Fiction by T.R. Healy
Alina, smiling cryptically, approached her friend and held out her left hand.
“What is it?” Kayla asked.
“What does it look like?”
“Like something you picked up off the floor.”
“It’s a wishbone,” she said, arching her eyebrows. “Chef Leo gave it to me.”
Kayla stared at the forked bone, which was as pale as the buttons on her blouse.“What do you want it for?”
“To make a wish.”
She shook her closely cropped blond hair. “Not me, girlfriend. Never have any of the wishes I’ve made come true.”
“Come on,” Alina implored, pinching one end of the chicken wishbone between her thumb and index finger. “It can’t hurt to try again. What’ve you got to lose?”
Reluctantly she grabbed the other end of the brittle bone, a little surprised her friend really believed in such foolishness. Not saying a word, they each made a wish then, on the count of three, pulled as hard as they could and, almost at once, the bone snapped in half.
“Congratulations,” Alina said after Kayla ended up with the largest piece.
She smiled, twirling the fragment in front of her nose.
“What did you wish for?”
“Probably the same thing you wished for,” she answered, looking out the window at the bare pine tree in the backyard.
“And what’s that?”
“To get out of this damn place.”
She was absolutely right, Alina thought, walking back to her room. She also wished to get out of the sober living house where she had been staying for the past week and a half. Lazarus House was a rustic three-story Victorian home in a dilapidated neighborhood on the east side of town once known as “Little Naples” because of the many Italian families who resided there many years ago. Few houses in the neighborhood were as large as Lazarus but many were painted the same dull shade of brown. Alina, when she first saw the house, thought it was covered in mud it was so dark. One of only three such facilities in the metropolitan area, it was able to accommodate a couple dozen residents at a time who were making the transition from rehabilitation programs to a return to their homes. A vital intermediate step on the path to sobriety, it provided supervision and support for mainly young women recovering from different kinds of substance abuse.
Stella, a sturdy woman who always wore skintight jeans and loose T-shirts, stood in the doorway of Alina’s room. “I have something for you, child.”
Stella’s green eyes narrowed. “Not again, what?”
“Not again, counselor,” she muttered, which was the preferred way to address the attendants at Lazarus House.
Out from behind her back, Stella drew a curved plastic bottle and handed it to Alina.
“But I gave a sample just three days ago.”
“So?” the counselor grunted as she looked at her gaudy wrist watch. “You know the rules. You’re subject to random tests here so, if we want, we can ask for a sample every day.”
“I was under the impression we were tested only once a week.”
She shook her head. “Random means we can do it anytime we choose. Of course, you can refuse to comply and the test will be recorded as a positive test and then you risk being expelled from the house.”
Unlike many of her friends in high school, Alina never drank and only occasionally shared a joint with someone. But toward the end of her senior year, she met some older people at the grocery store where she clerked after school who introduced her to crystal meth. At first, she was reluctant to try “the white dragon,” as they called it, but after they assured her it would make her feel more alive than she ever had, she did and immediately found they were right. For the first time in her life, she felt powerful, convinced she could surmount any obstacle, could achieve anything she wanted. The more she smoked the stronger she felt as if propelled by a soaring dark wind.
“So did you make a wish?” Chef Leo, a burly man with a walrus-sized mustache, asked when Alina entered the kitchen with a tray of dirty dishes.
“I did, chef, but I didn’t break off the biggest piece.”
“So your wish wasn’t granted?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Don’t worry, dear. I’ll save another wishbone for you and maybe you’ll get the long end next time.”
Smiling, he motioned for her to sit down at a corner table and poured her a glass of iced tea.
“Many, many years ago, my ancestors, the Etruscans, sort of started this crazy wishbone tradition,” he said, joining her at the table. “For whatever reason, they believed chickens could predict the future. In particular, they considered the collarbone to be sacred, and after removing it and letting it dry, they would stroke it and make wishes on it. This practice was later adopted by the Romans who were compelled to break the bones because apparently there were not enough available for everyone to make a wish on. That way two people would wish on the same bone and then snap it to see who got the longer piece and therefore their wish.”
