Free preview of my latest novel, Weekend Pass (chapters 1-2)

Friday

Chapter One

The hissing of tires on wet pavement from passing cars drowns out the clicking of Milt’s turn signal as he waits for a break in the oncoming traffic. He hopes to pull a U-turn into the small pick-up area in front of the treatment centre, but his car is not the only one jockeying for position. He wonders whether Recovery House is always so busy on Friday afternoons, with patients on weekend passes getting rides. It’s stopped raining for the moment, but if the continued rumbling in the sky is any indication, they’re in for another deluge shortly.  

In the end, Milt is forced to park at a bus stop. He puts on his four-way flashers and dashes into the lobby. Although the building is an old psychiatric hospital, it’s been refurbished in an effort to give it the feel of a quirky, century-old inn. From his tour the day Tasha was admitted, he knows that through the tall doorway on the left there’s an Italianate courtyard with a view of the sprawling, park-like grounds. On his right is a glass-enclosed walkway leading to a chic little coffee shop, an upscale bistro, and the patient accommodations. All these touches are meant to make the patients feel like they’re at a retreat, a place of spiritual healing, or so the staff member who gave them the tour impressed upon them. But to Milt, the place still feels like an institution. Maybe not a hospital anymore. A dormitory with expensive amenities, more like.  

Tasha is waiting for him with a small blue suitcase on wheels. Milt remembers packing it three weeks ago, along with its larger cousin. Tasha was in no shape to do it herself. Comfortable clothes was what the brochure said. He dropped by her house, letting himself in with her key. Baker was at the paediatric ICU with Jake and had barely left his side since the accident. Milt raided Tasha’s closet and dresser, grabbed what he felt met the definition of comfortable, and stuffed everything in the two bags, almost certain that his choices would disappoint her. The last time he’d packed for her was when she was a little girl and they were heading out on a family vacation. He zipped the bags shut and rushed back to her aunt Charlotte’s, hoping that Tasha wouldn’t be too sick to tolerate the hour-and-a-half drive to Recovery House.

Milt had a hard time getting Tasha there. She didn’t want to leave town. She felt like she was deserting Jake, even though she’d been banned from seeing him. Charlotte finally convinced her to get into Milt’s car by repeating over and over that Jake was being looked after and the most important thing she could do for him was to get clean. 

The drive to the residential treatment centre wasn’t easy. It was difficult for Milt to concentrate on the road. On top of being preoccupied with Tasha’s fragile emotional state, her restlessness, and her repeated appeals to turn back, he was still reeling from the events of the previous three days. It had started when, out of the blue, Charlotte had called to tell him that his eight-year-old grandson had been rushed to hospital, barely breathing. But before he could get home, pack a bag, and complete the two-hour drive from Toronto to London, Charlotte had called again, even more distraught, saying that Tasha’s mom had died and Tasha had collapsed only a few feet away, on her mom’s bathroom floor, with a needle sticking out of her arm.

Tasha wheels her suitcase across the lobby’s linoleum towards him. She looks tired but calm today. Since she entered treatment three weeks ago, he’s witnessed a slow, modest transformation in her, from inconsolable to merely gloomy. No doubt the improvements in Jake’s condition, which he dutifully reported to her during his visits, had much to do with it. When he told her that Jake had emerged from his coma, he could see a flicker of hope cross her face. When Jake returned home, the enormous weight pressing down on her seemed to ease up just a little. Unfortunately, during the same visit, Milt was forced to tell her that Baker had initiated legal proceedings to make sure she couldn’t return home.

As they meet in the middle of the lobby, he hugs her, and she hugs him back with her free arm. Thankfully, she doesn’t feel as if she’s about to break like she did a couple of weeks ago.

“Hi, Dad,” she says into his shoulder, her voice quavering as she braces herself to brave the outside world for the first time in three weeks.

He whisks her outside, mindful that he’s parked illegally. The mingled smells of fresh rain and car exhaust greet them as they exit the building. He hoists her case into his trunk then scrambles around to the driver’s side. By the time he’s settled behind the wheel, Tasha is already buckled in, her hands folded on her lap. She stares back at the main entrance. Milt hears a loud honk. In his rear-view, he sees a city bus looming, waiting for him to vacate the bus bay. 

“All right already!” he mutters and pulls out into traffic.

The roads are busy on this Friday afternoon in August. It’s not until he stops at a red light several blocks from Recovery House that he has a chance to look over at Tasha. Her head is back against the headrest, her eyes closed, as if she’s searching for a quiet place in her troubled mind. In recent years, she’s begun to look more like her mother, more Chinese in ways that Milt can’t quite isolate. It’s something he probably wouldn’t notice if he’d seen her more regularly after leaving for Toronto over fifteen years ago. She’s generally avoided contact with him since then, keeping her roots planted in London where he’s persona non grata. He knows she stayed there to be closer to her mom. What a horrible mistake that turned out to be. 

