The Place Where We're Going
Justin woke up with a start and pushed himself back against the car seat. The window was fogged where his mouth had been pressed against it. Justin dragged the back of his hand over his lips and kept looking at the small gray circle of frost clouding the window. As long as he was looking at that, he wasn't looking at anything else.
"Come on," Chris said softly. He stopped shaking Justin's shoulder. "I gotta get something to eat."
Justin followed Chris obediently through the diner parking lot. It was just before dawn, and the sky was a pale clear blue striped with one thin line of silver just above the horizon. Justin kicked a rock across the asphalt just to feel the skip as it bounced off his shoe, just to hear the crisp crack and skitter as it rolled to a stop. There was a slight chill in the air, even though Justin could already tell the day would be hot, a shivering breath of wind that wrapped around Justin's arms and raised goose bumps.
Chris turned in the entrance of the diner, one hand holding the glass door open. His leather jacket was hanging open over a dark green shirt that Justin didn't recognize. Justin watched Chris' fingers fiddle with the zipper. A while ago Chris must have painted his nails black. Justin could see the faded streaks of polish still clinging there. He could see that Chris had started biting his nails again.
"Come on," Chris said, and Justin ran the last few yards to the door. He ducked under Chris' arm and slipped inside.
The diner was a twenty-four hour place, but they'd caught it at just the worst time. They'd missed the closing time crowd, drunks and bartenders both glad to be someone else's problem for a few hours, but they were too early for the breakfast rush. Although the sun was rising the restaurant was still lit for nighttime. The bright flood of fluorescents made the white tile and countertops look sickly. Somehow the fact that it was really clean made everything worse. Justin looked at his reflection in the shining silver creamer and thought he could see hours and hours of boredom, a waitress dragging her rag across the same surface, over and over and over again.
Chris tossed him a menu and settled back in a corner of the booth. He didn't take one himself, just sat back with one knee pulled up, boot on the bench, and one hand tapping restlessly against the tabletop. There were three waitresses clustered around the counter, worn-out washed-out looking women just killing time until the next shift. Justin opened up his oversized menu and flipped through the pages. He stared at the garishly colored pictures. He recognized everything in there, of course he did, but somehow it all seemed foreign. The words didn't make any sense to him, like they were in a different language that used a familiar alphabet. The pictures didn't seem like food at all, but photos of something else entirely, souvenirs from someplace Justin had never heard of and wasn't sure he wanted to. He felt like he was in a dream, but not in one that he'd ever had. He felt like he was trapped in someone else's dream.
Justin realized the waitress was taking their order when he heard Chris talking. He had to concentrate to make out what Chris was saying. He watched the firm flow of muscles in Chris' throat as he spoke. When it was his turn, Justin pointed to something at random and smiled up at the waitress. She sighed and headed back toward the kitchen, leaving Justin's menu open in front of him. Chris plucked it out of his hands and put it back in the rack behind the sugar dispenser.
Justin shoved himself back in the booth and leaned toward the window. He let his face rest against it, the cool smooth glass comforting. He closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes to the clatter of dishes being placed none too carefully in front of them. The menu hadn't lied -- the food was every bit as lurid as the pictures had promised. Justin watched Chris lift a forkful of yolk-yellow eggs to his mouth and had to look away. He grabbed a pale beige piece of toast and crumbled it into smaller and smaller pieces.
The waitress came back with a pot of coffee and Justin pushed his cup toward her. Chris reached out and flipped his cup upside-down in the saucer. Before Justin could protest, Chris said, "You won't be able to sleep."
Justin picked up his glass of water and sat back in the corner of the booth, holding it in both hands. He gulped it down in big mouthfuls and then put the glass back down on the table. Somehow he felt even emptier. His fingertips were wet with condensation from the glass and he dangled them over his placemat, painting shapes with the drops that fell and soaked into the paper. He tilted his head back against the window and closed his eyes.
He heard Chris get up and looked over in time to see Chris disappear down a narrow hallway. Bathroom, probably, and Justin knew he probably should go too but he couldn't be bothered to move. He tipped his head back again and looked up at the ceiling. There was a long thin light fixture above them, one side dimmed where the bulb had burnt out.
Chris came back and dropped a handful of change on the table. Then he fumbled in his pocket and came up with a wad of crumpled up bills. He left that on the edge of the table too, then glanced over at the guy sitting alone three booths down from them and pushed the money further back and weighted it down with the edge of his coffee cup. "Come on," he said, and Justin got up and followed Chris out.
Justin shuffled across the lot to the car with his hands in his pockets, kicking absently at rocks. One bounced up and glanced off the gleaming rim of one of the tires. Chris looked back at him. "Get in the car," he said through the open window.
Justin got in. He tucked his arms up into his shirt and wrapped them around his body, letting the sleeves hang empty. He stretched his legs out in front of him and turned toward the window again. Chris threw an arm over the seat and looked behind him, then backed out of the parking spot. They pulled out onto the quiet street. Silence opened around them, patient, expectant. Chris reached down and turned the radio on.
"Go to sleep, J," he said, and Justin closed his eyes.
He went to sleep.
When Justin woke up again, the sun was high but it was still chilly in the car. Chris had turned the air conditioning up. Justin pulled one leg underneath him and sat up, rubbing at his hair. He looked out the window. They were on the interstate.
Justin looked over at Chris, the first good look at him he'd taken since he came back. Chris had shaved off his goatee but left his sideburns, longer than Justin remembered him wearing them and squared off at the bottom. His dark hair looked spikier but that could just be from not combing it. Chris looked pale and tired, but after all he'd been up all night. Chris didn't look bad at all, considering. Justin flipped the sun visor down and examined himself in the small mirror there.
Chris laughed. "You're gorgeous," he said.
"Shut up," Justin said, but he laughed too. He reached down and turned up the radio, then changed the station. He crossed his legs Indian style and ran his hands through his hair. He cracked his window to let a little air in and squinted into the sun. He didn't know if it was the daylight or the extra hours of sleep, but he felt much better. He felt ready to face the world. He didn't feel like he was caught in someone else's dream. He didn't feel like he was in a dream at all.
He looked over at Chris again. "Hey," he said, "hey, why did you --"
Chris shook his head. "No," he said.
"Dude, it wasn't gonna be a yes or no question. I wanted to know why you --"
"No," Chris said. He glanced over at Justin, but turned back to the road quickly. "I wasn't answering, I was just saying, no questions."
"What do you mean, no questions? That doesn't --"
"I told you last night --" Chris said.
"Yeah," Justin said, "yeah, you said that whatever I asked you'd tell me the truth, and so I've got a couple of things --"
"You had your chance," Chris said.
"Well, I need another."
"Yeah, that's too bad for you," Chris said.
"I don't even know where we're going," Justin said. "You could be, like, kidnapping me."
"You can get out anytime," Chris said. "Just give me a holler and I'll even slow down."
"You know," Justin said, "you can't actually stop me from asking questions. I mean, this is America. I have freedom of speech. I can ask as many questions as I want."
"You got a point, J," Chris said. "I shouldn't have said no questions. What I should have said was no more answers."
"I just -- you know, this sucks," Justin said. In the window he saw Chris roll his eyes. Justin smacked his hand against the car door. "I just, you know, I thought if you came back ..." He saw Chris' hand clench against the steering wheel and he bit his lip. "I mean, when you came back ..." Justin didn't say anything and Chris didn't say anything.
"I just, I had some stuff I -- I wanted to ask you," Justin said quietly. He put his hand up and spread it out over the window. He watched the other cars go by through his fingers.
"Bullshit," Chris said. His voice was calm and steady.
"What?" Justin said. Chris didn't say anything. Justin thought for a minute. "Look," he said, "I know I said last night that I didn't need to ask, but I wasn't talking about -- I didn't understand."
"You're telling me," Chris said. Justin didn't like his tone of voice.
"Well, maybe if you'd answer a fucking question instead of acting like --"
"You don't even know what to ask," Chris said. His voice was still calm and steady, and Justin still didn't like it.
"What?" Justin said.
"I'm not going to waste my time," Chris said, "when you won't even -- you don't know what question you should be asking." He looked over at Justin again, and this time it was Justin who looked away. "Yeah, you're a little quiet now."
"Well, it's not fucking fair," Justin said. "I mean, you're setting it up so that whatever I ask, I'm going to be wrong. There's no way I can win, so I'm not even going to play your stupid game."
"You know, I said I'd tell you the truth," Chris said, and Justin started to speak but Chris' voice cut through him coldly, "so maybe you could at least do me the same fucking courtesy."
"Are you saying I'm not -- that I'm --"
Chris' smile cut through Justin as coldly as his voice. "So you're gonna tell me that the only reason you're not asking me anything is because you don't want to play my stupid game?"
Justin didn't answer. Chris nodded and said, "Yeah," softly, almost as if he were talking to himself.
"Chris," Justin said, and Chris looked over at him. More than anything Justin wanted to ask him something, wanted to ask him the right thing. But he was afraid. He was afraid of asking the wrong question. He was even more afraid of asking the right question and having Chris answer him. In this mood, he was afraid of what truth Chris would tell.
Chris looked back at the road and said, "Yeah," again, just as softly. Then he didn't say anything else. Justin could see his reflection, faint and shadowy in the glass. Chris rubbed the heel of his hand from his chin up to his temple, but he didn't say anything. The silence was heavy and familiar around them, and Justin hated it.
"Fine," Justin said finally, still looking out the window. "I just -- I don't even know why you even came -- if you're not even going to pretend like you care."
"That's not why I came back," Chris said.
"Fine," Justin said again, lower this time. He stayed curled against the car door, eyes on the side of the road, until the blur of motion made him start to feel a little sick. He glanced over his shoulder at Chris, then shrugged. Chris could make him shut up, but he couldn't keep Justin from doing something productive, anyway. He reached into the back seat and fumbled around in his bag until he unearthed a notebook and a pen. No matter how carelessly Chris had packed for him, Justin had known that would be there. He shifted to his side and curled back up, eyes on the notebook this time. The blank expanse of white paper was a luxury to him, one he'd denied himself for so long. The pen felt blunt and heavy in his hand. He felt strangely reluctant to commit anything to the page -- it was so clean and empty. After a while he started to feel a little sick again. As he shoved the notebook and pen into his back pocket, he glanced over his shoulder and caught Chris watching him. "I'm going back to sleep," Justin said. Chris didn't say anything. Justin closed his eyes. He was still feeling uneasy. It wasn't like motion sickness exactly, more like when he'd gone too long without eating and then stuffed himself. He stayed as still as he could and waited to fall asleep again.
Justin woke up when the car stopped. Chris didn't say anything when he got out, and Justin was too drained to try to figure out where he was going without actually asking. He stayed where he was. He felt sluggish and slightly achy, probably from sleeping sitting up, in such an awkward position. His sleep had been jagged and shallow, broken by dreams he couldn't remember. He didn't think they'd been bad, but just a little disturbing. Uncomfortable. When Chris tapped his keys against the windshield, Justin jumped. He grabbed his gym bag out of the back seat and got out of the car. The clock in the motel office said 2:34.
"Are we -- we're stopping," he said. Chris' smile quirked fast and bright in the darkness. For a moment Justin thought Chris was going to laugh, but he didn't.
"Yeah," Chris said.
Justin followed Chris across the parking lot and leaned against the wall while Chris unlocked the door. He held out his hand, and Chris just looked at him.
"Is this -- I need my key," Justin said.
Chris looked at him. "You wanna hold the key?" he said. He opened his palm uncertainly around the card.
"Well, yeah. I mean -- I gotta get in."
Chris looked at him for a minute, then laughed. He closed his fist around the card. "I only got the one room, J."
"Oh," Justin said. He rubbed at his eyes. He didn't know why his brain was working so slowly. He walked inside and Chris closed the door behind him.
