What Do Monsters Fear - Matt Hayward - ebook
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The Thing meets One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in Matt Hayward's thrilling debut novel...After waking up one too many times in puddle of his own mess, Peter Laughlin, a thirty-five year old rock musician, has decided to kill himself. However, after catching an advertisement for rehabilitation in the back of a local newspaper, coupled with the fact that his one night stand with old friend Bethany resulted in pregnancy, Peter decides to try and clean up his act. Again. Only this time, things will be different.At Dawson Rehabilitation, things seem idealistic. Peter quickly befriends Henry Randolph, an alcoholic in his sixties, who, along with Donald Bove, Shelley Matthews, Jamie Peters and a mentally-defunct man named Walter Cartwright, make up the rest of the guests. Something is wrong at Dawson Rehabilitation. Peter and Henry don’t trust the center’s councilor, a man named Jerry Fisher. Jerry’s hiding a secret. One ancient and terrible.Tucked away in the Pennsylvania backwoods, in a remodeled farmhouse once owned by Dr. Harris Dawson himself, Peter finds himself in a fight for his life against Phobos, the great God of fear. To defeat him, Peter will have to set aside his doubts and answer the all important question: What Do Monsters Fear?

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WHAT DO MONSTERS FEAR

A Novel of Psychological Horror

Matt Hayward

POST MORTEM PRESS

TABLE OF CONTENTS

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

WHAT DO MONSTERS FEAR?

Matt Hayward

Post Mortem Press

For Anna Muhlbach

PROLOGUE

June 22nd, 1978

HEATHER STEPPED INTO HARRIS DAWSON’S private practice and whistled, her neck craned to get a better view of the overhead chandelier. “I’ve never seen one of those in real life,” she said. “Only in the movies. It’s gorgeous. The couch, real leather?”

Harris Dawson closed the office door and stood by the fireplace. He smiled. “I appreciate your kind words, Heather, but if it’s all right with you, I’d like to talk about your late husband.”

Heather’s face fell. She eased herself onto the couch and stared at the rug; a Russian antique Harris had acquired the previous week. “Yes. We can talk about him. You’re just so young, I didn’t expect such a nice place, that’s all.”

“Quite all right.” Harris picked a notebook from the table and skimmed the first page. “With the office in town being fumigated, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to talk to you. You sure you don’t mind being here?”

“Where else would I have to go?”

Harris gave a tight smile. “Living on the streets must be trying. You say it’s been one week?”

“Eight days now.” She sighed. “After Eddie passed, I just . . . lost myself. You have no idea how much it means to me that you’d offer me your services for free. I wish I could repay you, Harris. With everywhere I could’ve been, winding up sleeping in the alleyway of a shrink wasn’t in the cards. I mean, what were the chances?”

“Slim,” Harris said. If Heather noticed that his notebook contained doodles of smiley faces instead of text, she gave no indication. “This is my pleasure to have you here. I don’t do this for the money. I do this to help people. Your family, you told me they’re . . .”

“Out of the picture, yes. Eddie’s family took me in as one of their own but I lost contact and haven’t been brave enough to call. Maybe, with your help, I will?”

“Perhaps.” Harris finished scribbling an elongated penis onto a matchstick man and placed the notebook aside. “I’d like to talk about what happened to Eddie. What comes to mind?”

At the sound of her husband’s name, Heather winced. She tucked a lock of unwashed hair behind her ear. “Just a heart attack. No one to blame. No life insurance. Just . . . That’s it. Only forty-three, can you believe it? The garage didn’t offer anything besides condolences.”

“And you fear life without him?”

“Every minute of it.”

“And, Heather, what if I told you that you could see him again?”

Harris fought to keep the laughter down as the woman’s eyes widened. Her mouth fell open and she clutched the couch, her knuckles white. “That’s not funny, Doctor Dawson, not funny at all!”

“No, I quite agree. But only because it’s not a joke.”

Heather hoisted herself from the couch, her nostrils flaring. “I knew it. I knew you were too good to be true. Oh poor homeless Heather, who would actually want to help you, right? Well, I’ll show you, Dawson. I don’t need you, or anybody.”

