The Place Where We're Going
Justin felt raw when he woke up the next morning, tender and tentative, as if a layer of skin had been peeled from him. He pulled the sheet up over his head, and even as he told himself it was to hide from the sun he knew what he was really hiding from. Even with the sheet tucked tightly around him, a little light still leaked through. Against the dingy white his skin looked even whiter, paler, like he wasn't used to sunshine. He closed his eyes.
"J?" Chris said, and his voice didn't have its usual morning edge. It was soft, like he was afraid of what it might feel like on Justin's skin.
Justin didn't answer.
"J, come on."
Justin didn't answer.
"I know you're not asleep," Chris said sharply. No matter how careful he was trying to be of Justin, Justin knew he hated to be ignored. Justin smiled a little, just because he knew Chris couldn't see him. "Listen," Chris said. "Listen, I was thinking -- you don't have to stay here." Justin stopped smiling. He knew Chris couldn't see him. "I'm not -- maybe you wanna take off by yourself, head back to -- anyway. I'm leaving the car keys on the table, so you can -- anyway." Chris paused. "I can get myself home, if you want to ... If you want to leave."
When the door shut behind him, Justin sat up. He picked the keys up and held them in his hand, considering. He had a lot of places he could go, a lot of places he even wanted to go. He could head back to his own house, where he could be quiet and alone and what everybody else was thinking and worrying about. He could go to his momma. He could tell her everything and she'd understand, but she wouldn't blame him and she wouldn't even blame Chris. Justin thought about JC with a longing that was almost physical. He knew he could go back and sink himself into JC's comfort like a warm bath, let himself back down into JC, into his old self, inch by inch. JC had said Justin would call when he knew what he wanted. If he wanted to go back, he could go.
It was almost dark when Chris let himself back into the room. Justin rolled over when he heard the door open. Chris sat down in the chair by the door and picked up the car keys, dangling them so they rattled against the table. Justin didn't think he looked very surprised to see him. He said so.
"You don't look all that surprised to see me, either."
Justin sat up and pushed the sheet down. "I'm not sure," he said. "I'm not sure if I am or not."
Chris smiled fleetingly. "Right back at you, ace." Justin stretched a little and started to get out of bed. Chris' voice stopped him. "Couldn't think of anyplace to go?"
"I could think of a lot of places I could go," Justin said. He looked around for his bag so he could get his shower stuff. "If I wanted to."
"Yeah," Chris said. It wasn't a question.
"Yeah," Justin said. When he looked up Chris was watching him steadily. Justin let him. Finally Chris stood up.
"I'm gonna go get something to eat," he said. Justin nodded. Just before Chris got to the door Justin said,
"Why did you come back?"
"I wanted to," Chris said without turning around.
"I didn't mean now," Justin said. "I meant -- why did you come back at all?"
"I know what you meant," Chris said. "And the answer's the same." He started to open the door and Justin said,
"Wait." Chris closed the door. He still didn't turn around. Justin didn't mind. It made it a little easier. "Why did you want to come back?"
Chris turned around and looked at Justin, his eyes narrowed. "If you need me to tell you that, you're stupider than I know you are."
Justin said quietly, "I think I might be stupider than you think I am."
Chris smiled. "That's dangerous."
"No," Justin said. "No, I don't -- I don't know why. Because you thought I was -- you said, before, that you thought I fucked myself up, just because I had to prove you'd still come running --"
"J," Chris said. He closed his eyes, then opened them. "I'm -- I was wrong about that, I know --"
"No," Justin said again. "No, I didn't say that to make you --" He stopped, because he had said it to make Chris feel bad. Not too bad, just a little bad, just bad enough to tell Justin what he needed to hear. But suddenly that wasn't what Justin wanted to hear. "I don't want you to say you're sorry," Justin said. "I just want to know. Because I don't, really, I don't, and if you thought that, I don't understand -- and you've been so mad at me."
"I'm not mad at you," Chris said, so fiercely that Justin ducked his head. "Well, okay," Chris said more slowly, "I was a little mad at you, and, you know, for a while there I was pretty thoroughly sick of your face, but that passed quick, the way it always does, but I wasn't really -- it wasn't you I was mad at." Justin bit down on his question, but he knew Chris could still read it on his face. "Well, I came, J. I knew just what the fuck you were doing -- what I thought you were doing -- and I still came. So, you know, to be fair, whose fucking fault is that?"
Justin should have been relieved, but he wasn't. Instead he was just quiet. Finally he said, "So you came because you thought I needed you to -- Because I was fucked up, and I needed you?"
"That's not the same question," Chris said. He was quiet for a while, too, until Justin looked up at him. "I didn't come because I thought you needed me to -- It's just, you were fucked up, and it turned out I didn't care how you got that way, or, or why. I just -- I wanted to."
"You wanted to fix me?" Justin said.
"Yes," Chris said. Justin should have been relieved but he wasn't. "But that's not why I came back. I wanted to fix you, but I knew I couldn't. You're not the only one," Chris said, and Justin bit his lip. "You're not the only one who lost something."
"I know," Justin said.
"But that's not why -- that's not why I came back."
"Why, then?" Justin said.
Chris said, "Because I knew you were fucked up, and I didn't care why, or how -- I knew there wasn't anything I could ..." Chris stopped, then looked at Justin. "For as long as you're fucked up, I just want to be here, you know? I just want to be standing around somewhere near you, until you figure out how not to be." Chris stopped again, and looked down. "For as long as you want me to be."
The room was quiet around them, a strange brittle silence that Justin didn't know how to break. Finally he laughed a little, and said, "Well, I guess -- I guess that's an offer I can't pass up."
Chris looked at him sharply. "Yeah, you can. If you want to," Chris said. "That's the point."
Justin met his eyes. "I know," he said.
"Good," Chris said, and turned and let himself out of the room.
The next morning Chris was up before him again. He didn't say anything but the sound of the shower woke Justin up. Justin stayed in bed, his eyes closed, as Chris moved around the room. Chris still didn't say anything.
When the door shut behind him, Justin kicked the sheet down to the bottom of the bed and then onto the floor. He sprawled out over the bed in the sun and went back to sleep.
It wasn't that late when he woke up again. Chris must have been up early. The sun had slipped behind some clouds and the day was dull, as dingy as the motel room. Justin showered and dressed and went looking for someplace a little brighter.
The coffee shop attached to the motel was bright enough. The lights were fluorescent and unforgiving and he saw more than he wanted to -- the rubbery yellow yolk of his eggs, the white flakes of the creamer that wouldn't quite melt into his coffee. The two waitresses talking softly to each other by the register were as white and spare as the light. They wore heavy shoes and aprons that were clean but not crisp, hanging limply over their stomachs. Even though it wasn't lunchtime yet, they looked exhausted.
Justin dropped his eyes as they looked over at him again. He wasn't sure if they recognized him, or if he just looked out of place here. He wasn't sure which he hoped for more. When his waitress came by to top off his coffee for the third time in fifteen minutes, he figured that maybe they were just bored.
When he took his bill up to the register, he asked for singles with his change. The woman working there smiled when she heard his accent, and said, "Sure thing, sugar," in a voice that said Tidewater to him, which wasn't Memphis, but was a lot closer than anything he'd heard in a while.
"You're far from home," he said, and she smiled wider. Justin was briefly glad that Chris wasn't there. He had once said that there was something about Justin that made every waitress he met act like they were playing the leads in a community theater production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Justin had liked the way that sounded, even repeated it to a few people until Joey overheard him one day and dragged him aside to explain what the play was about. Then Justin had been mad, but it had just made Chris laugh harder.
"You too," she said. "What're you doing up here?"
Justin pretended he was counting his change while he tried to think of something to say. Once at a party Justin had talked to a Rolling Stone writer for twenty minutes while he was backed up against the wall with JC's hand on his ass, inside his pants, and Justin had remembered to keep his body angled so the guy couldn't see and to plug the new single at the same time. Now the woman who worked the counter at someplace that wasn't even good enough to be a Denny's could make him squirm.
"I'm going to the beach," he said.
"Oh, honey, we don't have a very nice one up here."
"That's okay," Justin said. "It'll be good enough."
If he actually ended up going, then it hadn't been a lie. Justin walked down the road until he hit the dead end, then hiked up and over the dune and looked out at the ocean. It was gray and calm, calm enough that he couldn't tell where the ocean ended and the sky began until he saw small bursts of white foam kick up out far and then fade away, like bubbles in a bath.
The rise of the dune was just steep enough that he was running a little when he hit the beach. Justin stopped short and watched the sand bunch at the tips of his sneakers. He wished he'd thought to bring a towel or a jacket or something. The sand wasn't like the sand he was used to. There wasn't much beach at all here, high tide must have covered almost all of it, because the ground was damp and almost muddy. He stood looking out at the ocean, his arms wrapped around himself, and thought about going back to get something to sit on. He thought that if he went back, he might as well stay in the room and watch TV or read or something.
He sat down on the beach.
It was possibly the ugliest beach he'd ever been on. The sky and the sea were both dull and heavy, gray as a gun, and the sand was a dark dingy beige that clung to his legs and crumbled in his fingers. Waves crept over the sand in uneven curves and stained it brown. The dunes might have been prettier in season, but the tall grass on them was dry and brown, and they were lined with a bright green plastic fence that looked like it was made of the same stuff people used to tie off trash bags.
It was definitely the ugliest beach he'd ever been on.
He didn't feel like going back to the motel room, though. It wasn't anywhere near the type of room he was used to, but it wasn't horrible either, and on some basic level all hotel rooms were the same, designed to let a million people pass through without leaving a trace behind. It wasn't so bad out here, though, especially when he closed his eyes. The waves washed up and back over and over again, leaving a soft rumble behind each time. There was just a breath of wind passing over him. With his eyes shut, the ocean in his ears and the wind on his face, it felt like he was moving, even with his hands dug into the sand.
He sat there for a long time, until it started to get dark. When he got up to head back to their room, he felt strangely blank, hollow, like when you've lost something and you're waiting to see what will come to fill in the empty place. It was the way he always thought he'd feel after crying for a long time. He never did -- whenever he'd cried, he always ended up with a stuffed up nose and sore eyes, feeling tired and vaguely satisfied. Whenever he'd cried, there'd always been someone to comfort him.
Today he didn't go looking for someone to comfort him. Instead he headed back to the room, feeling a little fragile and off-balance. He didn't feel light, exactly. There was an ache that hung heavily in the center of his chest. But it was a clear, clean pain that rose in him like the tide as he climbed the dune, and started to recede as he walked down the dirt road to their motel. He opened his hand over his chest and knew that the pain would be back. It was almost comforting.
Chris didn't come back until late. Justin didn't ask where he'd been. He didn't feel much like talking, but it wasn't because he was afraid of anything Chris would say. Chris seemed to know without being told that Justin wanted to be quiet for a while. They went to the little bar they'd been to the night before and ate in silence. If the waitress was surprised to see them together she didn't say anything.
When they left the bar, Chris turned toward the beach. "I'm gonna -- good night," he said abruptly.
"Good night," Justin said. After being quiet for so long the words felt odd in his mouth, two even weights on his tongue. He watched Chris walk down the road, then let himself into the room.
He was asleep before Chris got back.
Every morning Chris left early, before Justin had gotten out of bed. After the first morning Chris didn't bother to come up with an excuse. Justin got up after he'd gone and went for breakfast at the coffee shop. The same waitress took his order every time. Chris must have said something to her, or else there just weren't many people around here to think about, because on the ninth day Justin ate there, she said to him, "Why don't you and your friend ever eat together?"
"I don't know," Justin said, then winced at the lie. He said, "We don't need to." She shrugged a little, then smiled and poured him more coffee.
After breakfast every day Justin went down to the beach. It never got any prettier. Sometimes he'd take his shoes and socks off and walk down along the edge of the surf, letting the cold water lick at his feet. Every once in a while he saw Chris walking down at the other end of the beach, shoulders hunched small, not every day but just sometimes. He didn't mind, but he didn't call out to Chris either. Mostly he sat back with his hands in the sand and listened to the waves rise and recede. He stayed still.
It was their twelfth day there and Justin was sitting on the beach, his head tipped back, his eyes full of gray and gray, when he felt something well up in him, thick and sudden as tears. He knew what it was, but he sat still for a moment anyway. It had been so long, he was almost afraid to believe it. But it stayed there, a tickle in his throat, an itch in his fingers, the demand physical as much as anything else. He knew there was only one way to get rid of it. He reached for his back pocket and then swore softly. He hadn't even taken his notebook out of his duffel bag in weeks. He hadn't needed any extra reminders of what he'd lost.