It was a familiar little room, although Justin had never been there in his life. Two narrow beds under two pastel paintings, a TV, an open door leading to a white bathroom. Justin smiled suddenly. "It's like old times," he said.
Chris laughed again, a shorter twist of laughter, almost drained of sound. "Yeah," he said. "It's like old times."
Justin sat down on the nearest bed and looked up at Chris. "So, do you wanna --" He tried to swallow the question, but it didn't matter because Chris cut in before he was finished.
"I gotta go out for a while," Chris said. He didn't look at Justin. The keys rattled in his hand. "I just -- I'll be back later. Don't, you know. Don't wait up."
Justin watched Chris leave, and then sat dully on the bed and watched the door for a little while. Then he made his way to the shower. It was amazing how filthy he could get when all he'd really done was sit in a car all day. There was something comforting about the anonymity of the bathroom, the towels centered on their rack, the toothbrush and cup done up in plastic. Justin liked disturbing them, dropping a towel on the floor after washing his face, tossing the plastic toward the trash can and missing.
The water ran cold before Justin got out of the shower. He snagged his sweatpants out of his gym bag and grabbed one of Chris' T-shirts. Chris hadn't really packed enough of Justin's stuff. He sat back down on the bed and folded the clothes he'd taken off. He took his cell phone out of his pocket and looked at it. He had three messages. He turned the message light off and tucked the phone away in the bottom of his bag.
After he put the phone away, he took his notebook out. He sat down in the chair by the window. He'd been thinking about it all day. He couldn't get anything done in the car, but that made sense, when he thought about it. At first it had confused him, because he'd always done his best work in a moving bus. But the car was different, smaller. There was a different quality to the motion. Closer to the ground or something. He was more aware of the road. Besides, Chris had been watching him. But now he'd stopped moving, and he was alone.
Justin dropped the notebook into his bag. He crawled into bed and pulled the covers up. The air conditioning was on in the room, too, and he was chilly. There was probably some sort of switch or thermometer he could play with, but he couldn't be bothered to find it. He turned the light next to his bed off and turned the TV on low. There wasn't anything he felt like watching but he liked the noise. He'd slept too much during the day and his internal clock was all messed up. He didn't think he could sleep any more, but there wasn't anything else to do.
When he heard Chris fumbling for his key outside the door, Justin turned off the TV and curled up on his side. He closed his eyes and listened as Chris let himself in and closed the door quietly. Chris went into the bathroom and Justin could see the light come on after the door was closed. He shut his eyes again when the light went out.
He listened to Chris move around in the room. He held his breath when Chris paused at the foot of his bed, but Chris walked over to the next bed and fell heavily onto it. "Good night, J," Chris said. Justin lay in his bed with his eyes closed and listened to Chris sleep in the next bed.
It was just like old times.
Chris was up when Justin woke the next day, sitting at the small table on the balcony with his hands around a cup of coffee. Justin wandered to the bathroom and took a shower, then came back out still drying his hair with a towel. He leaned against the doorway to the balcony. Chris tipped back in his chair and looked up at Justin. Justin let the edge of the towel fall down over his face as he rubbed it hard over his head.
When he emerged from under the towel Chris was still looking at him. Justin took a step back into the room. Chris said, "Go get some breakfast, or whatever you call it when it's this late, while I take a shower."
"Don't you want -- you're not coming," Justin said, catching himself just in time.
"No," Chris said. He rubbed his hand over his mouth. "No, I think we'll all have a pleasanter day if I don't eat anything."
Justin grinned. "Hungover," he said.
"Always with the keen insight," Chris said, but he smiled a little too. "Go."
When he got back up to the room, Chris was sitting out on the balcony again, but he'd changed his clothes and his hair was wet. "Hey," he said when Justin leaned against the doorway, "hey, I'm ready." He still looked a little pale in the sunlight, and he clung to his coffee cup a little desperately, but Justin had seen him look much worse.
"I got you a Danish," Justin said. "For later. In case you're hungry. It's cheese."
"Great," Chris said. "That's just what I need. For later. A nice, gooey, greasy, disgusting cheese Danish that'll be sitting in the car for hours."
"You're welcome," Justin said.
"Thank you," Chris said. He stood up and walked past Justin, still clutching his coffee cup with one hand. With the other he grabbed Justin's shirt and pulled him along. "Let's go."
Justin sat on the hood of the car and swung his bag back and forth while Chris checked them out. When Chris stepped out of the office, he tossed the keys to Justin. "Get your ass off my paint job," he said.
"You're letting me drive?" Justin said.
Chris laughed. "Yeah, I'm letting you drive. I gotta get some sleep. I got in late last night."
"I know," Justin said.
"Yeah," Chris said. He opened up the passenger side door and got in.
Justin let himself in on the other side and threw his duffel bag in the back. He moved the seat back and screwed around with the mirrors and the radio for a few minutes. Chris had already closed his eyes. Finally Justin said, "Um. I don't know --"
"Just drive, J," Chris said without opening his eyes. "Wherever. It doesn't matter. We'll drive back the other way tomorrow."
"Sounds like a plan," Justin said. Chris didn't answer.
They spent another night in a motel off an exit ramp, and the next day swathed in silence and in small talk that was not quite as comforting. The sun had set and Justin had almost relaxed when Chris switched radio stations and then laughed. "Man, I love this song. It's like the worst Replacements song ever, but it was the only one that ever really got played."
"I like it too," Justin said.
"You wouldn't've hardly been old enough to remember it."
"I remember you and Joey playing it," Justin said. Chris snorted. "I do!" He sang a little to prove it, you be me for a while and I'll be you, and Chris smiled.
"You do," he said. "God, I love this album. Like all the other ones are better, but I just -- we did so much shit with this in the background." He shook his head and laughed again, low and private, and Justin wanted to know what was behind that laugh.
"Tell me," he said.
Chris said, "Live nude danger."
Justin looked at him blankly, and Chris laughed again. "You remember my friend Stacy," Chris said, and Justin shook his head even though Chris hadn't made it a question. "Sure you do. She came out to visit back in Orlando like twice, back toward the beginning. You remember."
"Yeah," Justin said slowly. "Yeah, I think I remember."
"Good," Chris said, and his voice softened a little. "She was like my best friend my junior year, her and her brother Brian, but people always thought she was my girlfriend and Bri was my best friend and we never said anything cause, you know, easier. Summer before senior year we used to hang out every night at this bar where Stacy's real boyfriend worked, cause he wouldn't check our IDs. It had like the best jukebox in the world, and it had that Replacements album on and we used to play it over and over again. The guy who owned the place had a thing for Stacy too -- she used to hang out at his table sometimes and sit on his lap and he'd give her five bucks for the jukebox even though he knew what we were going to play and you know, somehow that never seemed quite so creepy until just now."
"It's a little on the creepy side."
"Right next door to Boru's, there was this, like, I don't know what you'd call it. It wasn't a strip club exactly, and they had movies and shit there but it wasn't totally a porn shop, it was like a mix of the two. One of those places that just make you depressed, you know? Just, you know, the idea, that there were people who had to work there, and people who had to go there, and you didn't know who you felt sorry for more but the whole thing made you want to go to bed for three days and pull the covers over your head."
Chris stopped talking and his fingers tapped hard against the steering wheel. Justin didn't say anything, but he leaned forward a little. "I remember," Chris said quietly, briefly, as if he were answering a question that Justin hadn't asked. Justin caught his breath and looked out the window for a minute. Chris waited until Justin relaxed back into the seat and smiled at him before he started talking again.
"There was this sign," Chris said, "up over the place, neon, real tasteful, you know? And it said Live Nude Dancers. Except that all the letters were never working, right? Something always didn't light up. And we were walking out of Boru's one night, drunk off our asses, and Bri looked up and some of the letters were out, just like always, but I guess he was especially drunk or something, because he stopped right in the middle of the street and pointed and said, 'Live Nude Danger. That's so -- what does it mean?' And Bri, man, he was just standing there with his mouth open, looking up at that sign, with the light falling on his face. He looked -- he looked like something out of a movie or something. I don't know. And that song was playing from the bar, all the windows were open cause it was so hot and we could hear it, like, like a soundtrack or something. I remember thinking at the time, how sharp and clear the light was in the dark, how Bri looked like he was -- how it looked like a movie. How it was going to be one of those memories."
Chris stopped, and the silence that fell around them wasn't the comfortable stillness it had been earlier, but something edgier and expectant. Justin said into it, "I know," and wasn't surprised when Chris snapped back,
"Of course you do. Your whole fucking life is a movie set."
He wasn't surprised but it still took his breath away like a punch to the gut. He clung to the armrest and took deep breaths and didn't look at Chris. He was surprised when Chris said, "J, I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Justin said. "It's not -- there's nothing to be sorry for, you don't have to --"
"Don't throw it back in my face," Chris said, and Justin smiled.
"Okay," Justin said. "I just don't know why -- that sounds like a good memory, to me."
Chris said, "Yeah. Yeah, it was." Justin looked over at Chris, who was frowning at the road in front of them. Chris glanced over at him, quickly, and Justin leaned his head against the window and looked out again.
"It's just -- there's something about memories like that, about thinking things like that. You're just sitting there and you hear some song, not even a very good song, and it's like all of a sudden you're tangled up in this memory, and it's like -- It feels like it was the biggest thing in the world, you know? Like it was the biggest thing you were ever gonna feel, just because it was the first time. And it's not -- I mean, when I broke up with Dani, or when we -- all of that was worse than anything I ever thought I felt back then, but it's like somehow, there was something, because it was the first time. Or not, not the first time but because I thought, I really truly thought, it was the only time, you know? There was something there, that was never in the endings that happened later, not even ... Because that first time, I thought it was the only time, and I could never think that ever again. After that I could never think it couldn't happen."
"But --" Justin said, before he could stop himself. He hadn't meant to say anything. Chris looked at him and he knew he'd end up talking, so he just said it. "But you said, before. About the band -- about us. When we stopped. You said that you didn't know -- you didn't think it would ever happen."
Chris looked at him for a minute, then shook his head. "You're right," he said, his voice light and surprised. He looked back at the road, and lifted a hand to his mouth, rubbing his knuckles against his lips. "You're right, I didn't."
Chris didn't say anything else for a while, just drove with one hand on the wheel, one hand still against his mouth. Justin was quiet, too, not so much because he didn't have anything to say but because he thought Chris might need the quiet. It was only a few hours before Chris pulled into another motel parking lot. "Get out," Chris said.
"We're stopping already?" Justin said, but he grabbed his bag and opened the car door. Chris didn't move. "Wait," Justin said, one foot already on the asphalt. "Aren't you coming?"
"I got some things I gotta do," Chris said. There was an electric undercurrent in his voice, something Justin almost recognized. Not anger, exactly, but something close. Chris' fingers were still moving against his lips, as if drawing that electricity out. The gesture was familiar, although Justin couldn't remember the last time he'd seen it. He couldn't remember exactly what it meant. But he remembered enough to pull the door shut and hug his bag to his chest.
"Are you -- you're coming back, right?"
"Get out of the car, Justin," Chris said.
"Not until I know if you're coming back --"
"For fuck's sake," Chris snapped, a familiar anger sparking from his words. Justin let his duffel fall onto his lap. "You did your best to make damn sure of that, didn't you? You fucked yourself up and you made sure everybody heard about it, just so you could be sure that I'd still come running whenever you wanted --"
"I was fucked up!" Justin said. "You think -- it wasn't easy, when it ended, it fucked me up and I just was trying --"
"Oh, bullshit. I was there, baby, I remember what happened. You were fine -- it didn't fuck you up."
"You think I wanted us to --" Justin could barely catch his breath. His fingers were twisted in the canvas straps of his bag.
