The Place Where We're Going
Joey was the first one to break.
Justin had known it would be Joey, or he would have, if he'd ever thought about it, which he didn't. But of course it was Joey, Joey and his fucking kid, and Justin put his hand over his mouth just for thinking that. He hadn't thought that in a long time, since long, long before Briahna was even born, so long ago that the thought was buried and forgotten. But that was the first thing he'd thought, when Joey told them Kelly was pregnant, or the second, right after Holy shit. He'd known right away what a horrible, awful, unworthy thought that was, and he'd smashed it down as hard as he could. It hadn't even been hard, because his third and fourth and twelfth and five-hundred-and-fiftieth thoughts had been about how cool it was, how happy Kelly looked, what a good dad Joey would be. But deep down, way down in the dark place in his brain he tried not to examine too closely, the thought was always there, lurking. Waiting. He'd almost forgotten it in the actual fact of Briahna, the sweet giggly baby who screamed with joy when Justin swung her high into the air, who curled up drowsily in Justin's lap almost as easily as in Joey's. But somewhere deep down, dark down, Justin knew she was something else. She was the expiration date stamped on *nsync.
Justin had been right. It didn't bring him much comfort.
Joey was the first one to break, but JC was the one who told them. That made sense too, because they always counted on JC to say things like that. Well, not like that, because there were no things like that, had never been, this was unlike any other thing in the world. But hard truths, unpleasant facts, bad news, those were all left for JC to deliver. Not because they wouldn't get mad at him for saying them; they all got mad at JC. Justin got mad at him at least once every three days. But it wouldn't matter to JC if the others got mad or shouted at him or froze him out. He'd just keep saying it, until they listened and shut up and answered him. When he was right, JC was relentless. When he was wrong, too, Justin thought, but he felt a tight curl of dread in his stomach even as he kicked his heels against the seat in front of him and tried to look nonchalant. He knew JC was right.
"I've been thinking," JC said, and Justin kicked the bench in front of him again, hard enough to make it shake. He stared out the window at the sky rushing by them. It was a beautiful day.
"I've been thinking," JC said again, and he could say it as many times as he wanted, he couldn't make Justin look at him. Except he could, Justin knew that, and JC knew that, and the rest of the guys did too, and probably most of their crew. But that didn't mean Justin had to make it easy for JC. A car with Texas plates passed the bus, a rarity up here in Connecticut. Justin thought they were in Connecticut. Rhode Island, maybe, or Massachusetts. Somewhere in New England, he wasn't sure. They'd been driving since long before he woke up.
"There are some things," JC said. "Things I think we've all been thinking about, but maybe didn't want to admit we were thinking. But I think we've got to think about what we're thinking about together." That was the cue for somebody, Chris or Justin himself usually, to make some joke about JC's way with words. Justin didn't feel like it. Neither did Chris, it seemed like, because there was a silence. Justin kept looking out the window. He could wait JC out.
The quiet stretched out, longer and longer, until Joey said in a funny voice, "You may be wondering why I've called you all here." Nobody laughed.
That made the silence worse. Somebody always laughed whenever somebody else made a joke -- it was one of those unwritten rules, the way JC always handed out bad news. They needed it, on the road together. No matter what was going on, somebody had to make a bad joke and somebody had to laugh at it. It was how things stayed together, how they'd stayed together all these years. Somebody had to laugh. But no one was laughing.
Justin couldn't take it any more. He slumped down further in his seat and said, "I don't know what y'all are talking about. But I haven't been thinking anything."
"No?" JC said, and Justin lifted his chin and looked at JC defiantly. JC said, "Well, maybe you haven't. But the rest of us -- we have."
Justin only had to look around the bus to know who "the rest of us" were. JC was sitting on the edge of Joey's chair, looking straight at Justin. Joey was staring down at his hands. Lance was standing behind them, leaning in the doorway, watching the wall intently. All three of them looked worried, concerned, maybe even a little scared.
Chris was sitting in the corner, as far away from the rest of them as he could get without actually jumping out onto the highway. He was looking at the floor in front of JC, his leg jiggling nervously. He didn't look worried or concerned or scared. He looked exactly the way Justin felt. Blindsided.
"So what've you all been thinking?" Justin heard the way his voice sounded, angry, belligerent, but he didn't care. This wasn't his idea, this wasn't his fault, and they all should know it.
"We've been thinking," JC said, "that it's time."
Time for what? Justin thought, but didn't say. He knew what the answer would be, and he didn't want to hear it. He thought Chris might say it. That was the type of thing Chris did in situations like this, daring people to say what they were all afraid to hear. But Chris didn't say anything. The silence gaped between them, still and tense, like that moment when the knife slips into your finger, just before the pain starts flowing with the blood.
"Look, I'm sorry," Joey said suddenly, quickly, words pouring out over each other, "I'm sorry but you don't know what it's like, none of you do. She's getting so big, and I'm missing stuff, every day I'm missing stuff, and she's too old to keep coming with us and I just can't do it any more."
"We all make sacrifices, Joey," Justin said. "You're not the only one."
"Not like -- none of you know what it's like. You can't. You don't have a kid. But every day I'm away, she's -- I'm losing stuff, time, and I just can't -- I don't want to lose any more. I won't. Nothing's worth it."
Justin sucked in his breath. When he found his voice again, he said, "Well, nobody asked you to have --"
"Justin!" JC hissed, and Justin shut up. JC could still do that to him. Justin was glad, though. He didn't know what Joey would have done to him if he'd finished that sentence. Justin didn't know what he would have done to himself.
"So what?" Chris said finally. "You want a hiatus? It seems to me I've heard this song before."
"Well, not -- not like last time," Joey said. "Maybe longer. I think -- yeah, longer."
"How long?" Justin demanded.
"Justin," JC said. "It's time."
"You know you'll be set, J," Joey said. "You know you've been waiting on us to finish this tour before you get moving on your new stuff. I know you -- I didn't mean, before, that you didn't make sacrifices for us. I know you did. I know you do." Justin didn't look at him. "It's just," Joey said helplessly, "it's just that I'm never there. And school -- she's going to have to start. And she's getting so big."