Now he missed his notebook the way he'd miss an arm. He wondered if he could make it back to the motel, if he even wanted to try. Then he looked around him and laughed. He thought his laugh sounded different than it had the night before, lighter, clearer. Probably from being out in the open. He rolled over onto his stomach and started to write in the sand.
It wasn't very good. He wasn't so far gone that he didn't know that. He was rusty, and he knew why people called it that. His brain creaked and cramped over the words, and even his fingers felt like they were dragging through something much thicker and heavier than the damp sand. But he kept writing, watching the letters shape under his fingers with the same mixture of pride and awe and sheer relief he'd felt when he'd first learned his alphabet. It wasn't very good, but it was his and it was finished, and those were two things he never thought he'd get to say again.
A shadow fell over the words in the sand and Justin didn't have to look up to know who it was. He looked up anyway, just to see Chris' face when he figured out what it was. "Hey," Chris said, and squatted next to Justin. He traced an A with one slow finger. "Hey," he said again, softer, and Justin smiled and sat back on his heels.
Chris stood up and slapped at his pockets. He dropped an envelope onto Justin's lap. "I think I got a pen in the car," he said. "Hold up a minute."
"It's okay," Justin said. "I don't need one."
"J," Chris said, "this is -- this is not bad."
Justin smiled a little wider and dug his fingers in the sand again. He'd known it wasn't very good, but he'd also known it wasn't bad. He didn't need to be told, but it was still nice to be. "Good," he said.
"You'll lose it to the tide," Chris said, and Justin shrugged. "Don't you want --" Chris paused, just a breath, and said, "You don't want to save it?"
His eyes on his song, Justin said, "No. No, I don't want to."
Justin reached a hand up without looking and let Chris haul him to his feet. "There'll be more," he said, and met Chris' eyes. Whatever Chris saw there satisfied him, because he let go of Justin's hand and headed back up the beach.
"I'm hungry," Chris said, and disappeared over the dune.
Justin hung back to try to brush some of the sand off himself. When he finally left, he found Chris waiting for him in the dead end, kicking a stone across the asphalt. His shoulders were hunched against what little wind there was. The stone skipped across the street, and Chris scuffed his shoe restlessly. "Chris," Justin said, and Chris' whole body turned toward him expectantly.
Justin jumped down the dune to meet him. Chris looked up at him sharply. Justin bumped his shoulder against Chris' and smiled. "Let's go eat," he said.
Late that night Justin snuck back down to the beach. The water looked black and shone like oil where the moon fell across it. The tide was running out, leaving behind nothing but a few shells and seaweed dredged from the deep.
When Justin eased his way quietly into their room, Chris was lying just as Justin had left him, turned on his side toward the window. Without moving Chris said, "Was it gone?"
Justin paused for a moment, just thinking, and then he said, "Yeah. Yeah, the tide took it. It was gone."
"There'll be more," Chris said.
Chris was right. There was more.
Not quickly, though, and not easily. At least not at first. And even with practice, even as he started to remember how he used to do it, why he used to do it, Justin thought it might never feel the same way it used to. The reckless rush of words and sounds that had swept him along on his first attempts at writing, time circling on the edges of his concentration until he'd looked up to find that hours had disappeared, or not disappeared but been translated, by some strange and precious alchemy, into songs -- well, Justin thought that maybe that was something he wouldn't have again. Maybe that belonged to a different time, a different Justin, maybe it was something you were given once but couldn't hold onto, something that slipped through your fingers like water when you tried to clutch at it.
Maybe that was lost but he had something else. Songs came to him in stutters now, false starts and painful stops and lots of time when he did nothing but stare out at the ocean and wonder if it could possibly be taunting him with its effortless flow. It was a lot more like work now, and Justin had always known how to work. He thought he even preferred it like this. He could trust it more, because it wasn't so easy, wasn't a bolt from the blue that could vanish as quickly as it came. He could trace his painstaking progress on sand-stained, crumpled sheets of paper he kept carefully zipped up in his duffel bag. He did sometimes, late at night, curled protectively around the small pile of papers so that no one could see.
That was something else he'd lost. Always before he couldn't wait for other people to hear what he'd done, had run with his earliest efforts to JC, and then later to the rest of the guys, and even later to people outside the band. Even when he knew what he'd made wasn't the greatest, he had always been eager to share it with someone else, to have them tell him what they thought and how he could make it better. Now he looked back on that impulse with not embarrassment exactly, but with a mixture of disbelief and awe. What he was doing now, it was better, he thought, he was sure it was better, but still the thought of showing it to someone else made him shrink back, as if from a careless hand against a bruise. Justin was grateful for the way Chris' eyes slid over him without stopping when he walked by on the beach, or came into the room unexpectedly.
That was something new. Always before Chris had been the kind of person who couldn't leave anyone alone, especially if he suspected something was wrong. He would poke and poke and poke at a sore place, sometimes literally, until the unlucky pokee exploded into rage. Chris always trusted anger a lot more than silence; he had something to work with with anger, someplace to start trying to fix things. Chris wasn't poking now, though. He seemed content to let Justin start conversations and to end them, to go off on his own for hours at a time, to leave Justin alone. Except when Justin thought about it, he thought that maybe Chris wasn't really leaving him alone. Maybe Chris was just being alone himself. Maybe they were being alone together.
Chris left early one morning so they could be alone together, and Justin was wandering around the room, skimming his fingers over the edges of the beds, picking things up and putting them down in exactly the same places. He hadn't gotten himself together yet to take a shower or go down to the beach. There was something nagging at him, something just starting to take shape in his head, and he felt like he was balancing carefully, trying not to disturb whatever it was but just let it emerge in its own time. He had a feeling it would be worth it. He was starting to trust those feelings.
The song came. Slowly, the way everything came these days, and piecemeal, but it came, and something else came with it. It was something he hadn't even realized was gone, what with everything else he didn't have, or maybe it was something he hadn't let himself think about losing. He'd always, ever since he was a little boy, had music in his head, whole dream bands playing when he was asleep and when he was awake, so much music surrounding him always. He'd lost that with everything. There'd been a little music, not much, a trickle, one thin soft voice he had to strain to hear. He had tried not to think about it. If you'd asked him a year ago, he would have said that silence would kill him.
He knew better now.
He knew better now, and maybe it had made him stronger, maybe it was character building, but oh, he was glad to have it back. Glad, and it was a small word but it was the right word, round and full and he was glad, he was glad. He closed his eyes and sang along with the music in his head, as loudly as he could, heedless of any neighbors, of anything else but what he finally, finally heard.
When Justin opened his eyes Chris was standing in the doorway, watching him with a look Justin had never seen before. Justin stepped back and turned a little sideways, suddenly shy. Living on top of each other the way they had for so many years, Chris had walked in on him in the shower, having sex, jerking off, but somehow Justin had never felt quite this naked. It was a new feeling.
"Sorry," Chris said. "Sorry, I just wanted -- my jacket," he said, and grabbed it up off the bed. He didn't have to move to pick it up. Justin knew he'd been standing there a while. "Sorry," Chris said, and took off before Justin could say anything.
Justin went down to the beach, a thousand songs finally in his ears. All of them were new.
He didn't see Chris again until it was time for dinner. When Justin walked in, Chris looked up but didn't say anything until after Justin sat down and ordered. Then he said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to -- I'm sorry that I overheard you. Except that overheard isn't really right, because I stayed there and I was obviously listening and I know you didn't mean for me to and I'm just -- I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Justin said.
"It's not," Chris said. "But I am sorry."
"No, I don't," Justin said, "I didn't mind." He didn't. That was what he'd thought about all day on the beach, how he didn't mind.
"Okay," Chris said. He looked down at the table for a moment, then looked back up at Justin. "It's good -- it's good that you got it back."
"No," Justin said. "It's not -- I didn't get it back. It's not the same, it's -- it's something different." Chris watched him steadily. "But, you know, it's good, it's good, I'm glad, I am, and maybe it's even, I maybe even like it better this way, you know?"
"Do you?" Chris said.
Justin closed his eyes and thought about the giddy swirl of the month when he'd written his first album, that gleeful headlong rush, and then the pages of cramped crabbed writing he had hidden safely in his bag. "It's -- I don't know, it's harder than I remembered, it's not the same, it's -- It's good, it is, I don't mean to say it's not but I think it was different before, easier." Justin opened his eyes. "I don't know, maybe, maybe that's just what I always think -- maybe it always seems easier when you remember it, like, you know what they say about having babies, how women forget how much it hurts or nobody'd ever have more than one? Maybe I just, do you think I just forgot what it was like before?"
"No," Chris said. "No, I don't."
"No," Justin said, "no, me neither." He sighed and then squared his shoulders, sat up straight. "But it's good, what I'm doing," he said firmly. "It's good, and it'll get even better, and I'm doing it all on my own, and maybe soon it'll get -- " He started to say easier, but then sighed again.
"Maybe it'll be better, this way," Justin said hopefully. "For me, to do it like this. It'll be better, maybe." He met Chris' eyes and they looked at each other for a long moment.
"Maybe," Chris said.
The word bloomed small and green between them.
Chris and Justin walked back together to the room, silence hanging loose and easy. At the door Chris stopped and put a hand out, but let it drop before it reached Justin's arm. "I'm gonna --" he said, and turned and headed back out. Justin watched him go, then let himself into the room and went to bed. It wasn't that late, but he was unaccountably exhausted.
When Justin woke up, it was raining and he was alone. Again, not still -- Chris' bed was messed up, and Justin thought he'd heard the door sometime late in the night, the creak as it was eased open seeping into his sleep. In his dream a door had opened and he'd walked through it.
He wasn't sorry Chris was gone, and he wasn't sorry it was raining, either. He was feeling a little strange this morning, raw, tender, and he thought what he needed was to hang around on his own, watching bad daytime TV and thinking about nothing. He got up to find the remote and stopped when he saw his own name on a neat pile of papers on the bureau.
The top sheet said CONTRACT in big block letters, and Justin's signature was forged very, very poorly at the bottom. Justin smiled and sat down on the bed to read Chris' dark scrawl as it staggered across the page. "I assert and vow on my mother's life that I will not ask any questions about the attached document. I will not initiate conversation about it, talk about it to or with anyone, including and especially THE AUTHOR, and I will never indicate by look, word, or deed that I have ever read it, thought about it or even heard of it." There was a series of increasingly horrible consequences of breaking the contract listed, and Justin was laughing even as he shook his head. It was just like Chris, really, to leave this for him. Chris would think it was only fair -- he'd seen something that he thought Justin didn't want him to see, so now Justin would get to read his script. It had probably killed Chris to leave it, but it would make them even, and would probably guarantee that Justin couldn't be mad at him, besides.
There was a note across the bottom of the contract, below all the threats and Justin's faked signature. Justin stopped smiling when he saw it. It said, "J -- this is not a peace offering."
Justin carried Chris' script over to the bed and curled up to read it.
He was only ten or so pages in when the door opened. "It's raining out," Chris said. "And it's not like there's a ton of shit to do around here when it's sunny, and I got tired of being rained on, so I came back and -- oh God." He covered his face with his hand and leaned against the wall.
"How can anyone think this wasn't good?" Justin said. "I don't understand how anyone could not like this."
"Did you not read the contract?" Chris said from behind his fingers. "That's a legally binding document, and I will sue you. I'm warning you, I'm notoriously litigious."
"All right, all right," Justin said. Chris sat down on his bed and turned on the TV. Justin cleared his throat.
"Okay, but you realize you're leaving me with no choice but to pace nervously around the room until you're done. Go read in the bathroom or something."
"Why will that be better?" Justin said. "You'll be just as nervous, so I should just stay out here and be comfortable."
"If you're in the bathroom, I can pretend you're not reading it."
"Just pretend now."
"I can't," Chris said. "I can see you. I won't be able to stop thinking about it. If you're in the bathroom, I can pretend you have some sort of repulsive intestinal disorder and it's so disgusting that I'll try not to think about it but I won't be able to think about anything else."
"So you'd rather think about me having a disgusting intestinal disorder than think about me reading --"
"I'll sue you so fast --"
"You'd rather think about that than about me reading the thing I'm not thinking or talking about?" Justin said. "Really?"
"It's a close call," Chris said. "It's maybe about sixty-forty in favor of thinking about your tapeworm."
"All right," Justin said. "You're a pain in the ass, you know."
"I know," Chris said. "So go on into the bathroom and let us never speak of this again."
Justin picked up the script and headed for the bathroom.
When Justin emerged the room was empty. He tracked Chris down to the small landing at the end of the hallway, a barren square of concrete barely big enough for one lawn chair that failed to live up to the name balcony. Chris was tipped back against the wall, feet up on the railing, with one of Justin's hats pulled down over his eyes. He didn't move when Justin walked by him.
