She could hear the car crawl to a slow and follow her at walking pace. She had grown accustomed to the sensation of being stalked, stared at. She could feel a pair of eyes burning a hole in the back of her head. With the subtlest of movements she looked out of the corner of her eye at the road. She didn't recognise the vehicle or the driver. There seemed to be somebody in the passenger seat too. The car drew level with her and the passenger wound down their window. She glimpsed short hair full of styling gel, a white tracksuit and prepared herself for unwelcome sexual advances from a dimwitted numbskull.
"Hey!" came a surprisingly hushed call.
This was not how things usually went. Normally lecherous creeps would lead with their best line, full of false flattery and often beer-induced bravado.
It was irritating, but a different and more measured approach from what she was used to. She was sure that as soon as she even acknowledged their existence, they would launch their full chat-up offensive. This was just the preamble.
She was sure that their patience would quickly evaporate and she would be loudly cursed as a "stuck up bitch" and the car would roar off into the distance with its loud exhaust and bass-heavy music thumping out from their souped-up boy-racer chariot.
"Nah, she doesn't want to know" said the passenger. It looked as though he was addressing somebody in the back seat. Lara risked another glance backwards and sure enough, there was another passenger, slumped low with their coat pulled up high around their face as if they were trying to hide.
"He says he knows you" the passenger tried again.
"Who?" asked Lara, now looking in through the car window and surveying the scene, while keeping walking.
"Sam" said the passenger, pointing his thumb at the back seat. "He's sick. He needs some help getting into his flat."
"Why can't you do it?"
"We're just giving him a lift home. We've got to be somewhere else, pronto. We ain't got time."
"Some friends, you are." Lara mocked.
"Look, just help make sure he gets in OK, can you? We could just dump him nearby, but there's no telling if he'll get into his place on his own in the state he's in."
"What's wrong with him?"
"He's just had too much to drink."
"That's a really shitty thing to do to your friend. To just dump him like that."
"He's not exactly a friend. We hang out, but it's not like that. We're doing him a big favour driving him home."
"Yeah, BIG favour" said Lara sarcastically.
She couldn't help herself peering in the back windows at Sam. He was very dimly aware of what was going on. His head drooped and his eyes were closed, but he wasn't asleep. He didn't look boisterously drunk or like he was going to throw up. He was just intoxicated.
"Alright how far away is it?"
"Just down in the town centre. Jump in."
Sam was reasonably well co-ordinated and not slurring his words. He didn't even smell of alcohol. He could walk and talk without staggering, but he kept slipping into a catatonic state. His sentences would tail off and he would be half-asleep on his feet. As long as she kept repeatedly reminding him where they were and what they were doing, she could coax him towards his front door.
"Come on, Sam. Nearly home!"
"What? Eh? Oh" he said, as he seemed to remember what he was doing and take a few more steps, opening his eyes a fraction. He leant on the front door, dozing.
"Get your keys out, Sam. We're at your flat. This is where you live, right?"
"Yeah, uh. Right" he fumbled in his pockets and unsteadily directed his key at the lock.
With the door flung wide open, Sam made a bee line for his day bed and collapsed on it face down, before rolling into a slightly more comfortable position. Lara was still stood at the threshold, gazing into the large loft apartment, taking it all in.
"OK, I'm going to close this door and go home now."
"Don't go. I need you" Sam said, holding up a hand and beckoning her in.
Lara took a few steps towards the day bed.
"What do you need me here for? You're home now."
Sam patted the bed next to him. Lara didn't get the sense that he was trying to get her to sleep with him, but that he wanted her to sit. She sat awkwardly on the edge of the futon.
"You're home safe now. You can go to sleep. You'll feel better when you wake up."
Sam now opened his eyes much wider and tried to look at her. There was a kind of fear that played across his face.
"You can't let me sleep. I'll die" he said.
"What are you talking about."
"If I fall asleep, I'll stop breathing."
"If that's true it sounds like you need an ambulance."
"Why not? What's wrong?"
"Overdose." he said, with the effort of his honest admission seemingly causing him to slump. He relaxed. His face was tranquil. Lara leant over him. He was breathing, but very shallow.
"I'm going to go phone 999. You need to go to hospital" Lara stood up and walked towards the door.
"Nooo! Stay with me" Sam called out, reaching towards her from where he lay. She hesitated at the door and looked back. "I'll be OK soon. Just stay with me a little while."
