As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, after I edit and rewrite it, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE.
Let me know in the comments what you think. Or don’t. That’s okay too. *wink*
If you would prefer to read the book when it is all complete, you can pre-order a copy HERE on Amazon. It releases January 31, 2023.
She’d finally convinced Ellie to go home.
“I had a panic attack, that’s all. It’s not like I’m suicidal.”
Her sister sighed. “I know, but I’d still feel better if you’d let me stay. I can sleep in the spare room and —”
Judi had rolled her eyes. “Go home to Jason. I’m sure he needs you to cook for him or give him a massage or whatever you married people do.”
She really didn’t want to think about what they did as married people.
Ellie had stayed another hour, but eventually she had gone home. That had been two days ago and now Judi was lying on her bed in the darkness, replaying that day’s events and wishing she could sink into a hole and disappear forever. There was no way Evan was ever going to talk to her again and she couldn’t blame him. Who wanted to be around a woman who had a complete breakdown during a make-out session? She pressed the heels of her palms against her eyes.
Seriously. She was such a loser.
Thankfully she’d recovered from the panic attack and had been able to go to work with Ben the next day. Thankfully he didn’t ask her how she was doing this time, which she knew was code for, “You don’t feel the need to jump off the wagon and get plastered right?”
She was grateful he hadn’t asked because honestly, she absolutely did want to go out and get plastered, numb herself, silence her racing thoughts and she planned to do just that tonight. Dragging her hands through her hair she snatched the phone from the bedside table and looked at Jessie Landry’s text message again.
Being sober is sooooo boring. Go to Terrell’s with me for a drink?
Judi texted back an answer as she walked to her closet.
Absolutely. Meet you there in fifteen.
But when she reached the bar and stood outside wearing thigh-high black leather boots and a hot pink skirt and rainbow striped tank top she’d purchased at an upscale boutique in the city, she hesitated. She hadn’t been to a bar in almost a year, other than Lonny’s and she’d never stayed there to hang out. Did she really want to go back there again? The alcohol would definitely distract her from everything she didn’t want to think about, but it would also numb her feelings and maybe she needed to feel for once.
Jessie’s squeal startled her, made her scrunch her shoulders and wince. She regretted agreeing to this trip, or at least with Jessie.
Jessie looped her arm through Judi’s and giggled. “Come on girl, let’s loosen you up!” She reached for the front door. “How long has it been since we just let loose?! Too long, that’s what I say!”
The door opened and the smell of cigarette smoke, beer, too much perfume, and something frying wafted out, overwhelming Judi’s senses.
Country music from the old-fashioned juke box filled her ears as Judi dragged her over the threshold. She squinted in the dim light and took a deep breath at the sight of mostly men sitting on bar stools and tall, small round tables, their hands around the handle of a beer mug or a bottle. The dark wood walls did nothing to brighten up the place either.
Places like this had been her playing field for years but now she felt out of place. She felt out of place here, she felt out of place at a church or an AA meeting. At this point she didn’t feel like anywhere was her place.
“Come on, let’s find a table.” Jessie was already waving at men, flipping her hair over her shoulder and winking. Judi wondered which man Jessie would go home with tonight.
They chose a table at the far end of the main room. The bar, lined with people sitting on stools and drinking was on the other side of the room.
“So tell me, Jude, what’s been going on with you anyhow?” Jessie propped a cigarette between bright pink lipstick covered lips and lit it. She took a puff then blew a stream of smoke out of the corner of her mouth.
Judi made a face, glad smoking hadn’t become one of her vices. Filling Jessie in on her life wasn’t appealing to her at all. She’d really only come to get out of the house and see if alcohol could drown her feelings like it had in the past.
“Nothing much, honestly. I’ve been working at Lonny’s and now at Ben Oliver’s office and just trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”
Jessie smirked. “Ben Oliver. Now there’s a hottie. Have you slept with him yet?”
Judi cocked an eyebrow. Jessie was even more blunt than she was. “Uh. No. Not interested in him that way. He’s just my boss.”
“Then I’m free to go after him?” Jessie propped the cigarette in the middle of her first and middle finger and leaned her arms across the top of the table, her eyes shadowed by heavy eyelids and long, dark, fake eyelashes.
