The first thing he felt was the cold air that rushed across him, pulling him out of wherever he’d been—that ocean-sized place, Lala Land, the Kingdom of Nod. It was moving too fast, and he wanted it to slow down, take it’s time so that he could figure it out. Suss out why it was there. But it had moved on, another digression, a train of thought that left the station before he could hop on board and grab a seat. One that faced forward. He didn’t want to get motion sickness.
There were stars now, being glimpsed discreetly through the lashes of his half-closed eyes. Or streetlamps passing for stars. They somehow refracted and multiplied. They floated then got sucked into a dark sky that was…what? Ocean-sized, of course. And he would have to remember that, tuck that thought away for later, think about it when there was more sense in the world; when there was more sense in him. But for now, he was alright, everything was alright. No, he was fucked up, and that was alright. All right?
A wave of nausea passed through him—it was familiar, an almost comforting feeling. He started to turn his head to the side, but the path between his nervous system and his muscles was seemingly blocked. There was no crossing that bridge, no possibility of movement.
He wondered if this was what so many others felt in their last seconds, and if he was going to go now, just like this. Like famous people, stars. Well, that was pretty goddamn rock and roll of him. Only, he barely played guitar and couldn’t even sing all that well. For him to meet his maker in the same way wouldn’t be clichéd—it would be pathetic. No headlines for this one. He wouldn’t even show up on the back cover of the morning paper.
He tried to draw in a deep breath, as if the cold air could clean him out, scour his insides and replace the dirty atoms that made up his cells with pure ones. So he could make a fresh start out of the night. Wade his way through it so he could see the morning, the sun again, and maybe then he’d quit. He probably wouldn’t, but it would be nice to have the choice. Maybe he could, if given the chance.
Chance. An image of the word flared up; capitalized like a proper noun, large and bright red against the black of his eyelids. When had he closed his eyes?
Chance. Only one small difference and it would read Change. He didn’t think that was an accident. There really were no such things as accidents. Only choices. Fate was free will’s bitch, after all. If he could’ve smiled, if his failing nerve endings were to respond to their commands, his face would have split into a grin at that notion. Maybe he was making more sense than he’d thought.
This was just another digression, wasn’t it? Right now he ought to be concentrating on breathing. On turning these shallow movements of air into something deeper, cleaner, better.
Leave it to him to take something simple and make it complicated. Some would say it was his singular talent. Again, he wished he could smile.
It was ironic, how all of this would end in an incomplete thought. This thing that had started as a fucked up, backward search for divinity had turned into something else. Into something that happened in all of the nowhere places, a search that started in a grimy alleyway, and ended up on a dirty mattress in a building that might have been condemned.
But for right now, he really only wanted one small thing. He wanted to be able to open his eyes. To watch the nighttime sky and choose which star he would he would rocket toward when all of this was through. It wasn’t like choosing a star to wish upon, more like hedging his bets. If his heart held out until morning, he would choose the sun. It was closest. It would be a quick trip.
He was going, and he knew it. Only, there wasn’t a feeling of panic about it, rather something more like giving in. A sensation of timeliness.
There was nothing to be done, except to simply let go. Stop holding on and fall into that in-between place, that place he’d been looking for all along, where everything made sense because nothing ever did. It was an easy choice.
Then he was moving, being turned to his side, and a voice was breaking through from the other side of the universe. It was a woman’s voice. It sounded oddly resigned.
“Are you with me? What’s your name? Can you tell me your name?”
Hands grappled with him roughly, lifted up his arm, and he wondered how strong this person was. He couldn’t have done this, not if his life depended on it. Funny, in a way it sort of did. His sleeve was pushed up a little, and there was more cold air.
“What’s your name? Do you know where you are?” A finger pushed his eyelid open, another one pressed against the side of his neck. A light shined into his eyes, and he wished it was the sun, but it was just a flashlight; one of those little pen shaped jobs. It felt like an interruption.
The voice spoke up again, professional and curt. “Pulse is weak, breathing shallow. Pupils constricted. He’s nonresponsive.”
Nonresponsive. He thought that it was a good description for the human condition. He would have to tuck that idea away as well.
The light disappeared, and in its place came a different one, flickering red and blue and white. There was the sound of a heavy engine thundering away close by. Sense started to creep in around the edges, whispering softly to him. He didn’t like what it was telling him. He wanted to thank the woman when she let go of his eyelid and he could sink into darkness again.