The door handle jittered. Harris placed his hands behind his back and watched as his stomach cartwheeled and his heart jackhammered.

“Who is that?” Heather asked, moving behind the couch as if for protection. “What’s going on here?”

“I told you it wasn’t a joke, dear. I have somebody I’d like you to meet.”

The door creaked open. A rancid, shriveled hand quivered as it slipped around the polished mahogany frame. Then Eddie entered the room.

Heather screamed, her knees locking together. Her eyes bulged from their sockets and her hands squeezed into tight fists. Eddie plodded forward, his alabaster skin catching the glare of the overhead chandelier. Dirt and decay wafted from him in thick, nauseous waves. Harris pinched his nose, chuckling.

“That’s not my husband!” Heather roared, jerking left and right like a cornered animal. “That’s not my husband!”

Then Eddie clutched her throat.

As Heather gagged and smacked at the deadman’s hands, Harris returned to doodling, trying his best to ignore the violent struggle. He had almost finished an elephant wearing roller skates when Heather finally gave her last breath and fell still. Sighing, Harris snapped his notebook closed and crossed the room.

He grimaced at the deep red finger marks on the woman’s neck. “Strangulation? Are you sure that was the smartest move? Impeccable conditions are required, my Lord, and finding another is out of the question, I—”

The deadman growled, his eyes wide. Dawson’s stomach lurched.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I won’t question you again.”

The deadman eased himself down beside his wife’s corpse, lying like lovers sleeping the long sleep. His eyes closed.

Dawson’s hair prickled as a gust of air blew by, carrying with it the brown stench of rotting flesh and forcing the taste of copper to his tongue. His ears popped, the pressure of the room changing. He kept his eyes on the dead woman, knowing that at any moment, she would move. Once that happened, Harris would make the phone call to his superiors and enjoy the champagne he’d put on ice earlier that day. One last night of relaxation before Hell came to Earth.

Heather’s body jittered, her legs banging the hardwood. Her eyes trembled as if full of scurrying ants. The scene reminded Harris of a victim in the throes of a vicious epileptic fit.

Yes, Dawson thought, that’s it . . . Easy does it, Phobos . . . Easy does it . . .

Then her stomach began to bulge. Harris gripped the couch in a panic. “No! No! Easy! I can’t do this again, I can’t find you another!”

But the dead lady’s stomach continued swelling. With a crack, a bone jutted from her forearm, sending a spray of blood across the Russian rug. Her face puffed out, pushing her eyes to either side of her head like some kind of grotesque kid’s toy.

Then her stomach exploded.

Harris flinched as warm, wet slabs slapped him. He recoiled in disgust, trying to wipe his face clean but only managing to smear the goop. He slipped on something that felt like a slug and clutched the wall for support, catching himself just before tumbling. Panting, he eyed the room.

Crimson splats stained the walls. His prized collection of vintage hardbacks dripped in gore, suffering the worst of the blast. A metallic smell mingled with the rotten now, making him gag and cough. Overhead, the chandelier swung, throwing dancing shadows this way and that.

The dead woman’s carcass sat open on the floor, disfigured beyond all recognition, and anger boiled inside Harris Dawson.

“I needed results!” he shouted, slamming a polished shoe down into a puddle of something nasty. “What am I supposed to tell them now? They’ll have me killed for wasting their time!”

Easy, he warned himself, knowing Phobos still lurked somewhere in the room. He felt the presence. Piss him off and he’ll take you instead . . .

Harris rubbed his forehead. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll make the call and request more time. With any hope, they’ll give me another chance but who knows . . . Fuck . . . Now I’ve got to take care of this mess. You need patience, my Lord. Patience. It might be a while before I can get something new together, but I’ll do it . . . Next time will be different.” Harris withdrew a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and dabbed his face. “I’ll find a way,” he said. “I always do.”

CHAPTER ONE

January 28th, 2017

PETER DROPPED THE RAZOR BLADE into the bathroom sink. His hands shook. In the fogged-up mirror, he caught sight of his reflection.

