Converted, Part 1

(by sstoryman, 10 July 1997)


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    This story contains adult language and themes. If such language and themes
offend you, please do not read further. Copyright 1997 by SSTORYMAN. All
rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce this story in any form and
for any purpose as long as this notice is reproduced and no financial
remuneration is received, directly or indirectly, by the person reproducing
it.

    CONVERTED

    1. A Grief Observed.

    It was ten o'clock. Dawn was worried because Jim still wasn't home.
Whenever Jim was going to be late, he always called. At 8:30 he'd called and
told her he was leaving the office. So where was he? She tried calling his
office again, and then his cell phone. There was no answer.

    She'd cleaned the entire apartment while she waited for him. She was
sweaty and tired. Jim accused her of being messy by nature. That was true. She
wasn't a neat person. But she wanted to see the look of surprise on his face
when he saw the immaculate apartment. Where was he?

    Dawn paced the floor. She feared something was wrong. But what should she
do? Should she call Jim's parents? No. That was definitely a bad idea. Jim's
mother would worry herself sick. There was nothing to do but wait.

    Suddenly there was a sharp knock on the front door. Looking out the
window, Dawn saw red and blue lights flashing in the parking lot. A feeling of
dread overwhelmed her. She opened the door with trembling hands.

    "Dawn Brown?" the police officer asked. "Please come with me. I'm afraid
there's been an accident ...."

   
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Dawn took a deep breath. She shivered involuntarily. The wind was nippy,
but it wasn't really a chilling wind. Too early in the season for that. No,
September's wind wasn't causing these shivers. But even so, inside the foyer
of Saint Stephen's Methodist Church, the warmer air still felt good.

    The church foyer was empty, but that figured. After all, it was Wednesday
night. All the activity was downstairs. Dawn looked at the daily events sign.
"Twenty Something Fellowship - Church Basement - 7:30 p.m." She looked at her
watch. It was just after seven thirty.

    The sound of singing reached Dawn's ears. She shivered again. She had
dreaded coming tonight. But since the accident she knew she'd isolated herself
too much. In their meeting earlier today, her counselor had encouraged her to
come. "It'll be good for you to get out and meet some new people," Cathy said.
"People who'll help you get on with your life."

    Dawn shook her head. "Easy for you to say, Cathy," she muttered aloud. She
read the sign a second time. "Twenty-Something Fellowship." She remembered
what the minister had said during the announcements last Sunday. "It's a place
where people in their twenties meet for friendship and fellowship." She
sighed. She needed friends and fellowship.

    She still struggled over Jim's death. Why did it have to happen? Painful
thoughts mixed with bittersweet memories in her head. She put her hands on her
temples. Her head hurt again. She stopped at the top of the stairs. Maybe
Cathy is right, she sighed. But I'm still not sure.

    She tried to relax. But she tensed again as she thought about him. From
the night Jim proposed up until the accident, all Dawn thought about was the
wedding. Mr. and Mrs. James Black. She still loved the sound. Jim used to
tease her about changing colors. Instead of being Dawn Brown, she would have
become Dawn Black. If not for the accident, her name would have changed. But
now Jim was dead. She'd remain Dawn Brown. Maybe forever.

    She shivered again. It was not the wind. It was an aching heart.

    The singing downstairs continued. She started down, and hesitated. Maybe
it wasn't a good idea to come in late ....

    Late. Late. Jim had been late that terrible night. She remembered. The
knock on the door. The highway patrolman. He tried to be kind. But those
fateful words. "There's been an accident, Ms. Brown ...." The awful ride to
the hospital.

    The hospital! As soon as she'd arrived, she felt hopeless and scared. It
felt like an eternity in the waiting room, fearing the worst while hoping
against hope for the best. Jim never made it. She sat quietly with Jim's
parents. Then they told them. The most horrible words she'd ever heard. He was
dead.

    At the time, Dawn felt nothing. She went numb. She couldn't believe it.
Even now, she sometimes hoped it would turn out to be a bad dream. But it was
no dream.

    Oh, yes. The dreams. She still dreamed about Jim. Every night.. Some she
remembered. Mostly the happy ones. But some she couldn't remember. At first
that troubled her. But Cathy, her counselor, said not to worry about the
dreams she couldn't remember. If and when the time was right, Cathy told her,
they'd come to her.