Another set of hands were on him now, pushing his sleeves up higher. “See that?” This voice was deeper, gruff, a man with an out-of-state accent that sounded northern. Not New York, but close enough. Maybe Jersey. “Fuckin’ junkie. Bad shit hit the street last week. I should’ve known it right away.”
His arm slapped back down against the pavement. It didn’t hurt. That was the good thing about junk. There was never any pain.
“What did you take? Can you hear me?” It was the woman again, her voice a little less resigned now. Maybe a little more like angry.
He wanted to tell them to just let him be, give him a few minutes to finish what he’d started. But if there was one thing that he’d learned in his few decades of life, it was that there was never enough time. There was always some interruption. Some digression.
Something was being tied around his left arm, and he wanted to tell them that it was a lost cause. All the veins in that side had collapsed a week ago, and a hit to the muscle never quite did the trick. Sure, it stopped the shakes, but there was no rush. Try the other arm, there was still a good mainline somewhere in his right hand.
But it turned out that this chick was good. “I’m pushing Narcan. Get ready to hold him down. He’s not gonna like this.”
Cold air hit his lungs in a rush, and his eyes flew open, almost but not quite focusing on a woman kneeling beside him. Her hands were working to put a dropper in a red plastic biohazard bag, but her eyes were not leaving him.
“Welcome back,” she said to him, and for a split second he hated her.
“Fuck,” he replied thickly, struggling to sit up, but the other set of hands covered in blue latex gloves held him fast.
“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” It was the man this time.
Reality was slipping back in with fits and starts. The sidewalk was clammy, cold and wet beneath him. It was raining a little, the freezing specks starting to soak in through his jeans. If his mother was here she would have told him that he would catch his death. And how right she would be.
He’d been chasing it all along, and it was only a matter of time until he caught up with it.
He looked around, wide-eyed and still gasping, trying to get his bearings. This place was strange but familiar at the same time. Another forgotten sidewalk in another forgotten section of town. It was a place where respectable people did not even drive through in the daylight, much less at night.
He had no idea how he’d gotten to this spot. Hell, he had no idea how he had gotten outside. If he was truthful, he really had no clue whether he’d actually woken up this morning, or yesterday morning for that matter.
“Up and at ‘em,” the woman said, getting to her feet and lifting under his shoulders. The man grabbed his thighs and together they moved him to a stretcher waiting a foot away.
“I’m fine,” he said to her, struggling to sit up. Really, he was. More sober than he’d been in months, even if he counted the time he’d gone dry for three days, just to get that feeling again.
“No, you’re not. The Narcan will wear off in about an hour, and then you’re going to be in a world of hurt.” There was a little bit of sympathy in her voice. It sounded strange, out of place.
“He’s gonna be in a world of hurt no matter how you slice it,” the man said to her.
She ignored him, instead asking, “What’s your name?”
“What’s it to you?” he asked. It turned out that belligerence was a side effect of startling and sudden sobriety.
“You ungrateful son of a bitch,” growled the man beside him as his hands worked to draw straps across the stretcher, quickly and effectively holding him in place.
“You don’t have to tell me your name. It’s alright,” the woman told him, lifting the stretcher. The legs beneath it slammed down with a squawk and they started to roll him toward the ambulance. He felt like they were about to take him to his funeral. Maybe they were.
“It’s Jensen,” he muttered.
She patted his shoulder, and actually had the audacity to smile. “Good to meet you, Jensen. I’m the gal who just saved your life.”
The first thing that Jensen remembered was a key. It was this antique-looking thing, one that wouldn’t fit into a door. The key was too small for a padlock and too big to be one of those that would open a diary. Dark metal, a little red looking, but then again everything looked a little red right now. He associated it with a water-heavy sponge wiping away the sticky spit that glued his lips shut, and a cool, dry hand on a fever-sweaty forehead.
But before he could make sense of it everything shattered, and all memories of keys and kind touches from hands not covered in blue-colored latex were gone in a haze of pain. The muscles in his legs cramped up, so did the muscles in his stomach. Hell, even the ones in his little finger were wide awake and shouting at him.
His skin itched everywhere, but his arms were tied to the rails of a hospital bed, stopping him from scratching. Two thin little synthetic straps that might have well been iron shackles. He remembered being bound; four orderlies holding him down on the ground as he kicked and punched and bit while two nurses with tight lipped, sullen expressions quickly changed the sheets on his bed. The floor smelled like ammonia, like institutionalized illness.