“How’d you let it get so bad, Pete?”

He wiped his eyes on his shirtsleeve and took a deep breath, easing his spasming chest. He couldn’t stop crying. Earlier, this decision had been a sterile, emotionless one, as simple as deciding on what to eat for supper. A matter-of-fact choice. Peter was going to kill himself. But now, he felt different.

“Stop looking at the damn blade, man.”

He’d woken with the idea that morning, and after showering, eating breakfast, and getting dressed, he’d taken a walk to the drugstore, where he’d purchased a pack of disposable razors and a newspaper. The store clerk told him to have a good day, a smile on his face. Peter said that he would.

Now, that same newspaper sat propped behind the taps, leaning against the mirror. He’d left it there to show the date, just in case some days passed before anyone found the body. Nobody called his apartment, not anymore. Not since he’d become a such a burden.

Peter closed his eyes, the sight of the razor blade making him nauseous.

The whole experience had been like watching some actor in a depressing movie, his eyes the screen. Smashing the cheap plastic of the razor hadn’t fazed him, but putting the cold steel to his flesh had, causing realization to break through like a radio station from white noise. That’d stopped him. That, and what he’d seen in the mirror besides himself.

“You can’t leave Bethany to deal with this alone. Get a grip.” His voice sounded thick and watery as it bounced off the dirty, tiled walls. Pushing himself from the sink, Peter cried out and crammed his palms into his eyes. “I’ll give it one more shot...”

Drying his nose on his sleeve, he snatched the paper from the sink and stepped into the apartment’s living room. Not his living room, as his grandmother liked to call it: the apartment’s living room. He’d never admit this small, single-bedroomed flat was all he had now that his music days were over.

Falling onto the couch, Peter ran a hand through his greasy hair and sighed as moisture seeped into the butt of his jeans from a spilled beer. In his hands, the reason he’d stopped himself, besides Bethany, glared back. An advertisement in the back of the paper. One for a clinic.

DAWSON REHABABILITAION

DRUG-FREE RESIDENTIAL REHAB

DON’T BE AFRAID TO REACH OUT

Admitting you need help is difficult, but taking that first step starts here.

At Dawson Rehabilitation, we boast a team of non-judgmental professionals in a clean and confidential environment to help you on your road to recovery.

Join our two-week detox course

DON’T BE AFRAID TO CALL

REMEMBER: WE ARE HERE TO HELP

The advert, in its baby-blue box, gave a free-of-charge phone number. Reading it over and over, Peter sniffled. He’d never seen a rehabilitation center advertise before. Did they usually do that? He didn’t think so.

Say it, Peter. Admit it. You’re a goddamn alcoholic.

Peter spoke to the empty room. “I . . . I need help.”

There. Doesn’t that feel better? Your friends got married, soared in their careers, and distanced themselves because they could actually control their habits. A couple of beers on the weekend, maybe a bump of charlie in the bathroom, no big deal, right? Not to them. But to you? Jesus H. Christ . . . And they knew you were on a slippery path, too, you know. They were just too kind to say it to you. And isn’t that the worst part of all this? That they think of you like the old family pet they once knew and loved, now waiting to take its last, shaking breath? And when it happens they’ll secretly be relieved. Because the Peter they knew showed so much promise in his youth. So much determination. And somehow . . . Somewhere along the way it just . . . Slipped.

You’re a loser.

“It’s not true . . .”

Nobody wants to be around you because it’s sad. It’s pathetic. You work in a coffee shop and dream of being a professional musician again. And maybe, just maybe, you had a chance once, but you just couldn’t ever put in the hours and work hard. You always half-assed. Always.

There. Doesn’t that feel better to admit? Sure, when you were eighteen you got signed to a record label. And yes, they gave you money, and wasn’t that nice? Your friends were proud, your peers were jealous. You toured the country on something you built from scratch when everyone else said that you couldn’t.Your grandmother was so proud, Peter. Beth was proud.

But Pete, the band broke up three years ago, remember? And those royalty checks are getting smaller and smaller and smaller . . . And what have you done since but pity yourself? Not a goddamn thing, that’s what. Oh, except leave Bethany up shit-creek without a paddle, of course. So here’s the ultimatum, kid: Get help or leave a mess. But make a fucking choice, all right?

