It had started to rain again, a steady frigid downpour that soaked Jensen’s clothes and ran icy down the back of his neck. His subway ticket was a wet pulpy mass that Jensen held tightly clenched in his fist.
He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten here - he vaguely remembered the stares of the other passengers on the train, how they took in his pale skin and hollow half open eyes; the shake of his hands and his nervous tics, sniffing and sniffing and wiping at his nose. They had looked at him as if he didn’t belong there. But they looked quickly away, and that was good enough. No use asking for more.
Jensen slowly approached the heavy door, his wet socks squelching in his wet shoes and fuck, it felt like his nose was on fire even though it was nearly frozen.
With numb knuckles and one last deep breath between chattering teeth he knocked on the door. He almost turned tail and fled, but decided to stand his ground.
There was a decidedly feminine shout from inside, and then the door swung inward, spilling light and a blast of warm air into the cold night. A small woman stared at him through calm eyes that were painted with too much black eyeliner. Without a word to Jensen, she shouted over her shoulder, “Jared!”
A second later Jared was there. His sleeves were rolled up and he was wiping his hands on a dishtowel. “Thanks, sweetheart,” he said as she turned away and retreated back into the house. When his eyes met Jensen’s, his face split into a smile that was maybe more than a little relieved.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” Jensen said, a burning lump catching in his throat. He’d only met Jared once, had only seen his smile that one time. But now, seeing it here in the dead of night, when he was coming down and feeling completely miserable, it made him feel a better, more human.
“You’re okay,” Jared said, not skipping a beat, only opening the door wider and taking a step down to the landing. He wrapped one long arm around Jensen’s shoulders and pulled him in close, heedless of the wet and cold. Jensen stumbled over his own feet, leaned against Jared and paused at the threshold, feeling as if he was getting ready to cross some line in the sand. There would be no going back.
“You’re okay,” Jared repeated “you’re gonna be fine.” Jared held him tighter and drew him into the house. “Welcome home.”
Jensen rolled over in bed, squinting against the hazy sunlight that filtered through a solitary square window high up on the wall. He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten here; into a soft narrow bed with white sheets that smelled like fabric softener. The thought was followed quickly with worrying about where he was going to get a fix this morning. Fairly par for the course for him.
But he wasn’t that bad off, surprisingly. No muscle cramps, no light-headedness, no pounding pain in his skull, no shakes - no signs of the morning junk sickness that had greeted him bright and early on and off for the past couple of years.
The tiny room was painted white with a dark-stained wood trim around the door. Its one window, simple and stark, made it look like a monk’s room. There was nothing on the walls, and there wasn’t much furniture, just a stand next to the bed, and a tall chest of drawers in the corner. Someone had left a glass of water on top of it. Jensen got up, his socks slipping a little on the polished wood floor as he walked across the room to the dresser. He opened the top drawer, feeling a surge of relief when he saw the contents of his backpack lined up neatly. The second drawer revealed a small pile of his folded clothes. The bottom two were empty.
Jensen felt a startling pang of regret, or maybe it was more like remorse. Almost three decades of life on this planet and all that he had to show for it wouldn’t even fill up a chest of drawers.
He was… insignificant. There was no one left to miss him.
He tried to define this bedrock in his head. It was funny how it hadn’t happened on an anonymous city sidewalk a few days back, when someone had taken his wallet and his shoes, and his heart had almost given out on him. Nor had it happened as he wailed and struggled against the restraints in the hospital bed, talking to those imaginary voices that whispered to him. And it hadn’t even happened in some dusty attic room.
They said there was a point in every junkie’s life where they hit rock bottom, and sure Jensen had come close a few times. More than a few, truth be told, but each time he’d stood up, dusted himself off and gone out to score.
But rock bottom for him was an empty dresser drawer in some strange bedroom, where he was warm and sober, where the smell of coffee and breakfast crept up from the kitchen downstairs.
His knees buckled beneath him without warning, and he landed on the unyielding floor, jamming his wrist painfully when he went down. His fingers went numb as he cradled the hurt hand. He crossed his legs and just stared with stinging eyes, unblinking and not thinking ,his breath coming in all wrong, aching its way into lungs that were trying to close down.
Jensen barely registered a soft knock on the door, and when he didn’t answer it opened anyway, Jared’s tall frame filling the doorway. “Everything alright in here?” Jared asked. “I heard a noise--” He stopped when he saw Jensen. With one long step he collapsed the space between them and lowered himself to the floor, setting a full cup of coffee beside Jensen’s knee.
Jared sat like that; just waiting as Jensen evened his breathing out. He placed a hand on Jensen’s knee before speaking. “Tough morning.” It wasn’t a question.
Jensen nodded as he ran the heel of his hand over his eyes, taking in another shuddering gasp of air.
