Brent Stark liked a lot of things about Austin. He liked the washed Texas sky at dawn, china blue and so big he could lie on a fresh-cut lawn and fly away forever. He liked waking up sober and free. Two huge words for a man who had once lost sight of both. He liked the life he had carved for himself since coming out of those big steel gates, walking under the razor wire that last time, taking that first breath of freedom. He liked having the last of his three penitentiaries a stone's throw away, close enough to remind him whenever that hunger started gnawing at his gut. Which happened less and less these days. But still.
Brent raised his head with the others. Giving thanks was a big part of these dawn AA meetings. All AA meetings followed a similar course, but each held a different makeup. This particular one was unreservedly Christian. Folks who wanted their higher power in more liberal doses were directed elsewhere. This particular meeting was led by the same man who had mentored Brent ever since he had arrived at the Texas federal pen. Stanley Allcott was a former convict himself, and a former pastor. He spoke a con's language, but with a Bible in his hand.
Brent Stark liked this place just fine.
After the closing prayer, Brent was moving down the central aisle when it happened. A woman Brent hadn't noticed before planted herself in his way and declared, "You're him."
Stanley glided over with remarkable swiftness for such a big man. "And you're new, aren't you, ma'am."
"But it's him. The movie star!" She had an alcoholic's ability to laser-focus on what she wanted. She ignored entirely the pastor blocking her path. "Oh, oh, what's your name, it's right hereon the tip of my tongue."
Stanley had a Texan's inbred courtesy. And a pastor's ability to criticize gently. "We don't talk about lives we once had, ma'am. Not unless the other members --- "
"Oh, I know all that." She scrabbled through her purse. "All I want is his autograph."
The group leader inserted himself more completely between Brent and the woman. "We are glad to have you join us. But if you ever want to come again, you'll have to abide by our rules."
"But --- "
"There are no exceptions. Each of us comes in here with a past, and whatever that past may contain, it's confidential unless we choose to share." Stanley displayed his ability to command gently but firmly. "Your only choices are coffee and doughnuts, or the door. Take your pick."
Brent slipped around them and headed for his truck. These days, getting sideswiped by fans mostly happened after they aired one of his films on cable. But his guard was down in the meetings. Especially this morning.
The parking lot was typical for AA, with everything from heaps like his truck to a hundred-thousand-dollar status-on-wheels. Brent rolled down his window in a slow steady motion, his mind caught by recollections of the glory days. Back when he really was what that lady had called him.
The image flashed then. Of that last night, the last drive, and a woman whose hair shone like spun moonlight. That night Celia Breach had laughed from the seat beside him. She laughed a great deal back then, a beckoning sound that gunned his heart rate up to redline and beyond.
In these recollections, Brent always thought she told him to slow down. To pay attention to the road and not to her. Offering advice he had been too stoned to either remember clearly or obey.
Brent shut his eyes and shuddered through the rest of the memory --- a flash of red from an oncoming car, a scream, the wheel spinning from his hands as they jumped the curb and smashed through a picket fence. Suddenly a stucco wall loomed before them, followed by an explosive impact. Then shattering glass, crushing metal, pain…
"You okay there?" The pastor waited for Brent to open his eyes to continue, "Today of all days."
Stanley leaned one elbow on Brent's open window. "We could pack up and leave for the hill country right now."
Two years previously, Brent had been out four months and three days, with six weeks left on his parole. Stanley had displayed a telepath's ability and known Brent stood on the abyss. So he'd packed Brent up and taken him into the most beautiful region of Texas and walked him until Brent had forgotten what day it was. Almost.
Stanley went on, "I've been begging God for a reason to get back up there where a man can breathe easy."
"That was a good day," Brent replied.
"The kind of day we're supposed to focus on." Stanley gave his friend a piercing inspection. "Instead of the regrets, the if-onlys, and the thoughts that stab us in the night."
Stanley Allcott had been out for seven years. He had recently been promoted to associate pastor of the church where this AA meeting took place. He was back in the pulpit again, leading the Wednesday evening services almost against his will. The services were packed.
Brent said, "Thanks, but Liz Courtney invited me to a get-together tonight with some friends."
"What kind of friends?"
"From the amateur theater group. They know who I am, and they know what I've done, and they know I'm clean."
"You sure about that?"
"I'll be fine, Stanley."
His friend patted the truck's side, like he was gentling a restless steer. "You get that itch, I'm five minutes away." Brent started his truck, waved his thanks, and eased his rig out of the lot. He saw his friend standing there still and knew Stanley was praying him away. Brent waved his arm in a Texan farewell, a lazy drift up and back, showing an ease he did not feel. The day ahead was anything but easy. There were too many memories eager to batter him into oblivion.
Five years ago tonight, Brent had stood at the back of a crowd of cons hooting at a television screen housed in a wire cage. He'd watched as his former producer and drinking buddy had walked forward and accepted Brent Stark's Oscar for best supporting actor. On behalf of the pal who was in San Quentin, doing three to ten.
My Soul to Keep