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still, still this chance to drop off

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Justin tells them at Thanksgiving, and everything happens at once.

He hadn’t known, then, what help would look like. What comes after. The concept of help—of sobriety, recovery, normalcy—seem like impossible things. Static terms that imply a beginning and a middle and an end, fixed points in a future he can’t fathom. Some other side where he isn’t the person he’s always been. 

Help, it turns out, begins with ten days detoxing in a center that probably costs more than he’s worth. A dizzying series of endless check-ins and counseling sessions and group activities. The withdrawal is easier than it had been on Clay’s couch, effects lessened by a tapering suboxone prescription. Hardly better than what he’d been doing with Bryce’s oxy, but it’s also better than nothing. He barely remembers the first three days.

The center’s director schedules him for an outpatient program, tells them it means he’ll have a shot at spring graduation. We believe it's essential to maintain a routine, a sense of normalcy. 

When he goes home, help means thrice-weekly appointments with Mark, his substance abuse counselor. It means an addiction support group and a slate of random drug tests. Matt and Lainie don’t flinch; they watch him like hawks, fuss over his ridiculous schedule, exchange anxious private looks when they think he won’t notice.

Clay is almost worse. Sends texts whenever Justin is out of sight for more than an hour, snoops through his duffel bag when he isn’t around. He has the decency to look sheepish when Justin catches him at it one evening, and Justin has the decency to pretend he hadn’t noticed. They don’t talk about it.

Everything happens at once, and Justin lets it. He goes to the endless meetings and appointments, participates, eats his fruits and vegetables, writes about his cravings in the humiliating journal his counselor gives him, all on the bet that it will make a difference. It has to work, he tells himself, like a mantra. It has to be enough.

He remembers Monty in those anxious moments. Monty, with his fucked up family, poor and reckless and without a future, dead on the floor of a prison cell. Some miserable footnote with nothing left behind but a legacy of rage and the people he’d hurt. Justin is smart enough to know that this is his last chance. He looks at the Jensen’s faces, at Jessica, his friends, and even if it isn’t easy at least it’s something.

Time passes fitfully and quickly. Eventually, his hands stop shaking. Lainie give him his one month sobriety chip on Christmas morning. 

“Technically a few days early,” she says, “but your counselor made an exception for the holiday.” 

“Not a bad start,” Clay tells him, void of sarcasm and actually beaming, like even this is a gift. 

So Justin smiles his best, most bashful smile and slings an arm around Clay to ruffle his hair. Thanks them—for this, for everything. The cheap blue piece of plastic sits in his pocket like a stone.

He doesn’t mention that it seems absurd, because he won’t even be off the suboxone for another few weeks. They’ll give him a shot of something called naltrexone then; another drug with a name like alphabet soup. Another drug to help make him stop using drugs, as though that makes sense. But it’s been a long time since Justin has gotten really, properly high, and if they believe that means something he’ll let them. 

The truth, he supposes, is like this: the stupid chip he leaves in the bottom of his dresser is real. The weeks of craving, of wire-taut itching are real. Justin is one month clean and his hands don’t shake anymore. Justin is one month clean and he has a normal house, a family, another chance.

I love you, he doesn’t tell them, but I’m scared that won’t be enough.

 

(The problem, then, is like this: Justin gets clean, and then he starts having nightmares, and then he finds a new way to fuck everything up.)

 

________

 

Sleep disturbances are a common side effect of the detox process. 

That’s what Mark, with his trendy clear glasses and youth pastor haircut, tells him. He suggests a melatonin supplement with a sympathetic twist of his mouth, because we can’t trust you with anything stronger goes without saying. 

On Sunday night, Justin manages a whole three hours before his eyes fly open and his heart is jackrabbit pounding against his chest. He stares at the ceiling for as long as he can stand, and finally gives up when the sky outside starts to lighten. Too agitated to doze and too tired to stay in bed, he slips quietly out of bed to let himself into the yard. If sleep isn’t happening, he can at least get a few push-ups in. 

What he doesn’t expect is to see Matt sitting at the patio table, engrossed by something on his laptop and—Justin realizes with a sense of absurdity—smoking a cigarette. It's strange and out of place; he doesn't think he's seen a single discarded butt in the entire neighborhood.

