My hands are in fists, my heart kicking hard and fast against my spine. There’s no reason to be nervous, but I can’t calm myself either even though the Hill Institute doesn’t look as formidable as it did when I was a patient here.
Maybe it’s because I have the freedom to move about, to speak to anyone I want and to leave any time I choose. I’ve never been one for rules, or restrictions. The fact I couldn’t do what I wanted was the most difficult part of my recovery.
But now, even if I wanted to, I can’t turn back—the cab driver left, effectively stranding me.
I puff a strand of red hair from my face and smooth the front of my vintage maxi dress’s lace bodice. I’d hunted through a thrift store for an hour before I found this beige piece of art and spent my last dime on it. I hike up the dress’s skirt and take the stairs leading to the front entrance. Before I reach the scraped concrete entryway, my phone vibrates inside my clutch purse.
Gail: Hey hun r u safe?
Gail paid for the cab. She would have pressed even more money on me if she thought she’d have gotten away with it.
But I swore to myself that things would be different this time around. Clover Vos is clean, and I’ll make something of my life, even if I’m heading into the arena later than everyone else.
I’m only twenty-three. Whatever gap there is to bridge, I’ll fucking bridge it.
Clover: Y - Will let u know when done
I wait for her reply, but she must have put her phone down because I don’t see her typing a response. I put my phone away and take a last, steeling breath. A breath which carries a familiar scent.
Holy shit—I was so caught up, I didn’t even notice the brilliant white flowers around me. I’d never been outside the Institution at night, but I often stuck my head out my room window to get fresh air. Now I finally know what it was I kept smelling.
I pick one of the large flowers and stick it in my hair.
Better than perfume, especially if you’re not wearing any.
Strangely, the smell gives me strength.
Rehab is done.
This chapter of my life is closed. And I’m so proud that I stuck it out, I’m even willing to drive back here to get some crappy-ass certificate and my thirty-day chip.
As the glass doors open, heat and noise spills out. I follow the sounds of people laughing over low-key jazz music and turn the corner.
The Institute’s foyer is a bustle of activity, but it’s not the source of the animated chatter. There’s a long table covered in brilliant white linen, name tags on lanyards precisely arranged on it. There are only a handful left, but there must have been more than a hundred to begin with. A bored looking girl in a crisp uniform turns disinterested eyes to me and perks up like someone just tasered her in the ass.
“Evening! Welcome to the Hill Institute. May I have your name?”
“It’s Vos. Clover.” I reach for my name tag the same time as the girl does, and she snatches her hand away.
“Thank you for coming, Clover.” Her grin turns less sparkly—guess she doesn’t have to be as nice to the patients as she does the people that footed their bills during treatment. She waves a hand to an archway leading to the Institute’s formal dining hall. “The ceremony starts in fifteen minutes.”
Sheesh, you’d have sworn I was half an hour late.
I’m just here for the coin, bitch. And, possibly, for a little fun. Fuck, it’s been six months, I deserve a party.
Even one where I can’t—
No. Bad thoughts. Really bad thoughts.
I give the girl a tight smile as I head for the dining room. She’s like three years younger than me, so I have every right to call her that.
The only time I remember being in here was when I had to attend a compulsory seminar about triggers, which I slept through. Not my fault—treatment that week had been pure hell. My gaze darts to the stage. There’s a podium, some expensive looking flower arrangements, and nothing else. No, not flower arrangements, actual pots of living plants.
Come to think about it, I’ve never seen flower arrangements in this place. I gingerly touch the flower in my hair and bump someone with my elbow.
Christ, place is fucking packed.
The man I almost elbowed to death turns, mouth twisting with the start of a curse before his expression transforms the instant he sees me.
Yeah, the hair has that effect on people. I got it from my momma—that, and the freckles. According to her, I got my eyes from my dad. Sadly, the fact that my father had gunmetal-gray eyes is the only thing I know about him.
More bad thoughts. Dammit, you’re better than this, Clover. Away, bad thoughts, away!
“Hi.” The man sticks out a hand. “I’m Frank.”
“Yeah you are,” I say, smiling around the words as I ignore his hand. He doesn’t get it, and his smile crystalizes before he pulls his hand away.
He’s too old for me anyway, and that suit’s gotta be a loan.
I should go into fashion. I know I have an eye for it, and I’m pretty fucking fantastic with a needle and thread. Turned this 1970s dress into something much more appropriate for picking up men, didn’t I? Although I doubt any of those top designers can thread a needle—it’s all about delegating these days.
I see a handful of familiar faces, but they’re so few and far between I’m wondering who in the hell everyone else is. I was in the program with nineteen other junkies, so they’d have to have brought their entire families—including second cousins—to make up this crowd.
