i: cause everybody wants a dream
He has heard that some people believe cameras can steal your soul.
He doesn't know what he thinks about that, but he knows that there is magic in photographs. He smiles when he thinks that. It's not a nice smile. Magic sounds like such a cutesy word, Disneyfied, singing animals and glitter swirling in the air. It's not such a pretty thing, the magic he's thinking of. It's deep, and hard, and hot. Black magic. Voodoo. It makes him see things in photographs, things he's never seen reflected in his mirrors or in other people's eyes. He's not sure if what he sees in the flat images is something that's always been in him, something he doesn't see until the camera reveals it. Or if it's something new, something the camera somehow puts onto him. Into him. He's not sure which would be worse.
It's happened two times now. That's not true. It's happened thousands of times, maybe millions, he's not sure, no way to tell how many times now he's seen pictures of himself. But although there's magic in each photo, mostly it's a tiny sliver, small and contained. He sees something new in each one, but usually it's just an impression, a feeling that something is different. He can't put his finger on it. That thought makes him smile again, because he's tried. Has traced his own features, a careful finger hovering just above the paper, looking for what it is that makes his face so foreign. He used to actually touch the photos, searching desperately for the difference, but his hands were slapped away and he learned not to. He knows better now. The pictures might be ruined if he touches them.
So thousands of times, maybe millions, but two times that really mattered. Two times when he could tell what was different, but not why.
He never knows why.
ii: come inside where it's okay
The first time he was seventeen. The photo shoot was like any other, impersonal hands painting his face, dressing him, pulling him into position and pushing him to the front. Nothing special about it. Nothing special about the photographer, who called him baby and told him to sex it up in a German accent that made Chris and Joey crack up. He rocked his hips, tilted his head back to expose his throat, licked his lips, pouted at the camera.
Nothing special about it.
When they got the proofs back he stared at them. His breath caught in his throat. His hand was suspended over the page. When Chris leaned over him he balled his hands into fists and pulled them down to his sides. Chris ran a hand through his curls and breathed, "Sexy boy." He looked up into Chris' smile just in time to see it falter. He didn't hear what Chris said as he backed away quickly, registered only the sudden nervousness in Chris' voice. When Chris was gone, he raised his hand again. This time he touched the photo, laid his hand over it and slid it down, watching the boy revealed beneath his slowly slipping fingers.
He knew he looked like that. He just hadn't known he looked like that.
Back in his room, he stripped and stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom. He rocked his hips, tilted his head back to expose his throat, licked his lips, pouted at his reflection. It didn't feel the same. He put his pants back on, walked into the other room. There was a sway in his body that was new, or that he had never noticed before. He wasn't sure which. He let his legs carry him out the door, down the hallway, to Chris' room. He let his hand knock on the door.
Chris answered in his boxers, blinking irritably at the light. He hadn't thought about what time it was. He didn't know how long he had stood in front of his mirror. Chris said, "Justin, what do you want? It's late."
"I know," he said. He waited.
Chris watched him for a few moments, then said, "Is something wrong?"
He said no. Chris sighed elaborately, letting his head roll back and his shoulders sag. "What the fuck, Justin? Seriously."
He kissed Chris. He saw something flare in Chris' eyes. Chris kissed him back, ran a hand down to his waist, murmured, "You're so fucking weird," and laughed. It wasn't what he'd expected.
Chris pulled him over to the couch, pushed him down onto it. His mouth felt so strange with Chris' on it. Chris climbed on top of him, crouched over him, mumbling constantly. "Watched you, saw you working it, knew it was for me, knew it, tell me I'm right, tell me, knew it all along." Chris sounded exactly like he did when he was winning at Nintendo. He laughed, and Chris grinned and said, "That's my boy."
They kissed for a while, or rather, Chris kissed him and he tried to keep up, tilting his head back as Chris' lips burned down his throat, grabbing at Chris' ass as Chris' mouth found his nipples. His hands slipped down inside Chris' boxers and Chris hissed, "Smart boy." He laughed.
When Chris' hand closed around his cock he moaned and rocked his hips up toward Chris' grasp. "Easy there, baby," Chris said right into his ear. "You're gonna want this to last a little while." Chris jerked him off slowly, whispering to him the whole time, amazingly hot dirty things that made him gasp and blush and finally giggle with their outrageousness. He was laughing when he came.