It was so quiet that Justin thought for a moment that the rain had stopped. But as he looked out over the parking lot, the air shimmered before his eyes in a constant insinuation of movement. The quiet was deeper than usual, too, all the everyday afternoon sounds somehow muffled. It reminded him of winters in Germany, the way the snow had fallen in something heavier than silence, a stillness that coated the streets as thickly as the drifts. He'd never gotten over the way he would wake up to find the world so transformed while he'd slept through it all.
Even though when he squinted he could see the raindrops, Justin took a few steps toward the railing, his hand out to test if it were really raining. Quiet as it was, the rain was still wet, and an obliging gust of wind made him jump back to avoid getting soaked. He brushed against Chris as he shrank back against the wall.
"You're not made of sugar," Chris said. He sat up straight, his feet still on the railing, and pushed Justin's hat toward the back of his head and then took it off altogether. "You won't melt." He dropped the hat onto the ground.
Justin bent to pick it up. When he stood up, he said quickly, without looking at Chris, "I like it. I know I'm not supposed to talk to you about it and I won't, but I just wanted to say that and then I won't any more. I like it."
"I figured," Chris said. "If you hadn't, you wouldn't have come out of the bathroom."
Justin laughed. "I would've had to eventually."
"Nah," Chris said. "You got running water in there, that soap's probably got, like, vitamin E or something in it, you could of lasted a while. You're tougher than you look." He held his hand out and Justin hauled him to his feet. Chris plucked the hat out of Justin's hand and put it back on. "Let's go get a drink or something."
"I have -- there's one thing I wanted to ask you about," Justin said.
"No. No no no. You're just disregarding the whole arrangement -- do you ever even listen to a thing I tell you?"
"Yes," Justin said. "Here's the thing." Chris did something in the back of his throat that sounded less like a groan than like some sort of terrible cement mixer accident, but he stopped walking. Instead he bounced back against the wall and slid down until he was crouching, the heels of his sneakers off the ground. "Giving it to me -- you said it wasn't... If it wasn't a peace offering, what was it then?"
Chris looked up at Justin, but the bill of his hat hid his eyes. All Justin could hear was the unnatural quiet of the rain.
"I just wanted you to see it," Chris said. "I just wanted you to." He pushed himself up till he was standing again and started off down the hallway.
Justin smiled and ran to catch up with him.
The rain kept up for two days. Justin braved the weather twice to walk down to the beach, but each time left him vaguely dissatisfied. He hated getting wet, hated the way his clothes clung to him and the soft sloppy squish of his shoes. His mother had always loved walking in the rain and had tried to drag him along, telling him that once you got wet through you couldn't get wetter, but Justin begged to differ. Once he got down to the shoreline he was disappointed, too. He couldn't sit down without getting muddy, and high tide brought the water up threateningly close to him, and he hated the sight of the raindrops swallowed by the angry waves, sinking into the rippled surface and disappearing like they'd never been there. Each time he fled eagerly back to the room.
Back in the room he was just as uneasy. It wasn't really big enough for two full-grown men while they were awake, and Justin couldn't understand how they'd shared it so comfortably, so effortlessly, for so long. Now it seemed like Chris was in his face all the time, hogging the bathroom, singing to himself when Justin was trying to sleep, lunging to turn up the volume on the TV at what seemed to Justin like random times. He stormed out of the room after Chris realized that the same episode of Seinfeld showed twice in a row on two separate channels and insisted on watching the second one and repeating all the lines a few seconds behind the actors.
Out on the landing, Justin was surprised by how surprised he was. It was like he'd forgotten what traveling with Chris was like, blocked out Chris' ability to go from zero to insanely annoying in six point two seconds. But it wasn't that he'd forgotten, he realized; it was that Chris hadn't been like that in a long time. It was like he hadn't thought about how he'd grown used to Chris' careful absences until he had Chris' presence again, about the wary space Chris had left around him until Chris invaded it, strong and shocking in his familiarity.
Except that he wasn't quite so familiar. There was a new edge to Chris, or maybe there was a new edge to Justin. There was something that caught between them now when they were in the same room, something that twisted just below his skin and simmered. He felt restless, although he thought there had to be a better word for it, because it lacked the aimless urgency of what he'd called restless before Chris came back, the frantic futile hours of driving and driving in search of something he couldn't name and feared he'd never find. He didn't feel like he was searching for something.
He felt like he was waiting.
Justin went back to the room. Chris was sitting on the floor between the two beds, the remains of the pizza they'd ordered hours before between his outspread legs, the TV blaring. He looked up when Justin came in. There was a greasy smear across his lips and a bit of tomato sauce at the corner of his mouth. Justin thought he'd gladly drop Chris in the ocean for a few minutes to himself, and then he thought that he didn't think that at all. He didn't know why he was surprised.
"Chris," he said, and stopped. He didn't know what to say next.
Chris looked up, like he had been waiting, too. "What?"
"I don't know," Justin said.
He thought Chris might make fun of him, or demand an answer, but instead Chris just sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "All right," Chris said. "I guess -- I guess we're done here."
"Yeah," Justin said, his tongue finally loosened by the rush of relief.
"All right," Chris said again. He stood up slowly, stiffly. "I can -- listen, there's an airport about an hour from here, so I'll drop you there and you can -- "
"Chris," Justin said. "Chris, what --"
"I think I'm just gonna keep on driving for a while," Chris said.
"Why?" Justin said, relief draining from him. "I don't want to go --"
"I know," Chris said as he moved around the room, throwing away the pizza box, wiping his hands on his jeans. He was looking at everything but Justin. "I know you don't. But I'm not -- I'm not ready to go home."
"I want to come with you."
Chris stopped. "But you said -- you're all, you seem like you're getting better, and you just said we were done --"
"Wait," Justin said. Chris waited. Justin had to walk completely around the room one whole time, rubbing his hand over his head, before he could calm down enough to speak. "You asshole," he said. "You fucking asshole. What, you thought as soon as I was all fixed up, I'd just take off? Screw you, man, I got mine! You -- you asshole!" Words were failing him, but he thought Chris looked like his meaning was getting across.
"I said I thought we were done here, and you said yes," Chris said. "You said yes --"
"I thought you meant we'd go somewhere else," Justin said, almost spitting the words. "I wanted to go somewhere it wasn't raining. I wanted us to go somewhere else."
"Oh," Chris said.
"Yeah," Justin said. "Yeah, oh." He stormed over to the door.
"Where are you going?" Chris said.
"I said, I wanted us to go somewhere it wasn't raining." Justin didn't even bother to turn around. "And you can pack my fucking bag, too. I'll meet you at the car." He slammed the door behind him.
Justin was halfway down the steps when he remembered it was still raining, and maybe he should have brought the car keys with him. He was damned if he'd go back for them, though. He sat on the hood of the car with his shirt pulled half over his head and waited for Chris to come down. Justin would have thought that maybe Chris would have hurried, knowing how pissed off Justin was, but Chris took his own sweet time. Justin was soaked by the time Chris came down and let him in.
Maybe Chris knew what he was doing, though, because as Justin watched Chris pull out of the parking lot, his lips pursed in a concentration completely out of proportion to the task, he realized that he wasn't as mad as he'd thought. Or maybe mad wasn't the right word. "Chris," he said, and Chris glanced over at him.
"Look, I'm sorry," Chris said.
Justin said, "Why did you leave?"
Chris smiled, not a nice smile, and said, "I would've bet money you'd never get around to asking me that question."
"Yeah, well, you've done a whole lot of asshole things today, so I'm not surprised."
"You saying I'm wrong?" Chris said.
"I'm asking now, aren't I?"
"Took you long enough to get around to it."
"Look," Justin said, running a hand over his head, "I don't want -- I'm not saying you're all wrong, okay, but I'm asking now, so just, if you're not going to answer it say so, or else just tell me why you needed to leave."
"I left," Chris said evenly, his eyes on the road, "because I needed to stay."
"You know what?" Justin said. "Right now isn't really a good time for your little word games."
"You asked," Chris said. "You asked, so shut up and let me answer." He paused and Justin didn't say anything. "So, you know, it was the last day, and everybody was promising how it was all gonna be the same, nothing was really going to change, and then everybody left -- you left first, J, remember? -- and everybody left, and I went home. I went home, and I was alone, and I got out my Replacements album that I always play at times like that. Cause when I'm a certain kind of fucked up, all I wanna do is listen to that one album, you know? I just, it doesn't matter where I am, or what else I've got, if I can't put my hands on it I've got to go out in the middle of the night and buy myself a new copy, and I listen to it over and over. That's what I need to do, times like that. That's what I always need to do. Listen to it until I feel the way I used to feel." Chris looked over at him. "You got anything like that, J?" Something about the way he asked it made Justin know Chris wasn't looking for an answer.
Justin closed his eyes. He could still feel the weight of the sheets tangled around his legs, the warmth of JC's arm around him, the steady motion of the bus hurtling them effortlessly through the night. He didn't say anything.
"So, you know, I listened to that, just like I always do. Like I always did. And then I started thinking about getting in the car, driving back up near my mom's old place, just driving around, hanging out, all the old places. I'd just hang out there, like I always do, like I always did, and I'd talk to you guys sometimes, and I'd start to feel just like I always did. Like, well, something happened, but hey, I'm getting through it. Hey, maybe it was even meant to happen, because here I am again, the same places I always am. Hey, here I am again, the same person I always am, except I lost one more thing that I had the last time I was here. I was gonna -- I needed to do it, to go out there and drive around until I started feeling the way I used to feel." Chris stopped for just long enough to convince Justin that he wasn't going to say anything else. Then he said, "Or until I felt something close enough."
"But you didn't," Justin said softly.
"No," Chris said. "No, I didn't. I needed to, but I didn't want to. I didn't want to be -- I could just see myself, doing that forever, all those familiar places, all those comforting places, just the same except somehow they get a little smaller every time. I could just see myself, just the same, forever, except every time -- " Chris ran his hand over his mouth. "I wanted -- I decided I'd rather have nothing than one less thing than I had before. I'd rather be nothing than --
"I didn't want to be just the same," Chris said. "Or not just the same, but close enough. I wanted to be different."
"So you left," Justin said.
"So I left."
"But you came back," Justin said. "Because of me. You came back."
"Not because of you," Chris said. "And it wasn't the same."
Justin started to say, But it was, because it had been, the same roads, the same places. He'd seen how Chris knew them when they went through. Then he stopped himself, because maybe he was stupider than Chris thought he was but he wasn't that stupid. "Because you didn't do it for the same reason," Justin said. "Because you didn't want to feel the same way."
"I didn't want to want to," Chris said.
"Did it -- you said, you didn't want to want the same things you used to. To feel the same way," Justin said. "Not wanting to want it -- did it work?"
Chris looked over at him. "I don't know," he said. "Yet."
"Do you think -- do you think it will?"
Chris was still looking at him. He said, "Maybe."
Maybe, Justin thought. Maybe. The word had corners that caught in his mind. He pulled his legs up to his chest and laid his head against the car window. He fell asleep cradled by the dull gray ache in his bones, lulled by the rough green scrape of maybe.
When Justin woke up the rain was stopping. Chris glanced over at him but didn't say anything. Justin watched the headlights cast their path over the dark highway. They drove out of the rain and Chris turned the wipers off. Chris drove easily, purposefully, one arm stretched along the back of the seat, but he swore when they got off at the wrong exit. He peered at the signs and swore again, then doubled back and got on the parkway. Justin leaned back against the window and looked out. Even in the dark there were things to look at.
Lining the highway were some structures, buildings, he didn't know what to call them, slender and metal, lit up with bright white lights that looked like Christmas. Fires burned here and there, leaping wild in the wind. Refineries, maybe, or power stations, something. He didn't know. They reminded him of old Mad Max movies, stage-designed apocalypse.
Chris caught him looking and smiled. "Beautiful, aren't they, if you don't think about what they are."
Justin tilted his head back. It almost brushed against Chris' arm. "I was just thinking it looked like the end of the world."
Chris smiled again. "Jersey, J," he said. "It's not the end of anything."
They drove into Atlantic City just as the sun was rising. Justin had driven into a lot of cities in the early morning hours, and he'd always thought that dawn was the best time to see a city for the first time, everything new and shining in that tender half-light, not yet bruised by the noise and crowds of the day.
Atlantic City was an exception.
Chris laughed. "Let me see, I guess the best time to see Atlantic City would be -- maybe midnight, in the middle of a power outage? I mean, you'd be killed in the riots in about ten seconds, but you'd really see the city at its finest."
It got better as they got closer to the ocean. Chris checked them into one of the huge gleaming casino hotels, and Justin followed him over to the elevators and then into the room. He didn't ask why they weren't staying at one of the little hole-in-the-wall places like they'd been staying in all along. It wasn't like they hadn't passed a hundred million of them on their way into the city. This was something different.