“I brought you some coffee. Didn’t know how you took it, but there’s cream and sugar downstairs if you want it.”
“Thanks. I don’t really drink the stuff too much. Caffeine’s bad for you.”
Jared was looking at him, forcing back a smile as he chewed on his bottom lip.
“Jesus,” Jensen muttered, more to himself than Jared. He ran a hand through his hair. “First a tetanus scare and now caffeine.” He laughed a little at Jared’s confused expression, the rough sound startling him. It seemed like years since he’d smiled, or laughed at all. “How do I start?” he said, after he’d settled. Jensen didn’t even know the right question to ask, but Jared seemed to get the drift anyway.
“Honestly? You already have. But there’s some paperwork,” he made a face, but then turned serious. “There are a few rules, but the important one comes first. You aren’t trapped here. This isn’t a prison, and you can leave any time you want.”
Jensen only nodded.
“You’ll meet the others soon, but I want you to know that we’re all here to help each other. I’m here to help you. Do you have any questions for me?”
“Did you mean it?”
“Mean what?” Jared asked, leaning forward some.
“When you said ‘welcome home’ last night. Did you mean it?”
“You’re a real sucker for a hard luck case, aren’t you?”
“Lucky for you, I’m the type of guy who always brought home puppies and kittens to nurse back to health.”
“Yeah, lucky for me.” Jensen looked away. “Thank you.”
Everything was a trigger. Every single goddamned thing.
Jensen sat at the long table in the kitchen, thinking too much about the stupid spoon he gripped it tightly in one hand. He flipped it over, turned it this way and that, his blurry warped reflection visible in the back of it.
“It’s not good?” Jared was seated across from him, a sheaf of papers in one hand and a pen twirling restlessly in the other. “You want something else?”
“No, I’m fine,” Jensen assured him with a mumbled thanks. He spooned some brown sugar into the slowly congealing oatmeal in front of him, licked the spoon clean, and thought about the slim likelihood that his body would ever be able to process anything healthy ever again.
“Don’t even think about it,” a hand clapped almost painfully on Jensen’s back, and Jensen jumped. “Jared counts the spoons. He runs a tight ship around here.”
Jensen’s spoon clattered against the bowl as he dropped it. He grabbed the seat of his chair, hunching his shoulders together.
“As if. It’s not like I don’t try, but look at what I have to work with,” Jared chided. If he noticed Jensen’s discomfort, he didn’t let on. “Meet your housemate. This is Chris.”
Chris scraped a chair around and straddled it backward beside him. He blew back his long dark hair from his forehead and stuck out a hand. “So you’re what the cat dragged in last night? You were looking a bit rough, brother.”
“Yeah,” Jensen said, wary. “Pretty sure I’ve been worse.”
“We’ve all been there,” Chris nodded. “I remember when I came here. The first time. I was out of my fuckin’ mind, straight up climbing the walls. Literally. We’re not even gonna talk about the second time.” He grinned at Jared. “This man here, he never gives up. He saved my life.”
Jared looked embarrassed, and he had just opened his mouth to speak when the kitchen door banged open and two other people walked in. Jensen recognized one of them - the woman from last night. She was bundled up against the cold, her arms heavily laden with paper bags. A man followed her, holding open the door as she ducked beneath his arm. She unloaded the bags onto the floor and immediately started rustling through them.
“Coffee,” the man said it like a prayer, shedding his gloves and hanging his coat on the hook inside the door. He took off his knit hat, tried to run his fingers thorough his sloppy blonde hair before pulling the hat back on. He caught sight of Jensen out of the corner of his eye and veered from his path to the coffee pot. “Steve, meth,” he said by way of introduction. “This is Katie, coke,” Steve hiked a thumb over his shoulder.
There was a collective groan in the kitchen from everyone except Steve. “Hey, I’m not one for small talk,” he donned an innocent look. “Figured I’d get it out of the way. It’s what everyone wants to know anyhow.”
Jensen suddenly felt very self-conscious, stuck in the center of everyone’s full attention. “I’m Jensen…ah, whatever I could get my hands on, and a lot of it.”
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Steve said, turning his attention back to the coffee.
“Depends on your definition of hard…” Jensen said, eyes downcast. Right now resisting the urge to dash out the door and sink back into nowhere seemed like the toughest thing in the world. Climbing Everest would be easier. If he could get a fix first, of course.
“I know,” Jared began, “but you’ve done the worst part already. Showing up, that took guts. You’re not alone anymore. You have us.”
Jensen wanted to melt into the chair, disappear, do anything but have this conversation in front of a pile of curious ears. It felt too personal, too private.
“We band of brothers,” Chris said.