Judi laughed softly. “Good luck trying. He’s all about work and nothing else.”
Of course, she wasn’t going to tell Jessie that Ben was one, severely uptight and two, absolutely still in love with Angie. Let her figure it out.
Jessie crossed one long leg over another and bounced her foot in a rhythm that matched the country music in the background. “I bet I could get him to think about something else.” She winked as a waitress approached the table.
Jessie ordered a Black Russian and Judi asked for a beer. Might as well start out a little lighter for her first drink in almost a year.
As Jessie relayed story after story about her various sexual escapades, Judi’s gaze drifted around the bar, scanning the customers, recognizing a few, especially the ones she went to school with. Once the drinks she and Jessie had ordered were delivered, her stomach tightened. She turned the bottle around a few times, keeping her hand around it for a few seconds before lifting it.
There was nothing wrong with having one drink. She needed this. She needed to feel the numbing comfort of the alcohol and maybe drink enough to give her a buzz, muddy her thoughts until the memory of her embarrassing night with Evan disappeared.
The liquid slid bitterly over her tongue, burned down her throat, and hit her stomach as if she’d drank fire.
How she’d ever drank this stuff for so long she had no idea. Maybe a whiskey would be better. When the whiskey came, though, it wasn’t any better. In fact, her stomach was burning as much as her throat now.
She slid off the stool. “I’ll be back, Jessie.”
“Take your time.” Jessie’s blue eyes scanned the bar for her next prey. “I’ll keep myself busy until you get back.”
In the bathroom she splashed her face with cold water, patting it dry and trying her best to keep from taking all her makeup off. Foundation hid the dark circles. She’d been proud she’d been able to hide the effect of sleepless nights. She didn’t need anything else to make her look older than she was at this point. Pausing at the sink she leaned on it and stared at her reflection for several seconds.
“Judi, what are you doing?” she whispered to the exhausted woman looking back at her. “Do you want to end up like Jerry one day? Laying in your own blood in an empty field while your family cries over you?”
Did she want to be the girl bar hopping and having one-night stands all her life, with no commitment, no one special to go home to at night? Someone who had no goals in her life, no direction, no real career or hope for a future? Someone like Jessie?
She pulled her hair back tight into a ponytail, then let it down again, shaking it loose across her shoulders. Holding her hand across her stomach she swallowed hard, then stepped aside as the door opened and a woman rushed inside, stumbled into a stall, and vomited in the toilet without even closing the door.
She pressed her hand to her mouth and swallowed back the bile crawling up her throat, turned and rushed from the bathroom. Jessie was already at another table, leaning in front of a good looking man Judi didn’t recognize, laughing loudly and letting him get a good view of her cleavage.
She straightened when she saw Judi and waved her over.
“Judi!” she called. “Come meet Troy and Nate! They need some company tonight.”
Judi inwardly cringed at how loud and bold Jessie was. Had she been that obnoxious when she was still drinking? Good grief. She probably still was that obnoxious.
Maybe she’d become a boring prude, but all she wanted right now was go home, change into her pajamas, crawl under the covers, and drink some hot cocoa while watching a cheesy rom-com. Jessie hooked her arm in Judi’s and pulled her into the booth next to her.
The man across from Judi winked at her as he lifted his beer. “So, you’re Judi.” He took a swig from the bottle. “From around here, little lady?”
Little lady? Was this guy for real?
“Uh, yeah. Born and raised actually.”
Unfortunately, she wanted to add, her gaze drifting from the smirking figure in front of her across the bar, to the exit, wondering how fast she could run there in heels. As her gaze drifted back, she spotted Brad sitting at the far end of the bar, head in his hands, an empty shot glass in front of him. It looked like she wasn’t the only one throwing herself off the sobriety wagon tonight.
“Can I buy you a drink?” The voice of Mr. Blue Eyes pulled her attention from Brad.
“Um, sure.” Her stomach clenched. “A ginger ale would be great.”
The man grinned, his gaze drifting from her face down to her chest, lingering there, and then sliding back up again to her eyes. “I didn’t think you were just the soda type from the way Jessie here talked about you.”
