The Monsters Within: A Short Story

The Monsters Within
“Hi, I’m Theodore.”
            “Welcome Theodore.” The red headed man in the center of the circle looks at me too optimistically. This is my first meeting but I’m pretty sure we aren’t supposed to be orbiting around anyone.
            I hesitated for a minute, “Heroin.” It comes out more like a question but how else do you introduce yourself as an addict?
            A few people around the circle shake their heads, whether in agreement or disappointment, I’m not sure. The dim lights in the old church don’t do much in providing hope for those around me. I myself know that there isn’t much hope for me no matter how hard I try.
            When I was fourteen, Elliot was the epitome of a cool older brother. He was always with the beautiful girls, he had saved his money from a summer job and bought a truck and according to those in his grade, they too thought he was the epitome of a really cool guy. When my mom couldn’t be home with us, Elliot did what he could to raise me. I can’t tell you the number of times we ate Kraft mac-n-cheese, but it never bothered me. I knew that when I grew up, I would be just like him, douchey truck and all.
            Two years later, his senior year of high school, he started hanging out with Wesley who lived down the street. Wesley came from a family with parents who worked a lot of hours and gave him too much money to make up for their absence. Wesley and Elliot started smoking pot and drinking whiskey most days of the week. At sixteen, I was inquisitive and eventually got caught up in their habits. By the time I had graduated, I was shooting heroin.
.
            I guess you could blame Elliot for my current position, six years later, but some curiosities are just too strong. In the end, this proved true for him as well.
            The sun from the skylight above seems to make the sun, around which we orbit, sparkle a little bit. His orange hair now shines a fiery red. The sun’s name is Jack and he uses too many hand gestures. Where do they find these people?
“I am a recovering addict. My road has been long and often quite dark but here I am, in the sun, twelve years sober.” He looks up to the glass ceiling. His slow speech begins to lull me into a kind of trance. “I know that many of you have been here before but for our newcomers, I want to make it known that this is a safe space.” He says all of this with a toothy grin and arms waving to show just how excited he really is. I have definitely seen this scene in a movie before.
“Theodore I am so glad you could join us today. We welcome you!” Again, he waves his arms, prompting the rest of the group to say something in my honor. Everyone’s barren eyes tell me that their withdrawals are killing them too.
            Of course there were the sweats, the chills, and all the other physical side effects but what really got me was the psychological effects of the withdrawal. I hadn’t slept for weeks, my thoughts keeping me up at night. I now had to face all the thoughts, memories and damage I had been able to push out of my mind for years. Heroin had been my therapist for as long as I could remember.
Slightly embarrassed by the introduction, I try to focus on the walls around our circle. We had all gathered in a room just down the way from the main hall where they held services every Sunday. My mom used to take Elliot and me to church. She struggled to keep our little family afloat, but when it came to church, she was a stickler.
I had never been in this church though. The walls were a healthy cream, decorated with ornate biblical paintings. The light coming from the skylight above tried hard to keep the darkness out. Like the rest of the church, this room’s natural simplicity was overcrowded with unpopular opinions and gaudy keepsakes.
If I had looked away any sooner I would’ve missed the small fragile hand of the girl sitting across from me, “Yes, Jackie!” Jack calls on her as if she is a second grade student eager to write on the whiteboard.
            “Hi, I’m Jacqueline. Crystal meth, a year and a half sober. Welcome Theodore.” The smile she gives me lights up her beautifully intricate features. The way the warmth of her smile touches her eyes makes me feel something I haven’t felt before. She must see me staring, as she blushes a bit before looking down at her hands in her lap. At the age of 24 I had obviously not mastered my skills in the woman department.
            Jack lights up, “Oh the sweet sound of friendship.” If only he knew how sweet it really is.
            I woke up on my 22nd birthday to a phone call from my mom. Her usual gentle voice was quiet and desolate. She didn’t know it had gotten so out of control – so addictive. The thing about mothers is that no matter how close you may be, they’ll never know the full truth. As sons and daughters, we try to keep the truly horrifying details of our lives as things that only exist in nightmares.
            Elliot’s body had been found in a dingy motel room a few miles outside of our trivial town. Traces of methamphetamine, along with other drugs, had been found in his system. The coroner ruled it as an overdose. Accidental. Had it not been accidental, I’m afraid of what my mother would’ve done. For the next year, she brought a notebook with her everywhere she went, writing down every memory she could salvage of my late brother.
            A few weeks after his death, I came home in a highly medicated state. I faintly remember my weak mother throwing a lamp at me before she demanded I check myself into rehab. We never had much money. She only had what she had saved up for a rainy day and according to her, it was raining.
Okay, I am just going to go up to her and say hi. Hello? Maybe howdy?