He flipped them over so he was perched above Chris. He kissed Chris' lips, his throat, ran a hand up his chest and tried to remember exactly what Chris had done to him. Chris chuckled and said, "This is seriously the best idea you've ever had," and then he had a better one. He slid down Chris' body, wrapped his fingers around the base of Chris' cock, started to lean in. Chris said, "Hey, wait a minute, Just," and he stopped and pouted up at him. "Are you sure you want. I don't know how good an idea." Chris' voice trailed off.
"You know what," Chris said, "I think I'm just going to have to go to hell." Chris grabbed generous handfuls of curls and held on.
It was strange for a minute, almost too much, but Chris was perfectly still beneath him, no sound but Chris' panting and the lewd slick slide of his lips. Then Chris gasped and started to move, and he was getting into it too, bracing himself with one hand on Chris' stomach. He decided to try something, let his tongue flicker, and Chris moaned and said, "Oh you. You just. You rock," and he laughed and choked and pulled back. "Well, you do," Chris said apologetically, and then shut up for the rest of it.
Chris pulled him up after, tugging gently on his hair, and he lay against Chris' chest, licking his lips and listening to Chris' idle humming. "I think maybe we should go find a bed," Chris said, and he nodded. He stood up, stumbled toward the bedroom. Chris' duffel was open next to the dresser. He saw something familiar on top of Chris' clothes, and bent down for a closer look. It was the photo.
Chris leaned down over him and said, "Sexy boy." Chris put a hand on his chest and stroked down to his stomach. He looked down and watched his skin slipping through Chris' fingers. It looked brand new.
"Can I have this?" he said, clutching the photo.
"Sure," Chris said. He leaned a little closer, whispered "narcissist" in his ear, and "I would be too." Chris kissed his shoulder, nipped it, then wandered toward the bathroom.
When he was sure Chris was gone, he crumpled the photo and put it in the trashcan. He pulled an old magazine over it so Chris wouldn't see. He climbed into bed and waited for Chris to come back.
iii: my fake plastic love
The second time was a year later. Another photo shoot, group shots, happy first then sexy. A familiar routine, nothing special again. Again. The shutter clicked, he jumped and danced in front of the lens. He felt Chris' eyes on him. They always were now. "Make love to the camera, baby," the photographer said, joking but not really, and he heard Chris laugh behind him, low and simmering.
Chris brought the photos to him this time, shyly. That was how Chris was. Chris never said anything, but he would do things and watch for a response, something tender and unguarded in his eyes. Chris pointed two pictures out to him. He saw round muscles, long legs, tamed curls. He looked at his fake perfect laugh, at his dark flat smolder. It looked new to him. Chris looked the same in both.
"They're good, huh?" Chris said.
"You think so?" he said, eyes on the photos.
"Yeah," Chris said, leaning down, brushing light lips against his curls. "'s how you look at me," Chris said.
He raised his eyes. Chris looked the same.
"You want one?" Chris said.
"No, you keep them," he said.
He went to his room and sat there. He didn't go to Chris' room, but that didn't make any difference. Chris came to his half the time anyway. He thought about going away, but he couldn't think of anywhere to go that Chris wouldn't know to look for him. He waited.
Chris came in singing, something he didn't recognize, not in Chris' high familiar voice. Chris put a hand under his chin and kissed him quickly. It was probably meant to be casual, careless, but he knew better. Chris was never careless with him.
He thought it might be different but it was the same, Chris was the same, hot mouth on his shoulder, hot whisper in his ear. He heard his own laugh ring out in the room. He saw his own face reflected in Chris' eyes. Sweet fake laugh, dead dark smolder. It was the same. He thought it was new. How could it be new and the same?
Chris rolled off him and licked his ear.
"Is this what's it like?" he said. Chris just stared at him. "Is this what it's always like?" he said.
Chris laughed. "You stoned, baby?"
He got up and started to put his pants on. Chris reached a hand out to him and he flinched. He looked at Chris. "I'm not gonna be like this any more," he said. Chris sat up and looked at him, said, "Justin," put out both hands. He jerked away.
