June 2017, present day
“Just remember I’ll always love you.”
He smiles, towering over me with his lean six-foot-four frame. His strong arms wrap around me, and one hand entangles in my long black hair. His stealthy fingers wrap behind my nape the same way they always do. Pulling me close, he holds me tight against him.
I grip him like I don’t believe he’s really there. My stomach twists in knots. I feel him slipping from my grasp, my heart cracking into pieces, fragments he’ll end up taking with him.
No! my mind shouts. I dig my fingers into his back. No! You can’t leave me.
“It’s time,” he whispers, making soft trails in my hair with light kisses.
My breath hitches. We haven’t had enough time. I grip him tight and shake my head, the word no escaping my lips over and over again.
He pushes me away, and I stumble back. A sob chokes me, and I move toward him, but I’m thrown back, a heavy weight blocking me.
“Wait! Josh, wait! There hasn’t been enough time!” I scream at him, but he keeps walking backward. Away from me. From us.
I use all my might to propel myself forward, but it’s no use. I’m knocked sideways, the air from my lungs shooting out of me.
Tears stream down my face while Josh disappears.
It hurts. It hurts so fucking bad. I can’t breathe.
“Sage. Can you hear me? Sage?” A familiar voice tugs at the corner of my brain, but I shut it out.
I want to watch Josh. He’s slipping. Further and further away.
I don’t want to hear her voice. It makes my blood boil, and my skin crawl.
Shit. Thoughts jumble in my mind as I make sense of the situation. Instant pain slams through my body. Familiar pain; horrible, bedridden pain.
Why do I hear my mother?
Don’t open your eyes. Don’t do it.
Focus on Josh. He smiles his I love you smile, the one where his eyes wrinkle and a small hidden dimple on his cheek shows.
He first gave me that smile when we were thirteen. I’ve treasured it since.
“Sage Marie, can you hear me?” Her voice is cutting, demanding.
If I ignore her, maybe she’ll go away.
“Let’s let her rest, and we’ll come back. How about a coffee? On me?” A deep male voice rumbles in the background, and I hear rustling before a deep sigh and the door opening and closing.
I open my eyes halfway. The brightness is too much, stinging like a bitch. My sunglasses would be handy right about now. A hospital room stretches out before me, the sterile air and fluorescent lights mocking me.
Another round of rehab, I bet.
I squeeze my eyes closed, willing myself to be anywhere but here. If only I could click my ruby shoes together and make a damn wish. Or rub a lamp. Where’s my genie when I need him?
All I can remember is blacking out and Tom next to me on the couch.
How did I end up here?
I keep my eyes closed as a wave of nausea rolls through me. I swallow over the lump, pushing it down.
Pushing it all down. It’s not real. It’s not fucking real.
Pain creeps up my sides, and my stomach flips.
My fingers slide around the sheets and up the side of the bed, the button right where I expected. I press down and wait.
“Yes?” a soft voice calls over the speaker.
“I need something for the pain. The withdrawals.” My voice breaks. I can’t catch my breath and feel as though an elephant is sitting on my chest. “I can’t take it …”
Minutes later, a nurse comes in, checking my vitals. I keep my eyes closed and listen as she adjusts my drip, flushing out my IV and checking the line.
I know the movements. The sounds. The procedure.
I’ve been through this a handful of times, and it’s all the same.
Every single time.
Self-medicating is my specialty. Checking out of reality is what I do. It’s easier than dealing or coping.
I desperately want to lose myself in the familiar haze. Forget everything. The pain needs to go …
I’ll push myself through rehab yet again, praying for the day I get out. I want to see Tom’s face. Not because he’s handsome or because I love him. No. I want what he gives me.
Rehab doesn’t work for someone who doesn’t want to change. Put me through the classes, I know the right things to say. Put me through therapy, I know how to play along and shut out the rest. I don’t want to feel or deal with the demons that brew beneath the surface. It’s painful and hard, and I’d rather not.
My head falls back against my pillow, the warmth of the pain medication seeping in. Maybe my mom went to get Tom. She hates him, but she doesn’t want me. Not anymore. She’d rather pawn me off on him and get back to her life.
I wonder how long I’ve been here. My head can’t add up the days. I give up, and my eyes slip closed.
Life is odd to me. We move through the motions of everyday and for what, really? What’s at the end besides death? We exist merely to exist and get by only to die in the end.
I often think of the end. My mother always told me I’d lose my tongue if I spoke of death and evilness. She wasn’t particularly religious, but she had her own beliefs.
Shoes on the table are bad luck, and speaking of one’s own death could very well cause it the next day. Death became a taboo subject in my house, which only caused me to become more obsessed with it. I often read about the afterlife. Anything I could get my hands on.
Josh would think I was crazy, pulling me out of the religious section of the library on a weekly basis. He’d make fun of me, but he’d bring me the newest books on whatever subject I wanted—my own personal selection before the rest of the town. I loved the days he volunteered.
I don’t read much anymore. Life happened. I miss it as though a piece of me is missing. I’m empty and cold where reading used to breathe life into me.
“Do you think the worst is over?”
My eyes flutter open, but I shut them quickly when I see my mother’s figure at the end of the bed.