Joey sounded so stupid, Justin thought, saying that over and over again. He looked over at Chris, wondering if Chris was thinking the same thing. Maybe Chris would say something about it, tell Joey what a moron he was being, that of course Briahna was getting big, that's what kids did, they got bigger. Except Chris would say it smarter, funnier, and they'd be laughing at Joey, Joey would be laughing at himself, before they knew it. That's what happened when things got tight and tense like this. Chris would make a joke and they'd all laugh and forget what they got so worked up about. But Chris didn't say anything.
"So how long?" Justin said into the silence.
"J," Lance said without taking his eyes off the wall above Justin's head, "you know you've been wanting -- you said just the other day you wished you'd had more time to put your own stuff together."
"I didn't mean --"
"And I think you did it exactly right," Lance continued, "putting it out while we were still -- nobody can say you didn't put us first. Nobody can say you didn't think about us. But you know you've been feeling like you were held back --"
"Oh, so this is all for me," Justin said. "Wow, thanks. Maybe you could have thought of this before I put everything on hold so you could all have one last ..." He never really thought he'd get that far without someone stopping him. No one did, so he had to stop himself. "So we could have one last ..." He stopped himself again. "Look," he said finally, running a hand over his head, not looking at any of them, "just don't say this is for me, all right? Don't try to make it that this is what I want."
"Not just you," JC said. "I think we've all got some things we've been wanting to do. Things we can't really do, when we're still doing -- if we're still -- well, that we can't really do like this."
"I don't," Chris said, suddenly enough to make Justin jump. He'd almost forgotten Chris for a moment. "There's nothing at all I want to do that I can't do just like this."
"Yeah, well." JC's gaze swung around to Chris. "Maybe, maybe that's not such a great thing."
"You think I don't know that?" JC shrugged and smiled and put one hand up, palm outspread. Chris ignored him. He was still slumped in his seat, and he didn't straighten up or look at JC as he spoke. "Look, I know what you're doing, and you can't expect me to smile and just suck it up. I'm not gonna pretend. You all got your things, fair fine, you go ahead. But I don't have -- I don't know how to do anything else other than this. I don't know how to want to."
It was quiet again, until Justin heard his own voice say harshly, "That's stupid." JC looked at him and put his hand up again, not in the peace gesture he'd given Chris, but in a stop it now motion Justin'd seen a thousand, ten thousand times. But this time JC couldn't shut him up. "Don't be so stupid. We've all -- it's not like we haven't had time off before. Not like we haven't done stuff on our own before."
"This is different." Chris was still staring at the floor. "Wait and see."
"That's just -- that's stupid." Justin didn't know why he was so mad, except that Chris wasn't stupid, was never stupid, and now wasn't the time to start. The others weren't going to change their minds out of pity. Justin knew he had to fight, and he knew he couldn't lose if Chris was on his side.
Chris wasn't fighting, though. At least not for Justin. "Well, that's great for you, then, isn't it? You're right -- you'll be just fine." He turned his smile on JC. "Were you thinking we'd finish the tour, or should we just call it quits tonight?"
"No," Justin said, before he'd even figured out what he wanted to say, just to pull Chris back to him. "I didn't mean -- you're not understanding." He looked at Chris' smile and said, "On purpose, you're not understanding.
Even if Chris' shrug hadn't told him he was right, Justin would've known. If Chris didn't understand him, it had to be on purpose.
"Don't worry, J," Chris said, and Justin had heard him say those words so many times, had leaned on them like a crutch, wrapped himself in them like a blanket. "You'll be fine." The words had never sounded like that before.
He wasn't the only one who heard the difference, because JC took a step toward them and said, "Stop it now. Don't do this. It doesn't have to -- we can all walk out of here feeling like this happened the way we want it to."
Chris laughed, a short sharp sound. "You think this is the way I want it -- any of it? Can you actually believe that? Man, I'd like to spend some time in your head, C. It must be a real nice place, all the flowers and candy and children singing hand-in-hand."
"All right," Joey said.
"I know," JC said, "that this isn't exactly the way you want it. But we're all going to walk out of here, Chris, and it matters to me how we do it. And I think it matters to you too."
Chris didn't say anything.
"All right," JC said, and his voice was a little higher than usual, a little shakier. "All right, so we're doing this then? This is it -- we're --"
"Wait," Chris said, and his voice sounded exactly the same as it always had. "I started this, and I'll be the one to end it." He sat up and looked at each of them briefly, fiercely. When Chris' gaze fell on him, Justin turned his head slightly and looked out the window again.
"All right," Chris said. Justin looked up. At Lance, who offered him half a smile and then looked away. At Joey, who wasn't looking at anyone, just staring hard at the floor and swallowing over and over. At JC, who wasn't looking back at Justin, the way Justin thought he'd be, but was watching Chris steadily.
"All right," Chris said again. Justin looked down at his own hand, tracing the edge of the window, his fingers pale against the smoky glass. Through his outspread fingers he watched the world rush by.
"It's over," Chris said.
Justin didn't know what he expected to happen when Chris said it, but he expected something. He thought maybe someone would yell, or cry, thought the words themselves would hang in the air, stretching around them. He had heard of words striking people like a blow, or burning into people's brains. These didn't. They just disappeared. Already Justin couldn't remember exactly what Chris' voice had sounded like saying them.
Justin looked up and saw that everyone still looked the same, Lance staring at the wall, Joey staring at the floor. JC's eyes moved from Chris to rest on Justin. He put his hand out but didn't reach to touch Justin when Justin didn't lean in.
Chris was looking right at the space between Justin and Joey.
The silence opened around them again, and this time it seemed emptier than it ever had before. Justin stood up and pushed past Chris, not because he couldn't stand it or anything, but just because someone had to be the first to leave. So he did. He walked back to the bunks and lay down on his with all his clothes still on. He faced the wall and waited.
No one followed him.
The first thing he noticed was how everything held still.
