A Triptych Tale …

Sober Kevin Is a Bitch

A Triptych Tale

 

“Why don’t you do all of us a favor and drink yourself to death,” Sober Kevin says as I stumble into the bathroom. I’m coming down hard from partying and his disapproving face is the last thing I want to see before I brush my teeth. Also, there’s barely enough space for one in here. “You even remember what you did last night?”

I rub my face; my eyes feel like cement. “I had a few beers with Jai and Rob. Chill.”

I’m pretty sure Sober Kevin is a hallucination — a side effect of the vacay — and not the harbinger of holocausts he claims to be. I reach for my toothbrush and see two sitting on the sink: one green, one purple. I flick the purple one and it disappears (hopefully, before Sober Kevin spotted it.)

“And eight hits of vacay,” Sober Kevin says, holding an impromptu arraignment while standing in my mold-scummed tub. In case I lost count (which I did, but I’d hardly admit that to him) he repeats, “Eight.

Fuck. Eight? That’s a lot even for me. No wonder my memory’s done a fade to black. I step in front of the toilet and unzip. “How about some privacy?”

“How about not collapsing the multiverse?” he says, staying right where he is.

“I’m not the only ah —” he almost tricks me into saying addict “— um, guy who pops vacay. I don’t see you haunting them.” Sober Kevin thinks the drug is destroying the folds of my brain that keep the alternate universes where they belong. He claims I’m a black hole in the making. Says the only way to get rid of him and his bitching is to stop doing vacay and hope the pockets heal themselves. Sober Kevin implies it may already be too late. Whether he means for me or the multiverse I’m not sure.

“I get you don’t give a rat’s ass about yourself, but try not to fuck it up for the rest of us.” Sober Kevin is a fan of tough love. He gets that from our dad. Or maybe from me. I mean, I know I’m crap, but it hurts he thinks it, too. Has me scouting the sink for a not-yet-emptied bottle.

He steps out of the tub and elbows me in the back as he strides out of the bathroom, which fucks my aim some. “You might want to take a shower,” he calls over his shoulder. “Your mom’s on her way over.”

“You even remember what you did last night?”

Did I mention Sober Kevin can see the future?

I almost don’t shower. Mom’s good for some easy cash, and likely to hand over more the worse I look. It’s supposed to go toward rent or food, an interview suit (as if that’d ever happen) or new shoes. It tends to get spent on other things. I feel bad about that, just not bad enough to stop. But I clean myself up best I can (I’m out of soap and no matter how hard I squint none appears on the tub’s rim) because I don’t want to give Sober Kevin another thing to complain about. Man rides my ass enough.

I’m barely dry before I start to feel rough; clean on the outside (well, relatively) isn’t the same as clean inside and my insides itch. I start poking around the apartment, trying to play it cool, checking my stashes, but goddamn Sober Kevin has cleaned me out. He watches from a tatty green sofa as I prowl around the room. “I can’t find my watch — you know, the one Mom gave me for graduation,” I say.

He smirks. “You pawned it. And you can stop looking. It’s all gone. Every last drop, every bitty pill.”

I’m still searching when Mom calls from the street, asking if it’s OK to come inside. “Yes, yeah, it’s fine,” I tell her and look over to find Sober Kevin gone. He doesn’t stick around when I have company. Either he’s worried someone will ask questions about us or my brain can’t maintain the illusion with an audience.

Mom wants to take me to lunch, but I tell her I already ate. She pretends to believe me, her eyes scanning for paraphernalia, her nose wrinkling at my lies. “I’m doing better,” I say and she nods, but without conviction: she’s heard this song before. Before I can push harder, open those purse strings, Sober Kevin walks out of the bathroom. My breath catches on a wad of spit.

… I don’t want to give Sober Kevin another thing to complain about.

“Oh, I — didn’t know you had company. He — hel — hello?” She sounds confused. I think: Shit. How’ll I explain this? Hey, Mom. This is your son from an alternate universe. He’s a better version of me. Why don’t you take him home and you both can live happily ever after at least until my brain rots and we all fall down?

Sober Kevin marches over, wearing his off-the-rack suit, and says, “Keep the twenty in your purse. You’re not helping. He won’t ever get better with you babying him.” Then he leaves the apartment, both of us staring after him.

“Is he your sponsor, honey?” She grips her purse like I’m a potential mugger.

“My what?” I stare at her now. Realize she didn’t recognize him. Our own mother. How could she not see? “Do you have a mirror?” I ask her because I smashed all mine when Sober Kevin first started visiting.

She gives me a strange look, but digs into her purse and hands me a compact. I eye myself. Here I thought Sober Kevin and I were twinsies and we look nothing alike.

I can almost see the holes in my brain. “He didn’t look familiar to you?”

“No.” She peers into me. “Is he a friend from high school? He looks like a nice boy.”

I laugh. “It’s OK. I didn’t know him at first either.”