    She started counseling because she was having trouble at work. She
regularly broke down and cried at the most inopportune times. Her boss
encouraged her to use their employee assistance program. "Dawn, we're paying
for it with our health insurance," Bob Johnson had chided her. "Use it.
They'll put you in touch with someone who can help you."

    That's how she met Cathy Kress. Cathy was pretty and pleasant. She wasn't
even thirty years old, but she was wise and understanding and a good listener.
Every Wednesday now, including earlier today, Dawn met with Cathy. Today Cathy
told her she was getting better.

    Maybe. But Dawn wondered. She didn't feel better. She still couldn't
concentrate at work. She still cried herself to sleep every night. She still
thought about Jim constantly. And she was still eating too much. Way too much!

    "Self-destructive behavior is not unexpected in the wake of an unexpected
loss," Cathy had said today. Damn clinical jargon! But she was right. Dawn was
self-destructive. She knew it. But she didn't care. Sometimes she even thought
about ending it all. Joining Jim, wherever he was. But she couldn't. So
instead she sat at home. Eating. Not sleeping. Crying. Alone.

    "And that's exactly the problem," Cathy had said today. "You've stopped
going out altogether - except for work, these counseling appointments, and
Sunday church."

    That was true. The church was Dawn's last link to the rest of the world.
Cathy agreed Dawn should get involved in a small fellowship group at Saint
Stephen's Methodist. The pastor had said it was a good place to make friends
and find fellowship.

    Dawn grew up Catholic. To her, religion had never been important. Until
she started attending Saint Stephen's with Jim. This church was different; she
liked it. "We're going to turn you into a good Protestant," Jim kidded her
once. "Before we're done with you, you'll be converted." At the time, Dawn
just laughed. But now ....? Sitting in the pew where she used to sit with Jim
somehow comforted her. Maybe she would become a Methodist.

    Dawn shook her head. Her parents wouldn't like that. The thought of her
parents' displeasure made her smile a bit.

    Okay, she thought. With a deep breath, she started down the stairs. "I
might as well do it," she decided. "Twenty-Something Fellowship, here I come!"

    Florescent lights in the basement revealed about thirty people in folding
chairs sitting in concentric semi-circles. In front of the group was a young
man playing a guitar. He sang a fast, rhythmic song. The words had something
to do with God and Jesus. But of course, Dawn smiled. After all, this is a
church group!

    She slipped into an empty seat in the back. She looked around. The group
was dominated by people her age. She guessed the youngest were in college, and
the oldest were about thirty. She smiled. At 25, she was in the middle.

    People sang enthusiastically, one song after another. The guitarist
alternated between slow selections and up-tempo tunes. Dawn liked the music;
it was better than Sunday mornings. These songs reminded her of the Catholic
folk masses she attended when she was in high school.

    She found a song sheet on her chair. Most of the people seemed to know the
words by heart. Dawn tried singing once or twice. But mostly she watched and
listened.

    Finally a young man stood up. He was tall and thin, with a kind face.
"Thanks, Joe," the man said with a smile. He looked at the guitarist. "Doesn't
Joe Robinson do a great job leading the singing? Hi! I'm Matt. Welcome to the
Twenty-Something Fellowship. We meet every Wednesday here at Saint Stephen's.
We're glad you're here. Tonight we'll have some announcements, and then Carl
Nelson will share a message from the gospel of Mark. There are extra Bibles in
the back if you need one. We'll finish at 8:30, with time for fellowship
afterward. We'll have cookies and coffee in the back. Please stay as long as
you like." He smiled again. "Thanks for coming."

    Nice guy, Dawn thought. The announcements followed. Then the guy named
Carl Nelson spoke. He talked on Jesus' parable of the sower and the seed from
the fourth chapter of Mark's gospel. Carl mixed some funny stories into his
message. Dawn liked his informal style.

    Finally the guy named Matt said a prayer to end the meeting. Everyone
headed for the table in the back with the coffee and cookies.

    Dawn stood. Clutching her purse, she took a deep breath. Now she'd have to
mingle.

