by >>Jae

the world is tired of pacifiers
we want the truth and nothing else

It wasn't something Justin needed.

Not needed needed, not the way he needed to breathe or eat, not even the way he needed to sing every day or else he felt a little lost and achy. It wasn't like that.

It was just something that he did sometimes.

It started when he was still little. At school they watched a filmstrip about the fifties and there was a part about the bomb, not a big part, just a five-second scene of a mushroom cloud. He didn't even remember it until he woke up blinking away images of blasted-out cities and deathly still streets, gasping over the dream-taste of ashes. It wasn't until his mother said his name and brushed the sweaty hair from his forehead that he realized it was a nightmare.

His mother stayed with him, let him curl up around her until he fell back asleep. The next morning she woke up late with dark circles under her eyes and was as grumpy as he was over breakfast. Nobody was happy when his momma wasn't happy, so he was half glad that he was alone the next time he woke up panting in the middle of the night, no one leaning over his bed to comfort him. At least he didn't wake her up. He lay in bed and listened as the silence gathered around him. He didn't even hear the usual night sounds of the house, the sounds that always lulled him to sleep: the creak of floorboards settling, the soft hum of the refrigerator, his mother's nighttime laugh, low and rich and sounding somehow far away. All those sounds were drowned out by the silence that crowded around his bed.

Or maybe not drowned out, he thought. Maybe they just weren't there. Panic fluttered in his stomach, that strange hollow feeling like falling. He wasn't stupid enough to think that there had been a bomb, like in his dream. Because if there had been, it would've gotten him too. Wouldn't it? But something else could have happened, something bad. Scenes from movies he wasn't supposed to see but that Paul sometimes let him watch flooded his mind. Nothing happened, he told himself, nothing could have happened, but his dream still loomed over him. He thought about the stories from church about dreams that told the future, and then a line from another Bible story: like a thief in the night. He'd never been so afraid and so alone. Always before when he had had a bad dream his mother had come to him. He couldn't imagine what would keep her from him.

Yes, he could.

Justin pushed the sheets back and shoved his feet into his slippers. He had to find out. He fought his way through silence like a thicket, the dream shivering over him like a fever sweat as he made his way to his parents' bedroom door. Alone. The word scratched through his mind, alone alone alone, and he put his palm against the door and pushed, just a little, afraid of what he wouldn't find.

The night was hot, and the windows had been left half-open to catch the breeze. A warm arc of amber fell from a streetlight onto the bed, catching the tips of his mother's curls where they lay against Paul's shoulder. Justin held his breath until his mother sighed and slid a hand along Paul's waist, until her fingers were caught in his and in the light. Something twisted inside Justin then, just for a second, until his relief caught up with him and he breathed a sigh of his own. Then he stepped back and let the door swing shut.

The next morning he was yawning and quiet at breakfast, but not for the usual reasons. He felt a little strange, watching his mother and Paul move through their familiar morning routine, reaching past each other for a cup, brushing against each other without seeming to realize it. Justin felt empty somehow, not quite empty but not full. Light. The way he felt after church on Christmas Eve, or at sunrise on the morning after a long rain. Paul ruffled Justin's hair as he made his way toward the door and let his fingers linger against Justin's mother's cheek. After he left, Justin's mom slid over to the chair next to Justin and smiled into her coffee.

"Did you have a good night?" she said.

"Yes," Justin said. It was the truth.

Ever since then Justin got up sometimes, when he woke up late at night, and walked like a ghost through the house. He'd stop outside his parents' door and listen for the soft sounds that told him he wasn't alone. He never opened the door, after that first night. He didn't do it often, just sometimes, just when he was nervous over something, or worried. He didn't really think about why he did it. He didn't need to, after all. It was just something he did. As he got older, he did it less and less, until it had been so long that he'd almost forgotten he ever did it.

Until he started again.

