The east caldwell community center was located between Caldie Pizza & Mexican and the Caldwell Tennis Academy, over on Baxter Avenue. Housed in a big old farmhouse that had been built way back when the surrounding acreage had been used to grow corn, the place had a nice front lawn and a flagpole and some swing sets out back.
When Phury materialized behind the facility, all he could think about was getting gone again. He checked his watch. Ten minutes.
Ten minutes of having to make himself stay.
God, he wanted a red smoke. His heart was doing laps in his ribs and his palms felt like dripping washcloths and his itchy skin was driving him nuts.
Trying to get out of his body, he looked at the parking lot. Twenty cars were in it, with no pattern in the makes or models. There were trucks and Toyotas and a Saab convertible and a pink VW Bug and three minivans and a MINI Cooper.
He put his hands in his pockets and walked over the grass to the sidewalk that ran around the building. When he reached the asphalt stretch that made up the drive and the parking lot, he took it over to the double doors under the aluminum-sided porte cochere.
Inside, the place smelled like coconut. Maybe from the floor wax on the linoleum.
Just as he was thinking seriously of taking off, a human man stepped out of a doorway, the sound of a toilet flushing fading as the door marked MEN eased shut behind him.
"Are you a friend of Bill W's?" the guy asked as he dried his hands with a paper towel. He had kind brown eyes, like a retriever, and a tweedy jacket that looked heavy for summer. His tie was knit.
"Ah, I don't know."
"Well, if you're looking for the meeting, it's down in the basement." His smile was so natural and easy, Phury nearly returned it before he remembered the dental differences between species. "I'm going there now if you want to come with me. If you want to wait a little, that's fine too."
Phury looked down at the man's hands. He was still drying them, going back and forth, back and forth.
"I'm nervous," the guy said. "Hands are sweaty."
Phury smiled a little. "You know... I think maybe I'll come with you."
"Good. I'm Jonathon."
Phury was glad they didn't shake. He didn't have a paper towel, and his pockets were making his own sweaty palms worse.
The ECCC's basement had cement-block walls that were whitewashed in cream; a floor carpeted in low-napped, high-traffic dark brown; and a lot of fluorescent lights in the low ceiling. Most of the thirty or so chairs that were arranged in a fat circle had someone parked in them, and when Jonathon headed to a vacancy at the center, Phury nodded a see-you-later and took one as close to the door as he could.
"It's nine o'clock," a woman with short black hair said. Getting to her feet, she read off a piece of paper: "Everything that's said here, remains here. When someone is talking, there is no side conversation or cross talk..."
He didn't hear the rest of it because he was too busy checking out who was there. No one else was wearing Aquascutum like he was, and they were all humans. Each one of them. Age range was early twenties to late forties, maybe because the time of day was convenient for folks who worked or went to school.
Staring at the faces, he tried to figure out what each one had done to end up here, in this coconut-smelling, stark basement with their butts planted on black plastic.
He didn't belong here. These were not his people, and not just because none of them had fangs and a problem with sunlight.
He stayed anyway, because he had nowhere else to go, and he wondered whether that could be true for some of them as well.
"This is a speaker group," the woman said, "and tonight Jonathon is going to talk."
Jonathon stood up. His hands were still working the remnants of the paper towel, rubbing back and forth over what was now an impacted Bounty cigar.
"Hi, my name is Jonathon." A pattering of hellos bounced around the room. "And I'm a drug addict. I... I, ah, I used cocaine for about a decade and lost just about everything. I've been to jail twice. I've had to declare bankruptcy. I lost my house. My wife... she, ah, she divorced me and moved out of state with my daughter. Right after that, I lost my job as a physics teacher because I just was going from bender to bender.
"I've been clean since, yeah, last August. But... I still think about using. I live in transitional housing right now because I got through rehab and I have a new job. Started two weeks ago. I'm teaching in a prison, actually. The prison I was an inmate in. Math, it's math." Jonathon cleared his throat. "Yeah... so, ah, one year ago tonight... one year ago tonight I was in an alley downtown. I was making a buy from a dealer and we got caught. Not by the cops. By the guy whose territory we were in. I got shot in the side and the thigh. I..."
Jonathan cleared his throat again. "As I lay there bleeding, I felt my arms get moved around. The shooter took my coat and my wallet and my watch, then he pistol-whipped me in the head. I really... I really shouldn't be here right now." There were a lot of uh-huhs murmured. "I started coming to meetings like this because I had nowhere else to go. Now I choose to come here because I want to be where I am tonight more than I want the high. Sometimes, sometimes that's only by a slim margin, so I don't look into the future any further than next Tuesday at nine o'clock. When I come here again. So, yeah, that's where I've been and where I am."
Jonathon sat back down.
Phury waited for people to pile on with the questions and the comments. Instead, someone else stood up. "Hi, my name is Ellis..."
And that was it. Person after person testifying about their addiction.
When it was nine fifty-three, according to the clock on the wall, the black-haired woman stood up. "And now for the Serenity Prayer."
