“Hi, I’m Jackson,” the fifty-something man dressed in a pair of work overalls said.
“Hi, Jackson.” Twenty-two men and women of various ethnic backgrounds spoke back to him in unison. They sat around three banquet-length tables that were pushed together as one, and Denise wanted to hightail it out of there as fast as she could. For nearly an hour, she and her husband, Derrek, both of them dressed in professional business suits, had listened to one recovering drug addict after another, sharing multiple horror stories; yet Denise still couldn’t understand why they were there—why they were humiliating themselves in such a very shameful way. It was true that during the wee hours of the morning, Derrek had awakened from a torturous nightmare and had decided that they both needed serious help, but Denise honestly couldn’t have disagreed with him more. She couldn’t fathom any of his thinking because the truth of the matter was, she and Derrek weren’t the least bit addicted to anything. She did take Vicodin nightly for relaxation purposes, what with all the major stress she endured as director of nursing for one of the Chicago area’s largest nursing homes, but finding various ways to relax was normal for just about anyone she could think of. Then, as far as Derrek was concerned, about a year ago he’d begun snorting a little cocaine socially with a couple of his close colleagues, but that was it. Of course, he hadn’t actually planned on telling Denise about his newfound indulgence but when she’d accidentally discovered a small plastic baggie in his blazer pocket of all places, filled with some white powdery substance, she’d confronted him. He’d apologized for hiding things from her, and while she hadn’t necessarily liked the idea of him using an illegal drug, she also couldn’t deny that she’d always been curious about it herself. Her parents had raised her to be a “good girl,” and when she’d become a teenager, they’d kept her away from “bad girl” sort of things, such as late-night parties and the kind of friends who could do whatever they wanted when they wanted to. Her father had also forbade her to be friends with any child—even her own cousins—who didn’t live in a “suitable” neighborhood and didn’t attend private school. He’d made it very clear that she wasn’t to consort with “riff raff” of any kind unless their parents were of a certain class.
In the end, her parents had basically guarded her day and night, told her that she didn’t need many friends, anyway, and insisted she should focus mainly on being the best student possible. They’d also encouraged her to read her Bible daily and had kept her frequently involved in church activities. In the end, though, this of course had all been fine because it was Denise’s upbringing that had stopped her from doing anything that wasn’t good for her, specifically during her college years. She hadn’t even dated all that much back then and had primarily concentrated on her studies and potentially bright future in nursing. She’d learned to do exactly as her father had expected, and she’d gone very far in life because of it.
Still, for some reason, she’d always wondered what it would be like to smoke marijuana or even snort a little cocaine for that matter, simply because she’d never done anything irrational. Maybe her strong interest in trying drugs stemmed from how strict her parents had been and the fact that everything had been so off limits. Because no matter how much education she’d gotten or how often she’d gone to church, she’d never been able to shed this relentless need to do something out of the ordinary—something wild even. She’d known it was crazy and lowly of her to even consider such things, which was the reason she’d never shared these feelings with another living soul, but her curiosity was what it was and she couldn’t help it—so much so that when the opportunity had presented itself, she’d taken it. She’d debated back and forth and then back and forth again, but three months ago when she’d found herself home alone taking a much needed day off from work, she’d pulled out Derrek’s stash from the tan, metal box he kept it in. Even then, as she’d held it in her hand, she’d debated a while longer but then she had finally poured a tiny line of cocaine onto one of her hand mirrors and snorted it with a straw she’d gotten from the kitchen. At first, she’d wondered how long it would take before she felt anything, but in a couple of minutes, she’d gotten her first buzz. She remembered, too, how she’d never felt more energized or stress-free in her life.
So over these last three months, she and Derrek sometimes—well every night that is—did a line or two in their bedroom. They only did it, though, as a way to unwind, so why not? Especially since not only was her job extremely demanding and filled with loads of responsibilities, Derrek’s position as Director of Finance at Covington Park Memorial Hospital was just as taxing. They both worked long hours, they did all they could trying to be the best parents they could be to their twelve-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, and at the end of every given work day a bit of cocaine always made them feel better. It took the edge off in more ways than one, but again, they weren’t hooked and had not a thing to worry about.