“Matt?” he ventures, and the older man jumps, eyes cartoonishly wide. 

Matt hurries to stub the cigarette out on the heel of his slipper and curses when it leaves a black smudge. “Justin! I didn’t, ah, see you there. What are you doing up so early?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” he shrugs, trying to stifle a laugh. “I didn’t know you smoked.”

“I don’t. Just… Bad old habit. A once-in-a-blue-moon kind of thing,” Matt replies sheepishly.

“Your secret’s safe with me, I guess.” Justin glances at the laptop screen on the table, lit up with what looks like an academic paper. He can just make out the title—something about Young Adults and Psychotic Episodes —before it’s hastily clicked shut.

“I couldn’t stay asleep either. Allergies, I think,” Matt supplies, scrubbing a hand over his face.

“Right.”

 “But”—Matt straightens— “I could really go for some pre-dawn breakfast. You hungry?”

 

That’s how they end up in the living room, a plate of peanut butter sandwiches on the coffee table between them. 

 “Sandwiches for breakfast, food on the suede couch,” Matt says through a mouthful, “we’re really breaking all the rules tonight. Or this morning, I suppose. Let's not tell Lainie.”

Justin laughs. It bubbles up with an ease that still surprises him. Maybe it’s because Matt is so unlike all the other men he’s known; the men his mother had dated, coaches, even Bryce’s father. Matt wears cardigans . He gets misty-eyed watching Lainie’s BBC shows. He’s gentle, and dorky, and unassuming, and Justin thinks that’s why he trusts him. If not completely, then at least enough for it to mean something. 

So Justin risks it. Asks tentatively, “The thing on your computer—is that what you think is going on? With Clay?”

Matt lets out a long sigh. He seems to think it over for a moment, something conflicted flitting over his face before it smooths out. Psychotic Episodes. It sounds too big, too ominous.

“I don’t know. We’re working on it, but these things are rarely straightforward,” he answers. “You don’t need to worry, though, alright? Now that we know, he’s getting the help he needs. That's the important thing.”

It’s a more honest answer than Justin had been expecting. Not for the first time, he wonders if Clay knows how lucky he is.

“Yeah. He’s been doing a lot better. Like, mentally,” he murmurs, fiddling with the hem of his sweatshirt. “You guys are good parents.”

“Thank you, Justin. I think he is, too.” Matt catches his eye, and holds it. “What about you? How are you doing?”

“I’m sober, if that’s what you mean,” he counters too quickly, too tense, even though it’s not a lie. Matt puts down his sandwich to raise conciliatory hands.

“I know that. Of course I do. But that’s not all we care about, and—Justin, it’s okay if being clean doesn’t fix everything. It’s important that you know you can come to us when you need to. About anything. Insomnia, for example.”

We won’t throw you out if, even after everything, you’re still a fuck-up. As though Justin doesn’t already know that. Like it isn’t half the problem.

“I know, Mr. Je—Matt.” A warm smile now, as proof. “I’m good.” I’m going to be good. 

 

(It isn’t insomnia; after the first week of withdrawal, Justin sleeps just fine. The problem is that he can’t stay asleep without jerking awake, over and over, limbs frozen like it’s all happening again. 

He’d had nightmares as a kid too, for a while; even wet the bed a few times. Justin doesn’t remember when it stopped. Only knows that Jessica’s party brought them back. That then there was Oakland, and he learned that heroin sleep is the best sleep on earth. That now somehow the past has never felt closer, bearing down like a ballast.)

 

________

 

“Have you told anyone else?” Jessica asks one night, apropos of nothing.

They’re curled up in her bed, whisper-quiet even with her parents out of town. A streetlight outside casts the shadow of a long tree against her curtains.

Was I the first?

“No.” A mumble, true and not true at once. “I mean, I’m not—there’s a lot of shit going on right now.”

He doesn’t want to talk about it. Not here, with her warm skin pressed against him, where the real world doesn’t properly exist. Her hand finds his in the dark and he’s thankful he can’t see her face, that she can’t see his. 

“It’s okay. If you’re not ready, I get it. And I’m so insanely proud of you already,” she tells him, “but this stuff doesn’t go away, and—it’s okay to talk to people, you know?”