"Don't touch me," he said. "I'm not gonna be like this any more." He waited. It didn't take long.
Chris' voice was sharp as it snaked around him. He looked down and folded his arms across his chest. He told himself he didn't have to listen. He couldn't help it. Chris knew all his soft spots. He waited, letting the words tear into him, hoping one would penetrate and peel away everything new and the same.
Chris stopped. Silence. Chris' words had gone deep, but not deep enough. He thought maybe nothing ever would.
iv: angel hits the ground
Chris walked right up to him the next morning and put a hand under his chin, made him look up. All the guys were there. They could hear. Chris didn't care.
"I am a patient man," Chris said, and Joey snickered until the sheer steel in Chris' voice stilled him. "So this is how it's going to be. I realize you are going through some weird sexual identity crisis thing, and I am going to be forgiving, even though you're acting like a real asshole. When you're over this, you are going to pay me back in sexual favors heretofore unknown to god and man. I just want to make sure we understand each other."
He pulled his chin away. "Stop touching me," he said.
"No," Chris said. He felt Chris' hand slide up his jaw. Chris was looking at him steadily, a confident love in his eyes.
That night Chris walked in on him sucking off a stranger in a club bathroom. The love was still in Chris' eyes. The confidence was gone.
It was a club he'd never been to before. He didn't know if the rest of them had. It was the type of place where they didn't recognize him or at least pretended not to. He didn't know which. His fame couldn't get him in; he needed to use his fake ID. He didn't need either to get the guy into the bathroom with him.
The guy saw Chris first and stepped back. He looked over his shoulder, one hand on the guy's thigh, and saw Chris. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. Chris was standing in the doorway, his arms hanging loosely at his sides.
Chris looked at him for a long moment. "Thought you weren't gonna be like this any more," Chris said.
"Not like this," he said. "Like that." Chris looked at him for another moment, then turned and left. The guy left too, muttering something he didn't bother listening to. He stayed on his knees on the dirty bathroom floor. He waited. He didn't know what for.
By the time JC appeared his knees were aching. JC grabbed him by the hair and dragged him to his feet. "Come on," JC said, and walked out. He followed.
In the parking lot JC pushed him against the car and reached into his pocket. JC pulled out his keys. "I'm driving you home," JC said.
"What are you doing?" he said. "I can drive."
"You're too drunk," JC said, opening the car door.
"What are you talking about? I haven't had anything to drink."
JC pushed him back up against the car. "Yes, you have," he said flatly. "You've had so much to drink you can't drive. You've had so much to drink you're out of your head. You've had so much to drink you have no idea what you've been doing all night."
"I haven't -" JC looked at him until he dropped his eyes.
"Okay," he said. He got into the car when JC opened the door.
On the highway, JC said without looking at him, "There's something wrong with you."
"I know," he said. JC didn't say anything. He looked out the window and said, "Do you think it's something new? Or was it always there?"
JC was quiet so long he didn't think he would answer. Then JC said, "I don't know."
v: something in my veins bloodier than blood
There's no warning when it happens again. He doesn't know why that surprises him. There never is.
He is going over proofs, idly, his blue pencil circling images almost randomly. Then he stops.
He looks at his gym-built body in the photo. He's taller now, as tall as he's going to get. He's grown into his height. He studies the image dispassionately. He has a peculiar relationship with his body. It's too much and not enough. Too much, too strong, too able to take too many hours of running and lifting and push-ups. And not enough, because no matter how much he puts it through, it will only change so much. His shoulders are broader but his waist still curves in. He is all muscle now, but still slender, still smaller than everyone thinks. He thinks his body is too small. Too small to hold all the strange swirling thoughts that sift through his mind. Too small to be all that he is in the world.
In the picture he looks slight. His muscles look unreal, something he puts on with the leather pants and the sparkly shirt. He starts to turn the page over, then stops. His pencil draws a careful blue circle. He has to remember this.
The first night he goes they just laugh at him. They call him "little boy," kick him out into the street. When he goes home he looks in the mirror. He knows why.
The next night it's a different bar. He's different too. He has a black T-shirt and a buzz cut and black steel-toed boots. No one laughs at him this time. When he gets up in some guy's face, they kick him out into the street again. This time he's not alone.
