He felt like shit, but then again, he always did. Today was no different. He sat with his councillor and listened. Wasn’t he supposed to do the talking, he thought? The councillor was telling him that he could beat this thin; that it was possible. He nodded, yeah sure why not, but all he was thinking about was pills. Why did it always come back to the pills?

Yak, yak, yak: why couldn’t the councillor just shut up?

“Jesus wants you to beat this,” she said.

Sure. Good old Jesus: he wanted everything right.

“I want to beat it, too,” he said, but he meant beat it out of there, not beat the pills. The councillor smiled; she never got him, was never on his wavelength.

“You can beat it,” she smiled.

He smiled back. For this money, I could have paid for a broad to do more than smile, he thought. But when he imagined her naked, he was glad she only talked. Not his type, that was sure. He blanked out her words and watched the minute hand of the clock move forward. It was making progress, even if he wasn’t.

“Time’s up.” Finally, he excused himself, shook her hand, and left. Turning straight into the men’s room, he rolled down his sock. There it was: the little yellow tube. He resisted the temptation to rattle his pills. Could be that someone might hear. Not that it was against the law or anything; they were on prescription. Everything was legal and above board.

He gulped three down at once and helped them on their way with water from the hand basin. Not for drinking, it read. No shit; like water is worse than pills. He kicked open the door of one of the toilets and sat. The pills took a while to sink in; they always did. And then it came. No rush of joy or ease of sleep; just an end to the longing, just a stop to the hurt of being alive. Kids would pay good dollars to buy his pills; they must be crazy to want to feel this way.

He closed his eyes and there she was, hovering over him. He reached up to her, but he knew she wasn’t there. It hurt more that she looked just like when he first met her; like everything else, all their years together counted for nothing, was done and finished. Now she just looked like an 18-year old school girl, and he was 46. It just felt wrong, more wrong even then it had been; a different kind of wrong. Twenty-five years they were together, married and two years before that as sweethearts. No, that wasn’t right: twenty-three years married and two years of this, whatever this was.

He looked up. At one time, he’d thought she was pretty, but then at one time, he’d thought flared jeans and tank-tops looked cool.

“Do you miss her?” The kids asked him that. What could he say; sure, I miss her. What else could he say; that she haunted him day and night. That no matter where he went, she was there. He’d tried to tell them that, but they didn’t get it.

“That’s so sweet,” the girl, Amy, his daughter had said. She had started crying and hugging him. Why couldn’t people just leave him alone? Why couldn’t his wife leave him alone?

“Screw it, Alice, what are you haunting me for? I never done nothing bad to you. You died of fricking cancer. I paid up, even after the insurance was gone. I got no reason to be guilty. I never done you nothing.”

And then it started; the sound of her voice. She may have looked eighteen, but she sounded like the 43-year old woman that she was when she died.

“Look at you,” she said, “still taking that stuff. Guess you’re not man enough to quit.”

For cripes sake, here she goes again. Did she never shut up, even when she was dead? He got up and left.

“Don’t you walk away from me. You think I don’t know you can hear me. I’ve got plenty to say to you.”

He’d had to hand in his driver’s licence, so now he got around town by bus. At the beginning, he’d gotten Alice to drive him, but that meant sitting in the car while she nagged and complained. He dropped that idea quick. Amy had driven him a few times, but she always seemed to be busy. So the bus it was. Yeah, it was skanky, but you got used to it. He paid the driver and climbed on. No seats; wait, just one. He squeezed in beside a husky, elderly woman.

“Guess I’ll just have to stand,” complained Alice. What? She wanted him to stand up and give his seat to a ghost. Someone would sit on her. He’d seen it happen. It was weird to see her features ’round some teenage punk’s face, swaying in out of his head as the kid rocked back and forward while the bus moved. It had been funny for a bit, but it never stopped her talking. Nothing had: not cancer, not even death.

He remembered when she’d come home from the doctor and told him the news; she’d sat up all night telling him her fears and hopes. She told him she loved him and made her hold her all night, even though he had an early start the next day. All night talking; why the hell couldn’t it be cancer of the tongue, he’d thought.

“You know the amount of money you spent on these pills; we could have gone on a trip to Europe. We could have gone a trip to Europe every year. Or you could have paid to send the kids to a decent school, not that state-sponsored, glorified community college Amy’s at.”

“It’s a good school,” he said. He knew it was a good school because of the size of the tuition fees he had to pay every term. Hell, now she was saying he didn’t provide; Alice got everything she wanted, everything she asked for.

The old lady got up and moved. She must have thought he was crazy; no one else sat beside him. Great, he thought while spreading out; two seats for me. This “being nuts” thing has its advantages.

“Are you listening to me?” said Alice, or maybe not.

He sighed with relief when Alice faded out of view. But he knew she’d be back. When he needsx them again, she’d come with them, spoiling the buzz.

He woke up and looked at the clock. 3AM. Shit, not another night without sleep. He got up and went to the bathroom. His face looked like a ghost in the glass of the medicine cabinet; pale, bleary-eyed, thinner than consume. He knew he couldn’t go on like this. In the cabinet was every kind of legal prescription pill: sleeping pills, beta blockers, tranquilisers, uppers, downers, shake-it-all-arounders. He didn’t even care what he took just so long as it made it stop, just so long as it was better, just for a while. He knew that up and down were just detours on his journey in the direction of Hell. Better and then worse, much worse; that’s the pattern. It’s how he lived, if this was living.