When they all moved into the little house Lou got for them, him and the rest of the guys, Justin had trouble sleeping. He didn't know why - he was exhausted all the time, from rehearsal and the schedule. But somehow, even after his body had collapsed into bed thoughts kept plucking at him, small and sharp and relentless, until he could feel them humming beneath his skin. It was like being pinched, over and over again, from the inside. He did all the relaxation exercises he could think of, breathing deep and imagining cool blues filling his body from his toes right up to his head, until he found some semblance of calm.

Even then his sleep was broken. Bad dreams again, but not the same kind he'd had when he was little. Instead of clouds of ash and streets quiet with death, there was booing, and even more terrifying, thousands of eyes staring silently at him. When he woke from these dreams, it was the familiar night sounds of the others that lulled him back to sleep, all the things that had kept him awake when he first lay down. Lance mumbling over a new routine, over and over again. Chris flipping restlessly through their five black and white channels. Joey and JC murmuring as they brushed past each other in the hallway. Justin lay in bed and thought about getting up to help Lance practice, to watch TV with Chris, to sit at the kitchen table and talk to Joey and JC. He rarely got up - his tired muscles protested at the thought. But he liked to know he could.

Sometimes, though, and it was rare, he woke up to a dark heavy silence. Hardly ever, at the beginning - Justin and Lance were the only ones who kept regular hours. Joey got in late, and you could always count on Chris and JC to be up way later than they should have been. But as time went on and rehearsals got more grueling, Justin found himself blinking into the hush of a sleeping house, his breath quick and loud in his ears.

It was a sleeping house, he knew it was. It was stupid to think anything else. He told himself that, the first night he got up. He also told himself he was just going to watch some TV, lie on the couch and let the noise wash over him until sleep drew him down. But he had to use the bathroom first, and it was only natural to stop a minute outside Joey's room and listen to the soft rhythm that made its way through the door. It was on the way. And Chris and Lance slept right next to the living room, so that was natural too.

JC's room was off in a little alcove of its own, and Justin couldn't think of any reason why it was natural for him to walk by there. So he just didn't think about it at all. It was only a few steps, after all, hardly even time to think about it before he was there.

JC's door was broken. Justin remembered that when he was standing in front of it. A long laughing chase through the house had ended when JC ran for his own room and the doorknob came off in Chris' hand. It was still sitting abandoned in the corner, gleaming pale and porcelain in the dust. Since then JC's door wouldn't shut properly, drifting ajar at the slightest movement. Justin stepped closer, and the door swung just a little wider. He could see inside.

The light was dim and blue, but Justin could still see. JC was curved in on himself, his head tucked into his body, the pillow pushed down and cradled in his arms. JC slept hard, desperately, the blankets tangled between his legs and his fingers curled into the sheets. It was cold, always, in the house, and especially at night, and they all slept in as many layers as possible. All Justin could see was a glimpse, here and there, of JC's skin - a thin golden arc where his sweatshirt had slipped up above his waist, the shadowed sweep from ankle to heel.

JC's bed wasn't very big, but the way he was sleeping in it, there was room for someone else. It looked almost as if he were waiting for someone to join him, his body opening itself around that empty space. Justin could crawl into it, he knew, slide his arm around JC's waist and hide his face in JC's shoulder. If JC woke up, he might mumble sleepily, but all Justin would have to say was, "bad dream," and JC's arm would hook around Justin and pull him closer, tugging the covers up over them and rubbing Justin's back in vague lazy circles. He'd be half asleep still, JC would, breathing slow and deep until Justin caught the rhythm and fell asleep himself. In the morning, JC wouldn't say anything, just smile at Justin and slide a hand through his hair as he reached for a cup of coffee.

Justin stayed where he was.

He kept watching. He didn't know how much time passed, except that it wasn't as long as it felt like and it was longer than he could explain to himself. He didn't think about it. If he was very still, he could see JC's chest rising and falling softly. Justin breathed in and out, deeply, evenly. The easy rhythm carried him back to his own bed and to sleep.

Justin slept late the next morning. Lance had to bang on the door for him, and even then he struggled awake reluctantly. He blinked hard against the light and rubbed his forehead against the pillow.

"You all right?" Lance said, smiling down at him. "Did you drink some of that mess Chris was making last night?"

