This story is by Ashlyn McKayla Ohm and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Rainy nights were the worst.
Jake stuffed the towel into the frame of the leaky window. There, that should do it. He flopped onto the peeling vinyl seat of the ancient chair. He’d naively assumed that when he graduated the rehab program, the world would open before him. But six months, ten commandments, and twelve steps later, he was still haunted by the ghosts of his past—especially on rainy evenings.
Enough. One step at a time. The way he’d been taught to live in AA. And speaking of steps forward—he shuffled the sheets of paper spread across the rickety folding table. A job application. Nothing glorious—but a badly needed start. He scanned the sections.
“Highest level of education.” If only he’d stayed in high school. At least he’d earned his GED while in the program.
“Previous work experience.” The cut-rate jobs he’d bounced between over the years were too many to name offhand. None had lasted long enough to deserve a place on a resume.
If only he could erase the gaps in his life where he’d disappeared into the underworld of hangovers and heroin, bars and brothels, jails and junkies. His recent good intentions wouldn’t fill the blanks on the form. A man’s past always loomed larger than his present.
He flipped the page. “List any awards or achievements.”
Achievements? Such as dropping out of high school? Learning how to evade the cops and flout the laws?
The truth seemed to rise from the page and slap his tattered soul. Sober or not, he was still a failure.
Instinctively, he slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out the round silver disc he always carried. Under an engraved cross, it read, “Saved by Grace. 6 months clean.”
He closed his eyes, remembering the day of his graduation from rehab. “You’ve made us all proud, Jake.” His mentor had squeezed his shoulder. “Remember, you’ve been saved by boundless love. And boundless love leads to boundless life.”
Boundless life, huh? What irony. Living in a run-down mobile home with no job, no purpose, and no money was far from a boundless life.
The tinny ring of his cheap cell phone interrupted his reverie. He glanced at the screen—and the jolt jerked his soul. Mitzi Brooke.
If there was one thing they’d drummed into his head in rehab, it was to distance himself from his old buddies. But this was Mitzi… He didn’t give himself any more time to debate the issue. “Hey.”
“Jake! Hey, honey!” Loud music reverberated in the background. “I thought you’d disappeared.”
Uneasy tingles crawled along his arms at the sound of her voice. He spun the token restlessly on the table. “I’ve been in rehab.”
She giggled a bit too feverishly. “I know that, honey. But you got out a week ago, right?”
“Oh—well—you didn’t call.”
“Your phone works.” Short answers were the only safe ones.
More giggles. “Still as cranky as ever, aren’t we? Jake, I called because there’s a good party on tonight at The Shades. Won’t you come on over?”
Her every word, just the sound of her voice, was enough to pull him into her riptide all over again. C’mon, man. Now was the time to remind her that he was on a straight and narrow path. His soul had been born again, after all.
But his flesh still knew that old life.
“Mitzi, I—” He swiped his hand over the day’s growth on his chin. “You know I’m not—I mean—I don’t do that stuff no more—”
“Oh, Jake.” Her voice was that of a whining child. “You’re missing all the fun. And honey—” her tone switched from pouting to something decidedly more sultry—“I really wanted to see you.”
To see him? His heart rate sped a little, even while the token on the table seemed to scream at him. “Uh—well—I’m busy tonight, I’m—”
He glanced down at the application, willing himself to find a reason to tell her no. The next section caught his eye. “References.”
Suddenly the pent-up frustration in his soul ignited into rage. Where would someone like him find references? Life was rigged—the playing field tilted so the straight-laced got all they wanted and the underdogs always lost. He swept his hand savagely across the table. The papers fluttered to the ground, and the token landed on top of them. He didn’t bother to pick it up.
“Sure, Mitzi. I’m on the way.”
The rain was torrential as he drove to The Shades. The pounding of the downpour on the roof of his truck wasn’t louder than the screams of his conscience.
Quiet! He once again pictured that empty “References” section. Why had he even tried to leave the life he’d obviously been destined for? If he was truly saved by grace, wouldn’t he have seen some of that grace by now?
Even from the parking lot, he could hear the music booming inside the ramshackle walls of The Shades. He sprinted through the rain and burst inside before he could change his mind. Weaving through the raucously chattering crowds, he squinted in the smoky darkness. Where was Mitzi?
Finally he spotted her at the bar. “Mitzi!”
She looked up, pupils dilated, face flushed. “Jake, honey!” Her words slurred into a laugh.
The dude next to her scowled. “Hey, who’s this joker?”
“Bart, just wait a minute. I’ll be back.” The man opened his mouth, but she poked him in the chest. “No arguing.”
She tucked her arm through Jake’s and dragged him toward a corner table. “Don’t worry, Jake.” Her words were loud in his ear over the music. “That’s Bart. He’s just a friend. There’s nothing between us.”
Jake nodded woodenly. He knew he didn’t believe her. Yet somehow, he didn’t feel like fighting tonight.
They’d barely settled into their chairs when the server arrived. “What’ll it be tonight for you two?”
“I’ll take a beer. And Jake here wants a bottle of Jack Daniels.” Mitzi smirked. “I remember your favorites, honey.”
The waiter glanced at him questioningly. Jake swallowed hard and nodded. “Yeah—yeah, that’ll be fine.”
What was wrong with him? Walking into a bar used to be both energizing and relaxing. But tonight he only felt heavier and more exhausted.
The waiter reappeared with their drinks. Mitzi batted her eyelashes and raised her glass. “Cheers. It’s good to have you back.”
“Cheers.” Why wasn’t it good to be back? Jake spun the bottle of Jack Daniels on the table, watching the rings of condensation overlap.
“So, later on, you wanna go somewhere together? Just the two of us?”
Six months ago, that question would have lit his world on fire. But now his emotions were nothing more than dry dust. “Yeah…sure.”
She giggled. “My, aren’t you a sly one. You know a lady wants a little more interest.” She glanced around the bar, then discreetly slid a bag across the table to him. “Here. Maybe some of this stuff will loosen you up.”
Don’t do it, Jake. Oh, but maybe a little wouldn’t hurt? Just this one time? “How—how much do I owe you?”
“For you, I’ll let it go at fifty.”
“Um—ok.” He slid his hand in his pocket to retrieve his wallet. But his fingers found something else. Something hard and smooth and round.
It couldn’t be! Slowly, he turned the object until the dim lights flashed on its surface.
“Saved by Grace. 6 months clean.”
Chills prickled along his spine. Impossible! He’d left the token, and his convictions, behind.
Yet both seemed to have come with him.
Jake took a deep breath. Maybe he didn’t have an explanation. But he sure did hear the message.
The cross. Like everyone else in this dark place, he knew death and suffering and agony. The difference was that he’d come out of the tomb. And now he didn’t just know death—he knew life too.
The choice was his.
“Mitzi, I gotta run.” He slid the bag and the unopened bottle of Jack Daniels toward her.
“Where are you going? Jake, wait for—”
He could still hear her voice, but he was walking away, eyes fixed on the door, token gripped tightly in his fist. On the threshold he glanced back, one last time. Mitzi was already laughing with another guy.
The silence of the parking lot throbbed in his aching ears. He could still hear the beat of the music inside, but the party held no appeal. Boundless Love and boundless life.
Jake revved his truck and sped away from the place of darkness. The rain had dwindled to a thin drizzle now. A few stars were beginning to peek from behind the clouds, beacons of hope in the night.
The headlights gleamed along the darkened streets, like the light of grace. Maybe grace had been there all along. Maybe, sometimes, grace looked like a leaky mobile home and a hard-fought sobriety and the chance to face each day with faith.