“And sister,” Katie piped up, holding a stack of clothes from one of the bags in front of her. She placed them in front of Jensen. “I guessed at your size.”
Jensen was chagrined. So this was how they’d keep him here - with a mixture of guilt and obligation. “I don’t have any money.” Not until he got a new ID, anyway.
“Don’t worry, thrift store special. Your clothes looked like they were being held together with dirt.” She placed a jar of ointment on top of the stack of clothes. “It’ll help. With the scars.”
“How’d you know?” Jensen asked. This was just getting worse, like there was some kind of neon sign hanging around his neck that was glaringly visible to everyone but him.
“You have the look. Morning and night. Don’t forget.”
“You really didn’t have to… but thanks.” Jensen unscrewed the lid, it smelled like menthol.
“One thing you need to learn about Katie,” Jared said, “is that once she sets her mind to something, it’s smart to just get out of her way.”
Jared leaned back, a small smile playing around his mouth. He looked content, like a father happy to have all of his children gathered back home again after a long absence. Maybe in a way he was just that.
“I don’t see the point,” Jensen slammed himself onto the bed, and covered his face with his forearm. It had been a good morning, the first good one he’d had in the three days he’d been here. It was shaping up to be a shitty afternoon.
“You’ll be fine,” Jared assured him. He stood framed in the doorway. “It’s only an hour. And it’s just us. You know us. Everyone’s waiting downstairs.”
“I don’t want to waste an hour of my time listening to everyone’s sob stories. I do that every night at dinner.” It was true, Jensen had learned over the past few days that suppertime here always ended up being some sort of impromptu group therapy session. Chris was always bitching about the number of liquor stores in their neighborhood alone, Katie talking about running into someone from her old life down at the five and dime where she worked, and Steve waxing philosophical about whatever happened on the news that evening. Jensen usually kept his blinders on, shoveled food into his mouth silently and counted the seconds until everyone finished eating.
“Do it for me then. There are rules I have to follow,” Jared pleaded, and Jensen read it for what it really was—a change of tactic, a different angle.
“Fine,” said Jensen , and followed Jared down the stairs.
Everyone was gathered in the living room, and Jensen slouched down in the only open chair.
“I’d like to open up the discussion with a topic,” Jared said, and Jensen was struck by the sudden difference in him, no longer simply a friend but now someone more clinical. “I’d like to talk about what brought you guys here. Not this house, but here.”
Everyone in the room turned to him, and Jensen was totally convinced that this whole thing was some sort of ruse to get him to open up.
“I made a mistake,” he said, after clearing his throat. He knew that it wasn’t very specific, but he had no intention of airing out his dirty laundry in front of these people.
But Jared other ideas, and Jensen was slowly starting to learn that sometimes there was no point in arguing with him. “We all make mistakes," Jared explained, "it’s what we make out of them that matters.”
Jensen hated to admit that Jared was right. He continued, more to get it over with and play along with the game than anything, the sooner he started, the sooner he’d be done. “My family had money. My life was mapped out for me. Private prep schools to get me ready for an Ivy League college, and then some cushy job somewhere, pretty trophy wife and some top floor penthouse. But then I realized that I wasn’t cut out for that kind of cookie cutter life. I just went about it the wrong way.”
“I kinda pegged you for one of those silver spoon junkies.” Steve noted, by the tone of his voice it was obvious that he in no way meant to offend, but irritation flared up in Jensen either way.
“Well, I choked on my silver spoon.”
Now that he’d started, it seemed as if his traitorous mouth didn’t know how to stop. “My mom.” Jensen paused, swallowed against the surprising lump that blocked his throat at the thought of the woman, and began again. “I don’t remember her ever being sober. Always had a martini in one hand and a bottle full of pills in the other. And after my father died, it just got worse. What’s the psycho-babble word for it?”
“She self-medicated,” Jared offered.
”That’s it. No one in the family ever talked about it. Just like no one’s probably talking about me right about now.”
“Your mother, you talk about her in the past tense…” Jared left the statement open ended.
“Any other family?”
“I have a brother. An older brother. Last time I saw him was when he put a cap on my account. I was burning through what my mother left me like a grassfire and he couldn’t take the money away from me, but he could control how much I can take out every month.”
Jensen skipped the best part about that night, the last time he stood in the same room with the man - his godforsaken Rolex glinting conspicuously on his wrist and some thousand dollar Armani suit hanging tailored and just right on his frame, and Jensen wearing last week’s dirty clothes, jittery and hungry and coming down from this cocktail he’d cooked up a few hours ago. An experiment, just to see how long it would keep him going.