Justin always forgot that, how strange it felt, the first day or three after getting off tour. He was like a sailor or something -- he had to get his land legs, had to get used to the fact that he didn't have to lean against the counter when he drank from the milk carton, because the house wasn't going to have to suddenly swerve to miss a bump in the road. When he lay down in his bed, his huge warm soft bed, he didn't have to worry about being jarred out of it when someone hit the brakes. He could lie back in his huge warm soft bed and stare up at the ceiling hanging over him, motionless, not going anywhere at all.
It felt stranger than usual, although maybe that was just because he had never really had a chance to get used to it before. Before when he stopped, it was only a few days before he had to start traveling again, whether it was for the band or for his own thing or just to see as much of his friends and family as he could before he had to get back on the road. He'd never had time like this, free time, open-ended, spilling out slowly before him.
It felt even stranger, maybe, because the last days had seemed to move in double time. It was easier than he'd thought it would be, ending everything. Although that wasn't true -- it wasn't easier than he'd thought it would be, because he had never really thought about it before. It was just awfully easy.
Right up until the last second Justin had thought that someone would talk them out of it. Johnny, the label, someone -- it wasn't like they weren't still making money. But no one had even tried very hard. The news struck Johnny speechless, but just for a second, before he sighed and said, "Well, we knew it couldn't last forever."
Voices rushed over Justin, swirling around him like waves around a rock, splitting briefly when they caught on him, but then moving on. Justin didn't hear what they said. He was thinking about what Johnny said.
He took a step back, slowly, and then another. No one noticed. He leaned against the wall, next to the only other person in the room who was silent.
"I never really knew," Justin said to Chris. "I never really believed it couldn't last forever."
He knew it was a mistake even before he saw Chris' smile.
"Of course you didn't," Chris said, and something about the way he said it, that knowing smirk, pissed Justin off enough to say,
"And you did, huh? You expected it to end?"
Chris rubbed a knuckle across his smile until it shrank into something tight and hard. Justin had liked it better when that look was directed at him.
"No," Chris said, pushing off from the wall. "No, I never did."
Justin had meant to go after him, but Joey had grabbed his arm, pulling him into a conversation, and from that moment until the last Justin had felt swept up, pushed and prodded into the way it was going to end. There was something his momma used to say, Easy as falling downhill, and this was that way, just that easy. Before he knew it he was halfway there, and moving so fast he almost didn't notice the bruises he picked up on the way.
Someone said something about a party for the last night, and even though Justin didn't feel much like it he could tell Lance wanted to plan it, so he didn't say anything. The arrangements just happened, moving along without his having to agree to anything, easy as falling downhill. Justin didn't say anything. Chris did, though. Not much; he'd just smiled, that smile Justin'd known before, a long time ago, and had thought he'd never have to see again. "I'll have to regretfully decline," Chris had said, interrupting Lance's recital of the revised revised guest list. Chris hadn't said it particularly loudly, but it brought everything in the room to a stop. Everyone looked at him. "Except not regretfully."
They'd tried to talk Chris into it. Well, Justin hadn't, but everybody else had. Privately first, he was sure, although Justin really only knew it was going on when it started happening in public. It was no use, though. You could never talk Chris into doing anything he didn't secretly want to do, which Justin could have told them, if anyone had asked him, which they hadn't. JC had argued and Joey had begged and Lance had punched the wall, hard enough to split his knuckles. First blood since that day, the day it was decided, and Justin was surprised it had taken so long, but it would take more than that to make Chris change his mind.
"You're fucking it up for all of us," Joey had shouted finally. "Why? Why can't you just do this one thing?"
Chris just looked at him and said quietly, "I thought the whole point of this was that we didn't have to do things we didn't want to any more."
"It's not that I don't want to," Joey had said, almost cried, and against his will Justin felt sorry for him, Joey who'd been apologizing every day since that day.
"No?" Chris said, but just barely, like he could barely be bothered to even have this conversation.
Joey took a step toward him then, but before JC had put a hand on his arm, Joey had stopped. He looked down at Chris until Chris met his eyes. Joey closed his eyes and sighed, and when he opened them Justin knew Joey wouldn't be apologizing any more. "There's just other things I want more."
Chris put a hand on the wall but he didn't flinch from Joey's words. "Congratulations," he said. "And I have something I want to do more the night of the party."
"What?" Joey said angrily.
"Anything," Chris had said, and walked out of the room.
Lance had said something about having the party anyway, and JC had said something soothing and noncommittal, and everything was moving again, but slower. For the first time Justin believed there was going to be a stop.
They didn't have the party.
Justin had known they wouldn't, and he knew everyone else had known, Joey and Lance and JC and everyone. There were drinks, the last night, in Joey's room, with the crew and Kelly and a few friends, and really, like Joey said, it was better that way, because then there weren't a bunch of people they had to be careful around, a bunch of people they had to be polite to. Lance even made a toast about it, red-faced and laughing. Justin had laughed, too, at his flowery words. At the end Lance had said, "But tonight it's just us, just the people who matter," and there was a moment of complete and utter silence when everything stopped. Then Lance clapped his hand over his mouth with an audible pop and his girlfriend was coaxing him down off the table and everyone was talking at once, and Justin snuck out to his own room, where he could close the door behind him and get into bed and finally, finally admit to himself that it wasn't better that way.
He lay back in his huge, warm hotel bed and didn't sleep. He didn't know how long he lay there, because sometime after the first hour he'd dropped the clock into a drawer so he wouldn't be tempted to look at it. The hotel was a good one, and the walls were thick. He couldn't hear anything from the rooms on either side of his. He wished he'd gotten drunker, so he would've passed out right away. He wished he'd gotten drunk enough to make the bed spin. But he was hardly drunk at all. The bed didn't move. Nothing moved. Justin lay in bed and waited. For sleep, for something, he didn't know. He just waited.
There was a soft knock and Justin knew what he was waiting for. His door swung open before he could do more than sit up on one elbow. "J?" JC said, and Justin lay back down. "You're not asleep, are you?"
Justin's eyes had adjusted to the dark a while ago, and he could see JC make his way over to the bed. JC's skin glowed pale but his eyes were lost in the darkness. He sat down on the edge of the bed and Justin rolled to his side. The sheet lifted and then JC pressed against him, wrapping an arm tightly around Justin's waist.