Swiping his cell phone from the couch, Peter composed himself. He flicked through his contacts until he found the one that he wanted.

The phone rang. Once. Twice.

“Hello? Grandma?”

“Peter, hello. What’s the matter?”

Peter laughed despite the situation. The old woman could read his goddamn mind.

“Is everything all right?”

Peter’s smile faded. “Um, no, actually.”

If you must know, I was just getting ready to off myself!

Stop it. Get yourself together, man.

“Petey? What’s the matter?”

With a deep breath, Peter forced the truth out like vomit. “I’m in trouble, Grandma. I need a little help . . .” Then tears started again, hot and fast. “I need to talk. Do you mind if I come by?”

“Of course not, Peter.” The old woman sounded close to crying herself. “Come over, please. Come, come.”

“Okay.”

Peter ended the call and blinked to clear his eyes. His nerves were shot. Pushing himself from the couch, he worked his hands in and out of fists, his palms slick with sweat.

“Time to face the music,” he said. “. . . If I can.”

The apartment’s stale odor turned his stomach. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Dishes jutted from the sink, undone and filthy, and the sight only made him feel worse.

“When I get back, this place is getting cleaned up and Beth’ll like it. So will the . . .”

Don’t think about that right now, Pete. One step at a time. Get a move on.

The wind spat thick droplets of rain at the window as Peter crossed to it and peered outside. Through the grimy glass, he watched fat, dark clouds cast the day in constant gloom. Shaking his head, he went to the couch and scooped his raincoat, an old synthetic one with a hood. Slipping into the coat, his stomach fluttered with adrenaline.

“Oh, please don’t . . . Not now . . .”

He darted for the sink, making it just in time. A stream of warmth shot up his throat, splashing the dishes and leaving him gasping for breath. He clutched the counter, forcing himself to relax. “That’s definitely breakfast, at least.”

His stomach gave another shudder at the idea of telling his grandmother everything but he quickly steadied himself, his muscles loosening. He needed to tell her. Not only for himself, but for Bethany, too—if he ever wanted to make a life with her. His grandmother needed to know . . .

“Because she has money,” Peter said, turning the tap to rinse out the sink. “And treatment ain’t cheap. This is real bottom-feeder shit.”

As the water ran down the drain, taking chunks of half-digested cereal off the plates and bowls, Peter leaned in and took a sip. He gargled before spitting, the burning sensation in the back of his throat soothed. With the plates sick-free, he shut off the tap before swiping his keys from the tabletop, his mind reeling.

You’re really going to ask poor ol’ Grandma for money?

“She’d want me to, if she knew . . .”

And will you have enough self-control to stop yourself from going and buying a truckload of booze to comatose yourself for a year with that cash? Really?

Peter stood at the door, the keys dangling from his hand. The razor blade called from the sink again.

“She’d want me to ask for help . . . And I do need it. I really do. She’d want to be there for me.”

A harsh, no-bullshit voice spoke up: Exactly. She’s always there for you. That’s why you never took a chance and worked hard after music, because she’s your safety net. She’d always come running whenever you called, and you knew she would. Jesus Christ, look . . . Just kill yourself, all right? This is sad, sad stuff, man.

The idea hit like a punch to the gut and Peter’s legs trembled.

“No . . . No, I can do this. I’m not afraid to ask for help.”

The tough, no-bullshit voice didn’t reply.

Peter dabbed at his face to clear it before opening the door. In the hallway, cold, damp air prickled his skin. He closed the door and shivered. The steps leading to the first floor were wet from other’s boots and shoes and he held the railing tight. The wall to his left boasted a faded green paint, dirty from years of built-up crud. Jesus, he thought. No wonder I was going to kill myself.Anyone forced to live here would.

Laughter tickled at his gut, and it felt good, even if it was the nervous kind. But mixed with the fading adrenaline in his system, it left him drained.

Grandma would help him. Grandma would understand. She always did.