Then there was the yelling and the pleading and finally the disappointment, when his big brother told him that he was just like their mother, and those horrifying few moments when Jensen admitted—to himself, no one else—that there was a small possibility that he could be right, could be telling the truth. But he didn’t like the idea of that; it didn’t fit into his notion of how the world was supposed to work, and he’d walked away, back straight and shoulders squared, and his head held high, just like he’d been taught.
“What happened then?” Jared said in a soft voice.
Jensen ignored the question. “It’s funny. The first of the month, and everyone’s my best friend. Two weeks later when I’ve reached my limit, no one can even remember my name.” He laughed humorlessly.
The room went pin drop quiet, everyone staring at their hands and nodding. Katie silently slid out of her chair and settled down with her legs crossed on the floor near Jensen. She patted him on the knee and left her hand there, even though she had to have felt the muscle tensing beneath her touch.
Jensen covered her hand with one of his own. It seemed like the right thing to do.
“Where did you go?” Katie asked.
“Here and there,” Jensen shrugged. “I got this place with my boyfriend,” Jensen paused, holding his breath and waiting for some sort of reaction from the people surrounding him, but there wasn’t one. “Let’s just say that we led each other down the garden path. Way far down, and I was just the one who ended up on top.” Jensen stopped, feeling wrung out like a bit of used up rag. He looked hopefully at Jared. “Am I finished? Can I stop now?”
Six days without a hit. Six. Six days of meetings at the recovery clinic a few miles away, of people trying to convince him that he wasn’t at fault, only sick. Six days of presentations and educational posters. It was an illness they said, something about pleasure centers in the brain and chemical reactions and something in his nerves that latched onto the substances and boom, he was hooked. Just like that. Dopamine levels in the brain. Simple science. Chemistry.
Jensen called bullshit.
This morning he’d spoken for the first time at the meeting, told the people there that he was clocking in at six days clean and sober. They’d clapped. Jensen didn’t understand why. Six days of staying straight was a drop in the ocean compared to a lifetime of fucking up.
After that he’d just clammed up, stared at his chewed fingernails—a new habit, no replacement for the old one—and wondered in which universe could talking about drugs make a person want them less. It seemed antithetical. A twenty-dollar word to describe a ten-dollar a pop problem.
Jensen sat in Jared’s car, his head a million miles away and a nasty taste in his mouth from the tablet they made him shove under his tongue at the rehab place. An opiate blocker, so even if he had the wherewithal to get stoned he couldn’t. Dirty pool, if you asked him, the way they made everyone line up at the door and stick out their tongue, like some fucked up version of Holy Communion. Jensen had a few choice definitions of the Rapture, and not one of them included a Hail Mary or an Our Father.
Jared pulled the truck into the driveway behind the house, rocking it to a stop. “I’m proud of you. For talking there today,” he elaborated. “It’s a big step.”
Jensen shot him a warning look and got out of the truck. The door groaned loudly as he slammed it shut. The sound made his teeth hurt. He was feeling on edge - volatile. He wanted to go to his room and bury himself behind a closed door for a while. He couldn’t even hang a reason on it, he was just off.
Jared didn’t get the message. Or if he did, he chose to ignore it completely. “It’ll get easier. A little, at least. I promise,” he followed Jensen toward the house, keys jingling in his hand. “Tomorrow it’ll be a week. That’s huge.”
“It’s nothing,” Jensen mumbled.
“Don’t underestimate yourself. A lot of people haven’t made it this far.”
Jensen banged open the door and took the pencil stuck in the clipboard that hung on a nail on the wall, ready to sign himself back into the house. A rule. Sign out when you leave, sign in when you come back. Piss in a cup once a week. House meetings two times a week. Room inspection at 9 am sharp every single goddamned day. Go to the recovery center each and every Monday through Friday and pay your penance. The bureaucracy of getting clean and staying that way.
But he could leave at any time. Jared had said so, and right now he needed to find a new reason to stay. The old ones were wearing thin.
The pencil hovered over the paper, his fingers shaking some. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them. He’d signed out, he didn’t necessarily have to sign back in. It would be one less thing. One less strip of red tape binding him, one less rule to follow.
Jared was standing close beside him, peering at him as if he could read Jensen’s mind. Jensen wondered what he was finding in there. Half the time Jensen didn’t even know. Suddenly the ceiling felt like it was too low and creeping ever lower. The room was becoming too small and the sunlight shining through the windows way too bright. Jared became a living breathing roadblock between him and the outside. “I’m gonna take a walk,” Jensen said. “Alone.”
Jared gripped his shoulder, sympathy painting his face. “You know I can’t let you go alone.”
“I don’t care.” He pushed past Jared and nearly ran to the sidewalk in front of the house, but he paused.