Babysitting him while he fought through a near-fatal overdose, Lara was torn. She could see his lips getting slightly purple as she fought to keep him conscious enough to keep breathing. In waves, he would get so relaxed and comatose that he would sleep peacefully and could barely be roused. She would be close to running for help. Then, he would come round a little, gasping for air and she would plead for him to stay alert and keep breathing. She knew instinctively that in the time it took her to go away, find a phone and give the address, he could very easily slip away. It took little more than an hour before he started to come round, but it felt far longer.
The experience shook them both and Sam said that he never wanted to risk dying like that again. At first, he was resolute that he needed to quit heroin and that the close call was the wake-up call he needed. He was so grateful to Lara for keeping him alive and for avoiding a hospitalisation. Then, he explained that his body would start to go into a painful withdrawal and he would feel like he "needed" his next fix. Quitting wasn't so easy and he'd need to wean himself off. Would she help him?
He genuinely meant everything he said.
In reality, Lara became his regular babysitter, so that Sam could shoot up big doses of heroin, knowing that there was somebody there to keep him safe if he overdosed. At first, Lara didn't know it. She felt that she was helping him to get cleaned up and off the dope, but after months going round to his apartment almost daily, it was clear he wasn't giving up any time soon.
She adored his tortured soul and his fascinating life. She loved their asexual relationship, which still had a kind of comfortable intimacy. Sam's first love was heroin, but Lara didn't mind being his mistress. She felt like she could make a difference.
Eventually they quarrelled. He had no intention of ever quitting, she said. He did, but it was hard, he explained. He said he'd try harder, but he started to be more secretive. He hid his habit and Lara knew it.
"You'll always keep using if I stay with you" were the last words she ever said to him. He didn't even reply. His eyes were filled with tears, but he knew the truth. Perhaps he would quit one day, but that wasn't the path that their relationship had followed. He used and she was there to keep him safe. That was the way it had been since day one and that was the way it was always going to stay.
She'd gone back to the apartment on the pretence of picking up some things she'd left there, but really she was checking up on him. Making sure that he was OK. He was so alone. His mum had left when he was little and his dad had died leaving him the inheritance that paid for his apartment and his drug habit, but he had no real friends: only drug dealers and addicts hoping to mooch off him. He was no fool, so he didn't indulge the parasites. He had nobody.
Lara knew right away that it was different from the other overdoses that she'd witnessed. There was no life left in his body. He'd been dead for some time.
Poor little rich boy. He had a kind of infamy amongst the local drug users, with many plotting to rob and cheat him out of money. He was even known to the police as a tragic addict: a dead man walking.
By the time she had left him, she was prepared for the worst. Or at least, she thought she was. Of course his death was more traumatic than she could ever have imagined, but she knew that the burden of his life was more responsibility than she should ever have been asked to shoulder. She could forgive herself, but always wondered if things could have turned out differently.
Neil's behaviour was completely different. He seemed in control, even though he was unhappy. It was Neil's desperate wish to be happy and productive again that made him so different from Sam. The addiction that she'd known had no end to it. Without a doubt, Sam would take heroin forever, given an unlimited supply and no consequences. Neil was different. He only ever took his pills begrudgingly and always talked about "recovery". His mental health problems were just a blip, in his eyes. Medication was a means to an end: like a plaster cast on a broken limb, helping it heal.
It seemed unthinkable to Lara, the idea that Neil had lost control and was slumped somewhere, dead from an overdose. She'd known so many years of him being steady and dependable. She'd seen him go through depression and psychotic episodes. However, he didn't seem to be hiding a drug habit and it seemed unimaginable that he could have been consumed by an addiction so quickly that she would never have seen it creeping up. The evidence suggested that somebody flicked a switch and her fiancée went insane. It was impossible to know somebody so well and for them to hide a whole other side of their personality. She knew what addicts were like when they hid their habits.
She confronted Colin.
"You're not telling me everything."
He sighed. "What you don't know can't hurt you."
"If there's stuff you've found out, I want to know."
"I think we just need to let Neil go and keep our best memories of him intact."
"What do you know?" asked Lara, now looking horrified.
"It's a lot worse than we thought" replied Colin with a grim expression.
"I really do want to know absolutely everything."
"He was taking some highly addictive drugs. I'm sure he's gone now. We should probably talk about some kind of memorial service."
"I guessed as much. I've been reading about those legal highs and they're nasty. Not many deaths though."
"Yes, but he was getting some really dangerous ones direct from China at 99% purity. I'm almost certain he overdosed."
"How do you know?"
"I found some traces at the house. I'm so sorry, Lara. I've been waiting and hoping that the body will be found, so we can grieve properly, you know?" said Colin, his eyes pricking with tears.
"You're a good man, Colin. I don't blame you for not telling me" replied Lara, hugging him.