But here the two of them were, front and center, sitting at some humdrum Narcotics Anonymous meeting amongst people who truly were addicts—folks who didn’t appear to have ever lived the kind of decent life she and Derrek had worked so hard to establish. As Denise scanned the entire group one by one, she did feel sorry for these poor people, but she also couldn’t help noticing that she and Derrek had nothing in common with them. Many had talked about their days of being homeless, some had mentioned not graduating from high school, and others had talked about the horrible neighborhoods they’d grown up in. Just about every single story had depressed Denise, and she wanted to leave there.
So much for wishful thinking, though, because as soon as Jackson finished sharing about his last few days, Derrek spoke next.
“Hi, I’m Derrek.”
“Hi Derrek,” everyone said, some smiling and some with quiet stares.
“Well, I’m not sure where to begin exactly, so I guess I’ll just say that I’m very glad to be here. My wife and I,” he said, looking at Denise, “have never attended any kind of meetings for addiction before, but one thing I’ll never forget are the stories my grandfather told me for years about his days as an alcoholic. He would tell me how it was the worst time in his life and that had it not been for God and Alcoholics Anonymous, he would have likely been a dead man in his thirties. Before he died, he’d been sober for almost forty years, but even then, he still attended one or two meetings every week.”
Many of the people around the table nodded, more of them smiling than before, and Denise hoped Derrek wasn’t going to share any more of their personal business. She wondered why he couldn’t handle this so-called drug problem in private. Some time ago, Derrek had gotten a little carried away with playing the Illinois State Lottery, but when he’d realized enough was enough, he’d prayed about it and stopped on his own. He hadn’t needed any twelve-step program back then, so for the life of her, she couldn’t understand why this new issue was different.
Now, instead of hoping he wouldn’t say anything else, she wanted to beg him not to.
But sadly, he did.
“The real reason I wanted my wife and I to come tonight, however, is because I had this horrifying dream that scared me to death. It was very vivid and when it was all said and done, my wife and I had ended up just like my parents: strung out on drugs and living on the street. We were homeless and destitute.”
Everyone stared at Derrek, attentively and compassionately, and Denise could tell their hearts went out to him—and her, too, for that matter. The only thing was, she and Derrek didn’t have a problem, and she wished he’d stop blowing everything out of proportion and being so dramatic.
“Anyway, I won’t take up a lot of your time tonight, but again, I’m very glad to be here and thank you for having us.”
“Thanks, Derrek. Keep coming back.” Everyone spoke together in an almost chant-like fashion.
Derrek nodded. “I will.”
Denise wanted to scream.
Two Months Later
Denise smoothed the back of her husband’s head, admiring how handsome he still was, and gazed at their beautiful daughter. She honestly couldn’t have been happier. They were all sitting in the family room, she and Derrek on the soft, plush, burnt orange leather sofa and Mackenzie in one of the matching oversized chairs. Mackenzie’s long, slender legs were also propped up on one of the ottomans, as she sipped strawberry soda from an ice-filled glass. Tonight was pizza night and while Denise hadn’t eaten any, Mackenzie and her father had devoured as much as they could. They were also in the midst of watching The Color Purple for the umpteenth time and were enjoying every minute of it.
But as Denise glanced over at Derrek again, she thought about how blessed they truly were. They’d been married for fifteen wonderful years, she still loved him more than ever, and he clearly felt the same about her. She knew there was no such thing as a perfect marriage, but if there had been, her marriage to Derrek would certainly have to qualify; partly because they undoubtedly had the love of a lifetime and partly because no disagreement or problem had ever come between them. Then if that wasn’t enough, God had blessed them with the best daughter. She was kind and smart, she loved everyone she came in contact with, and she never got into trouble. She also had a knack for helping any of her schoolmates who were a lot less fortunate whenever they were in need of something. She’d been gifted with an old soul for sure, and she was the kind of child any parent could be proud of.