    "Hey, you're new, aren't you?" asked a friendly voice. Dawn turned and saw
a tall, slender, young woman with long, black hair, a dark complexion, and a
big smile. "I'm Kitty McWilliams. What's your name?"

    Dawn looked. She was fascinated by this stunningly beautiful woman who was
so friendly. "I'm Dawn Brown," she replied shyly. "Yes, this is my first time
here."

    Kitty's features looked European. She radiated warmth and acceptance. "Hi,
Dawn," she continued. "Let's get coffee." Kitty walked to the back of the
room. Dawn dutifully followed. "I'll introduce you to some others," Kitty
added. "I need coffee. How about you?"

    "Sure," Dawn grinned. "I'd love some." She felt more comfortable already.

    Standing in line for coffee, Kitty introduced Dawn to others in the group.
Several in particular seemed to be Kitty's good friends.

    Dawn stood by the coffee table while she talked to them. One was Joe
Robinson, the guitar player, obviously a leader of the group. He was in his
mid twenties, getting his masters in engineering at the university. He wore a
small earring, Dawn noticed with amusement. Joe introduced her to Sarah Knorr,
a petite, brunette physical therapist. Sarah seemed to be about Dawn's age.
Finally, Dawn met Cindy Fry, a tall blond who greeted Dawn effusively. Dawn
guessed that Cindy was younger than the rest.

    "Great! More blond hair," Cindy laughed, after being introduced. "I get
paranoid around all these brunettes. I'm glad you're here, Dawn."

    Dawn smiled. "Thanks. Actually, my hair isn't all that blond." Which was
true. Dawn's long, straight hair was at best a dirty dishwater color.

    "Maybe not, but compared to Katherine, you're a blond," Cindy grinned.

    Katherine? Dawn frowned. Who was Katherine?

    Cindy giggled as she noticed Dawn's confusion. "Oh, I mean Kitty. Kitty's
real name is Katherine," she explained. "Kitty is a nickname. Everybody else
calls her Kitty, but I call her Katherine. Just to tease her."

    Dawn noticed Kitty was gone. She hadn't noticed her disappear from the
group. But now she was nowhere to be seen. "Hey, where is Kitty?" Dawn asked.

    Cindy smiled. She put two fingers together, held them to her mouth, and
puffed on an imaginary cigarette. "Having a smoke, undoubtedly," she winked.
"Kitty always leaves the room for a quick cigarette as soon as the meeting
ends." Cindy shook her head full of blond hair and grinned. "An hour and a
half meeting stretches Kitty to her limit!"

    "Oh," Dawn nodded politely. "I see." She was a little surprised that Kitty
smoked. Protestants always seemed uptight about smoking and drinking. Much
more so than Catholics. When she was growing up her own church never worried
about such things. Even her parish priest smoked a pipe and an occasional
cigar. But Dawn knew that Protestants were much more ... fundamentalist about
such things. Which wasn't necessarily good, she had to admit.

    She was about to say something else when Kitty re-entered the room. Her
long black hair was now quite windblown. She'd obviously been outside. Her
tall and thin figure waltzed up to the group with a flourish. Dawn immediately
noticed the smell of smoke.

    "How was your cigarette break, Katherine?" Cindy asked, winking. "Nice?"

    Dawn carefully watched Kitty's reaction. Despite the direct question, she
didn't seem embarrassed. If anything, she was amused, appearing much more
relaxed after her brief trip outdoors.

    "Yes, it was very nice," Kitty replied. "But you would expect that, Cindy,
wouldn't you?" she added sarcastically. Cindy nodded enthusiastically, winked,
and laughed again.

    My God, Dawn realized. I guess Cindy smokes, too.

    Kitty went on. "Dawn, everybody here calls me Kitty. Except Cindy, who
insists on calling me Katherine." She paused to glare at her tall, blond
friend. It was clearly in fun. "She's incorrigible!" Kitty snapped with a
sideways smile. "Isn't she?" The others nodded and grinned.

    Dawn enjoyed the spirited repartee. The conversation continued and they
drank coffee until nine o'clock. By then, half of the original group of thirty
remained. Kitty took Dawn aside as she got ready to leave.

    "The fellowship time is over," she explained. "But the four of us usually
go to a little coffee shop down the street for awhile after the meeting.
Sometimes others join us. You're welcome to come. Only ...." Kitty's voice
trailed off.