It had happened after he’d tried to leave, ripping the IV out of his arm, leaving a spray of blood on the bed’s stiff white sheets, clumsy feet and shaky legs tripping across the room. He’d shoved over that poor nurse who’d reminded him that he was going nowhere, the tiny girl with the painted-on smile and cold, faraway eyes. That was maybe yesterday, or three hours back, or five minutes ago, Jensen couldn’t be sure.
He’d probably feel bad about it later, but right now nothing seemed bigger than that cold itch. It started at the base of his spine and traveled as far as his nerves could carry it. It blanked out everything else.
He wouldn’t beg, though. He’d been taught better.
“Never say please, Jensen. People like us don’t ask. We never plead for anything. We always assume that everything that we want is ours for the taking. It’s essential that you remember that.” It was his mother’s voice, he’d recognize that bored sound anywhere. It was just as crystal clear and real as the pain cutting through his guts.
He wrenched his sight toward the empty chair in the corner of the room, a feeling of dread slicing a straightaway through everything else. He was certain that she would be sitting there, straight backed, perfectly manicured nails resting on primly crossed legs. The impossibility of it did not matter. Reality was definitely not the name of the game. Not in here. Certainly not in here.
The chair was empty, so was the rest of the room. It was bathed in a blue-white florescent light that stabbed its way into his eyes and left no shadows, left nothing to the imagination. No shine of red nail polish or glint of tastefully expensive jewelry. But then he blinked, caught something, and maybe, just maybe.
“Get yourself together, young man. No one should see you like this. It’s one thing to be ill, it’s another thing entirely to let people see it.” There she was again, on the other side now, and as unsympathetic as ever. “It’s unseemly,” she whispered, this time so close that Jensen thought he could feel her breath ghosting along his ear. Jesus, he swore he could smell her-- smell the way the air around her was tinged with a mixture of cigarettes and expensive perfume. Instantly recognizable, even though it had been years since she’d had air to breathe.
Jensen squirmed, legs tangling in a thin cotton sheet that might as well have been made of lead, trying to twist himself away from the sound, the smell, the feeling.
“You can’t be here,” and damned if he didn’t sound completely unlike himself. The noise that came from his throat was rough, hoarse, like he’d been yelling for hours. “It’s not possible. Leave me alone,” he continued, knowing that the room was empty and this was the first step toward going certifiably crazy--not junk crazy, that was different, somehow acceptable--but real, honest to god lunacy. Even still, he was sure to deepen his voice, make it assertive. Yeah, he’d learned this lesson more than a decade ago.
Jensen pictured the woman, her arched aristocratic nose forever at an upward angle so that she could cast her icy eyes down on everyone and everything. He’d inherited that nose from her but, thankfully, little of her attitude. Only her tendency for righteous self-destruction.
And god, fuck, he needed just one hit. One last hit to set him straight. A little bit, it didn’t even have to be good. Just enough to unknot the muscles in his legs and get him on his feet again. Banish his mother’s ghost and take some of his other demons down too. Get him well. Just one more, then he could quit. It would be a final goodbye, like that last glance over the shoulder that always happened in those sad movies that played on boring Sunday afternoons. What was it called? Closure. That was it, he needed closure. Hell, he deserved it. After all, he’d made it this far.
Jensen knew this was junkie logic, garbage that was one part justification and three parts backward thinking, but sometimes junkie logic was the only brand in town. If you needed a hit, you got a hit, quod erat demonstradum. Q.E.D.
The worst part about it was that he knew they had it. Maybe not on this floor, the wing where hospital staff played tour director to a pile of junkies, drunks, and lunatics, each taking an all-expenses-paid trip to their own personal hell, but somewhere in this building it was here. Oxy would help. Shit, Xanax, even Thorazine might do the trick. Then there was Dilaudid, the good pharmaceutical dope, the color of liquid gold, ready-made for a straight shot, no assembly required. So much better than morphine. Jensen wasn’t above self-service. All they needed to do was let him go, point him in the right direction. He would promise to come right back, lay back down in this bed, close his eyes and quietly drift up, up, and away.
Then there was another sound, a few quiet chords strumming a very familiar song. Jensen closed his eyes, not wanting to see and willing the music to stop, but will power had never been his strong suit and it just continued, dragging up his past and all of his sins right along with it. Every single one.