Yep, it’s real. She wasn’t a part of the dream. Only Josh was.
Fucking face it already.
My heart picks up speed, the pounding matching the one in my head. My stomach twists and clenches, my breathing suddenly difficult. Panic rises inside me, and I squeeze my eyes tighter.
“I think so. As long as she doesn’t slip back into a coma, we should be in the clear,” a distinct male voice answers.
A coma? Damn, how long was I out?
My body screams at me to go back to sleep. Every muscle, every limb, every breath tries to pull me back under, and I let it. I’d rather not hear her voice. Nor what they have to say. I don’t care. Sleep is all I want, so I won’t have to feel a thing. Not one fucking thing.
Beeps go off next to me, and someone is at my side. Time for a vital check. I’m poked and prodded for the next twenty minutes, keeping my eyes shut the entire time.
“Sage?” my mother calls. How long can I avoid her?
“I know I’m the last person you want here now. But ...” She stops and lets out a long sigh before continuing, “Tom’s gone. I need you to come home and get better.”
Tom’s gone? It doesn’t surprise me. He’ll be back. This isn’t the first time he’s caused me to overdose and then left me to deal with the consequences of his mistake.
I crack my eyes open, finding her face hovering above mine. As much as I don’t want to see her right now, I have no choice. She isn’t going away, but it’s not because she cares for me. Whitney Costa only cares about herself and the man supporting her.
She won’t stop until I’m off her hands, and she doesn’t have to deal with my fucked-up mess anymore. See, she acted like a coldhearted bitch, but underneath it all, the guilt is what gets her. What keeps her up at night. So even though being here with me is the last place she wants to be right now, her guilt holds her here like a prison.
Nice mom, huh?
It wasn’t always like that. At one time, she was an amazing mom. Too bad that time is gone now.
“Sage, listen to me. It’s time to end this. It’s time to clean up.”
My body tenses at her words. No, I don’t want to clean up. My bubble is safe; it’s where I want to be. I’m managing my life. I don’t bother anyone, and I go about my business. What does she care anyway?
Out of nowhere, a wave of nausea hits me so strong, I sit up and lean over, bile burning my throat as I choke up the little bit of liquid left in my stomach.
My mom rubs my back, but it’s light, the touch not caring or comforting. When I sit up, my head spins, and a cold sweat breaks out across my forehead. Here it comes. It’s not going to be pretty.
“You can come home with us, and I’ll help you through this,” she pleads, and warning bells go off in my head. Why does she want me home? What happened? Something must’ve changed. Usually, she wants to wash her hands of me. I don’t know, but I don’t trust her. An uneasy feeling stirs in my stomach, and it’s sad, really. Her bitterness turned into cold hatred, so dark and unloving it scares me.
With a deep inhale, I push it all away. Focus on other things. Escape—my specialty.
“Where’s Tom?” My voice sounds like a sixty-year-old woman who smokes a pack a day. Jeez, Sage.
“He’s been taken care of. I want to get you home and comfortable before you leave for rehab.” My mother scowls at the nurse who hurries out.
Ah, there it is. She’s bringing me home only to send me off to rehab again. But why? What’s in it for her?
I squint my eyes. “I don’t want to go to rehab. Let me call my husband.”
“No. Enough of this. You’ve had your fun, and now it’s time to be an adult. Get your life together. You almost died!”
“My life is together. I survive, don’t I?” My voice gives out, the last few words barely audible.
“You have no choice. It’s either come home with me and get clean or be homeless. No money, no food, and certainly no drugs.”
Her words are like hot grease on my skin, slowly burning me from the outside in. Why does she fucking care all of a sudden? I want to scream and rip my hair out. “Where’s my phone?”
“Gone. You don’t need one right now.”
My mind spins. The tops of my ears burn. I swallow over the rise of bile, my stomach clenching in protest. Any time now, I’ll be in full-blown withdrawal, and I’ll want to kill someone. Medicines don’t work well with me because the side effects wreak havoc on my insides. Therefore, I need a fix, or I’ll be a raving fucking lunatic.
“Why? Why do you suddenly want to help me?” I cross my arms.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” My mother presses her hand against her chest, her mouth dropping open.
“You haven’t cared about me in years. Why now, Mom?”
I swear, her nose turns up, her pettiness on full display. “I’ve always cared. You just assumed I didn’t. But now, enough is enough. You’re coming home with me, and you’re getting your life together. No more of this teenage bullshit lifestyle!”
“Whatever.” I shrug my shoulders and watch as she storms out, the door slamming behind her. What in the hell is going on with her? If she’s trying to fix things between us, she has a hell of a way of showing it.
I’ll get through her rehab shit. I’ll play along with whatever the hell she’s doing. Once I earn her trust, I’ll get my phone and find Tom. I want to go back. Being here reminds me of too much. It holds too many memories. Times when I was happy. Alive. Well.
Drugs ruined those memories, stained them brown. And now, I don’t want to remember them. I want to forget them. Forget everything.
Being here only opens the wounds, ripping the Band-Aids right off, the flesh raw.
I’ll make it through. I need to remember one thing.
I can’t see Josh.
I can’t even think about seeing Josh.
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