“How is he?” she asks without opening her eyes.

“Jake?” Despite the fact that Tasha is barred from contacting him, the same restriction doesn’t apply to Milt. “He’s more and more like his old self every day.”

Tasha opens her eyes and gives him a skeptical look. After all, what would he know about his grandson’s “old self,” considering how little he’s seen of him over the years.

Milt doubles down. “I’m sure he’ll be fine when it’s time for him to go back to school in the Fall.”

Tasha turns away, knowing full well her father can’t possibly predict that.

“It could have been a lot worse, Tasha.”

A sad little laugh escapes her lips. As if she doesn’t know. As if that’s supposed to make her feel better about what she did.

Tasha’s counsellor explained to Milt that patients normally get to take their first weekend leave after two weeks in the program. They delayed Tasha an extra week because they wanted to make absolutely sure that the necessary supports were in place for her. Milt was one of those supports. If things went sideways this weekend, she needed to get back to the Recovery House ASAP.

Milt has a hard time reconciling the Tasha he knows with the woman he delivered to the treatment centre three weeks ago. The daughter he knows is a generous soul, one who chose to become a nurse and who was always too willing to give her mother another chance. Until the day Charlotte called him in a panic, he reasonably assumed Tasha was a well-adjusted adult leading a fulfilling life. Sure, he appreciates the stress she must have been under, looking after her mom with cancer while working at a demanding job and tending to a family of her own. Especially given how aggressive Brenda’s cancer was. It killed her less than seven weeks after she was diagnosed. Still, that hardly translates into Tasha becoming a hopeless, raving drug addict accused of harming her only child. 

Lightning flashes to the north. They’re on the westbound 401 now, heading toward London. The blacktop is soaked from a recent downpour. Although it’s not raining anymore, Milt has to keep his windshield wipers going to clear the dirty spray from the three lanes of cars and trucks ahead of him. Tasha gazes out the passenger window. The spray from the highway gives the passing countryside the appearance of a runny, black-and-white watercolour.

“Everything okay?” Milt asks.  

“They keep telling us to take one day at a time,” Tasha says, still looking out at the scenery, such as it is. 

“Sounds like good advice.”

“It gets to be a little annoying after a while, if you want to know the truth. Hearing it over and over.” 

He catches a trace of dark humour in her voice, which he chooses to interpret as a promising sign.

They pass a road sign alerting them to an upcoming exit for Paris. Southwestern Ontario is filled with towns named after well-known cities: Brussels, Zurich, Dublin, even Delhi (although in these parts it's pronounced “dell-high”). Most are pretty tiny. London is the biggest of the bunch. It’s where Milt now realizes he spent perhaps some of the happiest and most miserable years of his life. It’s where Tasha was born.

“So here I am,” Tasha says. “Back in the real world.”

“How does it feel?” Milt asks. 

“The truth?”

Milt nods.

“Terrifying,” she says.


Chapter Two

It’s nearly six o’clock when the phone rings in Charlotte’s apartment. Tasha and Milt are downstairs. Charlotte buzzes them into the building. She opens her door and looks down the hallway, nervously waiting for the elevator to arrive. She’s already got supper going, osso bucco. She knows it’s one of Tasha’s favourites. She wants Tasha to feel welcome, to be set at ease by the smell of her cooking. She wants her to feel that there are no hard feelings after the damage she did during her last stay three weeks ago. She wants her to feel at home, even though she currently has no home of her own to return to.

Charlotte hasn’t slept well the past few nights in anticipation of this weekend. She’s not entirely sure how Tasha will get through it, especially the supervised visit tomorrow morning. It will be her first time seeing Jake since he was rushed to hospital and she was questioned by police there. Charlotte and Milt will take turns chaperoning her. That’s if she lets them. Structure will be important. Regular nutritious meals, plenty of chances to rest. Charlotte hopes that Tasha’s expectations for the visit with Jake aren’t too high. Recovery will be a long process for her, just as it will be for Jake.

Milt steps out of the elevator first. Like many vain men, he’s aged intolerably well. Although his hairline has receded, he’s found a way to look distinguished as he’s gotten older. No doubt he takes great care to leave just the right amount of grey when colouring his hair. Tasha follows a few steps behind. Charlotte is struck by how much she looks like her mom all of a sudden. Has all the soul-searching that Tasha’s done in addiction treatment cast Brenda’s features into sharper relief on her face or is it simply a trick of the light? 