Peter pressed the button to release the magnetic catch on the front door before pulling his hood up and stepping outside. Harsh winds tried to rip the hood from his head but held the tip and jogged to the car, rain bouncing off of his coat. With the keys shaking in his hand, Peter unlocked the door and jumped inside, his breath streaming away in smoke-like pillars. He started the engine and waited for it to warm, thinking of what he’d say when he reached his grandmother’s. A half-hour drive to the farmhouse gave enough time to phrase it. Only a half hour, and then things would be better. This time he meant it, too.

This time, things would be different.

CHAPTER TWO

“Three days ago, I shit myself.”

Mary shifted her position on the couch, watching her grandson with wide eyes. Peter continued.

“I did. I woke up and just felt it there. The worst part? I didn’t even care. It didn’t surprise me. Earlier, on my way home from work, you remember the coffee shop? I got a bottle of cheap whiskey with the last of my money. Hadn’t eaten all day. I know I should have bought myself something for dinner, something to line my stomach, but I didn’t. I was beyond feeling depressed, I suppose. Lower than low, you know? I’d reached out to Robbie and Bill. Stupid, right? Tried to convince them to meet with me, talk things over, maybe try get the band back on track. But they both said no. So, I bought a bottle of whiskey instead.”

Mary’s eyes glistened and she lifted a hanky to clear them. It hurt him to see her like this, but he needed to get it out, so he continued.

“I went home, put on the television, and downed the bottle in pretty much in one go. My throat and stomach burned but I kept drinking. I can’t sleep anymore, so I needed to pass out or risk staying up all night with my head rotating the same bad thoughts again and again and again. I didn’t just want to get drunk, I wanted to sleep and never wake up . . . Anyway, I remember gagging, and I remember my mouth salivating. You know how it happens right before you get sick? I leaned forward, like this, so I wouldn’t puke on myself. I didn’t puke. I must have made it to my bed instead, but I don’t remember that part. I just remember waking up in my own mess. And ever since, I’ve been in a, a sort of a daze? Like watching myself in a movie or something. I needed to end it, Grandma.”

Mary’s voice was low and weak. “Peter, sweetheart, I can’t take seeing you like this. I really can’t. You were always so full of life, you know that? To hear you talk like this, telling me what you’ve done . . . I just don’t know what to say.” She reached across the coffee table and took a hold of his hands, her palms dry and hard. Beside them, their tea mugs steamed, untouched. “It’s taken a lot of courage to come to me.”

Here she goes again, Peter thought. Justifying my actions. I’ll always be the golden boy in her eyes. No matter what.

“Grandma, I can’t do this anymore. I need help—”

“And I’ll give it to you, Peter.”

“No, you don’t understand. You’ve done too much for me already. When I got that apartment you practically paid for everything. I need to straighten myself out, once and for all. I need to go to rehab. I have to.”

The old woman didn’t reply, instead she leaned back and rubbed her hands together on her lap, letting him talk. Somewhere in the kitchen, a clock ticked.

“Beth was by.”

“Beth?”

“Yes. She and I . . .”

Don’t tell your grandmother about your sex life, you idiot . . .

“We . . . She’s pregnant, Mary.”

“Oh . . .” Mary looked about the room, not meeting his eyes. “Remember the day you gave me that?”

She pointed to the photograph of Throttle that hung above the fireplace. Peter’s band. The center of attention. A young and healthy Peter smiled back from the picture, sandwiched between his drummer, Robert Greco, and his bass player, Bill Harris. All three of them looked so happy in the promotional shot for their debut album, and they were. The sky was their limit and people were paying attention to their music. Throttle was talked about all over the world. One of the best new rock bands to come out of York County. Their name was on everybody’s tongue in the industry.

“I was so proud that day,” Mary said. “So, so proud. Your mother would have been, too.”

Peter swallowed down a lump in his throat. “She would have been, wouldn’t she?”