A flash goes off. My skin prickles with ice.
Reporters? Jesus, I didn’t have this in mind when I got the invite for the graduation ceremony. My gaze flashes back to the stage, which looks as enormous and barren as a desert.
What the fuck have I gotten myself into?
I should leave.
Instead, I head for the bar.
“Double jack on the rocks,” I say.
The bartender—a man in his late forties with a pair of caterpillar thick eyebrows—cocks his head. “I don’t serve alcohol, ma’am.”
“Strange - I see a bottle of Jack right over there.” I point at the offending bottle, but the barman doesn’t even bother looking.
“This is a rehabilitation center.” I’m not imagining it; there’s a hint of contempt in his voice.
Ah, of course. Once an addict, always an addict. No smoking, no drinking, no sugar, no excessive sleeping.
“Well, then, just some orange juice. Heavy on the pulp.”
“We have mocktails,” the bartender says as he puts his hands on the bar and leans in a little. “Pina Colada, strawberry daiquiri—”
“Fine. Surprise me.” I roll my eyes as soon as the bartender looks away and slip onto the closest empty bar stool. Only a handful of guests are sitting at the bar, the rest milling around the dining hall or seated at their tables.
Were they serving dinner tonight?
The thought makes my stomach grumble. I clench my jaw, desperate to keep my body under control. I haven’t eaten today, and they had me on a horrific diet of raw food the entire fucking time I was in this place.
Wanna know a funny thing about raw broccoli? It tastes the same coming up as it did going down.
I turn to the voice. Warm brown eyes study me beneath arched brows.
“You sound surprised.” I give Michael a warm smile which he returns with a wide grin. Michael made sure I got enough to eat during my detox, and all the right nutrients and shit once I was clean. I made his life particularly difficult, seeing how much I fucking love broccoli.
“Delighted, actually.” He takes the stool next to mine. “Can I get you a drink?”
“Thanks, but I already ordered a fake cocktail.”
His grin widens as he takes a sip from his drink. It looks like cola, but I catch a whiff of brandy before he sets it down.
So unfair. Drinking was never my problem—my issue is heroin.
Fuck. First day out and I’ve forgotten my training already.
Was. Past tense. Heroin doesn’t control me anymore. I’m free as a fucking bird. And as poor as a church mouse. Christ, everyone in this place is wearing some designer brand, even good ole Michael. I guess he works at the Institute out of the goodness of his heart—that, or they pay their employees really, really well.
The bartender hands me my pretend cocktail. Somehow, it’s worse that it looks like the real thing.
“You look beautiful,” Michael says as I reach for the drink.
I fumble, almost spill, and recover ungraciously by tackling the cocktail glass with both hands.
Where the hell did that come from? One of several hundred iron-clad rules at the Hill Institute was their strict no-fraternizing-with-employees-or-other-patients rule.
“Th—” I try, but the bartender cuts me off.
“Cash or card?”
My eyes go wide as I turn to the bartender. “This is a cash bar?”
For fuck’s sake. For the price of my rehab fee, I’d have thought it included at least one complimentary fake drink at the graduation party.
“Or card,” the bartender says, so smoothly that I almost don’t want to be pissed at him.
“Just put it on my tab,” Michael cuts in, just as smoothly.
Did their employer send them on mandatory seminars along the likes of ‘Be cool, fool’ or some shit?
I’m so out of my league here. Why the hell did I even come? I don’t need a thirty-day chip. I don’t need a damn certificate saying I completed this course unless I can trade it in for a few bucks.
Now that’s what I need: money.
“You don’t have to—” I begin, but Michael cuts me off with another of his warm smiles.
“I did offer.”
I’ll give him that. “Thanks.”
“So,” he says through a small sigh, as if he is glad all this back-and-forth about the drink is finally over. “Where to now for Clover Vos?”
Is that some kind of pick-up line? If it was, I could’ve answered, ‘back to your place, I guess’.
Nah, I’m not that smooth.
And I know he’s actually asking me what the fuck I’m going to do with my life now that I’ve kicked the habit.
I stall by taking a sip of my drink.
I set my glass down and try another smile. This one doesn’t come out quite as big, or quite as warm as the others. “I’ll find something in the design industry.”
“Clothes. Accessories. That kind of shit.” Fuck, I swore.
Then again, Michael knows all about my swearing, doesn’t he? I cringe inwardly and grimace at him.
“What’s wrong?” he asks with a laugh in his voice.
“I’m sorry I threw that tray at you.”
He stares at me for a second, face blank, and bursts out laughing. “That was months ago! You were two weeks into your treatment.”