There was a mother and a daughter walking across the street from him, the young girl pushing a miniature stroller with a doll in it. The doll was wearing a blue bonnet. The normalcy of it squeezed Jensen’s heart near to bursting. The daughter saw him, smiled and gave him a sloppy little wave. She didn’t know him, didn’t know who he was, what he was or what he’d done. To himself. To the people he had once loved. To everybody.
Jensen waved back and tried to smile, only the smile didn’t stick too well. He wondered what had happened to him, why he couldn’t smile at a kid and actually mean it anymore.
But that was neither here nor there. He had to go right or left. It should have been an easy choice. For some reason it wasn’t.
He shot a glance back toward the house, and was not surprised to see Jared sitting silently on the steps leading up to the small landing. Just waiting there, watching. Maybe he was waiting to see which way Jensen chose so that he could follow, or maybe this was just his way of saying goodbye.
Jensen was struck with the sudden and startling certainty that he didn’t want to know which one it was. “You coming?” Jensen asked, shoving his shoulders back and raising his chin defiantly.
“If you’ll have me,” Jared said as he stood, like he was accepting an invitation to tea rather than yanking Jensen back from the brink of almost giving up, and doing so only by virtue of his silent refusal to leave him the hell alone.
“Yeah,” Jensen replied. “I’ll have you.”
Jensen chose left, left was always good, and together they set an easy pace, matching strides. Halfway around the block the silence started eating away at him. “Sorry about that.” When Jared just hummed Jensen continued. “I was being childish. I should have outgrown temper tantrums a while ago.”
“Don’t apologize,” Jared shook his head, brushing his bangs away from his eyes. “You’re allowed one breakdown a week, maybe two if you ask nicely.” He squinted into the sky for a moment and then became serious. “It’s to be expected. After all, you’re in mourning.”
Jensen stopped short and faced him. “Mourning?”
“It makes sense,” Jared shrugged. “Think of it this way. You had this really great friend. Sure, it wasn’t human, and it sure as hell wasn’t very good for you. But this friend was always there, it was something you could always rely on. Consistent. And you became dependant on it. Mentally and physically. It was what you turned to when things went good, even more when things went bad. The two of you spent a lot of time together and now your friend’s not here anymore. It’s gone, and you miss it. So mourning fits.”
Jensen nodded. It did make sense. All those people at the rehab center with their charts and graphs and slide presentations hadn’t put it into such simple terms. It seemed like they could take a cue from Jared.
“You’re a lot more than just a pretty face. You know that?” Jensen said. Jared leveled a searching look at him, some new sort of tension thickening the space surrounding them. He clicked his jaw closed with regret.
“Don’t be too sure about that, I just get lucky from time to time,” Jared said with a smile, as if he was trying to clear the air. “I could say the same thing about you, Jensen. There’s a lot more to you than you think.”
Jensen hunched his shoulders against the feeling blooming in his stomach, like he’d inadvertently crossed some invisible line that he never knew existed. He set off down the sidewalk again, coming quickly to the corner. He chose left once more. “Are you gonna pull that five stages of grief crap on me?” Jensen asked. He’d meant it to be funny but it fell flat.
“The way I see it, you’re hitting the first four pretty goddamned hard and just about all at once.”
Jensen bit the inside of his cheek, a foggy, flower filled memory sneaking in unbidden. He pressed the heels of his hands against the unexpected sting in his eyes and took a deep breath. He shivered. His throat was aching and he fought against it. Walked a little faster. Looked up at the sky, searching for a recognizable shape in the clouds. Looked down and tried to find patterns in the cracks in the sidewalk. Nothing was working.
“What’s going on in there?” Jared asked softly, a half step behind him.
“Nothing,” Jensen said, trying to prove it to himself as much as convince Jared of it. “Something,” he amended a second later.
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“Yes. I do,” Jensen stopped again and spun to face Jared. “My mom,” he began. “I don’t remember the day she died. The date. It seems like I should, but I don’t.”
“Do you remember her birthday?”
“That’s what counts,” Jared was looking at him steadily, patiently.
“I got high that day,” Jensen said, voice soft and shaking, “The day of her funeral. I told myself I wouldn’t, but I did. Fucking passed out in the bathroom of the funeral parlor and my brother dragged me out of there to go to the gravesite.”
Jensen remembered back then; the smell of the flowers suffocating him, everyone so goddamned politely sympathetic, the tie around his neck feeling like a noose, and that terrible insistent burn in his nose from the stuff that he’d just jammed up there. His sister in law had clung tightly to his arm. She smelled of expensive perfume and the heels of her three hundred dollar shoes sunk into the mud in the graveyard. She looked at him and knew, just knew and didn’t saying anything. Because that’s not what you did in polite society.
A thought struck him now. “This is what it feels like to be an orphan,” he told Jared. The reality of it sank into his bones. Jensen had no parents and no brother in the usual sense. He’d been kicked out of his home, evicted off of the streets. His friends were all junkie connections, a parody of a fictive dysfunctional family.