Her stomach turned again. “Well, someone has to be the designated driver,” she said with a sideways glance at Jessie who was finishing off her Black Russian.
“Are you going to apologize to me or not, Tanner?”
A deep voice boomed across the small bar and Judi turned her head in time to see a blur of movement a second before Brad staggered back, fell over a stool and to the floor. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth, but he didn’t move to wipe it. He simply sat looking up at the man towering over him, mouth forming a thin line, a muscle jumping in his jaw.
In the past, Judi would have grabbed a bowl of peanuts and her drink and sat back for the show. This time, though, something needled at her. Apparently, she’d developed a conscience during her time of sobriety because instead of sitting by she stood and walked quickly toward the impending bar brawl, stepping in front of the taller man towering over Brad.
“Boys, boys.” She held her hands up, palm out, one toward the man and one toward Brad. “No need to fight over me. I’m not interested in either of you.”
She winked at the taller man and then waved her fingers at him as he scowled down at her. “Seriously, though, let’s not ruin this lovely evening by trashing this fine establishment and leaving blood on the floor.” She turned to look at Brad, cocked an eyebrow, and jerked her head to the door. “Come on, dear. Walk me outside. I could use some fresh air.”
Brad’s expression registered confusion as he stood slowly, straightening his shirt and reaching for his ball cap on the bar. Judi looped her arm in his and tugged him toward the front door while the other man looked at them with his arms folded across his chest, eyes flashing. If nothing else, this little charade would at least get her away from the creepy guy back at the table.
Out in the cool air, Judi let go of Brad’s arm after they reached the side of the building and sat on the bench near the parking lot. “Sit down, Bradley and tell dear Judi what brings you to this fine establishment, breaking your AA promises to admit your wrong doings and the power alcohol has over you.”
Brad scowled as he sat next to her, stretching one leg out in front of him and propping his hat on his other knee. “Aren’t you here to do the same thing?”
Judi looked at her nail and noticed a chip in the polish. “I’m here to forget how dull my life is.” She pushed her lower lip out and sighed. “Anyhow, what was all that about back there? Who did you tick off this time?”
Brad shrugged his shoulder, laying an arm across the back of the bench. “I asked his girlfriend if I could buy her a drink. He objected, I guess.” He rubbed his fingers across his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “What are we doing here, Judi? That accident should have scared us straight, right?”
Judi looked out across the parking lot, at the pickup trucks and the sedans and the cars of people inside numbing their problems the same way she’d tried to. Music from the jukebox thrummed its way through the wall behind her, played a melody she’d heard many times before over words about living like you were dying.
“It should have, yeah, but instead it drove us right back to our poor coping skills.” She looked over at him, his eyes rimmed red, hair disheveled, jaw unshaven. “How drunk are you, Tanner?”
He frowned, shook his head, staring out into the parking lot. “Honestly, I only had one shot glass. I’m not drunk. I couldn’t go through with it. I was getting ready to leave when Billy Bob back there grabbed ahold of me.” He raked a hand through his hair and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “I don’t want to be that guy I was before anymore. I don’t want to be all fuzzy headed and incoherent, but right now I am only because I haven’t slept in three days.” He looked over at her. “I could have killed Ellie that night, Judi. I don’t even remember half of it, but she said I grabbed for the wheel. I could have straight up killed us both. And for what? Because I just kept drinking away to try to forget all the failures in my life. I’m an idiot and everyone has had to put up with me all of these years.”
Judi laughed softly. “Sounds familiar.” She bumped her shoulder against his. “You’re not alone in that area, you know. I’m right there in that circle with you. I came here to get myself drunk off my butt tonight. I don’t want to think anymore about all the failures in my life, either. We both know that coming here to drink our problems away is just going to add to them.”
She crossed one leg over another and leaned back again, sliding her hands back through her hair.
“Look at Jerry. He could be in a wheelchair the rest of his life. He’s traumatized his wife and kids for years with his drinking and now even more. Dawn probably doesn’t know whether she wants him to live or die after all this. There is a part of her that will want him to live, hopes this was his wake up call and he’ll become the old Jerry again, the Jerry that didn’t drink his life way.”
