The Place Where We're Going
Joey was the first one to break.
Justin had known it would be Joey, or he would have, if he'd ever thought about it, which he didn't. But of course it was Joey, Joey and his fucking kid, and Justin put his hand over his mouth just for thinking that. He hadn't thought that in a long time, since long, long before Briahna was even born, so long ago that the thought was buried and forgotten. But that was the first thing he'd thought, when Joey told them Kelly was pregnant, or the second, right after Holy shit. He'd known right away what a horrible, awful, unworthy thought that was, and he'd smashed it down as hard as he could. It hadn't even been hard, because his third and fourth and twelfth and five-hundred-and-fiftieth thoughts had been about how cool it was, how happy Kelly looked, what a good dad Joey would be. But deep down, way down in the dark place in his brain he tried not to examine too closely, the thought was always there, lurking. Waiting. He'd almost forgotten it in the actual fact of Briahna, the sweet giggly baby who screamed with joy when Justin swung her high into the air, who curled up drowsily in Justin's lap almost as easily as in Joey's. But somewhere deep down, dark down, Justin knew she was something else. She was the expiration date stamped on *nsync.
Justin had been right. It didn't bring him much comfort.
Joey was the first one to break, but JC was the one who told them. That made sense too, because they always counted on JC to say things like that. Well, not like that, because there were no things like that, had never been, this was unlike any other thing in the world. But hard truths, unpleasant facts, bad news, those were all left for JC to deliver. Not because they wouldn't get mad at him for saying them; they all got mad at JC. Justin got mad at him at least once every three days. But it wouldn't matter to JC if the others got mad or shouted at him or froze him out. He'd just keep saying it, until they listened and shut up and answered him. When he was right, JC was relentless. When he was wrong, too, Justin thought, but he felt a tight curl of dread in his stomach even as he kicked his heels against the seat in front of him and tried to look nonchalant. He knew JC was right.
"I've been thinking," JC said, and Justin kicked the bench in front of him again, hard enough to make it shake. He stared out the window at the sky rushing by them. It was a beautiful day.
"I've been thinking," JC said again, and he could say it as many times as he wanted, he couldn't make Justin look at him. Except he could, Justin knew that, and JC knew that, and the rest of the guys did too, and probably most of their crew. But that didn't mean Justin had to make it easy for JC. A car with Texas plates passed the bus, a rarity up here in Connecticut. Justin thought they were in Connecticut. Rhode Island, maybe, or Massachusetts. Somewhere in New England, he wasn't sure. They'd been driving since long before he woke up.
"There are some things," JC said. "Things I think we've all been thinking about, but maybe didn't want to admit we were thinking. But I think we've got to think about what we're thinking about together." That was the cue for somebody, Chris or Justin himself usually, to make some joke about JC's way with words. Justin didn't feel like it. Neither did Chris, it seemed like, because there was a silence. Justin kept looking out the window. He could wait JC out.
The quiet stretched out, longer and longer, until Joey said in a funny voice, "You may be wondering why I've called you all here." Nobody laughed.
That made the silence worse. Somebody always laughed whenever somebody else made a joke -- it was one of those unwritten rules, the way JC always handed out bad news. They needed it, on the road together. No matter what was going on, somebody had to make a bad joke and somebody had to laugh at it. It was how things stayed together, how they'd stayed together all these years. Somebody had to laugh. But no one was laughing.
Justin couldn't take it any more. He slumped down further in his seat and said, "I don't know what y'all are talking about. But I haven't been thinking anything."
"No?" JC said, and Justin lifted his chin and looked at JC defiantly. JC said, "Well, maybe you haven't. But the rest of us -- we have."
Justin only had to look around the bus to know who "the rest of us" were. JC was sitting on the edge of Joey's chair, looking straight at Justin. Joey was staring down at his hands. Lance was standing behind them, leaning in the doorway, watching the wall intently. All three of them looked worried, concerned, maybe even a little scared.
Chris was sitting in the corner, as far away from the rest of them as he could get without actually jumping out onto the highway. He was looking at the floor in front of JC, his leg jiggling nervously. He didn't look worried or concerned or scared. He looked exactly the way Justin felt. Blindsided.
"So what've you all been thinking?" Justin heard the way his voice sounded, angry, belligerent, but he didn't care. This wasn't his idea, this wasn't his fault, and they all should know it.
"We've been thinking," JC said, "that it's time."
Time for what? Justin thought, but didn't say. He knew what the answer would be, and he didn't want to hear it. He thought Chris might say it. That was the type of thing Chris did in situations like this, daring people to say what they were all afraid to hear. But Chris didn't say anything. The silence gaped between them, still and tense, like that moment when the knife slips into your finger, just before the pain starts flowing with the blood.
"Look, I'm sorry," Joey said suddenly, quickly, words pouring out over each other, "I'm sorry but you don't know what it's like, none of you do. She's getting so big, and I'm missing stuff, every day I'm missing stuff, and she's too old to keep coming with us and I just can't do it any more."
"We all make sacrifices, Joey," Justin said. "You're not the only one."
"Not like -- none of you know what it's like. You can't. You don't have a kid. But every day I'm away, she's -- I'm losing stuff, time, and I just can't -- I don't want to lose any more. I won't. Nothing's worth it."
Justin sucked in his breath. When he found his voice again, he said, "Well, nobody asked you to have --"
"Justin!" JC hissed, and Justin shut up. JC could still do that to him. Justin was glad, though. He didn't know what Joey would have done to him if he'd finished that sentence. Justin didn't know what he would have done to himself.
"So what?" Chris said finally. "You want a hiatus? It seems to me I've heard this song before."
"Well, not -- not like last time," Joey said. "Maybe longer. I think -- yeah, longer."
"How long?" Justin demanded.
"Justin," JC said. "It's time."
"You know you'll be set, J," Joey said. "You know you've been waiting on us to finish this tour before you get moving on your new stuff. I know you -- I didn't mean, before, that you didn't make sacrifices for us. I know you did. I know you do." Justin didn't look at him. "It's just," Joey said helplessly, "it's just that I'm never there. And school -- she's going to have to start. And she's getting so big."
Joey sounded so stupid, Justin thought, saying that over and over again. He looked over at Chris, wondering if Chris was thinking the same thing. Maybe Chris would say something about it, tell Joey what a moron he was being, that of course Briahna was getting big, that's what kids did, they got bigger. Except Chris would say it smarter, funnier, and they'd be laughing at Joey, Joey would be laughing at himself, before they knew it. That's what happened when things got tight and tense like this. Chris would make a joke and they'd all laugh and forget what they got so worked up about. But Chris didn't say anything.
"So how long?" Justin said into the silence.
"J," Lance said without taking his eyes off the wall above Justin's head, "you know you've been wanting -- you said just the other day you wished you'd had more time to put your own stuff together."
"I didn't mean --"
"And I think you did it exactly right," Lance continued, "putting it out while we were still -- nobody can say you didn't put us first. Nobody can say you didn't think about us. But you know you've been feeling like you were held back --"
"Oh, so this is all for me," Justin said. "Wow, thanks. Maybe you could have thought of this before I put everything on hold so you could all have one last ..." He never really thought he'd get that far without someone stopping him. No one did, so he had to stop himself. "So we could have one last ..." He stopped himself again. "Look," he said finally, running a hand over his head, not looking at any of them, "just don't say this is for me, all right? Don't try to make it that this is what I want."
"Not just you," JC said. "I think we've all got some things we've been wanting to do. Things we can't really do, when we're still doing -- if we're still -- well, that we can't really do like this."
"I don't," Chris said, suddenly enough to make Justin jump. He'd almost forgotten Chris for a moment. "There's nothing at all I want to do that I can't do just like this."
"Yeah, well." JC's gaze swung around to Chris. "Maybe, maybe that's not such a great thing."
"You think I don't know that?" JC shrugged and smiled and put one hand up, palm outspread. Chris ignored him. He was still slumped in his seat, and he didn't straighten up or look at JC as he spoke. "Look, I know what you're doing, and you can't expect me to smile and just suck it up. I'm not gonna pretend. You all got your things, fair fine, you go ahead. But I don't have -- I don't know how to do anything else other than this. I don't know how to want to."
It was quiet again, until Justin heard his own voice say harshly, "That's stupid." JC looked at him and put his hand up again, not in the peace gesture he'd given Chris, but in a stop it now motion Justin'd seen a thousand, ten thousand times. But this time JC couldn't shut him up. "Don't be so stupid. We've all -- it's not like we haven't had time off before. Not like we haven't done stuff on our own before."
"This is different." Chris was still staring at the floor. "Wait and see."
"That's just -- that's stupid." Justin didn't know why he was so mad, except that Chris wasn't stupid, was never stupid, and now wasn't the time to start. The others weren't going to change their minds out of pity. Justin knew he had to fight, and he knew he couldn't lose if Chris was on his side.
Chris wasn't fighting, though. At least not for Justin. "Well, that's great for you, then, isn't it? You're right -- you'll be just fine." He turned his smile on JC. "Were you thinking we'd finish the tour, or should we just call it quits tonight?"
"No," Justin said, before he'd even figured out what he wanted to say, just to pull Chris back to him. "I didn't mean -- you're not understanding." He looked at Chris' smile and said, "On purpose, you're not understanding.
Even if Chris' shrug hadn't told him he was right, Justin would've known. If Chris didn't understand him, it had to be on purpose.
"Don't worry, J," Chris said, and Justin had heard him say those words so many times, had leaned on them like a crutch, wrapped himself in them like a blanket. "You'll be fine." The words had never sounded like that before.
He wasn't the only one who heard the difference, because JC took a step toward them and said, "Stop it now. Don't do this. It doesn't have to -- we can all walk out of here feeling like this happened the way we want it to."
Chris laughed, a short sharp sound. "You think this is the way I want it -- any of it? Can you actually believe that? Man, I'd like to spend some time in your head, C. It must be a real nice place, all the flowers and candy and children singing hand-in-hand."
"All right," Joey said.
"I know," JC said, "that this isn't exactly the way you want it. But we're all going to walk out of here, Chris, and it matters to me how we do it. And I think it matters to you too."
Chris didn't say anything.
"All right," JC said, and his voice was a little higher than usual, a little shakier. "All right, so we're doing this then? This is it -- we're --"
"Wait," Chris said, and his voice sounded exactly the same as it always had. "I started this, and I'll be the one to end it." He sat up and looked at each of them briefly, fiercely. When Chris' gaze fell on him, Justin turned his head slightly and looked out the window again.
"All right," Chris said. Justin looked up. At Lance, who offered him half a smile and then looked away. At Joey, who wasn't looking at anyone, just staring hard at the floor and swallowing over and over. At JC, who wasn't looking back at Justin, the way Justin thought he'd be, but was watching Chris steadily.
"All right," Chris said again. Justin looked down at his own hand, tracing the edge of the window, his fingers pale against the smoky glass. Through his outspread fingers he watched the world rush by.
"It's over," Chris said.
Justin didn't know what he expected to happen when Chris said it, but he expected something. He thought maybe someone would yell, or cry, thought the words themselves would hang in the air, stretching around them. He had heard of words striking people like a blow, or burning into people's brains. These didn't. They just disappeared. Already Justin couldn't remember exactly what Chris' voice had sounded like saying them.
Justin looked up and saw that everyone still looked the same, Lance staring at the wall, Joey staring at the floor. JC's eyes moved from Chris to rest on Justin. He put his hand out but didn't reach to touch Justin when Justin didn't lean in.
Chris was looking right at the space between Justin and Joey.
The silence opened around them again, and this time it seemed emptier than it ever had before. Justin stood up and pushed past Chris, not because he couldn't stand it or anything, but just because someone had to be the first to leave. So he did. He walked back to the bunks and lay down on his with all his clothes still on. He faced the wall and waited.
No one followed him.
The first thing he noticed was how everything held still.