"Oh, you were sad about it, I'll give you that. I'm not saying you were dancing for joy and kicking us out the door. But you were gonna be just fine. And you were just fine, too, at least until you -- You were just fine."
"I wasn't!" Justin said. "I wasn't fine -- I mean, fuck --" Justin threw his hands up in front of him, open palmed, just to show Chris how he'd tangled them in the straps of his bag until he'd raised white welts, just to show Chris how he was shaking. "You think I look -- I'm not fine. I'm all fucked up."
"Oh, you are now," Chris said coolly. "And whose fault is that?"
Justin let his hands fall to his lap. "You think -- you think I'm faking? This, for, for you. You think I'm faking --"
"No," Chris said. "I know you, baby, you're no actor. I know you're not faking."
"Then -- I don't understand."
"And you're no liar, either, J. You never have been. But nobody's better than you at avoiding a question."
Justin carefully eased his hands out of the snarled canvas, watching as red blotches sprang up where the straps had bitten in. He watched until the red faded away, and then said, "I don't know what to say if you think that I would -- if you think I, like, tricked you or something to make you come back. But I am fucked up, whether you believe me or not."
"Yeah, I never said I didn't believe you," Chris said. Justin looked up at him, then wished he hadn't when he saw Chris' smile. He didn't look away, though. "And nobody can make me do a damn thing any more. Not even you."
Justin looked away at that. It didn't make Chris stop.
"You're fucked up, all right, J, but it wasn't the breakup or anything else that did it. You fucked yourself up, good and proper. You did it all by yourself."
"Why would I do that?" Justin knew better than to look at Chris by now. He could see him, just barely, reflected in the window. He saw Chris' reflection shake a little, like Chris was laughing without making any noise, and said angrily, "Oh, sorry. I forgot I wasn't allowed to ask any fucking questions."
"Oh, I'll make an exception for that one," Chris said, "just because I would love to answer it for you --"
"Don't do me any favors," Justin said quickly, still stung. "I don't know why you even bothered to come back. I mean, if I fucked myself up, I can just fix myself up right now. I don't know why I didn't think of that."
"Yeah, I was kind of thinking you thought that," Chris said, his voice low and slow. In the window Justin could see him shaking his head. "But it doesn't work that way -- you can't fix yourself up all easy. Nobody else can fuck you up the way you can fuck yourself up. And it's not easy to put that back together again." His voice got even lower. "Believe me, I know."
"Anyway," Justin said, "anyway, I didn't fuck myself up."
"Wait and see," Chris said. "Wait and see." Justin shrugged, trying to keep the words from sinking into him.
"Just -- just leave me the fuck alone, all right? Just leave me alone."
"J, man," Chris said, as he leaned across Justin to push his door open, "that's what I've been trying to do."
Justin closed his eyes. He could feel the wind against his face from where the door gaped into the darkness. His hands twisted in the straps of his bag again, until he couldn't feel his fingers, until Chris shifted impatiently. Then he said, "Are you coming back?"
"Justin," Chris said. Justin opened his eyes and looked at him.
"All right," Justin said. He got out of the car and walked into the motel without looking back.
At the desk Justin rented a double, then stood with both keycards in his hand until the guy asked him if he was okay. Then he left one card there for Chris and went up to the room.
He dropped his bag on the bed and took a shower, just like he had the night before. Although he let the water run cold again, just like he had the night before, he still couldn't calm down. Even as he dried himself off, Chris' words clung to him. He paced up and down the room, his body buzzing with indignation, his mouth full of all the words he hadn't said. And beneath all of that, below it, pounding with a steady insistent beat was a thought he couldn't shake, a raw rhythm he couldn't soothe.
Wait and see, Chris had said. Wait and see.
He couldn't even call it a nagging doubt, because what nagged at him wasn't a doubt at all, but his own belief. Chris had said he had fucked himself up.
Justin didn't want to see, but he didn't want to wait. That wasn't right -- he couldn't wait. He sat down on the bed and took his notebook out of his bag. He always got the same kind, small and compact, easy to carry everywhere. He opened it up and stared down at it. He didn't understand why every empty page was so vast, when the notebook wasn't much bigger than his hand.
The only sound in the room was the hoarse hitch of his own breath. He could hear it speed up as he told himself about stress, about how hard it was to produce under pressure, about how it happened to everybody. Then he made a harsh sound, loud in the quiet room. Somehow it hurt more in his ears than in his throat. Chris had been right, and he made that sound again, because Chris was always fucking right. Justin was no liar. He'd written songs in the back of vans at the crack of dawn and hunched by a candle in the corner of a dark bar. He'd written an entire album in six weeks with the label dogging him impatiently and half the world waiting to laugh at him, and none of it had bothered him for a second. It couldn't bother him, because that flow had always been there, music and words surging somewhere beneath his skin, beneath his bones, somewhere so deep inside him that Justin hadn't thought anything could reach it, anything except himself.
He'd been right.
Now he was empty except for the sound of his own breath, jagged and ugly. He thought of the words he'd written so carelessly on the backs of magazines, the messages he'd deleted, the scraps of paper he'd had to force himself to tear up tiny and throw away. He'd been so relieved when he hadn't had to fight himself any more.
The room was quiet, quieter than any hotel room he'd ever been in, even though he was used to rooms much more expensive. He should have been able to hear people walking in the hall outside, the rumble of trucks on the highway. But the room was silent, as empty as he was. He didn't know how to fill it.
Justin picked up the phone.
"J, where are you?" JC said crisply, and Justin knew he'd been asleep. The only times JC didn't sound a little drowsy were when he just woke up and when he was upset.
"I'm sorry," Justin said. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean --"
"Baby, what is it?" JC said, his voice smooth and warm. "What's wrong?"
"I think -- I think I did something. I didn't mean it, I mean I meant it, I did it on purpose but I didn't know what I was doing --"
"J, J, slow down," JC said. "You're losing me." Justin heard that harsh sound again, and JC said quickly, "I'm here, I'm right here, I just don't know what you're talking about."
"I don't," Justin said, his breath rasping in his ears, and he tried to slow down, matching his breathing to JC's until he could stand the sound of himself. Finally he said, "Did you ever, like, give something up, because you thought you had to, you thought you needed to, to get something you wanted, except you didn't really know you were giving it up, you thought you were just, like, pushing it away for a while? Just until ... Like, you thought you were just stopping, just for a while, just for a little while, you didn't think that you were -- you didn't think you were going to lose it?"
For a moment there was no sound in the room except for the two of them breathing together, JC's breath hitching a little in time with Justin's. Then JC said, "Yes."
"C," Justin said, and he should have been relieved, because JC could tell him how to fix it. He wasn't relieved. "C, how did you get it back?"
"Ah, Justin," JC said, and Justin shut his eyes against what he heard in JC's voice. He thought suddenly that maybe he of all people shouldn't have asked JC that.
"Justin," JC said, his voice richly urgent. "J, come home."
"No," Justin said. He didn't know why he said it. The word was out before he knew he was saying it.
"Why not?" JC said. "J, I thought you --"
"I can't," Justin said. He thought about that before he said it. "Chris has -- I don't have the car."
"Where are you?" JC said. "I'll come get you."
"I don't know," Justin said. JC sighed impatiently. "I don't -- I don't want to go."
"J," JC said sharply. "What do you want?"
"I -- I don't know," Justin said, and hung up the phone quickly, because Chris was right. He couldn't lie. He knew what he wanted. He sat alone in the quiet room and wanted it.
He didn't get it.
Justin didn't sleep that night. When the sun came up, he took a shower and then picked up his bag and left. Chris' car was in the parking lot. As Justin got closer, he saw Chris asleep in the front seat. Justin walked over to the passenger side. The door was unlocked. He let himself in.
Chris jerked awake at the slam of the door. "Hey," he said, running a hand over his head. He sat up. "Hey," he said again, softly, looking at Justin carefully. "Listen, I didn't -- I'll take you home, okay?"
"No," Justin said.
"I left a key for you," Justin said. "At the desk. You didn't have to sleep here."
"J, are you sure --"
"It's not fair for you to get to ask me questions if I can't ask you any," Justin said. His voice had an early morning quiver to it.
"J," Chris said again, and stopped. He sighed and ran a hand over his head again, making his hair stand up. "J, you can ask me questions."
"Oh," Justin said. "Oh, so now we're just gonna pretend like we're back to normal and you're gonna dump me back home --"
"No," Chris said. "No, I just -- I just figured you earned a question."
"Oh," Justin said again. There were so many questions bubbling in his mind, he wasn't sure how he'd pick one. He wanted to know what was wrong with himself. He wanted to know why Chris had come back. He wanted to know when Chris would leave him again. "Um. Well, you can ask me a question too. That's fair."
"Gee, thanks," Chris said.
"You're welcome," Justin said. He put his feet up on the dashboard and stretched in his seat. He didn't know why he was so reluctant to ask his question, now that he had the chance. He looked over at Chris in time to see Chris' fingers tighten on the steering wheel. Justin watched Chris brace himself and asked, "Where are we going?"
Chris' gaze flickered over him. "I don't know," Chris said, "I thought we'd play it by ear. Did you -- unless you wanna go somewhere."
"No," Justin said. He kept watching Chris' hands, his knuckles still white on the wheel. Chris didn't say anything. "Well, I guess -- your turn," Justin said. He slid down further in his seat and pressed the toes of his sneakers against the windshield. He spread his palms out on his thighs and looked down at them, arranging them carefully so his fingers were spaced exactly evenly apart. He felt Chris look at him and he didn't look up.
Chris said, "Why didn't you ask me what you really wanted to ask me?"
"What?" Justin said.
"Oh, no," Chris said. "You already asked your question, also you heard me."
Justin looked out the window, but when he looked back Chris was still waiting. Justin thought a minute. "I guess maybe I didn't ... I might be ... I thought I might not want to hear your answer," he said.
"The whole point was that we'd tell the truth, J," Chris said sharply.
"AND I thought you might not want to hear your answer," Justin said.
Chris didn't say anything. Justin watched his hands, perfectly centered on his thighs, and wondered why he was still tensed, as if expecting a blow. He took a deep breath and tried to relax. He couldn't. He looked over at Chris and caught Chris looking back. Justin turned back toward the window.
Chris made a sound that was more like a quick puff of breath than a laugh. It sounded the way Justin thought a shrug looked. He didn't turn his head but he knew just how Chris looked when he made that noise. "I bet you're regretting giving me that question now," Chris said.
It wasn't a question, but Justin answered anyway.
"No," he said.
They didn't stop that day. At least, they didn't get out of the car. Justin surfaced from sleep a few times blearily, briefly, so briefly it could hardly be called waking up. Most of the time they were still driving, and he thought he glimpsed a few familiar signs. Driving back the way they came, probably, the way Chris had said, and he closed his eyes before he could think more about it. Once when he opened his eyes Chris had pulled over to the side of the road, sitting with the door open, smoking in the sunlight. Justin had started to sit up, but Chris said, "Go back to sleep," and Justin did. It wasn't hard.
When Justin finally woke up for real, something felt different. He sat up warily. It wasn't inside him -- he felt the same, a drowsy ache in his muscles that he didn't think was solely due to sleeping in such cramped quarters. It looked the same outside, the sun just starting to set, the heavy shimmer of twilight blurring the headlights of the cars around them. Justin had always loved this time, not quite night, not quite day. It was just the time of day when anything could happen but hadn't happened yet, anticipation shining in the streetlights as he drove with his cell phone tucked against his shoulder, making plans for the night. He pulled his phone out of his pocket before he thought about it, then stuffed it into his bag. He looked out at the stoplights blinking warmly, red and amber and green.
Stoplights, and that meant they'd left the interstate. That wasn't what was different, though. They'd done that before, cutting back on smaller roads to circle around toward where they'd started, aimless looping around a central point, like a compass dragged around a map. They might rip the paper ragged, but they'd never get too far away from where they'd started.