    "I'd love to," Dawn interrupted. She enjoyed these people. But suddenly
she realized Kitty hadn't finished. "Only what?" Dawn asked.

    For the first time all night, Kitty looked uncomfortable. Brushing her
hair back, she spoke. "Well, some of the others call our coffee group the
'smokers.' Because we smoke; all four of us. But if that doesn't bother you,
please join us."

    All four of them? That surprised Dawn even more. Oh well. So what? She'd
had friends before who smoked. None recently, but it wouldn't bother her.

    "No, I don't mind," she answered. "I'd love to join you." She followed
Kitty into the darkness outside. I really don't care, Dawn assured herself.
But she had to admit that she never expected to find so many people who smoked
at a church meeting!

    The Espresso Cafe was less than ten minutes away. As Dawn pulled in, she
saw Kitty get out of her car. She threw a cigarette to the ground, exhaling
smoke while she walked to the coffee shop. Kitty had been smoking in her car.
Dawn locked her car door, walked to the entrance and entered the cafe. She
looked around to find Kitty and the others.

    Lights were dim. The cafe was not crowded. But ambient smoke filled the
air. Dawn ordered a cappuccino at the counter. She saw that all four of her
new friends were huddled together in a booth in the back. Kitty had just sat
down. Dawn walked over to join them.

    Cindy, Joe and Sarah were all smoking, and everyone had coffee. Two large
ashtrays sat on the table, surrounded by the coffee cups. Kitty slid into the
booth against the wall, while the other three sat in chairs around the table.
Kitty pointed to an empty seat in the booth beside her. Dawn squeezed in.

    "Glad you could come, Dawn," Cindy smiled. She seemed to be the most
outgoing of the group. Dawn said she was glad to be there, and began sipping
her cappuccino.

    Kitty was busy tapping an unopened gold pack of Marlboro 100's against her
wrist. She removed the cellophane. She pulled out one of the long cigarettes
and placed it between her lips. It dangled while she found her lighter. When
she clicked it, smoke began flowing from the cigarette's burning tip. She
pulled on it for several seconds, totally focused.

    "Ahh," Kitty sighed after inhaling the smoke deep into her lungs. "That's
much better!" She turned her head and exhaled a tight stream of smoke into the
air. The lamp on the table accented the line of smoke rushing from Kitty's
lips.

    Instinctively and without thinking, Dawn leaned away from the cloud of
smoke which now surrounded them. Kitty noticed Dawn pull back.

    "Does my smoke bother you, Dawn?" Kitty asked politely. Dawn shook her
head, signifying no. "Are you sure?" Kitty repeated.

    Dawn shook her head again. "Don't worry about it," she replied. "I'm
fine."

    Kitty laughed. "Good," she said. "'Cause we wouldn't stop smoking anyway.
We can't smoke in the church," she added after another long drag. "So we're
pretty desperate by the time we get here. At least I am." She turned and
exhaled another tight, thin stream from pursed lips. Ambient smoke again
danced in the light projected by the lamp.

    "It's okay," Dawn assured her. "I don't mind at all."

    "Well, Dawn," Sarah Knorr smiled, changing the subject. "What brought you
to the Twenty Something Fellowship?"

    She looked across the table at Sarah. The cute little brunette had a
cigarette of her own in her fingers. Dawn squirmed. She didn't want to talk
about Jim. But she had to be honest.

    "Jim Black, my finance, died in a car accident a month ago. Maybe you knew
him. He attended Saint Stephen's."

    From their aghast looks, Dawn saw that they knew Jim. "Oh, God," Kitty
whispered, putting her hand on Dawn's. "We're so sorry."

    Joe shook his head. "Jim and I played on the church softball team
together. A great guy." He smiled. "A heck of a pitcher, too. I didn't know
you were his fiancˇe, Dawn."

    Dawn felt tears well up inside. "We got engaged this summer," she said,
struggling to continue. "It hit me hard when he ...." She gulped. "Well, last
week Reverend Anderson talked about fellowship supporting us in trials." She
paused and wiped a tear from her eye. "I'm having a hard time with this.
That's why I'm here," she admitted in a whisper though the tears she vainly
tried to hold.