“It was only a matter of time.” A disembodied voice spoke, calm and deep and so, so beautiful. It was a voice that Jensen knew, and wanted and needed so much that the very idea of it yanked his insides to the outside.
“Not you,” Jensen said, “you aren’t supposed to be here. You can’t be.” His eyes were leaking, his nose was running, and he tried to convince himself that it was just the dope running out of his body. A symptom. That’s all this was. All of it. “I can take a lot, just not this.”
The ghost voice started humming along with the song that wasn’t really there, and Jensen was afraid to look. Instead, he kept his gaze fixed stubbornly on his hand. His nails were ragged, cracked up and dirty.
And although none of this was real, when it came right down to it, Jensen couldn’t stop himself. There were too many conversations they hadn’t had the chance to have, too many nights and too many junk-sick mornings that had been stolen away. “Stay with me,” he said, trying to pull his legs in close to his chest, but the restraints stopped him short.
The music hit on an off note before continuing. “You know that I can’t do that.” A few more bars of humming. “You made a promise, Jensen. Remember?”
Jensen’s head was spinning through promises made and promises broken without a second thought. His fucking teeth hurt and the itching in his skin intensified, burning bright, boring in, and he wished that he could bleed out, right here and now. He wanted something, anything, to be easy.
“Please.” Jensen knew he could beg, with him if no one else. “Don’t do this to me,” his voice was growing louder, rougher, meaner.
“But you do remember.”
“Shut up.” Another stuttering breath and Jensen’s voice went down some. “Just be quiet, but don’t leave.”
“If you’re broken, fix yourself.” The music stopped, and the empty room felt all that more deserted for it.
Three more days gone, with fits and flashes of memories. With needles piercing his arms, but none of them giving him what he needed the most. Rather, a Tetanus shot, as if that might be his biggest problem, a new IV when the swelling in his vein backed up the last one, a couple of blood draws, and tests, tests, tests. A visit from a social worker - she had informed him that his forced admission to the hospital was indeed legal—some law about homeless people, like a permanent address and a phone bill could reinstate Jensen’s rights as a human being.
And then there were the drug counselors and shrinks, who tried to convince him that he was sick, that he was speeding down a one-way track to somewhere that wasn’t too great. They sat by his bed, professional concern hanging so heavily about them that Jensen could hardly see through it, could barely catch a glimpse of what they actually looked like beneath all of their talk of high hopes and statistics about high and low relapse rates. High. Low. The language of junkies. Jensen wished he could be more creative.
In total, five days gone since he’d been brought in, and gone with them the physical pain of getting clean. The sweats had laid off, the muscle cramps too. No more ghostly noises, honey smooth voices, and indistinct nighttime hallucinations. Jensen sort of missed them. In a place where everyone else had control, at least they had been his, a little secret he could call his own Sure, they hadn’t made sense, but to him nothing ever really did.
“How are we feeling this morning?” A small, too-chipper voice came from the doorway. Jensen jumped a little and glanced over. It was the nurse that he’d gone after a few days back. He was surprised that she was willing to give him another shot.
Shot, shot, shot. It always came back to that.
She moved efficiently, opening up the blinds, bathing the room in a pale light that the linoleum floor reflected. It was foggy outside. Looked cold. The nurse’s eyes made a quick sweep of the instruments that were attached to Jensen by tiny wire umbilicals.
“You look better, Jensen,” she continued when he didn’t answer her. “If I take these things off, do you promise not to come after me?” She smiled as she spoke. Her small fingers made quick work of the straps still holding him down. She stood on her toes and leaned over his bed to reach the far side.
The second strap was undone, and Jensen’s urge to make a run for it cut through him. Bright, sharp, and just this side of irresistible. He wanted, no, needed to find the first familiar back alley corner and beg the first fixer he saw for a hit. He’d do just about anything for anything. As it turned out, it was possible to take the kid out of the country, but no one could take the country out of this kid. But too many scenarios flashed in his head, the brightest being the likelihood of just getting roped down again, and he bit back the desire.
Instead, Jensen decided to try sincerity on for size, just to see how it fit him. “Listen, about that,” he began, but she just waved it away.
“Don’t,” she said, shaking her head. “I learned ages ago to not take patients too seriously. It’s an occupational hazard. No harm, no foul.”