Then, in addition to their marriage and daughter, God had given them both successful careers. They’d each graduated from top schools, she from John Hopkins University with a bachelor’s degree in nursing and then a master’s in nursing from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Derrek from Northwestern with a bachelor’s in business and then an MBA from the same grad school as her. Denise had gone to college on a partial academic scholarship, but it also hadn’t been a problem for her parents to cover the balance of her tuition since her father had been a top criminal attorney in downtown Chicago for years. Derrek, on the other hand, hadn’t come from a well-to-do family and had been forced to struggle and work his way through school. He’d also had to utilize as many grants and student loans that had been available to him. As a matter of fact, because Derrek’s parents had gotten so caught up with drugs, it had been his maternal grandparents who had raised him and his twin brother, Dixon. Neither of his grandparents had earned huge salaries, but they’d still given their two grandsons a good home and had done the best they could with them.
When Denise heard Shug Avery saying, ‘I’s married now,’ she gazed at the large flat screen television and thought about her own wedding. The ceremony had been amazing, and she still remembered every detail like it was yesterday. Eight bridesmaids, eight groomsmen, two maids of honor, two best men, three gorgeous little flower girls, the most handsome little ring bearer and nearly five hundred guests. It had all been a dream come true for both Denise and Derrek, and their family members had been just as happy. In fact, life had been good since the very first day they’d met, which had sort of happened by accident. Right after completing her nursing program, Denise had immediately gotten hired by Covington Park Memorial, and as it had turned out, Derrek had started working for the hospital’s finance department the same week. But the reason she’d always felt their meeting had been by accident was because she’d received employment offers from two other hospitals in the Chicago area, and it hadn’t been until a couple of days before her scheduled hire date that she’d decided against one of them and had checked to see if the offer was still on the table from Covington. She’d changed her mind at the last minute for no particular reason, although, her mom always insisted that there were no such things as accidents or coincidences, only meant-to-be situations. Her mom believed that everything truly did happen for a reason.
Derrek laughed at one of the funnier scenes in the movie and grabbed Denise’s hand. The romance between them was still very much alive, and she couldn’t be more grateful. The only thing was, however, suddenly, she felt somewhat out of sorts and a bit uneasy. She knew why, though: she’d had another long, hectic day at work, and she needed something to calm her nerves. Nothing major but just a little something to help her through the rest of the evening and prepare her for a restful night of sleep. But just as she started to get up, Mackenzie said, “Oh Mom and Dad, I forgot to tell you. Alexis’s parents are leaving two days earlier than we are for their Christmas trip, so is it okay for her to stay here with us?”
“Of course,” Denise said. “She’s going to be traveling with us for the holidays, anyway.”
“I told her you wouldn’t mind, but she still wanted me to ask. I think her mom is going to call yo u, too.”
“It’s no problem at all.”
“Gosh, only three more months,” Mackenzie beamed. “Jamaica is gonna be so much fun, and I’m so glad Alexis is going. We’re gonna have an even better time than we had on the cruise last year.”
“I’m excited, too,” Denise said just before Mackenzie’s phone rang.
Derrek pressed the pause button on the DVR, and Mackenzie checked her Caller ID screen.
“This is Alexis now. I’ll call her back, though, when the movie goes off.”
“You sure?” he asked.
Derrek pressed the play button, and Denise scooted toward the edge of the sofa, “I need to review a couple of care plan files for tomorrow, but I’ll be back down in a half hour or so.”
Mackenzie looked at her mother. “But Mom you’re gonna miss the rest of the movie.”
“Well, maybe not all of it. I’ll try to finish up as soon as I can.”
Mackenzie didn’t say anything else and turned back toward the television. Derrek did the same, and Denise strolled through the hallway and up the wooden, carpeted, winding staircase. They’d only lived in this particular house for five years, but it was their dream home. They’d owned two houses prior to this, first their starter home, which had been fifteen hundred square feet, then their second which was nearly double that size, and now this one, which was right at five thousand. There were three finished levels that included four bedrooms, a theater room, an exercise room and three fireplaces. They’d built it brand new, so not only was this their third home, it was their last. This was the house they would retire in and the one they would eventually sell many years from now when they were too old and too tired to worry about normal upkeep. They would then happily and readily scale down to a nice little condo.