    The table was quiet. All four smokers pulled on their cigarettes but said
nothing. Finally, after a long, slow, thoughtful exhale, Kitty broke the
silence.

    "Dawn, we are totally sorry," she said. Wisps of smoke escaped from her
mouth, but her voice showed understanding and mercy. "What can we do to help?"

    Dawn sensed her sincerity. "I don't know," she admitted, still fighting
the urge to cry. "Talk, I guess. I'm just glad to be here. You guys are great.
I don't mean to tell you my troubles, but ...."

    Kitty interrupted the apology. "Look, Dawn, I totally understand what
you're going through. My mother died when I was in college. It devastated me."
She took a long drag on her cigarette. "When someone you love dies, it hurts.
I understand what you're going through. But you'll make it."

    "Thanks, Kitty," Dawn smiled. "But I'm sorry about your mother. What
happened?"

    "A car accident," Kitty replied quietly, puffing once again. "Drunk
driver. Mom got hit." A far-away look appeared in Kitty's black eyes. "She'd
asked me to go with her. I was too busy. I'll never forget it. Never." She
finished her exhale and took a deep breath. "If I'd gone with her, she
wouldn't have been in the intersection when ...." She shrugged. "It's hard to
deal with."

    Kitty crushed her cigarette in the ashtray. Immediately she put another
between her lips. Everyone sensed it was time to change the subject. "Joe,"
Kitty finally asked, lighting up again, "how did you feel about the meeting
tonight?" Dawn welcomed the change.

    The five of them talked about the meeting. Joe seemed happy with how it
had gone. He was one of the leaders. The group kidded him about his singing.
They seemed happy and comfortable with one another. Dawn sensed their
camaraderie and was more than a little jealous.

    Smoking and talking continued unabated. Kitty smoked continually, one
cigarette after another. In the smoky, coffee house air, she looked mysterious
with her dazzling looks, an omnipresent cigarette, and her deep, husky
smoker's voice. She sat ringed in smoke, looking for all the world like a
European actress in a foreign film. The image fit her well.

    Dawn was happy. These were nice people. The conversation remained spirited
and caustic. Sarcasm was the order of the day.

    She liked the sharp humor, but eventually she decided she wanted to kid
them about something, too. She finally chose their smoking. When there was a
break in the conversation, she couldn't resist a little sarcastic comment.
"I'm surprised at you guys," Dawn finally said with a wry smile. "I thought
Protestants didn't smoke. I grew up Catholic. Nobody in my church cared if you
smoked. But I wouldn't have guessed you Protestants were so progressive ....""

    As soon as she'd said it, Dawn regretted her comment. What was she
thinking? She hardly knew them. They'd accepted her. Big mistake. But her
intemperate words were as conspicuous as the smoke hanging in the air. And,
Dawn feared, just as noxious.

    Kitty finally broke the ice with a laugh. "Dawn, lots of people smoke.
Smoking may not be cool anymore, but people do it anyway. Some of them are
religious, some aren't. No one approves of smoking these days. Not officially.
Not even Catholics." She winked at Dawn. "But we enjoy smoking anyway. Being
religious has nothing to do with it. Does it, guys?"

    All the others shook their heads. They seemed more amused than upset by
Dawn's remarks. Sarah spoke next.

    "We take grief about our smoking from others in the fellowship. But the
church says Christ died for sinners. That includes smokers, doesn't it?" Sarah
was grinning. The others laughed. They were not defensive. Dawn respected and
appreciated that.

    Cindy took a drag on her cigarette and inhaled. "Did you ever smoke,
Dawn?" she asked, turning her head to exhale. "Have you ever tried it?"

    "Yeah," Dawn admitted. "I did. In high school I smoked. Until my mom
caught me and threatened to ground me for the rest of the school year. It only
lasted a few months. I quit in a hurry!" She laughed, and the others laughed
with her.

    Kitty seemed interested by Dawn's disclosure. "Why did you decide to
smoke, Dawn?"

    Dawn shrugged, taking a sip of coffee. "I don't know," she admitted. "Peer
pressure, I guess. Because my friends were smoking. I wanted to try it, even
though I knew it wasn't good for me. I guess that's why I eventually quit;
because it wasn't good for me."

    "I thought you said you quit because your mom caught you?" Kitty asked.

