The waiting room was crowded. John shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He did not want to be there. But he had no choice.
After his latest drunk driving arrest, the court had ordered him to see a counselor. And to stop drinking, of course. The former he could do, albeit with ill grace. The latter, however, was beyond him. He could no more quit drinking than he could stop breathing.
He’d tried everything – rehab, therapy, AA - nothing had worked. The problem, he supposed, was he simply had no desire to stop, despite the mounting consequences. So he kept his appointments with the counselor but still slipped into the restroom for a bite of his hip-flask beforehand.
As they’d taught him in AA, he was powerless. So why not just embrace it?
The booze was starting to take hold, working its anesthetic magic and soothing John’s troubled thoughts, when a familiar figure strode into the waiting room. Bob Thompson had been a childhood friend of John’s. They’d grown up together and had wondered inadvertently down the path of alcoholism in tandem in their twenties. They’d attempted sobriety together as well, often attending AA meetings and then stopping by the pub on the way home afterward.
Two years ago now, Bob had suddenly, inexplicably, gotten sober. He’d always seemed reluctant to talk about his experience, saying simply that he’d realized that drinking wasn’t worth it. Whatever that meant.
He’d had just the one slip when his wife died, but since then he’d remained firmly on the wagon.
Given this divergence of paths, it was only natural that the two had grown apart. John hadn’t seen him in ages before their chance encounter in the waiting room. Bob really did have his shit together – he informed his old friend that not only was he still sober, but he was working in the recovery business as well. He didn’t have to ask John how he was. It was clear from his disheveled appearance, and the reek of vodka upon him, that he wasn’t good.
“You need help, John,” Bob unceremoniously informed his former drinking buddy, “and I think I can assist.”
Great, John thought, another program. Just what he needed.
Bob handed him a black business card. Emblazoned on the front in red was the word ‘Stop-Starters’. On the back was an address in the city. That was all.
“Go see these guys. Their methods are rather unconventional, but they work. They helped me get off the sauce, so I’d know.”
In the days that followed, John forgot about the interaction in the waiting room. It was only weeks later, when Carla, his wife, found his stash of empty bottles and threatened to leave him if he didn’t sober up, that he recalled the business card and Bob’s advice.
It was time, he decided, to pay Stop-Starters a visit.
The woman behind the massive desk had a distinct no-nonsense look about her. She wore a tailored business suit and her dark hair was tied in a severe bun that stretched her facial features taught. This would probably have made smiling difficult, but her cold eyes gave John the impression that was something she seldom did.
The process of joining Stop-Starters was simple. There was an intake questionnaire, and tons of paperwork to sign. Seeing how John had recently visited the men’s room with his trusty hip-flask, he was in no state to read, let alone attempt to understand, the legalese. The most important thing, as far as he was concerned, was that the fee was reasonable. Surprisingly so.
After the admin was complete, the woman, who introduced herself simply as Alison, spoke. ”Just to confirm, Mr. Williams, you’re certain you want to stop drinking for good? You’re willing to do whatever it takes?”
John had heard it all before in rehab and gave the standard confirmation by way of reply.
“Very well then. Welcome to Stop-Starters. We guarantee that you won’t drink again. Ever. Good luck.”
“Hang on, that’s it? There’s no program? Meetings? Therapy?”
“Oh, no, Mr. Williams. Our approach is more direct. Its all in the paperwork you just signed, but allow me to explain. Human behavior is governed by incentives. There is nothing a person won’t do if the reward is great enough. We make use of this to ensure our clients' recovery.”
“So you’ll reward me for not drinking?”
“Not quite. Incentives come in two forms, you see. Positive and negative. We use the latter, providing you with a powerful disincentive for drinking.”
“You’ll punish me if I drink?” John chuckled. “And how does that work, exactly?”
“It’s quite simple, Mr. Williams. We have a two-strike system. The first time you slip up, we’ll kill your wife. Drink again, and we’ll kill you. It’s all part of the agreement you just signed. You really should have read it.”