Denise stepped inside her bedroom, closed the door and hurried over to her handbag. She’d gone all day without taking anything, but now her stress level was getting the best of her. So, she unzipped the middle compartment, pulled out an unlabeled bottle and opened it. She tapped it with her left forefinger until one large, white, oblong-shaped pill fell into her hand. Then, she went into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. She wasn’t too keen on drinking from the tap, mainly because she was so used to drinking bottled water, but she knew tap would have to do because she didn’t want to traipse all the way back downstairs to the kitchen and take a chance on Derrek seeing her and questioning what she was doing.
She ran the water for sixty seconds or so, waiting for it to cool down, and then she lifted a decorative cup from the top of the vanity. When it was half full, she tossed the Vicodin into her mouth, gulped down some water and swallowed. She immediately drank the rest of it, went back into the bedroom and sat in one of the high-back chairs in the sitting area. Then she waited. She did this because she knew her body would be relaxed in no time. She’d been pretty hungry when she’d first gotten home, but the reason she hadn’t eaten pizza with Derrek and Mackenzie was because a few months ago, she’d learned that when she took Vicodin on an empty stomach, the euphoria was much more intense and it gave her a warm feeling. It also only took thirty minutes or less to take full effect, and this was the reason she’d had no choice but to lie to her daughter about having to go upstairs to work. She hated being dishonest, but she’d needed an excuse to get away for at least forty-five minutes to an hour so she could enjoy the way the Vicodin made her feel. She would also take another before going to bed. Not because she needed to, but because she wanted to. She knew Derrek wouldn’t agree and wouldn’t understand but no matter what he said, she saw nothing inappropriate about feeling good. She also knew he’d be livid if he somehow discovered that she hadn’t fully given up cocaine either or that she’d secretly found her own dealer to buy from. Derrek was still dead set on going to those Narcotics Anonymous meetings every now and then, meaning he hadn’t done any cocaine ever since that first gathering he’d dragged her along to, but Denise hadn’t gone back. She also knew Derrek wouldn’t be happy if he found out she still did snort cocaine from time to time and that she now took Vicodin on a pretty regular basis—even though, the pain in her hip, which resulted from her falling on a sheet of ice, had vanished months ago. He’d be terribly disappointed if he ever learned that her orthopedic specialist hadn’t written her a prescription for Vicodin ever since—he would certainly hit the roof if he somehow discovered that she now got her pills any way she could; at first from doctor friends, who hadn’t seemed to mind writing her a prescription, but when they’d eventually stopped taking her calls, she’d begun buying them from the same guy who sold her cocaine. Actually, it was a good thing she was the one who handled their family finances because it was for this reason that Derrek hadn’t noticed the extra money she was spending.
But no matter how Denise looked at things, she saw nothing wrong with any of what she was doing. Not when she clearly had total control and wasn’t addicted to anything. Still, she would keep her Vicodin and cocaine moments to herself. She decided her silence was best for everyone involved.
Derrek repositioned his tie in front of the dresser mirror, making sure it wasn’t crooked, and the home phone rang. It was pretty early on a Friday morning for anyone to be calling, but when he stepped closer to the phone, sitting on the nightstand and saw that it was his brother, Dixon, he rolled his eyes and ignored it. He was glad that even though a lot of time had passed, Dixon still had the same cell number because had he changed it, Derrek might have thought someone else was calling, and he could have made the mistake of answering.
“Who’s that?” Denise asked.
Denise shook her head, slipped on one of her hoop earrings and snapped it closed. “So honey, exactly how long are you planning to go without speaking to your brother? It’s been at least three years now.”
“Yeah, and I still don’t have a thing to say to him.”
