Welcome to Chapter 4 of Mercy’s Shore, which will probably be called Shores of Mercy by the time it is published due to possible copyright issues. To catch up on the store read HERE.
Judi turned and looked over her shoulder at her reflection in the mirror of the church bathroom.
Black, calf-high, leather boots, a faded denim skirt that fell to her knees, and a red v neck, loose-fitting shirt.
Not too revealing, not too matronly. Hopefully, the people in the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting thought so too, not that she was there to impress them. She was there to try to get her life back, even if she wasn’t sure what her life really was right now or what it was meant to be.
She always felt in between these days. In every way.
She’d known who she was in the city. In the city, she was the girl who wore designer clothes, usually slightly revealing to attract attention and make her feel important. From high school until a year ago, she’d been the laid back, everything goes, fly by-the-seat of her pants type girl.
Now she was the girl who wasn’t sure how to act, dress, or think most of the time. Being footloose and fancy free hadn’t yielded the results she’d once hoped it would, but she didn’t want to be strait-laced and uptight like her older sister either.
She pushed a hand back through her hair, shaking it loose from the ponytail she’d had it in, smoothed her lipstick with an index finger, and took a deep breath.
So far, she’d been able to avoid sharing much of her story with the rest of the group. She hoped to do the same tonight. Especially if Brad actually showed up.
When she stepped into the hallway she gasped as she slammed into someone and stumbled backward into the bathroom again.
“Oh, excuse me, I —”
She looked up and met the amused grin of Ben Oliver. “Look at you. Can’t even handle looking both ways when you come out of the bathroom.”
Judi rolled her eyes. Could this week get any worse? Too bad Ben hadn’t hit the tree a little harder, then maybe he’d still be in the hospital and not here to harass her on a night she was already nervous.
“Ha. You’re so funny.”
Ben folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the hallway wall. “Here to ask Pastor John for forgiveness for lying to Officer McGee?”
Judi couldn’t read Ben’s expression now, but he raised an eyebrow, apparently waiting for an answer.
“I didn’t lie,” she responded sharply. “I looked both ways and didn’t see you.” She looked at his foot with the cast and the bandage on his forehead. “Shouldn’t you still be recovering?”
He shrugged a shoulder. “I should be, yes, but I’m here to support a friend who’s attending the AA meeting here tonight. What are you here for?”
Judi took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds. No use trying to pretend. “I’m here for the AA meeting too.”
He raised both eyebrows. “Supporting a friend as well?”
“No.” She raised her chin, surprised he hadn’t heard any of the gossip about her yet. “I’m here for myself.”
He pushed himself off the wall and slid his hands into the front pockets of his khakis. “Oh.” He tipped back on his heels and nodded. The smile had faded. “Well, that’s good. Really good.” Judi imagined he must be thinking how pathetic she was and maybe even wondering if she’d been drinking the day of the accident. He gestured toward the open doorway down the hall. “Shall we head in?”
Inside the white-walled large room that was usually used for Sunday School classes, there was a circle of chairs set up. Along the walls, posters featured views of sunrises overlayed with well-known Bible verses. Blue hardcover Bibles were stacked in a bookcase on the other side of the room and next to it was a small table with a sign-in sheet, a coffee pot, cups, and a box of donuts.
Judi headed for the coffee, leaving Ben to find his friend. As she poured the coffee, she thought about darting out again. She’d promised Ellie and herself she’d stick with this AA stuff, though. Waking up with a hangover and not remembering what she’d done the night before wasn’t how she wanted to spend her whole life, even if cutting out drinking had made her life incredibly dull. It had also left her with the ability to feel emotions again, something she wasn’t enjoying in the least when it came to emotions like guilt, embarrassment, and sadness.
She hadn’t promised her parents she’d go to the AA meetings because she hadn’t even told them how addicted she’d become to alcohol. Ellie had been nice enough not to tell them either. She knew her parents would still love her, but she’d always been somewhat of a black sheep in the family. No reason to let her parents know she was even further out there than they thought.