"You left early," JC whispered. "You okay?"
Justin didn't know why he was whispering. They had the room to themselves, and unless they started shouting no one could hear them through the walls. Justin wished he wouldn't. It made him remember things he'd been trying not to think about, so many other late nights in other hotel rooms, nights when JC had to whisper because people could hear through the cheap plaster, nights when JC had to whisper because he wasn't supposed to be there at all.
"It's hard to believe," Justin said, and he was whispering too, "it's hard to believe this is the last time we'll do this."
JC's head dipped to Justin's shoulder. "I hope it's not the last time," JC said, and Justin could tell from JC's voice and the soft brush of JC's curls over his skin that JC was laughing a little.
"No," Justin said, and JC stopped laughing. "No, you know what I mean."
"I know," JC said. "J, it'll be okay."
"No. No, it won't."
JC tugged at Justin's waist until Justin rolled over to face him. He put his forehead against Justin's. When they were that close Justin could see his eyes. "J," he said. "Other things ended. Other things ended, and you survived."
Justin closed his eyes, because he of all people shouldn't have made JC say that. "It's not the same," he said.
"I know," JC said, and Justin kept his eyes closed. He of all people shouldn't have made JC say that. "But, J, it's time."
Justin didn't say anything, and JC pulled him closer, holding him tightly. "Go to sleep, all right?" JC said. "Go to sleep, and things'll look better in the morning."
"No, they won't," Justin said. "Nothing will be different in the morning."
"It'll be one day closer to whatever's going to happen next," JC said. "J, it's better this way. I promise." Justin kept his eyes closed and didn't say anything. It wouldn't be better, Justin knew, but he'd already made JC say enough things he shouldn't have had to say.
"Maybe not better," JC said, even though Justin hadn't said anything. "But just as good. I promise." He rocked Justin a little, and kept whispering, and Justin fell asleep not saying anything.
The next morning had been a little better, because everything was planned out for them, one last piece of choreography to run through. There was a breakfast with some of the tour sponsors, and one last interview, and then Justin's plane was the first out. Somebody packed his bag for him, and somebody put it in the car, and then he was being passed from hand to hand, and it wasn't goodbye, everyone kept saying, it wasn't goodbye.
"It's just so long," Joey had said as he wiped his eyes on Justin's shoulder.
"Call when you get in," Lance said. Then he braced one hand around Justin's neck and tilted Justin's forehead down to his and said, low, "I know you know. So I won't -- but you know."
JC hadn't said anything, just held Justin tight and rocked him a little again.
Justin had been afraid, just for a second, that Chris wouldn't turn up that morning. But Justin had misjudged him. Chris hugged him, his fingers against Justin's back fierce enough to leave bruises, and then let him go.
Chris said, "Goodbye."
The car was running when Justin got in. They were a little late getting to the airport, although it wasn't like they'd leave without him, but Justin still hustled on his way to the gate. No sooner was he strapped in than the plane took off, the engines humming beneath him. He slept the whole trip.
And then he was on the ground, in his big quiet house. He dropped his bag on the floor by the door and wandered through the rooms, opening and closing doors, checking his messages. He didn't answer any of them. Instead he took off his clothes and lay down in his huge soft warm bed and watched the ceiling hanging motionless over him and waited to get his land legs.
He lay awake and watched everything hold still.
Of course, nothing held still for long. The next morning Justin poured himself some orange juice and sat down in his boxers with his feet on his kitchen table and listened to his messages. Johnny and his mom had been working on setting things up for the next album since the day after they'd all -- since the day after that day. Just listening to his messages, the familiar details, the familiar voices, all of it got Justin's blood pumping in a rhythm he knew so well, that relentless forward motion.
After all, it wasn't like he hadn't been waiting for this moment. Not constantly, not all the time, but just occasionally, back before that day, just every once in a while when he felt like he might just be on the bus forever, watching an endless highway ribbon out beneath him. Just in those off moments, the ones that everyone had, when they were tired and sick to death of everything, of each other, just occasionally he'd let himself think about what it would be like to start putting a new album together. His new album.
It was hardly amazing that he'd think about it -- the label had been after him to work on it almost since he'd finished the last one. That was why it was so crazy to think that after all that, it was Joey -- Joey -- who said that they should -- but he wasn't even going to think about that. After all, a little girl was a lot more important than another album, even his own album, and besides, what was done was done. It was like everybody, almost everybody, had said. It was all working out for the best, for him, for everybody. Almost everybody. But he wasn't even going to think about that.
Instead he called Johnny back and listened to him rattle off all those familiar, those long-awaited details in person. "How does that sound?" Johnny asked finally, and Justin had to smile. It sounded like everything was taken care of, of course. It sounded perfect. Johnny knew his job.
"There's just one thing," Justin said, and smiled wider. He could practically hear Johnny leaning closer to the phone, wondering what he could possibly have overlooked. Johnny knew he knew his job. "Instead of Thursday, do you think we could start the day after tomorrow?"
Johnny's laugh was loud and warm and so familiar. "That's my boy," he said. "Take off running, right out of the gate -- that's how you are. You've always been the same."
"Yeah," Justin said. "I'm just the same."
He called his mother next. She told him pretty much exactly what Johnny had just finished telling him, except that it took her about twice as long. Justin didn't mind. His momma laughed, too, when he said how soon he wanted to start. "Baby," she said, "I was just remembering -- the day that you all -- I remember, I said to your dad, don't you worry about Justin. There's no point in worrying about him. He's gonna be just fine."
Justin didn't say anything for a minute. His mother said, "It's not -- honey, I know it's not like you would've -- but maybe it's not so bad, in a way. I know that you never wanted to be the one who said ... but now all that's done with. And you're ready to get on with everything, just the way you always are. I'm proud of you, and you should be proud of yourself. You don't have to feel --"
"No," Justin said. "No, you're right. I'll be fine."