Phury rose to his feet with the rest of them and was shocked when someone reached for his hand.
His palm wasn't wet anymore, though.
He didn't know whether he was going to make it long-haul. The wizard had been with him a lot of years and knew him like a brother. The one thing he did know was that next Tuesday at nine p.m. he was going to be here again.
He left with the others, and as the night air hit him, he nearly doubled over from the need to light up.
As everyone else scattered to their cars and engines started and headlights came on, he sat on one of the swings with his hands on his knees and his feet planted on the patch of raw earth.
For a second, he thought he was being watched¡ªalthough maybe paranoia was an offshoot of recovery, who the hell knew.
After about ten minutes, he found a dark shadow and dematerialized upstate to Rehv's place.
As he took form behind the Adirondack-style great camp, the first thing he saw was a figure at the sliding glass doors of the den.
Cormia was waiting for him.
Slipping outside, she quietly closed the slider and crossed her arms for warmth. The bulky Irish knit sweater she had on was his, and the leggings had been borrowed from Bella. Her hair was long and loose, down to her hips, and the lights from the house's diamond-pane windows made it glow like gold.
"Hi," she said.
He came forward, moving up the lawn and onto the stone terrace. "You cold?"
"Good, that means I can warm you." He opened his arms, and she stepped into them. Even through the sweater's thick heft, he felt her body against his. "Thank you for not asking how it went. I'm still trying... I don't know what to say, really."
Her hands went from his waist up to his shoulders. "You'll tell me if and when you're ready."
"I'm going back again."
They stood one to the other in the cool night, and they were warm, very warm.
He shifted his lips to her ear and breathed, "I want to be in you."
"Yes..." she replied, drawing out the word.
They would not be alone inside, but they were alone here in the quiet, dark lee of the house. Moving her backward, even deeper into the shadows, he slipped his palms under the lip of his sweater and onto the skin of his shellan. Smooth, warm, vital, she arched under his touch.
"I'll let you keep your top on," he said. "But those tights are going down."
Hooking his thumbs into the waistband, he took them to her ankles and slipped them off her feet.
"You're not cold, are you?" he asked, even though he could feel and catch the scent of the answer.
"Not at all."
The side of the house was stone, but he knew that heavy Irish knit would mattress her shoulders. "Lean back for me."
As she did, he put his arm around her waist to give her more cushioning, and found her breast with his free hand. He kissed her deep and long and slow, and her mouth moved under his in ways that were both familiar and mysterious¡ªbut, then, that was making love with her, wasn't it. By now, he was well acquainted with her from the inside out¡ªthere was nothing of his that hadn't been inside her in one form or another. And yet being with her was as wondrous as the first time.
She was the same, yet she was always new.
And she was aware what this was about. She knew he needed to be in control of them right now, knew he needed to be the driver. At this moment, he wanted to do something that was right and beautiful and do it well, because after that meeting all he could think about was how much ugliness he'd done to himself and to others, and, nearly, to her.
He took his time, with his tongue dipping in and out of her mouth and his hand caressing her breast, and the investments had a dividend that left his erection nearly punching the way out of his pants: Cormia melted in his hold, getting fluid and hot.
His hand drifted downward. "I think I should make sure you're not catching a draft."
"Please... do," she groaned, her head falling to the side.
He wasn't sure whether she exposed her throat on purpose, but his fangs didn't care. They instantly readied for penetration, dropping down from his upper jaw, sharp and hungry.
His hand went between her thighs, and the welling heat he found buckled his knees. He'd meant to keep going slowly, but there would be no more of that.
"Oh, Cormia," he moaned, slipping both his hands around the contours of her hips and picking her up. His body split her thighs wide open. "Undo my pants... Let me out..."
As his bonding scent roared, she released his arousal and linked them up in a glide that was at once effortless and full of power.
Her head fell back as he held her up and worked her body on and off of his. He took her vein as well in a feat of coordination that was easy as pie.
Just as his fangs breached the sweet skin of her neck, her arms tightened on his shoulders, her fists balling up his shirt.
"I love you..."
For a split second, Phury froze.
The moment was so clear to him, everything from the feel of her weight in his palms and her core around his sex and her throat at his mouth to the scent of them coming together and the smell of the forest and the crystal-clear air. He knew the balance between his whole leg and his prosthesis and exactly how his shirt pinched under his arms from her gripping the thing. He knew the pumping of her chest against his own, the beat of both her blood and his, the gathering of erotic tension.
Mostly, though, he knew the cradle of their love for each other.
He couldn't remember anything being this vivid, this real.
This was the gift of recovery, he thought. The ability to be here in this moment with the female he loved and be fully aware, fully awake, fully present. Undiluted.
He thought of Jonathon and the meeting and what the guy had said: I want to be where I am tonight more than I want the high.
Yes. Damn it... yes.
Phury started moving again, taking and giving by turns.
Breathless and straining, he lived as they came together... lived vividly.