Charlotte hugs Tasha on the threshold and holds her for a long time. Tasha’s body shudders as she breaks down and begins to sob. It’s the hug Charlotte should have given her at Brenda’s funeral, if Tasha had been there. Of course, it couldn’t be helped. Tasha was going through detox at the time. But it made the funeral a pitiful little affair. Just Charlotte, Milt, Brenda’s sponsor, a couple of diehard neighbours, and a few of Charlotte’s friends and co-workers. No Tasha. No Baker. No Jake.

“Something smells good,” Milt says when the two women finally separate. He knows he won’t be getting a hug from Charlotte. They’ve been feuding for years, since before he walked out on Brenda. They’ve only formed a temporary alliance for Tasha’s sake.

“You must be tired from the drive,” Charlotte says to Tasha. She shows them inside. 

Tasha wheels in her blue suitcase. She pauses in the living room. Charlotte realizes that she’s stopped to look at a photo on the end table beside the couch. It was taken at Brenda’s university convocation back in 1984. Orwell’s year. In it, Charlotte and Brenda are standing in front of a blossoming magnolia tree, mugging for the camera, Brenda in her graduation gown and Charlotte in a colourful dress she bought especially for the occasion.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Charlotte says. “I took it from your mom’s place. I realized I didn’t have many good pictures of her and me together.”

“Sure,” Tasha says in a subdued voice, her eyes lingering on the photo. “Mind if I put my case in your guest room?”

“Go right ahead.” 

Charlotte wonders whether Tasha will notice that there’s a new bedside lamp in the guest room, a replacement for the one she broke. She isn’t about to tell Tasha how much scrubbing it took to get the smell of vomit out of the area rug. 

As Tasha disappears, Charlotte turns to Milt, fixing him with a quizzical look, as if to ask whether Tasha was this forlorn the entire trip to London. Milt replies with a forbearing smile. Give her a chance to settle in, he seems to be saying.

Charlotte scans the living room to see what other family photos she has on display. She notices one of Jake, Baker and Tasha next to the TV. She considers whisking it away, but before she can make a move, Tasha reappears. 

“Can I get you anything?” Charlotte asks her. She’s stocked up on all sorts of non-alcoholic drinks. Except for orange juice. The last thing Tasha needs to be offered is orange juice.

Tasha says some water would be great. She follows Charlotte into the kitchen. Milt sinks down into the leather couch and clicks on the TV with the remote. 

“I’m glad that your father got you here in one piece,” Charlotte says. “He’s not always the most attentive driver.”

“He was fine actually,” Tasha says. “I think it was easier for him to focus on the road than on me.” She lifts  the lid of the pot on the stove. “Looks good.”

“It’s nearly ready. You hungry?”

Tasha shrugs. “Is Dad eating with us?”

“Do you want him to?”

Tasha frowns as she considers the question. She and her dad have spent most of her adult life estranged. She probably feels she should be grateful that he’s stepped up to help her in her hour of desperation. Still, Charlotte knows that she’s ambivalent about letting him back into her life on any sort of extended basis. “Might as well,” she says in the end.

Charlotte takes a drinking glass from the cupboard and fills it from the tap. “If you want to help with supper, I need some lemon zest for the gremolata. There’s a lemon in the fridge and a grater in the drawer.”

Tasha retrieves a lemon from the fridge. Then she pauses. “Charlotte.”

Charlotte looks up from the stove. She can see that Tasha is working up the nerve to tell her something.

“I’m sorry for what I put you through the day Mom died.”

Charlotte feels herself stiffening. 

“Losing your sister was bad enough,” Tasha says, “without finding me passed out on her bathroom floor minutes later.”

Charlotte wants to say that it’s okay, but she finds that her insides have turned to stone. Tasha can’t begin to imagine what it was like for her. Brenda’s death may have been expected, but it was still a shock when it came. Charlotte deserved to have a quiet moment with her, to let the reality of her passing begin to settle in, to say her goodbyes to her sister even if she couldn’t hear them anymore, but instead she’d been forced to call an ambulance for her unconscious niece and anxiously wait for it to arrive. Tasha’s overdose sent Charlotte beyond the breaking point. It snapped something inside her brain. She still has flashbacks. Her doctor has started her on anti-depressants.

The moment for Charlotte to respond passes. Tasha smiles uncomfortably then turns away and starts zesting the lemon.

Charlotte tries to remind herself how loyal Tasha was to Brenda. Brenda wasn’t an easy mother to love. Each time she fell off the wagon, Tasha refused to write her off, as tempting as it must have been. Of course, Tasha was careful to protect Jake from her. Brenda once admitted that Tasha had told her in no uncertain terms that if she was ever drunk around Jake, it would be the last time she saw her grandson. She took the threat seriously. It was the one line she never crossed.