“Of course she would have. You know, when we left Ireland and she was only a little thing, she said to me that one day she would do something amazing and make me proud. Moving to the U.S. flooded her imagination with possibilities. She had this look in her eye, this look of determination. And you know what? Like most other people, she wound up working an underpaid job that she hated. Remember Cleary’s bar? Jesus. She hated it there. If they’d have taken a shot and promoted her to manager like she’d asked, she’d have turned it around, but they just wouldn’t ever listen. Useless fecks. Too late now, anyway.”

Peter sat forward. “I’m . . . I’m not sure what you’re getting at?”

“She never felt good enough, Peter. Ever. And she’d tell me that. Always tell me that. But I just wanted her to be happy, that’s all I ever wanted. No matter what she did, as long as she was happy, she was good enough to me. And when she had you, she was happy. She’d found her calling. She was a born-to-be mother and didn’t even know it. She just wanted you to be happy, too. And when we lost her that night, Jesus, my heart still hurts just thinking about it . . . I know that all she’d want is for you to be happy. Going to this place, this rehab, it’ll clean you up, won’t it? And then you’ll get in touch with Beth, that’s what I’m understanding. Will that make you happy?”

“It would.” Peter found it hard to talk. He cleared his throat. “I need to clean up my act. I’m a disappointment.”

“Well you’re not to me. You know that? People, good people, fall into problems with drugs all the time. And I’m not surprised, with all the rock and roll, I was half expecting it.”

Peter smiled and tried to sound polite. “You know you always try and justify me? I’m a wallowing mess at the moment, Grandma. And as much as you don’t want to hear it, I’m a bad person.”

“No, you’re a good person who made some bad choices. Want to know how I know? A bad person doesn’t know they’re bad. That’s the difference. You have a conscience. And you’re still so young. You’re so handsome . . .” Tears spilled down her cheeks, patting on her blouse. “I knew about Bethany already. She called by yesterday. Wanted you to be the one to tell me so I waited for you to call. Then when you didn’t, I went to call you. It was like magic, the phone just rang in my hands. She likes you an awful lot, you know that, right?”

Peter nodded. “Did she seem happy?”

“Ecstatic.”

“I like her a lot, too.”

The words seemed to come from somebody else’s mouth as Peter slipped deeper in his own mind, replaying that fateful night over and over. Just as he did so many times lately. He’d gone to visit her on a Saturday, helping her move to her new apartment. Like Peter, Beth grew up an only child just outside the city, a neighbor of his grandmother’s. They’d played together every day, just the two of them. No other kids their age lived out this way. In truth, she’d been his only real friend. And last month when he’d visited, their friendship finally took the next step, just as they knew it would. In the movies, their experience that night would have been magical, with music and a happy-ever-after ending, but in reality, it’d been a lot different. Peter spent the night sipping his beer and battling the urge to chug the whole case down his gullet. They’d played Monopoly, their favorite game from childhood, because Beth’s TV hadn’t been installed yet. Each time she won, Beth did a laugh that made Peter’s sensitive stomach flutter. Then he’d kissed her.

Unlike a fairytale, they’d woken up the next morning a little embarrassed, awkward, and hung over. He’d left with a hug and a peck on the cheek.

After that, Peter had gone back to his nine-to-five coffee shop gig with nothing more than an incredible memory and a little hope for the future. Until that bottle of whiskey. Then he’d hated himself. In truth, he thought Beth far too good for him. She deserved more than he could ever hope to give. Beth deserved someone with their head screwed on, someone who knew how to cook exotic meals, say stimulating things, all that kind of stuff. Someone with a suit and tie and a million-dollar smile. Someone unlike him. Peter knew if Beth gave him a chance, he’d spend every day trying to hide his habits and fight his troubles. One day out of a month, maybe, he’d be able to do it (that night he’d only had four beers, after all), but a lifetime was out of the question. He couldn’t risk Beth seeing him for what he truly was. A monster.

“. . . And now she’s pregnant.”

“What’s that, dear?”

Peter shook his head. “Nothing. Just rambling.”

Mary smiled, her lips trembling. “You’re all I have, you know that? Jesus, what would I have done if you’d followed through with that stupid, stupid thing?”

The lump in Peter’s throat came back like a lodged golf ball. “I know . . . I’m . . . Sorry.”