“I had no idea the custom was so old.”
“So now you do, dear.”
Alina switched on the brass lamp on the corner of her desk but nothing happened so she checked to see if the cord was plugged into the wall. It was, and, sighing, she tried again and still no light. At once, she removed the shade and saw that the bulb was dark then unscrewed it and set it beside the lamp. For a minute, she just stared at it, remembering the many times she smoked meth with a light bulb when a glass pipe wasn’t available.
Travis, who worked with her at Martha’s Market, was the one who showed her how to transform a bulb into a pipe. Deftly he removed the top part with a pair of pliers, making sure he didn’t break the glass, then scraped out the insides with a small pocket knife. That done, he added some meth and slipped in a straw which he sealed with tape. He assured her it was as effective as a pipe then, after heating the bottom of the bulb with his lighter, invited her to inhale the smoke through the straw.
Idly she picked up the burnt-out bulb, confident she could turn it into a pipe just as Travis showed her. Then, leaning back in her chair, she dropped it in the waste basket beside her desk.
As usual, the women sat in a circle in the middle of the conference room, facing one another, and outside the circle stood Stella, a clipboard pressed against her chest. Though barely five feet in height, she appeared much taller because of her commanding position as senior counselor. She didn’t make the rules but she enforced them to the letter.
“Please, ladies,” she bellowed, rapping a knuckle against the back of the clipboard, “let’s get started.”
The women stopped talking and looked around, seeking to gain the attention of another pair of eyes as the exercise required. Alina looked first at Kayla, but she had already locked eyes with someone else, so she continued to look around the room until she saw Ethel, one of the older residents, staring at her and she stared back. They held their gaze for what seemed like several minutes before Stella rapped her knuckle again and told them to relax.
“So, now, who wants to speak first?” she asked, slowly walking around the circle of chairs.
As usual, no one volunteered.
“Please, ladies, don’t make me call on you, one by one, like a bunch of second graders.”
Ethel uncrossed her legs and got up from her chair. “Alina and I were looking at one another.”
“And what did you see?”
“I saw myself twelve years ago,” she said, her eyes locked back on Alina. “I saw someone in pain, someone ashamed, someone wishing things would get better.”
“And will they?”
“For a while, I suppose.”
She shrugged. “Wishing things are so is never enough, is it? It takes real commitment to get what you want.”
Late one night, almost fourteen months ago, Alina was arrested after a security guard spotted her breaking into a panel truck parked near the train station. Though shocked, she was not surprised. Night after night, she broke into cars and trucks, stealing whatever she could find to sell so she could buy more drugs. She assumed it was only a matter of time before she was caught. She was also charged with possessing drug paraphernalia because of the customized light bulb found in her backpack. On the advice of her court-appointed lawyer, she pled guilty to the charges, and because she had no prior criminal record was allowed to enter the county drug diversion program which mandated 365 days in treatment. She graduated three weeks ago, and at the urging of her mentor settled into Lazarus House before returning to live at home.
“You’re clean, Alina, and, believe me, I know how hard you’ve worked the past year,” he told her the day she graduated. “But it’s going to be even harder to stay clean.”
“I’ve been on the wagon for close to eight years, and I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you what a struggle it’s been to stay clean. Sad to say, I felt better about myself when I drank, more confident in the decisions I made. I miss it and every day I’m tempted to start up again. Every damn day.”
“What have we here?” Alina asked when Chef Leo set a small paper bag on her table in the dining room.
Not saying anything, he waited for her to open it.
In it, she found a slew of wishbones. “You must think I have a lot of wishes to make?”
“We all have a lot of wishes, dear.”
“Well, thank you, chef. With all these wishbones I should get at least one granted.”
Nodding, he drew another wishbone out of his pocket and set it beside the bag. It was a little larger than the others but much brighter.