Justin always forgot that, how strange it felt, the first day or three after getting off tour. He was like a sailor or something -- he had to get his land legs, had to get used to the fact that he didn't have to lean against the counter when he drank from the milk carton, because the house wasn't going to have to suddenly swerve to miss a bump in the road. When he lay down in his bed, his huge warm soft bed, he didn't have to worry about being jarred out of it when someone hit the brakes. He could lie back in his huge warm soft bed and stare up at the ceiling hanging over him, motionless, not going anywhere at all.
It felt stranger than usual, although maybe that was just because he had never really had a chance to get used to it before. Before when he stopped, it was only a few days before he had to start traveling again, whether it was for the band or for his own thing or just to see as much of his friends and family as he could before he had to get back on the road. He'd never had time like this, free time, open-ended, spilling out slowly before him.
It felt even stranger, maybe, because the last days had seemed to move in double time. It was easier than he'd thought it would be, ending everything. Although that wasn't true -- it wasn't easier than he'd thought it would be, because he had never really thought about it before. It was just awfully easy.
Right up until the last second Justin had thought that someone would talk them out of it. Johnny, the label, someone -- it wasn't like they weren't still making money. But no one had even tried very hard. The news struck Johnny speechless, but just for a second, before he sighed and said, "Well, we knew it couldn't last forever."
Voices rushed over Justin, swirling around him like waves around a rock, splitting briefly when they caught on him, but then moving on. Justin didn't hear what they said. He was thinking about what Johnny said.
He took a step back, slowly, and then another. No one noticed. He leaned against the wall, next to the only other person in the room who was silent.
"I never really knew," Justin said to Chris. "I never really believed it couldn't last forever."
He knew it was a mistake even before he saw Chris' smile.
"Of course you didn't," Chris said, and something about the way he said it, that knowing smirk, pissed Justin off enough to say,
"And you did, huh? You expected it to end?"
Chris rubbed a knuckle across his smile until it shrank into something tight and hard. Justin had liked it better when that look was directed at him.
"No," Chris said, pushing off from the wall. "No, I never did."
Justin had meant to go after him, but Joey had grabbed his arm, pulling him into a conversation, and from that moment until the last Justin had felt swept up, pushed and prodded into the way it was going to end. There was something his momma used to say, Easy as falling downhill, and this was that way, just that easy. Before he knew it he was halfway there, and moving so fast he almost didn't notice the bruises he picked up on the way.
Someone said something about a party for the last night, and even though Justin didn't feel much like it he could tell Lance wanted to plan it, so he didn't say anything. The arrangements just happened, moving along without his having to agree to anything, easy as falling downhill. Justin didn't say anything. Chris did, though. Not much; he'd just smiled, that smile Justin'd known before, a long time ago, and had thought he'd never have to see again. "I'll have to regretfully decline," Chris had said, interrupting Lance's recital of the revised revised guest list. Chris hadn't said it particularly loudly, but it brought everything in the room to a stop. Everyone looked at him. "Except not regretfully."
They'd tried to talk Chris into it. Well, Justin hadn't, but everybody else had. Privately first, he was sure, although Justin really only knew it was going on when it started happening in public. It was no use, though. You could never talk Chris into doing anything he didn't secretly want to do, which Justin could have told them, if anyone had asked him, which they hadn't. JC had argued and Joey had begged and Lance had punched the wall, hard enough to split his knuckles. First blood since that day, the day it was decided, and Justin was surprised it had taken so long, but it would take more than that to make Chris change his mind.
"You're fucking it up for all of us," Joey had shouted finally. "Why? Why can't you just do this one thing?"
Chris just looked at him and said quietly, "I thought the whole point of this was that we didn't have to do things we didn't want to any more."
"It's not that I don't want to," Joey had said, almost cried, and against his will Justin felt sorry for him, Joey who'd been apologizing every day since that day.
"No?" Chris said, but just barely, like he could barely be bothered to even have this conversation.
Joey took a step toward him then, but before JC had put a hand on his arm, Joey had stopped. He looked down at Chris until Chris met his eyes. Joey closed his eyes and sighed, and when he opened them Justin knew Joey wouldn't be apologizing any more. "There's just other things I want more."
Chris put a hand on the wall but he didn't flinch from Joey's words. "Congratulations," he said. "And I have something I want to do more the night of the party."
"What?" Joey said angrily.
"Anything," Chris had said, and walked out of the room.
Lance had said something about having the party anyway, and JC had said something soothing and noncommittal, and everything was moving again, but slower. For the first time Justin believed there was going to be a stop.
They didn't have the party.
Justin had known they wouldn't, and he knew everyone else had known, Joey and Lance and JC and everyone. There were drinks, the last night, in Joey's room, with the crew and Kelly and a few friends, and really, like Joey said, it was better that way, because then there weren't a bunch of people they had to be careful around, a bunch of people they had to be polite to. Lance even made a toast about it, red-faced and laughing. Justin had laughed, too, at his flowery words. At the end Lance had said, "But tonight it's just us, just the people who matter," and there was a moment of complete and utter silence when everything stopped. Then Lance clapped his hand over his mouth with an audible pop and his girlfriend was coaxing him down off the table and everyone was talking at once, and Justin snuck out to his own room, where he could close the door behind him and get into bed and finally, finally admit to himself that it wasn't better that way.
He lay back in his huge, warm hotel bed and didn't sleep. He didn't know how long he lay there, because sometime after the first hour he'd dropped the clock into a drawer so he wouldn't be tempted to look at it. The hotel was a good one, and the walls were thick. He couldn't hear anything from the rooms on either side of his. He wished he'd gotten drunker, so he would've passed out right away. He wished he'd gotten drunk enough to make the bed spin. But he was hardly drunk at all. The bed didn't move. Nothing moved. Justin lay in bed and waited. For sleep, for something, he didn't know. He just waited.
There was a soft knock and Justin knew what he was waiting for. His door swung open before he could do more than sit up on one elbow. "J?" JC said, and Justin lay back down. "You're not asleep, are you?"
Justin's eyes had adjusted to the dark a while ago, and he could see JC make his way over to the bed. JC's skin glowed pale but his eyes were lost in the darkness. He sat down on the edge of the bed and Justin rolled to his side. The sheet lifted and then JC pressed against him, wrapping an arm tightly around Justin's waist.
"You left early," JC whispered. "You okay?"
Justin didn't know why he was whispering. They had the room to themselves, and unless they started shouting no one could hear them through the walls. Justin wished he wouldn't. It made him remember things he'd been trying not to think about, so many other late nights in other hotel rooms, nights when JC had to whisper because people could hear through the cheap plaster, nights when JC had to whisper because he wasn't supposed to be there at all.
"It's hard to believe," Justin said, and he was whispering too, "it's hard to believe this is the last time we'll do this."
JC's head dipped to Justin's shoulder. "I hope it's not the last time," JC said, and Justin could tell from JC's voice and the soft brush of JC's curls over his skin that JC was laughing a little.
"No," Justin said, and JC stopped laughing. "No, you know what I mean."
"I know," JC said. "J, it'll be okay."
"No. No, it won't."
JC tugged at Justin's waist until Justin rolled over to face him. He put his forehead against Justin's. When they were that close Justin could see his eyes. "J," he said. "Other things ended. Other things ended, and you survived."
Justin closed his eyes, because he of all people shouldn't have made JC say that. "It's not the same," he said.
"I know," JC said, and Justin kept his eyes closed. He of all people shouldn't have made JC say that. "But, J, it's time."
Justin didn't say anything, and JC pulled him closer, holding him tightly. "Go to sleep, all right?" JC said. "Go to sleep, and things'll look better in the morning."
"No, they won't," Justin said. "Nothing will be different in the morning."
"It'll be one day closer to whatever's going to happen next," JC said. "J, it's better this way. I promise." Justin kept his eyes closed and didn't say anything. It wouldn't be better, Justin knew, but he'd already made JC say enough things he shouldn't have had to say.
"Maybe not better," JC said, even though Justin hadn't said anything. "But just as good. I promise." He rocked Justin a little, and kept whispering, and Justin fell asleep not saying anything.
The next morning had been a little better, because everything was planned out for them, one last piece of choreography to run through. There was a breakfast with some of the tour sponsors, and one last interview, and then Justin's plane was the first out. Somebody packed his bag for him, and somebody put it in the car, and then he was being passed from hand to hand, and it wasn't goodbye, everyone kept saying, it wasn't goodbye.
"It's just so long," Joey had said as he wiped his eyes on Justin's shoulder.
"Call when you get in," Lance said. Then he braced one hand around Justin's neck and tilted Justin's forehead down to his and said, low, "I know you know. So I won't -- but you know."
JC hadn't said anything, just held Justin tight and rocked him a little again.
Justin had been afraid, just for a second, that Chris wouldn't turn up that morning. But Justin had misjudged him. Chris hugged him, his fingers against Justin's back fierce enough to leave bruises, and then let him go.
Chris said, "Goodbye."
The car was running when Justin got in. They were a little late getting to the airport, although it wasn't like they'd leave without him, but Justin still hustled on his way to the gate. No sooner was he strapped in than the plane took off, the engines humming beneath him. He slept the whole trip.
And then he was on the ground, in his big quiet house. He dropped his bag on the floor by the door and wandered through the rooms, opening and closing doors, checking his messages. He didn't answer any of them. Instead he took off his clothes and lay down in his huge soft warm bed and watched the ceiling hanging motionless over him and waited to get his land legs.
He lay awake and watched everything hold still.
Of course, nothing held still for long. The next morning Justin poured himself some orange juice and sat down in his boxers with his feet on his kitchen table and listened to his messages. Johnny and his mom had been working on setting things up for the next album since the day after they'd all -- since the day after that day. Just listening to his messages, the familiar details, the familiar voices, all of it got Justin's blood pumping in a rhythm he knew so well, that relentless forward motion.
After all, it wasn't like he hadn't been waiting for this moment. Not constantly, not all the time, but just occasionally, back before that day, just every once in a while when he felt like he might just be on the bus forever, watching an endless highway ribbon out beneath him. Just in those off moments, the ones that everyone had, when they were tired and sick to death of everything, of each other, just occasionally he'd let himself think about what it would be like to start putting a new album together. His new album.
It was hardly amazing that he'd think about it -- the label had been after him to work on it almost since he'd finished the last one. That was why it was so crazy to think that after all that, it was Joey -- Joey -- who said that they should -- but he wasn't even going to think about that. After all, a little girl was a lot more important than another album, even his own album, and besides, what was done was done. It was like everybody, almost everybody, had said. It was all working out for the best, for him, for everybody. Almost everybody. But he wasn't even going to think about that.
Instead he called Johnny back and listened to him rattle off all those familiar, those long-awaited details in person. "How does that sound?" Johnny asked finally, and Justin had to smile. It sounded like everything was taken care of, of course. It sounded perfect. Johnny knew his job.
"There's just one thing," Justin said, and smiled wider. He could practically hear Johnny leaning closer to the phone, wondering what he could possibly have overlooked. Johnny knew he knew his job. "Instead of Thursday, do you think we could start the day after tomorrow?"
Johnny's laugh was loud and warm and so familiar. "That's my boy," he said. "Take off running, right out of the gate -- that's how you are. You've always been the same."
"Yeah," Justin said. "I'm just the same."
He called his mother next. She told him pretty much exactly what Johnny had just finished telling him, except that it took her about twice as long. Justin didn't mind. His momma laughed, too, when he said how soon he wanted to start. "Baby," she said, "I was just remembering -- the day that you all -- I remember, I said to your dad, don't you worry about Justin. There's no point in worrying about him. He's gonna be just fine."
Justin didn't say anything for a minute. His mother said, "It's not -- honey, I know it's not like you would've -- but maybe it's not so bad, in a way. I know that you never wanted to be the one who said ... but now all that's done with. And you're ready to get on with everything, just the way you always are. I'm proud of you, and you should be proud of yourself. You don't have to feel --"
"No," Justin said. "No, you're right. I'll be fine."