    "Well, yeah," Dawn hesitated. "I probably wouldn't have quit if my mom
hadn't busted me." She smiled shyly. "I wasn't going to quit otherwise. Yeah,
you're right," she admitted.

    "No problem," Kitty smiled sweetly. "Just setting the record straight."

    "Well, did you enjoy it?" Sarah questioned, exhaling a plume of her own.
"You liked smoking, didn't you, Dawn?" There was an undercurrent of
seriousness in the questioning now.

    "Yeah," Dawn admitted. "Not right at first. But after a little while I
did." A grin formed on her lips as she remembered. "In the beginning it was
the thrill of doing something I wasn't supposed to. You know?" The others
nodded. "But I enjoyed smoking once I got used to it."

    "How much did you smoke?" Kitty asked. Her tone remained serious.

    "Not much," Dawn replied. Suddenly she felt defensive. "Only a few
cigarettes each day. Maybe five or six."

    "Never more than five or six in a day?" Kitty queried again. Again, the
serious probing.

    Dawn shrugged. "Well, yeah, sometimes I smoked more. But I never smoked
enough to get hooked. I had no problem quitting." She smiled. "That was eight
years ago," she said confidently.

    Kitty took a final drag on her Marlboro and crushed it in the ashtray. "Do
you want to know why I started?" she asked the group.

    "Sure," Cindy answered. "I've never heard your story. I love hearing how
others started," she went on. She grinned broadly, shaking her head so her
blond hair bounced. "Even though it was over seven years ago for me, I can
still almost always relate."

    "If you've been smoking for seven years, you must have been 10 when you
started," Joe teased. "How old are you now, Cindy, anyway? 17?"

    "Shut up!" Cindy said in mock disgust. "Don't I wish? I just turned 23.
And I started smoking when I was 15. and a half." She turned to Dawn and
smiled. "He knows how old I am. He loves to tease me about how young I look.
He alternatives all this 'you're so young' stuff by telling me I'm an old maid
because I'm not married yet."

    "Cindy is the baby of the group," Sarah explained. "Kitty's 27, Joe's 28
and I'm 25." She looked at her colleagues. "Everyone except Kitty is single.
Kitty's been married for four years. We're worried who will bite the dust
next!" she added.

    Dawn smiled. "I just turned 25. If you're an old maid at 23, Cindy, then
I'm in real trouble," she laughed. In light of Jim's accident, it shouldn't
have seemed funny. But it did. It felt good to joke about it with them.

    "Ignore him, Kitty. Just tell your story," Cindy said She took a drag on
her own long, white cigarette. The flowered box on the table beside Cindy said
Eve 120's. "You're a serious smoker, Kitty," she continued. "I'll bet you
started young, didn't you?"

    Kitty pulled another cigarette from her pack. With a wry smile she looked
across the table. She turned toward Dawn. "Let me explain something. Dawn,
when Cindy says I'm a serious smoker, she simply means I smoke all the time.
Isn't that what you mean, Cindy?"

    In the middle of dragging on her cigarette, Cindy smiled. "That's right.
I'll bet you smoke at least two packs a day."

    Kitty nodded. "And I do," she smiled. "I am a serious smoker. But believe
it or not, I didn't start young." Kitty paused for a long puff on her
cigarette. She held smoke inside longer than usual, as if thinking how to
proceed.

    "I was 22," she began again. "Engaged to a guy named Roger. I was crazy
about him. We were going to get married in June that year, after I finished
college. But Roger dumped me for another woman, one he'd been seeing secretly
for months. Needless to say, I was furious," she continued quietly, letting
smoke drift from her mouth. "I was incredibly bummed. I didn't know what to
do. I was upset. Only two things got me through it. One of them was smoking."

    After a hard hit and inhale, Kitty blew a large plume of smoke into the
air before continuing, switching to her nostrils in mid-exhale.

    "I became self-destructive. Depressed. I started drinking. Too much. I was
a mess. I moved in with a friend named Susie who smoked. Before long, I
started, too. Just picked up her habit. I'd never smoked, but it seemed like
the thing to do. Susie obviously liked it. I figured, why not? After Roger, I
wanted to do something. You know? Something rebellious, something pleasurable,
something for me. Smoking fit the bill. It was fun. I liked it. I was hooked
in no time."