One of the many awkward aspects of attending an AA meeting in your hometown was that you ended up knowing some of the other attendees. Turning with a coffee cup in hand, she scanned the room and counted two people she’d gone to high school with, other than Ben — Jessie Landry and Steve Jakes. The 60-something-year-old owner of the local supermarket had already taken a seat and was looking as uncomfortable and out of place as he had in the previous two meetings she’d attended with him.
Her gaze moved back to Jessie who was clearly hitting on Steve. Wearing a black leather mini-skirt and a hot pink tank top under a blue denim jacket, Jessie obviously hadn’t been concerned about looking too trashy.
Judi had partied with Jessie more than once on her visits back home over the years. She’d also had run into her once or twice at a bar before making the decision to drop alcohol altogether. Jessie might be serious about cutting out alcohol, but Judi was certain it would take a lot more to break Jessie of her addiction to dating a new man every few months.
Glancing around the room again, Judi’s gaze fell on Ben standing next to an unshaven elderly man in a pair of faded stained jeans and a flannel shirt. She hadn’t really paid much attention to how he looked when he’d been harassing her in the hallway.
Now she noticed his light brown hair was swept back off his forehead and he was wearing a blue, button-up dress shirt, the collar firmly buttoned at the top, and a pair of tan khakis. She wondered if he ever dressed in anything more casual. She’d be shocked if he ever kicked back in a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt.
The hand of the man standing next to him shook as he lifted a cup to his mouth. Ben laid a hand on his shoulder and said something to him Judi couldn’t hear. Whatever it was the man seemed to appreciate it and nodded slowly as he swallowed the liquid from the cup.
The group facilitator and Judi’s sponsor, Rachel Martin, clapped her hands twice to get everyone’s attention.
“Okay, everyone. Let’s get seated.”
Judi noticed as she sat in a metal chair with a blue cushion that Brad wasn’t in the room. She hadn’t actually expected to see him to show up, so his absence wasn’t a surprise. It was, however, a relief.
Rachel sat and smiled as she looked around the circle. “Good evening, everyone, my name is Rachel and I’ve been sober ten years now and I’m your group leader tonight.” She stopped her gaze briefly at each person and smiled. “I see a couple of new faces with us tonight. How was everyone’s week? Anyone do anything exciting?”
The adjusting and readjusting of bottoms on metal seats filled the silence but no one offered any tales of their past week.
Judi didn’t have anything exciting to share unless a near collision with a lawyer’s fancy car was exciting. Had Ben not been there, she might have shared the story to make sure her side was heard. She scanned the circle and counted twelve recovering alcoholics and Ben.
It was sad to think such a small town had so many people struggling with alcohol and addiction.
Rachel sat back in the chair, the smile still in place, dark curls falling away from her face as she pushed her hair back. “Okay, well, that’s fine. We all must have had a pretty routine week.”
A smattering of stiff laughter trickled around the circle. Judi knew that most of the group members’ routine week had most likely involved fighting back the overwhelming desire to open a bottle and pour alcohol down their throat to chase away the demons.
Demons whispered in Judi’s ear every day.
“You’re such a screwup.”
“Go ahead. Take just one drink to take the edge off. It won’t hurt.”
“You’ll never be as good as Ellie is.”
“You will never have a life like Ellie with a husband and a real job.”
“Your parents will always look at you with shame.”
“You deserved what Jeff did that night. You were dressed like a whore anyhow.”
Despite their whispers, she had, so far, been able to resist the temptation to silence them with booze.
The scrape of a chair pulled Judi from her thoughts, and she looked up to see Brad pulling a chair out and sitting in it. For the first time since she’d known him — which was since elementary school — he looked terrified.
Rachel waited for Brad to sit down completely and then suggested the usual moment of silence, which she said could be used for prayer or an introspective moment. After that minute, the group recited the serenity prayer with more than one member looking less than thrilled at having to say a prayer.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” they recited. “Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”
Rachel then asked the new members to introduce themselves.