Then he walked into the room. Huge windows looking out over the beach, thick carpet, big bed, and there was nothing Justin hadn't seen before. He'd stayed, they'd stayed, in a hundred million rooms like this all over the world. He dropped his bag on top of the dresser and rummaged around in it. He wasn't really looking for anything, but he wanted a minute to think and to not look at Chris. Maybe he'd been wrong about what Chris wanted. Justin zipped his bag up and turned around.
Chris was still standing in the middle of the room, watching him steadily. Justin wanted to ask him why he'd picked this place, why they were staying here, a hundred million questions that all started with why. He didn't ask any of them. He just stood there and looked back at Chris.
"Anything you want to ask, I'll answer honestly," Chris said. "Any question you ask."
Justin nodded. "Let's go to the beach," he said.
Even here it wasn't really warm enough for the beach. Justin didn't take his shirt off as he lay back in the sand. Chris splashed out into the waves, then came back to stand over Justin and shake the water out of his hair.
"That's cold," Justin said without sitting up. "Quit it."
"Come in the water," Chris said.
"I don't wanna," Justin said. "It's too cold."
"It's not cold. It's bracing."
"Yeah, well, I'm braced enough out here."
"I promise I won't let the sharks eat you."
"A fear of sharks is perfectly normal," Justin said. He sat up and Chris flopped down next to him. "It's not like being afraid of, like, kittens or butterflies or something. People are supposed to be afraid of sharks."
"There aren't even any sharks here anyway. It's too far north."
"Jaws happened in, like, Maine."
"Well, it's too cold, anyway."
"Well, if it's too cold for sharks, it's too cold for me. That's my motto."
"That's a lame motto," Chris said. He turned and looked out over the water. "Well, if you can't, you can't."
"I don't think I can't do it," Justin said. He stopped for a minute to make sure there weren't too many negatives in the sentence. "Yeah. I don't think I can't do it, I just don't want to. There's a difference." He lay back down and put an arm over his eyes. Chris reached over him for his towel, getting Justin all wet. Justin poked at him but Chris took his sweet time.
"All right, I'm going," Chris said finally. He dropped the sunglasses he'd had folded up in his towel onto Justin's chest. Justin put them on and watched Chris run back down the beach. He closed his eyes.
The next thing Justin knew Chris was kicking him. "Stop kicking," he said.
"I'm not kicking," Chris said. "Don't be such a fucking baby. That wasn't even hard."
"It wasn't hard, but it was still kicking. You used your foot."
"Shut up," Chris said. He loomed over Justin, looking hazy and dark until Justin pushed Chris' sunglasses up onto his forehead. Then Chris just looked like Chris. "If you're gonna stay out here, you should turn over. You're gonna burn."
"It's not hardly hot enough," Justin said. "Besides, it's too cloudy."
"That's the worst time," Chris said. "When it's all cloudy is when people get burnt the worst."
"Cause of the ozone?'
"I don't know, maybe. But mostly because they think they don't need to worry about it, so they let their guard down, and then bam! They get cooked."
Justin squinted, then pushed the sunglasses back into place. Chris' smile blurred. "I feel like you're talking in some kind of secret code."
"That's because your brains are all addled by the sun." Chris put a hand down for Justin to pull himself up. "Let's go do something."
They walked back up to the boardwalk. Chris stopped to put his shoes on at the top of the steps, leaning heavily against Justin's shoulder while he shook the sand out of his sneakers. Then he straightened up and smiled at Justin. "You want some ice cream?"
Justin nodded, and Chris said, "Gimme some money."
Chris came back with two melting cones, vanilla and chocolate swirled, the napkins wrapped around them already getting damp and kind of gross. Justin held his cone up above his mouth and then licked around the edges. His hand still got covered with custard.
"Did you get any other napkins?" Justin said.
"Nope," Chris said. "You've got a towel right there."
"It's a beach towel, it's not for this."
"It's still absorbent." Justin ignored him and licked his wrist where the ice cream had dripped. Chris sighed and grabbed his hand and wiped it off with the bottom of his own shirt.
"Thank you," Justin said.
They wandered down the boardwalk for a while. Nothing much was open, a couple of hamburger stands, a T-shirt shop. Justin's cone kept leaking all over his hand. He steered them toward a bench sitting on the edge of the boardwalk, next to the wooden railing that separated them from the beach. "I gotta sit down," he said. "I can't walk and eat this at the same time."
"Well, you said it, not me," Chris said.
Chris knelt on the bench and looked out over the ocean. Justin sat next to him and pulled one leg up under himself. He got the immediate drippage under control, then tried to lick his hand clean. Eventually he gave up and used the back of Chris' shirt. Chris's shoulders shrugged when Justin's hand brushed over his back, but Chris didn't move or turn around.
When he was finished his cone, Justin knelt up and turned around, too, to see what Chris was looking at. He didn't see anything he hadn't seen a whole lot of already in recent days, just the waves reaching tirelessly up to them. Chris was seeing something different, though, his elbows braced against the back of the bench, his eyes dark and serious, focused on something out beyond the horizon. Justin could read the concentration in the stillness of Chris' body, a stillness he would have called unnatural to Chris, any time before Chris came back. Now he recognized it. He knelt next to Chris and watched the ocean for a while, but whatever Chris found there was private. Justin couldn't share it.
He sat back on his heels and let his fingers trace idly over a silver plaque on the back of the bench. In loving memory of Mom and Dad, it said, and The happy times we shared here, Will never be the same, But your smiling faces will be with us, Until we meet again. Justin smiled a little. He could almost see them, an older couple, walking hand in hand down the boardwalk, stopping to sit for hours on a bench like this one.
"What're you grinning at?" Chris said. Justin moved his hand away from the plaque so Chris could see.
"Oh, gross," Chris said. "We're sitting on a dead people's bench."
Justin laughed. "I don't think they, like, died on it. Their kids just dedicated it to them. For them. Probably cause, you know, they had such a good time down here."
Chris studied the plaque. "Ick," he said.
"What?" Justin said. "I think it's kind of a nice idea. A nice way to, you know, honor them. Remember them."
"Oh, you do, do you? You think it's honoring somebody by inviting a bunch of tourists to sit their fat skanky asses all over their memorial bench here?"
"Hey, there's nothing wrong with my ass," Justin said. "And I think it's sweet. The bench, not my ass."
Chris looked at him for a long moment.
"Well, I do," Justin said.
"You would," Chris said. "Well, I'm just telling you right now -- you do something like this for me, and I swear to God I will haunt you. Christ, just thinking about the little poem you'd write for me -- it's giving me the cold shivers. I'm telling you now just to warn you. If I die, there better be no little memorial bench, no plaque, no statue -- well, maybe a statue. But if I die, there better be nothing that involves original poetry in any way at all, or --"
"If you die?" Justin said. "Whoa whoa -- wait a minute. What do you mean, if you die?"
"Is that the last thing you heard? Because you missed all the important parts -- "
"I got some bad news for you, buddy. There's no if about it. Someday, you are going to die."
Chris shrugged carelessly. "That's your opinion."
"What do you mean, that's my opinion? It's a fact. You're gonna die. Everybody dies. Haven't you ever wondered what happened to all those people you read about, like, like from history, all those people you don't really see hanging around any more? Like, I don't know, like Gandhi and Shakespeare and George Washington? You think they're just hiding somewhere, taking a little time off? I got some news for you -- they're dead."
"That's just fine," Chris said. "Right there, you've got a whole bunch of proof that some people, like Gandhi and Shakespeare and George Washington, end up dying. But I have to say, you still haven't given me one scrap of concrete evidence that I, Chris Kirkpatrick, am ever gonna die."
"But -- but everybody dies."
"That's your theory. Mine's different. Frankly, I prefer mine, and, given the state of the evidence at hand, I'll just go with mine."
"But that's -- that's just crazy."
"No," Chris said. "That's the scientific method."
Justin laughed a little, a short little gasp as if he'd been suddenly splashed with cold water. Chris just watched him, his gaze calm and his eyes serious. Justin knew Chris must be fucking with him, but he couldn't see it in his face. "You're out of your mind," Justin said.
Chris spread out his arms wide as wings and opened his hands, then closed them. He turned back and looked out at the ocean, then stood up. "My hands are sticky," he said. "I'ma go wash them. You wanna come?"
"Nah," Justin said. "I already used your shirt." He watched as Chris walked down to the edge of the water, then bent to dip his hands in. Chris wiped his hands on his shirt, then stuffed them in his pockets and straightened, tilting his head back to look at the sky. Justin shifted around and sat back on the bench, closing his eyes and sliding down until the back of his head rested against the railing. He stayed like that until he felt a stealthy curve of chill water just ghosting along the side of his face down to the corner of his mouth. He smiled and looked up to see Chris' fingers almost but not quite touching his skin. "That's cold," he said.
"What're you grinning at?" Chris said.
"Nothing," Justin said. Chris took a step back and just looked at him. Justin sat up straight, then stood up, his shoulder brushing against Chris before Chris stepped back again. "I'm just, I don't know," Justin said. "I'm just, you know, today. Right now. I'm kind of, I don't know," he said. Chris just kept looking. "I'm happy," Justin said. "With, you know," he swept his arm out and would have caught Chris if he hadn't taken another step back. "Everything, I guess," he said.
Chris smiled at him, an open-mouthed flare of joy, so quick Justin almost missed it. He didn't. Then Chris cocked his head and looked past Justin, to the gray deserted beach, the gray deserted ocean. He said appraisingly, "It's not a bad old world, I guess. I think I'll keep it." He took off down the boardwalk, bouncing against Justin's shoulder once, calling back, "Buy me a drink."
Justin paused by the bench, curling his hands around the railing, looking up at the gray deserted sky. He was overcome, just for a moment, by a wave as relentless as the ones that slapped quietly against the shore below him. A swell of happiness, of gladness, of simple pleasure in the world around him.
A world in which there was no concrete evidence that Chris Kirkpatrick would ever die.
"Come on!" Chris yelled. Justin let go of the railing and ran to meet him.
There was a bar down at the end of the boardwalk, half underneath it, half on the beach. Nobody was in it. "Not really in season," Chris said as he headed into the indoors part to find a bartender. Justin sat down at a table that was right up against one of the wooden pillars that held up the pier, then got back up when he caught sight of the jukebox. It wasn't a bad one.
He smiled as he walked back toward the table and his first song began to play. He did a quick little step, then shrugged. There was nobody around. It had been so long since he'd danced, for real, and he liked the feel of his muscles unfolding, the sand warm under his bare feet. When he looked up Chris was standing next to the jukebox with a pitcher and two glasses, watching him. "Don't let me stop you," he said.
When he finally went over to the table the pitcher was half finished. Chris poured him a glass and pushed it at him. "You trying to get me drunk, Kirkpatrick?" Justin said.
"Do I have to?" Chris said.
Justin sat and drank his beer for a moment. He was leaning against the black wood that supported the boardwalk. It felt soft and a little slimy, as if it had been soaked by so many tides that it would never lose the faint trace of seawater. He wondered if it was just the sea air or if the waves ever came up this high, if they had to clear away the tables some nights, move everything to safer, higher ground. He thought Chris might know.
"Can I ask you something?" Justin asked.
"Man, remember the glorious days when I wouldn't let you ask any questions?" Chris said. He was grinning. "I think we should go back to that."
"Come on, that's not fair."
"All right, fine," Chris said, "you go right ahead. If history has taught us anything, it's that I certainly can't stop you when you --"
Justin kissed him. He didn't think about it, just turned a little to the side and closed his eyes and opened his mouth. When he pulled back and opened his eyes, Chris was looking at him. Justin put a hand up to his mouth and put it back down without touching his lips. "That wasn't a question," he said. It wasn't.
"No," Chris said. That didn't sound like a question either. He leaned in and put his hand up to Justin's cheek, cupping his face. Justin closed his eyes. When nothing happened, he opened them again. Chris kissed him.
Chris kissed him and Justin didn't think about that either, just tilted back in his chair as Chris pressed against him. Every time he moved he felt Chris' palm rubbing against his skin, the damp wood against his neck as he bent down to Chris' mouth. Chris tasted like the winter ocean, salt and wind and cool gray endless water. Justin put a hand back up to the post behind him to steady himself and the wood might have looked soft, but it was still hard enough to splinter. He turned his head because he didn't have room to pull back and put his hand in his mouth. The splinter was in the pad of skin just at the base of his index finger. Justin already had a scar there from the time he'd been drunk during No Strings and tried to walk a straight line with the bottle still in his hand to prove he wasn't. The straight line had been on a railing about two feet off the ground that sectioned off a corner of the bar. Justin had lost that bet.