    She paused for another long drag. "To be honest, in the beginning I was
getting even with Roger. He hated smoking and drinking." She paused again for
an exhale. "My drinking didn't last long," she continued. "I didn't like being
hung over all the time. But smoking was different. I liked it. It made me feel
good. So I never stopped."

    Dawn understood self-destruction. She thought for a moment. Hers
manifested by eating too much, not by smoking or drinking. But she knew what
Kitty was talking about.

    Sarah's voice interrupted Dawn's reflections. "So, Kitty, what happened?
Are you sorry you started?"

    Kitty blew two perfect smoke-rings into the air before answering. "No, and
I'll tell you why," she went on as smoke continued to drift from her lips. It
enveloped her head like a wreath.

    "It helped me cope. Drinking didn't. When I drank I got depressed! But
when I smoked, I could think clearly. The more I smoked, the more I relaxed. I
could get a grip. I was smoking a pack a day in no time. It made my mom mad.
See, my dad and older sisters all smoke. Mom was always glad I didn't. When I
started, too, she told me she was very disappointed in me." Kitty smiled.
"That was hard to take, but smoking made me feel better. It was worth it." She
shrugged. "That's the story. I smoke two packs a day, sometimes more on
weekends. It may not be good for me, but I love it. It's one of life's great
pleasures."

    "Wow," Cindy exclaimed. "That's so cool! It actually makes me glad I
smoke, too." She winked at Joe, then at Sarah, and finally turned back to
Kitty. "But you said TWO things helped you," she added. "Smoking was one. What
was the other?"

    "The church," Kitty replied. "I'd never been religious before. But Pastor
Anderson encouraged me to get involved in the church. I've been in fellowship
groups at Saint Stephen's for several years. This isn't the first one I've
been in. But it's the best one so far. I need the support I get from a small
group. I need the relationships. It's made a big difference."

    Joe nodded. "We're glad you're in our group, Kitty." He smiled sincerely.
"We're glad you're here. That's what it's all about, isn't it? Helping each
other through the trials and tribulations of life."

    Kitty nodded and smiled. Dawn was genuinely touched. For a moment, she was
afraid she'd start crying.

    It was after ten o'clock when they broke up. Dawn was impressed with the
mutual respect, support and friendship she'd witnessed. But she was also
amazed at how much they smoked. Especially Kitty. She was a serious smoker,
Dawn decided, as they readied to leave the coffee shop.

    She pulled Kitty aside when they walked outside. "Kitty, I can relate to a
lot of what you said tonight. I have trouble with depression, too. And I have
self-destructive urges. My counselor says I'll get through it. But sometimes I
have my doubts."

    Kitty smiled. "Your counselor is right. You will make it. But please call
me if you ever need to talk. Anytime. I know it's hard. Let me give you my
phone numbers for home and work." She reached into her purse, pulled out a
notepad and a pen, and quickly wrote two phone numbers on a piece of paper.

    While she was writing, Dawn saw two unopened gold packs of Marlboro 100's
in Kitty's purse. This girl came prepared, Dawn told herself as she waited.
Surprisingly, the unopened packs of cigarettes were strangely appealing to
Dawn.

    Kitty finally gave Dawn the piece of paper. They walked out into the cool
night air. "Dawn, my husband Bob travels during the week. I'm almost always
home in the evenings. Please call me if you need to talk. I mean it. That's
what fellowship is all about here at Saint Stephen's."

    "Thanks," Dawn replied, pulling her coat around her. "That's nice. But I
don't want to bother you."

    Kitty made a face. "Dawn, it's no bother. Your counselor is right. You
need to get through this stuff. Sometimes talking to someone helps. Don't be
afraid to call me."

    As she put away the paper and pen, in the same motion Kitty retrieved a
cigarette from her open pack of Marlboro 100's. For a moment Dawn thought she
was going to add: "And smoking helps, too." But of course she didn't.

    Instead, Kitty smiled apologetically at Dawn. "Look, I know I smoke too
much," she admitted. "I'm sorry to inundate you with it. I hope you don't
mind." She shrugged. "I really shouldn't apologize. Because smoking helps me
cope." Kitty put the cigarette in her mouth. "But anyway, call me. I mean it,"
she said with a point of her finger.