He gets his ass kicked. He knew he would, that's why he's there, after all. He's just surprised at how easily he goes down. It's harder than it looks, fighting, and stupider. Arms flailing, grunts and curses, half the blows landing by sheer luck. He's not lucky. It hurts, a lot, and he knew it would, that's why he's there. But he knew it in an abstract way. He hadn't known it would feel like this, a sickening crunch assaulting his ears just before pain flares and blossoms across his jaw, sharp and dull at the same time. He thinks it feels completely new. Then his tongue licks across his split lip, making him hiss, and there's blood in his mouth. It tastes like blood, just like when he bites his tongue. It's the same.
He gets back on his bike and rides. He's glad he brought the bike, it was just a romantic gesture, a nod to the movies. But it made them madder, the fact that the sleek shiny machine belongs to him.
He knocks on Chris' door. He has keys but he never uses them any more. He has to knock for a while because it's late. Chris answers the door sleepily, then jerks back and pulls him inside.
"Jesus, Justin," Chris says, turning his face up toward the light, "what the hell did you do?"
He doesn't answer. He lets Chris lead him into the kitchen. He sits on a hard wooden chair and watches. Chris slams around the room, pulling drawers open, emptying ice cube trays into a towel, swearing. Chris dabs tentatively at the wounds with a wet napkin. It's pretty clear Chris has no idea what he's doing.
"Um, rubbing alcohol?" he says. Chris looks at him scornfully for a second. "Where do you think you are, Justin? Your mom's house?" Chris pauses. "Do you think vodka would work?"
It may not be much of an antiseptic, but it certainly leaves him feeling no pain. It seems to do a good job on Chris' nerves as well. Finally the bottle is empty and Chris stands up unsteadily. "You gonna crash here?"
He looks up at Chris. The vodka has made the pain abstract again. He can tell his face is throbbing, but right now throb is only a word, a strange word that buzzes numbly on his raw lips. "Can I come with you?" he says.
Chris looks at him, then shrugs. He follows Chris upstairs. He lies on the bed, still in his clothes, and looks at the wall. He can feel the mattress dip when Chris lies down, but Chris doesn't touch him.
When he wakes up the next morning Chris is gone. He rolls over and sees blood on the pillow. Throb is more than a word again.
Chris walks in with a paper bag. He pulls a new first aid kit out of it and sits cross-legged on the bed. "Where were you last night?" Chris says, and when he answers Chris groans and says, "Baby, you gotta learn to watch your mouth in places like that." Chris tilts his chin up gently and cleans his face thoroughly, ignoring his gasps and whimpers. When his face is stinging sharply and neatly bandaged, Chris peers carefully at the damage and says, "You know, I think it looked a lot worse than it actually is. I bet this'll heal without a scar. You're lucky." He starts to shake his head, then stops because it hurts too much. He's not lucky.
Chris pats his shoulder. "You think you can get yourself home, or do you want a ride?"
He does end up with a scar, but it's tiny, up near his eyebrow. His body will only change so much. He knows he shouldn't risk his face again. He can't afford it. When he goes out again, he makes sure to take most of the punches to his body. He's had a few weeks to learn how to fight. He's been rehearsing. He still gets his ass kicked, but he doesn't go down so easily. He can take a lot more this time.
Chris freaks out when he lifts his shirt, actually gets him into the car, refusing to listen to his protests, ignoring the way he yelps when Chris shoves him through the door. Once inside the car, though, Chris puts his key in the ignition and then puts his head down on the steering wheel. He doesn't say anything to Chris. He knows Chris is thinking about how impossible this will be to hide if they go to the hospital. When Chris starts the car, he doesn't know where they're going but he's pretty sure there won't be outsiders involved.
He waits in the car while Chris goes into the all-night drugstore. He feels drunk, although he hasn't had a drink, dazed, lost in a dream that is broken only by the sharp regular stab of pain he feels with each breath. His head falls back against the seat. It's raining, and the headlights of other cars look smeared against the windshield. It's kind of pretty.