“I did. I told you,” he says. I told a gymnasium. I told you, I did that for you.

“Not just me, I mean. Your could start with your family.”

They’re not my family. Not exactly, not really. He shrugs because it’s easier than saying no; a pathetic gesture. She shifts against him when he doesn’t speak, breath ghosting along the swayed line of his collarbone in a gentle sigh. 

“You said it was your fault, before,” Jessica murmurs into the silence, “and I don’t think I know how to make you believe that isn’t true.” 

It is true, he doesn’t say. You’re too good to believe it, but it is. Because she doesn’t understand that what he let happen to himself he also let happen to her. That he let it happen again in Oakland. That the line between his sobriety and a fresh bag of brown powder is tenuous and paper thin. That he is weak enough to let it happen again. That it’s a matter of time more than it’s a question of if .

A hundred responses curdle at the back of his throat, and Justin swallows them all.  He says nothing because it’s easier to lean down and press his lips to the downy pate of her head, to fold around her, because Justin is a coward before he is anything else.

 

(Sometimes, guiltily, Justin wishes he could take it back. He shivers when Jessica ties up his wrists, feels her warm weight on his chest—and holds his breath when he feels it suddenly go still.

“Is this okay?” she asks. Like he’ll break, or is breaking, somehow, beneath all the reckless want. “Yes, fuck,” he tells her, and they both pretend not to notice when she leaves the blindfold on the bedside table.)

 

________

 

Basketball, at least, remains blissfully uncomplicated.

Practice gets him out of his head; enough to forget everything and just moveall muscle memory and sharp focus until he's too sweaty and worn out to think. One thing he can be unreservedly good at, even if it's just for an hour after school. Sometimes it almost feels like it did before Jessica's party, before Hannah, and everything that came after. When he'd been healthy and on-track for a sports scholarship and way out. 

“Good work today, guys. Gonna need you to bring that energy to the game this weekend,” Coach Patrick says after practice, clapping as they leave the court.

He stops Justin as they file past with a grin on his broad face. “You too, Foley. Glad you’re back for the season.”

"Thanks. So am I," Justin smiles, and means it.

It all goes to shit in the locker room, when Luke sneers; an ugly thing, flat but bitterly angry somewhere underneath. “Coach doesn’t have to worry about Justy. He’s a survivor."

And Justin, for his part, isn’t exactly sure what happens next. 

At first there is a dim awareness of his body lunging at Luke, fists swinging, heart beating so fast it feels like it isn’t beating at all. A muted sensation as his knuckles make impact with skin and bone, too distant to fully register. Then nothing. 

He doesn’t come back to himself until Charlie’s half dragging him out of the locker room and into the hall. The sound of Luke’s curses echo out behind them. Justin blinks hard, lets himself stumble out of the double doors and into the crisp evening air. Charlie lets him go when they reach the edge of the parking lot, eyes wide.

“I know he’s a dick, but what the hell, Justin? You almost hit me.”

It’s quiet out here. Justin sucks in heavy breaths. Still out of it, left hand throbbing dully at the knuckles.

“Sorry,” he mutters and sits on the curb with shaky legs. “Fuck.”

Charlie folds down to join him, wringing hands over gangly knees. “It’s okay. Coach didn’t see—and Luke’s probably too embarrassed to mention it. You were really gonna mess him up.” 

The fog in his head dissipates bit by bit. Enough that a roiling humiliation creeps in, ramifications of the rally laying themselves out at last. They all know. They think you’re a pussy.

“Are you okay?” Charlie asks after a moment, tentative. He looks very young; only a year between them, but still just a kid. Justin doesn't think he's ever been that young.

No. I feel like I’m fucking losing it. I can’t sleep and I really need to get high. It would be so easy.

“Fine,” Justin breathes. 

 

(He doesn’t delete all of his dealer’s numbers. Comes close, once or twice. Changes Rob’s name to ‘Emergency Services’ in his contacts because if he’s ever been good at anything, it’s giving himself a coward’s way out.)

 

________

 

He walks Tyler home on Thursdays.  

It’s not far; a two mile route to the Down’s house, another two to the Jensen’s. If anything, it gets him out of the house with a good enough excuse that Clay won’t find a reason to text him every five minutes. When are you coming home? Did you go to practice? Where are you?