A man with broad shoulders and a long beard, wearing a biker jacket with dark blue jeans and heavy, black biker boots stood and hooked his thumbs in his belt loops. Judi looked up at him and inwardly shivered. The man was easily 6 foot 5 inches and maybe 250 pounds. She’d hate to see him drunk, especially if he was an angry drunk.
“My name’s Jake and I’m here because I’m tired of waking up next to my smashed-up bike and not remembering what happened.”
“Welcome, Jake,” Rachel said as the rest of the group chuckled at Jake’s blunt introduction.
“Am I supposed to announce I’m an alcoholic like on TV?” Jake asked in his deep voice, his beard trembling with each word.
Rachel laughed softly. “Well, yes, the first step to helping yourself is admitting you have a problem.”
Jake straightened his shoulders and pushed out his broad chest. “My name is Jake and I’m an alcoholic.”
He nodded his head definitively as if his statement explained everything and sat back down with an equally definitive thud.
“Thank you, Jake,” Rachel said. “Would the other new members please introduce themselves?”
Brad stood reluctantly, shoving his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and looking at his mud and manure-stained work boots. Judi took in the dirt on the jeans and shirt and guessed he must have come right from the barn. She’d wondered if he would keep working with the Tanners after the accident, but it looked like he either still was or was working on another farm instead.
Last Judi had known Jason Tanner, who had become her brother-in-law six months ago, had sworn he’d never work with his cousin again. Jason was a lot like Ellie, though – a good Christian who offered forgiveness to those who didn’t deserve it. That willingness to forgive was the main reason he and Ellie still talked to Judi, a fact she knew and appreciated even if she struggled to be the same way.
“I’m Brad Tanner and I’ve been drinking too much for a few years and need to get back on my feet so,” he shrugged a shoulder. “I’m here.”
He sat back down, his hands still in his pockets.
“He didn’t say he was an alcoholic,” Judi mumbled, picking at a string on the hem of her skirt.
She didn’t have to look up to know Brad was scowling when he said, “Shut up, Judi.”
Judi opened her mouth to respond but Rachel cleared her throat. “Let’s try to be polite, everyone, okay? Brad, we’re glad you’re here. Anyone else?”
The man sitting next to Ben stood slowly, trembling slightly.
“Hey, uh, my name’s Floyd Miller and I’m an alcoholic.” He tipped his head toward Rachel as if for approval. She nodded back in encouragement. “I’m grateful for my lawyer offering to come here with me tonight.” He glanced at Ben who was still sitting. “I was pulled over for my second DUI recently and Ben here got me a lighter sentence if I agreed to come to these meetings. I didn’t want to come at first but Ben told me he’d been to a few himself and it was the first step to getting my life back on track so …” Floyd held hands out to his side and shrugged his shoulders. “Here I am. I’m not sure I can do this but I’ve got to try if I want to make my kids proud of me instead of ashamed.”
Rachel thanked Floyd for coming and then started to lay out the goals of the group to the new members. Judi’s mind, though, was focused on what Floyd had said about Ben being to one of these meetings himself. Had he meant he’d supported other people at the meetings or had he actually been to an AA meeting for himself? Judi was beginning to wonder if she’d read him all wrong all these years. He’d come here to support this man who had been his client, and he was familiar with AA meetings. There was a lot more to Ben than she’d thought.
She studied Ben for a few minutes across the circle. His focus was on Rachel, and he winced when he tried to cross his leg with the cumbersome cast. As he rubbed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, Judi could tell his head was bothering him. She wondered why he’d even tried to come out tonight, only a few days after the accident. He didn’t seem the type to put his own comfort at risk to support someone, but that might actually be the case this time.
“Anyone else want to share this week?” Rachel asked, clasping her hands together in front of her.
She’d already gone over the steps of the program and the idea behind sponsors, as well as providing a contact source for anyone who felt like they might fall back to drinking during a stressful time.
Judi studied her fingernails as she pondered the real reason for Ben’s appearance at the meeting, and noticed a chip in the red polish she applied yesterday. She decided she should really get a stronger fingernail polish.
“I want to know how Judi’s doing working at a bar and grill.”