    "I might," Dawn smiled. "I really might." She appreciated the offer.

    Kitty stopped to light the cigarette, cupping her hands to shield the
lighter from the breeze. She pulled, once, twice, finally getting the
cigarette to come to life on the third drag. "God brought you to the meeting
tonight for a reason, Dawn. I think it was so we could meet you," Kitty said.
"I believe in divine providence. I think we can help you."

    Dawn watched smoke escape from Kitty's lips. It dissipated quickly in the
cool night air. "Thanks, Kitty," she said simply. "You already have. Helped, I
mean."

    The church was fifteen minutes from Dawn's apartment. After the short
drive, she walked in the apartment and thought about the evening's events as
she threw her coat and purse on the sofa.

    She enjoyed the meeting, but meeting Kitty was more significant than the
meeting itself. She was so nice to me, Dawn thought. All of them were
genuinely interested in helping. Not because they had to. Because they care.
Dawn was glad she'd gone.

    She looked around the apartment and frowned. She knew she should pick
things up. Dirty dishes were filled the sink, and papers and dirty clothes
were everywhere. When Jim was alive, the apartment never got this bad. She had
to admit to herself, however, that she enjoyed not having to pick up all the
time anymore.

    She looked at the clock. Ten thirty. She usually was in bed by eleven. But
first it was time for a little something. From the kitchen she got a cookie
and a glass of milk. She looked at her stomach and sighed. Putting down her
snack, she walked into the bathroom to assess the situation more completely in
front of the mirror.

    Turning on the light, Dawn looked into the vanity mirror. She posed,
turned, and then looked at her profile. She'd always been told she was a
pretty girl. Her long dirty-blond hair was straight, but it had lots of body
and bounce. It looked good. She smiled into the mirror. The face of an angel,
Jim had once told her. She had to admit her face had a certain cherubic
quality. Especially since she'd gained so much weight in the last few weeks!

    But, you know, it doesn't look bad, Dawn decided. She turned sideways and
looked again at her figure. Her sweater was tighter than when she bought it.
But it looked good. Maybe the extra weight she'd gained wasn't so bad.

    She put her hands on her waist and then ran them down her hips onto her
thighs. Her figure looked better, she concluded, with a little more weight.
Voluptuous had never been a word used to describe her. But now her body filled
the sweater and pants quite nicely. "You were too skinny before," she scolded
the girl in the mirror. "You can afford a little snack."

    Dawn retrieved her cookie and milk. As she munched on the cookie, she
thought about how satisfying it was. It tasted good. It felt good to do
something that satisfied your hunger. Suddenly she was hit by a strange
realization. Something else she'd seen tonight could be satisfying in a
similar way. Smoking.

    She hadn't thought about smoking for years. That is, not until hearing
Kitty talk about it. And watching them. All four of them enjoyed smoking. It
relaxed them. Dawn had to admit that smoking and drinking coffee was a
pleasant way to pass the time. She thought again about her own experience,
albeit in the distant past. It used to be fun getting together with her high
school girlfriends to smoke. She'd forgotten about that .... Almost.

    She suddenly realized what was happening. She was jealous! Jealous of the
fun which Kitty and the others were experiencing tonight. Smoking was fun. She
popped the last of her cookie into her mouth. She licked her lips and smiled.
I used to enjoy smoking. Maybe I'll try smoking again, she mused.

    She glanced across the room. Jim's picture on the coffee table jolted her
back to reality. She shivered. "No. Jim wouldn't approve of me smoking," she
said aloud. A health nut, Jim worked out at the club three days a week.
Somewhat reluctantly, Dawn dismissed the passing thought. She drained the
glass of milk. Time for bed. Enough foolishness for one night. She headed to
the bathroom to brush and floss her teeth.

    When she finally got into bed and pulled the covers over her head, Dawn
was pleased. Tonight she'd actually worried about her appearance. She hadn't
done that for a long time. She had enjoyed her new friends. Most important,
she was finally thinking about something other than Jim. She sighed. Maybe I
am getting better ....

    She felt herself nodding off to sleep. Tonight was a big step in the right
direction. Smoking, she giggled to herself. How funny ....


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