“I’m not a liar,” I returned defensively, which on its own was a lie.

Lilly snickered as if she had prior knowledge of every lie I’d ever said. Relaxing against the back of her chair, she looked me straight in the eye. “I think you should know, I sat in that chair myself at one time, full of bravado and attitude. My life was a mess. I was into drugs, alcohol, and bad men. I was going a hundred miles an hour on the road to self-destruction. I’ve been clean and sober for five years. If you’d told me that was even possible six years ago, I would have laughed in your face.”

Of everything I’d expected Lilly to say, it wasn’t that.

“This is your chance to make a change, Shay. Your one chance. We’re here to help make that a reality, but what happens next is on you. It’s all on you. If you want this, you have to be the one to make it happen. You think you’re smart enough to fool me, then think again. You think you’re smart, well, I’m smarter. You aren’t going to fool me, so don’t even bother trying.

“Whatever got you here, you’re at the center now and you have a choice to make. Choose carefully. You can change the course of self-destruction or you can continue on the same path. Now, what’s it going to be?”

Her words were hard, and her look cut into me as effectively as a knife with a serrated edge. She waited and I gulped. It was as if she had read my mind. It was difficult for me to admit that I needed this program, wanted this program. I’d failed at nearly everything I’d ever wanted in my life. Failed miserably. There was nothing to say this would be any different.

Even getting the words out of my mouth seemed unmanageable. “I want this.”

“That’s good to hear, a good start. Every woman who steps through that door wants a better life. I’m here to tell you that this isn’t going to be easy. You’re going to want to quit a hundred times, but if you do you’ll go right back to where you started.

“You can succeed, Shay, but you’ve got to be the one to make that happen. Not a single woman here can do it for you. It’s going to mean tearing down that wall, trusting others, opening your life and living in the truth, and that, my friend, leaves you naked and exposed.”

She waited, as if expecting me to tell her how grateful I was. Instead, I said the first thing that came to mind. “I am not your friend.”

Lilly grinned. “You might not realize it yet, but I’m the best friend you’ll ever have. Now, you ready to answer these questions?”

Although I didn’t dare say it aloud, I was determined that Lilly would never be my friend. I hadn’t known her more than a few minutes and already I didn’t like her. She was abrupt and callous, reminding me of a few prison guards I’d known. Righteous bitches.

Turning toward the computer screen, she set her fingers on the keyboard and threw questions at me, typing in my answers. She wanted honesty and she got it. I didn’t hold anything back. Before we were finished she knew more about my family background than anyone else in the world besides my brother.

I told her about Shooter, too, and the fact that he was sentenced to life. For that I was especially thankful, although I didn’t mention that.

After I finished the evaluation, I was given urine and blood tests. “You do know I was released from prison this morning, right?” It wasn’t like I’d had the chance to buy anything illegal.

Lilly laughed. “You want drugs and alcohol, you’ll find them inside and outside of prison walls. I don’t care if you stepped off the bus on your way out the door and walked straight into this building—you’d still be tested.”

“Okay.” What she said was true enough. Drugs were as accessible in prison as they were on the streets.

Once I’d finished with the urine test, Lilly said, “Do you have any questions for me?”

“How long does this program take?”

She shook her head. “You haven’t been accepted and you’re already wondering how soon you can leave. Not a good sign, sister.”

At some point I’d swapped from being a friend to becoming a sister. Wasn’t sure if I should read anything into that.

“Twelve months,” Lilly told me before I could comment.

“And afterward? What happens to me after I graduate?” I wasn’t sure “graduate” was the right word, but it seemed to fit best. A year was a long time, not that I had any other plans.

From everything I’d learned to this point, I was free to leave at any time. The program was structured with a variety of classes, counseling sessions, and work assignments. Everyone did their part to keep the center running smoothly.

“By the time you leave, if all goes well, you’ll have a job and housing arrangements.”

I felt the faint stirring of hope take root and sprout. I quickly squelched it down. Hope was dangerous for someone like me. It led to pain and disappointment. “I’ll be able to support myself?”

“Up to you, my friend.”

So I was no longer her sister. Demoted already.

Lilly led me to another part of the building and knocked before entering a second cubicle. A woman I would guess to be in her early fifties glanced up from her desk when we entered. “Brenda, meet Shay Benson. Shay, this is Brenda Jordan.”

“Hello, Shay.” Unlike Lilly, Brenda’s smile was warm and welcoming.

I nodded toward her, keeping my lips pressed together, unwilling to say anything more, seeing that I’d already spilled my guts once.

“Should you be accepted, Brenda will be your case manager,” Lilly explained. “She’ll be the one who will work with you as you progress in the program. If you’re able to follow through, remain in the truth, and be willing to do what’s necessary, then Brenda will be the one to help you with life outside these doors. You got a problem, you look to Brenda. You need to talk, and you will, then you come to me. Got it?”

“Got it,” I returned without emotion, although I wasn’t entirely sure I did. Lilly smiled and nodded.

It was the first time I’d seen the counselor crack a smile. “That’s a good start,” she said approvingly.

Lilly left me with Brenda. Sitting down with the case manager, I answered a few questions, some of which had already been asked by Lilly. About thirty minutes into our session, her phone rang. Brenda reached for it and after the initial greeting her eyes switched to me.

“Give us five” was all she said.

Sure enough, about five minutes later she stood and directed me to follow her. On the way I happened to get a look at the wall clock and was surprised to realize it was already late in the afternoon. The time had zipped by.

Brenda led me to the front reception area and I returned my visitor’s badge. When I turned around I saw Kevin Forester and Drew had joined us. Both were dressed in shorts and had towels looped around their necks. They looked like they’d just finished running a marathon.

Drew leaned forward and braced his hands on his knees as he sucked in oxygen. “You’re killing me, man.”

Kevin slapped him across the back. “I’ll see you next week.”

“Come on, Kev, I’ve got—”

“I’ll see you next week,” the other man said, cutting him off.

As if he didn’t have the wherewithal to argue, Drew reluctantly nodded. “Next week.”

“Same time as today.”

“Gotcha.”

“You don’t show, then I’m coming for you.”

“I said ‘gotcha.’ ”

Another slap on the back and Kevin said, “Good.” He looked to me then. “I’ve made arrangements at one of the women’s shelters for the next two nights,” he said.

I blinked, unsure if that meant I hadn’t been accepted or what. Then I remembered that either Drew or Lilly had told me that it would take a couple days to have the committee review my evaluation and get the urine and blood tests back.

“Okay.”

“I can drop you off at the shelter on my way back to the church,” Drew offered.

Nodding, I accepted the ride. I wanted to thank him, but the words got stuck in my throat.

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