He let his momma fuss over him for another ten minutes, then got off the phone. He sat looking out over his backyard for a little while. The gardener had planted roses while he'd been gone. He made himself sit still and look at them. It was hard. Every part of him, right down to his skin, was tingling with a desire to rush forward, to let a familiar rhythm fill him, take him over. He made himself sit still and drink his orange juice. When he was finished, he stood up and put his glass in the sink.
Then he went back to bed.
He stayed there.
The first day was easy. Touring always left him with weeks of sleep to make up for -- any normal tour he would've been nodding off any time he sat down longer than five seconds by the last couple of days. He hadn't had that problem this last time around, but that just meant that now he was even more exhausted than usual. He probably could've slept forty-eight straight hours and still awakened groaning for just five more minutes.
He didn't, though. He thought about it and then he tried not thinking about it, tried to just sleep through and let things take care of themselves, but in the end there were some things Justin was just not capable of, at least not yet, and one of those things was standing people up. When he woke up the third time, even though it was the middle of the night he picked up the phone.
"Momma," he said, his voice so drugged and drawn out with sleep and something else that he barely recognized it. "I can't -- I'm not going into the studio. I need -- I'm not -- I just don't think that doing this right now is a thing that would be good for me to do. Yet," he said, and bit his lip.
"Baby," she said, her own voice drowsy but so warm that Justin had to scrunch his eyes tight shut and bury his head in the pillow. "Baby, it's okay."
"I just -- I don't --"
"It's okay," she said again. "I almost expected -- I know, I know I said before that I wasn't worried about you, and I'm not, not in the long run, but I'm a momma, I'm your momma and I worry, and I thought that maybe you weren't giving yourself enough time. Maybe you were rushing into something new, after, so that you didn't have to -- that you weren't giving yourself enough time."
They were quiet a minute, together, and then that quiet was almost too long and Justin said, "I only called you --"
"I'll take care of everything," his momma said, just like he knew she would. "I'll call Johnny, and everybody, we'll push everything back for a while, and you don't worry about a thing. I'll take care of everything. You just take care of you, all right?"
"Okay," Justin said.
"And baby, I'm proud of you, you know? I'm proud of you for knowing what you need and doing what you need to do and --"
"Momma," Justin said.
"I know, I know, but I'm just -- I'm proud of you."
"I love you," Justin said, partly because he always said it and partly because he wanted to say something to his mother that was completely and utterly true.
"I love you too," she said. "Now get some sleep, you hear?"
Justin intended to spend some time just holding still. Sleeping late, lying around on the couch watching bad TV, not talking to anyone, not starting anything, just doing nothing at all. But he'd underestimated the force of the momentum of the past months, or his own inability to stay in bed once he'd slept off his tour fatigue, or something. Soon he found himself up early in the mornings, showered, dressed, kicking his shoes against the coffee table and switching off the TV in frustration. It was all he could do to keep himself from heading down into his studio or picking up his guitar or something.
Still, he managed.
His mother called first. Justin had expected that. He'd hoped, maybe, for something different, but he'd expected that. She called every morning, just the way she always had. She was bubbling over with plans, ideas, people she should contact, people he should work with, just the way she'd always been. More than once Justin found himself talking over her, laughing, letting her finish his sentences as they figured out the future together, the way they always had. More than once he had to stop himself in the middle of a sentence and literally bite his tongue, the sting swelling in his mouth as his mother's voice trailed off and a silence grew between them.
"Honey?" she said after a while. "Honey, are you okay?"
"I just -- " he said, the words slurring a little over his sore tongue. "I just don't want to talk about this right now, okay? I don't want to do this. All right?"
"Why?" she said quietly.
"I don't know," he said, the words slow, made clumsy by more than his bitten tongue. He'd never been very good at lying to her. "But I just -- could you maybe, just... just leave me alone, okay, please? Just for a while."
There was another silence, long enough for Justin to taste blood in his mouth. "All right, baby," his mother said finally. "Why don't you just call me when you want -- when you're ready?"
Johnny called him, then, the phone ringing almost as soon as Justin hung it up. Justin almost laughed as he answered it -- he wouldn't have thought his mom'd had time to report back. But then, maybe she hadn't, because what Johnny was telling him was basically the same thing his mother had told him, just wrapped up in more businesslike words. More businesslike words, and more straightforward ones, and Johnny's gift had always been to make whatever he was pitching sound like not just the best plan of action, but the only one. It wasn't like Justin hadn't known that, but he'd never really been on the other side of that relentless stream of words. He'd never really tried to resist Johnny before. He suddenly had a whole new sympathy for a whole bunch of record execs.
Still, Justin had put his mother off with nothing worse to show for it than the taste of blood and guilt in his mouth. Next to that, Johnny was amateur hour. Justin kept his eyes tight shut and tilted his head back against the couch and tried to remember the exact order of the cities they'd hit on the eastern leg of the No Strings tour. Since he hadn't been able to remember them even while he'd been on the tour, it kept him engrossed for quite a while. He didn't even realize Johnny had finished his pitch until Johnny said, "Justin!" sharply and he jumped and the phone fell from his shoulder down between the couch cushions.
Justin dug the phone back out and said, "Sorry about that." There was no need to be rude, after all.
Johnny huffed a little, then said, "So I'll start making the calls today, then, and we can set up studio time for next week."
Justin said, "I dunno."
"Do you want to take a little more time off? That's fine, that's great, no one deserves it more, but you said you wanted a week off back before you all -- back then. What do you want, another month? We can do that, but we should get the timeline in place right now, because you know how difficult it can be to get everyone's schedules coordinated. Just give me a start date and I can take care of everything from there."
Justin said, "I dunno."
"What do you need, Justin?" Johnny said, in his crisp businessman's voice. "Just let me know, and I'll make it happen."
"No you won't," Justin said, mumbled really, the phone half falling from his shoulder again. There was a brief silence, and for a moment Justin thought he'd misjudged and Johnny really hadn't heard him.
Then Johnny sighed and said, "It's perfectly understandable that you'd -- I know you'll want some time to process everything that's happened," and Justin smiled, because Johnny was good enough at what he did that he'd even made that sound natural. He wondered if Johnny had someone on staff who read whatever self-help books Justin mentioned and gave Johnny talking points. Any other day, he would've asked Johnny, and Johnny would've laughed and pled the fifth.