More than that, it’s surprisingly easy —almost relaxing. Tyler takes pictures, tries to explain things like focal length and aperture, lets Justin talk about sports. Sometimes they even stop at the convenience store for junk food, or Monet’s for a cup of coffee.

There are times, too, when Justin thinks he should ask Tyler how he’s doing. If he’s alright. He lets the words die on his lips because something about it seems like dangerous territory. Like opening a door he won't be able to close. They walk, week after week, and neither of them mention the assembly, and Justin is thankful for it.

“Have you been working on your college applications?” Tyler asks one afternoon, messing with his lens cap as they make their way up a tree-lined street. It's as cold as it ever really gets in Crestmont, some of the leaves yellowed or browning.

It’s a ridiculous question, but one Justin is used to hearing by now. He wonders, idly, what Tyler would say if he was honest. If he told him he isn’t even sure he’ll still be clean next fall. That the idea of a future is so abstract, so foreign to him as to be useless.

“Nah, not really. Clay keeps bugging me about it, though.”

“Oh. I thought—no offense, but you’ve seemed kinda tired,” he says. “My parents and I are visiting Cal Arts in a few weeks.”

“Yeah? For photography?” Then, playful, for good measure: “I’m not tired. I’ll have you know my face always looks like this.” 

Tyler huffs a laugh and raises his camera to take a picture: a bird on a fencepost, framed by the branches of an oak. It’s quiet, but companionably so, punctuated by the occasional click of the lens shutter. Peaceful enough that Justin can pretend they’re just normal teenagers, friends by choice and not melodramatic circumstance, heading home to ordinary lives. 

When they reach the Down's house, Justin waves. “See you tomorrow." 

“Yeah, see you,” Tyler smiles. Then he pauses, turns back, and there's a timid apprehension in his eyes. 

“Actually—um,” he says, “I hope this isn’t weird, but. I just wanted to say that if you ever want to come to an H.O. meeting, that’d be cool? If you want to. I could introduce you to everyone, I mean. They really helped me and they, like, get it. More than most people, anyway. I mean, they won’t—they don’t care that you’re a guy. And Jessica’s there.”

There is a part of Justin that knows Tyler is being kind. It also does little to quell the spike of anger he feels at the words, the rigid exhausted frustration. Tyler, the would-be school shooter. The fucked up kid who needs babysitting.

And something else, too: I’m not like you. What happened to me isn’t like what happened to you. It wasn’t like what happened to those girls. How Bryce had closer the door and Justin had stared at it and done nothing. He’s struck momentarily by the urge to laugh: a room full of women who hate his guts, and have every reason to.

“No offense, Tyler, but I don’t need another support group. And I definitely don’t need an invite from you, of all people.” 

It’s cruel and he knows it as soon as he’s said it. Watches with a kind of numb remove as Tyler’s expression shutter into something embarrassed, wounded.

“No, yeah, sorry. You’re right,” he stammers quickly and looks away, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Justin sniffs, shrugs. Stalks off as fast as he can and doesn’t look back until he reaches the end of the block. By then, Tyler has gone inside. 

A cold stab of guilt followed by a terrible, undeniable sense of relief. He isn’t sure which is worse.

 

(The Thursday walks don't stop, after that; it would give Clay something to fret over, and it’s not like Tyler has a good excuse to be anywhere else. Only now the silences are strained and halting. They pass Monet's without going inside.   

Justin knows it’s his fault. He knows that Tyler would be right to write him off, to think he’s an asshole instead of just shyly avoiding eye contact. He remembers the gallery show and the photographs. Thinks that even if he can’t say it out loud, Tyler is a better friend than he deserves.)

 

________

 

Lainie is home from work early, which probably isn’t a good sign.

She’s waiting in the kitchen after practice. Has made them both smoothies because she knows they’re his favorite, which is an even worse sign. Justin wonders if the Jensen’s read that in some kind of parenting book; that food makes difficult conversations with problem teenagers easier. 

There’s a manilla envelope on the kitchen island. He eyes it warily as she takes a seat across from him.

“Nothing’s wrong,” she starts, pointedly. “I just wanted to discuss a few things, and it’s easier when Clay isn’t around to snoop.”

It does little to reassure him. “What things?”

