prescriptive prayers for redemption were never used. There was clearly no point. Here he was now, not struck dead, just cooling his heels in a place where there was no Hail Mary pass to catch.
During one private session, he mentioned the high school analogy. Dr. Shaden, in a rare response, told him it was indeed just that. How somewhere in his junior year, when he started to drink and experiment with gateway drugs, he indeed had arrested his development and now had the opportunity to perhaps repair the damage done to his neural pathways. He was no longer a varsity tennis star with all the jock perks. He had responsibilities.
She asked him about his relationships with others, romantic or otherwise. He admitted to having friends, some who might not accept a “clean” him. She tutted when he told her he’d never had a long-term romantic relationship, leaving that admission to linger in his own ears.
Fiona seemed, a month in, to be the only person he could talk to. Slowly, in their courtyard conversations, Nick began to grasp the idea of gender dysphoria and why Fiona had clocked in nine months so far. She was the youngest person there, not even twenty-one. An only child of old Kentucky money, and the presumed male heir. A family desperate to literally straighten their child out. Fiona was in the fight of her life, refusing to unbend.
The Granite Hill Redemption Center (the name made Nick think of a return desk for unwanted goods) was once a private all-male military school. Red brick, Georgian columns, sweeping landscape, set far back from the two-lane road that led to its gates. The women’s dorm was separated by a more modern eight-foot-tall cinder block wall topped with concertina wire, like the perimeters. Part of the wall was shared in the smoking area where Nick could hear women’s voices. That was as close as he was allowed to women except for movie nights. The women he got to see were on a screen of carefully curated films that he could only classify as “chaste” or “very chaste.”
The program had a lot of right-leaning Christianity baked in. For Nick, this was the worst part. There was a small library but it was mostly self-help and biographies of people who were labeled “inspirational” on every jacket. Chapel services were held daily and heavily attended. Nick and Fiona played cards in the common area instead.
He missed his phone. Stripped down to human essence alone. The device was a phantom limb he felt buzzing in his left leg. Fiona said that, like a cult, you could get cut off from everything and this was why she got sent so far away. A forced reeducation boot camp to which she had signed off a right to autonomy until she was remade into the world view they considered correct. She said the return rate was very high and advised lying like mad to get out. Yet, Fiona would not lie. She had too much on the line.
Nick was eventually told he might be released in the beginning of March. It was mid-January when he shared the news with Fiona, who asked in a wistful tone what he might look forward to experiencing first once back in the world. Nick, immediate in his response, told her he wanted to talk to girls again even if his history of such was a scorched path of failing. He didn’t understand why Fiona stormed off looking on the verge of tears until he spent a few days being shunned by her, coupled with nights of not sleeping over the realization of what he had said.
He brought it up in a session with Dr. Shaden. As always, he laid on a couch not facing her but could tell by her tone that she was going to cancel Fiona as his minder. She informed him that he and Fred were paired up due to proximity in age and the fact that Fred had been at the care space long enough to ease Nick’s transition into a new way of life, really as a way to help them reorder both their lives. Dr. Shaden told him about how hard a case Fred was, which Nick found very unprofessional. He had spent months being probed of his own why’s and where’s, of how he related to others. Now the one person he felt any connection to was going to be removed from that convergence.
Nick, leaving Dr. Shaden’s office to work his dish dog shift, had his Saint Paul moment. He had fucked up. Sold Fiona out.
At group, the night of his veil being lifted, Nick stepped up to speak with soft (and he assumed passive/aggressive) clapping accompanying his momentous choice. He neglected to mention his personal failings, those that had led him to the podium. The expected ones everyone listed, waking in effulgent soaked clothes, abandoning relationships, holding tank punch cards, that the crowd awaited with eagerness to bathe in the sorrow, the sad wallows of others and he did not fulfill. Scanning over the heads of those in attendance, he searched for Fiona as he tried to articulate how he had learned only one thing of value in his time there. He spoke of his twin sister. Her birth just sixty seconds ahead of his. He stuttered and stumbled through a speech about missing his sister, failing to get to any point. He felt more drunk than any past blackout. Nick noted that staffers who moderated the shit show tales seemed to have been taking notes as he vacated the podium to indifferent applause, his entire body burning from lack of ability to express a rage the other speakers could conjure with ease.
Stumbling to the smoking section, Nick found himself alone, the walls weighing him down, black sky freezing his smoke-breath over him like a curse. No Fiona in sight.
At his next session with Dr. Shaden, she mentioned a possible real release date and granted a supervised session with approved contacts on his phone. His immediate family and his boss made the cut. Later, in a small private room he was handed his phone. As he held the device, withheld for so long, he found his motor memory fumble over once instinctual familiarity with its functions.