Chris wraps his ribs without saying a word. When it's done, Chris points at the couch and says, "You're staying there." He lies down and twists uncomfortably, whining a little as he tries to get settled. He can hear Chris washing his hands in the kitchen. Chris returns and watches him for a minute. He tries to stay still, but every time he breathes he twitches, just a little, and it makes him gasp and twitch again. Chris sighs. "Sit up," and he tries to, but ends up just leaning forward as Chris slides onto the couch behind him. Chris eases him back against his chest and rubs his shoulders gently. "Fuckup," Chris says softly against his shaven scalp. He closes his eyes and sleeps.
This time lasts him a while. It's a long time before he goes out again. He's not careful about his face this time. When he knocks on Chris' door, there is no answer. He can see a light on upstairs. He knocks again, louder, then louder still, banging until his torn knuckles bleed again. There is still no answer. The light goes out. He takes Chris' keys out of his pocket and looks at them. He goes home.
He's due at the studio two days later. He doesn't go. He lies in bed and listens for a key in the lock. When he hears it, he smiles, even though it opens up the cut on his lip.
Chris walks into the room and freezes, closes his eyes and puts his hand over his mouth. "Fuck, Justin," Chris says, and there is revulsion in his voice. He hasn't seen a mirror, but he knows how he must look. He hasn't washed the blood off his face, hasn't put ice on his split lip or his blackened eye. When he woke up that morning, he had to pull the sheet away from his face.
Chris washes his face with brisk, efficient swipes. He lies in bed and watches as the washcloth falls from Chris' hand onto the floor.
"This is the last time, Justin," Chris says. He doesn't say anything.
"I mean it," Chris says. "If you do it again, I quit."
"You'd quit the group?" he says. This shocks him.
"I'll quit everything," Chris says. "Everything, Justin."
He knows Chris means it.
vi: reap just what you sow
He has to stop anyway because they're going on tour. There's no way he'd be able to hide it, and besides, he wouldn't even know where to go for it.
It's harder than he expects. He can't sleep. He's edgy and jittery, his body filled with a strange electric energy he can't get rid of no matter what he does. He tries to drink it out of his body, to lift it out, to run it out, to fuck it out. Nothing works, and it's getting worse. No one but Chris can bear to be near him for longer than half an hour.
The bus stops and he bursts gratefully through the door, even though it's the middle of the night and hot as hell, the air like a wet hand slapping his face as soon as he's outside. Chris follows him, puts an arm around his shoulder. "Why don't you do a couple hundred laps around the bus, Just? That might calm you down for another fifteen minutes, and we might both just get there alive."
He turns sideways under Chris' arm. "You know what would calm me down?" he says. He knows suddenly.
"Believe me, if I knew, I'd have done it by now. You're making me crazy. Not even I was ever this bad."
"Fuck me," he says, low, leaning in, the air hot and heavy around them, "do it hard, make it hurt, please, Chris, I know you still want to, I know you do," and Chris pushes him away with both hands. But he's bigger, and it's Chris who goes skidding backwards, stumbling in the dirt of the parking lot.
"Jesus Christ, what the fuck is wrong with you?" Chris hisses. Chris is furious, he can tell, can see Chris' rage quivering in his body, can see Chris' exquisite control in the tension of his shoulders and his outspread fingers. He wonders, suddenly, how tight that control is, wonders what he can push Chris into. He starts talking.
He knows Chris' soft spots too, he's known him a long time, and he gets right up in Chris' face, crowding him back against the side of the bus, blocking Chris' attempts to brush past him. He sees something flare in Chris' eyes, sees something harden and he knows it's coming, feels a cold prickle of delight and then a hot rush of adrenaline. It's coming it's coming it's coming and he backs off just a little to feel the full force of the blow and Chris pulls back and slams a fist into the side of the bus.
Chris crumples to the ground and howls, and suddenly there's a dozen people around him. He doesn't know where they were a minute ago but they're all here now, pushing him aside, surrounding Chris and taking him back onto the bus. Everyone is gone as suddenly as they came and he's left alone, running a finger idly across the scuff Chris' hand left on the side of the bus. Chris can't really throw a punch, he thinks, he swings from the shoulder.
He's alone outside and it's been a while now. He's not really sure what he's supposed to do. He waits. Someone will come and tell him. They always do.