“Still…it looked like it hurt.” I take another sip, wishing I could turn water to wine. “Plus, you had all that gunk on your face—”
“Scrambled eggs, right?” Michael smiles as he takes another sip of his drink. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I couldn’t forgive and forget. Trust me, that’s all in the past.”
My smile warms up a bit, and I cast a quick eye on the audience as I think of something intelligent and witty to say. If I was still the old Clover, Michael would have been my preferred target for the night. Charming, loaded, and good looking enough I wouldn’t suggest doggy style so I don’t puke before he comes.
But the new Clover is in charge. And she’s perfectly happy being friendly with Michael and going home alone. Gail’s couch isn’t the best bed, but it is a bed. And, hopefully, they left me some takeaways. Gail’s mom makes the best fucking lasagne in the—
My clutch’s clasp rattles out a tattoo against the polished wood of the bar as my phone vibrates inside.
“Sorry—” I say, cutting off when I realize I have no idea why I said that.
Michael finishes his drink and turns to the bartender to order another. I take a quick peek at my phone.
Speak of the devil.
A sad face? My finger hovers over the keyboard of my old-school Nokia, but I don’t know what to say.
Gail: Mom’s pissed.
Pissed, or pissed off? It was a toss up with Gail’s mum.
Gail: Says were not a motel
Motel? My thumb hesitates again. Fuck, is she talking about me sleeping on the couch?
Clover: Is it me?
It can’t be though. I mean, it’s been one night, and I’m clean, and I didn’t even—
Gail: Sorry, hun
Gail: Mom says u cant stay
Clover: pls I have nowhere else 2 crash 2nite. Ill be super quiet prom—
My gaze snaps up to Michael’s face. There’s a small, concerned frown between his eyebrows.
“Yup. Of course.” I take a gulp from my cocktail, remember it’s a mocktail, and grimace in frustration. “Just…sorting some shit out.”
“Do you have any contacts in the fashion world?” he asks.
“Uh…no?” I realize my tone was a bit harsh, but I didn’t expect him to look so taken aback.
“Oh. Sorry. It’s just…I just thought, since you want to start working—”
“There’s always Craig’s List,” I say, and immediately regret it. I laugh, trying to make it out to be a joke, and Michael laughs with me.
As soon as he looks away to take his new drink, reality crashes over me.
Christ, Gail, couldn’t you have thrown me out of your house before I drove to this godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere?
Maybe she thought the further away she sent me, the less likely I was to walk back and sweet talk my way back onto her couch. Where the hell am I supposed to sleep tonight?
I’m so royally fucked.
She’s late. Typical. There were twenty patients to choose from. But I chose her because she shows a history of relapse, several failed attempts at going cold turkey and DIY detoxes gone wrong.
Which is typical of almost every junkie I get in here. They set themselves up to relapse.
She was a troublemaker during her time here, but as soon as she’d detoxed, her personality stabilized.
Perhaps it’s her passion, determination, and fierce pride. A pride which intrigues me, because she’s broke, homeless, and hasn’t had a job since she sold lemonade that one summer in Utah when things were still going well at home.
At least, that’s what her file says. Admittedly, it’s not one hundred percent accurate. If it was, I wouldn’t have chosen her for this. The gaps interest me. Those dark holes in her timeline where anything could have happened. Things I could find no trace of.
She never knew her father.
Her mother died of cancer when she was sixteen.
She was in the foster system from the age of seventeen onwards.
But there’s a year unaccounted for. A year where Clover Vos disappears from the grid. If I can determine what—
I snap from the thought with a grimace, and turn to Pamela, my assistant. “Yes?”
“You’re on in ten minutes.”
I nod at her, and she disappears like smoke.
I stay in the shadows of the stage’s curtain. From here, I can see everyone in the dining hall.
Patients. Their caregivers. My staff.
Through the process of elimination, I know exactly who I’m looking at.
Vos has too much pride to give up a chance to have a room full of people acknowledge her success—even if she knows it will be fleeting. It’s more reasonable to assume she’s tardy than to assume she’s not coming.
I glance down at my Patek Philippe watch, positioning it parallel to my wrist and the hem of my suit jacket.
Seven minutes, and still no Vos.
I look up as she enters the dining hall. She’s impossible to miss with her red hair and an outfit meticulously selected to highlight not only her hair’s brazen color, but every curve on her body. She even has lipstick on—something I didn’t expect to see. Although she’s far from a shrinking violet, I assumed she would hang back tonight as she gradually adjusted to the concept of a party that doesn’t involve her firing up some china white.
She takes a few seconds to scan the room before she moves to the bar—as I anticipated she would.
My apologies, Vos. There will be no alcohol for you tonight. I need you to have a clear head.