Justin hadn't, but he nodded anyway. It was true in its own way. He felt almost like he was hungover, or not quite hungover. He felt like he was in that strange borderland when you're just barely sober but the hangover hasn't had time to sink in yet, when your body feels as frail and brittle as an eggshell that's been pierced and hollowed out for Easter. He spent a long time in the shower - no one complained, he was the last one. He let the water run cold and tilted his face up into it, his mouth open. The water tasted rusty. He swallowed it.

When he finally made it out to the kitchen, everyone else was almost ready to go. He sat at the table and put his head down on his arms. He was still tired, even after sleeping so long. A thin hand curved around his neck, thumb rubbing lightly, and JC said, "You need to be careful when we've got to work the next morning." Justin started to raise his head to protest, but then he stopped and thought about what he'd say to the question that would come next. He put his head back down.

"Oh, leave him be," Chris said. "He'll be fine once we get moving."

JC laughed and let his hand move up over Justin's hair. "We hit the road in ten," he said. Then his hand was gone and Justin heard him walking out the door, already arguing with Chris over who would drive. Justin sat at the table and tried to catch the rhythm of the night before, just so he could fall asleep for a few more minutes.

It didn't hurt anyone. It didn't mean anything. He didn't do it all the time, or even most of the time. Just every once in a while, when a dream woke him up. It wasn't the same dream anymore, but different ones. He couldn't remember them. He didn't want to.

It was just every once in a while, when he was nervous or worried or something, something that woke him up in the middle of the night. Everyone had things they did when they were nervous. Lance recited the steps of a routine backwards to himself. Chris tapped out a frantic beat on Justin's shoulder or Joey's thigh. JC found the quietest corner of the quietest room and stood against the wall, leaning his forehead against it and breathing slowly. When Justin asked him once why he did it, JC hadn't been able to explain. It was just something he did.

This was just something Justin did. For a while at the beginning he'd drift by Joey's room, or Chris', pretending that he wasn't going right where he was going. But when everything else was asleep, the truth worried at him, the way his tongue would poke at a sore place in his mouth even though it hurt. He stopped pretending. He went straight to the hallway outside JC's room.

Justin was always quiet when he got up, but unless Chris or somebody was riling him up, he was always quiet anyway. It didn't mean anything. It was just soothing, or something, to stand with his back against the wall outside JC's room and slide to the floor, his knees pulled up to his chest, his hands spread out and still against his flannel-clad thighs. He couldn't even really see JC when he sat there. He could just catch glimpses of him framed in the half-open door, the pictures different every night depending on how JC was sleeping. A few dark locks of hair, pale fingertips beneath a too-long sleeve, curve of calf tangled in the blanket at the foot of the bed. Nothing, nothing, almost nothing. It was just something that helped Justin get back to sleep. That was all. He didn't want anything else.

It wasn't a secret.

Chris stumbled down the hall and Justin jumped to his feet guiltily. Not that he had anything to feel guilty about. And he didn't, clearly, because Chris walked past him without saying a word and disappeared into the bathroom. Justin watched him go and thought he should probably go back to bed.

He was still standing there when Chris came back out. Chris walked past him again, and Justin was starting to sit back down on the floor when Chris backed up. Rumpled with sleep, Chris looked every bit of his age. He looked like a man. "Justin," he said, his voice hoarse. Justin glanced up at him and then down at the floor. Justin didn't feel like a man.

"What?" Justin said. He remembered halfway through the word that it was late and he should be whispering, so it came out as a kind of strangled yelp.

"Be careful who you let catch you," Chris said. "Out here."

"I know," Justin said. He knew. He knew to be careful, and anyway, it wasn't like Lou was ever here at night. Chris was still looking at him like he was some kind of baby, so he told Chris that.

"Not Lou," Chris said, and looked at Justin so hard that Justin turned and peered into JC's room, just to make sure JC was still asleep. When he turned back, Chris was still looking at him.

"I'm, um. I'm going to bed," Justin said. He didn't move.

"Justin," Chris said.

"What?" Justin said. He remembered to whisper this time.