The splinter wasn't in deep. He pulled his hand away from his mouth when he felt it come free. Chris reached up and brushed the sliver of wood from his lip.
"Let's go," Chris said.
Justin had thought maybe they'd walk quietly, quickly, back up to the hotel, but Chris kept sidetracking them. There were what seemed like a thousand dark little corners under the boardwalk for Chris to push him into, push him into and pull Justin's head down and kiss him, his knee pressing between Justin's legs, his hands sliding up under Justin's shirt. Chris started to open the buttons of Justin's jeans and Justin shoved his hands away. "Not here," he said. Chris just laughed, shiver of sound against Justin's mouth that made him shudder against the concrete wall at his back, shudder and stretch up a little, his lips leaving Chris' for just a second before Chris pulled him back down. Justin had never had sex on a beach, had always thought it sounded like more hassle than it was worth, what with the sand, and, well, the sand, and he was sure he'd had better reasons than that but he was having trouble coming up with them right now.
Chris let go of him suddenly and stepped back. "Stop dawdling," he said. "You're holding us up."
Justin was complaining about that when Chris steered him into the hotel lobby. It wasn't quite as deserted there as it had been out on the boardwalk, and Justin ran a hand over his hair trying to calm it down, trying to calm himself down. He dropped his free hand down to button up his jeans again. "Don't bother," Chris whispered, right in his ear and Justin shuddered again, "you look like -- you look like you've been doing exactly what you've been doing."
"So what," Justin said, and he sounded more breathless than he'd hoped, "isn't that -- that's why people come here, right, isn't it?"
"Well, that and conventions," Chris said, and smacked Justin's ass as they got onto the elevator.
The elevator was a lot shinier and brighter than under the boardwalk, but that was apparently the only difference to Chris, as he pushed Justin back against the wall. That, and the panels of mirrors that showed Justin just how he arched and gasped as Chris bit down on his collarbone. Chris shoved Justin's shirt up a little, and Justin couldn't take his eyes off the thin pale patch of skin revealed, off Chris' hand as it moved slowly down and down. He could feel Chris' hand on him, but in the mirror it looked like it was happening to someone else. He closed his eyes.
"Miss America," Chris mumbled against Justin's shoulder.
"What?" Justin said, ducking his head to try to catch Chris' mouth again. "Um, thanks?"
Chris laughed. "No," he said, turning his head so Justin's lips brushed against the stubble running along his jaw. Justin did it again, just to feel the fierce spark and hear Chris' breathing go ragged. "No," Chris said, tipping his face up, "no, not you, they've got -- people come here for that. For that, and, and conventions, and for this --"
The elevator doors opened with a smooth whoosh and Chris took his hand out of Justin's pants. "After you," he said, and then raced Justin to their door.
Once inside the door, inside the familiar room with his bag on the dresser and Chris' on the floor, Justin thought things would slow down, thought he'd slow down, sober up, start to think. Chris didn't give him a chance, though, yanking Justin's shirt off so fast Justin thought he might lose an ear. Justin wouldn't have taken the chance if Chris had offered it. He fumbled with Chris' zipper until Chris' hips twisted away from him, mouth still moving on Justin's neck. Justin almost didn't recognize the whimpering little sound he was making until Chris sighed and put his hand over Justin's mouth and pushed his own jeans down one-handed. "Happy?" he said, and Justin nodded vigorously, then sucked two of Chris' fingers into his mouth.
On the bed and Justin didn't know what he wanted, if he wanted everything right right now or if he wanted everything to last forever, and for a frozen moment he couldn't move. Then Chris' weight was on him, pressing him back just a little into the mattress, somehow less than he'd expected, and his legs spread around Chris' body, his hands clenched in Chris' hair. Then he knew what he wanted, which was everything right right now and forever, and he told Chris so, loudly, and Chris' head lifted lazily, slowly, stubble scratching against Justin's chest, and Chris looked up at him, wild brown eyes and wet open smile, and said, "Well, okay then."
Justin's hands slid down over the nape of Chris' neck, over and over, shaping Chris' throat between his fingers, over and over helplessly. He thought, he thought he might never be able to stop, and then he made his hands go still, raising them just barely from Chris' skin. Chris looked up then, lifting his own hand from Justin's cock. They looked at each other, still, not saying anything, and then Justin clasped his hands around Chris again because he knew, he knew what he wanted.
Chris did, too, Justin could tell, could tell that he knew, that he wanted, from the way he licked at the small freckles scattered over the inside of Justin's thigh, the way he brushed his lips over them so slowly, so gently, as if he were afraid they'd melt away. His fingers worked inside Justin, hard, hard enough to make Justin arch and swear and dig his fingers into Chris' shoulders, but still Chris' mouth ghosted tenderly over Justin's skin.
Then Chris' shoulders slipped out of Justin's hands, and Chris' mouth slipped from Justin's skin. Chris rose over him and Justin thought, I know this part, and then of course he didn't, of course, it was stupid, not with Chris he didn't. Except didn't he, wasn't there, some fantasy, some leftover desire from ages ago, and Justin could almost see it, almost. A cheaper hotel it would have been, sheets soft and sweated through, ceiling fan buzzing uselessly over them, Chris tasting like Orlando summer, salt and still and warm waves of sun. Chris rising over him, again, or first, before, then, leaning down and sinking his teeth into Justin's shoulder, making Justin cry out, just before he sank into Justin. Justin could see it, he could almost see it, but it didn't have the weight of memory, not even the memory of a fantasy, of a dream. It was something else. It was something new.
When Justin thought back, when he looked for the memory, the fantasy, the dream of Chris, the thing that would have led them to this moment, he couldn't find it, couldn't find anything but a blank. Chris leaned down, not again, not before, not then but now, now, and Justin felt something strange, the opposite of déjà vu, as Chris' teeth grazed over his shoulder. "Wait," Justin breathed, his hands on Chris' chest. "Wait."
"What?" Chris snapped, dropping Justin's leg and rearing back. Justin didn't know if he flinched or if Chris just heard what he'd sounded like, because Chris sat back on his heels, his face flushed, and ran a hand through his hair. "I mean," Chris said, his voice even and soft and strained, the voice of a man who was hearing the words of his mother and his exes and his high school health teacher echoing in his ears, "are you -- do you need --" His hand rubbed through his hair again. "I mean, take your time."
Justin bit his lip at the ragged sound of Chris' voice. Then Chris smiled down at him in a way Justin was sure was meant to be reassuring, and the result was so hideously ridiculous that Justin gave up trying to hold it in and just started laughing. He was shaking with it, half afraid he'd fall off the bed, when Chris' hand closed around his leg. Chris' eyes narrowed, but even then he didn't move until Justin choked out, "Okay, it's okay."
"Funny boy," Chris mumbled, his mouth moving slowly up Justin's stomach, "funny funny boy." His body moved slowly against Justin's, slowly, slowly, his cock gliding against Justin's and Justin was still shaking but he wasn't laughing any more. He was begging, though, breathless, grabbing at Chris' arms, his ass, his head thrown back on the pillow.
"You said wait," Chris said, and Justin shook his head back and forth wordlessly. It was all he was capable of. "You said," Chris said, whisper hissing in Justin's ear, "why did you say wait?"
"I wanted," Justin said, and arched up into Chris. "Please, I wanted --"
"What?" Chris said. He reached behind him and pulled Justin's leg higher, then ground down until Justin was gasping. "Tell me."
"I wanted to, I wanted to ask you --"
"What?" Chris said again, moving relentlessly as Justin writhed beneath him, and slowly, so slowly, and Justin couldn't, he was almost, he couldn't take it any more.
"What's the opposite of déjà vu?"
For a long moment Chris froze and Justin thought he might die of frustration. Then Chris started to laugh, hard, and the sound was so light and loud and just plain happy that Justin couldn't resist, couldn't resist and started laughing too. It sounded light and loud and just plain happy, a long breathless burst of laughter that turned into a moan when Chris pressed inside him. "First," Chris said, licking Justin's lips, thrusting fast and hard and Justin wrapped himself around Chris when he came, arms and legs folding over Chris' back and holding him, Chris panting hot in his ear, "first time, first," over and over again.
"That's it," Chris said, his forehead against Justin's sweat-slick chest, the movement of his lips sending shivers along Justin's skin. "The opposite of déjà vu," he said. "It's the first time."
When Justin woke up it was dark, the deep still darkness of the early morning hours. The drapes were open but the ocean was black with night. He couldn't see where it ended and the sky began. He looked down at the bed. The shadows were blue across Chris' body.
Justin moved carefully toward the side of the mattress and sat cross-legged in the sheets. He was trying to be quiet but it didn't work. Either that or Chris had been waiting for him to get up.
Chris rolled over to the other side of the bed, then rolled again and swung his legs onto the floor. He stood up and stretched, then ran his hands along his hipbones as if he were trying to put them in his pockets. Justin looked down at the patterns he was tracing on his leg. The silence was fragile between them. Justin thought, just for a moment, that he wanted nothing more than not to break it.
"J," Chris said, and Justin knew he'd wanted something more than unbroken silence. He'd gotten it. He had to cover his mouth with his hand to hide the smile that bloomed against his will.
"J, man," Chris said, rubbing one hand over his hair, "J, I am starting to seriously suspect that we may be very, very shallow."
Justin dropped his hand then and freed his smile, so wide he thought his face might break open. "Do you -- I just," he said. He thought maybe he should come up with something better to say, but he didn't want to. He just wanted -- "I just feel really good," he said.
Chris stretched again. He was smiling too. "It's kind of humbling," he said.
"Not you," Chris said. He smiled a little wider, his mouth opening a little, swaying toward Justin, then rocking back on his heels. "It's just -- you know, there I was, wandering through the capitals of Europe like a vampire, thinking I was having an existential crisis, and it turned out all I needed was a good fuck."
"Sorry," Chris said. "A really good fuck."
"No," Justin said. "I mean, yes, but -- I don't think it was that. I mean, I don't know." He looked down, away from Chris. He put his hands on the top of his thighs and pressed down, forcing his shoulders up into a shrug, then letting go suddenly enough that he felt the jolt in his joints. "I don't -- I don't think that was all it was."
He didn't look up but he felt the bed dip as Chris sat down. "No," Chris said. "No, I don't think that either."
Justin still didn't look up. He knew what Chris meant. He thought maybe he should let it go, but he didn't want to. "I don't mean -- not just last night," he said. "But all of that, before, it wasn't --" He took a deep breath. "Like, the capitals of Europe and all, I don't think it was, I don't think all you needed was --"
"No," Chris said. "No, I don't either." Justin felt him stretch out next to him and he lay down too, on his stomach, close enough that his shoulder touched Chris'. "It was just -- it was kind of easier to think it was, for a minute."
"Yeah," Justin said. "Besides, I was already -- before, I was starting to feel better already. Before."
"Yeah," Chris said. Justin tilted his head and Chris smiled at him. Justin shrugged again, just to feel his skin slide against Chris'.
"So what do we do now?"
"I don't know," Chris said. "It is Atlantic City, we could always go gamble."
"I meant --"
"Or we could just take the money out of my wallet and set it on fire, because that would be faster, and then I could lick you till you scream."
"I got a lighter in my jeans," Justin said.
They holed up in the hotel room for five days, ordering room service and emptying out the minibar. Justin sent all their clothes down to the laundry because they were filthy, and because it wasn't like they were using them anyway, as he pointed out to Chris when he was being mocked. It rained one whole day, hard, the ocean gray and angry, whipped by the wind. Chris fucked him up against the window during the storm, Justin flinching as the rain hurtled toward him, even though he knew it couldn't reach him. He thought he could taste the ocean, tang of chill and salt, as he let Chris drive into him, mouth open against the cool glass.
It was good, it was good, it was more than good, something higher and harder. Justin wanted to relax into it, sink down into it like a warm bath, and he almost could, he could as long as Chris was there. And Chris was there all the time, after all, it wasn't like he had anyplace else to go. It was just that sometimes, late at night, after Chris was asleep, Justin couldn't help thinking.
A long time ago, right before the very first tour started, Justin's mom had said something to him he always remembered. It wasn't part of the sex talk, he'd gotten that a long time ago from Paul in the most awkward fifteen minutes of his life before this year. They'd been watching something on TV, some stupid TV show where the girl got pregnant the first time she ever thought about sleeping with someone, and there was crying and screaming and ruined lives and even though Justin hadn't had much experience to base his opinion on, he was pretty sure that wasn't how things usually worked. The look on his face must have made that clear, because his mother said, as they both watched the commercial on the screen, "It's not that you shouldn't always be careful. You should, that's very important, but, well, things like that aren't really the big danger with sleeping with people."