Just thinking about the way Dixon had treated him was enough to piss Derrek off. Derrek had done everything for his brother—his twin brother at that—but all Dixon had done was lie, tell more lies and use Derrek every chance he got. He was outrageously selfish and while Derrek had allowed Dixon to borrow money multiple times, promise to pay it back and never make good on it, the stunt he’d pulled three years ago had been too much. For years, Derrek had loaned Dixon two hundred here and five hundred there, but with this last occurrence, Dixon had called him up claiming he’d been laid off from his job and that he needed five thousand dollars to cover his bills: mortgage, car note, utilities and a few medical expenses. Derrek had known it was a lot of money to be loaning anyone, even his own brother, but after he and Denise had discussed it and Dixon had sworn he would pay them back just as soon as he borrowed money from his retirement account, Derrek had gone to the bank and gotten a cashier’s check. Dixon had thanked him profusely and promised again that he would repay the money in a couple of weeks or so. Sadly, a couple of weeks had came and went and by the time a full month had passed, Derrek had learned from a mutual friend that Dixon had taken his girlfriend on a ten-day trip to Paris. Derrek hadn’t wanted to believe his own flesh and blood would deceive him this way, but sure enough when he’d called Dixon and questioned him about the money, Dixon had stuttered between words but then flat out told Derrek, “I don’t have it.” Then, when Derrek had asked him about the trip, Dixon had said, “Look, man…okay, yeah, it’s true. I took my girl on a nice vacation just like you do every year with Denise. So why don’t you stop badgering me about that funky little five thousand dollars. It’s not like you need it right back anyhow.” Derrek remembered how he’d almost cracked up laughing at his brother because surely he couldn’t have been serious. Surely he hadn’t meant a word he’d just said and had only been joking. But after thirty seconds of total silence, Derrek quickly realized his brother had meant every word he’d said, and Derrek hadn’t spoken to Dixon ever since.
“Honey, are you listening to me?” Derrek heard Denise saying.
“I’m sorry, baby; I guess I was somewhere else.”
Denise ran a brush through her bouncy, black, shoulder-length hair and moved closer to him. “You were thinking about your brother, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, but not anymore.”
“Honey, I really wish you would talk to Dixon. Listen to what he has to say and then just forgive him. Life is way too short for this.”
“Dixon should have thought about that three years ago.”
Denise set the brush on the dresser and held Derrek’s hands. “I understand how you feel, but baby he made a mistake. And it was a long time ago.”
Derrek gazed at her with sad eyes. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but as far as I’m concerned, I don’t even have a brother.”
Denise walked back over to the bed and placed a few items in her purse. Derrek could tell she wasn’t happy with his response, but he couldn’t help the way he felt. A part of him wished he could let bygones be bygones because sometimes he truly missed his brother, but for some reason he just couldn’t. Not this time. Not when his brother had totally disrespected him and acted as though what he’d done was no big deal. Not when his brother had hurt him to the core, knowing full well that the two of them had already suffered more than enough during childhood. In fact, his mother and father had left both of them with such painful memories, Derrek still hadn’t forgiven them either. How could he? How could anyone forgive a mother and a father who could so easily choose drugs over their own children? Leave two eight year old little boys home alone for days without food or clean clothing? How could Derrek forgive any adult who could be so awful to any human being?
That had been almost thirty years ago, but sometimes the mere thought of his parents and what they’d done to him and Dixon brought Derrek to tears. After all this time, he still hadn’t gotten completely over his childhood and wondered if he ever would.
There was something great that had resulted from it all, though: his grandparents. They’d both passed away a few years back, but he thanked God for them because had they not brought him and Dixon to come live with them, he wasn’t sure how their lives might have turned out. His childhood woes were also the reason he’d sworn he’d never be anything like his parents—the reason he loved, honored and cherished his gorgeous wife, the reason having a close relationship with his daughter was so important. It was also because of his parents that he’d vowed to never do drugs under any circumstances. To his great disappointment, though, he’d resorted to using cocaine. He hadn’t planned on doing it, but one day he’d gone to the home of one of his colleagues to watch a football game and the next thing he’d known, one of the guys had passed him a line, and he’d taken a hit. It had been the stupidest thing in the world for him to do, but it also hadn’t taken him long to realize how much he liked it. He’d loved how calm it made him feel and how the emotional stress he’d struggled with since that morning hadn’t mattered to him for the rest of that evening. To this day, he still hadn’t told Denise what had triggered his decision to try cocaine for the first time because he hadn’t wanted to upset her—and he never would tell her—but earlier that day he’d been told he might have cancer. His doctor had run a couple of scans on what had seemed like some sort of small, malignant tumor in his groin area, but once the growth had been removed and a biopsy had been performed, Derrek had learned it was benign. He hadn’t been told the final results, though, until a couple of days after his initial scare and by then, Derrek had snorted cocaine three evenings straight. He hadn’t wanted to stop, and for the rest of the week, he’d simply told Denise that he’d been working late. Ironically, she actually had been working longer hours than usual, so with her being much too tired for sex for a period of days, she’d never even noticed his scar.
