ONE MORE RELAPSE

short story MAX GRAHAM

My hands start to shake when it is my turn to speak. I sit in a circle of folding chairs with a dozen others in a community center basement. Despite being called a support group, there is a lot of judgement in the air. I can smell it.

“My last episode was two weeks ago,” I say, plucking at my shirt sleeve. People say it’s important to talk about slipping up. People say a lot of things when they’re observing your life from the outside. You might have shared experiences, but they’ll never know what it is to see things through your eyes. At least they’re trying to help. Well, some of them are. Some of them aren’t. The girl sitting across the circle from me fits into the latter category.

I’ve seen her before, though not at gatherings like this. Our meetings were more intimate encounters in a life I’d left behind. She listens to me talk, though she knows my sordid stories, since she was there for almost all of them. I hit all the right notes in my group share: my sense of shame and regret, my dedication to be stronger in the future. That usually gets people off your back for a while. Everyone in the circle has once been a young, dumb pup like me. They were all guilty of the same transgressions that got me in the group.

I finish my share, and the circle continues until it reaches the girl: Jane. She says she’s too shy to speak and gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a sweet, bashful girl whereas she’s anything but. The duplicity makes the hair stand up at the back of my neck. When the group ends, most people commiserate over free coffee and donuts. I just want to head home, despite the tantalizing smells making me salivate. As I walk outside a voice behind me calls out my name, and against my better judgement I turn around.

Jane is a lot of fun, bad ideas in a very charming package. I know the smart thing is to turn tail and run, but part of me wants to know what her game is.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I ask, though it’s more of a demand. She always said that rehab was bullshit. Just society’s way of oppressing our truer, primal selves. That’s how I was drawn into her world, sucked into a mire of quicksand euphoria until I forgot who I was. Now I am trying to remember the in-control person I used to be. She’s taken aback by how forthright I am. Good. Better she’s on the defensive than I am.

“How’ve you been?” she asks. I’m not sure what I was expecting her to say, but it wasn’t that, coupled with the look of kind sincerity in her eyes. I know that it’s an act. It’s always an act. But a part of me can’t help asking, what if this time it isn’t? Just like that, the quiet anger I’d built up is gone with a whimper.

“I’ve been good,” I say, then I try regaining some edge in my voice. “You didn’t answer my question, though.”

“Never too late for turning over a new leaf, right?” Jane puts her hands in her pockets and shuffles her feet. “Looks like you are.”

“I’m not the one who said recovery is for pussies.”

“I know what I said. I said a lot of things I’d take back if I could.”

I’m not prepared for this. I’d known Jane from her angriest to most ecstatic. I thought those were the only moods she had. This contrite, apologetic Jane might as well have beamed down from a passing UFO.

“Well, good seeing you,” I say, but she catches my arm before I can turn away.

“Will you take a drive with me?” she asks. “My car’s parked right down the block. I just need someone to talk to. I’m not ready for the whole sharing thing yet.”

I flounder on what to say to this. We had good times together, clean times together, before it all took a turn.

“Alright. Just to talk.”

The sun is starting to go down as we head to the car. I hadn’t realized it was so late. We drive along a coastal road where we can see the sun setting. It was one of our favorite spots to visit. Our old hunting grounds, so to speak. Couldn’t say it didn’t make me nervous.

“So, you’re going two weeks strong?” asks Jane.

“Yeah.”

“Good job,”

“How’s your habit?” She tenses at the question. Not much, but I know her too well to miss it.

“Well, I just went to a meeting. So, not the best ever.”

I shrug. We turn onto a road ascending a mountain range through the forest. It’s a state park and campground. Another of our old spots. Some of our best times were spent losing ourselves in these woods. It stirs something deep inside me that I thought had gone away.

“Where are we going?”

“Overlook Ridge,” says Jane. “Remember? It was our first date.”

“I remember plenty.”

Her smile is pure mischief. We park at a quiet spot overlooking the lake. There’s a campsite at the bottom of a sloping hill, marked by a few twinkling fires.

I shouldn’t be here. I should be home. I’ve been so strong for the last three years. Sure, I slipped up two weeks ago, but that was it. One tiny mistake after years of self-control.

“We had a lot of fun here,” Jane says, half to herself.

“We did.

There’s a heavy silence in the car, only interrupted by the sounds of campers laughing by the lake. I’m starting to relax a little.

“We could again,” she says, dropping the bombshell I saw a mile away. She wants the two of us back together. Back to the old days. I missed it in ways I can’t really describe.

“I can’t,” I say. “I’ve really made progress. I can’t go through it all over again.”

“Oh, come on. You can’t deny how good it feels” Jane has an intensity to her eyes when she gets like this. It’s a hungry look, before things get hairy. I missed that look too. Besides, she is right. Letting loose with her was something I was tired of denying myself. Seeing the conflict in my eye, she leans closer.

“How about just one more time? Call it our last sendoff. After that, if you never want to see me again, I’m gone. Promise.”

I swallow a lump in my throat. This is a terrible idea, but I’m about to agree with it.

“Just the one time?” I ask, and she nods.

“You know it’s better with our clothes off first,” her grin has returned. “Wouldn’t want to tear anything.”

I roll my eyes, but unclip the seat belt and we get out of the car. Soon we’re both naked, and I feel the heat growing in me.

“Ready?” she asks.

“Ready.”

Hair begins to sprout from my back, pushing through my skin as it peels away. My fingers bend and warp into claws while my face contorts. My jaw extends into a muzzle, sprouting two rows of fangs.

I feel hungry after the transformation is done. A deep, relentless hunger. Jane stands at the other side of the car, teeth bared in a predator’s grin. It feels good. It does feel natural, just as she always said. I breathe deep and can smell the campers. I can hear them, and even see them with eyes immune to the shadows. I turn to Jane with a grin of my own, and we lope down the hill towards the lake. Towards a dozen fat, juicy, unsuspecting campers.

So what, I tell myself. This is no big deal. Just one more relapse on the road to recovery. I’ll feel better when I go to a meeting tomorrow.

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