His muscles protested after days of disuse, but Jensen still stretched his arms above his head. He never knew that such a simple action could feel so good. There were things that would feel better, a lot of things, but Jensen figured that he had to take what he could get.
“You’ve done some damage there,” his nurse observed, nodding toward the pale flesh on the inside of his arms, the purple-brown tracks there, and Jensen was suddenly self-conscious. He dropped his arms, crossed them as well as he could with the wires and tubes still attached.
A tense silence filled the room. Then his nurse shrugged it off with what may have been a mumbled apology and rifled through a cabinet behind his bed.
“Time to get you ready for your close-up,” she said, producing a toothbrush and toothpaste and handing them over with a plastic cup of water. Your doctor will be here soon.”
“What does that mean?”
“I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise,” she continued, back at the cabinet again, this time returning with a pan of hot water and a shaving kit.
She set to work, cleaning him up, shaving him with quick, efficient strokes that bugged the hell out of him as he lay there, too scared to breathe and risk a nick or a cut.
It was ironic, how he was completely on board with the idea of any two-bit junkie hammering a nail into his vein for him, but the thought of a paid professional taking a razor to his face had his stomach rolling. Talk about backward.
The nurse was cleaning up when the doctor arrived, a clipboard in his hands and an open white lab coat over rumpled clothing. He leveled a too-bright smile in Jensen’s direction and asked, “How are we doing today?”
Jensen wanted to ask what the deal was with plural first person pronouns in this place, but bit the question back. “I don’t know, doc, you tell me,” Jensen said, running a hand along his newly smooth jaw.
“We ran the whole shebang on you. You’re looking pretty good, all things considered.” The doctor rifled through a few pages. “No hep,” his eyebrows crept up toward his hairline, “everything came back negative. A little dehydrated, and you could stand to put on a few pounds, but you’re surprisingly clean.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve never been too big on sharing,” Jensen shrugged.
“Everybody’s a comedian,” his doctor responded. “Now there are several options open to you for long term recovery care.”
It was about then that Jensen stopped paying attention.
Jensen pulled his worn hooded sweatshirt over his head and picked up a small plastic bag containing his belongings. He spread out the contents on the hospital bed. Not much in there—his silver ring, a crumpled pack of smokes, a couple of lighters, a dog-eared journal small enough to fit into his back pocket, and a worn-down nub of a pencil.
“Where’s my wallet?” Jensen shouted to the other side of the curtain, desperation shooting through him. No wallet meant no ID, no ID meant no money, no money meant no dope, and no dope meant a really fucked up afternoon.
“Everything you came in here with is there,” the woman responded. It was another social worker this time, another clipboard stranger, another obstacle. “You’re avoiding the topic. Do you have someone to pick you up? Do you have somewhere to go? I have a list of half-way houses that can take you in.”
“Half-way to where?” Jensen asked absently, checking for the fourth time to make sure the bag was empty, as if his wallet would miraculously appear out of thin air. Stranger things had happened. “Where did they pick me up?”
“You don’t remember?” the woman asked. She didn’t sound surprised, only resigned.
“Just answer the question,” Jensen slipped the ring onto his finger and the journal into the back pocket of his jeans. “Please,” he added as an afterthought, since it never hurt to be polite.
The sound of papers rustling snuck through the thin curtain surrounding his bed. “Fourth and Washington,” she replied.
“Then I guess I have someplace to go,” Jensen said, pulling back the curtain and sliding past her.
“What are you going to do? You need to have a plan.” The social worker moved quickly, trying to block his exit.
“I have a plan, alright.” Find a fix, find some money, find another fix. Rinse and repeat. And somewhere along the line, figure out who the hell took his wallet. He had a few ideas of where to start on that one. “Write the next great American novel,” he said instead. He poked a finger at the paper she held in front of her, her pen poised. “You can write that in the little box marked ‘treatment program.’”
He’d had enough of strangers, of people telling him what to do and how to do it. He’d never been too great at taking orders. Giving them, maybe, but not taking them.
Jensen pushed at her, it was gentle, barely more than a hand on her upper arm, but he got his point across clear enough, judging from the slight slump of her shoulders and her frustrated sigh.
The hallway was bright and blank, lined with closed doors at regular intervals, and Jensen scanned it, searching for an exit sign. There were a few people in hospital scrubs walking about, and an orderly stacking covered food trays on a cart. Jensen wondered how long it had been since he’d had a supper that didn’t consist of a candy bar and a coke, topped off with a nice little fix for dessert.