            No, definitely not howdy.
            My spark of hope in the orange sundress sat across from me once more. I was finding myself more willing to show up to this shit show every week if it meant I got to see her.
            “Alright everyone, as always I am so glad to hear of your victories and your positivity in times of temptation. You all inspire me.” If you didn’t know Jack, you would think this was deep, heartfelt even. In reality though, his closing remarks are just annoying.
            As everyone grumbles their goodbyes and starts to make their way to the table with the stale cookies and burned coffee, I put my head in my hands and close my eyes, trying to build up the courage I need to approach her.
            “Were you planning on just sleeping here tonight? That position could really mess up your neck ya know.” Startled, I jerk my head up too fast, messing up my neck in the process.
            I stare at her standing above me for a second too long, “Howdy!”
More than anything, I wish Jack would just hit me over the head with one of those metal coffee pots and put me out of my misery.
            “Hiya cowboy.” She chuckles at my dumbfounded expression. I told you I had mastered the art of flirting. “I thought I would come over and formally introduce myself. You know, with a handshake and without a lonely, wannabe inspirational speaker sitting between us.” She puts her hand out to me. Before embarrassing myself more, I stand up and take her hand in mine. Her grip is stronger than I had anticipated.
            “Theodore Rosen.”
            “Jacquelyn Wright. And I actually don’t prefer Jackie.” She smiles again and up close I can now see the flecks of gold in her emerald eyes.
            “We haven’t met before have we? That name just sounds so familiar.” For the first time, she looks caught off guard and she stumbles to get her words out.
            “N-no. Wright is a…a pretty common name around here.” She glances nervously at the floor, “I was curious though, as you are probably the only one remotely close to my age here, would you want to get together sometime? Somewhere that doesn’t give me suicidal thoughts?” Her dark humor only impresses me that much more.
            “Yeah I would like that. Maybe that cemetery off of the interstate?” I hope she can’t tell how proud I am of my joke.
            She shows off that heartbreaking smile once again. “Sounds perfect.”
            Rehab worked for some time. The routine of therapy, smoke breaks and sleep kept me on track. I didn’t have any pictures of my family around to remind me that my future looked a lot like Elliot’s if this thing didn’t work out.
            My mom called often to update me on her long shifts at the hospital and the cat she had adopted during a moment of weakness one weekend. Having a son in rehab isn’t ideal but she was proud of my progress.
“Better to have a son in rehab than another son in the ground.”  She had told me this during one of our phone conversations one night and although she tried to laugh it off, I could hear the pain behind her words.
“Then who would take care of you when you get old?”
“My cat.” She had said this so matter of factly that I couldn’t help but laugh and neither could she.
            Just when things began to look up for the Rosen family, my drunk of a father came to mourn his dead son. Elliot had always been the one to protect us from him and I knew that I had to assume the role now that he was gone.
            At the first word of my father getting back into town, I left the house, the help I needed so badly, and took my mom far away. We ended up in Grafton, Ohio. Elliot took lots of trips to visit friends in Grafton near the end of his life and I was always curious as to why he spent so much time there. In a town holding less than 6,000 people you have to wonder what the attraction was. More than anything, it seemed like a safe bet and that was exactly what we needed.
            I’m standing in the middle of a field: a place that consists of partially dead grass, cement headstones and sad, droopy trees. Jacquelyn had apparently liked my idea of hanging out in a cemetery. Just another reminder to keep my mouth shut from now on.
            Standing here I realize that graveyards are more haunting when you look at them from the outside. The silence, dark sky, bright stars and steady ground make everything seem stable.
            I can make out her figure as she makes her way to me from the opposite side of the yard. Her black leather jacket and dark hair shrink her frame even further. Even in the dark, I know when her eyes meet mine.
            “Well, you sure dressed the part,” my snarky remark earns me a well-deserved punch on the arm.
            “So your awesome sense of humor trumps your awkward ‘howdy’ greetings sometimes?”
            She has a much quicker response time than me, “Touché.”
            “Considering our...” she searches for the right word, “predicament, I figured we can’t go to a bar or a party so I thought that maybe in a cemetery, our chances of making dumb decisions would be significantly lowered.”
            Jacquelyn pulls the Jansport backpack off her shoulder and drops it to the ground, taking a seat next to it. I follow suit and sit facing her.
            The moon highlights her high cheekbones and the harsh angle of her jaw. She continues to dig through the pack as I admire her features.
            “Alright Teddy.” I usually hate the nickname but it sounds good coming from her lips, “I have here one iPod, one set of ear buds, two bottles of Coke because it is obviously so much better coming from a bottle and a bag of Raisinettes, which I promise not to eat all on my own.” She finishes pulling the contents out and lays them in front of me.