Except, Justin thought, maybe they would. He looked over at Chris, who looked the same, a little more tired, a little dirtier than earlier, but the same. Chris had one hand on the wheel, the other resting on the edge of the door, his elbow hanging out of the open window. He was frowning a little, and licking his lips like he was thirsty. Chris glanced over at him, then back at the road. He started to smile.
Justin knew what was different.
"Are we going somewhere?" Justin said.
Chris laughed. "Smart boy," he said.
"I knew it," Justin said. He put his feet up on the dashboard and slouched down in his seat. He folded his hands in his lap. Chris' hand brushed his leg as he reached down to turn up the radio. Justin drummed his hands against his thighs and hummed along with the song. He looked out at the scenery spinning out around them. The highway was carved into a hill, deep brown rock around them scarred with red and violet and green. He smiled a little. He recognized the landscape, as much from the easy tilt of Chris' head, the eager familiarity in his eyes, as from his years of touring.
Justin's phone rang from the depths of his duffel bag. He thought about ignoring it, but Chris glanced at him and Justin turned around and burrowed through his bag. It was still ringing when he found it. Justin let it ring, balancing it on his lap warily, like it might go off at any second. He knew the number.
When the ringing stopped, Chris held out his hand. Justin looked at him. "Give me your phone," Chris said. Justin dropped it into Chris' open palm. Chris stuffed it into his pocket without looking at it. "Right pocket of my jacket," Chris said. Justin reached back over the seat again and grabbed Chris' jacket. He took Chris' phone out of his jacket pocket and handed it to him. Chris sighed and rolled his eyes. "You keep it," he said.
"Um, okay," Justin said. He held it uneasily.
Chris sighed even louder. "Just check it every couple days, make sure nobody needs to get a hold of me for an emergency," he said. When Justin didn't say anything, he said, "There's nobody I really want to be talking to right now, you know?"
"Yeah," Justin said. He zipped the phone into his bag, then turned back around and put his feet back up on the dash.
"So," Chris said. "Aren't you wondering where we're going?"
"Yes!" Justin said.
"Yeah, I thought you might be," Chris laughed.
Justin gave him a look as dirty as he could manage. Chris just kept laughing at him. Justin crossed his arms over his chest and turned toward the window. It was hard to stay mad when Chris was still chuckling like that, a warm friendly sound that wrapped around him. He smiled a little, careful to keep his head turned away.
"I can see your reflection," Chris said.
"So what?" Justin said, but he turned away from the window, his mouth pursed up with the effort of not smiling. "We should stop somewhere soon. I'm hungry."
"Now there's something I can help you with," Chris said.
"Oh, wow," Justin said, nudging Chris and nodding toward the jukebox. "I bet we're going to get some great music now."
Chris laughed as they watched the two guys lean into the glass. "Oh, yeah. I have a feeling we're about to hear ZZ Top's greatest hits. And a lot of Lynyrd. Freebird at least twice."
"The Lynyrd's a giveaway. The guy with the bad mohawk's wearing a concert t-shirt."
"You can't read that from here."
"No, but it's got a confederate flag on it. Come on, it couldn't be anyone else."
"If I tell you something, you have to promise not to hold it against me."
"I know you like them. I don't hold it against you -- you can't help it. It's your southern heritage, like eating gross parts of the pig. You're genetically programmed not to know what sucks."
Justin laughed and sat back in the booth. He put his feet up on the bench next to Chris and crossed his legs. Chris's fingers slipped warmly around his ankle, his thumb pushing up underneath the hem of Justin's jeans. Justin smiled and slumped down further, but Chris pulled his hand away quickly, as if he'd forgotten himself. Justin didn't say anything.
When Honky Tonk Women came on, Chris said, "You know, I think we may have misjudged our young friends."
"Wait," Justin said. "This could go either way."
They waited, drinking their beers quietly. When Papa's Got A Brand New Bag started, Justin shrugged and laughed and said, "Okay, I think we were wrong. They're doing pretty good."
"You been wrong all night," Chris said, and Justin shrugged again. He had.
He and Chris had been quiet for most of the drive. Justin didn't mind. He had felt -- he'd felt almost comfortable. Easy, almost, in a way he hadn't been in a while. Except that wasn't exactly right, because he'd never felt quite like this before. He'd never had to. Still, it was better than -- it was nice. He liked feeling comfortable.
He thought maybe Chris did, too, but he didn't ask. He couldn't. He thought he could tell, though, by the way Chris seemed more relaxed, more like his old self, although a little quieter. Justin felt a little quieter, too, but more like his old self. Maybe this was how his new self was going to be. He thought that would be okay, when he thought about it.
Mostly he tried not to think about it.
When Chris had pulled off the highway into a rest stop, Justin had thought they'd just be stopping at the McDonald's. "It's got a drive-through," he had pointed out helpfully, but Chris didn't listen. He parked in front of the little no-name motel tucked away at the back. He got out, but Justin hung back.
"Do we have to -- I kind of like driving at night," Justin said.
"You'll get a chance," Chris said.
"Wait here," Chris said. "And trust me."
He'd gotten a chance. When Chris came out of the office, he shoved the room key into his pocket and tossed the car keys through Justin's open window. "Shove over," he said, and Justin lifted himself into the driver's seat. "Get back on going north and then get off at the next exit."
The next exit had dumped them into a small town, and Justin followed Chris' directions until they came to a small gray building draped in Christmas lights. "They're a little early," Justin said.
"Or late," Chris said as he hopped out of the car. "Come on, I'll buy you a bowl of gumbo."
Justin stopped. "Um," he said.
"Oh please," Chris said.
"Nothing, it's just -- we're awfully far north for that."
"Well, you don't have much choice, because that's about all they make. Besides, it's really good." Chris rolled his eyes at the look on Justin's face. "Trust me," he said.
Justin walked in with his arm brushing Chris'. "I'm not saying I'm gonna order it, but --"
"If you hate it, J, we can go somewhere else," Chris said. "But you're gonna like it."
Chris was right. Justin had eaten three bowls, and might have had a fourth except that Chris and the bartender who brought their food out to the table were already laughing at him. Instead, he had two pieces of pie, which he didn't eat just anywhere, at least not when he wasn't close to home.
"If I'd known you were gonna eat so much, I wouldn't have picked up the tab," Chris grumbled, but as that wasn't exactly the same as saying I told you so, Justin let it go. He sat back and put his feet up on the bench next to Chris and watched the bar start to fill up.
Filling up was a relative term in a place this small. Besides their two friends at the jukebox, there was an older guy sitting at the bar talking to the bartender, and a woman and a man about Chris' age sitting at a table in the back. That was it, and still the bar was half full.
"How did you find this place?" Justin asked suddenly.
Chris just shook his head. "No questions," he said.
"I'm just gonna remember and ask later."
"Oh, okay," Chris said, and lined up Justin's empty beer bottles along the edge of the table. "You do that."
"I will," Justin said, and slouched down further in his seat. He closed his eyes and drank his beer and listened to the music on the jukebox. Those guys didn't have bad taste at all.
Justin didn't know exactly how much time had passed when the door burst open and a few kids came in. Kids, he thought, although when he looked at them more closely he figured they were probably his age. A guy and three girls called to the two guys who'd been in all night, as if the bar were much bigger than it was and if they didn't holler, they might possibly all miss each other in the crush. The guy looked enough like the first two that they could be brothers, but the girls. The girls were dressed up for a big night out, hair sprayed perfectly in place, dark liquid liner thick around their eyes, mouths red and wide and laughing. Every once in a while they started to dance with each other, until the bartender said mildly, "No dancing." Mostly they just leaned their elbows on the bar or their bodies against one of the guys they were with and swayed with the song.
The music stopped and two of the girls bounced laughing over to the jukebox. Justin stood up, shifted a little for balance, and said to Chris, "Gimme a dollar."
"Excuse me, Mr. Millionaire," Chris said, but he dug into his wallet and handed Justin a couple of ones. "Try to stay out of trouble, all right?"
"Maybe I want trouble," Justin said.
"You don't know what trouble is," Chris said.
Justin stopped and thought about that. There was something profound about that, something really really true. "Man," he said quietly, and then shook his head. He didn't know what trouble was.
Chris laughed at him. "You are scandalously drunk," he said. "Now go play your song."
The two girls were still standing over the jukebox when he got there, bickering over which Eagles song to play. The realish blonde pointed at something, and the other girl laughed and said, "Kerstin's party!"
The first girl laughed, too, and tapped on the jukebox with one long pink nail. "Twenty-one times, and she doesn't even have a car!" Both of them fell down over the glass, giggling and bouncing off each other.
Justin stopped and closed his eyes, right there in the middle of the floor. Something about their familiar call and response, the way they'd shared some joke so often they didn't need to do more than repeat a few words to remind each other, made him suddenly, stubbornly, homesick. Except it was something worse than homesickness, darker, because he was missing something he knew he wouldn't be able to go back to. Something that wasn't there for him to go back to.
When he opened his eyes both girls were looking at him. "Hey," one of them, the blonder one, said, "hey, did you want to play something?" They moved apart a little, to give him room between them, and smiled at him when he walked over. They closed in around him then, still smiling up at him and helping him turn the CD covers over. They kept looking at him carefully, and Justin couldn't tell if they recognized him or if he had just been standing with his eyes closed in the middle of the room for a little too long. He glanced over his shoulder, his face brushing against stiffly sprayed hair, and saw that Chris had moved up closer to the bar. Then one of the girls put her hand over his and he looked back down. Maybe they didn't recognize him or feel sorry for him. Maybe they just liked him.
Justin fed his money in and they chose their songs. Even once the first one had dropped, the three of them stood swaying against the jukebox. Susan was the blonder one's name, and the dyed one's name was Brittany. He knew they didn't recognize him when she said that. He looked up again, trying to catch Chris' eye because he knew how Chris would appreciate that, but Chris was watching the game playing silently on the TV above the bar.
Susan and Brittany were trying to explain what they'd been laughing about earlier, but they were a little drunk and Justin was drunker and the story was full of names he didn't know and didn't want to. He liked the way their high voices shaped themselves around him, though, and he liked the way they smelled, vanilla and lilac and some fruity drink, and he liked the way they looked, shining and sweet in the twinkling Christmas lights running the length of the room. He was leaning against Brittany, his face turned toward her hair, with one arm around Susan's waist, when he was slammed back against the jukebox.
"What the fuck?" he said. There was still a hand planted in the middle of his chest, holding him in place. He wrapped his own hand around it and shoved.
The hand belonged to the guy with the bad Mohawk and the Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Nothing," Justin said, standing up straight. He had a good four inches on the guy. Of course, the guy also had two friends right behind him, backing him up. Justin looked for his own backup. Chris had turned away from the TV, but his face was full of such calm detachment that he could have still been watching the game. Justin jerked his head, a little some help here, please gesture that he knew Chris would recognize. Chris raised his beer bottle to him and smiled. Justin hated him.
Apparently Mohawk was starting to feel a little neglected, because he tried to push Justin again. "I said, what do you think you're doing?"
Brittany tugged at Mohawk's arm and said, "Come on, don't do this."
"Man, are you serious?" Justin said.
"Oh, I'm serious," Mohawk said, but one of his friends grabbed his other arm lightly and together he and Brittany eased the guy back a step.
Justin shrugged and started to walk back toward the bar. Just as he passed them, Mohawk spat, "Faggot."
Justin's arm was out before he even knew what he was doing, catching Mohawk across the neck and knocking him back. He had just enough time to think, Oh shit, and then he was flying backwards, falling into a chair with a hundred and sixty pounds of drunk guy on top of him.
"Hey," the bartender said sharply, "take all that outside. Right now."
To Justin's surprise the Mohawk guy got right up off him. "Yeah, you wanna take this outside?" he said.