At last he found the elevator. The ‘down’ button lit up green when he hit it. He waited for a second before he pressed it again, his impatience showing through. Maybe the stairs would be quicker. He had to get out. Back to his little corner of the city, where the people looked like him, spoke like him and didn’t regard him with that cold air of professional concern or inquiry. Where they barely looked at him at all.
After an eternity the doors dinged open and a man strode out, almost bowling him over. His eyes were fixed firmly on the floor. The man stopped as Jensen brushed past him. “Hey. Hi,” he said, hazel eyes peeking down at him through his long brown bangs. Jesus, he was tall.
Jensen paused, peering at the stranger closely. There was something oddly familiar about him, only he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. It felt like a fever dream, and he’d had his fair share of those recently.
“I’m Jared,” the man said, sticking out a hand the size of a dinner plate in Jensen’s direction. Jensen blinked at it.
“Jensen,” he said, taking it. This sort of social nicety still was bred into him, even after all this time. “I was just leaving.” He wondered why he felt the urge to explain himself to this stranger. He was just wasting time.
“It’s good to see you on your feet,” Jared continued, tossing a smile his way. It was different than all the others Jensen had gotten in this place. Genuine.
Jensen was immediately suspicious. “How do you know…” he trailed off when Jared reached into the back pocket of his jeans and produced a brochure. Jared was one of those - one of them - even if he didn’t look the part with his real smile and baggy street clothes and distinct lack of a clipboard.
“I’m with this place, a home for recovering addicts, let me help.” He shoved the folded shiny paper beneath Jensen’s nose.
“Oh,” Jensen said, doing his best to sound bored and not at all anxious. “I’m fine. I’ll be alright. Thanks, but no.” He held his hands out in front of him with a shake of his head and went to move past Jared. The elevator had grown tired of these fun and games and the doors had shut again, so Jensen reached out toward the button once more.
Jared made a quick step to the side to block him, and Jensen stopped, set his jaw belligerently as he stared up at him. “Really?”
“Really,” Jared replied. “I can’t force you. No one can. Just…can I buy you a cup of coffee? Something to eat, maybe? You look like you could use a meal. Or two,” Jared’s eyes ran up and down Jensen’s tall, thin frame.
No one could force feed him, not help, not recovery, not a sandwich or fuck all else. A candy bar might be nice, but Jensen had long ago learned that everything came with a price, and he wasn’t ready to pay it. “I’m good,” he said.
Jared placed both hands on Jensen’s shoulders. The kind touch felt odd - off after all these years of none. “Are you sure? ‘Cause you don’t seem it.”
Jensen could feel the seconds ticking away, and every one he spent here listening to Jared’s line was one second longer until he could get a fix. It was a waste. “I’m leaving now,” Jensen said.
“Do you have somewhere to go?”
“In fact I do.” Jensen tried to dodge past him again, but Jared was a tenacious son of a bitch.
“Great, I’ll give you a lift.”
“I’d rather walk.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
“Listen,” Jensen said, wiping a hand across his eyes. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I really do. I bet you were the kind of guy who always brought home puppies and kittens to nurse back to health too. Very honorable and all that. But I’m no stray, and I would really like to get on with my day, if that’s quite alright by you.”
Jared listened to this, his self-assured smile not quite as wide but still there, his eyes downcast. He nodded a couple of times when Jensen finished. “Take this, at least,” he held up the pamphlet again. There was a ridiculous picture of two hands clasping on the front cover. “And this,” he said as he took out his wallet from his back pocket. Jensen felt a momentary thrill that crashed just as fast when he realized it wasn’t money Jared was handing over, but rather a subway pass. “There’s enough money on this to get to our place from just about anywhere in the city. The address is in there,” he tapped a finger to the paper that Jensen now held in his hand, “the phone number too. If you need anything, you call, okay? You call me. Anything, a ride, a meal, somewhere to sleep…just anything.” Jared spun and hit the button for the elevator.
The doors opened and Jensen dashed inside, found the button for the ground floor and pressed it quickly before Jared could change his mind. He watched them slide closed, but then Jared’s hand was pressing them open slightly.
“What now?” Jensen asked, his last drop of politeness now lost to irritation.