Justin had continued to stare straight ahead, silently pleading, shut up shut up please shut up. His mother paused, as if she had somehow heard him, then sighed and said quietly, "You know, the thing they never tell you is that once you sleep with someone, you can never really go back to the way things were before. You lose something -- I'm not going to try to tell you don't gain something, too, lots of things. But, once you do -- things are different."
A couple of months later, Justin had gotten another, much dirtier version of the sex talk from Joey, and then, after Joey figured out which way the wind was blowing, from JC. Justin had told both of them what his mother said. Joey had laughed and said, "Well, you probably won't want to go back. I mean, it pretty much rocks."
"I don't think that's what she was talking about," Justin had said, still blushing from what Joey had told him a few minutes ago.
"Yeah, well, no offense to your mom or anything, but that's how girls feel about it maybe. It's different for guys."
JC hadn't laughed when Justin asked him if he thought it was true, but he had stammered and cleared his throat a few times and then said, "I don't know. I mean, I think you feel the way you feel about somebody, and nothing should be able to -- I mean, if you really feel it. I mean, your mom, she's great, but... I don't think you'll... It's -- it's an interesting theory." Justin was pretty sure that all meant that JC didn't think it was true.
He knew JC didn't ten minutes later, when JC had him backed up against the brick wall of the club. Justin looked down at JC on his knees in the dirt, at his own hands twisted in JC's hair, and wondered, wondered how things couldn't, couldn't be completely different. Then JC sat back and wiped his hand with the back of his mouth and smiled up at Justin, the same way he always had. He stood up and took Justin's hand, leading him back into rehearsal. Just before they walked in the door, right in sight of Justin's mom and the guys and everybody, JC leaned in and whispered in his ear, "Nothing's different." Justin believed him.
Now, for the first time in almost ten years, Justin was starting to wonder.
The next morning when they woke up, Chris said, "I gotta run out for a paper -- if I don't read something other than your old Cosmo soon, I'm gonna forget how."
"It's not my old Cosmo," Justin said. "I found it in the last motel and it got in with my stuff by accident."
"You tell yourself whatever you need to," Chris said. "You want anything while I'm out?"
"Yeah," Justin said. "I want a latte with three sugars, and there's that McDonald's we passed like a block off the boardwalk -- get me a sausage McMuffin, but with no egg, and two hash browns. You have to tell them no egg first, though, because otherwise they'll put the egg thing on and then just take it off, and then there's, like, egg residue. Do you need me to write that down so you don't forget?"
"Oh, I've already forgotten," Chris said. "And you'll get what I give you and you'll like it."
When Chris left Justin turned the TV on but there was nothing he wanted to watch. He managed to kill a lot of time confirming that fact, though. He wandered around the room, pulling things aimlessly out of his bag and then putting them back, kicking piles of their clothes further into the corners of the room. There was a crumpled up envelope lying where Chris and Justin's jeans were tangled together. Justin picked it up because, after all, it could have been his. There could have been important information there.
It was Chris'.
Justin sat down on the floor and smoothed it out. There were a series of parallel and intersecting lines, too regular to be a doodle. It looked like some kind of secret code, or maybe even another language, one that Justin couldn't even recognize by sight, like maybe Arabic, or Chinese. Justin thought that he would have known if Chris knew how to write Chinese.
"I brought you a Slurpee," Chris said as he came in the door. He dumped some magazines and a McDonald's bag on the chair by the door. "It's cherry, because that is the only proper flavor for Slurpees. And I also brought you a sausage McMuffin made to your demanding specifications, which I had to explain twice to a very unhappy girl behind the counter, and for which I expect to be paid back with a blowjob. But not until you're done eating, because I am not an unreasonable man." He handed Justin his Slurpee and leaned down. "Whatcha got there?"
Justin moved to the side a little so Chris could see. Chris reached down over his shoulder and took the envelope from him, turned it so that it was lengthwise, and put it back in Justin's hand. All the little lines resolved themselves into Ts and Fs.
"I was taking that Cosmo quiz," Chris said. "And it's a crock of shit, because I am not selfish in bed."
Justin bit his lip and looked down at the envelope. From the corner of his eye he saw Chris' hand reaching out toward him, as if to tilt his face up, to make him look at Chris, but Chris pulled back before he touched Justin. Justin looked up anyway.
"It's what it is, J," Chris said. "Don't try to make more out of it than there is."
"Look, I wasn't trying to," Justin said.
"Then what were you trying to do?" Chris said. Justin looked down again and Chris hunched down next to him. "J," he said.
"It's just -- it's hard to figure out," Justin said. "This whole thing ... I feel -- it feels different."
"Yeah," Chris said quietly. "That's the whole point." Justin stole a look at him and Chris smiled. This time when Chris reached out he caught Justin's chin in his hand. "Does it have to be a big thing -- can't you just leave it be?" Justin pulled back, slipping out of Chris' grasp. He felt stupid. Chris ran his hand over his mouth and laughed a little. "It's like I forgot who I'm talking to," he said, almost fondly.
Justin started to stand up. He still felt stupid, but now he felt something else, something worse. Before he could turn away, Chris grabbed his wrist and said, "Wait." Justin waited. Chris ran his hand through his hair and sighed. "I didn't mean ... J," Chris said. Justin waited. "I only meant -- you don't have to be figuring this out on your own. Because if there's something you want to know -- you can just ask."
"Just ask, J," Chris said. "Whatever it is, I'll tell you."
"I know," Justin said.
He didn't ask anything.
The next day Justin didn't ask anything, either. Chris didn't mention it again, but Justin caught him watching him sometimes. Finally Justin snapped, "You could ask, too, you know."
"I know," Chris said. He didn't ask. It made Justin feel a little better. They looked at each other for an uneasy moment, then Justin said,
"Well, I'm gonna take a bath."
Chris burst out laughing and rolled onto his side. "You got -- J, seriously man, you got a flair for saying the right thing at the right time."
"Shut up," Justin said. "I'm dirty, that's all."
"Nah, I mean, we were having our perfect little dramatic moment there -- and then bam! You come in with your line about the bath."
"Whatever," Justin said. He stepped over Chris and walked toward the bathroom.
"Wait up," Chris said. "I'm coming."
"There's really not room for both of us."
"Aw, baby, don't be that way," Chris said, grinning.
Justin grinned, too, then tried to swallow it. "Shut up," he said.
There really wasn't room for the two of them. Chris didn't seem to mind, though. He sat on the toilet seat in his boxers with his feet up on the edge of the tub, reading to Justin from the Sports Illustrated he'd brought back from the store the day before. Justin lay back as far as he could without ducking his head underwater and pushed Chris' feet further away from him. He watched his arms float on the surface of the water and listened to Chris reading something about the designated hitter rule. He could fall asleep, Justin thought, right here, right now. Or he could stay like this, drifting gently, buoyed up by the water and by Chris' quiet voice.
He sat up suddenly in the bath, splashing Chris' magazine. Chris lowered it to his lap and looked at him.
"I feel -- I don't know. Claustrophobic," Justin said. He bit his lip and looked down at the water.
"I can see why," Chris said. "You're basically sitting in something that's a little bigger than a coffin, watching the water rise up to your chin. I never got why you thought that was so relaxing."
"I just -- I want to go somewhere." Justin shrugged and let his hands splash against the surface of the water again.
"Well, you know you're free to leave this room at any time," Chris said. "Or -- you did know that, didn't you? Maybe we should have cleared up that consent thing sooner. Although this morning when you were yelling, 'yesyespleaseohgodyesyou'reagodamongmen', I kind of thought you were giving your --"
"I didn't say that," Justin said. He grinned for a second. "Well, not all of that."
Chris grinned too. "You'll do better next time. So what did you --"
"I thought, we could both go somewhere. Together. Just -- not this room. Just go somewhere else."
Chris stopped grinning. Justin fidgeted under Chris' gaze, then stopped and made himself sit still because he was getting water everywhere. Then Chris smiled, a little slower than before, and said, "What, you want me to take you out on a date? You feeling a little unappreciated?"
"No," Justin said. "No, don't be stupid. Also, shut up."
"Ah, that's okay," Chris said. "I'll take you out. You go make yourself pretty, I'll take a shower, then we'll hit the town."
"I didn't mean --"
"No, it's cool," Chris said. "Of course, I'm probably gonna spend twenty, thirty dollars on you tonight. I'm gonna expect you to put out."
Justin was still laughing when he walked into the bedroom.
"I'm not kidding!" Chris called as he shut the bathroom door.
It was probably kind of stupid, but Justin didn't just put on the jeans he'd been wearing earlier. Instead he grabbed a cleaner pair out of his bag, and looked around for his favorite blue shirt. He packed up their stuff carefully, then put their bags on the bed and sat down next to them. He felt a little strange. It wasn't that he didn't want to go, exactly, but he thought -- he felt like he should be more restless, warier. Something about the ease he felt made him edgy.
Chris smiled when he got out of the shower, and Justin felt a little ridiculous in his neat jeans and good shirt. He ran into the bathroom to grab their stuff while Chris got dressed. When he was finished, Chris was a little dressed up, too, in the only pair of pants he'd brought that weren't jeans and a shirt that buttoned. He was standing in the middle of the room with his hands in his pockets, frowning at their bags on the bed.
"I got our stuff," Justin said.
"Yeah," Chris said. "Yeah, J, I see."
They threw their bags in the back seat, just like always. Justin held out his hand for the keys but Chris didn't give them to him. "There's a seafood place out of town, not too far. I thought we'd go."
"Okay," Justin said.
Just before the exit onto the parkway, Chris pulled into the parking lot of a 7-11. "Um, Chris," Justin said, "if I'm gonna be putting out, it's gonna have to be a fancier restaurant."
Chris flipped him off and headed inside. Justin watched him through the window. When Chris got back in, he handed Justin a Slurpee. "Some supplies for the drive," he said.
"I think you got a thing about Slurpees," Justin said.
"My thing is that they're good."
"I don't know," Justin said. "I think there might be something else going on."
Chris stopped with the key in the ignition and turned toward Justin. "Oh, you do, do you?"
"Yeah," Justin said. He took a long, slow sip, watching Chris above his cup, making sure to purse his lips around the straw and hollow his cheeks. When he let go of the straw and licked his lips, tasting cherry slick and fake as lipstick, Chris rolled his eyes at him. "I don't know, I was thinking maybe you had some kind of fantasy."
Chris rolled his eyes harder. "A Slurpee fantasy?"
"Yeah," Justin said. "Maybe, you know, all those years, you were thinking about, I don't know, maybe a kid we both know, a late night pit stop, cherry-flavored lips --"
"No," Chris said abruptly.
"All right," Justin said, a little pissed off. "Jesus." Then he thought for a second. "I didn't -- not when I was like, fourteen, I didn't mean --"
"I didn't mean that," Chris said. His voice was still rough and he wasn't looking at Justin. "I just -- I hate that sort of shit."
"Don't be stupid."
"Hey --" Justin said, more than a little pissed off.
"I just -- I hate that, the way you -- the way people have to like, rewrite the past. Like, nothing's ever good enough just being what it is, just being now. You gotta go back and change everything that happened before around, remember it differently, so that every single moment was like, leading to this moment. Like it had to be fate, or something. I just want -- nothing's ever good enough, just itself. You can't just want it because you want it. It always has to have been more, or be going to be more, something bigger, something else. I hate that."
"I didn't say that," Justin said quietly.
Chris finally looked at him. "I know you didn't," he said. He ran a hand through his hair. "Let's just go eat, okay?"
"Um, no," Justin said.
"You said you wanted your little date --"
"No, you said that," Justin said.
"Right," Chris said. His voice had an edge to it. "You didn't say much of anything at all." He took the key out of the ignition. "So what do you want, Justin?" When Justin didn't answer, he asked again. "What do you want?"
"I want to go fight about something," Justin said.
He thought that maybe, almost by accident, he'd said exactly the right thing. Chris glanced down and then over at him, so quickly Justin almost missed it, but didn't say anything.
"I want to go --"
"Not in the car, all right," Chris said.
Justin thought about that, then nodded. Chris put the key in the ignition and then backed out of the parking lot. Now all Justin had to do was think of something to fight about.
He thought about that for thirty-five miles. It had been sunny when he started, and now the sky was gray and speckled with dark clouds. Rain beat lightly against the windshield. Justin could feel something building in him, anticipation, the tension of the fight to come. He liked it. He looked over at Chris, his hands gripping the wheel, his mouth turned down a little as he squinted against the rain. Chris' leg was shaking impatiently, just a little, as if he felt it too. Justin liked it.