He called his sister first but it went to message. He left a faltering account of his possible release. His mom was on the line two rings in and put him on speaker so his dad could also be in on the call. They were excited by a possible release date, that he was doing well. Nick felt welling guilt over the money they must have dropped sending him here. They talked a bit about non-things. He asked about Shana, who was off snow camping; a very Shana thing to do.
The staffer who monitored his phone time was busy with their own device so Nick tried a furtive stab at checking Facebook but, of course, he was locked from any net connections. He then called his boss. One of the things his mom said was that his boss had been in regular contact, asking to know how he was doing.
Ash picked up, then asked him to hold for a second. He listened as she strung together some response to a question that was succinct in nature and mostly just expletives.
“Fucking Manny, sorry, you know, same shit. How the fuck are you?”
“Good…I’m good.” Now that he was speaking again his monitor was back to paying attention.
“You gonna come back soon? Tell me you still want to fucking work here. Won’t hate you if you don’t, but I would really fucking like to hear some fucking shit that wasn’t fucking shit at the moment, actually some shit like that would be a nice break.”
“Yeah, they’re saying early March…” She whoo-hooed. “And yeah, thanks for holding a spot for me, I really appreciate you doing that.” This he knew he meant. Nick could tell it was chaos on her end and he missed that more than he ever thought he would.
He tried to say a bit more but was cut off. The call stood as his only whiff of the outside world. The only news that came in was from new arrivals who were in no shape to frame the current conditions of the broader world.
No one spoke of Fiona. Nick was rebuffed by any inquires as to her whereabouts. It felt familiar. He was assigned a newbie. Steps.
Days passed, they always did, and he joined the smoking abatement group. No fun in the habit without Fiona. Nick counted minutes like days. Gossip reached him that Fiona had been removed to the psyche ward due to a self-harm episode. He knew it wasn’t directly because of their last conversation, but rather that she was already in pain and he’d failed to help. A small thoughtless moment on his part that now stalked him like a shitty stray dog biting at his ass.
His day of release happened in the pre-dawn in a perfect match of juxtaposition to his arrival in the post-twilight. A staffer going off shift drove him to the airport. Between the car drop and the brief walk into the building Nick had a breath of freedom. The hopper to Boston had one other person aboard.
Logan was empty, he had been told nothing. He had a boarding pass so he headed to the security line. The cattle ropes remained long and now were a pointless maze. He suspected the TSA gave zero shits. They all wore masks that matched their blue gloved hands. Nick wondered why the center hadn’t given him a mask. TSA was more wordless, more grumpy, and even slower than the time he flew to Utah during the government shutdown the previous winter when they weren’t getting paid.
There were a few people mopping with an intensity that didn’t register as normal to Nick in the empty vastness of the terminal. He bought the local paper because his phone had died in captivity. Every point of surface contact was wrapped off in yellow tape, charging stations duct taped, and signs posted everywhere recommending social distancing. The masked woman at the Hudson News counter seemed alarmed at having to encounter his unguarded face.
Never had he imagined being in such a large indoor space alone enough to hear the echo of his travel bag wheels resonate. Prerecorded messages filled the dead air and he could clearly make out gate announcements from more than halfway down the terminal. He bought a pre-made turkey sandwich at someplace still serving a semblance of food. The only other option was McDont’s and he didn’t want to spend half the flight with the shits. He sat at an empty gate and chewed the sandwich.
There were three other passengers who boarded with him. They all sat far away from each other. From the back, the only female passenger let out some wet sounding coughs and everyone else repositioned a little more forward. Nick had been wary of her when she showed up at the gate sniffling and a with freakish pallor.
The flight attendant quietly informed Nick and the other two passengers that they were welcome to sit in first class. She added that it would be appreciated if they kept the perk off of social media and that there would be no food or beverage service. There were only bags of peanuts and bottles of water. The curtain was drawn as the woman in the back continued with a coughing fit.
The seats were roomy and reclined all the way back. Nick plugged in his phone and dug around his backpack for his headphones. He pulled down the window shutter and turned on the white noise app. Might as well sleep. In six or so hours he would be back at SeaTac where Shana would pick him up.
His twin, the one person he could hide nothing from, who was the likely instigator of the whole intervention. She’d read him like a magazine on the ride home to see if the program took. He hoped it did but wouldn’t know for a while. He would have to spend the next two weeks in his room and then it looked like that would carry on for a month or more. He thought his folks could’ve saved a lot of money if they had just waited six months.
As Nick began to doze, the newspaper he was reading dropped into the seat next to him. The front page featured only one story sliced and diced into different angles, all of them proclaiming, “We have no idea what to expect.”
Forever waiting for the weird to stop arriving, Tom Altreuter throws sticks for dogs to catch and buys yarn for kittens.
Tom’s story “Long Gone” was featured in our Winter Issue: No Man’s Land.