So, it’s not hard to understand why Tasha didn’t take Brenda home with her in her final weeks. She didn’t want to traumatize Jake. In fact, as far as Charlotte knows, Jake never got to see his grandmother after she went on one last bender the day she got her death sentence from the oncologist. Tasha spent over a month at her mom’s house, away from Jake and Baker for long stretches of time. She and Charlotte tag-teamed it, caring for Brenda together and taking turns sleeping in the guest room. Initially, Tasha kept working regular shifts at the hospital. Charlotte understands now it was because she didn’t want to be cut off from her supply of heavy-duty painkillers. Of course, she was presented with a new source when palliative home care started bringing opioids into Brenda’s house.

“Milt!” Charlotte shouts. “Are you going to just sit there or are you going to make yourself useful?”

Milt appears in the doorway. “How can I help?” His prompt appearance makes Charlotte suspect he was listening in to her conspicuous non-response to Tasha’s apology.

She points with her nose at the cutlery drawer. “You can set the table.”

He dutifully gathers three settings worth of cutlery. It’s crowded in the little kitchen until he steps into the small dining area.

“By the way,” Tasha announces to no one in particular, “I have a meeting tonight.” 

“Meeting?” Charlotte says.

“Twelve steps,” Tasha says.

Milt pipes up from the dining room table. “I’ll take you.”

“I kind of thought I’d drive myself,” Tasha says.

Milt and Charlotte exchange a glance.

“Look,” Tasha says. “This weekend is about me starting to get back on my own two feet. I appreciate the support, but you guys can’t hold my hand the whole time.” 

“You’re sure you’re up to it?” Charlotte asks.

Tasha tries not to look irritated. “Going to meetings every day is a requirement.”

“You don’t have a car,” Milt points out.

Tasha gives him a look that says he knows that’s not true. She has a car. She just needs his help to get it.

“Really,” he says, understanding her look all too well.

“Look,” she says. “I don’t want to feel like a kid the whole time I’m in town, relying on the two of you for rides.”

Tasha’s car is parked in her driveway at home, but they all know that Baker will flip out if he sees her outside the house unexpectedly.

“Fine,” Milt says reluctantly. “I’ll call Baker. Let him know that we’ll be coming to get your car after supper.”

For the past three weeks, Milt has skilfully positioned himself as Tasha and Baker’s intermediary. For whatever reason, Baker considers him to be nonaligned, a neutral third party. Maybe it’s because Milt has been out of the picture for so long, familiar with all the players in the family drama, but not a major participant himself. Above the fray. It was before Baker’s time when Milt walked out on Brenda and Tasha to live with a PhD candidate he’d been shagging named Alex. By the end of that term, Milt was dismissed from the faculty at Western’s Psychology Department for “conducting an inappropriate relationship with a student” and forced to find a position at the University of Toronto. He stayed away from London after that, returning only for Tasha’s wedding, where he managed to charm his new son-in-law and drive Brenda to drink after almost two full years of sobriety. He didn’t appear again until Charlotte phoned him out of desperation three weeks ago. She’d just learned from a barely coherent Tasha that Jake was in a coma after getting into some of her hydromorphone capsules. Meanwhile, Brenda was near death’s door, nearer than anyone realized, as it turned out. It was all too much for Charlotte to deal with on her own. Milt answered the call, riding in on his white horse, taking up his role as the concerned father as if he’d never abandoned it. Charlotte’s not sure what she or Tasha would have done without him. That said, she can’t help but feel that he’s taking advantage of Brenda’s death in order to reinsert himself into Tasha’s life, whether Tasha truly wants that or not.

Over the supper, they make small talk. Milt comments on the new twenty-nine-story condo going up across the street from Charlotte’s. He says the downtown sure looks different. A lot more tall buildings. When he left town, they were still putting up the arena. Charlotte says that she’s seen Sting, Leonard Cohen, and Ray Charles there, acts that would have never passed through town before it opened. She adds that Friday nights during hockey season are particularly busy when the Knights play. Tasha doesn’t say much. She picks at her food. Charlotte suggests they all go for dim sum tomorrow. Milt thinks it’s a great idea. Although they don’t say it, they suspect that Tasha will need some comfort food after her visit with Jake in the morning, and in this family, dim sum is definitely comfort food. Tasha smiles and agrees, although Charlotte can see that her heart isn’t really in it.

Author's note: Each chapter adopts the point of view of one of four characters: Milt, Charlotte, Baker, or Tasha.
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