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Sneak Peek - Chapter One

I DUMP THE REMAINING cigarettes out of the pack onto the damp wood of the picnic table and line them up, side by side.

There are seven.

With the morning sun rising above the trees, warming the back of my neck, I roll them until they are in four groups.  Three in the first, two in the second, one in the third and one in the last.  I look at the last one, feeling jittery.  I can do this.

I snag one from the cluster of three, slide my lighter out of the front pocket of my new black Chinos and light it.  I take a long drag and blow the smoke out slowly.

“Don’t look at me like that, B.F.,” I say to the jumpy Chihuahua standing on the bench beside me.  He cocks his head to the side, his shiny black eyes attentive.  I’m sure he’s accusing me.  I’m sure he’d tell Sue and Bill if he could, but he can’t.  B.F., the Chihuahua, is my best friend.

“I’m quitting,” I say.  “I swear.   See?” I point to the cigarettes.  “I’ll smoke three today. I get two tomorrow, one on Friday.”  I take another long drag off the cigarette and feel a bit lightheaded.  I blow the smoke out.  The tail of it curls around behind me in a barely there breeze as I consider the last one.  “The seventh I’ll smoke with you, right here, at sunset on Saturday.  That’s it.  Then I’m done.”

B.F. gives a little yip.  He’s calling me on my shit.  He does that.  Sue got the dog for me last May.  The same day I got released from juvenile detention.  The same day we got the official call my mom was dead.

I scratch my closely-shaved cheek.  It’s raw.  “I quit the pot and the pills, right?”  A pleading tone has entered my voice and I don’t like it.  In fact, I hate it.  I clamp the cigarette between my lips and scoop up the remaining six and stuff them roughly back into the box, bending a few.  Damn it.  I straighten them out, and take one last hit off the cigarette in my mouth before carefully pinching it out and sliding it into the pack with the rest and stand up.

The sun is now above the dewy trees of Bain Park, and the morning air is a bit muggy but still fresh.  Alive.  And I feel like I’m being watched.  It’s an itchy feeling that started last spring and won’t quit.  Like something’s waiting for me to screw up.

Just one more time.

Of course that’s all in my head.  That’s what the therapist says.  It’s just me fucking, you know, “self-sabotaging” again.

I glance at the new cell phone Sue got me.  I’m late.

“C’mon, B.F.  Let’s go.”  I tug on B.F.’s leash and it goes taut.  He plants his little feet and won’t budge.  I sigh and scoop up the dog, knowing he can’t walk fast enough anyway, muttering, “Maybe you need to go to school, too.”  B.F. is almost small enough to stand on my hand.  When I brought him home last May, I totally stopped making fun of all those flouncy reality TV girl types who carry their toy dogs around in their status-symbol purses.  It wasn’t a class thing.  It was a utilitarian thing.  If they walked their dogs on a leash, they’d never get anywhere.

So I jog back up the street to Sue and Bill’s, cradling him lightly against my chest.  My black Chinos are stiff and scratchy on my thighs, and my short sleeved, Oxford shirt and tie feel too tight.  It’s a real tie.  It goes all the way around my neck with its silk, triangle knot slipped up snug against my throat.  Like a noose.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.  Saint Joan of Arc Catholic High School.  A fresh start.

Though they’d tried to hide it, Sue and Bill were super happy I’d decided to switch schools, but at the moment, I missed my soft, broken-in, blue jeans with the hole above the knee.  I’d worn my Bruce Springsteen concert Tee under the button-up in secret rebellion.  I hadn’t even started at the private school yet, but I already hated it.  Hated it.  There were too many rules and “expectations” and not enough kids to get lost in.  The administration knew who I was.  They knew why I was switching schools.  They’d keep track of me.  There was only one reason I wasn’t reneging on “the plan,” and I wasn’t even sure if she would be there.  If I wasn’t such a pussy, I’d have just called her to find out.  I could have got her number, but I didn’t.

I burst through the front door of the fifties-era, two-story Tudor and set B.F. down on the hardwood floor, unhooking his leash.  He runs around my feet, already missing me, I think.

I smile.  “I’ll be back at four.  Promise.”  Then I dash up the stairs to grab my backpack and headphones.  My acoustic guitar is lying across my unmade bed.  I pick up the guitar, tuck the pick under the strings, and carefully zip it back up in its case.  The bed with its tangle of sheets, I don’t touch.

Sue meets me at the bottom of the stairs, holding a brown paper bag, my lunch.  She reaches out to brush my dirty blonde hair out of my eyes, tugging worriedly on a few strands at the back of my neck.  “It’s a little long.”

“It’s fine,” I say.  She’d wanted to take me to the barber shop, but I’d drawn the line at the brand new tie.  My Converse were grimy, but the right color.  White.  The hair I’d hacked shorter myself the night before with a pair of her sewing scissors.  It looked a little messy, but what the fuck in my life wasn’t messy?  I dig up a smile for her.  She smiles back.  Sue is my foster mom.  She has been for almost a year.  And obviously I don’t deserve her.

Her eyes travel from my hair to the edge of my right sleeve, which covers most of my bicep.  I follow her gaze.  “Maybe you should wear long sleeves today.  The rules—”

“It’s covered.  It’s fine.”  I grab my lunch from her, kiss her on the cheek, and walk out the door before she can say anything else.

“Be good, Michael!” she calls after me.

I feel my shoulders twitch.

Sue always was one to believe in miracles.

And for the first time in my life?  I’m hoping maybe, just maybe, someone who believed in me wouldn’t be disappointed.