Mom palms me money when she leaves and I go straight to the liquor store. Can’t quite drink myself to death on a twenty, but it’s a start. When Jai calls, I smash my phone until it stops ringing. Immediately, I regret it. The alcohol isn’t touching me. I need some vacay to smooth the edges.

I get as far as the door. Remember Sober Kevin storming out. Did he go back to his world? Is he done with me?

If I take some vacay, he’ll have to come back. I open the door. He’ll —

Sober Kevin is standing on the other side of the door. “Going somewhere?” he asks. His eyes flick like whips over me. If he could kill me, I’d be dead. Good thing he can’t. I once asked why he didn’t just end me and fix everything, and he told me any fix in my world had to be DIY. “Self-murder is its own avalanche,” he said, “and I don’t want to be buried with you.”

The alcohol isn’t touching me. I need some vacay to smooth the edges.

Sometimes, I think I keep pushing to see how far he’ll let me go before he takes the multiverse’s fate into his own hands. I’m sensing Sober Kevin may be at the end of his rope and I’m going to be the one who gets hanged.

I step back. “I thought for sure she’d know you were me.”

“She hasn’t seen this you in a long time.” His voice is quiet, sad. “It’s not just us you’re destroying. It’s everyone. Don’t you get that yet?”

“Mom’s not —”

“Did you even look at her? That woman is worn out. All she does is worry. It’s eating her up and if you don’t stop, if she doesn’t let go, she’s going to lose her entire family. Your sister already resents her. Your dad’s going to leave her. She’s going to die in an apartment not that different from this one and as soon as you hear, you’ll be over there scrounging whatever cash she has lying around.”

“I wouldn’t —”

Sober Kevin talks over me. He’s on a roll. “And since you don’t find much, you steal her debit card and empty her bank account. You get so high you miss the funeral. But you tell yourself that’s OK because everyone blamed her dying on you anyways and attending would just make them mad. And when you finally get a moment of clarity and realize your mother is dead — Your. Mother. Is. Gone — the only reason you feel sad is because there’s no one left to palm you twenties.”

I slump on the couch and think how nice some vacay would feel right now.

“If you were dead,” Sober Kevin whispers, “your mom would be set free. She’d be sad, really sad, cry her heart out for days sad. But eventually she’d move on. And your sister would name one of her kids after you and your mom would play with her grandchildren and think of you, but she’d only remember the good times. She’d tell everyone about our smile and how it lit up a room and she’d say, ‘Baby Kevin smiles just like that.’”

“That’s not true,” I tell him. “You’re making that up. My family wouldn’t be happier without me.”

“Wouldn’t they?”

We search each other for the truth.

“If I got clean, they’d —”

Sober Kevin sighs. Sits next to me. “But that’s the hitch, isn’t it? You can’t stay clean. How many times has Mommy paid for rehab?”

I push myself off the cushions. “You think if you make me mad enough I’ll stop the vacay just to get rid of you. But I could just as easily up the vacay and kill us both.”

"You can’t stay clean. How many times has Mommy paid for rehab?”

“All,” he says. “Kill us all. Just like you did Livvie.”

“Livvie is dead?” My heart lurches. Sober Kevin starts.

“I thought that’s why —” His eyes glaze like he’s trying to sort time lines. It’s the first time he’s been wrong. I wonder if that means the multiverse is melting into a giant puddle of brain goop. “Sorry, those are different Kevins. You’re the my-girlfriend-broke-up-with-me-after-I-broke-my-leg-in-a-DUI-accident-and-I-got-hooked-on-painkillers-to-cope Kevin.”

My arms flail, my skin feels too tight. Livvie dead. I picture her standing in my bedroom, tears on her cheeks, saying, “Kevin, my parents don’t want me to see you. I don’t want to see you.” I picture her lying in a coffin, organ music playing. I could’ve killed her. Killed us both.

Somewhere I did.

That gives me a squirmy feeling in my head: somewhere there is a Kevin worse than me. I’m a mix of tiny jubilation and sick disgust.

I force myself back on the couch. “Tell me about the other Kevins.” It’s the first time I’ve asked.

“We’re all the same person. One Kevin. Just our lives are different. Sometimes really different, sometimes only a little different. Anything a Kevin can do, at least one of us has experienced or will experience. We’re sort of a sequence of options. Or a spiral of consequences. Either way, we exist side by twisting side, ad infinitum.”

“Somewhere I’m clean.”

“Somewhere you never drank at that party. Somewhere you’re deciding whether or not to drink at that party.” He shrugs. “Somewhere you and Livvie never met.”

“Maybe I’m just Junkie Kevin. Maybe that’s all I can be. Maybe I’m supposed to end us, maybe I’m meant to be Black Hole Kevin.”

Sober Kevin shakes his head. Opens his mouth to speak, then laughs.

He’s laughing at me. Maybe at himself, but that’s the same thing, isn’t it? “What?”