He let his momma fuss over him for another ten minutes, then got off the phone. He sat looking out over his backyard for a little while. The gardener had planted roses while he'd been gone. He made himself sit still and look at them. It was hard. Every part of him, right down to his skin, was tingling with a desire to rush forward, to let a familiar rhythm fill him, take him over. He made himself sit still and drink his orange juice. When he was finished, he stood up and put his glass in the sink.
Then he went back to bed.
He stayed there.
The first day was easy. Touring always left him with weeks of sleep to make up for -- any normal tour he would've been nodding off any time he sat down longer than five seconds by the last couple of days. He hadn't had that problem this last time around, but that just meant that now he was even more exhausted than usual. He probably could've slept forty-eight straight hours and still awakened groaning for just five more minutes.
He didn't, though. He thought about it and then he tried not thinking about it, tried to just sleep through and let things take care of themselves, but in the end there were some things Justin was just not capable of, at least not yet, and one of those things was standing people up. When he woke up the third time, even though it was the middle of the night he picked up the phone.
"Momma," he said, his voice so drugged and drawn out with sleep and something else that he barely recognized it. "I can't -- I'm not going into the studio. I need -- I'm not -- I just don't think that doing this right now is a thing that would be good for me to do. Yet," he said, and bit his lip.
"Baby," she said, her own voice drowsy but so warm that Justin had to scrunch his eyes tight shut and bury his head in the pillow. "Baby, it's okay."
"I just -- I don't --"
"It's okay," she said again. "I almost expected -- I know, I know I said before that I wasn't worried about you, and I'm not, not in the long run, but I'm a momma, I'm your momma and I worry, and I thought that maybe you weren't giving yourself enough time. Maybe you were rushing into something new, after, so that you didn't have to -- that you weren't giving yourself enough time."
They were quiet a minute, together, and then that quiet was almost too long and Justin said, "I only called you --"
"I'll take care of everything," his momma said, just like he knew she would. "I'll call Johnny, and everybody, we'll push everything back for a while, and you don't worry about a thing. I'll take care of everything. You just take care of you, all right?"
"Okay," Justin said.
"And baby, I'm proud of you, you know? I'm proud of you for knowing what you need and doing what you need to do and --"
"Momma," Justin said.
"I know, I know, but I'm just -- I'm proud of you."
"I love you," Justin said, partly because he always said it and partly because he wanted to say something to his mother that was completely and utterly true.
"I love you too," she said. "Now get some sleep, you hear?"
Justin intended to spend some time just holding still. Sleeping late, lying around on the couch watching bad TV, not talking to anyone, not starting anything, just doing nothing at all. But he'd underestimated the force of the momentum of the past months, or his own inability to stay in bed once he'd slept off his tour fatigue, or something. Soon he found himself up early in the mornings, showered, dressed, kicking his shoes against the coffee table and switching off the TV in frustration. It was all he could do to keep himself from heading down into his studio or picking up his guitar or something.
Still, he managed.
His mother called first. Justin had expected that. He'd hoped, maybe, for something different, but he'd expected that. She called every morning, just the way she always had. She was bubbling over with plans, ideas, people she should contact, people he should work with, just the way she'd always been. More than once Justin found himself talking over her, laughing, letting her finish his sentences as they figured out the future together, the way they always had. More than once he had to stop himself in the middle of a sentence and literally bite his tongue, the sting swelling in his mouth as his mother's voice trailed off and a silence grew between them.
"Honey?" she said after a while. "Honey, are you okay?"
"I just -- " he said, the words slurring a little over his sore tongue. "I just don't want to talk about this right now, okay? I don't want to do this. All right?"
"Why?" she said quietly.
"I don't know," he said, the words slow, made clumsy by more than his bitten tongue. He'd never been very good at lying to her. "But I just -- could you maybe, just... just leave me alone, okay, please? Just for a while."
There was another silence, long enough for Justin to taste blood in his mouth. "All right, baby," his mother said finally. "Why don't you just call me when you want -- when you're ready?"
Johnny called him, then, the phone ringing almost as soon as Justin hung it up. Justin almost laughed as he answered it -- he wouldn't have thought his mom'd had time to report back. But then, maybe she hadn't, because what Johnny was telling him was basically the same thing his mother had told him, just wrapped up in more businesslike words. More businesslike words, and more straightforward ones, and Johnny's gift had always been to make whatever he was pitching sound like not just the best plan of action, but the only one. It wasn't like Justin hadn't known that, but he'd never really been on the other side of that relentless stream of words. He'd never really tried to resist Johnny before. He suddenly had a whole new sympathy for a whole bunch of record execs.
Still, Justin had put his mother off with nothing worse to show for it than the taste of blood and guilt in his mouth. Next to that, Johnny was amateur hour. Justin kept his eyes tight shut and tilted his head back against the couch and tried to remember the exact order of the cities they'd hit on the eastern leg of the No Strings tour. Since he hadn't been able to remember them even while he'd been on the tour, it kept him engrossed for quite a while. He didn't even realize Johnny had finished his pitch until Johnny said, "Justin!" sharply and he jumped and the phone fell from his shoulder down between the couch cushions.
Justin dug the phone back out and said, "Sorry about that." There was no need to be rude, after all.
Johnny huffed a little, then said, "So I'll start making the calls today, then, and we can set up studio time for next week."
Justin said, "I dunno."
"Do you want to take a little more time off? That's fine, that's great, no one deserves it more, but you said you wanted a week off back before you all -- back then. What do you want, another month? We can do that, but we should get the timeline in place right now, because you know how difficult it can be to get everyone's schedules coordinated. Just give me a start date and I can take care of everything from there."
Justin said, "I dunno."
"What do you need, Justin?" Johnny said, in his crisp businessman's voice. "Just let me know, and I'll make it happen."
"No you won't," Justin said, mumbled really, the phone half falling from his shoulder again. There was a brief silence, and for a moment Justin thought he'd misjudged and Johnny really hadn't heard him.
Then Johnny sighed and said, "It's perfectly understandable that you'd -- I know you'll want some time to process everything that's happened," and Justin smiled, because Johnny was good enough at what he did that he'd even made that sound natural. He wondered if Johnny had someone on staff who read whatever self-help books Justin mentioned and gave Johnny talking points. Any other day, he would've asked Johnny, and Johnny would've laughed and pled the fifth.
Today wasn't any other day, though. Justin mumbled, "Look, I don't want to ..." and Johnny picked the sentence up from him seamlessly.
"Rush into anything," he said. "Of course. So why don't we just say a month, then, and I'll get to work on setting everything up. I won't even call you unless you call me first. I'll just leave you alone until you're ready to get started."
"That'll be a long time, then," Justin said. He heard Johnny draw in a long, even breath.
"All right," Johnny said, "two months, that's fine, it's just that we talked about bringing it out for Christmas, and even if you finish as fast as you did the last one, we'll still be talking about a really tight timeframe. Really tight. You won't be leaving yourself a lot of room for second thoughts there." Justin didn't say anything. "Of course, that's your decision. You know best. But I'll just hold off on making any calls for a day or two, in case you feel like you'll be ready to go a little earlier. You just give me a call in a couple of days and let me know what you want."
"I don't need a couple of days," Justin said, and there was no mumbling this time. "I can tell you what I want right now."
"Well, great," Johnny said. He sounded relieved. "Great."
"Or, I guess, I can tell you what I don't want."
"That's okay, too," Johnny said, but he sounded a little less relieved.
"I don't want to do it."
There was another silence, a longer one. Justin was determined not to be the one to break it. Johnny must have been just as determined, though, because it went on and on. Justin counted the little flecks of brown on one of the pillows lying next to him, recited all the words to Clocks backwards in his head, concentrated on breathing slowly and deeply, all the way down through his diaphragm every time. Johnny still didn't say anything. Justin was impressed. He was glad Johnny was on his side. Still, Justin knew he'd be able to outlast Johnny. Johnny didn't have his reasons.
"Look, Justin," Johnny said finally, "why don't you just take a little time --"
"I told you," Justin said, "I told you, you said it was about what I wanted and I don't want to do it. I'm just not -- I'm not feeling it."
"Excuse me, sir," Johnny said, "I think I have the wrong number. I was looking for Justin Timberlake?"
Justin said, "Don't."
"Justin, you haven't not felt it since you were eleven years old."
"Well, things are different now."
"Yes," Johnny said, "but you're not different."
Justin had thought he'd known how this conversation would go. He thought he'd prepared an answer for everything Johnny could possibly say, but for a moment he was breathless and speechless. When he finally found his voice, he said, softly, "Maybe I am." The words spilled clumsily, falsely, over his sore tongue.
"Look, I just don't want to talk about it, okay?"
"All right," Johnny said gently. "All right."
Justin sat back on the couch, the phone buzzing in his ear after Johnny hung up. When it started beeping insistently he turned it off and let it fall back down behind the cushion. He knew Johnny was right. He wasn't different.
But if the past ten years -- hell, his whole life -- had taught him anything, it was that he could do anything he set his mind to.
He could make himself different.
Johnny was tricky, Justin would say that for him. For three days Justin's phone didn't ring. He even checked it a couple of times. No matter what Johnny said, he found it hard to believe that Johnny wouldn't call him. However, it looked like Justin was the only one Johnny wasn't calling. On the fourth day, while Justin was in the McDonald's drive-through, his phone started ringing. When he got home and finished his fries and washed his plate and dried it and put it back in the cabinet, he let himself check his voicemail.
"I got something for you," and Justin knew he should delete the message right then, but he couldn't stop smiling. Pharrell's voice was floating, teasing, and then he sang a little, a hook, a beat, no words but that didn't matter because the words were jumping in Justin's mind as he listened. "Your turn," Pharrell laughed at the end. "Call me, baby, let's do something."
Justin was moving as the phone dropped to the counter, already humming under his breath, a familiar rhythm surging in him. He pulled down a note he'd hung on the refrigerator and flipped it over, scribbling as fast as he could sing. Every few minutes he stopped writing, but he didn't stop moving. He paced the length of the kitchen, singing out loud, and then the phone was in his hand and he was dialing and then he stopped. The scrap of paper with his lyrics was still on the counter. He crumpled it up, then unfolded it and read them again. They were rough, but they were good. Justin thought maybe he could put them away in a drawer, save them for later. No one would know. He read them over again. They were definitely something.
Justin tore the sheet of paper into small pieces and tossed them in the trash. Then he turned off his phone.
The messages didn't stop right away. Justin couldn't bear to keep the phone off for too long, although he knew that he should. He was going to just let the messages pile up, but he found himself sitting up in his bed at two in the morning listening to them, jotting lyrics in the margin of his magazine. When he realized what he was doing, he said out loud, "Fuck." The word dropped into the sheets with the same dull thud as his phone. He closed his eyes. Everything in him resisted, which was how he knew it was what he had to do. He picked up the phone and ruthlessly deleted all the messages. Then he lay back in bed and pulled the sheets over his head. It was light out before he slept.
The messages slowed down and then stopped. Justin knew that they would. All it took was discipline, and he had always had that. As a reward, he let himself answer the phone when a familiar number flashed.
"Hey, kiddo," Joey said, his voice warm and slow and missed, "how you been?"
Justin laughed. "Never mind me, how's my baby girl?"
"Not hardly a baby any more. She'd be mad if she heard you say that. She says she's a big girl now." Justin settled back into the couch for a while. Joey was always good for at least half an hour of Briahna stories. But this time Joey only gave him a quick update before he said, "But you never said -- how've you been doing?"
"Okay," Justin said. There was a small silence. Justin didn't break it.
"So, how's the album coming?" Joey's voice shaped each word carefully. "You must be getting a lot done, huh?"
"Well, Joey, I guess you must not have heard that I'm not really doing that right now," Justin said. "On a totally unrelated subject, my, those acting classes are really paying off."