"You shouldn't be out here," Chris said, "if you're not ready to get caught." He walked past Justin and went back into his own room.

Justin went back to bed and lay awake until morning. He tried not to think about what Chris had said.

He didn't know if he was ready to be caught.

Justin tried to stay in his own room after that, he really did. But he couldn't sleep, and he knew now to be more careful if he heard anyone coming, and he just wanted to. He tried to limit himself, rationing out visits like the candy bars Chris snuck him, trying to wait until he was especially worried or homesick or something. Once he made that decision, though, he found himself feeling more and more worried and homesick and particularly or something. Finally he just surrendered.

He tried not to think about it too much. It was easier than he expected to ignore it during the day. Every once in a while, when JC sat cross-legged on the floor in front of him and asked his opinion about a song, or leaned against his shoulder after rehearsal and laughed a little too loudly at one of Joey's jokes, Justin's night-knowledge fluttered at the edges of his mind teasingly. He knew something about JC from all those nights of watching, something nobody would think he knew, something maybe nobody else knew. Something private. Something secret.

That was why he couldn't give it up.

He got drunk one night on some punch that Joey and Chris made in one of the trash cans and stirred with a hockey stick. He hadn't seen everything that went into it, and he was pretty sure he didn't want to. Justin woke up in the middle of the night, fully dressed and face down on his bed, drooling into his pillow. He hadn't had a dream, at least not one that he could remember, but he was shivering a little, disoriented, and sweating. When he stood up he knew he was still drunk.

He knew he shouldn't, the words bouncing bluntly through his head, shouldn't shouldn't shouldn't. Just for a minute, though, it couldn't hurt anything. He just wanted... He didn't know. He just wanted.

His shoulder traced a line down the wall as he slipped down the hallway, not as quietly as usual but still quietly enough. The house was draped in a sodden silence that made him a little reckless. Not too reckless, just reckless enough. He was laughing a little as he made his way toward JC's room. He didn't know why.

JC's door was open.

One of the window shades was twisted, hanging crooked like a broken limb from the jamb. A shaft of moonlight fell over the bed, the edges jagged where it cut through the useless blind. Silver edged the curve of JC's back as he bent, one hand gripping the side of the mattress. The light just caught the line of Joey's jaw as he lifted his head and murmured something. His laugh rumbled slowly into a sigh. His hand slid down his own chest to cover JC's. Justin watched their fingers tangle together.

Shouldn't, Justin thought, shouldn't shouldn't shouldn't, and he took one step back and then another, and then he tripped over something that he knew hadn't been there a minute ago. He fell backwards, hard, and he couldn't stop himself. His head cracked against the wall, and before he had time to think he cried out. He couldn't stop himself. His voice was clear as a bell in the quiet.

There was a final gasp of silence, and Justin closed his eyes and tried to let it swallow him.

Then he heard Lance's sleepy voice calling, "J?" and Joey swearing softly. Justin opened his eyes and saw JC watching him.

He leapt to his feet and ran for the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. He leaned over the toilet and heaved, and when there was nothing left inside him he dropped his head to the cool tile floor. His head ached shallowly, and he knew that later that day it would be filled with a sharp pounding that would make him long for dark and silence. It hadn't arrived yet, though. He panted against the floor and felt empty.

The doorknob rattled, but Justin had turned the lock on the door almost automatically. He could hear them knocking outside and talking to each other in low voices. He knew that soon they'd try to coax him out and he'd have to go. Soon he'd be sitting at the kitchen table, JC and Chris sitting across from him, Lance kicking nervously at the counter, Joey looming in the doorway. Soon he'd be asked what he was doing up and he'd say, "sick," or "bad dream," and everyone would believe him.

Soon there'd be awkward explanations and he'd try to say sorry and no one would let him, and they'd try to say sorry and no one would let them. Soon he'd say that everything was fine, he was fine, and everyone would believe him.

Soon he'd lie and lie. But for one last moment Justin crouched on the bathroom floor and clung to a last moment of truth. It was the first time he let himself admit it.

He was caught.

written for katie's Definitive Wonder challenge

>>feedback >>home >>stories >>livejournal