Today wasn't any other day, though. Justin mumbled, "Look, I don't want to ..." and Johnny picked the sentence up from him seamlessly.
"Rush into anything," he said. "Of course. So why don't we just say a month, then, and I'll get to work on setting everything up. I won't even call you unless you call me first. I'll just leave you alone until you're ready to get started."
"That'll be a long time, then," Justin said. He heard Johnny draw in a long, even breath.
"All right," Johnny said, "two months, that's fine, it's just that we talked about bringing it out for Christmas, and even if you finish as fast as you did the last one, we'll still be talking about a really tight timeframe. Really tight. You won't be leaving yourself a lot of room for second thoughts there." Justin didn't say anything. "Of course, that's your decision. You know best. But I'll just hold off on making any calls for a day or two, in case you feel like you'll be ready to go a little earlier. You just give me a call in a couple of days and let me know what you want."
"I don't need a couple of days," Justin said, and there was no mumbling this time. "I can tell you what I want right now."
"Well, great," Johnny said. He sounded relieved. "Great."
"Or, I guess, I can tell you what I don't want."
"That's okay, too," Johnny said, but he sounded a little less relieved.
"I don't want to do it."
There was another silence, a longer one. Justin was determined not to be the one to break it. Johnny must have been just as determined, though, because it went on and on. Justin counted the little flecks of brown on one of the pillows lying next to him, recited all the words to Clocks backwards in his head, concentrated on breathing slowly and deeply, all the way down through his diaphragm every time. Johnny still didn't say anything. Justin was impressed. He was glad Johnny was on his side. Still, Justin knew he'd be able to outlast Johnny. Johnny didn't have his reasons.
"Look, Justin," Johnny said finally, "why don't you just take a little time --"
"I told you," Justin said, "I told you, you said it was about what I wanted and I don't want to do it. I'm just not -- I'm not feeling it."
"Excuse me, sir," Johnny said, "I think I have the wrong number. I was looking for Justin Timberlake?"
Justin said, "Don't."
"Justin, you haven't not felt it since you were eleven years old."
"Well, things are different now."
"Yes," Johnny said, "but you're not different."
Justin had thought he'd known how this conversation would go. He thought he'd prepared an answer for everything Johnny could possibly say, but for a moment he was breathless and speechless. When he finally found his voice, he said, softly, "Maybe I am." The words spilled clumsily, falsely, over his sore tongue.
"Look, I just don't want to talk about it, okay?"
"All right," Johnny said gently. "All right."
Justin sat back on the couch, the phone buzzing in his ear after Johnny hung up. When it started beeping insistently he turned it off and let it fall back down behind the cushion. He knew Johnny was right. He wasn't different.
But if the past ten years -- hell, his whole life -- had taught him anything, it was that he could do anything he set his mind to.
He could make himself different.
Johnny was tricky, Justin would say that for him. For three days Justin's phone didn't ring. He even checked it a couple of times. No matter what Johnny said, he found it hard to believe that Johnny wouldn't call him. However, it looked like Justin was the only one Johnny wasn't calling. On the fourth day, while Justin was in the McDonald's drive-through, his phone started ringing. When he got home and finished his fries and washed his plate and dried it and put it back in the cabinet, he let himself check his voicemail.
"I got something for you," and Justin knew he should delete the message right then, but he couldn't stop smiling. Pharrell's voice was floating, teasing, and then he sang a little, a hook, a beat, no words but that didn't matter because the words were jumping in Justin's mind as he listened. "Your turn," Pharrell laughed at the end. "Call me, baby, let's do something."
Justin was moving as the phone dropped to the counter, already humming under his breath, a familiar rhythm surging in him. He pulled down a note he'd hung on the refrigerator and flipped it over, scribbling as fast as he could sing. Every few minutes he stopped writing, but he didn't stop moving. He paced the length of the kitchen, singing out loud, and then the phone was in his hand and he was dialing and then he stopped. The scrap of paper with his lyrics was still on the counter. He crumpled it up, then unfolded it and read them again. They were rough, but they were good. Justin thought maybe he could put them away in a drawer, save them for later. No one would know. He read them over again. They were definitely something.
Justin tore the sheet of paper into small pieces and tossed them in the trash. Then he turned off his phone.
The messages didn't stop right away. Justin couldn't bear to keep the phone off for too long, although he knew that he should. He was going to just let the messages pile up, but he found himself sitting up in his bed at two in the morning listening to them, jotting lyrics in the margin of his magazine. When he realized what he was doing, he said out loud, "Fuck." The word dropped into the sheets with the same dull thud as his phone. He closed his eyes. Everything in him resisted, which was how he knew it was what he had to do. He picked up the phone and ruthlessly deleted all the messages. Then he lay back in bed and pulled the sheets over his head. It was light out before he slept.
The messages slowed down and then stopped. Justin knew that they would. All it took was discipline, and he had always had that. As a reward, he let himself answer the phone when a familiar number flashed.
"Hey, kiddo," Joey said, his voice warm and slow and missed, "how you been?"
Justin laughed. "Never mind me, how's my baby girl?"
"Not hardly a baby any more. She'd be mad if she heard you say that. She says she's a big girl now." Justin settled back into the couch for a while. Joey was always good for at least half an hour of Briahna stories. But this time Joey only gave him a quick update before he said, "But you never said -- how've you been doing?"
"Okay," Justin said. There was a small silence. Justin didn't break it.
"So, how's the album coming?" Joey's voice shaped each word carefully. "You must be getting a lot done, huh?"
"Well, Joey, I guess you must not have heard that I'm not really doing that right now," Justin said. "On a totally unrelated subject, my, those acting classes are really paying off."
"All right, all right, I suck, I know." Joey's laugh rumbled briefly, then his voice tightened. "They're saying you're slacking off, kiddo. Can't believe that. What are you doing?"
"Nothing," Justin said.
"So, you're taking a little break or something? That's cool, that's cool."
"No," Justin said. "I'm just -- I don't know."
"When do you think you're gonna --"
"I don't know, all right."