John waited for the punchline, but he waited in vain. Alison was apparently serious.
As he was leaving, she added, as if she could read his thoughts, “And now that you’re committed there’s no backing out, Mr. Williams.”
“Kind of like the IRA?” he asked, attempting a joke. “Once in, never out?”
“Exactly,” she confirmed without even the hint of a smile. She then nodded once to underscore the finality of her words.
The gesture also served as a curt dismissal.
On the drive home, John struggled to get his head around what he’d just heard. Surely the woman hadn’t been serious?
He then recalled that it was his old friend Bob who’d pointed him towards Stop-Starters.
Bob, who’d been sober ever since his last slip.
When his wife died.
What was it he’d said? Their methods are rather unconventional, but they work.
John’s hands began to shake and a cold sweat formed on his brow. What had he gotten himself into? He suddenly needed a drink. Badly.
He pulled up outside the nearest liquor store, grabbed a bottle of Russian Bear off the shelf, and made his way to the counter to pay for his purchase. On the way, he noticed a man in a three-piece suit watching him. The fellow was grinning and on his lapel was a black pin featuring only two letters, printed in red.
The man tipped him a wink.
Abandoning the bottle, John fled the store in panicked haste. He wasn’t sure how it was possible, but, somehow, they were watching him. Waiting for him to slip up. He hadn’t really planned to stop drinking. It was important to go through the motions, to make an effort so that everyone around him could at least say, Oh, well, he tried, but deep down, he knew he’d never be able to stop.
The stakes had suddenly become astronomically high.
John had to stay sober now as if his life, as well as his wife’s, depended on it.
Because they did.
A few weeks passed. They were difficult ones for John. He wanted desperately to drink, but every time the thought crossed his mind it seemed he’d see some stranger or another sporting the ubiquitous SS logo. So, he gritted his teeth and pushed through the days, stone-cold sober for the first time in years. In AA they refer to this practice as “white-knuckling it” which was an apt description because that’s exactly how it felt to John.
One evening he was attending a business function and the dinner on offer was a set menu. The first course was clams smothered in a white wine sauce. He thoroughly enjoyed his starter. It was only after he’d finished it that he realized that the sauce had contained alcohol. While, technically, it wasn’t a relapse – he hadn’t willingly taken a drink, after all – he wasn’t sure the ever-present Stop-Starters watchers would agree.
And Carla was at home.
Excusing himself from the function, John raced for his car. As he pulled up to the house, he saw an old Ford pickup in the driveway. There was a black bumper sticker on the rear fender.
He burst into the house and sprinted to the kitchen, where he could hear low voices. Carla was bent over a large pot, cooking dinner. Behind her stood Bob, John’s old friend, and the cause of his present predicament. Bob had a large buck knife in his hands, raised high above his head, poised to strike at John’s unsuspecting wife.
They both noticed John’s arrival at the same time.
“Honey?” Carla was surprised to see him. Ignoring her, he marched across the kitchen, grabbed hold of Bob’s arm, and pulled him out of the room before his wife could see the deadly blade, muttering something about needing to speak to his old buddy in private.
Out on the patio, John rounded furiously on his former friend. “Bob, what the hell? You work for them?”
Bob only smiled in reply.
“Christ! It wasn’t even a drink, okay? I had no idea about the wine in the sauce. Be reasonable here, for God's sake!”
“Sorry, Johnny-boy, a deals a deal. You were careless.” Bob seemed to consider for a moment before continuing, sheathing the knife as he did so. “I’m feeling generous, though. I’ll let you off this time, but only because we go way back. No more freebies. Next time, it’s – “ he made a slitting motion across his throat, nodding towards the kitchen.
His meaning was clear enough. Stop-Starters was serious.
After he got rid of Bob, John returned to the kitchen.