"All right, all right, I suck, I know." Joey's laugh rumbled briefly, then his voice tightened. "They're saying you're slacking off, kiddo. Can't believe that. What are you doing?"
"Nothing," Justin said.
"So, you're taking a little break or something? That's cool, that's cool."
"No," Justin said. "I'm just -- I don't know."
"When do you think you're gonna --"
"I don't know, all right."
"Okay, okay," Joey said. There was another silence. "What are you doing?"
"I told you I don't --"
"No, I mean, what are you doing right now?"
"Nothing," Justin said. "Sitting on the couch. Watching TV."
"Um --" Justin had to watch for a few minutes to figure it out. He made sure to have the TV on for six hours every day, but he didn't always pay attention. That wasn't the point. "I think Full House?"
"We got that here, too," Joey said. "Hold on." Justin heard the creak of a chair and then the raucous blurt of the laugh track. Justin sank down on the sofa, head tilted down against his phone. He could hear Joey breathing. They used to do this all the time when they were on separate buses, chatting during commercials and falling silent when the show started again. They could waste whole afternoons that way. They had whole afternoons to waste back then.
After the show ended Joey sighed. "Listen, I gotta go pick up Bri. I'll call you soon, okay?"
"Okay," Justin said, and turned the TV up a little. He had an afternoon to waste.
Joey kept calling. Not every day and never for more than half an hour or so, but he kept calling. Justin liked it. A couple of times, during commercials, it seemed like Joey was going to press him, ask him some questions, but Justin never gave him any encouragement and Joey ended up sighing and not asking him anything. Joey did most of the talking when he called. He was calling regularly enough that he didn't have much new to say every time, but Justin didn't mind. He found himself waiting for the calls. They gave his days a shape, a gentle curve of looking forward to hearing Joey's voice and then thinking about whatever Joey said afterwards. Justin liked it.
Eight days after Joey's first call, Lance called. Justin didn't like that as much. He and Lance were never too good on the phone. They were better with each other in person, so Justin could smile when he said something he meant as a joke and Lance could roll his eyes. In person they usually had someone else around, too, one of the guys or someone, someone that they could bounce off of. It had been a while since they'd been too good with each other alone.
Lance's voice was clipped, calm, and something about it made Justin want to piss him off. Lance asked him briefly about his family, sent his love to Justin's mother, then said, "So how's the recording going?" in a voice so flat that Justin knew Lance wasn't even trying to act like he didn't know what was going on.
"Look," Justin said, "you obviously talked to Joey and he's making you call me, so why don't you say whatever you've got to say and then you can get back to doing whatever you'd rather be doing?"
"Your mom called me," Lance said, "and no one makes me do anything I don't want to do, so."
"Joey didn't call you?" Justin said.
"Your mom called me first. Then Joey did, and then JC. Do you want to see my phone bills or something?"
"Sorry," Justin mumbled.
"Yeah, clearly," Lance said. "Look, I'm not gonna make this some drawn-out thing. Do you want some advice?"
"Not really," Justin said, and only after he said it did he remember that that was one of those things that didn't really work between them over the phone. "Sorry," he said again, and meant it this time. "I just -- all I meant is, you and me aren't the same people, so what you'd do isn't what it would be good for me to do. Necessarily."
"Well, isn't that lucky? Because what I was going to tell you is not at all what I'd do. JC's staying at Joey's. Why don't you get yourself a plane ticket right now and save us all a lot of trouble and annoying phone calls?"
Justin caught his breath. He hadn't been expecting anything quite so direct. He should have been, but he always made the same mistake he warned Lance about. He always forgot that what Lance would do was never what he would do. He thought about hanging up. Finally he just said, "No."
"Why not?" Lance's voice was brisk and impatient, just the right side of annoyance. Justin didn't say anything.
"Look," Lance said, then stopped. Justin thought he could hear him counting to ten in his head. "Listen, you have a very limited repertoire of things you do when you're fucked up, and you're not talking to your mom which I hadn't actually thought was physically possible for either of you, and you're not talking to -- just go make JC patch you up, okay? It's what you'll wind up doing in the end, you might as well just do it now."
"Just leave me alone, all right?" Justin said stubbornly. "I just want everybody to leave me alone."
"Oh, bullshit," Lance said. "If you wanted to be left alone, you would've disappeared. Left messages so we all knew you weren't dead, but you would've been gone, just like -- "
"You don't know what I want," Justin said. "You never know what I want."
Lance was quiet for a moment. Then he said, "No," the word small and almost controlled. Justin closed his eyes at the twist in Lance's voice. He'd heard that twist once before, late at night, on the road between Chicago and Springfield. He could still feel the way Lance's chest hitched under his hand before he made that sound. Justin closed his fist, but he could still feel it.
For a few minutes there was silence between them. Then Justin said, "I'm --"
"Don't," Lance said sharply. Justin heard him take a deep smooth breath. "I'm not going to -- look, I guess I just wanted to say, you know, if you need anything --" Lance laughed, a laugh Justin had heard many times since the road between Chicago and Springfield. "But you won't need anything from me, will you?"
Justin didn't want to answer. Instead he said, "You know I love you." It was the truth. If it hadn't been, he wouldn't be talking to Lance at all. They had nothing to talk about these days. There was nothing between them any more but love, a frayed cord rubbed raw, stretched out and out, until it snapped tight and slammed them into each other. Justin knew he loved Lance because without wanting to, without even thinking about it, he could still hurt Lance.
"I know," Lance said. "And I'll tell you something, just because of that. You might as well just go to JC now, because this isn't going to work out the way you want it to. Just because you want something, that doesn't mean you'll get it."
"You don't know what I want," Justin said again.
"I do," Lance said. "I do, and you won't get it, because Chris isn't --"
Justin hung up on him. He sat back and closed his eyes, Lance's last words still in his ears.
No matter how much Justin wanted to think differently, what Lance said was right. If it hadn't been true, it wouldn't have hurt. He did have a limited repertoire of things he did when he was fucked up. And he was fucked up now. He had to be. Anybody could see it, if they were looking. Anybody would believe it.
Justin flew home to his momma.
She stopped him almost as soon as he walked in the door, reaching up to hold his face in her hands. She stood there looking up at him until he shrugged and tried to pull away. "I'm glad you came, baby," she said, and tilted his head down so she could kiss him. He let her.
"I'm glad, too," he said, and she smiled at him.
He wasn't glad, though. It wasn't her fault. He'd always loved going back to his parents' house in Tennessee. It had never felt too small for him, not the way some of his friends described their parents' houses after they'd moved out on their own. Part of it was Lynn, the way she always welcomed him in for as long as he could stay and never put the kind of pressure on him that other parents did -- to stay longer, to leave sooner, to stop working so hard, to get a job. But part of it was just the house itself. He loved the way it was big enough that he could shut himself up alone in a room when he wanted to, but still hear the faint noises of other people going about their business. There was always a radio playing low, always someone talking and someone laughing and something going on.
Now that was the problem. Justin had gotten used to being on his own, his only contact with people through the phone. Now his momma watched him, her face lined with worry, as he moved restlessly through the house. It made him mad, although he was careful not to let her see that. It wasn't her fault. The only time he slipped up was one afternoon when he thought she had gone shopping. He wandered over to look out the window and ended up standing next to the piano, idly picking out a tune. He'd been thinking about something else or he wouldn't have let himself do it. Before he had time to stop himself, he'd grabbed a piece of paper and a pen from the table. Then he stopped and stepped back from the piano and carefully shredded the paper.
"Justin," his mother said from the doorway. He turned around guiltily. "What's that?"
"Nothing," he said, and shoved the scraps of paper into his pocket.
"It doesn't look like nothing," she said, coming over to him, her hand out.
"I said it was nothing," Justin said. When he tried to brush past her, he knocked her hand down. She caught her breath and Justin said, "Sorry, I'm sorry."
"Baby," she said, and Justin said, "I'm sorry," again as he ran up the stairs.
From then on he kept to his room during most of the day, watching a little TV, flipping through magazines, but mostly sleeping. There wasn't much else to do. He came down at night and sat with his mom and his stepdad, the constant comforting murmur of the TV filling the silence between them. They had all of them always been night owls, but these days Justin stayed up the latest. His mother gave it a good try, sitting up late on the couch and stealing glances at him while he was watching TV like there was something she wanted to say, but eventually she gave up and headed up the stairs, glancing back over her shoulder at him one last time. A few nights she fell asleep on the sofa, her head pillowed on her arm, her feet tucked under the cushion. Justin threw an afghan over her before he left.
Every night after everyone was asleep he went out. He didn't know why he waited; he had no reason to sneak out. No one minded what he did, as long as he was home. But he always waited until the house had settled into sleep for the night, stillness stealing down the steps from his parents' bedroom until it reached him. When he was sure he was the only thing in the house awake, he picked up his keys and closed the door quietly behind him and drove.
He wasn't going anywhere. There were places he could've gone, of course, bars in town and Memphis right there, but he never even thought of it. There wasn't anywhere he wanted to go. He just wanted to drive, follow the long looping roads, deserted at that hour of the night, follow them deeper and deeper into the darkness. Justin drove fast, radio turned up, windows rolled down.
If anyone had asked him, he would've said he found it soothing, and it would've been true. There was something restful about the quiet countryside, glimpses of houses shut up tight and silent, trapped in the sights of his headlights for a second before he moved on. He always came back yawning, squinting into the sun, falling into bed dreamless until early afternoon. His mother caught him coming in one morning and laughed at him, the worry easing briefly from her eyes. "You were always like that, even as a little baby," she told him. "Whenever you couldn't sleep, I just put you in the car and drove you around. Soon as the key was in the ignition, you were out like a light."
There was something about his late night drives that soothed Justin, but that wasn't the only reason he went. He went because he needed to. Not just to fall asleep, not just for the dull heavy-limbed daze he slipped into by the morning, so thick he sometimes woke up still in his clothes. There was something else he found out there in the night, something that didn't calm him at all. He drove cradled by the bright car and the dark night, the low hum of the engine idling in his veins. But as he drove further and further, his body relaxed into the motion. The night warmed as his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. Something started to beat inside him, a sharp and jagged rhythm just below the lull of movement. It fluttered inside him as the night closed around him, lapping at the edges of his mind, eating away delicately at the heavy drift of sleep that had started to slip over him. He was always relieved when the cool blue and red lights of a cop car appeared, accepting his ticket gracefully, chatting with the officer for as long as he could, even signing autographs when he was asked. Nights when he didn't get pulled over he just kept driving, trying to concentrate on the radio, on the brisk smooth tug of wind past his face. He didn't think about anything, just drove and drove until the weight of exhaustion won and he could turn back toward home. Even then that strange sharp flutter didn't disappear, just sank back to simmer somewhere beneath his skin, beneath everything. Justin was glad he came home every night too tired to dream.
It was something new to him, as insistent as the rhythm that drove him to cover napkins and the backs of magazines with lyrics that he forced himself to reduce to ragged scraps that no one could read. It was something newer than that, and more insistent. Every day there were fewer scraps of paper crumpled beside his bed. Every night Justin stayed out longer and longer.
Every morning he got home later and later, until he was walking in while his parents were eating breakfast. No one said anything as he slid past them to his room. He could feel their eyes watching him walk past, though, and hear their voices start after he'd walked through their silence. The first morning he got back after Paul had already left for work, he tried to sneak upstairs unnoticed. His mother was up, of course, the way she always was. But instead of just smiling at him and letting him make his way up to bed, she took his hand and led him into the living room. She sat him down in the corner of the couch and perched on the arm. The sun sifted through the curtains, but even softened the light was unsparing on her mouth and at the corners of her eyes. Justin ducked his head and looked down at his lap.
"When me and your daddy split up," Lynn said quietly, "I felt like the world had ended."
"Momma," Justin said. He didn't look up. "Momma, it's not ..."