“I met with your social worker today. The state has finally handed over your files and records, and I thought it would be a good idea to go over a few inconsistencies,” Lainie explains. “Is that okay with you?”

“Oh. Uh, sure.” He clears his throat to swallow around the sense of unease. Adoption requires a lot of paperwork. An entire tree’s worth, at this point.

“Great. This isn’t a test—just an overview.” It’s a strange combination of her mom voice and her lawyer voice, and Justin doesn’t know what to make of that. She thumbs through the sheaf of papers splayed out on the granite counter.

He realizes she’s waiting for a response, some kind of affirmation. “Cool,” he says. 

“Okay,” she begins. Shuffle, shuffle, the click of a pen. “Let’s start with the easy stuff. Do you remember your last physical?”

“Nah. Didn’t really go to the doctor a lot.” An apologetic understatement.

“That’s okay. We’re only trying to account for gaps, here—some missed vaccines and annual check-ups—to make sure we have a clear enough understanding as is possible.” Her tone is deliberate, careful, casual, like he doesn’t know better. White trash.

“Do you remember your last vision test? Hearing test?” 

“We had them in middle school,” he supplies. Lainie nods and jots something down in her notebook.

“There’s also a flagged hospital record for a left elbow spiral fracture from 2013. It’s recorded as an incomplete assessment. Do you remember how that happened?” She keeps her face smooth and impassive; a calculated move for his benefit, he thinks. 

“I tripped and fell into a table.” The same thing he’d told the doctor five years ago. A rusty half-lie but automatic even now. 

He holds still and watches her, tries to figure out of she believes him, and only catches her gaze soften into something implacable. She’s not stupid. She’s a lawyer.

“You must have fallen pretty hard."

“I guess so,” he shrugs.

There are more questions. More half lies, partial truths, and all of them familiar. It had made things easier, once. He isn’t sure it still does.

 

(Lainie hands him a copy of the folder when they’re done. “You don’t have to read it—but it’s your information, and it’s important that you have access to it,” she says. 

Most of it is familiar. Some parts, like the four anonymous reports to CPS, are not. All are marked as 'investigated, closed'. He shoves the folder under his bed and doesn’t look at it again.)

 

________

 

“Can I ask you something?”

They’re sprawled out on their beds, surrounded by homework, and it’s like Justin already knows. Because Clay never asks if he can ask a question, and it's only surprising that it’s taken this long. He'd been naive to think the older boy was just waiting him out.

“Yeah, shoot,” he mutters, highlighting a sentence over and over just to keep himself busy. “Unless you wanna know whatever the fuck turpitude means, 'cause I’m trying to figure that out myself.”

“I know you stood up at the assembly.” There it is.

Justin stills. He doesn’t have to look up to know Clay is brooding, chewing on his lip. Someone else's problem to take on.

“I mean, I know—something happened. And I'm sorry that whatever it was that happened... Happened. And I’m here whenever want to talk about it. Obviously.”

Whenever you want to. Like it’s an inevitability, like Clay hadn’t barely been able to conceal his disgust street-side in Oakland. I don’t want to talk about it, and I want people to stop telling me to talk about it. I told a gymnasium of people. Jess. It was a mistake and now it’s over.

“Uh—I mean, I’m good. Thank you, though.” An earnest smile, a fervent invitation to let it go.

He doesn’t, of course. “Can I just... Ask you something? I need to know who. If it was someone I know. Or knew.”

“No,” Justin replies, “it wasn’t anyone you know.” The hollowness of it like a stone in his throat. Paul, way back. Louis selling oxy from a motel. A man who drove a white Toyota. People Justin barely knows, or barely knew.

“Okay,” Clay says, shifting with another restless pause. Then, “I think you should tell my parents, if you don’t want to tell me. Or, they can find someone for you to talk to.”

“I don't need a therapist,” he snorts. I don’t need another fucking appointment. He wonders if Jessica has something to do with this, goes rigid at the thought of them talking about him.

“There's nothing wrong with seeing one,” Clay retorts, infuriatingly matter-of-fact and just shy of defensive. “Seeing Dr. Ellman helps, lets me organize my thoughts, and—“

“I said I don’t need to see a shrink about it, dude. I'm clean. I'm good.” Let it go.