“I was just thinking how much easier this’d be for you to understand if you were high.”

And I laugh, too. Because he’s right.

“Listen,” he says, “you can’t think of it as Good Kevin/Bad Kevin. We’re a sum greater than its parts thing. All of us can be better. All of us should be better. Life is us trying to be the best version of me we can be. But it isn’t a competition. There isn’t one winner. We all win. Every time one of us does better, we all do better.” He doesn’t say: Every time one of us fails, we all get dragged down in your muck, dickhead. Sober Kevin has morphed into Cheerleader Kevin.

“Are you high?” I ask and he smiles — small, but it counts. Then his face gets grim. He grabs my hand and holds it. It’s indescribable to have my hand in my hand. I’m so busy sorting the feeling, I almost miss his next words.

“I know.” His words imply deep, dark secrets are going to spill out. I want nothing more than to dam up his mouth, brick it shut.

What do you know?” My words are a warning: no trespassing, keep out. Silly for me to think Sober Kevin can only see the future.

Every time one of us fails, we all get dragged down in your muck, dickhead.

“I know why. I know the secrets you keep and how hard it is to keep them. I know how sick it makes you feel. I shouldn’t have said that thing about you being the broken-leg, painkiller-addict Kevin. I do that to keep the details straight. So you believe me when I tell you about your life. Because if I get one thing wrong, Addict You will jump all over it. Go on, admit it. Minute I messed up about Livvie, you thought I was all bullshit and were ready to go out and score.”

He’s wrong about that — mostly — but, fuck him, I’m not about to play dig up the past and guess the rotting parts. I try to take my hand back, but he won’t let go. “Don’t do this,” I tell him. “I can’t do this now.” My skin is already trying to crawl off my bones; my stomach clenches tight around sharp, calcified marbles of disgust and fear and hate, wants to throw them up, but I can’t. I can’t.

“OK,” he says, grip still tight, still solid and sure. “But hear this, hang onto this part because it will help so much. The ’verses run at different speeds. We exist concurrently, but we’re not all the same age. In some lives, Kevin is just turning thirteen. He plays baseball, not soccer.”

“Don’t talk about soccer. Don’t.”

“He’s never met —”

“Stop.”

He doesn’t. Sober Kevin never knows when to shut up. “He never will. He won’t be trapped in that room, forced —”

I scream and wrench my hand away. The pain is so intense I think I’ve ripped my hand off, then realize the pain is all on the inside. “Shut up!” I yell, curling into a ball and rolling to the floor. “Shut! Up!”

Sober Kevin hugs himself around me. “That Kevin doesn’t have to go through what we went through. If you collapse the multiverse,” he says, “that Kevin never gets the chance to be happy.”

I’m shaking and choking on tears and I want nothing more than for him to stop talking. His words are tripping memories in my head. Memories I want to shove into those black-hole fissures he’s so fucking worried will swallow us all. Fuck, I want to shove him into those pockets.

“Somewhere you’ve already done this.”

That doesn’t help.

“When you tell your family — when —” He’s vehement that this will happen, here in my life. “They’ll understand. And your sister won’t have to name her kid after you because she has you. Do you hear me? She has you.”

He’s vehement that this will happen, here in my life.

I’m not sure if I’m collapsing the multiverse or just collapsing, but I black out hearing Sober Kevin insist, “You have you.” When I wake, he’s gone.

But I’m still here.

I feel like shit, but I’m here.

“It’s over,” I remind myself. “It’s over.” And that helps. I half-remember Sober Kevin whispering those same words in my ear, but maybe that was a dream.

I go to a meeting, then rehab. I get sober. Stay clean. Move into a new apartment. Meet a girl. Wonder why Sober Kevin never told me about her, understand why he didn’t: he didn’t want me dragging Aimee down with us. I don’t want that either. I worry that somewhere that’s exactly what happened/is happening/will happen. But life is getting good, going good.

Then one day, I head into the men’s room at work (I’m in insurance) and end up in my old apartment, or at least a close, smelly clone. The couch is plaid instead of green and the window has a blanket instead of a sheet draping it. There’s a naked Kevin crouched on an air mattress that’s mostly deflated and he’s about to take a vacation.

I slap the pills out of his hand. I don’t want to be back here. I can’t be back here. “Stop it! You’re killing yourself! You’re killing all of us!” I wail. Jesus Christ, no wonder Sober Kevin hated my ass so bad. He had a life, a job, an Aimee waiting for him in their nice, pine-scented home and he kept ending up in mine. I want to kill this dumb motherfucker in front of me, but remember Sober Kevin said that won’t work.

“Dude,” this Kevin mumbles, peering up at me with bleary, red-rimmed eyes, “don’t be such a bitch.”

H.L. Fullerton writes fiction — mostly speculative, occasionally about other universes — which is sometimes published in places like Daily Science Fiction, Urban Fantasy Magazine, Freeze Frame Fiction, and AE.