            “These are my life essentials.” She holds up the black iPod classic. “Everything you could ever want to know about me is downloaded on this beautiful piece of technology.” I nod my head, unsure of what to say to a girl whose entire life is on a gadget made in China.
            “And the Coke, well, it is a bit ironic isn’t it?” The laugh I let out isn’t forced and breaks the tension of a potentially awkward first date moment. I guess it means you’ve made some kind of progress when you can laugh about your drug problem.
            “What about these?” I hold up the bag of chocolate covered raisins.
            “The greatest candy ever made?” She looks at me like I’m crazy but quickly covers it with a smile, “My dad. We went to the movies every Saturday when I was little and always smuggled in a bag because the prices at the theatre were ridiculous.”
            “Why did you break the tradition?”
            “He died.” I immediately regret asking the question but know better than to apologize. “It was a hit and run. I was 14, which is too young for a girl to lose her dad.” She blinks away what I think are a few tears. “That’s why I got into it; drugs.” She was no longer looking at me. She kept her eyes focused on the dead grass.
            “I know he would be disappointed but everyone grieves in their own way right?” She gives me a forced chuckle, seemingly looking for my approval of her mourning habit.
            “I don’t think he’d be disappointed.” When I say this she meets my eyes once again. “I mean come on, you’re sitting in a cemetery with another addict on a starry night in September. What isn’t there to be proud of?” She lets out a real laugh this time. “You’ve already beaten that monster inside you. That right there is something he can be proud of.”
            “I’ve pulled myself from the fire,” she assures herself. I see her eyes looking at me, my mouth, my entire being. I let a smile escape my lips.
            “So when do I get to try these magical dried grapes?” Jacquelyn gasps; realizing I have never tried what she obviously thinks is God’s greatest creation. She motions for me to move next to her and leans against the headstone behind us. I try to convince myself that Gerald Grant wouldn’t mind us using his last claim to this world as a backrest.
            She precedes to hand me a bottle of Coca Cola, an ear bud and pours me a handful of Raisinettes. I place the bud in my right ear and pop a few candy pieces in my mouth. She turns on a song by Damien Rice; a singer-songwriter who she says got her through some of her toughest nights. I close my eyes and breathe in the familiarity of a life that I never got to experience. I want to remember the ease of the moment and the manner in which the stars light up the sky in a way that could make even the biggest galaxies feel small.
            I had put a hand on her shoulder as they lowered the casket into the ground. No mother should ever have to see her child being put to their final rest. She had been a wreck up until the funeral, trying to create the perfect ceremony for someone who would never see it. I don’t think funerals are for the dead as much as they are for those who are left to deal with the aftermath.
            She had asked me to prepare a eulogy, which sent me into an even further downward spiral. I knew what I wanted to write. I was just too afraid to see the words staring back at me. Writing a eulogy meant it was in fact, real and that Elliot was really gone. Drinking into oblivion, shooting too much into my weak veins and taking home random girls became a habit.
I finally got my wish. I was just like Elliot.
            Week six into support group, Jacquelyn and I had already come up with a code of signals: two taps on the knee meant “get me the hell out of here”, a quick tug on the ear was “is this guy serious?” and my favorite, the clasping of both hands was a sign for “let’s go fool around after the meeting.”
            The faces others make when they pick up on our secret sign language amuse me. Some smirk as if they remember what it is like to be young again while others mutter things like, “stupid kids,” under their breath.
I’ve never believed in love but if it’s anything resembling our relationship, I understand why people are so desperate to find it.
            Too caught up in my own world, I miss Jack’s closing remarks but figure it was probably something cheesy anyways. Jacquelyn and I get up, clearly in a rush to get out of the church. When we get to the door, I grab her hand and interlace our fingers. She lets out a soft giggle as I gently kiss the back of her hand. 
            “Can I say that I actually enjoy going to those meetings now?”
            “You mean you enjoy going to the meetings because you can watch me for an uninterrupted hour every week.” Her confidence still catches me off guard sometimes.
            She stops in front of me once we are out of sight from those exiting the church and takes both of my hands in hers. She doesn’t say it but I know the weight that her stare holds. I smile down at her, and can’t help but wish Elliot were still around to meet the girl who helped turn it all around.
            “I think we should go pick up lunch and take it back to our spot.” Ever since our first night in the cemetery, we had decided that it was going to be our spot and had spent a lot of time there over the past month. We were becoming the weird kids who hang out in cemeteries.
            “I have some Raisinettes in my purse,” she pipes up.
            “Whether or not you want to believe it, chocolate covered raisins are not a food group or even a suitable meal.” Since being with her, my witty comebacks had improved.