“Promise me, promise me you won’t do something like that again.”

“I promise.”

A solitary tear spilled down Mary’s cheek. “You mean it?”

“Of course I do. I really am sorry, Grandma.”

Peter stood and went to her. He wrapped his arms around her fragile figure and breathed her aroma, a pleasant mixture of lemon and lilac, possibly from her shower gel. The soft fabric of her blouse moved beneath his hands, and he squeezed her. “I’m so sorry.” His voice came out muffled from her blouse. “I want to change.”

“Then let’s get you changed, Peter. For you, and for this child.”

Mary pulled him back to arm’s length and looked into his eyes. Her worn face was as rough as leather, but when she smiled, her face lit up. “You’re going to make a great father. Even if you and Beth don’t want to be an item, she knows that you’ll be there for the kid. I know it, too. So let’s get you cleaned up, okay? Tell me about this place.”

Peter returned her smile. “I saw an advertisement in the back of the paper today. Never heard of a rehab center advertising, have you?”

Mary shook her head.

“Caught my attention. This place offers you a two-week detox course with group and personal support. From what I gathered, they give you jobs to do on this farm and you live and work there for the two weeks, talking to each other and getting counseling, working in the fresh air.”

“You always liked working on the farm here, I think you’d enjoy it. And you will make a good father.”

Peter smiled. His own father (a faceless sperm donor, nothing more—Grandmother’s words, not his) left when he was a baby. Peter didn’t know the man’s name and was happy keeping it that way. He knew his mother, Karen, moved into his grandmother’s place when she got pregnant and worked in a local bar just a short drive away to save money to get back on her feet. Because of that, she worked long hours, but Peter remembered her as a good mother. Caring. Until the icy night her car had skidded and—

“Are you okay, Peter?”

“Hmm? Yeah, I was just . . . Daydreaming.”

“So what do we do now?”

“I . . .” The word caught in his throat. Come on, Peter, just ask. You know it’s the last time you will. “I need to borrow some money.”

The old woman didn’t flinch, as Peter expected. “And?” She said. “How much?”

“I have five hundred, but that’s only a quarter. I’d need a grand and a half to make up the rest . . .”

“Well then that’s what we’ll do. I’ll give you the money, Peter, don’t worry. And in two weeks, when you’re out and clean and happy, we’ll have dinner here and celebrate. Me, you, and Beth.”

The thought of that day made Peter’s head whirl. A day he’d be clean and happy and moving on with life? Hell, it might be possible.

“And what will you do after the detox place?” Mary asked. “Go back to the coffee shop?”

“No. I don’t know what I’ll do. At the minute I just want a fresh start, after that I don’t know.”

“So you need to call them, I guess. The detox place. Call and book a place?”

“I guess so. I’ll need to get the time off work, too.”

“But you’re not going back there?”

“Good point.”

The idea of never having to hand over another cardboard cup full of steaming hot muck to a too-busy-on-the-phone businessman at seven in the morning made him grin. He never understood how people drank that stuff, anyway. Coming from an Irish family, they were tea drinkers to the end, by God.

“Then I’ll call and quit.”

“Well, you know where the phone is. And Peter?”

“Yeah?”

“Call her, too. She’d like that. I’d imagine she’s scared.”

Peter nodded and crossed the room, the scent of baked bread drifting from the kitchen. Peter’s stomach rumbled. His appetite had returned, it seemed.

Unfolding the torn piece of newspaper from his back pocket, Peter dialed the number shown. He didn’t pause to think, in case he got cold feet.

The phone gave a solitary burr.

Maybe I should save up the money myself . . . But that could be months, and what if I take a drink?

A second ring.

Grandma would want me to take it, I can always pay her back when I’m clean and—

The phone buzzed a third time before being answered by a cheery, elderly man.

“Hello? Dawson Rehabilitation, Harris speaking.”

“Hi . . .” Peter said, his mouth dry. “My name is Peter Laughlin, and I’d like to . . .”

. . . Commit myself? Send myself to? What phrase do I use here?

The old man chuckled with good nature. “You’d like to come to Dawson Rehabilitation, sir?”

