It always ended the same way with Collie.
Another three-week bender that kicked off with a "celebration hit" at a friend's college party left him on the familiar bed of a sticky bus shelter bench once again. Unsure of how many last times he had left in him, he rifled around the pockets of his jean jacket, collecting all of twelve cents. He glimpsed the remnants of what looked to be a disconnected payphone next to him as he rose from the bench and tried to stand, his whole body pleading for mercy. Collie considered waiting for the bus and hedging his bets on the driver taking pity on him, but the sun was low, nothing but trees for miles, and he figured he had better odds just walking in one direction and sticking to it.
Fighting the urge to lay on the ground every few minutes, he scrambled for mental distraction from the ache of his body, but his brain seemed a blank slate. He knew he’d thought it every time, promised it even, but he could’ve sworn then that he'd never felt it hit this hard in his life. Honest, never again, he silently pleaded, a darker recess of his mind knowing he’d be right here again sooner or later. He begged in earnest then to find another gram of something, anything, on him, as he frantically patted down the pockets of his cargo pants, not even checking for loose change this time.
Distracted from his desperate search, Collie spotted a sudden glimmer of lights further ahead on the road. He felt relief wash over him as he could clearly make out the beacon of what might be the sign of a gas station, or better yet, a Truck-stop he half-wished sardonically. He could eventually make out the illuminated lonely shape of a diner. No lights on inside. He idly wondered how the place stayed in business, if it even was in business; it had certainly seen better days.
After crossing the empty dirt parking lot with heavy feet, he gave the glass door a few good shakes, already planning to throw something through the glass and crash for the night. As he looked around for a good boulder, something moved out of the corner of his eye. Dropping his plan as soon as he’d formed it, he made out the outline of a man through the kitchen slot behind the bar, probably with a good foot or so on Collie, and probably the owner. Well, Collie would have to take his chances, not that he’d had much of a choice anyways; his body wouldn’t take him much further than this.
He used a last surge of adrenaline to begin banging on the glass and before he could make a good impression, blurted, “H-Hey, man, I’m lost! Can I... use your phone?” Shit. He had nobody to call. It had just slipped out.
The shadowy figure approached to open the door, and Collie was relieved to find the man looked cleaner cut than he’d been expecting. If he was a squatter, he was the straightest one Collie had ever laid eyes on, and he’d laid his eyes on plenty.
"Thanks a lot, buddy. I got a little turned around, and-" Collie chuckled, attempting to sound less paranoid as he was sure the last dregs of whatever was in his system were making him feel. "Tell you the truth, I can barely remember my name.”
"Can't tell you that, but I can tell you mine. Lou," The man offered.
“Ah, Collie. Good to meet you, Lou.” Collie said, a little embarrassed at how scared he’d sounded before, “Sorry to intrude.”
The man gave a dismissive but polite wave and let him in, closing the door behind them and turning on the fluorescent diner lights, which immediately stabbed all of Collie’s nerves. “Not at all. Where you headed, Collie?”
Collie was too preoccupied with the newly illuminated diner to give an answer, let alone think. He thought he heard the man ask if he was okay, but eventually just shook him off with a nod, as he heard himself reassure him, that he was fine. After rubbing at his temples and sitting on the cold tile floor of the diner he noticed it was spotless, as smooth as glass against his shaking hands.
“You alright, kid?”
Collie’s eyes finally adjusted, and he took the man’s stretched-out hand lifting him from the floor, too out of it to be self-conscious of the fact that he might as well have been wearing a sign that said “JUNKIE”.
“All good, uh - Lou. Thanks.”
Collie tried to get his bearings, noticing the glittery red booths, how comfortable, yes, but also just how new they looked compared to the outside of the place. Even the red Coca-Cola cups on the counter, the kind that usually been ravaged by scratches and chips, looked pristine, the barstools devoid of rips. A hand on Collie’s shoulder finally shook him out of his trance.
“Why don’t you just sit down?”
“Sure. Sorry about that I just...nice place.”
“You said you had to use the phone?”
“Oh, right. Yeah.”
Collie couldn’t believe he’d forgotten that before Lou had. Worse, Collie could hear a kind of seething impatience beneath the man’s politely affected demeanor now.
“Need some change?”
Lou offered him a roll of quarters out of his worn jeans before Collie could respond, and somehow found that a bit strange. Before he could interrogate it further, he decided he didn’t care, the man had clearly taken some form of pity on him, and it wasn’t Collie’s business to know why so long as he could get the hell out of here.
“Have at it.” Lou gestured towards the old payphone next to the jukebox. “You hungry?”
Collie hadn't noticed it until that moment, but boy was he. He certainly couldn't remember how long it had been since he last ate. Days, maybe even a week.
“How do you like your burger done? Don’t tell me, rare.”