            “Fine, but I pick where we go!” I let out a sigh and pull her after me towards my car. When Elliot passed, my mom made sure that I got his truck. That beat up automobile is one of the last pieces I have left of him.
            “You never told me.” She spits the words out as if they are acid on her tongue. I glance down at her with a knowing look, neither of us willing to stop the inevitable question.
            “I was 16 and bored. My brother and our stupid neighbor introduced me to pot and I guess it just escalated from there.” I try to play it off casually. Mentally I am ready to tell her everything but for some reason my heart wasn’t willing to follow my brain’s plan. “My family isn’t… ideal. When shit happens sometimes being self-destructive felt like my only option.”
             “Elliot.” If it hadn’t been my brother’s name coming from her lips, I wouldn’t have been able to decipher what she said in her unobtrusive voice.
            “Your brother. Elliot Rosen.” Jacquelyn clarifies upon seeing the look of horror on my face. Her eyes focus on the mockingly blue sky above us as I search for the ability to put together a coherent thought. Elliot had friends in Grafton.
            “We met on one of his visits down here and—Theodore, I’m sorry.”
            “Elliot.” Saying the name aloud sends a shock through me. I can see tears starting to well up in her crystal eyes, “You knew him.”
            “I’m so sorry Teddy. I saw you that first day in group and you looked so much alike and I just had to know you. I had to see…” She won’t make eye contact with me anymore and her sobs become obvious. I wait for her to continue, “I was there. I was there that night. I ruined his life.”
            “What are you talking about Jacquelyn?” I don’t mean for it to happen, but the anger in my voice rises.
 “If I had just left him alone about the stupid thing he wouldn’t have gone so far.” The tears stream down her face one by one. The drugs in his system, the overdose; she is taking responsibility for it all. I turn away from her and try to breathe as everything she’s said hits me.
            “And you were hoping you’d find him in me.” The words are bitter but I accept them.
            “I needed to know that I wasn’t the only one falling apart. I had to know you.” I hear her say behind me. I hesitate but slowly turn back around as she puts her hands over her eyes, trying to stop the flood. Every part of my being tells me to run but there comes a point in life where you have to stop running—a point where you have to face the monsters within yourself.
I put my arms around her and she fights me for a minute, hitting her fists into my chest. It takes her a couple of minutes but she eventually gives up and welcomes the embrace.
            “It’s my fault. It’s all my fault Teddy.” My t-shirt muffles the sound but I can make enough of her words out.
            “He did it to himself. He did this to us,” Is all I can get out before everything inside me collapses.
            I had received her call in the middle of a frigid night in February. My mother, the only person who could wake me from a deep slumber, sniffled on the other end of the line.
            “Mom, what is going on? Are you OK?” I’m sure she could here the desperation in my voice. Elliot had been in the ground for months at this point, snow covering Beloved Brother and Son.
            “It’s all my fault. All of it is my fault. If I had just been around more. If I had just been a good mother to you boys, maybe I’d still have both of you.” Her words slurred together as she continued to blame herself for what a tragedy our family had become. She was never much of a drinker but I understood that sometimes all you can do is numb the pain.
            It would’ve just been easier to pick it up again that day, to just shoot up one more time. The one bright spot in my life had betrayed me. I wanted more than anything to blame Jacquelyn for everything. It was the easy answer but blaming her would’ve been like blaming the sun for rising or blaming the rain for falling. Who she was then, wasn’t the same girl I was hopelessly in love with now.
            “I never made it up there. I never read the eulogy.” Jacquelyn and I are sitting in my bedroom going through some of Elliot’s old things. Her honest eyes look up from the old yearbook she is going through and she chooses her next words carefully.
            “It’s been so long but I still don’t want it to feel real. If I read those words on that stupid notebook page aloud, it’ll be real. I don’t know if I can handle real yet.”
            The look she gives me isn’t patronizing. I’m used to patronizing. “Read it to me Teddy.”
            Her words register in my head and I realize that if anyone were to witness this, it needed to be her. I take a minute before reaching across her to my nightstand and open the drawer where the scrap of paper has sat for years. I stare at the lined page for too long before I unfold the parcel. I read it to her:
There isn’t a time that I don’t think about you Elliot. Whenever I look at mom, hear the rev of the truck or buy those stupid blue and yellow Kraft boxes, all I can see is you. I want to hate you for what you did and the fact that I even had to write these things down – the fact that you lost everything to something so menial. But there’s no way I could ever hate you. You were the one who always stood by me. You were my brother, my best friend and the most important part of my life. You were our constant and without you, it’s like learning to live all over again. I don’t want to learn how to live in a world where you no longer exist. I can’t do that Elliot. So for now, and for the rest of my life, I’m not going to use “were” because you are my brother. You are the greatest person I will ever know.