Justin wanted to say, "No, not really," because what did it matter, he was never going to see these people again and it wasn't worth it, he'd been called worse and in print. He really meant to say that, to be the bigger guy, to walk away, but somehow when he opened his mouth what came out was, "You better believe it, asshole."
"All right," and then Mohawk's friends were pushing him out. Justin stood up and brushed himself off, then made his way to the door. Chris was standing there waiting for him, already holding the door open.
"After you," Chris said.
"Yeah, didn't see you a minute ago," Justin said. "Thought you might be too busy watching TV."
"I wouldn't miss this for the world," Chris said, and grinned at him. Justin hated him.
Outside, in the far corner of the gravel parking lot, Mohawk was scuffling with his friends, dancing on the balls of his feet and throwing huge showy punches and getting patted on the shoulders in a pathetic imitation of a boxer and his managers. Justin thought they looked idiotic, and at the same time thought he wouldn't mind bouncing around like that with Chris, getting himself psyched up. Suddenly, out here in the crisp night air, Justin felt a lot less drunk than he knew he was.
Chris was already leaning on the hood of one of the cars, bumming a cigarette from the girl whose name Justin didn't know. He watched Chris rip the filter off and toss it on the ground, then say something to make the girl laugh. It figured. Chris could probably have sex with the girl right there on the car, and nobody would even notice, but Justin just talked to a girl and he was in a stupid ridiculous fight with some redneck.
The redneck in question stopped jumping around and hollered, "Hey!", which Justin guessed was redneck for it's time to start our stupid ridiculous fight. He walked over and stood across from Mohawk. Justin had seen a bunch of professional fights, and had even done some boxing at a gym, real boxing where he got hit. But he wasn't quite sure what the rules were for this kind of thing, if he and Mohawk were supposed to say something to each other, or size each other up, or --
Justin got his answer along with a mouthful of dust when Mohawk leapt onto him and tumbled them both to the ground. Justin swore when he hit the gravel, and Mohawk took advantage of Justin's surprise to land a few quick nasty punches to Justin's ribs. Justin was bigger, though, and stronger, and it wasn't too hard to roll both of them over so Justin had room to swing. They scuffled in the dirt for a few minutes, and then Justin was dragged backwards and he thought, Not fair, not fair, and yelled for Chris because even now Chris wouldn't let him get beat up by three guys.
He was swinging wildly and the two guys holding him dropped him on his ass. "Hey, hey," one of them said, "we're not -- it's just over, man, it's over."
Justin sat back and rubbed his jaw. He spat out blood -- just a little, he'd bitten his own lip -- and said, "That's it?"
The same guy laughed and said, "What, you want more?" Justin shook his head and the guy held out a hand for Justin to haul himself up. Justin brushed himself off and then looked back at his opponent, who really didn't look that much the worse for wear either. But he looked worse than Justin did, though, Justin was sure.
He wandered back over to where Chris was smoking and leaned next to him. "My hero," Chris said, and handed him the cigarette. Justin took a drag and then handed it hurriedly back.
"The fuck?" he said.
"It's a Virginia Slim," Chris said. "Beggars can't be choosers." Justin hiked himself up and sat on the hood of the car. Chris tugged his sleeve down over his hand and wiped at the corner of Justin's mouth. Justin flinched. "Now, now," Chris said, "if you're going to play with the rough boys, this is what happens. You're lucky I didn't spit on a piece of tissue."
While Chris was still fussing over him, the same guy who'd helped Justin up came over and stood watching them a little awkwardly. "Can I help you?" Chris said.
"So we're going back to Tony's," the guy said, "to, you know, hang out and whatever, and, you know, if you want to come." When they didn't say anything, he said, "You know, Tony, he didn't mean anything. He just gets stupid when he's drunk. You should come."
"Okay," Justin said.
"Neither of us should be driving right now," Chris said sharply.
"We can give you a ride," the guy said. He trotted off back to his friends, and Chris looked at Justin.
"I thought it might be rude to say no," Justin said. "I mean, if they're asking."
"Right," Chris said. "Because I'd hate for you to be rude to the guy you just beat up."
"I didn't really beat him up."
"No, you didn't," Chris said, "but I wasn't going to be the one to bring that up."
When they got the rides sorted out Chris and Justin were sitting in the back of one of the girls' pickup truck. Justin clung to the side when they hit the road, then tried to relax his grip when he saw Chris watching him. "Do you think," Chris said, "that this was a trick? Like, they're luring us out to the middle of nowhere to kill us because you beat their guy?"
"I didn't till now," Justin said. "Now I feel like I'm in the first fifteen minutes of an afterschool special. Do you think we should like jump out or something?"
"No, I don't think we should like jump out, although I would be interested in what exactly you think 'or something' would be." Chris stretched out on his back and put his hands behind his head. "I'm sure it's nothing. There's probably just going to be, like, a dog fight or something."
"Oh my God," Justin said. "Seriously, Chris, we should jump out, or something, or I'll just knock and get Susan to pull over or I bet she'd even take us back to the car if we said we forgot something, but I can't be doing that, seriously. That's horrible, I mean seriously-"
"I was kidding," Chris said. "Seriously yourself, I ain't gonna be watching any dog fight either. They're probably just going to get us high on some bad pot. Calm the fuck down."
"Okay," Justin said. He pulled his knees up to his chest and tilted his head back. The sky was deep and dark, slashed here and there with bright stars. The night was quiet except for the sound of the truck engine. It was a little cold, so Justin hunched down and shoved one hand between his legs for warmth. His first instinct had been to roll against Chris, fall into him the way he would have done once, but he didn't. Over the past couple of days they had dropped almost into their old routine, teasing and laughing. It was familiar, but not the same, as if they were both just a beat off from their old selves. But it was better than it had been before. Justin didn't want to push it. Still, it was cold. He slid just a little closer to Chris and put a hand on his ankle. Chris didn't say anything, but he didn't move away.
Chris was right. There was no dog fight or even a drag race, nothing but a bunch of kids sitting around a shabby living room, getting high on bad pot. Even though Tony didn't have any kitchen chairs and his sofa looked like something he'd found out by the dumpsters, he had a big-screen TV, a pretty decent stereo and an XBox, and Chris took great pleasure in schooling the guys on it.
"We do play it professionally," Chris said modestly after he won yet another game. "What?" he said quietly when Justin elbowed him. "Seriously, if you count up how many hours we played that, as opposed to like actually performing, I think I have a pretty good case. You're just jealous of my skills."
"I'm not jealous," Justin said grumpily. "I didn't even want to play."
"No," Chris said slowly, "no, you didn't."
Justin shrugged uneasily under Chris' gaze. "What?" he said.
"Nothing," Chris said, still watching him. "I didn't think of it till now, but I just would've thought -- why didn't you want to play?"
Justin started to say he didn't know, but then he shut his mouth. Chris said, "See, cause I would've thought you would've wanted to -- you always used to. We always used to. It would've been just like old times."
"I'm tired," Justin said. His voice sounded loud to him, but no one else even looked up. "I'm gonna ask one of the girls to drive us back to our car." He walked off, aware that Chris was still watching him.
Susan gave them a ride to the bar. It was just her and them, because nobody else was ready to leave, so they all could've fit on the front seat, but Chris headed wordlessly for the back. Justin had scrunched uncomfortably in the middle of the seat, but he felt stupid moving over when Chris didn't get in so he stayed where he was. Then he felt stupid all pressed up against Susan, so he moved over. She glanced over at him but didn't say anything. She looked tired and kind of annoyed.
"Sorry," Justin said. "For dragging you out of the --" He didn't know what to call it. It wasn't much of a party. "For dragging you out."
"No, it's okay," Susan said. When she smiled, she looked tired and kind of sad. "I was going to head home soon anyway."
"You weren't having fun?"
"No, it was fun," she said. "I mean, it was fine. It's just, you know, that's like all we ever do. Same people, same bar, same screwing around afterward. I just get -- it gets old after a while, you know?"
"Sure," Justin said. "Sure." He turned toward the window and pulled one leg up under him. After a minute, he heard Susan sigh and turn the radio up a little. Justin closed his eyes.
It wasn't all that long a drive back to the bar. When the truck pulled up into the parking lot, it was deserted, the small building locked up tight, the Christmas lights extinguished. "Well, here we are," Susan said.
"Yeah," Justin said. "Um, thanks, thanks a lot." He glanced out the back window. Chris had already jumped out and run over to the car. "Um, I guess I better --" Chris honked the horn. "Good night, and thanks again."
"You're welcome," Susan said. "Take care."
Chris had pushed the passenger side door open before Justin made it over to the car. He started to say something when Justin got in, but Justin curled up on his side with his back to Chris and tipped his head against the window. He was going to pretend to sleep for the ride back, but once his eyes shut he felt his limbs start to fill with a dull sodden exhaustion. His mind was still skittery and restless from the pot, but he took slow, shallow breaths and kept his eyes gently closed instead of screwed tightly shut, until his thoughts settled into a circling rhythm, movingmovingmoving, so familiar and comforting it almost wasn't like a thought at all. Fatigue floated through him like a warm ache spreading from a bruise.
The slam of a door jarred him awake, but he didn't open his eyes until his door swung out from under his shoulder. He would've fallen if Chris hadn't put his arm out. "C'mon," Chris said. "We're home."
"No," Justin said, without really knowing what he meant. His mind had leapt back into frantic action, but it was so fast he couldn't follow himself. "No, I don't want --"
"No," Chris said quickly, and hauled Justin up. "No, we're not home. We're just here." He pushed Justin lightly, one hand in the middle of his back, and closed the car door behind him. "C'mon," he said again, "one foot in front of the other. That's it. Keep moving." He guided Justin into the motel and down the hallway with one hand on his shoulder. He kept hold of Justin while he opened the door, then nudged him inside and let go.
Justin fell face first onto the bed nearest the door. He stopped long enough to kick his shoes off, then pulled himself up toward the head of the bed. He heard the door close behind him.
"Bet you're glad I got the room now," Chris said.
Justin tried to agree, but the cottony bedspread rose up to meet his face and he fell back asleep before he had a chance to say yes.
He woke up with the sun shining brightly in his eyes. He sat up slowly, slowly, and looked around. He couldn't see Chris, although the shades had been helpfully opened and Chris' bed was still unmade. Justin started to lie back down. He felt soggy with sleep, waterlogged, and he drooped back toward the bed as sleep started to pull him down again. He was still on top of the scratchy bedspread, though, and still mostly dressed. He rubbed his cheek where he could feel the imprint of the bedspread's pattern. It seemed like too much trouble to get up and turn the bed down.
It was only a few steps across to Chris' abandoned bed. Justin managed to shed his pants on the way, and curled up gratefully on the soft sheets. He tucked the blankets around himself and closed his eyes. Then he opened them and blinked into the sun. It was only a few more steps across to the windows, but it seemed like too much trouble to get up and draw them. He pulled the covers over his head and turned toward the door.
When he surfaced again Chris was sitting on the other bed, watching TV with no sound. Justin sat up, the blankets rippling around him, and rubbed a hand over his hair. "Where were you?" he said sleepily, but Chris just shook his head and tapped the clock on the little table between the beds.
"It's time to get up," Chris said. "I want my dinner."
Justin couldn't believe he'd slept that long, not till dinnertime, even though it was only four o'clock, which was only dinnertime for old people. Of course, by the time he'd showered and gotten dressed and drank the Coke Chris had gotten him from somewhere and then stretched out next to Chris to watch two Roseanne reruns, it was dinnertime for regular people. Justin was hungry, too. Even though he hadn't noticed it before, it was the kind of empty gnawing ache in his stomach that he only got when he'd been hungry for a while, when he was rehearsing and wouldn't leave until he'd gotten it just right, when he was the last one left in the room, just him and his reflection while he listened to the others eating next door, Joey banging on the wall and bellowing his name every five minutes. He was that kind of hungry, but he just lay on the bed until Chris got up and grabbed Justin's shirt and pulled him to his feet.