“Yes, I would.”

“That’s not a problem, sir. How do you spell your name, please?”

Peter spelled it out. They talked for ten more minutes while the old man filled him in on the logistics and details of the center. Dawson Rehabilitation, he said, operated from a small work-office in New York City and was owned by Doctor Harris Dawson, a renowned psychologist and well regarded counselor. As Peter found out, it was him personally on the phone.

“My partner, Jerry Fisher,” Dawson explained, “is the man you’ll be dealing with on the retreat. Like me, he is a counselor with a very good history to his name, and that you can research for yourself, should you have any concerns. Jerry is forty-five years young, you see, and because of that he is much, much more suited to the manual labor you’ll be doing on the farmhouse than myself.” The old man wheezed a laugh and Peter smiled to himself. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t feel good for making the call. “We have two more places available for the course,” Dawson said. “Once they’re filled, should be later today or tomorrow going by the other calls, we’ll be in touch and give you our set date. Does that sound okay?”

“Yes. That sounds fine.”

“Any more questions, Mr. Laughlin? Please, don’t be afraid to ask.”

“Could you tell me more about this farm?”

“Of course.” The old man cleared his throat. “The Dawson farmhouse is located in the woodlands of Pennsylvania. In fact, believe it or not, it used to be my family home. I’ll admit I’m not much of a country buff, Mr. Laughlin, so I leased it year-in year-out while I moved to New York and got the business off the ground. It was always my idea to use it for Dawson Rehab as a center for retreats, and I’m glad that I now get to.”

“Sounds nice.”

“It is. The main house is a two-story, beautiful old place with a good-sized porch out front. The trees have been felled and cleared, leaving a very nice yard I plan to get graveled soon enough. I think you’ll enjoy your time there, Mr. Laughlin.”

“Thank you, Dr. Dawson.”

“My pleasure. Please, call me Harris. I’ll be in touch. And good luck, Peter. Welcome to the Dawson Rehabilitation program.”

Peter lowered the phone to the cradle and took a deep breath. He’d done it, and he felt better than he had in weeks. He was going to be a dad, after all. Not just a biological father, a goddamn good dad.

Mary smiled from the living room doorway. “All done?”

“All done, Grandma.”

She shuffled over and gave him a hug. “I’m proud of you. You know that.”

Peter placed his head on her shoulder and squeezed back.

“Now, call her,” Mary said. “Please.”

Without another word, his grandmother shuffled to the kitchen. Peter heard the radio come to life and the old woman humming to some country music. He lifted the phone for a second time and dialed Beth’s number. He knew it by heart.

“Hello?”

“Beth?”

“Peter!” She sounded relieved. “I’ve wanted to talk to you.”

“I know.” Hearing her voice, tension drifted from Peter’s body. All of his troubles dissolved. “I’m at my grandma’s place.”

Beth sniffled, sounding as if she’d started to cry but still happy. “And? How are you? I’ve been worried about you.”

“I feel amazing, Beth.” His own voice cracked with the weight of the words. He cleared his throat. “I really do. Honestly. Beth, I want to do this. Be a dad . . . Will you let me?”

Beth sighed. “You have no idea how much I wanted to hear you say that. I’ve been so frightened, thinking I’ll do this alone, or if I can’t then going and getting it removed and . . . I’ve been so scared.”

“I know, I know. Look, I have to go somewhere for the next two weeks, but when I’m back, I’m here for good. I’ll be here for you, okay? We’ll do this together.”

“I’m so relieved you called.”

“Beth . . . We’ll take our time, all right? We’ll do this right. I promise you.”

“I know.”

Peter let comfortable silence sink in, listening to her breathing. Then Beth said something that sent his world away. “I love you.”

Without hesitating, Peter said it back. They talked for fifteen minutes, and with each passing moment, Peter couldn’t believe the events of that morning had happened to the same man. Afterwards, they said their goodbyes, and Peter returned the receiver to its cradle.

“I better get going, Grandma,” he shouted into the kitchen. “I need to get home and pack.”

“Of course. I love you, Peter.”

“I love you, too.”