"I felt like the world had ended," Lynn said, "and I even wanted it to for a while, but it didn't, and after a while I was glad it didn't, and in the end things turned out better."
"I don't want things to get better," Justin said. He couldn't meet her eyes. "I want them to stay the same."
"Nothing stays the same, baby," Lynn said. "Even if you boys were all together again, even if you could go back in time to the day before it all happened, it wouldn't be the same. Every minute you're alive, everything's always changing." She put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed lightly. "But I know, I know for you it's changing for the better."
"I don't want things to get better," Justin said stubbornly.
"What do you want then?" Lynn said, a mother-sharp edge in her voice. "Would you prefer worse? Because the only way things stay the same is if you're dead."
Justin didn't say anything. Finally Lynn sighed and patted his shoulder and stood up. "You look tired. Maybe you should head on up to bed."
Justin got up. "I was thinking," he said, and stopped for a minute. In the harsh morning light Lynn looked older. Older, not old, but he could see it coming, lurking in her laugh lines and in the corners of her eyes. It almost made him stop. He didn't. "I was thinking I need to go."
Lynn studied him and Justin managed to meet her eyes. He hadn't said it to punish her, or not mostly. It was days and days now, and still she hadn't done anything but pretty much leave him alone. It was exactly what he'd said he wanted.
"All right," Lynn said. "Maybe that's -- you go ahead to JC."
"No," Justin said sharply. "No, that's not what I -- that's not where I'm going."
Lynn kept looking at him and Justin had to struggle not to look away. She was going to say something, Justin could tell she was, and more than anything he didn't want to hear it. He couldn't tell her that, though -- that would be worse than hearing it. Instead he kept his mouth shut and kept looking at her. Finally she sighed and said, "You do what you want, baby. But you know you can always come back here."
Justin swooped her up suddenly and hugged her fiercely. "I know," he said. "I know that, I know I can come home whenever I want."
"Not just when you want," Lynn said, lifting her head from his shoulder. He didn't like the way she looked into him. "Whenever you need to come home, too."
Justin fled to his dreamless bed.
He only slept a few restless hours before he was up again. As he packed, he thought he didn't want to leave at all. Maybe he could stay, listening to his momma's laugh floating out of her warm yellow kitchen. Later he'd sit at the kitchen table, eating her chicken-fried steak and listening to her and Paul talk about their day. But he knew that sooner or later they'd head up to bed, and he'd be alone. Sooner or later they'd head up to bed, and he'd be alone, and once again he'd hit the road.
Today when he hit the road, he wanted to be going somewhere.
In the car, his momma's lipstick still waxy on his cheek, her perfume still hovering around him, Justin thought about just driving till he got there, no call first, no warning, just turning up like he was sure of his welcome. He drove a good fifty miles thinking that was exactly what he was going to do. Then he pulled over to the side of the road. He didn't know where he was going. And he wasn't sure of his welcome.
Justin knew he had to call.
The thing was, Chris was always the one who called. When he was mad, he called and bitched and yelled and called back when Justin hung up on him. When he was depressed, he called and didn't say anything and sighed and said, "No, it's not -- I dunno," and breathed into the receiver while Justin drove over to his place, cell phone cradled on his shoulder. When he was bored, he never stopped calling.
He didn't call when he was happy. He didn't have to. When he was happy, Justin had always been right there.
Chris had a ritual about calling after a tour ended. He always waited two days, exactly forty-eight hours, from the last time they'd seen each other. It was always forty-eight hours, like he'd figured out that that was the precise amount of time needed for Justin to forget all the petty annoyances of living on top of four guys for nine months and start missing him.
Justin had known Chris wouldn't call so soon this time. After all, this wasn't just like a regular tour ending. This was different. But still, forty-eight hours after he'd gotten into the running car to go to the airport, he had found himself waiting for the phone to ring. Chris always sounded the same when he called for the first time after a tour, voice arcing high and questioning on Justin's name, laughing with delight and relief when Justin answered, as if he hadn't quite trusted the phone lines to work after all that time, forty-eight hours. But forty-eight hours had passed, and another forty-eight and another, and then Justin had stopped counting and Chris still hadn't called.
Justin had thought about calling Chris a couple of times. More than that, really, if he were honest with himself. But the thing was, Chris was always the one who called. Every time he thought about calling, he thought about that, and he always put the phone down. What he wanted was what he'd always gotten.
But he hadn't gotten it.
Justin took out his phone.
The number was right, Justin knew the number by heart and besides it was programmed in, but he got a message saying it was no longer in service. He thought for a minute. That explained a lot, maybe. Phones got lost, or stolen, and sometimes people got so used to having their numbers saved in their phones that they forgot even numbers they called every day. They got used to the way things had always been, to their routine. Nobody expected it to fail them.
Justin called a number he didn't know by heart.
"Justin," Bev said, and she sounded surprised but a little restrained, like maybe she had somebody in the room with her. Justin's heart lifted as he thought about who that somebody might be.
"Hey, Bev," Justin said. "I was trying to call Chris, and it said his number wasn't recognized, or something, so I thought maybe he lost his phone or switched numbers or something and hadn't told me yet." Bev didn't say anything. "So I thought maybe you could hook me up."
"Justin," Bev said slowly, and she sounded a little angry. "Justin, I'm sorry," she said, and Justin knew she wasn't angry at him. "He asked me not to give his number out."
"But -- but it's me."
"I'm sorry, sweetie. And I'm not saying he's right, because I don't think he's right, but I promised him."
"Bev, Bev, I totally understand, my momma would totally be all protective of me too if I wanted to take, like, a break from people, but you know, you know he didn't mean me."
"Sweetie," Bev said. "Sweetie, he said not to -- he said you."
"Oh," Justin said. It sounded stupid just hanging there in the soft pitying silence, but he couldn't think of anything else to say. "Oh."
"I'm sorry," Bev said gently. "But he just -- he'll come around. He just needs some time."
"So, what?" Justin said. "So he's just not going to talk to any of us for, like, weeks and weeks?" Bev didn't say anything. "Or just me," Justin said. "He just won't talk to me."
"It was hard on him, the way things -- the end." Justin flinched. "He didn't -- well, he took it hard." There was something guarded in her voice again.
"Is he there?" Justin said. "Put him on, please, please Bev, just for a second, please --"
"Justin, Justin, honey, please," Bev said. "He's not here. He's on his trip."
"On his -- right, his trip," Justin said dully. "Where is he now?"
Bev paused a moment, and Justin snapped, "I'm not going to stalk him."
He was ashamed of himself when Bev said quietly, "I just couldn't remember for a minute -- he flew into London this morning, I think."
"I'm sorry," he said.
"I'm sorry, too," Bev said. "I'll tell him you called, okay, honey?"
"No," Justin said quickly. "No, please don't."
Bev didn't say anything, and Justin knew he was screwed. He couldn't blame her, though. His momma would have told him, if the situation had been reversed. It was a mother thing.
"All right," Bev said. "I won't. Since he won't -- it seems only fair." Justin heard Chris in the crisp, thoughtful way she said it, as if she'd been balancing all the pros and cons, as if it were important that things be fair. He had to put the phone down on the passenger seat.
When he picked it back up, Bev was saying, "-just a little cooling off period, I think, maybe for all of you. I'm sure, I'm sure it won't last. I'm positive." She stopped talking, as if she were waiting for Justin to say something.
"Okay," Justin said.
Bev sighed. "You take care of yourself, you hear? And I know I'll be seeing you real soon."
Justin listened to her hang up. He closed his phone and placed it carefully back on the passenger seat. Then he bent forward until his forehead was against the steering wheel and closed his eyes.
When he couldn't stand being still any longer, he started the car and drove.
He went to JC.
Justin didn't bother to call JC first, because he never had to call JC first. Other people did maybe, but he never did. He didn't bother to call Joey either, even though he knew that was where JC was, because nobody ever had to call Joey first.
His momma had obviously called, though, because Joey had the door open before Justin pulled all the way up the driveway. Briahna ran out to meet him, and Justin was glad to pick her up and swing her around and bury his face in her hair for a minute. Joey looked so glad to see him.
Joey walked down the driveway and pulled Justin into a hug. In the same motion he took Briahna from Justin, so easily Justin didn't notice until his arms were empty. When Justin stepped back Joey looked at him over his daughter's head. "You shouldn't have stayed away so long," Joey said.
"I know," Justin said miserably, looking down at his shoes.
Joey knocked gently at Justin's chin with his knuckles until Justin looked up. "You're okay," Joey said. He smiled and Justin smiled gamely back at him. "Come on, you can come up with something a little more convincing than that." Justin tried to smile a little wider, but he could feel it start to go wobbly. Joey laughed and messed up his hair. "Okay, maybe you can't. Looks like you got here just in time."
Joey started to walk down to his car, and Justin said, "Wait -- where are you going?"
"We're going to the park," Joey said. When Justin didn't say anything, Joey said, "Justin, JC's inside."
"Oh," Justin said. He looked down at his sneakers again. "Joey, I didn't --"
"Go ahead," Joey said. "I'll see you tonight." When Justin didn't move, Joey yelled, "C!" Briahna put her hands over her ears and laughed. "Justin's here!"
Justin headed up toward the door with a lurch of fear in his stomach. He didn't know why. He'd driven miles and miles just to see JC, just so JC could tell him what was wrong and make him feel better. He didn't know why he was so reluctant to take the last few steps. He told himself to stop being stupid and let himself into Joey's house.
"I was just changing --" JC said from the top of the stairs. The explanation was kind of unnecessary, as JC was still pulling a shirt down over his head. As Justin watched the last few inches of JC's stomach get swallowed by one of Joey's T-shirts, Justin thought he knew what he'd been afraid of. He'd been afraid that one more thing would have changed, one last thing, that JC would have changed.
JC smiled. "J," he said, "I've been expecting you for, like, days," and Justin knew nothing had changed.
Justin took the stairs three at a time, and JC was laughing at him when he reached the top, laughing when Justin pushed his hands under Joey's T-shirt and slid them up JC's chest, laughing when Justin shoved him back against the wall. JC stopped laughing when Justin's tongue pressed into his mouth. Some things never changed, apparently, thankfully, some things never changed.
Never changed, never changed and JC's hands were in his pants, JC's tongue in his mouth, and Justin was trying to desperately move them both down what must have been the longest hallway in human history. He felt JC wince against him when they slammed into a doorknob and reached behind him to turn it blindly. JC laughed again when they fell into the room and some things never changed.
Never changed, never changed and somehow on the way to the bed things got flipped around and JC was the one pushing him until Justin fell back on his elbows on the mattress. JC had managed to get Justin's pants down around his knees, and Justin got tangled up trying to kick them off over his shoes. JC helped him and he was laughing again, still, and some things never changed.
Never changed, never changed and Justin didn't realize he was saying it out loud until JC rose up over him, his knees on the bed on either side of Justin's thighs. "Justin," JC said softly. He touched Justin's cheek gently. "Justin, are you sure --" and that wasn't the same.
Justin shoved JC's hand away and grabbed at his shoulders, turned his face to the side so he couldn't see JC's eyes. "Please," he said, like he'd never had to before, not seriously, not when it wasn't a game, "please, please, please." Nothing happened for a moment. JC didn't move. Justin let his hands fall down to the bed. JC still didn't move. Justin whispered, "Please," his eyes squeezed tight shut so he wouldn't have to see what JC looked like when he said no.
"J," JC said, and he was whispering too, even though he didn't have to. Justin kept his eyes shut. "Oh, J," JC said, and started moving.
JC always seemed like he'd be sweet, tender, almost sentimental, but in reality he was sharp teeth on Justin's collarbone, fingers digging into Justin's hips. He'd always been like that, or not always maybe but for far enough back that it was like nothing had changed. Justin's eyes opened in a familiar shock as JC bit down on his shoulder, arched away and back into JC's relentless thrusts. JC was always like that, as if in this one place JC let himself be afraid he wouldn't be remembered, let himself try to leave a mark. Justin knew that later JC would run his hand over Justin's body, tracing delicately over and over again, as if he were surprised to find that his fingertips fit the dark violet marks on Justin's skin exactly, as if it were some miracle, some amazing sign or fate.