“You’re not an orphan,” Jared insisted, his eyes slightly watery in empathy. “You’re not alone anymore.”
Jensen let those words wash over him, let them chase away the coldness that had crept inside of him. He squeezed his arms across his chest and took two small steps toward Jared. Jared opened his arms, drew Jensen into his chest, holding him snugly while he smoothed a hand across the short hair at the base of Jensen’s skull. He just stood there, like he was perfectly willing to do nothing but this all day long.
Jensen allowed himself to be held, lost himself to the feeling of being small in Jared’s arms, of being safe and protected. It felt like being loved, even though he knew that wasn’t possible.
“You don’t have to be alone,” Jared whispered to him, “not now. Not if you don’t want to be.”
An open book sat ignored in his lap. It was some ex-junkie's manifesto on how to get well again. Jared fed him a constant stream of the stuff; books, pamphlets and brochures, things that he printed out from here and there, repeating over and over again that a recovery program wasn't ever cut and dry, that he should take a bit of this and a bit of that and eventually something would click. Jensen wished he had that kind of faith.
As if the thought had summoned him, Jared appeared in the adjoining room, and after a quick check of the living room sat down at the kitchen table. Jensen stared at his back as Jared bent over some paperwork. He had a pencil in his hand that he twirled constantly between his fingers.
There certainly was something about him, it was in the way he talked, the way that he moved, that constantly grabbed Jensen's attention, held it tight and wouldn't let go.
"I see you," Katie said as she entered the room and flopped down next to him on the sofa. Jensen jumped, losing his page in the book. "Don't worry about it," she went on, slapping him on the shoulder. She was stronger than she looked. "He’s almost magnetic, isn’t he?" she said, as if she could read Jensen’s thoughts.
"What?" Jensen nearly squawked. "It's not what you think."
"Sure it is, and you're not the first. It's like this weird sort of hero worship or something. We all have it for him, in one way or another. That, and it's not like he's hard on the eyes or anything."
"Maybe you should go for him then." The very thought inexplicably left a bad taste in his mouth, but he said it anyway, in hopes of getting her off his trail.
"I'm not really his speed, if you get my drift."
"Alright, I'll bite. What's more his speed?"
Jensen groaned, gave up on the book and threw it onto the table. "Do you really want to be doing this?"
"As a matter of fact, no. I'd rather be sitting pretty in front of an eight ball right about now, but that's not gonna happen. Ever again, if everything goes according to plan. So, for the time being this is what I got. Do you have a problem with that?"
"Good, I didn't think so."
Jared caught his longing look and the way Jensen licked his lips as they drove past the old ma and pa deli a couple of miles away from their house. The craving for sweets hadn’t left with the last traces of dope in his system. “You hungry?”
“Kicking smack was one thing, but coffee milkshakes with chocolate syrup and so much malted milk that it crunches between my teeth? Well, that’s something else all together.”
Jared swung the truck to the curb and killed the engine. He leaned over the bench seat, half in Jensen’s lap as he reached into the glove box. Jensen’s stomach swooped down in a way that he’d come to almost look forward to whenever Jared got a little too close. It still surprised him every time.
“What’s that? Emergency milkshake fund?” Jensen laughed as Jared handed him some folded up money. “I can’t take that.”
“Shut up,” Jared dismissed him, but there was no real heat in it. “You’ve been here for more than a week and you haven’t asked for anything.”
“That’s because I don’t have anything to give back. Not yet, anyway. Besides, what more can I ask for? You’ve already given me a roof over my head. I get three squares a day.”
“Technically the state’s given that to you.”
“You know what I mean,” Jensen protested.
“Then a goddamned milkshake won’t make much of a difference, will it?” Jared said. The guy had a point, Jensen admitted begrudgingly. “Go.” Jared gave him a light push. “I’ll wait here.”
Jensen’s feet hit the sidewalk, and he shivered and raised his hood against the cold. There was a cowbell on the door’s handle, it clanged with a loud hollow sound when Jensen entered. It was weird, to be out in public without someone with him. It had been a while since this happened. He got into line, feeling like a kid with his hand wrapped tightly around the money Jared had given him.
There was a guy lingering near the back of the place, and Jensen waited in line, watching with mild disinterest as the man surreptitiously slid a can of soda into the pocket of his coat. It was joined a second later by a candy bar. As the guy turned around, Jensen looked down, spun around, and hoped that he hadn’t been spotted.
“Jensen,” the kid got in front of him in line, his big grin revealing a crooked line of teeth.
Jensen eyed him suspiciously, searching his memory for the name. It was Eli, or something close to it, something biblical. He approached Jensen conspiratorially, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. When he spoke, Jensen could smell it on him. It.