“What was that all about, honey?" Carla asked. "Bob just dropped in, unannounced. Said he wanted to stay for dinner. I thought it strange, but we haven’t seen him in ages. And he’s doing so well, I’m very proud of him.” She paused to light a cigarette. “And of you, too, John. You haven’t had a drink in weeks!” She regarded her cigarette wistfully. “Now if only I could quit smoking, we’d be a substance-free family.” She wasn’t being serious; Carla had been battling the butts all her adult life and John knew she’d never give them up.
He appreciated the sentiment, though – he’d been urging her to quit for years, but seeing how he’d been unable to stop drinking, he was hardly in a position to press the issue. And now that he had gained the moral high ground, he had more urgent concerns.
He made some remark about Bob having to rush off for a work emergency but told Carla that, since he hadn’t eaten much at the function, he still needed dinner so her cooking wouldn’t go to waste.
John wasn’t able to enjoy the meal, though. He couldn’t get Bob’s ominous words out of his head. No more freebies.
And he knew, as an alcoholic, that white-knuckling it could only last so long. Sooner or later the compulsion to take a drink would become overwhelming.
That time came several months later, as John knew it would. He’d been walking the tightrope of sobriety diligently, but the urge to drink was ever-present. As were the Stop-Starters watchers.
Since he’d given up the bottle, he and Carla’s relationship had improved immeasurably. He was rediscovering why he loved her; why they’d gotten married in the first place. He couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to her.
But neither could he resist the temptation to drink.
Something had to give.
The tipping point came after a particularly stressful day at work. John left the office early and took a cab out of the city, all the way out into the countryside, to a rustic old pub in the middle of nowhere.
The parking lot was deserted, as was the highway wich stretched to the horizon on either side. Not a car in sight.
John was alone.
He was certain he hadn’t been followed, and he’d left his cellphone back at the office. Nobody knew where he was. And nobody would know if he had a drink.
Just one, for old time’s sake. God knew, after months on the wagon, he’d earned it.
The interior of the pub was just as deserted, save for an old cowboy who was fiddling with the ancient jukebox in the corner, his back to the door. He didn’t look up as John entered and made his way to a corner table in the back of the room. As a waitress approached, John’s mouth began to water. He’d waited so long for this moment. How sweet it would be, that familiar burn followed by smooth oblivion.
He was trying to decide what to order – he was torn between going for his old stand-by, vodka neat, or maybe warming up with a beer – when a song began to play on the jukebox. The cowboy had made his selection: it was that old one by The Police.
Every breath you take… every move you make…
The man, now walking over to the bar, fixed John with a stare. He was grinning wickedly, but his eyes were cold as death. The SS pendant around his neck glinted ominously in the overhead fluorescents.
“What can I get you?” the waitress asked. She, too, sported a sickly smile and after asking her innocent question she gave John a wink.
He only just made it outside in time before he collapsed on the gravel parking lot and threw up violently.
I’ll be watching you….
He shuddered uncontrollably as the words of the song, with their dreadful new meaning, ran through his head.
The fact of it was undeniable: they really were everywhere.
And they were watching.
Following his unnerving experience in that out of town pub, John experienced something of a shift. He realized, once and for all, that he could never drink again. The period that followed wasn’t easy for him – there were good days and many more bad ones – but he held fast to his firm resolve to stay away from alcohol, no matter what.
Gradually, with time, it got easier.
His burning desire to drink, while never banished entirely, faded to the point where he was able to get on with his life without being crippled by the obsession.
When the urge did rear its ugly head and threatened to overwhelm him, he only had to think of the image of Bob, standing poised to stab Carla in their kitchen, or of the words of that song he’d come to loathe. That usually did the trick.
He no longer bore any animosity towards his old friend. Bob was the reason for his sobriety, after all, along with all its attendant gifts, not least of which was his ever-improving relationship with his lovely wife.
Things, it seemed, had worked out for the best.
On the day of the one year anniversary of his sobriety, John was driving home from work when he received a text from Carla. She said she had a big surprise for him. She also asked him to pick up a box of smokes for her on his way home, which he did.
He walked through the front door, greeting her with a kiss, and handed her the pack of Marlboros. “So, what’s my surprise?” he asked.