Brad stood and slid his hands in his jean pockets, kicking at a rock with the tip of his boot. “I hope she gets the old Jerry again. He used to be a pretty good guy. Before he started drinking so much. After he lost his dad and his job.” He slid a pack of cigarettes out of his flannel shirt pocket, tapped one out and popped it in his mouth. The flame that flicked up from the lighter illuminated his face as he lit the cigarette and took a puff. He pinched the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, then smirked. “I can only handle getting rid of one vice at a time. And since when did you start to sound so smart? That speech about Jerry actually made sense.”
Judi scowled at him playfully. “I have no idea. I guess I’ve been hanging around Ellie and Jason too much lately. I’ve even started to think about going to church with them. Crazy right? That scares me, though. That’s why I came here tonight. I’m afraid to try to be normal. What if I fail and become weird again?”
Brad scoffed. “What’s normal? I mean, Ellie and Jason are good people, but they aren’t perfect. You know that. You are normal. Even I’m normal. We’re our own normal. We mess up more than the other humans we know but everyone has something they struggle to overcome.” He looked up at the sky, blowing a plume of smoke through his nose. “Maybe other people don’t see it that way but I think God does. He created us, let us have a free will he knew we would abuse but still somehow, he loves us.”
Judi’s eyebrows raised. “Brad Tanner. Have you gone all religious on me?”
Brad laughed, tossing the cigarette to the ground and grinding it under his shoe. “Eh, it’s always been in there. I’ve just been running from it, from Him, for a long time.” He made a face. “Also, that cigarette was awful. Maybe I can get rid of another vice.” He shrugged. “Or maybe I need to buy another brand.”
Judi stood and folded her arms across her chest, rubbing her hands across her bare arms and wondering why she hadn’t brought a sweater. “I’ve been running from God for a long time too. Sometimes I don’t even know if he’s there.”
A brief silence fell over them.
“Maybe we both need to start running toward Him for a while,” Brad said softly. “See what happens. See if he’s even there.”
Judi hugged her arms tighter around herself. “Yeah. Maybe.”
Brad pushed his hands back in his front pockets. “Can I give you a lift home?”
She glanced at him. “Uh — no. I drove here, that’s fine.”
“You okay to drive?”
“I barely had anything to drink. Are you?”
“I barely did either. I think we’ll both be fine. Just don’t let good ole’ Officer McGee pull you over.”
A small smile tugged at her mouth. “See you later, Brad.”
He tipped his head in a quick nod. “See you later, Judi.”
Back at her apartment she pulled off her clothes and stepped in the shower, washing off the stench of cigarette smoke and the grime of poor decisions. Slipping under the covers a few minutes later, warm in a set of pajamas Ellie had given her for Christmas one year, she tipped her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. She had either gotten old or wise or maybe both. Either way she didn’t know how to handle this new place in her life where she wasn’t a partier anymore but also wasn’t exactly domesticated.
She groaned as her phone dinged. No. She refused to talk to anyone else. It was probably Jessie asking where she’d disappeared to anyhow. Then again, Jessie was probably already making out with one of those men and had completely forgotten about her.
She rolled to her side and opened one eye to look at the phone.
Ben: Hey, worried about you. I thought I’d go to the AA meeting this week in Spencer. Want to join me?
This guy was supposed to be her boss. What was he doing, trying to be her friend too?
She turned the light off by her bed and rolled back to the other side without answering him. With her eyes closed, though, her mind replayed that night with Evan, then with Jeff, then back to Evan. She rolled back to her back and pressed the heel of her hands against her closed eyes. The alcohol she’d had earlier still churned in her stomach. Now in her mind Lonny was telling her she’d stolen money from her mind. She sat up, gagging, wishing she’d never agreed to go to that bar.
A few minutes later she was doubled over the toilet, emptying the meager contents of her stomach while her phone rang.
Stumbling back to her bed, she reached for the phone. The call was from a number she didn’t recognize. She turned the phone off, laid down and fell into a fitful sleep plagued by blurred images of past mistakes.