“You painted it,” she realized after a moment. “You put silver paint on it.”
“That’s right. I did.”
“We didn’t have a lot of money in my family so, for special occasions, my mother used to make napkin rings out of wishbones. She’d clean them and let them dry for a few days then paint them silver or gold. Always, at Thanksgiving, wishbone napkin rings were set out on the table.”
“That’s really clever.”
“She was a very clever woman. Anyway, I thought you might like to make some rings of your own. I know the counselors want you to keep busy so this might be something to occupy your time.”
“Oh, it will,” she said, grazing the knuckles of his left hand. “Maybe I can make some for the dining room.”
He smiled. “Well, as you know, we’re not too formal here but, maybe for Thanksgiving or Christmas, we can set out some napkin rings.”
“I shouldn’t be here then but it’ll be a way for you to remember me.”
“Indeed it will, dear.”
For the first time in days, it was not raining. As soon as Alina completed her chores in the laundry room, she went out to the backyard to get some fresh air and smiled when she saw Kayla in front of the sundial. Her friend was standing on her head, as rigid and still as the pine tree behind the dial.
“What in the world are you doing?”
“What’s it look like?”
“Like you lost a bet with one of the counselors.”
Groaning, Kayla lifted her head above the ground and slowly proceeded to walk on her hands around the sundial. Then she let her arms collapse and rolled over on her left shoulder and got back on her feet.
“I didn’t know you were so agile,” Alina said, after giving her a round of applause.
Breathing heavily, she replied, “I was a gymnast in school and in my prime I could walk on my hands around the entire campus without ever hearing myself breathe.”
“I’m hopeless when it comes to gymnastics. I don’t think I could do a single push-up if my life depended on it.”
Kayla laughed, dusting some pine needles from her sweatshirt. “I just found out I passed my last drug test so I guess this is my pathetic way of celebrating.”
“Oh, that’s great, Kayla. Congratulations.”
“So you’ll be leaving pretty soon then?”
Again she nodded. “Apparently the wish I made the other week was granted.”
“What’s the matter? You don’t sound that pleased.”
“I don’t know but I wish now you’d broken off the bigger piece of that wishbone.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’m not sure if I’m ready to return home,” she admitted, twisting her arms around one another. “I don’t know if I have the discipline to resist the temptations I’ll find there.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll be just fine. I know you will.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Alina sat down in one of the wicker chairs in the back of the quiet room and closed her eyes. The lemon-scented room was located in the basement of Lazarus House and was where residents were encouraged to spend a few minutes in meditation each day. Stella required them to sign in so she could make sure they complied.
“Think about what you’re going to do when you leave here,” Stella told her one afternoon before she entered the meditation room. “Think very hard about how you’re going to avoid the situations and associations that brought you here.”
She always found it difficult to concentrate on such matters, however. Certainly she tried, she tried as hard as she could, but often her mind wandered. After a while, she stopped trying and, instead, focused on a jagged spot in a corner of the ceiling, figuring that was something specific to keep her attention. It was about the size of one of the wishbones Chef Leo gave her, so faint she doubted if anyone else who visited the room noticed it. The longer she looked at it the clearer it became until she was always surprised not everyone in the room was staring at it.
Alina carefully sanded the tiny wishbone then brushed on a coat of acrylic craft paint and dipped it in a small jar of silver paint. She had painted four wishbones already which, along with the remaining six, she intended to present to her mother when she returned home. Her mother, as far as she knew, didn’t have any napkin rings, so she thought she would like them. Each time she picked up one of the bones to decorate, she was tempted to snap it in half. She refrained, however, unsure of whether she wished to leave or stay.
T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and his stories have appeared in such publications as Gravel, Hawaii Review, Steel Toe Review, and Welter.
Some of the best fiction I’ve read in a while.
Alina is a really interesting character, and so is the concept of the wishbones, consistent throughout.
Some nice work from T.R. Healy.