Judi’s head jerked up at the comment and her gaze met the eyes of Jerry Spencer who owned a computer repair shop a few miles outside of town. She immediately recognized his tone as mocking.
Bristling, she folded her arms across her chest, leveling her gaze at Jerry, who seemed to have had it in for her from the first meeting she’d attended five months ago. “It’s going fine, Jerry.” Her jaw tightened. “Thanks for asking.”
Jerry scoffed. “Yeah right. You can’t tell me there aren’t nights you don’t want to kick back one of those drinks you’re delivering. I know I would.”
“Well, that’s you. I can separate myself from that world any time I want.”
“Famous last words,” Jerry bit back.
Rachel held her hands up, “Jerry, let’s be a little more encouraging, okay?
Jerry tossed his hands out to his side. “This whole thing is stupid. What are we even doing here? We all know we’d rather be out at the bar.”
Rachel leaned forward, propping her elbows on her knees and propping her hands under her chin. “Why are you here, Jerry? There has to be a reason you walk in those doors every week.”
Jerry shrugged her shoulder as he leaned back and relaxed one arm over the back of the chair. “Yeah. My wife said I had to come, or it was over.”
Rachel raised a questioning eyebrow. “And you don’t want it to be over right?”
Jerry rolled his eyes and tipped his head back against the back of the chair, legs stretched out, one ankle propped over the other. “No. I don’t, but that doesn’t mean I want to be sitting here flapping my jaw about all my problems with a bunch of strangers either.”
“What do you have against me anyhow?”
Hearing what she had been thinking said out loud, startled Judi and she couldn’t believe she’d actually asked it.
“You’re naïve, Judi,” Jerry snapped. “That’s my problem with you. You’re a little girl who needs to grow up. You think you can be around alcohol and alcoholics and still stay clean. One day it’s going to get to you, get it? One day it’s all going to come crashing down and you’re going to have a weak moment and boom! It’s over. All that hard work you put in and all that progress you made will be gone.” He snapped his fingers, his gaze focused on hers. “In a blink of an eye.”
He stood, hands clenched into fists at his side. “And you’ll have no one to blame but your stupid, airhead, blond ditz self.”
“Jerry, that’s enough!” Rachel stood and pointed toward the door. “You need to leave. Now!”
Ben and Brad stood as well, eyes on Jerry who didn’t need to be told again to leave. He’d already shoved his chair aside roughly and was on his way through the doorway.
Judi gritted her teeth and reached down for the coffee cup she’d placed next to her chair. She sipped from it and kept her eyes down, too angry and shocked to look up and see the expressions of others in the room.
Ellie had told her she shouldn’t be working at a bar and grill too, but Lonny had been the only one who had called her back when she sent out resumes. Waiting on tables was all she knew how to do other than retail and there wasn’t exactly a lot of retail places in Spencer Valley looking for employees. Maybe in some ways, Jerry was right, but he didn’t need to be so mean. And the air headed comments? Seriously rude.
Rachel sat back down and reached over to squeeze Judi’s shoulder. “You okay?”
Judi nodded but didn’t look at her. “Yep.”
“We’ll talk after the meeting,” Rachel whispered.
Judi didn’t want to talk after the meeting or any time. At least not about Jerry. Warmth spread across her cheeks and down her chest as she kept her eyes on the coffee in her cup. Jerry had some nerve attacking her when he was obviously an even worse mess. She’d hurt herself and sometimes her family with her actions, but he had a wife and small children. He definitely had a lot more on the line than Judi did. What a loser.
Two more group members shared some struggles they had been having in the past week and then Rachel drew the meeting to a close with a brief prayer.
Judi snatched up her purse and the cup and briskly walked toward the doorway, dropping the cup into the trashcan. There was no way she was staying to talk to Rachel about Jerry, her week, or anything else. She wasn’t in the mood.
“Hey!” She ignored the shout of a male voice behind her as she opened the driver’s side door and slid inside.
The only thing she was in the mood for was a drink, but since that couldn’t happen, she was heading to her apartment, where she knew a pint of Rocky Road ice cream was waiting for her in her freezer.