He lay back and there she was: frickin’ hell. She was lying next to him.

“Why,” she was saying, “that’s what I don’t get, why? I mean we were happy, we were good, and then you started taking these. You had a good job. We had nice kids, an apartment in Manhattan. Why? Wasn’t I enough for you? You could have done what the other guys did. You know the ones. I met them at work functions. The ones that clung on to their wives’ arms, but their eyes were all over every waitress with cleavage. You didn’t have to be smart to work it out, but you never did that, I’ll give you credit for that. And you were a good dad; Amy and Frank adore you. But then one day you came home, locked yourself in the bathroom, and that was it. You stopped being you.

“You’re not gay, are you? I mean, that would explain it, if you’ve been living a lie. I could have coped with that. If that’s who you are? I’d be hurt, sure, but not more hurt than this, that you prefer pills to me. The kids would have understood. Tell me, why? Tell me, why? What happened that day?”

He shut out the voice, just for a moment. That day, what happened that day; nothing, that’s what happened, nothing. Sure, plenty of the guys took pills and more: it’s a high-pressure job, moving other people’s money around. It was a buzz for some of them, and then when it stopped, they needed a different kind of buzz. But he didn’t need it; he wasn’t like that. He saw them buzzing like flies and then, zap: they get swatted. No, he wasn’t like that. They used to kid him that he was like a toad. Well, toads eat flies, and he’d eaten plenty. He’d zapped them good. You just wait, keep waiting until the time is right and then make your move. All those guys crashed and burned, but not him.

Nope, not the job, and yeah, home was pretty good. He liked the kids, and Alice was alright, but the fricking noise. It was bad enough at work, but then you come, and Alice has to start with all that shit; how was your day, what do you think of Amy’s dress, Frank did well at school, guess what the neighbour said. Day after day, he had to listen to that bull. Why couldn’t he just shut it all out?

That’s why he went to the doctors, not because of pressure or any stuff like that; he just needed peace. Why couldn’t there be a pill to shut you up, Alice, why wasn’t there a pill for that? Instead, he’d taken one to shut you out, then another and another. They’d worked, too. Peace; that’s what they gave him, at first. And now you spoiled that too, they never even gave him that.

“This is your fault,” he said, but she wasn’t listening.

Cold turkey; that was the only way to do it. He booked his flight, and a cab took him out to the shack. He’d done it all just on the spur of the moment. Just did it; threw some stuff in a case and left. Screw work, screw the shrink, screw all of them. Now the cab was stopped outside the cabin, and he was shovelling bills into the driver’s mitt.

“Keep the change,” he said sarcastically as the cab drove off without a word. These country boys could teach city cabbies all about ripping people off. The cab fare was more than the fricking flight had cost.

He dropped his bag and looked around. This was it; the middle of nowhere. The view was over marshy flats out to the ocean. That was the view in every direction. What the hell had he done? He turned, pushed open the door, and sat down. Three weeks here? Well, he’d survive.

The first week, he must have raked through the bag a hundred times, but there was nothing, not even an aspirin, and God knows he could have used one. His head ached. People talked about your head bursting or like someone taking an ax to it. Yeah, it was all of these things. If he’d planned this—even for a day before he’d left—he’d have had pills hidden in his bag or in his coat. He’d even hidden them in a bar of soap once. It had made them taste vile, but he still took them. Now there was nothing and not a pharmacist for twenty miles. He’d considered walking, but after it started getting dark, he headed back.

Shit, he’d even forgotten to bring booze. He searched the cabin high and low. There was some lighter fluid, but he told himself he was better than that. He checked on top of the rafters and found an old reefer, but that wasn’t his thing. And how old was it? The paper was yellower than junkie’s teeth. He’d thrown it on the fire.

At the end of week one, the shaking came. It wasn’t as big a deal as he thought it would be. It was more a tremor than an earthquake. Maybe there were was worse to come. But there wasn’t. And then it stopped.

A postcard came from Amy saying how proud she was of him and what he was doing. Couldn’t she have sent pills?

It was the silence; so thick he could eat it. He could breathe it in and let it fill him right up to the top. It wasn’t even silence, not really. He sat in the cabin and he could hear birds piping up down on the marsh. There was a book in the cabin about birds: curlews and sandpipers they were, at least according to the book. And waves; he could hear waves. They were restless sounds, but still peaceful.

He was sleeping well, and even though all there was to eat was cans, he was putting on weight. Now he could walk the twenty miles and back. But when he got there, he filled his bag with cans of tomatoes and dried pasta. His head was fine. And when he got back, he never thought once about how he could have bought pills; he didn’t need them.

He was sitting out front looking over to the sea listening to the wind when the cab arrived to pick him up. He was all packed and ready to go. He jumped in the back, and the cab pulled out. The driver never uttered a word the whole way to the airport. He paid up without complaining.

“Keep the change.” This time, he said it without the sarcasm. Hell, it was only money; he had plenty of that.

The flight attendant asked if she could get him anything. She had booze and aspirin, but he asked for just water. He wasn’t going back to that place, not if he could help it. He spent the whole flight looking out the window and sipping water from a plastic cup. God, this country is beautiful, he thought.

When he got off the plane and into the lobby, his kids, Amy and Frank, were there waiting for him. They ran up to him and hugged him. Amy was crying and saying how Mom, how Alice would be proud, and Frank was saying over and over something about how good it was to have his real dad back.

Why couldn’t they just shut the hell up…