Clay’s gaze doesn’t waver. “You’ve been getting—what, three hours of sleep per night? I mean, we share a room. It's not like I don't notice this stuff.”

Justin gets up. Paces over to the kitchenette, listless, the room suddenly too small, and whirls around to stare him down. “Your parents make you talk to that guy because you were literally having, like, hallucinations,” he snaps. “Now you’re all gung-ho about it? When exactly did you become the expert?”

“I’m not claiming to be!” Clay stands too, cheeks coloring, his voice raising now. “And they weren’t—don’t turn this around on me. You just got clean, and I'd rather not see you relapse again, so yeah, maybe I don’t think it’s super healthy that there’s another thing you’re keeping from us.”

Keeping from us. A dirty secret, something he’s obligated to disclose instead of just forget. Humiliation and anger swell in his chest like a vice.

“You know what I think, Clay?” Justin spits out. “I think you’re obsessed with fixing people because it means you don’t have to look at yourself. I think you’re pissed that I’m not fucking up right now because you don’t want to be the schizo.” 

The word hangs there, ugly, in the air between them. Justin stays motionless, his heart beating fast with fury and fear and regret. But it works.

Fuck you.” Through gritted teeth like glass, sharp and entirely cold.

Justin waits to hear the slam of the door when Clay walks out, and then he breathes.

 

(The nightmares aren’t like the ones in movies. There are no perfectly composed scenes or flashbacks, but collages: amorphous sensations, memories real and half-imagined that bleed into one another, hideous vignettes. A hand on the back of his neck as the bed dips, the leather backseat of a car, be good or I’ll tell your mom. Pain or something worse.

Sometimes he’s just running, running from something so quickly that his legs tangle up in flannel sheets he hasn’t slept on in years. 

And when Justin wakes, he comes back to himself in utter silence, entire body tense and trembling. He doesn’t thrash or shout. He relaxes each muscle one by one, steadies his breathing, and counts the quiet sounds of Clay’s inhales and exhales like the tick of a metronome.)

 

________

 

It's a normal Monday night in the Jensen's kitchen, and that's when Justin fucks everything up.

And it’s stupid, because Matt is only trying to teach him how to make pasta. Something so innocuous—domestic, normal —but it’s a bad day. It’s waking up with his heart jackhammering and never quite coming out of it, sitting through a full hour of Physics class and remembering none of it, gasping through a fit of panic in the bathroom after. The kind of bone-deep empty fatigue he can’t shake off, sandpaper eyelids, head sluggish and disoriented after too many sleepless nights.

Clay has committed himself to alternately avoiding and ignoring Justin for the better part of the week, which is makes sharing a room difficult. Justin knows he should apologize, should have done so the second he'd lashed out. It feels impossible. Easier to pretend everything is fine, even when breakfasts are stilted enough to be conspicuous. It's probably why Matt coaxes him into the kitchen in the first place. Food first, then find a way to casually figure out why your teenagers are acting like strangers.

It's a bad day, but it's not like Justin isn't trying. He smiles at the right times, cracks a few jokes, kneads and cuts the pasta dough as instructed. He's a good liar. The kitchen smells like tomatoes and herbs. Just get it done and you can fuck off to the outhouse. Listen to music and stare at nothing, maybe try to sleep. Lainie is at the breakfast nook with a glass of wine, telling them about a local news story. Something about an invasive caterpillar. Orchards at risk. He stirs the sauce and tries to listen, he concentrates, and maybe that’s the mistake.

Justin isn’t exactly sure what happens next; how quickly or slowly. Only that he hears Matt’s footsteps, and feels a hand come to rest at the base of his neck, and then he isn’t in the kitchen at all.

A dark room and scratchy sheets, then a stairwell, a hand pressing over his mouth, or gripping his hair too tightly, knees scraped against concrete, a light that won’t stop flickering, if you tell I’ll make sure you regret it

Watches himself from a distance, as if through a very long tunnel. Justin sees his body spin and flail, strike Matt sloppily in the jaw, like the locker room with Luke, wild and uncontrolled, hip catching the handle of the saucepan, overturning—

 

and then it’s very still.