He took a step blindly backward as the guy leaned forward. “You holdin’?” No use for social niceties. The guy looked sick, black ringed eyes and sores on his pale lips. Skin the color of illness; yellow and clammy.
Jensen unglued his tongue from the roof of his mouth. “I quit.” Two simple words, he wasn’t even too sure of the truth in them. But he was getting there, that much he did know.
Jensen swore there was a flash of disappointment that worked its way across the guy’s face. “Money?” Phase two of the junkie code of interaction was coming into play, a song he knew all the words to.
“No,” Jensen said, and when the guy’s eyes flashed toward his hand, he quickly shoved it in his pocket. “It’s not mine,” he said pathetically. His knuckle bumped into something metal in his pocket. It was the chip the rehab center had given him to mark his one-week anniversary of being clean. The number seven pressed into a thin piece of aluminum. He was now working his way up to two weeks. It felt like forever.
The kid grabbed Jensen’s elbow and came in close, near enough that Jensen could smell the sick scent of his breath. “C’mon. I’m sick. I just need to get well. You know how it is. Help me out.”
Jensen tried to shake him off but the guy held fast to his arm, not giving up. He tripped backward, blindly seeking an out. Two backward steps toward the door and he ran into someone. Jensen glanced behind him, an apology forming on his lips.
Jared was there, his face dark like a thundercloud. His gripped Jensen’s upper arms tightly. “Let go. Now,” he said. The guy released him, slinking away and sliding past the two of them.
The sound of the bell on the door told Jensen that the guy had left, and Jensen’s hands started to shake. It was double-edged, two parts relief and one part shame.
“You okay?” Jared asked, his gaze following Jensen’s assailant.
Jensen nodded. “Let’s just go.”
Jared led him out of the building with an arm wrapped closely about him. Jensen bit down hard on his lower lip, the trembling in his hands traveling throughout his body now, damn near uncontrollable. He got into the truck, and laid his forehead on the angled dashboard.
Then Jared was beside him again, fingers rubbing along the back of his neck, sliding across the truck’s bench seat to plaster himself tightly along Jensen’s side. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
There was a note of desperation in Jared’s voice, and Jensen shook his head.
“You’re fine then. He’s gone. Everything’s fine.”
“It’s not that,” Jensen mumbled.
“That guy…he was me. That was me not that long ago.”
“But that’s not you now,” Jared said it in a way that was filled with enough conviction for the both of them.
“How can you be so sure? Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck facing this big black hole where my willpower used to be.”
“But only sometimes.”
“Yeah.” Jensen shrugged.
“Then you’re better off than some.” Jared gave Jensen’s neck one final squeeze and slid over to turn the key in the ignition. “Seems to me like you need to get out of this place for a few hours,” he said, peering through the windshield at the sky. “Go for a ride.”
“What about the house?” Jensen asked as Jared pulled away from the curb.
“It’ll be fine,” Jared waved Jensen’s concern away.
“How can you trust us? How do you know that you won’t come back one day to find that everything that isn’t nailed down gone?”
“Because you’re good people,” Jared replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “All of you. You may have done some god-awful things to yourselves, but inside you’re good, I’m sure of it. You may not trust yourselves, but I trust you.”
“How can you be so optimistic?” Jensen asked.
“Somebody around here has to be.”
The buildings became lower as they made their way out of the city, high rises replaced by homes and smaller buildings until finally there were none, only a long stretch of road, book ended by bare trees and a steel grey winter sky above. The wind had picked up, pushing dry leaves across the two-lane highway, as if they were trying to sweep the surface clean.
It had been years since Jensen had left the city, and the vastness made him feel exposed. There was nothing between him and the landscape. It was a straight shot, a mainline.
“What’s going on in there?” Jared reached across the stretch of seat between them and lightly pressed two fingertips to Jensen’s temple.
“I was thinking that I need new metaphors,” Jensen replied. “That doesn’t make sense, I know.”
“I get it.”
Jensen hunched down, propped his knees up on the dashboard and sunk into the comfortable vibration of the truck’s seat, lulled by the easy silence that filled the space between him and Jared.
He must have drifted off, a change in the terrain startled Jensen back into the present. The truck was rocking along a narrow gravel road. “Where are we?” Jensen slurred.
“Somewhere I used to go sometimes,” Jared said. “I haven’t been here in a long time.” He pulled the car to the side of the road. “We’ll walk from here.”
The air was crisp and chilly - it seemed thinner - and Jensen felt ill-equipped for a walk through the woods. He shoved his hands deeply in his pockets against the cold and wished he had a better pair of shoes. The underbrush and rocky ground poked painfully through the thin soles of his sneakers. His breath fanned out before him in small white clouds.