Some things never changed, never changed, never changed.
Afterwards JC curled up behind Justin and Justin relaxed back into him, watching JC's fingers slide down over his thighs. "We shouldn't have done that," JC said, and Justin laughed, not meanly, but happily, because some things never changed. He watched JC's fingers reach the bruises they'd left and cover them completely.
"We won't do that again," JC said, and Justin closed his eyes as JC's hand stilled and then pulled away, so he wouldn't have to know what it looked like when the last thing changed.
"Justin," JC said. "J." His voice was warm against Justin's shoulder, and the steady rhythm of his breathing pushed him against Justin, just a little, over and over again.
Justin turned his face further into the pillow but didn't say anything else. He wanted to tell JC to leave him alone, but he was afraid if he did that JC might, and he wanted to not be left alone more than he didn't want to hear whatever it was JC was going to tell him. Justin tried just mumbling, hoping that JC would think the pillowcase had muffled whatever Justin was trying to say.
"Oh, J," JC said, and his voice was warm and light and balanced somewhere just between laughing and sighing. "What are you gonna do with you?"
"I don't know," Justin said.
"Well, you know, maybe time to start working on that."
"What do you think I've been doing?" Justin turned over angrily and looked at JC. Which was a mistake. He dropped his head onto JC's chest and said, "I don't want to."
"What do you want, then?" JC's hand slid up under Justin's shirt, over his back, moving in easy circles that did nothing to soften the crispness of his question.
"I want everything to be the same as it was before."
JC did laugh this time. "Oh, is that all?"
"Yes," Justin said stubbornly. "That's all."
"Only what everyone in the world has wanted at one time or another, and never gotten. That's all."
"Everybody doesn't -- some people do, they do get it," Justin said. "There are people who do. We had it."
"No, we didn't," JC said. His grip tightened on Justin's back before Justin could sit up. "I don't mean -- it's not that we didn't have something great, that all of us weren't happy. But it's not like we all sat around thinking every minute, I hope nothing ever changes, I hope everything is always exactly the same."
"I did," Justin said, but he couldn't quite look at JC when he said it. That didn't stop JC from looking at him. "Well, but I only wanted things to change by getting better."
JC laughed again.
"Stop laughing at me," Justin said. "It's not funny."
"J, I'm not laughing at you."
"Well, maybe you didn't notice, but I'm the only one here."
"No, I just meant --" JC sighed and stopped. "J, it'll get better."
"Yeah, you said that before and it didn't. Everything just got worse. I just don't -- I don't understand why everything has to suck now. And don't tell me it doesn't because it does, for me at least, and for -- for me it does."
"It'll get better," JC said. "It's just, right now," JC sighed and stopped again. "We're learning how to leave each other," he said. "It's a hard lesson."
"I'm not learning," Justin said. JC didn't say anything. Justin closed his eyes and thought about the twist in Lance's voice, the pity in Bev's, the things his momma didn't say to him. He thought about the road behind him fading from his rear view mirror. "Well, I don't want to."
"Yeah, well," JC said. "It's not that any of us wanted to so much."
"Why is it -- it's harder for me." JC smiled a little and Justin said, "No, but it is, really, it's harder for me than the rest of ... it's harder for me. Why isn't it so hard for you?"
JC propped himself up on his side just enough so that Justin's head slid down a little, onto JC's arm. "I think -- Joey, he had maybe a little longer to get ready, and he knew what he was leaving for, you know. Lance, too, although he's not -- he's still having to keep his distance a little."
"What about you?" Justin said.
JC lay back again and stretched his arms out over his head. Justin's head fell onto the pillow. JC smiled at the ceiling. "I'm just naturally good at leaving things," he said.
Justin didn't know what to say to that. He lay on his back, too, and looked up at the ceiling. "I don't want to," he said finally.
"That's what it's about, J," JC said without looking at him. "You learn to leave things, leave them over and over until you find what you can't leave, what you can't live without. Then you learn to leave that too. We've got to practice losing things, over and over, to get ready for the real thing."
"But, C," Justin said, turning onto his side. "What if -- if somebody's always leaving, maybe -- isn't somebody always left behind?"
JC looked at him. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah."
"I think," Justin said. "I think that's --" He bit his lip and looked down. JC put his hand on Justin's chest, just below his throat and rubbed gently. "I think maybe for me --" Justin tried to stop but JC didn't do anything that would let him forget what he was thinking. "I think maybe for me, it's not that I have to learn to leave -- things. I think I'm just -- I don't know how to be left behind."
"Yeah," JC said. His hand kept moving against Justin's skin. "Yeah, maybe."
They lay like that for a long time. Justin looked at the ceiling and listened to his breath come shakily under JC's hand. When JC started to get up, he grasped JC's wrists and pulled him down. It was just about comfort, Justin was sure, that was all he wanted. He wasn't thinking about what JC said before, wasn't thinking that he wanted to make a liar out of JC about something, at least. It wouldn't have mattered if he did. It wasn't like it had been before, then or ever. JC moved over him like the tide going out, gently, easily, slipping a little further away every time. This time, JC didn't leave a mark on him.
When they were finished, Justin lay in bed and watched JC get up and get dressed. It had gotten dark in the room. Justin had to squint a little and he still couldn't see JC's eyes.
JC paused at the door and said, "Justin." Justin didn't answer. He knew it was too dark for JC to see his face.
JC went out and closed the door behind him.
By the time Justin got himself up and showered, the bedroom was fully dark. The house was far enough away from the street that no lights shone in the windows. Justin took his shower in the dark, because he couldn't be bothered to turn on the lights and because it seemed like the thing to do. The tile in Joey's bathroom was pale, so it wasn't like he couldn't see at all. It was strangely comforting, all of him cradled by the darkness and the warmth of the water, all of him except the one strip of cool skin where he leaned his forehead against the glass door.
Walking downstairs was like walking into a different house. All the lights were on, and the TV was blaring some sitcom in earsplitting competition with Man of La Mancha echoing from the kitchen. Joey was standing out on the patio, and Justin knew he was talking with another member of the Fatone clan just by the way Joey's hands were waving, even before he saw the phone tucked against Joey's shoulder. Justin paused in the hallway, and Joey turned to him and smiled, a huge wide joyful smile, and mouthed something at him. Justin couldn't understand what he was saying, mostly because Joey was yelling into the phone at the same time, but when he headed for the kitchen Joey grinned wider and gave him a thumbs up sign before turning back to his conversation.
Justin could have made himself three dinners from the leftovers in the kitchen, but he settled for a sandwich. He carried his plate back into the den and sat down next to Briahna on the couch. "Whatcha watching?" he said, but the little girl just put her finger to her lips and shook her head. Justin felt oddly rejected until the commercial, when she climbed onto his lap, careful of his plate, and started to explain who all the characters were.
Despite the noise in the room, Briahna spoke in a tiny wisp of a voice. Justin said, "Speak up, honey," and when she shook her head he reached for the remote. She grabbed his hand before he could pick it up. Then she tugged at his chin with her other hand until he slumped down and tilted his head down to her mouth. Her quiet murmur in his ear subsided when the commercials ended and the show started again. Justin ended up watching her instead of the TV, her lips parted, her eyes big and heavy-lashed. They sat there for a long time, not talking, Briahna's small body warm against Justin's. Justin leaned his head back against the top of the couch and felt the weight of her body change, grow heavier and duller as sleep took her. Finally he scooped her up and stood, then laid her gently on the sofa. He turned off the TV and tucked a blanket around her.
Then he picked up his keys and went out driving.
When Justin got back, the house was dark except for a small splash of amber light spilling out from the kitchen. Someone had left the light over the sink on. Justin started to head up the stairs when Joey said, "J." Justin turned and walked back to the kitchen.
Joey was sitting pushed back a little from the table, a bottle of whiskey and two glasses in front of him. He looked tired, even in the low forgiving light. Joey took a sip of whiskey and held out the other glass to Justin. Justin knew from the steadiness of his hand that Joey wasn't drunk, but the crisp snap of his wrist as he shook Justin's glass impatiently made Justin wonder just how long Joey had been sitting there. He took the glass from Joey's hand and drank, then dropped his keys on the kitchen counter behind him. Justin winced at the sharp rattle they made in the quiet room.
"Where's JC?" Justin said.
"He went over to the studio," Joey said. "Been there since before you got up."
"The studio?" Justin said. "I thought he didn't get --"
"No," Joey said, "no, yeah, that fell through. But he thinks he might have an easier time shopping something around if he's got, you know, something for people to listen to. You know him, he needs to be --" Joey shrugged. "Anyway, I thought that's where you went."
"No," Justin said. "No, he doesn't want me there." Joey rolled his eyes. "Shut up. It's true."
"Nobody likes me, everybody hates me," Joey sang softly. "Guess I'll go eat worms --"
"Fuck you," Justin said.
As he pushed past Joey, Joey grabbed his wrists and pulled him down into his lap. Justin struggled, but Joey was strong and warm and familiar, most of all familiar. Justin said, "Fuck you," again, right before he relaxed against Joey's chest.
Joey laughed a little. Justin could feel it against his neck, tickling right at the base of his hairline. "You're getting too old for this shit," Joey said.
Justin pushed up but Joey's hands stayed tight around his wrists. "If you don't want me to --"
"That's not what I meant," Joey said mildly. "You know it, too."
"Joey," Justin said, letting his head roll back onto Joey's shoulder.
"Where'd you go?"
"Nowhere," Justin said. "Just driving around."
"Yeah, we heard you been doing that."
"Nice to see the old grapevine's still working."
"Like that's not why you're doing it," Joey said. His voice was rich and warm in Justin's ear. "'Look at me -- I'm miserable! Look again -- still miserable! Now I'm miserable in a car! Now I'm miserable in Tennessee -- '"
"Shut up!" Justin said. He struggled but Joey kept him pinned in his lap. "Let go!"
"Justin," Joey said, "we both know you could knock me on my ass right now if you were really trying." He let go of Justin's wrists and Justin bent forward and put his head down on his arms on the table. Joey ran a hand up under Justin's shirt and rubbed his back. "Come on now," he said. "You gotta quit this shit. Seriously."
"Joey," Justin said. "Joey, I'm not faking -- I really am... I'm miserable."
"I know," Joey said. "Believe me, everybody got the memo."
"Not everybody," Justin snapped before he thought about it. Joey didn't say anything, but his hand stopped on Justin's back. Justin held his breath.
"Kiddo," Joey said finally. "Kiddo, you know him."
"I thought I did," Justin said.
"J," Joey said. "You do. You're just forgetting." Justin let out his breath slowly, a long exhalation pulled out of him by the slow drag of Joey's hand along his spine. "He's just -- he's gotta go do something as unforgivable and unlovable as he can think of, and then we forgive him and love him and everything's okay again. You know him." Joey was quiet for a while, his hand moving thoughtfully over Justin's back. Justin lay against the table and closed his eyes and tried to think of nothing but the circling of Joey's fingers against his skin. "But it's not about -- it's about you," Joey said, and Justin opened his eyes. "It's about what you're going to do."
"I just want," Justin said, "I just want everything to be the way it was."
"Yeah," Joey said, "yeah, I didn't say it was about what you want."
"I don't know what to do," Justin said. It was a relief to say it out loud in Joey's quiet kitchen.
"Yeah, well, maybe you need to start doing something about that." Joey's voice was gentle, though, and he didn't say anything else. They sat like that and Justin was grateful for it, grateful for the faithful weight of Joey's hand moving over his back, grateful for the soft sound of Joey's breath in the still room, grateful even for the dull stabs of pain that started to crawl up his back after they'd been sitting there a while. But eventually Joey let his hand curl over Justin's shoulder and tug Justin up. "C'mon," he said, "you can't sleep like this."