"Okay, okay," Joey said. There was another silence. "What are you doing?"
"I told you I don't --"
"No, I mean, what are you doing right now?"
"Nothing," Justin said. "Sitting on the couch. Watching TV."
"Um --" Justin had to watch for a few minutes to figure it out. He made sure to have the TV on for six hours every day, but he didn't always pay attention. That wasn't the point. "I think Full House?"
"We got that here, too," Joey said. "Hold on." Justin heard the creak of a chair and then the raucous blurt of the laugh track. Justin sank down on the sofa, head tilted down against his phone. He could hear Joey breathing. They used to do this all the time when they were on separate buses, chatting during commercials and falling silent when the show started again. They could waste whole afternoons that way. They had whole afternoons to waste back then.
After the show ended Joey sighed. "Listen, I gotta go pick up Bri. I'll call you soon, okay?"
"Okay," Justin said, and turned the TV up a little. He had an afternoon to waste.
Joey kept calling. Not every day and never for more than half an hour or so, but he kept calling. Justin liked it. A couple of times, during commercials, it seemed like Joey was going to press him, ask him some questions, but Justin never gave him any encouragement and Joey ended up sighing and not asking him anything. Joey did most of the talking when he called. He was calling regularly enough that he didn't have much new to say every time, but Justin didn't mind. He found himself waiting for the calls. They gave his days a shape, a gentle curve of looking forward to hearing Joey's voice and then thinking about whatever Joey said afterwards. Justin liked it.
Eight days after Joey's first call, Lance called. Justin didn't like that as much. He and Lance were never too good on the phone. They were better with each other in person, so Justin could smile when he said something he meant as a joke and Lance could roll his eyes. In person they usually had someone else around, too, one of the guys or someone, someone that they could bounce off of. It had been a while since they'd been too good with each other alone.
Lance's voice was clipped, calm, and something about it made Justin want to piss him off. Lance asked him briefly about his family, sent his love to Justin's mother, then said, "So how's the recording going?" in a voice so flat that Justin knew Lance wasn't even trying to act like he didn't know what was going on.
"Look," Justin said, "you obviously talked to Joey and he's making you call me, so why don't you say whatever you've got to say and then you can get back to doing whatever you'd rather be doing?"
"Your mom called me," Lance said, "and no one makes me do anything I don't want to do, so."
"Joey didn't call you?" Justin said.
"Your mom called me first. Then Joey did, and then JC. Do you want to see my phone bills or something?"
"Sorry," Justin mumbled.
"Yeah, clearly," Lance said. "Look, I'm not gonna make this some drawn-out thing. Do you want some advice?"
"Not really," Justin said, and only after he said it did he remember that that was one of those things that didn't really work between them over the phone. "Sorry," he said again, and meant it this time. "I just -- all I meant is, you and me aren't the same people, so what you'd do isn't what it would be good for me to do. Necessarily."
"Well, isn't that lucky? Because what I was going to tell you is not at all what I'd do. JC's staying at Joey's. Why don't you get yourself a plane ticket right now and save us all a lot of trouble and annoying phone calls?"
Justin caught his breath. He hadn't been expecting anything quite so direct. He should have been, but he always made the same mistake he warned Lance about. He always forgot that what Lance would do was never what he would do. He thought about hanging up. Finally he just said, "No."
"Why not?" Lance's voice was brisk and impatient, just the right side of annoyance. Justin didn't say anything.
"Look," Lance said, then stopped. Justin thought he could hear him counting to ten in his head. "Listen, you have a very limited repertoire of things you do when you're fucked up, and you're not talking to your mom which I hadn't actually thought was physically possible for either of you, and you're not talking to -- just go make JC patch you up, okay? It's what you'll wind up doing in the end, you might as well just do it now."
"Just leave me alone, all right?" Justin said stubbornly. "I just want everybody to leave me alone."
"Oh, bullshit," Lance said. "If you wanted to be left alone, you would've disappeared. Left messages so we all knew you weren't dead, but you would've been gone, just like -- "
"You don't know what I want," Justin said. "You never know what I want."
Lance was quiet for a moment. Then he said, "No," the word small and almost controlled. Justin closed his eyes at the twist in Lance's voice. He'd heard that twist once before, late at night, on the road between Chicago and Springfield. He could still feel the way Lance's chest hitched under his hand before he made that sound. Justin closed his fist, but he could still feel it.
For a few minutes there was silence between them. Then Justin said, "I'm --"
"Don't," Lance said sharply. Justin heard him take a deep smooth breath. "I'm not going to -- look, I guess I just wanted to say, you know, if you need anything --" Lance laughed, a laugh Justin had heard many times since the road between Chicago and Springfield. "But you won't need anything from me, will you?"
Justin didn't want to answer. Instead he said, "You know I love you." It was the truth. If it hadn't been, he wouldn't be talking to Lance at all. They had nothing to talk about these days. There was nothing between them any more but love, a frayed cord rubbed raw, stretched out and out, until it snapped tight and slammed them into each other. Justin knew he loved Lance because without wanting to, without even thinking about it, he could still hurt Lance.
"I know," Lance said. "And I'll tell you something, just because of that. You might as well just go to JC now, because this isn't going to work out the way you want it to. Just because you want something, that doesn't mean you'll get it."
"You don't know what I want," Justin said again.
"I do," Lance said. "I do, and you won't get it, because Chris isn't --"
Justin hung up on him. He sat back and closed his eyes, Lance's last words still in his ears.
No matter how much Justin wanted to think differently, what Lance said was right. If it hadn't been true, it wouldn't have hurt. He did have a limited repertoire of things he did when he was fucked up. And he was fucked up now. He had to be. Anybody could see it, if they were looking. Anybody would believe it.
Justin flew home to his momma.
She stopped him almost as soon as he walked in the door, reaching up to hold his face in her hands. She stood there looking up at him until he shrugged and tried to pull away. "I'm glad you came, baby," she said, and tilted his head down so she could kiss him. He let her.
"I'm glad, too," he said, and she smiled at him.
