Luke is one hundred and thirty-seven days clean when he sees a man standing under the awning of the pawn shop across the street. It isn't anyone he's seen before but he instantly knows the man is a dealer. How he knows is not something he could explain, there's no secret code or sign or anything, but Luke's been an addict long enough — his whole life basically — that identifying a dealer is practically instinctive to him. He just knows when he sees one; he just knows.
He's clean now though. He's clean. He has a job, a life, and he's not about to throw that all away. But he can't seem to make himself walk away either. He should, he knows he should. He should turn around and head back home or call his sponsor or find a meeting or do anything, anything, other than just stand here, staring.
There's cash in his wallet. Actual cash he's actually earned and didn't have to beg, borrow or steal to get. He could—
It's a voice whispered on the wind that is there but isn't. It's Nell's voice, but not like he'd heard it anywhere but in his dreams, his nightmares, for years and years. It's the voice that murmured secrets to him in their shared bedroom when they were kids. It's the voice of the six year old that was his better half then and remained his better half, the person he might have been if things hadn't gone the way they had and he had taken a different path.
The man notices him then, sees how he's watching him and knows who and what Luke is in the same way Luke knew who and what he was. Any dealer worth their salt can recognize an addict at a thousand paces and Luke is nowhere near that. He smiles, a toothy, predatory smile that promises a solution to all his problems and an end to any pain he might have now or in the future. Sure, it'll leave him with a different pain, and disappointment and disillusionment and disdain too, but he's intimately familiar with those; it'll be like slipping on an old coat, scratchy and musty and uncomfortable in some ways but just right in others and will still feel like coming home.
The traffic is light enough that if he wants he can cross right here and now without even having to walk to the corner and wait for the signal. It'll be jaywalking, sure, but what's breaking one small law when you're about to break much more than that anyway? Despite the sun beating down on him he finds himself shivering. There's a coffee shop he passed a few stores back. He can go there and get something hot to drink that'll hopefully warm him up or he can just—
It's a sunny day, but with the dealer where he is and the angle of the awning the man is mostly in shadows. Bright white teeth and shining eyes reflect a little of the light but the rest of him is indistinct, just a promise of keeping the shakes and spirits away. And there are so many spirits, always there just out of the corner of his eye. Sometimes even closer. Sometimes not trying to hide. Nell used to help him keep them at bay but she's gone now. Or one of them. Or maybe something else entirely.
There's always been a connection between the two of them, that 'twin thing' that the everyone always laughs at and no one has ever truly believed or even tried to understand, but they knew it was real and that's all that's ever mattered. Nellie's dead now though and every time he thinks about it his neck hurts so badly and his arms and legs start to feel stiff and he gets cold, so goddamn cold. It makes sense though; she'd felt his withdrawals, his broken foot, his highs and his lows and he'd felt her sleep terrors, her bouts of the flu, her pain at losing Arthur. It has been like that their whole lives and she might be dead but she isn't gone, so of course it'd continue.
Although… if he uses now he won't have to feel guilty about how it would affect her. It's only him now and forever. She's not physically here so she can't feel it. She can't feel anything.
Her cry echoes and rings, reverberating all around him and it's so loud he almost wants to clamp his hands over his ears but he knows that it isn't going to matter, that it won't help. It's not a sound that can be blocked; it's in his head. In his heart.
The dealer is still watching him, head titled, assessing him. There's no doubt he can see the battle waging in Luke. It's a battle he's been fighting, and losing, his whole life. They say in group that everyone has their own battles to fight and their own monsters to face, but Luke's pretty sure he's the only one of them that's ever come across actual monsters and not just the worst of humanity that people sometimes label as such.
The dealer stretches out his hand, beckoning him over. Long fingers directing him towards a promise of warmth and relaxation and an easy way to forget all this problems. He can help, even if in a not actual helpful way. For so long, Luke has looked toward the needle as a way of getting well and it's always been the only thing that's reliably worked. It works in all the wrong ways, all the worst ways, of course, but it does work and he misses it.
What if he buys enough for one hit? Just one. Only one. He has a job and a home and if he's good, if he's careful, it'll be enough to take the edge off and help him be comfortable in his own skin in a way he hasn't been in far too long. If ever.
He's just about to commit to it and cross the street when something jostles his arm, even though the sidewalk around him is mostly empty. He startles, looking around despite the fact he knows there's nothing to see. The need to count, to protect himself, grips him and he wrings his hands before clasping them tightly together, trying not to fall back into the habit.
A featherlight touch to the small of his back stops him. It should freak him out since there's no one there - there is no one there - but it doesn't.
He recognizes it. It's a touch he's felt a million times before in a million different ways.
"I am not gone."
The words are soft, like the tweeting of a songbird that's far away and completely hidden by the mist and the leaves and the trees but when it calls out you can still hear it as plain as day, and you know it's there, even if you can't see it. He wonders if Nell's going to be like that for him now, there but not, or if he's just imagining her to be. Either way he finds it oddly comforting, having a perpetual piece of his twin with him and he takes a deep breath, turns, and head for home.
Seven hours and twenty five minutes until he is one hundred and thirty-eight days clean.
He can do this.