Justin stood a little creakily and picked his keys up off the counter. "J, don't --" Joey said.
Justin said, "I'm not -- I'm not gonna drive around."
"Good," Joey said. "You go on to C."
"No," Justin said. He looked down at the floor. "No, he doesn't want me."
"Yeah," Joey said. "Yeah, that's why he left the address of the studio in three different places, even though I've been there with him like fifty times. He obviously doesn't want any company tonight."
"No," Justin said. "He doesn't --" Justin took a deep breath. "Everything's changed," Justin said. "It's different, with him and me."
"Maybe," Joey said. "But kiddo, the world couldn't change enough to make JC not want you, some way."
Justin looked up at Joey and smiled a little. "I'm just gonna go home." Joey looked like he was going to say something, but just shook his head. "No, I mean -- it's like you said. I gotta quit this shit."
"Yeah," Joey said, "but I didn't think you were gonna go, like, cold turkey."
"Maybe that's the only way," Justin said.
"Yeah," Joey said. "Yeah, maybe."
"So yeah," Justin said. "I'm just gonna go home."
"Good boy," Joey said. He reached out and pulled Justin into a hug. "Good man," he murmured in Justin's ear. "Good man."
Justin intended to go home. He really did. He managed to drive straight there from Joey's, ignoring the way the road seemed to beckon, black and wide and welcoming, and pulled up in his own driveway. He even turned the car off and took his key out of the ignition.
He just couldn't seem to get out of the car.
It was childish, he knew. Worse than that, because even as a child he wouldn't have been allowed to indulge himself like this, and that thought was sharp enough to make him pick his head up off the steering wheel and open his car door.
Then he shut it and put his head back down.
His house was dark and closed on a three a.m. street. But even at three a.m. Justin knew it, it was his street, a street of open screen doors and laughter spilling from open windows. And it didn't matter that his house was dark, of course; Justin had had this house for years, knew every room with his eyes closed. It was so completely known and familiar and just plain his that the idea of hovering out here like a ghost in the night made Justin want to laugh. He didn't.
He didn't get out of the car either.
Overwrought, he told himself, which was something his momma always said to him when he got worked up over something stupid. Overwrought, overtired, overemotional. What he needed to do was just relax. Maybe it would be okay to drive around, just for a little while, until he calmed down. But even better, maybe he'd go inside the house, just for a minute, to get some water, maybe a couple of CDs, and then he'd drive around just for a little while and then it would be morning and then he'd feel much better. That was what he needed -- just a little time spent driving around with Innervisions in the deck. Justin smiled. That was exactly what he needed. That was exactly what he wanted. That was exactly what he'd do.
Justin hadn't actually managed to get out of the car when he realized that Innervisions wasn't in the house. He'd lent it out.
Justin started the car and hit the road.
Chris' house was dark and closed too, on a three a.m. street just like Justin's. And Justin knew Chris' house, too, could walk through with his eyes closed and his arms at his sides and never bump into anything, not even the piles of abandoned novels and worn-twice T-shirts and candy bar wrappers that sprouted in the corners of any place Chris stayed for more than twenty minutes. But somehow Justin didn't have any trouble getting out of the car and walking up the driveway.
With his key in the door, Justin felt like he was home.
He felt that way for a good three minutes, until the alarm started shrieking. Justin punched frantically at the keypad. He knew the code, Taylor's birthday, he hadn't forgotten it, probably couldn't forget it if he tried, it was burned so deep in his brain, in his muscle memory. He tapped it in two, three times, each time pushing harder, as if that was the problem, and the last time he jammed his finger and something about the sharp blank shock of pain reminded him of the buzzing empty seconds of dead air when he dialed Chris' old phone number. He stuck his sore finger in his mouth and leaned heavily against the wall.
The noise was blaring, deafening, and for a second Justin thought about just getting back in the car and driving away. Somebody'd come turn the damn thing off eventually. But that somebody was probably already on his way, and with the way Justin's luck had been going lately, they'd catch him trying to run and the whole thing would be even more pathetic than it already was. Justin sank down, his shoulder sliding along the wall, and crouched there, still sucking on his finger. He sat back on his heels and closed his eyes and waited for somebody to come.
It was one of the security company guys, not the cops, thank God, and he knew Justin because it was Justin's security company too, and he was on Chris' list, and besides, he was Justin Timberlake. It was an older guy, and he shook his head as he turned off the alarm. "You gotta be careful if you're gonna be out drinking," he said, and Justin was so grateful for the silence that he didn't think before he said,
"Oh, I wasn't drinking."
The man paused for a minute, and as Justin looked up at him he thought about what he must look like, hunched on the floor in his sweated-through shirt, looking exhausted and completely freaked out. "Or, um, yes," Justin said. "Yes, I was, but I'll be more careful, you're absolutely right, I should have made sure I remembered the code before I went out, or wrote it down somewhere, or maybe not because that might not be the safest thing to do but I could have done something --"
"Well, good night," the man said quickly. He left the hall light on as he left. Justin sat on the floor and pulled his knees up to his chest. There were three spare bedrooms upstairs and Justin knew his way to them blindfolded. He probably still had an extra set of sweats in the back room, the one with the big windows that looked out over the yard that he always stayed in. He tipped his head back against the wall and looked at the stairs, disappearing into the darkness like it was fog. Justin stood up and walked into the den.
He kicked his pants off, snagged one of Chris' T-shirts from the pile in the corner, and went to sleep on the couch.
"Well, isn't this just the saddest thing you've ever seen," Joey said. He stood in the doorway. JC was behind him, just visible past Joey's shoulder, his head haloed by the sunlight.
Justin peered out from under the pillow he'd dragged over his head sometime after six in the morning. Chris' den had too many windows and they all faced east. "What're you doing here?" Justin croaked.
"Some drunk idiot set off the alarm, and I'm on Chris' list," Joey said. "They called me at like five in the morning."
"Three," Justin said. "And I wasn't drunk."
"That doesn't exactly make it better." Joey plopped down on the sofa, forcing Justin to bend his knees to make room. He slapped Justin's calf. "Put some pants on, and let's go."
"Where are we going?" Justin said before he thought about it. Then he said, "I'm not going anywhere."
"Sure you are," Joey said. He snapped his fingers and said, "Come on, up up up!"
Justin was half off the couch before he knew what he was doing. Fatherhood had made Joey tricky. Justin sat back down and said, "No."
"Well, you can't just ..." Joey leaned in and looked at Justin for a minute. "Dude, is that Chris' shirt? This is all getting a little too Single White Justin for me."
Justin threw himself back down on the couch and pressed his face against the back cushion. JC said, "Joe."
"No, I mean, we're really starting to verge on the freaky here. Imagine if you lived here, and you walked in on this right now, wouldn't you --"
"He's not gonna walk in," Justin muttered sulkily.
"How do you know?" Joey said. Justin felt him stand up.
"He can't. He's in London."
"He's in London, like London England, or he's in London like you killed him and buried him under the house and are listening to his telltale heart beat through the floorboards?"
Justin raised his hand high, middle finger extended. Joey laughed. JC said, "Joe," again, but he was laughing a little too.
"I'm just saying," Joey said.
JC sat down next to Justin and put a hand over his ankle. "Sit up," he said, but Justin didn't listen. "Joey, why don't you go get a drink or something?"
"Okay," Joey said. "But if I open up that refrigerator and see a decapitated head staring back at me from next to the iced tea, I'm not gonna be happy."
"Fuck you!" Justin yelled, and then coughed as he got a mouthful of couch cushion. He heard Joey laugh as he walked away. JC rubbed his leg soothingly for a minute, then tapped his ankle.
"Sit up, J," he said. Justin sat up reluctantly. He pulled his knees up and rested his arms on them. JC looked at him. "What are you doing?"
"I left my Stevie Wonder CD over here."
"And what, you're waiting for it to get back after a night out?" JC stretched an arm out along the back of the couch and Justin tipped his head back against it. "What are you trying to do here?"
"I'm not trying to do anything," Justin said. "I'm just -- I'm just trying to feel a little better, okay? Everyone else is fine and I'm fucked up and that's okay, but I just want you all to leave me alone and let me figure out -- just leave me alone."
"J, I can't, when you're like this. And you know I can't, and that's why you came back. If you really wanted me to leave you alone, why would you have come looking for me?"
"I don't know," Justin said. He meant for it to sound sullen, but there was a waver in his voice that he suspected might just sound pitiful. JC's fingers curved until his knuckles were rubbing gently along Justin's neck, just below his ear. Justin heard it almost as much as he felt it, a silken scratch of sound.
"I do," JC said, but he didn't get up. Justin resisted the urge to drop his head, to squeeze JC's hand against his shoulder and stop JC's soft insistent fingers. Instead he said,
"Do something for me?"
"That's better," JC said. He smiled.
"Is that a yes?" Justin said.
"Do you really have to ask?" Justin didn't answer. JC laughed a little and said, "Yeah, it's a yes. You know whatever it is, I'll do it if I can."
"Would you call Chris for me?" JC's fingers stopped moving. His smile still hung on his lips. "Please?" Justin said.
"No," JC said, and when his mouth stopped shaping the word his smile was gone.
"I know Bev will give you his number, if you don't have the new one," Justin said. "If you just ask her, you don't have to say it's for me you can just say that you need it, which isn't even a lie, and she'll give it to you, I know she will and you can just --"
"Justin," JC said, and Justin's words dried up before he could even close his mouth. "I said no." JC wasn't looking at him. Instead he looked straight ahead with his arm still crooked around Justin's shoulders. Justin stared at him, at the stern line of his cheekbone and the way he wasn't smiling.
"Why?" Justin said. "JC, come on, please, I promise I won't give him a hard time, I won't try to make him do anything if he doesn't --"
"Justin," JC said again, the name snapping out crisply. JC still didn't look at him. "I can't."
"You mean you won't," Justin said.
JC looked at him and Justin dropped his eyes until JC looked away. "Yeah," JC said thoughtfully, like it was something new. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
"Fuck you," Justin said. "Fuck you, JC, you said you'd help me, you said you'd do anything and now you won't. You even said yourself it's not that you can't, it's that you won't, so just leave me the fuck alone, like I told you to, just leave me alone --" Justin's voice broke a little and he stopped in horror and fury. He leaned forward a little and then slammed back hard against the soft back of the couch.
"J," JC said, and he turned to Justin, his arm curling closer around him, the lines of his face softening as all of him turned, "Come on, J, just -- just trust me on this, okay? That's not what you need. You know it, too, if you'd just think about it -- "
"Fuck you," Justin said again. "You think you know everything, you think you know what I should do, but you don't. You don't know what I need, you don't know what I know --"
"J," JC said, "do we have to do this? You're here for a reason, you know. Why else would you have come back here, to me?" JC smiled, his lips curving just a little, just enough to make Justin want to smack that smile off his face. "You know you came back to me so that I could --"
"It's not your couch I'm camped out on," Justin said.
JC froze, his face still twisted in that small smile, his arm still caught around Justin's shoulders. Then JC pulled his arm down to his side. Justin could feel JC's hand shake as it slid across his skin. JC looked at Justin for a minute, his face hardening again as he studied Justin. Then he stood up. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, okay."
"C, I didn't mean --"
"You did," JC said, his voice steady. Justin didn't know what to say to that. He dropped his eyes as JC continued to watch him. "It's okay," JC said finally, and Justin looked up again. "It's, you know, maybe it's for the best, you know?"
Justin knelt up on the couch and grabbed at JC's arm. "No, no it's not, C, I'm sorry. I didn't -- I don't want you to go. I just... I just feel so shitty, and I hate it, and I just -- I don't know. I just ... I feel bad."