Thankfully, though, that terrifying dream he’d had two months ago had made him think long and hard, and he was glad he’d come to his senses—glad he’d realized that he and Denise had begun loving cocaine just a bit too much and that he’d suggested they go to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. No, they hadn’t lost their jobs, cleaned out their savings accounts and nor were they living on the street, but just knowing that he and Denise had begun snorting lines together every evening had made him think. It was true that maybe his insisting that they attend a meeting centered on a twelve-step program was a bit over the top, but nonetheless, it had stopped them both from getting high and he was happy about that.
After Derrek slipped on his shoes and tied them, he grabbed his blazer. Denise slid on her watch, snapped the clasp shut, and they headed downstairs. Mackenzie was already parked at the granite-top island eating a bowl of cereal and reading one of her textbooks, and Denise went over to the coffee pot. For years she’d been adding fresh coffee grounds to the filter each night before going to bed, so all she did now was press the start button.
“Sweetie, you have debate practice after school today, right?” Denise asked Mackenzie because on those days, Mackenzie couldn’t take the bus home or carpool with her friends who had stay-at-home moms. Either Derrek or Denise had to pick her up.
“Yep. Oh and we’re staying an extra two hours tonight. Mr. Braxton says we need to put in a little more time this week, so we’ll be ready for the competition next Thursday.”
“So is the topic still about K-12 students in the state of Illinois and whether they should attend school year round?”
“Yep. And while I don’t necessarily think it would be good for any of us to go without a summer break, I’m sort of glad our team will be showing the benefits of it. There’s so much information out there to support that particular aspect of the argument.”
Denise smiled. “I’m so glad you joined the debate team. I loved being on debate when I was in school because we learned so much about controversial topics.”
Derrek placed two slices of bread in the toaster. “I loved being on the team, too, when I was your age. I was also on the high school team all four years ” he said, looking over at the ringing phone. It was Dixon again, and Derrek pretended not to hear it. “So when is the actual debate?”
Mackenzie watched him move to the other side of the kitchen. “Daddy, is that Uncle Dixon calling?”
“Unfortunately, it is, sweetie.”
“Well, Daddy, why won’t you talk to him? And why can’t I see him anymore?”
“I’m sorry things aren’t good between my brother and me, but you’ll understand when you’re older. Plus, if your uncle really wanted to talk to us or even apologize, he’d leave a message.”
Mackenzie lowered her eyes. “Maybe he’s afraid to.”
Derrek didn’t say anything.
Still she continued. “Daddy, I think you’re wrong to treat Uncle Dixon like this because by now, I’m sure even God has forgiven him for whatever he did.”
Denise finally chimed in, and Derrek was surprised she hadn’t done so before now. ”Sweetie, you’re right,” she said. “God forgives us for everything. All we have to do is ask Him.”
Two against one. Derrek knew there was no way to win this conversation, so he flipped the television on and turned it to CNN. He watched Soledad O’Brien, Roland Martin and two other popular political analysts for a few minutes, but once the coffee was ready, he drank a cup, ate his toast and grabbed his briefcase. But the phone rang again.
Denise walked over to it. “Baby, why don’t you at least see what your brother wants? He’s made a lot of calls over the last few days. For at least a week now.
Derrek did something that was rare for him: he blatantly ignored his wife’s comment. “Mackenzie if you’re ready, we’d better get going. Unless you want to take the bus.” He always teased his daughter every chance he got about getting rides versus riding the bus, but today he did it as a way to change the subject.
Denise folded her arms, though, clearly aware of what he was up to.
“I’m sorry,” he said, walking over and kissing her on the lips.
“I just wish you’d rethink your position on this.”
“I love you,” he said. “And I’ll see you later.”
Derrek kissed her again and walked out to the garage. He wished he could feel differently but if his brother didn’t stop calling, Derrek would contact the phone company and have his number blocked. He would do whatever he had to to get rid of him