When they broke free of the trees, he decided that it was completely worth it. The were at the crest of a rise, the city spread out before them in the distance, almost indistinct through the haze that hung above it.
Jensen whistled low, felt a thrill when Jared shot a pleased smile in his direction.
Jared folded himself onto the ground, elbows propped on his bent knees. “I’ve missed this place,” he said in a hushed voice that carried in the clear air. “I used to come here all the time, whenever the city started getting to me. It always reminds me that it’s possible to get out. That there’s somewhere else out there, some places where there’s plenty of air to breathe.”
A stripe of guilt ran through Jensen as he listened to Jared. Here was this man who was willing to give him everything and ask nothing in return, and Jensen had been too stuck in his own head to bother to learn anything at all about him. He resolved to make good on that.
He settled down beside Jared and asked, “Did you grow up here?” It was as good a start as any.
“No. I grew up in a little no name town between the big ones in Texas. I moved here for school. I just never got around to leaving.”
“What did you study?” Jensen remembered his futile attempts at college, they seemed like a long time ago, class was always something that he’d done in between parties when he’d gotten too bored, until finally not even all the money his family threw at the school was enough to keep him there.
“Sociology and psych,” Jared said, still staring out at the expanse before them.
“You’ve always wanted to help people.”
“Not always. But yeah, for a long time.”
There was something Jared didn’t want to tell him, and Jensen decided that it was alright. It was reassuring to know that they both had secrets, things they held close, and he was fine with letting Jared hold this one until he was ready to let it go.
A breeze blew up, and Jensen’s teeth chattered with it. He blew into his hands to warm them. Jared noticed and slid a little closer to Jensen.
“Is this okay?” Jared said, putting an arm around Jensen. Jensen answered by unabashedly leaning in a little closer to him.
Jensen sat, with the coldness of the ground seeping through his jeans, hip to hip with Jared, their legs pressed close together, and watched the sun sink slowly toward the city skyline, growing redder through the haze as it moved in its path.
It painted Jared’s skin an orange color, highlighted the blue flecks in his eyes, and in that instant Jensen thought that he could fall in love. It would be easy, effortless, and so different from everything else. He just had to let go and let it happen. And when Jared tore his gaze away from the view and looked contentedly down at him, Jensen thought that perhaps it already had.
Jared held his stare for what felt like forever, chewing on his bottom lip, and Jensen became keenly aware of the slow movement of Jared’s thumb along his arm, of the clatter his heart was making against his ribcage, of the way every cell in his body was telling him to melt into Jared and never come up for air. But then Jared shook his head a little, cleared his throat and said, “We’d better get back. Can’t have you catching your death.”
A sharp spike drove through Jensen at Jared’s use of that phrase, some half-remembered thought flitted through his head, but it felt like a dream. “It hasn’t caught up with me yet.”
“It’s not gonna happen on my watch.” Jared got up, dusted himself off and leaned over Jensen with his hand extended to help him up from the ground.
Jensen took it, and his breath caught in his throat when he saw Jared’s necklace fall loose from his shirt. It was a key on a chain. An old burnished thing, too small for a door and too big to unlock a diary.
“It was you,” Jensen said, grabbing it with numb fingers. “I remember this. From the hospital.” Jensen looked up at Jared. He looked like he’d been caught red handed. “What do you do? Haunt the detox ward, looking for the next sad sack to bring home?” Shock was still trilling through his system, and he was getting angry. Self-righteously pissed off. He dropped the key. It landed back on Jared’s chest, and Jared quickly tucked it beneath his shirt.
“I was looking for someone.” Jared’s eyes were wide and there was a slow blush creeping up from his neck to his face. “Someone had gone missing from the house. I was looking for him.”
Some of Jensen’s anger backed off, just as fast as it had flared up. It was replaced with sharp embarrassment. It had been Jared; that cool hand on his forehead, the washcloth wiping away sticky spit from his mouth. It was him who hadn’t been afraid to touch Jensen with his bare hands, hadn’t been afraid of catching something. It had been Jared who saw him at his worst and had still managed to look him in the eye every day since.
“I heard you,” Jared continued, and Jensen didn’t want to listen to it, but it was like trying to look away from a bloody car crash. “You were talking to yourself, and you were alone, and so I lied. Told them I was a friend. You looked like you needed one.”
“Did you ever find him? The guy you were looking for?”
Jared took a deep breath and shook his head. “He doesn’t want to be found. I keep waiting for him to show up. Maybe one day…” he trailed off, and started walking toward the car.
“What’s it unlock?” Jensen called after him. He waited a second before following behind. “The key, what does it unlock?”
Jared glanced behind, saw that Jensen was following him and quickened his pace some. “My mistakes,” he answered.