"Come on," Chris said. "I'm a growing boy."
They didn't drive far, a few exits on the highway and then maybe forty-five minutes on smaller roads, before Chris pulled up at a little bar that looked a lot like the one they'd been at the night before. It was a little bit bigger, a little bit fuller, and there was no jukebox and no excitement like the night before, but Justin didn't mind so much. He just sat next to Chris at a table towards the back, drinking bad beer and talking about nothing. Justin didn't really mind at all.
They fell into an easy pattern, zigzagging back and forth from small town to small town, never stopping in the same place twice. They slept most of the day in whatever motel Chris picked out the night before, and Justin slept for some of the drive, too. He always woke up before dinnertime, with that strange sodden feeling of too much sleep and an insistent scratchy tug beneath his skin that wasn't soothed until they started driving again. The motel rooms all looked the same, and the bars too, but Justin didn't care. He kind of liked it.
They went to bars, mostly, different ones every night, that didn't have much in common except for cool music and cheap beer. Sometimes they went to restaurants, never fancy and never chains, and once they went to an old movie theater and sat on folding chairs up in the balcony with their feet on the art deco railing. Chris wasn't answering any questions and he wasn't asking any. Justin didn't mind about that either.
One night they went to an arcade, late enough that Justin thought there wouldn't be any kids young enough to recognize them. His heart sank when he heard someone call across the room, "Chris Kirkpatrick?" and he braced himself. But when he turned around the guy didn't even look at him and Chris was already smiling. Justin got introduced and shook hands and then faded back and started playing pinball at a machine far enough away that he couldn't hear what they were talking about.
When Chris wandered back over, he was still smiling, a small private smile that made Justin ask, "Who was that guy?" even though he knew his name, Tom, and that he'd gone to school with Chris junior year.
"Just somebody I used to know," Chris said, and nudged Justin aside a little so he could play. Justin thought about pushing, but that was a truthful answer, after all, and he liked the look of that smile on Chris' face. He didn't push. He was rewarded when Chris said,
"You know I got my Cyclone here?"
"Seriously?" Justin said. "I always wondered where you got that, man. You can't hardly find that anywhere."
"I know. I always said, you know, when I was a kid, we played that all the time, and I always said when I grew up I was gonna have it in my house. And then, I was down here for something, I don't remember what, and I was just fucking around here one day and the guy who owns the place was taking it out, and I was like, what are you doing with that, and he was gonna get rid of it, if you can believe that, and he sold it to me for like, six hundred bucks." Chris laughed a little. "He made me go get the cash, too, because he didn't believe I had it in the bank. He remembered me."
Justin laughed, too, and then said, "When was this? I don't remember any of this."
"It was back a while ago," Chris said. "You were, you know. You were doing your own stuff, and I was just kind of driving around -- I don't remember why I was back here."
"Oh," Justin said. "Well, you got lucky with that, though. Six hundred bucks? You're not gonna do better than that."
"No," Chris said. "No, I was lucky." He looked around and shrugged into his jacket, even though it was well before the time they usually called it a night. He said, "You wanna just drive around a while?"
Chris was off somewhere when Justin woke up the next morning. Chris was always going off somewhere in the mornings, though -- he said Justin slept too late and he couldn't just sit around. Justin didn't think he slept all that late, but he knew it was absolutely true that Chris couldn't just sit around. After his shower, when Chris still wasn't back, Justin sat out on the little balcony that looked over the parking lot. There wasn't room for a chair out there, just barely room for him, so he sat cross-legged on the concrete and turned his face up to the sun.
Inside the room Chris' phone started to ring. Justin wasn't tempted to answer it, but once the ringing had stopped, he couldn't stop thinking about it. He was supposed to be listening to Chris' messages, making sure that there was no big emergency or anything, but he hadn't checked them once since Chris had first given him the phone. He didn't know if Chris was checking Justin's messages. Chris hadn't said anything if he was.
Justin's duffel bag was hanging on a chair just inside the door, Chris' phone tucked safely inside. Justin leaned inside and rummaged around for it. The message light blinked reproachfully at him. He thought briefly about dumping it back into his bag and letting it get lost. After all, if it were a true emergency, somebody'd find them. That was stupid, though, Justin knew that, and something worse than stupid.
Chris had sixteen messages.
Justin listened to each one just long enough to figure out who was talking and if they sounded upset. Nobody did. Pissed off, and worried, and one of Chris' sisters sounded like she was laughing at him, but nobody sounded upset. Justin fast-forwarded through them, pausing every now and then when there was something that he just couldn't skip over. He heard Lance's voice saying, "sure you're thinking," voice raising a little to punch the k, and Justin thought he could see Lance's eyebrow raising right in time. He rewound over and over again just to hear Joey saying, "Chris, for serious now," sounding equal parts worried and mad, and he was pretty sure that if he listened to the whole message he'd hear his own name. Justin didn't, though. That would be a violation of Chris' privacy. Plus he didn't know if he could take hearing whatever Joey had said about him.
The last message was from JC. Justin only meant to make sure it wasn't an emergency like he was supposed to, that was all he was going to do. But JC's voice took him by surprise. It shouldn't have, he knew there was no way that JC wouldn't have been calling Chris, and he'd tried to brace himself for it. JC had always been able to do that to him, though. In the studio and in private, just when Justin was sure that JC's voice was entirely familiar -- beautiful, of course, and strong and rich and full, but known, completely known -- JC had always been able to shake him, shock him, make him listen like it was completely, entirely new.
"I don't know," JC's voice said, not bothering with a greeting or to identify himself, and Justin had to smile because JC's messages always started like that. "I mean, I know what you're doing, but I don't think it's gonna -- I don't think it'll do what you want it to. I just -- Chris, I don't think anything can," and Justin wasn't smiling any more. "I just think, there's some things you can't run from, you know? No matter how much you want to. There's some things you just have to lose. You don't have a choice. And trying not to, I don't think, I don't think it makes it easier. I don't know, maybe that's the point. I guess I just wanted to say -- I don't know what I want to say, exactly. I thought maybe it was to tell you to take care, but I don't know, I think maybe you both have had people taking care a little too much. I guess I just wanted to say, you know. You know. I just wanted to say. And now I have."
Justin didn't delete the message when it was done. He just sat looking at the phone, until he heard Chris opening the door and fumbled to get it back into his bag. He was too slow, though, and Chris caught him with it still in his hand.
"I was just -- " Justin said. "You said I should check, in case, you know, emergency. You said."
"I know, J," Chris said.
"And, um, there was no. Emergency."
"Good," Chris said. Justin dropped the phone into his bag and zipped it up. "I haven't -- I should check yours. I guess."
"I'll, um, I'll wait in the car," Justin said, and ran gratefully for the door.
It was a little while before Chris came downstairs.
"No emergencies," Chris said as he got into the car.
"Well, good," Justin said as he pulled the car out of the lot. "I mean, not that I expected, but still, that's --"
"But JC, man, he's got to stop with the messages. Cause, seriously, if that's the kind of thing you're listening to, I'm surprised you weren't having an even bigger nervous breakdown when I found you."
Justin hadn't been having a nervous breakdown, he thought, he'd just been a little freaked out, and understandably so, but one look at Chris told him that maybe that wasn't the fight he wanted to be having just now. He settled for saying, "I don't know, C usually knows what he's talking about."
"I think we might not be talking about the same person. JC Chasez? Skinny kid, big nose, about three days away from changing his name to a symbol?"
Justin laughed, and then said, "No, seriously, I think, I think maybe you... I don't know. I thought, when I was back home, what he said. I think, you know, I think it might be right." Chris didn't say anything, and Justin kept his eyes on the road and pushed a little harder. "Cause he said, you know, that we had to learn. That we were learning to leave each other."
"Man," Chris said. Justin stole a glance over at him and saw Chris shaking his head. Justin shook his head a little, too, in sympathy. It wasn't easy to hear, the first time.
"Man," Chris said again. "He is one gloomy motherfucker, isn't he?"
Justin choked. "You don't -- you don't think -- "
"Think that it's amazing that you weren't down-not-across suicidal after listening to him go on for a while? I do, believe me, I do. Those messages, man, it's like he was leaving your little daily word of doom and depression. It's like the opposite of an affirmation. It's like an unfirmation."
"But he's not -- he wasn't all gloomy and depressed," Justin said. "I mean, I was, but he wasn't. He was kind of, just, happy. I mean, worried, and he missed us, but I thought he was --"
"Yeah," Chris said. "You know how he's happy? He's happy because he never takes his own goddamn advice. He's a big fucking happy hypocrite."
"No," Justin said, "I don't think so," but he was smiling, mostly because Chris was. And because it was like old times, suddenly, Chris teasing JC and Justin defending him, but always ending up laughing a little, too.
"No, seriously. We're all learning to leave each other, right, that's his big theory. And he's learning that by, what -- sleeping on Joey's couch every night?"
"But I think he already --"
"No, listen. Listen. I had him pegged right from the start. You know -- or, actually, you don't know this because I never told you because I was being all tactful -- shut up -- but way back in the beginning he was the one, he was the one who said, 'Oh, I don't think we should, it's a really bad idea to sleep with anyone in the group.' That was, by my calculations, about, oh, twelve minutes before he started nailing you."
"You don't understand --"
"Oh, I'm sure I don't," Chris said. He was grinning even wider now, warming up to his subject. "I'm sure I just cut him off too soon, and what he was about to say was, 'It's a really bad idea to sleep with anyone in the group, unless it's the one person that fucking could get you ten years of hard time in any of the forty-eight contiguous states'. Maybe I just didn't hear the end."
"It's not illegal to fuck me in Hawaii and Alaska?"
"No, Justin, no it's not. Thank you for bringing up that valuable point. You should feel free to slut your way right up to the Arctic Circle."
"No," Justin said, "I mean, I mean, underage me. I mean, underage guys."
"I have no idea."
"But you said the forty-eight contiguous states --"
"I was just yelling."
Chris said, "What were we talking about?"
"You were just picking on JC," Justin said, smiling.
"And you were sticking up for him," Chris said. "Just like old times." Justin stopped smiling. "Don't bother trying to deny it. You always had a soft spot for him."
"I wouldn't call it a soft spot," Justin said with a straight face, and there was a brief second of silence before Chris laughed. Justin cracked up then too. They were both laughing harder than the joke deserved, but Justin thought maybe they needed it. It felt good, he thought, watching Chris' shoulders shake. Then Chris stopped laughing, and Justin did too. Chris' shoulders were still shaking.
"Fuck," Chris said. "Fuck, I miss -- I miss it."
Justin didn't say anything.
"Pull over," Chris said sharply. "Fuck, pull over," and Justin swung the car onto the shoulder. Chris got out and took a few quick steps, then stopped and hunched down next to the car. He picked up a stone and skipped it across the blacktop, then threw a few more.
Justin looked out at the horizon. He listened to the crisp crack of the rocks against the road. There were a few metallic thuds as stones hit the car, but Justin didn't say anything. The sound stopped, and Justin still didn't say anything. He was learning.
Finally Chris got back in the car. Justin started the engine, and glanced over at Chris, just once, just to check. "I miss us," Chris said, and leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes. He didn't say anything else.
Chris was learning, too.
It was a hard lesson.
He should have known. Justin thought that later, he should have known. He knew Chris, and he knew how Chris reacted to things, to everything, and he should have known. But he'd forgotten, maybe, or maybe he was just stupider than he looked or maybe he didn't really -- he should have known.
Chris was quiet in the car, giving Justin a few brief directions and then subsiding back into what Justin was sure wasn't sleep. But Justin was feeling quieter, too, and he thought maybe that was just how they were now, their new quieter selves, and he didn't think anything else about it. If he had, maybe he would have known.