 

Justin blinks. He feels his back pressed against the flat metal of the refrigerator, hears the drumbeat of blood in his ears like a dull roar. Simultaneously there and not-there. Matt with a hand pressed to his chin and his face pale, diced red tomatoes and parsley all splattered on the floor between them.

“Justin,” Lainie’s voice, unsteady, “it’s alright, just—“

 

His feet move before his mind catches up.

 

________

 

Justin’s old neighborhood looks the same. 

It shouldn’t, he thinks. Should feel foreign now, after so many months with the Jensens, or changed. But the scuffed stucco faces of the houses are still there—the familiar scatter of trash against the fences. A dog barking somewhere. 

His feet and his hand ache hazily, like a sensation in a dream. It feels like he’s been walking for hours, but he's not sure that's true. The phone in his pocket—the Jensen’s phone—won’t stop buzzing. They’ll want it back, he thinks. 

His mother's apartment looks the same, too. Justin wonders if someone else lives there now.  Did the landlord ever fix the lock? Does it still stutter open with some jimmying and a credit card?  

The phone buzzes again. There is a number waiting inside it and thirty dollars in his pocket. He feels far away. It would be easy. Not like he can go back, not with the tomato sauce still cooling on the floor, the shape of Lainie’s eyes as he’d fled. 

Here's something: electric cars are nearly silent. What little sound the engines do make is artificial—to let pedestrians know they’re coming. Matt had explained this, once. Justin doesn’t hear it pull up until the slam of the door, until Clay is jogging up to the sidewalk.

His mouth is drawn into a small line but he doesn’t look angry. It doesn't make sense. I hit your dad.

“We really need to talk about you actually checking your phone,” Clay says, voice flat. 

Justin swallows. His tongue feels leaden in his mouth. “Why are you here?” 

“Why am I here? I've been looking for you for over an hour. Pretty sure they changed the locks on this place, though, so you’re out of luck. Can we go home now?”

“I can't.” It's not my home anymore. Maybe it never was.

“Yeah, you really can,” Clay replies. He’s strung tight and nervous. “Dad’s fine, Justin. They’re just worried because you booked it. They— we —just want you to come back to the house.”

“I fucked everything up,” he says, hoarse and a little slurred. 

“Nothing’s fucked up. Okay? But it probably will be if you try to run away again or—whatever.”

“I punched your dad.”

Clay blinks at him. “Yeah, well, it was an accident. If it makes you feel better, I’ve wanted to do it once or twice myself.”

Justin sways a little, the adrenaline that had carried him all but gone. Thinks about the number on the phone in his pocket, and how long it would take to get high if he texted that number now. Twenty, maybe thirty minutes. Quicker if he walked to meet the guy halfway. 

This is your last chance. It has to be enough.

 

“Please,” Clay says, and so he goes.

 

________

 

The roads are mostly empty. Justin begins to come back to himself in increments, and neither of them speak.

He doesn’t open his eyes until the car stops. The Jensen’s house swims into view, sitting up above the sidewalk and the steps. Some of the lights are on, and he squints to see if he can make Matt or Lainie out through the windows. Clay shuts off the engine but doesn’t open his door. 

“I was going to text a dealer. To try to score.” 

The consonants break at the end. Justin hadn’t meant to say it. Thinks maybe he shouldn’t have, but he is tired and every part of him is heavy with the weight of it. 

“You didn’t.” As though it’s simple, as though it means something. 

He realizes then that Clay has no reason to believe this is true. That he believes it anyways, despite everything.

“I’m really fucking tired,” he breathes.

Silence, steady and expectant. The sense that he's breaking, or that something has broken. Nowhere left to run. So Justin says,

“I’ll do it—talk to someone—whoever. I’ll do whatever I have to.” I'm done doing fucked up things. "I'm sorry." 

For calling you a psycho. For lying. For everything.

Clay doesn't reply. Just reaches out, slowly and carefully, and wraps his arms around him. Justin lets him. In many ways, it feels like the easiest thing in the world. He doesn't know what comes next; if concepts like catharsis and reaching the other side are real. If they even exist in real life. There are many things he doesn't know.

There is, after all, only this: the soft steady metronome of Clay's breathing is real. His hands are warm where they twist in the fabric of Justin's jacket and it's enough.

 

(The weight of his own hands, shaking now, but holding on.)