Lonnie comes out and tells him to get back on his bus. He's surprised. He thinks they'd keep him as far from Chris as possible. Lonnie puts a hand out toward his shoulder, then closes it into a fist and drops it to his side. He thinks Lonnie looks a little scared of him. He thinks maybe he hasn't been as good at hiding things as he thought.
When he gets on the bus, he sees Joey standing in the doorway. Joey won't look at him. Chris is sitting on the couch, his arm wrapped in a makeshift sling. Chris is flexing his fingers, watching the blood well up over his knuckles. Chris looks up and then down when he comes in. He sits down on the other side of the couch, and Joey comes over quickly and sits between them. Joey is perched on the edge of his seat like he can't wait to get up. Joey is looking at both of them like they're crazy. He thinks Joey may be right. If he were Chris, he wouldn't have let him back on the bus.
"It wouldn't be so bad," Chris says, "if you'd tell me why you're doing it."
"I know," he says.
"Chris, maybe you should -" Joey says.
"I can't," he says.
"I know," Chris says.
vii: this is what he pays me for
They tell him about the photo shoot and he has an idea. He talks to the photographer alone. He doesn't care about the rest of the photos, just one. When he tells the photographer what he wants, the guy shoots him a sharp look, like he thinks maybe he's crazy. You wouldn't believe it, he thinks. The photographer's face settles into bland neutral lines. He may be crazy, but the guy's going to take advantage of it.
"It's going to be magic," the photographer says.
It's just like any other photo shoot, hands clothes push pull. Nothing special about it.
Nothing special about it until the last photo. Nothing special about it until they smear the fake blood across his face. His tongue darts out and he tastes it. It's sweeter and staler than real blood. He says that and they smile nervously at him.
The photographer can't get what he wants, is coaxing and swearing and slamming cameras down. He bites the inside of his cheek, hard and sharp, tastes his own blood on his tongue.
"Oh, I fucking love you," the photographer says, and starts shooting.
viii: lose it just to find it
He doesn't look at the photographs when they give them to him. For once he doesn't need to. He slips the envelope under Chris' door and waits.
There is a knock on his door. Chris is standing there, holding the envelope cautiously in front of him in his good hand. Chris looks the same.
He thinks Chris must not have seen the pictures yet. He watches as Chris opens the envelope and lays the photos out across the bed. He doesn't look at them. He looks at Chris. He watches and waits for Chris' face to change.
Chris looks the same.
"Look at you," Chris says, his eyes on the photos. He looks. And it happens again.
He walks until he's standing beside Chris. He looks for a few seconds or for a long time. He's not sure which. He puts a hand out to touch one, then draws it back.
"Go ahead," Chris says. He does. When he pulls his hand down the slick flat surface, the face looking back at him is still the same.
He knows he looks like that. He just didn't know he looked like that.
"What is it?" Chris says.
"Is that how I look?" he says. His voice is unfamiliar in his ears.
"Yeah, Justin," Chris says. "See, it's called a photograph. They have this machine that makes a picture -" Chris stops abruptly, then says softly, "How do you look?"
"I look like a kid," he says, and Chris smiles.
"You look pretty grown up to me," Chris says.
"No," he says, "I know, I do, I mean." He doesn't know how to say it. He thinks he looks like a big young guy from Tennessee. Like a thousand young men he's seen through bus windows. In hotel lobbies. Dancing in clubs. He thinks he looks like everyone else. "I look like a normal guy," he says.
"You look pretty fucking beautiful," Chris says.
"Well, yeah," he says and Chris laughs ruefully. "Some things never change," Chris murmurs.
"I just look like. I look just like a real guy," he says.
Chris looks at him carefully. "What do you mean?" Chris says.
"Have I always looked like that?" he says.
"Well, yeah," Chris says. He can tell Chris is confused, is choosing his words carefully. "I mean, not exactly, but. You know. More or less. It's always been in you," Chris says, and he looks up at Chris sharply.
"I didn't know I looked like that," he says.
ix: don't you please make me real
"What did you think you looked like?" Chris says curiously.
He drops his eyes. False. Fake. A pretty, pretty lie. "Nothing," he says.
Chris pushes his chin up. He closes his eyes so he doesn't have to see Chris, see the familiar mix of love and disappointment on his face. "You don't," Chris says.
He opens his eyes.
Chris doesn't look the same.