“Uh, yeah that’s right, just-no tomatoes if you don’t mind.”
And with that, the man disappeared back into the kitchen.
Since when do diners let you order your burger rare?
Collie tried not to think about it too much as he slipped quarters into the payphone, and then tried to look busy, overwhelmed by a feeling the man was still watching him somehow. He searched his brain for anything, but he really was out of it this time. Looking over his shoulder once more, panicked muscle memory reverted to a number he had almost hoped he’d forgotten. He listened to the taunting, trying, and failing to peep in at the man through the kitchen slot, and as the phone went to voicemail, Collie cursed under his breath and slamming the heavy thing down with an angry ding.
His dad had always picked up the phone no matter how many times Collie called, no matter how late it was, even if only to make sure Collie was okay king enough to tell him not to call again, to tell him he wasn’t going to pull him out of another one of his messes, not this time. Even if it was only for Collie to beg and cry until he could sink his hooks back in. Even if only to wake up, not unlike how he’d woken up on the bus bench, with his father yanking the needle that he’d unknowingly paid for out of Collie’s arm.
Collie slumped into one of the gleaming booths next to the phone, his body boneless now. It was all he could do to compulsively repeat the same old promises. He mentally penned his apology. I promise I’m getting clean for real this time, pop, no, I mean it, no, just give me one more chance no-
“No tomatoes, right?”
It was then that he’d finally noticed Lou had popped out of the kitchen and dropped the tray, too loud for Collie to handle right now, onto the shiny table of the booth in front of him.
If Lou had heard Collie slamming the phone angrily, he had shown no signs, looking as chipper as he had when he’d left.
“Wow, thanks, this is...”
“Don’t mention it.”
Collie sat back and allowed the warmth from the plate and coffee cup to waft over him. The thing was rare alright, and there were no tomatoes. Lou sat opposite him, looking like he could tell Collie had seen better days and wanted to make sure he wasn’t about to puke it all up.
“Phone work alright?”
“Huh? Oh, uh, sure. My dad…he's not picking up. He’s probably working." Collie muttered with a mouth full of burger, trying to convince himself more than Lou that that was the case. It was certainly the best diner food, hell, maybe the best anything he’d ever tasted in his life. As he felt it sobering him up little by little, he decided he’d try dad again, as many times as it took, yeah that ought to do it.
Collie didn’t know why or want to, but he didn’t feel comfortable asking this guy for a ride. All he knew was he didn’t like how friendly he was getting, feeling the eyes still on him even as he ate, so he kept his trap shut for the time being and took a swig of his coffee, opting not to bite the hand that fed.
There had been no screaming or arguing the last time he had seen his father. In the painfully silent drive to rehab, though, there had been an unspoken message: This is all I have left for you. And it had been, hadn’t it? Collie was sure he would have welcomed the familiar screaming over that. He had probably finally realized that Collie was just rotten, Collie didn’t deserve another chance. Fuck him, Collie thought coldly.
It did nothing to dislodge the lump in his throat as he’d wished then that he had gotten a proper goodbye he somehow knew now that he would never get. The man might have just been staying late at the office, sure, maybe that was all. And now he’s dead because of you, a voice in his head told him, his fuckup of a son drove him to-
Collie silenced that voice before it could finish the thought, too horrific to entertain any further, knew it must be the withdrawal paranoia talking. The theory did little to comfort him, so instead, he silently begged again, this time for a chance to pay it all back, to get clean, to not have to be the one carrying his father, to not have to pull him down from a rope or-
He could feel his stomach fighting to escape through his throat, and finally, it did, as Collie managed to turn his head in time to aim his stream of vomit right onto the pristine diner floor. He could feel the color draining from his face.
“You alright, Collie?” Lou asked, and Collie could swear the voice was tinged with amusement, “Here, let’s get you cleaned up.”
"I'm not sure," Collie choked around the spittle leaking from his mouth, "I think I... should..." Collie tried to move but found it impossible.
“Hey, hey, just take it easy. You like music?” But it didn’t sound like a question.
I’d like to get out of here, Collie thought.
“Sure... okay.” He managed, laying in the seat now.
He’d had enough hangovers to know this wasn’t normal, what was happening. This felt more like a high than withdrawal.
“Th-this isn't...something's not...” He tried to say.
"You're alright." He thought he heard the man say other similar reassurances, Collie didn't know if it was just the sudden tiredness or whatever was in his system, but he believed them, or maybe just wanted to
Then, in the blink of an eye, seemed to inexplicably be standing next to the jukebox again. But Collie was too far gone to fight the exhaustion washing over him to think anymore. To want anything other than sleep.
The soothing electric guitar of the song lulled him into a complete state of serenity, his frame lifeless against the soft plastic diner seat.
It always ended the same way with Collie.