"Yeah," JC said slowly, "yeah, well, maybe you need to." Justin dropped JC's hand and looked up at him. JC sat back down on the arm of the couch. "I don't mean -- sometimes you just have to feel something, you know? You just have to go through it. There aren't always shortcuts."
"I don't want to," Justin said stubbornly.
"Yeah, well, maybe that's part of the problem, J." JC sighed and rubbed a hand through his hair. "And I'm not helping."
"You are --"
"No, I just -- you hate feeling bad, and I hate you feeling bad, and it's too easy for us, you know. It's too easy for us to do what we've always done. For me to do what I've always done."
"But I want what we've always done," Justin said. "I do. You're the one who said --"
"You don't," JC said quietly.
"I do --"
"It's not my couch you're camped out on," JC said. Justin didn't say anything. JC draped his arm back around Justin and Justin laid his head on JC's shoulder.
"It's not..." Justin said. "It's just -- I need you, all of you. I can't be what I'm supposed to be -- I feel like there's something -- I don't have something. All the time I don't have something. And when I don't have it, I feel like I'm not -- like I shouldn't be anything. I don't want to be."
"It's not what you have that shapes you," JC said. "It's what you lose."
"I don't want to lose anything."
"Ah, J, it's not really a choice," JC said. He ran a hand through his hair. "It never is. Not for the important things."
"I don't care," Justin said. "I don't want to."
JC laughed, suddenly, sweetly. "You still haven't -- you'll find out," he said. He brushed his mouth against Justin's temple and then untangled himself from Justin. He stood up and walked toward the door. He looked back over his shoulder at Justin. "When you do," he said, "I'll be right here."
Justin watched him leave and then sat back on the couch with his arm over his eyes.
"Oh, tragedy," Joey said. He sat down next to Justin. "Where'd C go?"
"He left," Justin said.
"Well, grab your crap," Joey said, "and we'll join him. I know it'll be hard to leave your posh lifestyle here, but I believe I can promise you a spare room bed all to yourself, three meals a day, and at least half time custody of the remote control back at the Fatone Home for Confused Popstars."
"I'm not coming." Joey stood up and put out a hand to haul Justin to his feet. "Joey, I just -- I can't. C and I were talking and it's not -- I gotta do this on my own."
"It's not that I disagree," Joey said, "it's just -- well, you said that last night and this, this doesn't look much like cold turkey to me, you know?"
"I know," Justin said. "It's just -- it's hard, Joey. I know you think I'm being a big baby and a drama queen --"
Joey looked down at him and smiled sadly. "I don't think that, J."
"It's just -- it's really hard." Joey kept looking at him, but somehow Justin didn't mind. They were quiet for a while, just watching each other.
"Hypothetically," Joey said, his voice soft but still sudden enough to make Justin jump, "completely hypothetically and making no promises whatsoever. But if you could say something to -- if you could say something, what would it be?'
Justin closed his eyes. He tried to think, tried to figure out just the right thing to convince Joey, to convince -- just the right thing. He couldn't think of anything.
"I don't know," Justin said finally, miserably. "I just need -- if he would just talk to me. It's just really hard for me to be -- when he won't even talk to me, it's just. It's hard for me to be okay, when he won't even talk to me. I don't think that's so much to ask, you know?"
He opened his eyes and thought that somehow, despite himself, he might have found the right thing, because Joey's lips were pressed tightly together and his eyes were angry. "No," Joey said. "No, I don't think that's so much to ask." He turned toward the door, then turned back. "No promises," Joey said, but he smiled and Justin smiled back.
"I know," Justin said. He couldn't stop smiling.
When Joey was gone, he picked his jeans up from where they lay crumpled on the floor and fished his phone out of the pocket. He sat back on the couch and waited for the phone to ring.
The phone didn't ring.
Justin left it on the coffee table so it would be right by his head when he slept. The ring was turned up to its highest setting. It didn't matter. During the day he kept it in his hip pocket as he wandered through the house, checking it every now and then to make sure it was still on. It always was. Every time he checked it made him feel worse, and he swore he wouldn't look again. Every fifteen minutes made him a liar.
Three days and he placed his cell carefully on top of the toilet when he was in the shower and he grabbed it twice when somebody on TV's phone rang and still no call. Justin was starting to think wistfully about wrong numbers when he stopped himself. He had three choices, he told himself firmly, and he had to stop wishing for things he wasn't going to get and pick one of them. He could go back to his house. He could go back to his mother's. Or he could go to Joey's and let JC patch him up. Three choices, three good choices, and that made him luckier than most people, he told himself even more firmly. He was really lucky. He had plenty of people who loved him, and plenty of places to go.
Justin sat back down on Chris' couch. He had to make a decision, and he was going to sit right there until he made one. He wasn't going to let himself check his phone again, or get up and get a drink, or turn on the stereo or the TV, or do anything at all. If he had to, he would bore himself into action.
He sat there for two hours and twenty-five minutes before he lay back on the couch and turned out the light.
He knew he wasn't going anywhere.
Justin woke up gasping in the darkness. Something heavy had fallen onto his chest and he fumbled blindly until he knocked it off. He started to sit up but before he had both feet on the floor the lamp above his head was switched on. It wasn't the soft amber light that made Justin blink and rub his eyes.
"You know," Chris said, "there are laws against trespassing in this state." He bent down and picked up the gym bag Justin had thrown onto the carpet. Without thinking about it, Justin wrapped his arms around Chris' waist and buried his face against Chris' stomach. The zipper on Chris' leather jacket bit into his cheek, but Justin didn't pay any attention to it. He just held his breath and held on.
Everything stopped for a minute. Justin couldn't even hear Chris breathing in the quiet room. It felt like a dream, one of the dreams he'd had a million times as a little boy, where he fell and fell and fell, plummeting through the frozen night, aware of nothing except the sensation of motion. His grandmother had told him once that if you dreamed you were falling and actually hit bottom, you'd die at the moment of impact. His momma had laughed and told him that that was an old wives' tale. Justin was sure she was right, but he'd never tested it. Ever since then, he'd resisted the dream when he had it, struggling desperately toward consciousness, bursting with relief through its velvet hush to lie panting and awake.
Justin felt a hand stroke gently over his head to cup the back of his neck. Chris said softly, "J, J, it's all right," and Justin was sure it was a dream. He didn't care. He lurched against Chris and clung to him. He felt Chris' hands run over his arms, pulling at Justin's fingers.
"Come on now," Chris said, but Justin shook his head and held on. Chris shoved at his hands, but Justin clutched him harder. Even if it was a dream, Justin wasn't going to let go without a fight. Especially if it was a dream. Then Chris let go abruptly and stepped back. Justin lost his balance. He fell to the floor, banging his shoulder against the edge of the coffee table. A quick crack of pain flared through him, and he knew he was awake. He knelt breathless on the floor, his eyes still closed. For once he wasn't relieved.
"J," Chris said again, and Justin looked up hopefully in time to see Chris toss the gym bag toward him. "Come on," Chris said, and turned to walk to the door. Justin picked up the bag and followed him.
Chris walked quickly through the house, and Justin hurried after him, the bag bouncing against his leg. With his free hand he rubbed his shoulder, reassured by the ache that bloomed beneath his skin. This still felt an awful lot like a dream.
When they got to the garage, Justin let out his breath in a long easy exhalation that felt like it reached down through his heels. There was an unfamiliar car there, a beautiful black Jag, perfectly restored, exactly the kind of car that Justin admired in theory but would never have bought, exactly the kind of car Chris wouldn't have bought for himself in a million years. Not even in a dream would Justin imagine Chris driving a car like this.
"I know that's not your car," Justin said. The words were light and teasing, and they felt familiar in Justin's ears, in his mouth. Comforting. He leaned against the car door and grinned at Chris.
"It is," Chris said, the crisp edges in his voice erasing Justin's smile. Justin looked away from Chris' eyes. He felt foolish for thinking that they could ease back into each other seamlessly, for thinking that Chris would even want to. Justin put a hand up and covered his cheek where Chris' zipper had bit in.
Chris said, "After all, it's been a long time since you've seen me. A lot of things have changed."
Justin flinched, then shrugged it off. He started to open the car door.
"Wait --" Chris said, and the raw corners of the word stopped Justin. He looked at Chris expectantly. Chris ran a hand through his hair, then rubbed his fingers across his mouth. He looked like he was struggling with something. Justin couldn't tell if it was something Chris wanted to say, or something he didn't want to. He waited. "Aren't you even going to ask me -- " Chris said, then stopped.
"Chris," Justin said, and smiled. He should have known before what Chris was worried about. "Chris," he said, "I know. I don't need to ask."
Chris looked at him, sinking back a little on his heels. Justin hadn't even noticed the tension in Chris' shoulders until he saw it ease out of them. "Chris, man," Justin said, his voice halfway between laughing and sighing, "I know -- I knew, I swear, I knew you'd be back, I knew that once you heard I was fucked up, that you'd come back to help me. I wasn't worried, not for a second," and maybe that wasn't one hundred percent true, but that wasn't important now. What was important was reassuring Chris. "I knew that if I needed you," Justin said, "that you'd have to come back. You wouldn't be able to help it."
Chris looked at him without saying anything for a long moment. When Justin took a step toward him, Chris took a step back. He folded his arms across his chest, pulling his body in closely, tightly. Justin started to take another step toward him, but Chris didn't move. Justin stepped back.
Chris laughed, a taut angry sound. "Ah, J," he said, "baby, you don't change, do you?" Justin bit his lip. He wasn't sure what the right answer to that was. Chris laughed again, then walked around to the other side of the car. He got in and reached over to push Justin's door open. "Get in," he said. When the door nudged against Justin's hip, he stepped back and then got in the car.
"Chris," Justin said.
"Shut up," Chris said. "And shut the door."
Justin left it open. "Chris, what's -- why are you acting like this?" he said. "I don't understand --"
"I said shut the door," Chris said.
"But, Chris, I don't -- what's wrong?"
Chris looked at him sharply, then smiled. "You said you didn't need to ask," he said.
Justin shut his mouth. Then he put his hand over his face, thinking. Chris grunted impatiently and started to reach over Justin to pull the door shut. Justin put his hand on Chris' arm and Chris pushed him away. "Chris," Justin said again. "Chris, why ..."
Chris looked at him, his face close to Justin's. "Go ahead," he said softly. "Go ahead and ask, but I'm warning you right now, you better think real carefully about the question you ask me. You better make sure you want to ask it."
"I know --" Justin said, "I know what I want --"
"Because whatever it is, I'll answer it, and I'll tell you the truth when I do."
"Chris," Justin said, and Chris sat back and crossed his arms over his chest again. Justin looked at him. Chris was serious, but Justin didn't need to look at him to tell that. Chris was always serious when he sounded like that. "Chris."
"Yeah," Chris said. "Yeah, that's not a question."
Justin shut his mouth again. Chris nodded slightly and then looked away. "Either ask your damn question," Chris said, "or shut the door." Justin shut the door and leaned his head against the thick glass of the window. He tucked one leg up underneath him on the leather seat. The car started smoothly and Justin watched the walls of the garage slide away into the night.
The car moved through the darkness and the silence cooled between them. Justin looked out the window at the sleeping houses around them and twisted a finger in the hem of his T-shirt. He was still wearing his pajama pants. He didn't look at Chris and he didn't think Chris looked at him.
Finally Justin said, "Did you miss me?" He kept his eyes on the night outside. His shirt was wound tightly around his index finger and he concentrated on the small sharp sting where he was cutting off the circulation.
Chris sighed. "Yeah, J," he said. His voice was low and hoarse and Justin didn't look up, but he was pretty sure Chris still didn't look at him. "Yeah, I missed you."
Justin pulled his hand free of the tangle of cotton and the blood rushed back into the tip of his finger. He felt his lips curve in a small smile.
Chris said, "That's not why I came back, though."
Justin stopped smiling. He thought carefully about what Chris said. Then he laid his head against the window again and shut his eyes.
There wasn't another question he wanted to ask.