Chris pulled off at a rest stop. Justin got out of the car and headed for the Denny's, shoulders hunched against the rain. Chris grabbed his sleeve and steered him toward the shitty little motel on the other side of the plaza, so shitty it wasn't even a chain. A motel was better, anyway, Justin thought. For fighting.
Chris handed the kid behind the desk forty bucks, and signed the register Marshall Mathers. Chris shoved another wad of bills at him before he finished asking to see Chris' license. The kid looked at the money for a minute, then at Chris. He grinned and said, "I sure do admire your work, Mr. Mathers." Chris laughed and headed for the elevators. Justin followed him. He was a little breathless.
A slide of a card and a swing of Chris' hip and Justin finally got his sleazy motel room. Chris ran his palm over the light switch and sat down on the bed, legs apart. There was rain in his hair and he shook his head impatiently. Justin could see the drops as they clung to the skin on Chris' forearms. "All right," Chris said, smiling narrowly at Justin. "All right, let's fight --" and Justin walked in between his legs and covered Chris' mouth with his own before he could say anything else.
Justin woke up with the sun in his eyes and the sound of rain in his ears. He blinked in confusion until the sound stopped and Chris walked out of the bathroom naked, drying his hair with a thin white towel. "Hey," Chris said, and Justin blinked at him. Chris dropped the towel on the floor and put his jeans on. "You want the shower?"
Justin leaned off the bed, one hand on the floor, and peered into the bathroom. He shuddered. "No," he said.
"Yeah, you do," Chris said. He sat on the bed and put his socks on. "You stink."
Justin leaned off the bed again and spread Chris' towel out. "What are you doing?" Chris said. Justin stood on the towel and shuffled toward the bathroom. "You're unbelievable," Chris said. Justin grinned at him, then let his smile soften at the edges till it opened his mouth when Chris wrapped a hand around his bicep and pulled him forward.
Chris put his other hand on the back of Justin's neck and tipped his head forward until his forehead was resting against Chris'. "You said," Chris said, low, his face so close to Justin's that Justin could feel the words whisper against his open mouth. "You said you wanted."
"What?" Justin said, trying to tilt his head down to catch Chris' lips. Chris didn't let him, turning his face to the side a little, his forehead rolling against Justin's.
"You said you wanted to fight about something," Chris said.
"Oh," Justin said. Chris took his hand away from Justin's neck. Justin stood up straight. "I guess, I guess I wanted something else."
"You sure of that?" Chris said.
"Yeah," Justin said. He was. "I don't know -- I don't know why I said that, that I wanted --I don't know why I said that."
"You sure of that?" Chris said again. Justin didn't say anything. He looked away uneasily.
"I guess," Justin said, "I guess I just needed to --" Chris made a small noise and Justin looked up at him. "I wanted," Justin said quickly. "I wanted."
"You be sure," Chris said, his hand on Justin's arm. Justin nodded. He wanted to be sure.
"I am," he said. "It's just -- it's different. But I'm sure."
Chris let go of his arm. "I believe you."
"You," Justin said. "Not just me -- you, too."
"I believe me too," Chris said, and smiled. "I'll meet you downstairs." He looked over his shoulder as he headed for the door and said, "By the way, you're standing on our only towel."
Justin was still swearing when the door swung shut.
They drove over the long bridge into Ocean City and ate good seafood at a place Chris knew. Then they went walking down the mostly deserted boardwalk. It was somehow less glitzy and less gross than the one at Atlantic City at the same time. Justin told Chris that and he laughed.
"It's more family here," he said.
"What does that mean?"
"More arcades, more bumper cars," Chris said. "Also, no booze within the city limits."
"Family sucks," Justin said fervently.
"Well, there's something to be said for arcades and bumper cars," Chris said. "Not as much as there is to be said for Scotch, but still."
"Everything's closed, anyway."
"This time of year, most stuff's only open on weekends. And it's -- is it Tuesday? Wednesday? One of those middle days."
"I don't know," Justin said. He stood with his legs spread wide. When he looked down he could see waves starting to lick at the sand below the boards. High tide. Chris had told him when they were driving in that high tide came all the way up under the boardwalk in some places. It was because of development, he said, the beach was eroding and everything was too close, they were building barriers and stuff to try and stop it but it was still fucked. Justin kind of liked the feeling, though, standing still and watching the water rush below him. It made him feel like he was moving.
"Come on," Chris said, and grabbed Justin's arm. "There's got to be something open somewhere."
There was an arcade open about halfway down the boardwalk, a huge whitewashed place with blaring music and videogames and a dark-eyed boy leaning against a counter who made change and said, "Thank you," with some kind of Eastern European accent. Justin eyed the hockey table longingly, but Chris said, "Skee-ball!" and dragged him over to the wall lined with the miniature alleys.
It took Justin a while to adjust to the weight of the wooden ball and the short lanes, the way he had to flick his wrist to make sure the ball made the jump up into the rings that were worth the most points. Chris kicked ass right away. The boy behind the counter pulled a microphone from somewhere and gave a lazy play-by-play. "Come on, lane ten, you're falling behind," boomed through the speaker. Justin turned to give him a dirty look and the boy just smiled blandly at him and turned up the microphone.
"You're just jealous," Chris said.
"You can shut up too," Justin said, and Chris laughed.
Once Justin got in his groove, though, Chris stopped laughing and started swearing under his breath. When Justin laughed at him, Chris deliberately jostled his arm and the boy at the counter said, "No roughing!"
"God, doesn't he ever shut up?" Chris said.
"You stay in your own lane," Justin said. "Cheater."
Chris grinned and bumped against him again. This time, he grabbed Justin's ass.
"Okay, that's really -- shit," he said, and Chris let go of him as four people walked in. Old people, two couples, dressed like tourists, perfectly nice people, Justin was sure, as he watched them set up in the lanes right next to him. Perfectly nice, he thought, and smiled back as one of the old ladies smiled at him.
"This sucks," Chris said in his ear.
"Shh," Justin said. "They'll hear you."
"I don't know why they're not getting the play-by-play."
"Shut up." The old people started clapping and laughing as one of the women managed to throw her skee-ball into Justin's lane. He sighed. "Maybe we should take off."
"Better idea," Chris said. He was still leaning against Justin's back. "They've got real pinball in the back."
"Seriously?" Justin said, turning toward him, knocking Chris' elbow off him. "Why didn't you say before? Why've we been playing fucking skee-ball?"
"I like skee-ball," Chris said.
As Justin headed for the back room, the kid who worked there held up a little basket and called, "Don't you want your prizes?"
"Don't worry," Chris said, waving him on. "I'll get them."
They had mostly video games in the other room, but along the back wall there were some real pinball games, the kind where you could actually tilt. Justin smiled when he saw they had Cyclone, the same game Chris had in his living room. He put his money in and was up to 40,000 points by the time Chris draped himself across Justin's back.
"Open your mouth," Chris said.
"Wait till I'm done with this --" Justin said, and Chris stuck a lollipop in his mouth.
Justin started to choke for a second, and Chris laughed. "Easy there," he said. "That's your prize." Chris put one elbow up on Justin's left shoulder and watched him play. Justin could see him out of the corner of his eye, when he glanced away from the game. "Cyclone," Chris said appreciatively, and Justin smiled at him. Then he went back to playing.
The little silver ball spun into a long arc and the game lit up and sang out, "Ride the ferris wheel!"
Chris echoed it, his lips warm and wet against Justin's ear, drawing out the vowels and making Justin shudder. Justin pushed the lollipop over to the side of his mouth so he could talk around it. It made his mouth taste like orange, not like oranges but like orange the color, sharp plastic and bright. Chris slid his fingers down over the front of Justin's jeans and unbuttoned the top button. Justin tried to bat him away, but Chris put his hand over Justin's and lifted it back up to the game. "You're gonna need both your hands up here," he said.
"Come on," Justin said as his jeans were unbuttoned and Chris' hand dipped down below the waistband, "come on, don't."
"I'll stop when you lose," Chris whispered, his thigh pressing between Justin's legs and pushing them apart, his hand curling around Justin's cock.
Justin hated to lose.
Justin was a good pinball player, and he'd had lots of practice. The game shrieked and blinked, lighting up with points, even as Justin gasped and rocked back against Chris, even as Chris laughed and bit lightly at Justin's shoulder, a brief shiver of teeth sparking even through Justin's shirt. He lost his first turn when Chris leaned away from him and slipped his free hand down the back of Justin's pants. "Chris," he whined, but he didn't take his hands off the flippers. He lost his second turn right away, hands skidding off the cabinet, when Chris pushed a finger inside him.
"Come on," he said. Chris didn't say anything, just stopped moving completely, his hands on Justin's body but still, still. "I mean, come on," Justin said, a different tone now, his voice lower and threaded with need.
"I stop when you stop," Chris said, and Justin put his hands back on the glass. Chris laughed and let go of Justin's cock, ignoring Justin's little moan of protest, and reached around to pull the plunger and launch the next ball. "Play," he said, and Justin played.
Chris' fingers were working again, his lips moving up Justin's back to the nape of his neck, his tongue tracing carefully around the small curls growing at Justin's hairline. Justin's hips were jerking in short circles bounded by Chris' hands, the circuit interrupted every once in a while as Chris' tongue stretched long quicksilver shudders out of Justin's back. Justin was braced against the machine, tapping frantically at the flippers, trying desperately to stay in the game just long enough for Chris to make him come.
Justin's chin hit the glass, sudden slap of chill against his skin, as Chris' body slammed against him. Justin slapped at the sides of the cabinet blindly, one hand half-hitting one of the flippers purely by luck. His mouth flooded with slick sweet orange from the lollipop as he bit down. As Chris pressed another finger inside him he came, his eyes squeezing closed, not sure whether the shower of lights and shrieks was just in his head until he heard the game crow, "Ride the ferris wheel!"
"Ride the ferris wheel," Chris whispered, and kissed the back of Justin's neck.
Everything got a little hazy after that. Justin remembered being led back through the arcade, past the old people and the dark-eyed boy who worked there, out into the cool wind that drifted over the wide boardwalk. Justin was drifting, too, happy to let Chris push and pull him as he liked. He could feel his muscles flowing beneath his skin as he moved. His blood felt like it had slowed and thickened to some warm silver liquid simmering inside him, kicking up into sparks of storm wherever Chris touched him, his hand, his arm, his back.
Chris checked them into somewhere but Justin didn't pay much attention until they were up in the room. Justin ducked his head as Chris pulled his shirt off, trying to see the room. "Is it, like, a B&B?" he said. His voice wasn't slurred but the words came a little slower than usual.
"Yeah," Chris said, easing Justin's pants down. "Yeah, but with only one of the Bs."
"Only -- which one?" Justin said, and Chris pushed him down on the bed. "Oh," he said, and Chris kissed him, his laughter rippling down through Justin's open mouth to stir him to writhing against the sheets, against Chris.
"Ah," Chris murmured, his hands following the movement of Justin's body right down to his hips. Justin's arms spread wide, palms closing over nothing, his legs lifting and folding over Chris'. He felt like he should be doing something, more, something for Chris, but all he could do was arch up against Chris desperately, his skin burning until he touched Chris and then burning hotter.
"You're doing -- you're doing fine," Chris said, stretching the last word into long thin silver that circled up around Justin's chest. "Fine, fine," Chris' mouth on Justin's collarbone, and Justin's head tossed against the pillow. The window was opened, the curtains pulled back, and when Justin looked out he could see clouds, dark but still lighter than the night, rushing by. The waves rumbled somewhere out of sight beneath them. The bed was shaking as Chris thrust into Justin, the sheets sliding beneath him, and Justin felt like everything else was still around him and he was the one who was moving, moving.
"I want," Justin said, and it was a full sentence. He didn't need anything else. He didn't want anything else. "I want."
"You want," Chris said, "what, faster," and even his voice was drifting away, as if Justin were moving past him, and then Chris pushed into him harder, again and again, following Justin, meeting him, and Justin's back arched and his mouth opened in sheer joy that Chris was moving, too, moving, but with him, with him.
"Right here," Justin said, "you're --" and Chris' mouth covered his own, swallowed the rest of his words, but that was okay, because Justin didn't need them any more. Chris was moving with him.
Later that night they were still moving, Justin's breath coming in shudders, Chris' fingers tracing gently over the line of Justin's jaw and his neck. The waves were still rumbling. They sounded much farther than a few blocks away.
"I'm happy," Justin said, suddenly, as Chris' fingers drifted over his mouth. "I'm happy."
"Well, I should hope so," Chris said. "Cause I've got to tell you, that was pretty much my best work right there. I don't got much else, so if that's not enough, we're gonna have to look into bringing in some outside help."
Chris' laugh was warm and easy, and a laugh rippled out of Justin to meet it. When he was done laughing, though, he shook his head and said, "No. No, I mean, I am. Right now. I'm happy."
