Chapter 5

Albie was released from the hospital on Thursday afternoon. Nap showed up with Raj to take him home, Raj driving Albie's car. Their wives brought casseroles and other treats to make sure he continued to eat. It was good to be home and Albie noticed that the house had been cleaned and the laundry done in his absence. Clean sheets were on his bed and he thanked his friends and their wives for helping him out in his time of need.

But they had their own lives to lead with family responsibilities and other commitments and soon Albie was alone in the house, continuing to build back his strength. He had enough sick and vacation time accrued to stay home for two years but he hoped to be back at work by Monday, although he had to beg out of Saturday's round of golf. Albie was feeling sad as he sat around the house alone. His wife had been dead fourteen years now and he still wasn't used to her being gone.

Having Kirstin reenter his life in such an unconventional way, however briefly, left him thinking about his first romance – although it really wasn't a relationship. They had sex and a few good times, two lost and unhappy teenagers who managed to find each other for a short time.

He hadn't thought about those times in years but now he couldn't stop thinking about them – and her. He thought about returning to the hospital, maybe asking her to share a cup of coffee with him in the hospital cafeteria during her break, but what would be the point? Leave the past in the past.

It was Sunday afternoon. Albie was sprawled out on the couch watching the baseball game on the tube when the front doorbell rang. He assumed it was the guys stopping by to razz him and he was surprised at how weak he still felt as he pulled himself off the couch and headed for the door. The last person he expected to see when he opened the door was Kirstin. She was wearing a pretty summer dress with a straw hat and sandals.

"Hi, Albie," she said.

"Kirstin," he said.

She lifted her eyebrow and Albie couldn't help but laugh.

"Come in," he said, stepping back.

Kirstin stepped into the house and glanced around. "It looks different."

"I had work done after my mother died," Albie explained. "Modernized it. Updated it."

"It looks nice."

"I bought my sister out after my mother died," he said as they walked into the open living room. "I sold my house and moved in here."

"For the memories?"

"Too many reminders of my wife at the other place," Albie admitted.

Kirstin went to the window and stared at her father's old house next door.

"A young family with a couple of kids live there now," Albie told her.

"I'm glad," she smiled. "My step mother died last year," she said. "Jodie's out in Colorado, married with a couple of kids. My father's on his fourth marriage, believe it or not."

"And your mom?" Albie asked.

"Doing incredibly well," Kirstin said with amusement. "She's been sober longer than I've been clean. She lives in a retirement community. Very happy. Volunteers. Gives back. It's been very inspiring."

"Good for her!" Albie remarked.

Kirsten turned and looked at him. "What happened to your wife?"

"Car accident," he sighed from where he stood by the couch. "We'd only been married three years."

"I'm so sorry," Kirstin said with sincerity.

"Thanks," he said.

"My life before I got clean is a painful haze," she told him as she crossed the room and sat on the couch. "My life as a junkie was shameful and horrible. Forever chasing the rush of that elusive first high but never again discovering the perfect hit. For years, I was barely human and not much else."

Albie sat on the couch next to her. "I didn't know about the drugs," he said.

"It was just the next logical step in my quest for escape and distraction looking for some senseless path of existence bordering on the psychopathic," Kirstin said. "It was a sick and twisted ritual that became less appealing but I couldn't stop. My reality was scrambled and I thought that made me happy. I had become my own monster that haunted my life."

"But you got clean," Albie said. "How'd it happen?"

"My mother took my daughter from me through the court system," Kirstin revealed. "My alcoholic mother cared enough to get sober so she could save my own child when she realized she couldn't save me." She looked at Albie with wide eyes. "How could that not move me?"

"So you got clean."

"It took a while," she sighed. "Had to get away from my husband who was just as messed up as me. Couple of different rehab stints. Three months in jail. But yeah, I finally got it together, went back to school, got my nursing degree, turned my life around, got my daughter back, reunified with my mother, and now here I am. Living my second chance."

"Congratulations," he smiled. "And how's your daughter doing?"

"Very well, thanks," Kirstin smiled. "She's in college, working hard, very happy. I'm grateful I didn't mess her up too badly."

"I'm sure she sees your strength of character," Albie said.

"Don't you want to know what I'm doing here?" Kirstin asked, lifting her eyebrow in that inquisitive way of hers.

"Did the hospital billing department send you?" Albie joked.

"You really didn't know it was me in the ICU?" She asked.

"Not until you took your mask off," Albie confirmed.

"I got to see you through a different set of eyes behind that mask," She explained. "And when there was a chance you might die I felt all sorts of guilt, remorse and regret thinking back on how I treated you. You were the only guy who ever acted like you cared about me."

"I did care," Albie said.

"I know," Kirstin said. She glanced away for a moment before looking back at him. "Do you still care?"

"Yes," Albie answered and she slumped against him with gratitude.

"I was hoping so," She said with relief.

She stood from the couch and walked around the house appreciating the changes and updates. She laughed when she glanced out the new sliding glass door off the remodeled kitchen and saw the above ground swimming pool behind a large fence at the end of a new deck off the house.

"That's not the same swimming pool i

"No," Albie grinned. "The old one split down the side one winter several years ago."

Kirstin nodded and stared at the pool.

"Would you like to go for a swim?" Albie asked hopefully.

Kirstin looked at him and laughed. "I didn't bring a suit," she said with a smirk.

"I know," Albie beamed.

"No more masks?" Kirstin wanted to know, sounding serious.

"You took your mask off for me before," he reminded her.

"True," she said, opening the sliding glass door to head for the pool. "I took my clothes off for you too," she giggled.