Jared’s smiling expression was gone, replaced in an instant with an open but complete seriousness. “Whatever you’ve done, Jensen, it’s in the past. You need to know that. I want you to know that I’ll never judge you.” He took his hand back and the doors slid closed.
Jensen stood staring at a patch of sidewalk, the toe of his sneaker scuffing along the broken concrete, scattering small bits of it before him. He was pretty sure that this was the place he’d been picked up.
He tried to mentally piece together the events of that night five days back. It had started in the Warehouse - what streeties called the abandoned textile mill down the street from here - home to junkies and street punks of all makes and models. From there it had been a quick trip around the block for a free meal with a heaping side of religion at the soup kitchen the church ran down there. Then a pass by that clinic where someone could trade a used needle for a clean one, a quick and easy hook up, and then back to the Warehouse for a fix. Then nothing. One big dark hole. The next thing he could recall was waking up with his skin on fire despite the cold and some sarcastic son of a bitch shining a light in his eye. Nothing.
“Hey!” A voice called from behind and Jensen turned to see Chad shuffling quickly up to him, his too-long jeans making a scraping noise on the pavement. His shoulders were hunched over and his arms crossed in front of him. “Where you been?” Chad regarded him with half lidded eyes. Eyes that always lit up at the sight of junk and went dead and dark over anything else.
“Inside,” Jensen said.
“Rehab.” When Chad’s mouth dropped open in surprise, he explained, “Not my choice.” Jensen noticed a very familiar strap slung over Chad’s shoulder. “Give it here,” he said, shooting out a hand.
“I was just holding it for you,” Chad said quickly, handing Jensen’s backpack over.
Immediately, Jensen crouched down and started rifling through it, his spare jeans hitting the sidewalk, along with his sweater. Pens, his knit hat, candy wrappers, a tattered copy of The Subterraneans. No wallet. He checked the bag’s front pocket. He found a few nickel bags, and he held them up to the light, a shiver of unfiltered want shooting down his spine when he spotted a tiny corner of dope in one of them. He tore it off, running a spit slick little finger into it and rubbing it into his gums. Not enough, not even enough to taste. The other pocket gave up a couple of needles that he tossed into the gutter.
“Those were clean,” Chad scrambled to pick one up, shoving it into a loose pocket of his pants. “I didn’t use ‘em, I swear.”
He eyed Chad’s hands, the red marks scattered on the left one, lined up in a neat little row. “Dude, you’re bugged,” he said. “Fuckin’ dirty droppers, I’m telling you. Where’s my wallet?” He shoved his stuff back into his bag and shrugged it onto his shoulders.
“I haven’t seen it. It wasn’t in there,” Chad held his hands in front of him.
“Whatever,” Jensen said. That wasn’t the point. “You holding?” That was the point. It was always the point.
“Fuck,” Jensen spun on his heel and started down the sidewalk.
“Where you going?” Chad asked, trotting a few steps to catch up.
“Warehouse, I guess. Someone there’s got to have something.” A fix came first, he’d deal with everything else later.
“You didn’t hear. You can’t go there. There was a raid a few days back. Cleared everyone out, I was lucky, just grabbed your shit and ran.”
Jensen felt an odd pang at that, it was the closest thing to a home that he’d had for a long time.
“I’ve been staying with the Professor,” Chad went on, “You know he’s got something,” he eyed him sideways.
“The Professor it is, then.” Jensen said, quickening his steps and crossing the street.
The two of them let themselves in through the unlocked front door of the tall, narrow brownstone townhouse. The sound of shouting voices coming from the house next door bled through the thin walls.
There was a smell to the place, an odd combination of moldering newspapers, yesterday’s fried food, and something else. Something that underlined it, something bitter, like vinegar. It made Jensen’s insides ache, and he took the stairs two at a time.
The Professor held court on the attic floor of the house, where he doled out junkie wisdom and dope in equal doses. He was sort of infamous around these parts, basically for making it this long without some sort of stupendous bust or an overdose. Rumors ran rampant about him on the street - how he got his nickname, what his real name was, how he paid his bills, how he got his drugs, but none of that mattered much. It never had to Jensen. What mattered was that he was almost always well stocked, and almost always very generous.
It was darkened and warm up here despite the cold outside. The radiator in the corner of the room was rattling away.
The old man sat in a high-backed upholstered armchair in front of the drapery-covered bay window, the slight light from behind turning him into a shadow made of long thin arms and legs. Spider-like. A small table beside him held the tools of his trade: hypos lined up neatly, a bent up blackened spoon, a pile of plastic bags.