“Oh, John, I know how much you want me to stop smoking,” she replied, “so I’ve decided to quit, once and for all.” As she said this, she was opening the pack of cigarettes, extracting one and placing it between her lips. “I figured if you could stop drinking, then I could give up my addiction, too.”
He regarded his wife quizzically. “Um… good for you, honey. How're you going to do it?”
“The same way you did, of course. I found that old business card you had in your drawer. I visited Stop-Starters today, paid the fee, and signed all the paperwork. I’m officially on the program. Isn’t that great?”
For John, this news was definitely not great, seeing as his wife was in the process of raising her lighter to ignite the tip of the cigarette in her mouth.
“Don’t!” he yelled.
Carla lowered the lighter, regarding her husband strangely. The cigarette remained mercifully unlit. “What’s wrong, John?”
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” he babbled, on the verge of hysteria. “Carla, if you signed up with Stop-Starters you can’t smoke. Ever again! Didn’t they tell you what would happen if – “
“Don’t be silly, dear. You’re overreacting. Of course they told me. Very dramatic, I must say. Not sure if I believe them, myself. But it hardly matters. I fully intend to quit tomorrow. I just wanted one last smoke, you know, for old times sake. Nobody will ever know. It’s not like they’re watching or anything. Relax, it’ll be fine.”
She then lit her cigarette, inhaled deeply, and breathed out a plume of smoke, sighing with satisfaction. “God I’ll miss these.”
A sick dread overcame John. His bowels turned to water and he found himself scarcely able to breathe; his windpipe had narrowed to a pinprick.
Carla added, almost as an afterthought, “Oh, and John? Bob called earlier to say he was going to drop by tonight. I expect he’ll be here any minute. You’d better go freshen up. And maybe take an aspirin or two, you’re not looking well. You’re as white as a sheet all of a sudden.”
John could not reply.
He stood rooted to the spot in stunned disbelief, his heart trip-hammering away at an alarming rate. He knew he should run while there was still time, but he found himself utterly incapable of movement.
There he remained, even as he heard the sound of a car pulling up in the driveway outside.
And then came the knock at the door.
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As you were digging through my archives, I decided to have a look through some of your past stories too. I’m really happy I did! This is a fantastic story with a very simple premise that you executed brilliantly. I love how creepy the Stop Starter (also loved that this was abbreviated to SS!) employees are and how terrifying everything is. I also really like the way that you left the ending! Great writing.
I think I played a bit fast-and-loose with the prompt on this one. I believe it was: write a story that takes place in a waiting room. Not: write a story that makes passing reference to a waiting room scene and then goes off and mentions many other things, none of which are waiting rooms. But after starting it took on a life of its own and I got dragged along with it. I’m very glad you enjoyed it.
I have to say, I didn’t even look at the prompt. It might not have hit it but it was a great story nevertheless! I wonder how effective it would be in real life? Not a business venture anyone should pursue but still... I bet it would work!
This was a great read! Reminds me of “The Black Mirror.” You have a really nice grasp of the form. Builds curiosity, then suspense, then a slow burn at the end. Well done, looking forward to reading more!
Thank you. I love taking normal situations to their absurd extreme. Glad you enjoyed it.
Oh dear! Poor John. This story was HILARIOUS. Full disclosure: I couldn't help but giggle hysterically when he panicked in the end. And his friend seemed nefariously funny. And his naive wife! Even the attendant's dialogues were comical. "It’s all part of the agreement you just signed. You really should have read it.” How straightforward! Your sense of humour is perfect! I'd love to see a short film made on this. I really admire your writing style, it seems to be casually formal, while being endlessly amusing. Great!
Wow. All I can say is wow. That story shook me from my core. Well done.
Thank you. It was lots of fun to write. Glad you enjoyed it.
Perfect pitch black humor. Needed this story in my life — so thanks 🙏🏻 For some reason it reminds me of The Platform (on Netflix, of course.) Social commentary. Big Brother. Your Orwellian is showing....