Chris slid up straight in his seat, blinking slowly, one hand massaging the back of his neck as he let his head fall forward. If Justin hadn't known before, that would have told him that Chris hadn't been asleep. Chris always leapt out of sleep, sharply, eyes bright and alert like a wild animal's. He wasn't like Justin, who'd spend an hour lying in bed when he could get it, half-awake, floating dozy and dreaming until the very last moment of sleep had drifted past him. Chris had no patience for that in-between state. He was either awake or asleep. There was no middle ground.
"So I been thinking," Chris said, his voice steady, and Justin should have known from that alone. He didn't, but he should have. "Maybe it's time for another couple of questions."
"Sure, man," Justin said, and he probably would have said the same thing if he'd known but he didn't, he wasn't prepared. "As long as I get to ask, too."
"Good," Chris said, easily, pleasantly even. Justin smiled over at him, then looked back at the road. "So are we done here? Have you had enough yet?"
"What?" Justin said, and he wasn't expecting a thing.
"You get what you needed yet? I mean, this tour of my white trash years has been fun and all, but the only thing left to do is try to get you a fake ID. And at your age, all we could really try for is a fake one that'd get you the senior discount at McDonald's, and I don't know if the thrill would be the same."
Justin laughed. "I didn't realize we were doing that."
Chris laughed, too, a short blunt laugh that Justin swore he could feel on his skin, deeper even, down all the way to the bone. All of a sudden Justin realized he was in a different type of conversation. "What, you thought I was taking this trip down memory lane just for fun? Just because I wanted to? Ah, baby, you're always the same."
"What?" Justin said again, and he was expecting something this time. But some things you just couldn't brace yourself for.
"You didn't think we were doing this because I wanted to, did you?"
"Yeah," Justin said. "I mean, why else --"
Chris said, "Liar."
Justin hit the brakes, hard, hard enough that the brakes squealed and his seatbelt stretched taut across his chest and a car behind them leaned on the horn in a furious wail of protest that shrieked around them and then died quickly away. Hard, but not hard enough, because Chris slammed forward and then bounced back, his head smacking the leather hard, but not hard enough. Justin gripped the wheel and thought of breaking glass, blood black on the highway, and waited for his hands to stop shaking. It was luck, that was all it was, just luck that there weren't any other cars around, that they hadn't had an accident, because Chris sure as hell hadn't looked, and he glanced over at Chris, ready to tell him that, and caught Chris smiling, just barely, just a little.
When Justin saw that, he knew he couldn't have known.
He'd thought, for just a second, that all this was just Chris' brand of payback. Justin had seen something he shouldn't have, something Chris thought he shouldn't have, and so he had to pay for it. It was just like Chris, really, and if it hadn't been so long, so long since they'd been together, so long since they'd been together like they should have been, he would have remembered sooner. He would've been expecting it all along.
But when he looked at Chris, his face twisted in the remains of a smile, Justin knew that that wasn't what this was about at all. Justin looked at Chris and knew Chris wasn't trying to hurt him -- or not only to hurt him. Chris was telling him the truth.
Justin thought about what Chris had said and he wished that there had been other cars on the road a moment ago. Then he thought, No. The word beat a relentless rhythm in his ears. He closed his eyes and shook his head but the word was still there. No matter how much Justin told himself to stop being a coward, to stop avoiding the truth, he still resisted it. He couldn't accept it. He didn't want to.
He opened his eyes and caught Chris looking at him. Chris smiled wider and looked away, but it was too late. Justin had seen what was in Chris' eyes, and he recognized the loss there. He knew that it was for himself, maybe more than for Chris. He recognized that pain, and that smile. But he remembered something else, too, Chris' voice telling him he was no liar. Justin thought about that, and he knew that Chris hadn't been lying then. But Chris wasn't lying now either. Chris believed that he was telling Justin the truth.
Justin focused on the road in front of him for a few moments. Then he steadied his hands and caught his breath and thought about what he was going to say. No matter how long he thought about it, there was only one word left to him.
"No," Justin said.
"Oh, come on," Chris said. "You're trying to tell me that's the truth? You really thought all this was for -- you didn't think all this was about you, about getting you what you need? Come on."
"I didn't," Justin said. Before Chris could say anything, he said, "Okay. Okay, maybe I didn't think it was because you wanted to, but I didn't think it was all for me, either. I didn't think --"
"Yeah, you didn't think," Chris said.
"I thought it was for both of us," Justin said. "I thought -- I thought maybe it was what we both needed."
"Liar," Chris said, his voice flat and even and relentless.
"Liar, liar, liar," and Justin flinched each time. It shouldn't have hurt, because Justin knew it wasn't true. He thought it wasn't true. He didn't want it to be true.
"Liar, liar, liar," and Justin said,
"I'm not -- I wasn't, I'm not," and put his hands up over his face. "I did think -- for both of us, I thought you wanted, I thought you needed --"
"Bullshit," Chris said. "Like you ever even thought about what I needed. You never even asked me what was wrong. You never even asked me why I left."
Justin let his hands drop in sheer disbelief at Chris' unfairness. "You wouldn't give me a chance. You wouldn't even let me ask you --"
"Would that have been what you asked me?" Chris said. Justin opened his mouth, and then shut it. "Yeah," Chris said. "That wasn't even on your list."
Justin didn't say anything, just looked at his hands where they'd fallen on his lap.
"So," Chris said. "You gonna answer my question? You get what you need yet?"
"I don't -- no," Justin said. "No -- I don't know. I don't know why I wanted -- I don't know what I needed."
"Baby," Chris said, and Justin winced before Chris could call him a liar again. But Chris looked him up and down once, slowly, and said, "You really don't know?"
"No," Justin said.
"You want me to tell you?"
Justin met that look and held it. Chris could never call him a coward, anyway. He said, "Yes."
Chris laughed a little. "You really sure you want me to tell you the truth?"
"No, I want you to lie to me," Justin said.
"Yeah," Chris said. "That's not exactly news to me."
He shouldn't have been surprised by now that Chris could be so unfair, but still it hit Justin like a slap. He could feel the flush from it rising in his cheeks as he said, "You said you would -- I didn't even ask, you said --"
"All right," Chris said sharply. "All right. Although I shouldn't need to." Justin thought he might never have wanted anything as much as he wanted not to look at Chris right now, but he didn't look away. "Just look at what you did, J."
"What did I do?" Justin said, and he couldn't help the way his voice shook, but at least he asked the question.
"What did you do?" Chris echoed, and it was cruel of him, Justin thought, to make his voice shake that way. Justin clenched his fists and his teeth and he didn't look away. "You know what you did. You fucked yourself up, on purpose, all on your own, and then you made sure everybody knew about it. You did your best to make sure we'd come running --"
"I wouldn't say you came running," Justin said through his teeth.
"No," Chris said. "No, you wouldn't, and so what did you do? You went running yourself. You went running to C, and when that didn't get you what you wanted, you ran right to me."
"I didn't --"
"You were in my house, J," Chris said coldly. "You really want to argue that with me?"
"I'm sorry," Justin said, and stopped because his voice was shaking so hard his teeth were chattering. He put his knuckle in his mouth and bit down, closing his eyes. When he opened his eyes, Chris was still watching him coolly. "I'm sorry," Justin said, "if I fucking needed somebody to help me --"
"Oh, you didn't need me to help you," Chris said. "If you had, if you truly had, that would have been some kind of excuse. But that's not what you needed. You just needed to make sure I'd still drop everything for you, whenever you wanted me to. You just wanted to know that I still -- you fucked yourself up so that you could make sure everything was still all about you."
Chris shook his head as if in admiration. "And you got what you needed, all right. And you weren't even surprised. It's like you said that night -- you didn't even need to ask me why I came back. You knew I'd turn up, just because you wanted me to. You got what you needed, what you wanted, just like always. I gotta hand it to you, you're ruthless, baby. You always do whatever you have to to get what you need. That's never surprised me. It's just the things you want -- man, sometimes that still takes me by surprise. You'd think I'd know better by now."
"No," Justin said. He shook his head, trying to shed Chris' words. "No, no, no --"
"Come on," Chris said. "You trying to tell me you didn't do just that? You didn't fuck yourself up just so you could prove --"
"No," Justin said. "I did, I know, I did it myself, but that's not why. I would never, I would never -- that's not why."
"Why then?" Chris said. Justin didn't answer. "Tell me why," Chris said, his voice slipping down low like a snake, twisting around Justin. "Come on, baby, tell me why. If you're so sure, if you know that's not why, then just tell me. Tell me why. Tell me --"
"Because I wanted to!" Justin said. The words burst rawly from his mouth, and Justin lifted his hand and wiped them away from his lips. The back of his hand burned with them. He stopped for a moment in surprise, then opened his mouth again, just to hear what he'd say. "I wanted to," Justin said. Chris was watching him, his face blank with something Justin couldn't name, but Justin didn't care. "I wanted to," Justin said, because it was the truth.
"J," Chris said, softly, but Justin didn't listen.
"You were right," Justin said, "I was, I was fine when we -- when we stopped. I was fine, I wasn't fucked up, and I didn't want to be fine. I wanted to be -- I wanted to be different."
"Why?" Chris said. "Tell me why," and the words sounded softer this time, as if Chris were trying to wrap him in them as gently as he could, but it didn't matter because Justin was going to answer that question even if Chris didn't ask.
"Because I didn't want to be -- if it didn't fuck me up, if it didn't even bother me, then it was like I didn't, I didn't have anything from the whole thing, I didn't even have a scar. I didn't want it to just stop and for me to be fine, like I didn't even lose anything, like it wasn't anything to me, because it was, Chris, it was, it was and I wasn't even -- it should have fucked me up. It should have felt like losing something, like losing everything, and I didn't even -- I wanted to lose something," Justin said. "I wanted to lose something."
"J," Chris said again, "J --"
"So I did," Justin said. "I lost something." He stopped abruptly, before he'd expected to, a little out of breath, as if he'd been running and the ground had dropped away just in front of him, as if he'd caught himself just in time. Chris was still watching him, something new in his eyes.
"J," Chris said, like it was the only word he knew, the only word left to him.
"Don't," Justin said, and Chris' eyes flickered away briefly, then returned to him. "Don't try and be nice to me now, don't --"
"I wouldn't have thought that me being nice to you was what you'd be worried about right now," Chris said quietly. Justin laughed a little, a harsh wet sound that hurt his throat, and swiped his arm across his face.
"Now," Justin said, "now I think I've earned a fucking question."
"Yeah," Chris said. He put his hand up like he was going to run it through his hair, then stopped. Justin could see his face get tighter, harder. "Yeah." Justin didn't even have to think about his question.
"Why wouldn't you talk to me for so long?"
Chris had been expecting something bad, Justin knew, and was bracing himself for it, his hands just a little too still, spread out over his thighs. He didn't flinch at the question when it came. His smile flared, briefly, but not briefly enough for Justin, who said, "What, you think that's funny?"
"You know, that's two questions," Chris said lightly, looking away, but Justin wasn't having any of it.
"Why wouldn't you talk to me for so long?" he said again, and Chris stopped smiling. He looked straight at Justin.
"I thought you'd be okay."
"That's not an answer," Justin said fiercely.
"Yes it fucking is," Chris snapped, just as fiercely. "I didn't want to talk to you because I thought you'd be okay."
"That's an excuse, it's not a fucking answer."
"I thought you'd be okay," Chris said. "I thought that you'd be fine, and I didn't want to talk to you because I didn't want to see that, all right? I didn't want to see it."
Justin was the one who flinched.
"See?" Chris said. "I knew you you didn't want to hear it."
When Justin spoke, his voice was small. He hated himself for it, but he couldn't help it. "You wanted -- you didn't want me to be okay?"