Jensen dropped his bag inside the door and approached him, his stomach flipping with anticipation as he hunkered down on the floor next to the man’s chair, like a disciple studying at the master’s feet. “Howdy, teach,” he said. “It’s been awhile.”
The professor’s eyes opened slowly, sliding across the room to land on Jensen. “My boy,” he said in a frail, wavering voice. Then he smiled, revealing a row of stained teeth. A few more were missing since the last time Jensen had seen him. The old man peered into the murk. “Chad, is that you? Don’t be greedy. You were just here. Run along now.” He waved a hand toward the open door. “Tell me, Jensen,” he said, turning back, “what have you learned?”
Jensen groaned inwardly, his fingernails digging absently at the inside of his arms. He’d forgotten about this, how the old man followed some sort of Robert’s Rules of Getting High. It was all about the ritual. He scanned his memory for something, his hands shaking because it was right there. Within an arm’s reach, a stack of nickel bags lined up right in a row. He counted five, enough to last him right into next week. And this man wanted to stand on routine, on a certain order of events.
Jensen dragged his gaze away from the table and stared directly at the professor. “I became the unnatural son of a few score of beaten men,” he quoted. The words tasted funny in his mouth - he didn’t like thinking other people’s thoughts, but rules were rules.
“Cassady,” the professor clapped his hands together once, like a child playing a favorite game. He handed a half-empty bag over to Jensen with a rolled up dollar bill.
A mainline would have been better, but he didn’t have a needle. The first quick inhale brought with it that beautifully bitter taste to the back of Jensen’s throat. He felt it work through him with a shiver, that nameless, pervasive itch subsiding as all of his muscles relaxed at once.
“Give me another, Jensen.”
The man’s voice was already starting to sound small and far away, the rush was working but it wasn’t quite enough. But it could be, the keys to the kingdom were right there and almost his for the taking. Something floated into Jensen’s head. “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”
“Burroughs, and a good one,” the professor intoned with a slow, wide grin. “Appropriate.” He leaned backward, his head spilling in slow motion to the side as his eyes slid closed again.
Jensen watched him for a matter of minutes with keen junkie interest. The professor was on the nod pretty heavy, and surely wouldn’t mind if Jensen just helped himself. He wouldn’t take much, just a little bit to get him a little further down that road, to pass the time until the old man came back to the here and now. Just another little taste.
He shifted slightly, silently, reaching out as slow as he could stand toward the table beside him, his index finger barely coming in contact with the plastic corner of a bag when the professor’s hand shot out quickly and encircled his wrist, displaying a strength that was surprising, and crunching the bones of Jensen’s wrists together painfully.
“You know what else Burroughs said,” the professor whispered, his skeletal face now so close to Jensen that he could smell his breath like sour milk, could see the spider web of busted blood vessels running across his large nose, as if the skin there was stretched too thin.
“No, but I have a feeling you’re gonna tell me,” Jensen said, pulling his arm back roughly.
The old man cackled and ran a gnarled hand along Jensen’s jaw, the touch making Jensen’s skin crawl and his guts roll sickly. “Burroughs said ‘never give anything away for nothing.’”
“I can pay you,” Jensen said, shuffling backward out of arm’s reach. “I’m good for it. You know I am.” He tried to keep the sharp whine of desperation out of his voice, but wasn’t too sure he’d succeeded. He was close, so close. He only needed to give in and then he’d get another hit, just one more fix, and he’d be right as rain.
“I don’t need your money.”
Jensen looked at the professor closely. The light seemed to shift, hitting the old man in a different way, turning his skin a new shade of sallow. He looked more dead than alive.
It could be easy, the old man couldn’t move that fast, he could just take it, take it all and find some corner to hole up in, lay low and get the hell out of town before word of it hit the street. Because it would hit, and probably hit fast. But no one would call the cops, how could they?
Something flashed into Jensen’s head. An image of a warm smile and a promise from a man who didn’t even know who he was, but wanted to make him better.
His fingers twitched, his body poised to lunge toward the table. He deserved to take it. It was so close, so close.
If you’re broken, fix yourself.
And then Jensen was up and moving toward the door, scooping his bag up by a strap and almost tripping over Chad on his stumbling dash down the stairs, Chad’s confused shouts following him outside and back into the cold winter afternoon.