"Good," Chris said. "Good, J."
"Because," Justin said, "because I wasn't. For a long time, since. I haven't been. I wasn't happy."
"I know," Chris said, and his eyes were warm and not easy at all. His hand slipped down from Justin's face to his chest. "Go to sleep, now, okay?"
Justin shook his head again. "I think," he said, then bit his lip and stopped. There was no point in saying he thought it, when he knew it was true, no point in saying that to Chris. "My heart was broken," he said. There was no point in worrying that it sounded melodramatic, not when he knew it was true, not when he was saying it to Chris. Chris looked at him, and Justin could see something hovering on his lips, something Chris didn't want to say. He thought he knew what it was.
"I mean," he said, "I mean, I broke it. It didn't just -- I did it. My heart was broken, because I broke it."
Chris dipped his head for a second, kissing Justin's shoulder. "Is," he said, without lifting his eyes.
Justin looked at Chris' bent head. "What?" He could feel the soft weight of Chris' hand, rising and falling on his chest with his breath.
"Is broken," Chris said. "Not was."
"What do you mean?"
Chris was quiet for a long moment, and Justin didn't ask again. Then Chris looked up and met his eyes, and Justin knew he would answer.
"That's not the type of thing -- it's not like it's fixed," Chris said. "It doesn't go away. Other things happen, you get further away from it but it's not, nothing will ever make it not have happened. Nothing can change that." Chris bent his head again, his hair brushing against Justin's stomach as Chris breathed. He was quiet so long that Justin thought he was done. Then he said, his voice still rough and ragged like it had been right after, "Things break and they stay broken. You can't make them whole again."
Justin didn't say anything. Chris' hand still moved softly against his skin.
"Whole is overrated, anyway," Chris said, his voice as soft and light as his hand on Justin's chest. Justin didn't say anything. Chris sighed and looked up. "J. Sometimes, sometimes you've got to break something open. Sometimes that's the only way you can find out what's inside."
"You believe that?" Justin had thought his voice would sound small, thin and thready, but it was harsh, hard-edged, scratching his throat.
"Sure," Chris said. "Yeah. Now. I, you know, it's easier to believe the further away you get from when you got broken."
"I don't," Justin said. He stopped and swallowed. His throat hurt. "I don't think I'm that far away yet."
Chris laid his head down over his hand, over Justin's heart. "You'll get there, J," he said. "You're on your way."
The next morning Justin got up first, sliding easily out from under Chris' arm. He put his clothes on and walked down to the shore while the light was still warming, shading from the pink of dawn to clear day. He didn't go down to the beach but sat on the wooden stairs that led down from the boardwalk. There was a woman walking her dog out at the far end of the beach, but other than that there was no one else there. Justin sat and watched the waves.
He looked up when he heard footsteps behind him. Chris sat down, one step lower on the stairs, dropping their bags onto the sand below them. "We were here before," Justin said.
"Yeah," Chris said, his head tilting back toward Justin. "Yeah, we were. I didn't know if you'd remember. I almost forgot, myself, till we were driving in last night."
Justin remembered. "Right before we went to Germany," he said, and Chris nodded. "I can't remember what we were in New York for, but Joey knew that girl and she had a house down here so we came for the day."
"Yeah," Chris said. "She was his second cousin or something. At least I hope she was his second cousin," he said with a small smile.
"I remember," Justin said. He pulled his shirt down over his knees and hugged them to his chest. "I remember, the sky was so big, and the ocean, and that just seemed right, you know? Because that was the day, the day I knew we all believed it, not just me. I felt that, that day, how we all believed we were going to get bigger, to get big." Justin smiled, his arms wrapped around his legs. It was right before everything, that day, and he always remembered it, that was the day he knew and after that when he doubted he remembered that day. "That was a good day," he said.
Chris shrugged and looked out at the ocean.
"What?" Justin said.
"Nothing," Chris said. "Just -- I hate that sort of shit. Nostalgia. I hate that."
"It's not -- it's just a memory," Justin said. "You were laughing about it like a minute ago. It's just a good memory."
"No," Chris said. "No, it's -- people have to make things bigger than they were, have to make them stand for things. Nothing's ever just what it is, that's never good enough. It can't just be a fun day at the beach where Joey was macking on some girl he might have been related to. No, it's got to be something bigger, it's got to be something meant to be. It's got to be," Chris deepened his voice like a radio announcer's, "The Day Everything Changed."
Justin was stung by Chris' voice. His fists clenched on his knees. "So what?" he said.
"So that's just -- it's sickening. It makes me sick, the way -- the way people have to change the past like that, have to make things bigger than they were, have to make them stand for things. It makes them sick, too. They keep thinking that things were bigger, better, were more something than what they were. And so nothing new can ever match up, because it's only going to be the thing it is, and that can never be enough. Never. You get all caught up in that, tangled up, and you can never move out of it because it keeps tripping you up."
"But that's not," Justin said stubbornly. "Some things are, they are bigger than they were. Like that day, it was, because I always remembered --"
"That's stupid," Chris said. "That's just -- it can't have been bigger than what it was. That's just stupid."
"Shut up," Justin said. He wasn't even sure why he was so mad, except that that had been a really good day, and he wasn't going to say that it wasn't, not for anybody. Not for Chris. "I don't care, I don't care what you say, because I know. That was, that was a really good day, a big day, big things happened that day. That's not me just making it better because it's the past, it was true. Sometimes things in the past were really good, were really big, and that day was one of them. And I know, because sometimes, right after that, there were times when I really needed a good day to remember, and that was, I remembered that day. That was the day I remembered, and it was good, and I don't care what you say."
"J," Chris said. His voice was softer, but Justin wouldn't look down at him, just kept staring out at the waves. Chris sighed. "I just -- sometimes I just wish that something, one thing, could just be enough, you know? I just want to have the thing I have, that's all. I just want to have -- I just want to have the thing I have while I have it, just that, you know, that's something. That could be something. Instead of always -- sometimes I just want to have something new, and have that be enough, just that."
"But sometimes," Justin said, and he slipped down to sit on the same step as Chris, "just because something's new, that doesn't mean it can't be as big as the old thing, can't turn into something that stands for things too."
"Yes it does," Chris said.
Justin looked at him. "I don't -- why?" he said.
"Because that whole thing, needing to make things bigger, needing them to stand for something else, that's just another way of saying whatever it is you have isn't enough. It's never going to measure up." Chris laughed a little. It wasn't a nice laugh. "At least, until you lose it. Then it'll be something big, something that stands for everything. Once you don't have it, then it will have been enough. But nothing's ever -- I just wish. I just wish something could be -- just once, that something could just be the thing it is, nothing more or less, and that would be enough. I just wish."
"Wait," Justin said. Amazingly, Chris did. He shut his mouth and sat next to Justin and waited, watching him expectantly as Justin thought. He had to wait a while. Finally Justin knew what he wanted to say. "You're doing the same thing," he said.
Chris started to say something and Justin waved him off. Amazingly, Chris shut up again. Justin thought vaguely that Chris must have really wanted to hear what Justin was going to say. Justin was kind of curious himself. "It's the same thing, but backwards," he said. "Or, like the opposite. You're doing the opposite of nostalgia." He stopped, in case the pressure of shutting up for so long was getting to Chris, but when Chris didn't protest he kept going. "You said you wish that I could just let things be what they are --"
"Not you, J," Chris said. "People. I didn't mean you."
"Yes you did," Justin said. "You meant me. You meant that I had to make everything bigger than it was, than it is, and that meant nothing could ever be good enough and I'd always be chasing something that I'd just made up myself. But the thing is -- Chris, sometimes the things that happen, they are big things. Like that day -- it was. You can say whatever you want, but I know it was. Maybe only in my head, but it was a big day, and other things -- they were really big things, important things, too, and I didn't make it up afterwards, what they meant. They just were. And when you say they weren't, you're doing the same thing you're yelling at me about, just the opposite. You're making things smaller than they were."
"I wasn't --"
"Yes you were," Justin said. "And I mean you, not people. You were. And Chris, that's the same thing -- it's not worse maybe, but it's just as bad. Because sometimes, something new that happens, it'll be big, and it'll mean something, and you'll just fuck it up by trying to make it small. You can spend so much time trying to make everything small, you never let it be what it wants to be. What it is. You won't let it be enough. Which is what it is."
Chris opened his mouth, and then closed it. He looked away, out over the ocean. Justin waited patiently beside him, thinking of all the things he'd meant to say, all the things he'd meant to say better, trying to gather his arguments for whatever Chris would say next. Because he knew he was right. He just had to convince Chris.
"You're right," Chris said.
Justin said, "What?"
"You're right," Chris said. He smiled and Justin couldn't help swaying toward that smile. His shoulder brushed against Chris', just a second before he expected it to, because Chris was moving toward him too. "I was doing that. You're right."
"Oh," Justin said. He hadn't expected it to be quite that easy.
"Don't look so surprised."
"Just that you're admitting I was right," Justin said.
"Well, I'm not all wrong," Chris said. Justin groaned and leaned heavily on Chris' shoulder. "Cause -- you know you were, maybe me too, a little sometimes, but you were all tangled up in that -- the past. You were."
"It wasn't -- not all of it was nostalgia," Justin said quietly.
"No," Chris said. "Not all of it. No. But some. And it was -- just like me. It was getting in the way of what we're doing."
"What are we doing?"
"Hey, you said before I could ask questions."
"Fuck," Chris said, and Justin laughed. Chris said, "We're doing something that's big, and good, and new," and Justin's laugh didn't shrink, it just seemed to go somewhere so deep inside him that all that could show on the surface was a small open-mouthed smile, like the tip of an iceberg of joy. "And that's what it is, and it's -- it's enough."
"Yeah," Justin said, meeting Chris' eyes. "Yeah, it is. It's what I want, and it's enough."
Chris kissed him.
When Chris pulled away, he was smiling, too, and it was something small and precious, like a tiny shard had broken off from Justin's happiness. Chris leaned against him, an arm looped around Justin's waist, and they sat and looked at the sky so big over them and the ocean, and Justin thought that this moment, just this, was enough, not more or less but just exactly enough, was all he could ever want.
Then he felt something welling up inside him. He knew what it was, and he closed his eyes tightly against it. It didn't help. He squirmed under Chris' arm, and he knew Chris must be looking at him but he couldn't stop. He straightened his legs out and then bent down over them, head against his knees, stretching his arms to their full length and knotting his hands together, but it still didn't help.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Chris said.
Justin was trying so hard not to, but in the end he could only change so much, in the end people can only be who they are, and he said, "I know it's lame, I just want to leave things there and we both know what we mean and let that be enough but I can't, I can't, I can't be me and do that, I can't be me and not say it, I have to say it."
Chris started laughing.
Justin lifted up his head and waited for Chris to look at him. "I love you," he said.
"You are very, very, very lame," Chris said.
Justin sat up and smiled. He knew what that meant. It was enough. He didn't expect Chris to say it back, didn't expect Chris to say anything else, because Chris had already said it in all the ways he could, and that was enough. In the end people can only change so much, in the end people can only be who they are.
"You are very lame," Chris said, "and I love you."
Justin said, "I'm glad you're never going to die."
Chris laughed until Justin thought he might be sick, lying back along the steps with one arm dangling in the sand. Justin just sat back and watched him, smiling, squinting against the sun. Finally Chris wiped his eyes and sat up, leaning his head against Justin's leg and looking up at him.
"So what now?" Justin said.
Chris smiled. "I guess we drive off into the sunset."
"Where do you think?" Chris stood up and started dusting himself off. "You wanna go get the car?"
Justin shook his head. "No," he said, "you go ahead and get it. I got something --"
"Okay," Chris said. "Yeah. You should. Let them know we're coming."
Justin watched Chris walk away, then reached down and picked Chris' bag up off the beach. He pulled his own cell phone out and tipped his head toward the sun, thinking. There were a lot of things he could say to JC. He could tell him that he had been right, about some things, even a lot of things. There were things Justin was going to have to live without, even though he wished, he wished. But there were other things, too, things JC hadn't been right about. One thing.
JC had said that Justin would call when he knew what he wanted, and he'd been right about that. But JC had been wrong, too, because Justin wasn't calling because he needed JC to help him get what he wanted. He wasn't calling because he needed anything. He was just calling because he wanted to.
Something had changed, and it was because Justin had made it change. Something was different, and it was because Justin had wanted it to be.
Justin was different.
Justin dialed JC's number and listened to JC's voice, rich and beautiful and familiar, the same as it always was, even on his voicemail. Justin said, "We're coming home." Then he put his phone away.
Justin turned his back on the ocean and sat back against the railing, waiting for Chris to come back.