"J," Chris said, "J, no. No, I never, I never would --" He put a hand on Justin's arm, and Justin pulled away. He saw Chris flinch then.
"But you said," Justin said, in that voice he despised.
"J," Chris said, his voice soft. "J, I didn't --" He stopped and ran a hand through his hair. His voice was brittle when he spoke again. "You never asked what I was doing all that time," he said. "Which, I mean, that's you, of course you didn't, and it's not -- but I was doing something. I thought, you know, the label thing didn't work out before, and I thought, you know, people always said I was kind of funny, and I could --
"Anyway," he said. "I wrote something, I wrote a script, and I didn't think, you know, it wasn't bad, and I called up -- you remember that guy we all met who worked on Conan? He's got his own show now, that thing with the rock star dad, and it's pretty good, and I guess I just thought maybe. So I called him up, and I asked him if he'd, you know, read it, and we went out for lunch, and, I don't know." Chris ran his hand through his hair again until it was standing up in unruly spikes. The contrast between his hair and the weariness in his face made Justin suddenly, furiously protective of him.
"Chris," he said, "Chris, you know you can't -- people like that, they're just waiting for a chance to cut us down because of what we are. What we were. I mean, you taught me that --"
"No," Chris said. "No, he wasn't -- he was nice. He read it, and he said that it was pretty good, and he gave me some, like, pointers, about how to make it better, and he even picked up the check for lunch. He wasn't -- he was okay."
"Then what --"
"It's just, he started talking about how it's really hard, even for people who are like, real writers, you know?" Chris' smile flared again, twisting his lips until his hand brushed over them. "Then he was all, I don't know, saying he didn't mean to be, he wasn't saying, but you know. He said that it's really hard, and that lots of people think, you know, they're funny, so they can, but there's more to it than that, that there's, you have to be. I don't know."
"Chris," Justin said.
"No, I mean, it's not, he wasn't wrong, you know? I mean, that's what started me thinking. I was just always, I was so careful with you and Lance, I was always trying to make sure you got it, you know, that you knew that the pop bubble wasn't real life, to remind you that life wasn't always gonna be like that, that that wasn't --"
"You did," Justin said desperately. "You did, you did such a good job, you really did."
"Yeah, but I didn't think I had to remind myself, you know?" Chris smiled again. "I just, I wasn't expecting to lose what I lost." Justin caught his breath until Chris continued. "I lost my context."
It was a minute before Justin said, "I don't understand."
"What's not to understand? I just -- I didn't realize how much I was, how much I was only what I was because of where I was, you know? I mean, I don't mean being all rich and famous, I just -- you know, the thing is, it's like everybody always said. I was pretty smart, for a guy in a boyband. I was really funny, for a guy in a boyband."
Chris laughed a little, bitterly, and Justin said, "You were." Even as he said it he knew it was exactly the wrong thing to say.
"Yeah, but baby, maybe you haven't noticed, but I'm not in a boyband any more." Justin didn't say anything. When Chris stopped laughing, he sighed. "So, you know, I'm out of context, I was out of context, and I just didn't -- I didn't want to go back and see you being all okay and fine. It's not that I didn't want you to be, I just, I didn't really want to know that there was one more place I didn't -- I just didn't need to see that."
Justin didn't say anything for a minute. When he looked up, Chris was watching him. Justin made himself laugh a little. "Yeah, well, as it turned out, maybe you didn't need to worry so much about that."
"Maybe not," Chris said. He didn't laugh. Justin said,
"Let's go," Chris said. "I need a drink."
They both needed more than that. They pulled up at a little no-name bar settled just off the highway, right next to a little no-name motel. Chris went to get them a room while Justin went into the bar. He had a pitcher of beer on the table by the time Chris got there.
They didn't talk. Justin thought he'd had enough talking for a while. They sat and drank and ate hamburgers and drank some more. It was after midnight and they were well into their fifth pitcher when Chris mumbled something.
"We've hit it."
"We've hit -- I don't understand," Justin said. He was drunk, but not drunk enough to believe Chris would answer him. Chris did, though, mumbling something into his beer.
"A bend in the road," Justin said. He liked the sound of that. Of course that was where they were. That was why he couldn't see what was coming -- it was there, of course it was, but it was around the corner, waiting for them, something that felt like the future, an endless vista stretching out bright enough to take his breath away.
"Not that," Chris said.
"What?" Justin said. "Yeah."
"No," Chris said. "We're at the end of the road."
"No," Justin said. "It's just -- we can't see, because it's around the corner, but it's not the end, there's something --"
"Justin," Chris said. Justin shut up and looked down at the table.
Finally he said, keeping his head down, watching Chris through his lashes, "But every ending is really the beginning of something else, right?"
Chris laughed. Justin was glad he'd kept his head down. He didn't think he could take the look in Chris' eyes full on. "Fucking Disney, man. They really brainwashed you. They should do a 60 Minutes on them or something."
Chris laughed again, a little more kindly, but Justin didn't join in. He waited until Chris was silent again, and then said, in a voice that was smaller than he wanted it to be, "You don't think this could be a beginning?"
"Justin," Chris said. "Come on."
"No," Justin said, "I mean, it could, there could be something that we just haven't -- it could be. It could be something good."
"Yeah," Chris said. "Yeah, sure. What's not good about it? You sleep sixteen hours a day. You get the shakes if it looks like we might even be thinking about spending two nights in a row in the same place. You can't even -- and that's not even starting on me. Come on."
"I don't know," Justin said stubbornly. "It could, if you'd just, it could --"
"J," Chris said, and his voice was heavy with something Justin was desperately afraid was pity, "tell me, tell me honestly that this feels like a beginning to you."
Justin tried not to answer, but Chris' gaze was as heavy as his voice, and the weight bore down on Justin and crushed an answer from his lips. "No," he said, and something left him with the word, something he hadn't even known he'd had. It was hope.
"Oh, J," Chris said. He shook his head. Justin was filled with an overwhelming sense of failure at having wrung those words, that look, from one more person. From Chris.
"I don't want it to be like this," Justin said. He meant for it to be defiant, but what came out sounded a lot more like a wail left over from his childhood.
Justin knew Chris heard that too, because Chris narrowed his eyes and evened out his voice into the crisp cutting tone he'd used to meet so many of Justin's tantrums before. "What do you want, J?"
"I want everything to be the way it was," Justin said, but he couldn't look at Chris.
"Really -- you really want that."
Justin bit his lip, then shook his head. He didn't lie to Chris. There was no point.
"Then what is it you want?"
"I don't know!" Justin said, pushing his chair back from the table. Beer spilled over his fingertips. "Are you happy now? I don't know!"
Chris pushed his chair back, too, and stood up. He loomed over Justin in the darkened bar. For a moment, as Justin looked up at him, he thought Chris might hit him. Then Chris smiled. "I tell you what, J," he said. "You come find me when you figure it out."
The words wouldn't have been cruel if they hadn't been unanswerable. Justin wished Chris had hit him.
Justin stayed at the table and watched Chris walk out. He didn't want to, but he couldn't think of anywhere else he wanted to go. He finished the pitcher and ordered another beer. He didn't want it, but he couldn't think of anything else he wanted to do.
He'd almost finished a third beer when the waitress touched his shoulder. "Honey, we're closing up," she said, and her eyes were soft. Justin was pretty sure he could remember a time when he evoked a stronger emotion from women in bars late at night. He left her a big tip anyway. He was grateful for what he could get.
Justin stumbled out into the night. He hunched his shoulders under his jacket and turned his collar up against the wind. He sat on the hood of the car and watched people shout and kiss goodbye, watched the waitress smile sadly at him as she locked up. A white Miata pulled up and she got inside it. He saw her lean to whisper something to the driver, or kiss him, before they drove away. He put his fingers to his lips. They tasted sour.
Justin was alone. Faint white light floated on the darkness, spilling from behind the curtains and under the doorways of the motel across the way. Justin turned his back resolutely on it. He thought he'd sleep in the car. The night wasn't that cold. But the car gleamed ghostly in the deserted parking lot, and Justin's courage failed him. He laid his forehead on the car's smooth roof, waiting to see if he could get it back. He couldn't.
He pulled out Chris' phone and called JC.
The phone rang five times before hitting voicemail, and Justin hung up without a message, then called back and let it ring three times, then another three, then another. That was their old code for "pick up the damn phone now." JC wouldn't have forgotten it.
"Hey," JC said, his voice thick with sleep.
"C?" Justin said.
"Who is this?" JC said, and Justin thought his heart would stop for a moment, until he remembered that it was the middle of the night and he'd only said one word and he wasn't even on his own phone so it was Chris' new number that would pop up on JC's caller ID.
"It's me," Justin said, whispering even though there wasn't anyone around who could overhear him.
"J," JC said, and Justin relaxed against the sound of his name in JC's voice, leaning on it the way he'd leaned against JC's shoulder, once upon a time. "Is something wrong?"
"No," Justin said. "No, I mean, just the usual."
"Justin, what do you want?"
He was so tired of being asked that. "I miss you," he said.
"I miss you too. That's not why you called."
"I love you," Justin said. All he wanted was to hear JC's voice, rich and beautiful as always, talking him down until he was ready to sleep, the way JC'd done so many times before, after shows and parties. JC's voice full of familiar words, lulling him until he could forget the night and everything that had happened, until he could forget everything until morning. The same way he had so many times before.
"J," JC said, a chill crackle of anger in his voice that sent a shock down Justin's spine. "No."
"What? I do."
"I know," JC said. "I know you do, and you know I do, and the other thing is, we both know that's not why you called."
"Why did I call then?"
"You really want me to tell you?" JC said.
Justin said, "No," quickly, desperately. It sounded like something torn from him, but he couldn't help it. He really didn't want JC to tell him.
JC said, his voice as cold as steel, "Then you better hang up the phone."
Justin wanted to hang up, but his hands clung to the phone. He heard JC's breath coming in short sharp bursts. Justin's chest rose and fell in the same rhythm.
"You called -- " JC said. "You called --" He laughed a little, raw and familiar. "I don't know why it's hard to say." Justin didn't say anything. "You called because you want -- You need me."
Justin didn't say anything.
"You called because you're all fucked up, and you thought you needed -- you thought what you needed was for things to be like they were before, so you went with -- you thought you just needed everything to be the way it was before." JC laughed a little again. "You were right, too, just not the way you thought. You do need things to be the way they were before."
"No," Justin said quietly.
"Oh, baby," JC said, and Justin had heard those soft words so many times before. He didn't think he'd ever heard the iron behind them. "You know it's true. You're fucked up, and you don't want to be, and you need me to help you -- you need me to fix you up. I don't know why you had to go, first -- but that's just the way it always is. Nothing's different."
"Everything's different," Justin whispered.
"Some things have changed, sure," JC said. "But nothing real's different. I'm not different." Justin didn't say anything. "You're not different."
"I don't know," Justin said. "I think I -- I want to be." It was JC's turn to be quiet, and Justin bit his tongue. Something about the silence made him think that he shouldn't have said that to JC.
"Yeah," JC said finally, "yeah, well, luckily, that doesn't matter so much."
"C," Justin said, "C, I think it does. I want it to."
"Do you?" JC said sharply. "So you don't need me -- you don't want me to help you fix things?"
Justin thought about it for a moment. He wanted whatever he said to be the truth. "I don't want to want it," he said.
"What do you want?" JC said.
Justin didn't have anything to say to that.
"Yeah, well," JC said. He sounded tired. "If there's one thing we can be sure of, it's that you'll call me when you figure it out."
JC hung up. Justin stood listening to the slight buzz of the abandoned line, somehow worse than silence. He turned and leaned against the side of the car, his eyes closed. The light from the motel still burned palely behind his eyelids. He stuffed the phone into his pocket and opened his eyes.
He stood up straight and let the light lead him to Chris.