He wasn't glad, though. It wasn't her fault. He'd always loved going back to his parents' house in Tennessee. It had never felt too small for him, not the way some of his friends described their parents' houses after they'd moved out on their own. Part of it was Lynn, the way she always welcomed him in for as long as he could stay and never put the kind of pressure on him that other parents did -- to stay longer, to leave sooner, to stop working so hard, to get a job. But part of it was just the house itself. He loved the way it was big enough that he could shut himself up alone in a room when he wanted to, but still hear the faint noises of other people going about their business. There was always a radio playing low, always someone talking and someone laughing and something going on.
Now that was the problem. Justin had gotten used to being on his own, his only contact with people through the phone. Now his momma watched him, her face lined with worry, as he moved restlessly through the house. It made him mad, although he was careful not to let her see that. It wasn't her fault. The only time he slipped up was one afternoon when he thought she had gone shopping. He wandered over to look out the window and ended up standing next to the piano, idly picking out a tune. He'd been thinking about something else or he wouldn't have let himself do it. Before he had time to stop himself, he'd grabbed a piece of paper and a pen from the table. Then he stopped and stepped back from the piano and carefully shredded the paper.
"Justin," his mother said from the doorway. He turned around guiltily. "What's that?"
"Nothing," he said, and shoved the scraps of paper into his pocket.
"It doesn't look like nothing," she said, coming over to him, her hand out.
"I said it was nothing," Justin said. When he tried to brush past her, he knocked her hand down. She caught her breath and Justin said, "Sorry, I'm sorry."
"Baby," she said, and Justin said, "I'm sorry," again as he ran up the stairs.
From then on he kept to his room during most of the day, watching a little TV, flipping through magazines, but mostly sleeping. There wasn't much else to do. He came down at night and sat with his mom and his stepdad, the constant comforting murmur of the TV filling the silence between them. They had all of them always been night owls, but these days Justin stayed up the latest. His mother gave it a good try, sitting up late on the couch and stealing glances at him while he was watching TV like there was something she wanted to say, but eventually she gave up and headed up the stairs, glancing back over her shoulder at him one last time. A few nights she fell asleep on the sofa, her head pillowed on her arm, her feet tucked under the cushion. Justin threw an afghan over her before he left.
Every night after everyone was asleep he went out. He didn't know why he waited; he had no reason to sneak out. No one minded what he did, as long as he was home. But he always waited until the house had settled into sleep for the night, stillness stealing down the steps from his parents' bedroom until it reached him. When he was sure he was the only thing in the house awake, he picked up his keys and closed the door quietly behind him and drove.
He wasn't going anywhere. There were places he could've gone, of course, bars in town and Memphis right there, but he never even thought of it. There wasn't anywhere he wanted to go. He just wanted to drive, follow the long looping roads, deserted at that hour of the night, follow them deeper and deeper into the darkness. Justin drove fast, radio turned up, windows rolled down.
If anyone had asked him, he would've said he found it soothing, and it would've been true. There was something restful about the quiet countryside, glimpses of houses shut up tight and silent, trapped in the sights of his headlights for a second before he moved on. He always came back yawning, squinting into the sun, falling into bed dreamless until early afternoon. His mother caught him coming in one morning and laughed at him, the worry easing briefly from her eyes. "You were always like that, even as a little baby," she told him. "Whenever you couldn't sleep, I just put you in the car and drove you around. Soon as the key was in the ignition, you were out like a light."
There was something about his late night drives that soothed Justin, but that wasn't the only reason he went. He went because he needed to. Not just to fall asleep, not just for the dull heavy-limbed daze he slipped into by the morning, so thick he sometimes woke up still in his clothes. There was something else he found out there in the night, something that didn't calm him at all. He drove cradled by the bright car and the dark night, the low hum of the engine idling in his veins. But as he drove further and further, his body relaxed into the motion. The night warmed as his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. Something started to beat inside him, a sharp and jagged rhythm just below the lull of movement. It fluttered inside him as the night closed around him, lapping at the edges of his mind, eating away delicately at the heavy drift of sleep that had started to slip over him. He was always relieved when the cool blue and red lights of a cop car appeared, accepting his ticket gracefully, chatting with the officer for as long as he could, even signing autographs when he was asked. Nights when he didn't get pulled over he just kept driving, trying to concentrate on the radio, on the brisk smooth tug of wind past his face. He didn't think about anything, just drove and drove until the weight of exhaustion won and he could turn back toward home. Even then that strange sharp flutter didn't disappear, just sank back to simmer somewhere beneath his skin, beneath everything. Justin was glad he came home every night too tired to dream.
It was something new to him, as insistent as the rhythm that drove him to cover napkins and the backs of magazines with lyrics that he forced himself to reduce to ragged scraps that no one could read. It was something newer than that, and more insistent. Every day there were fewer scraps of paper crumpled beside his bed. Every night Justin stayed out longer and longer.
Every morning he got home later and later, until he was walking in while his parents were eating breakfast. No one said anything as he slid past them to his room. He could feel their eyes watching him walk past, though, and hear their voices start after he'd walked through their silence. The first morning he got back after Paul had already left for work, he tried to sneak upstairs unnoticed. His mother was up, of course, the way she always was. But instead of just smiling at him and letting him make his way up to bed, she took his hand and led him into the living room. She sat him down in the corner of the couch and perched on the arm. The sun sifted through the curtains, but even softened the light was unsparing on her mouth and at the corners of her eyes. Justin ducked his head and looked down at his lap.
"When me and your daddy split up," Lynn said quietly, "I felt like the world had ended."
"Momma," Justin said. He didn't look up. "Momma, it's not ..."
"I felt like the world had ended," Lynn said, "and I even wanted it to for a while, but it didn't, and after a while I was glad it didn't, and in the end things turned out better."
"I don't want things to get better," Justin said. He couldn't meet her eyes. "I want them to stay the same."
"Nothing stays the same, baby," Lynn said. "Even if you boys were all together again, even if you could go back in time to the day before it all happened, it wouldn't be the same. Every minute you're alive, everything's always changing." She put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed lightly. "But I know, I know for you it's changing for the better."
"I don't want things to get better," Justin said stubbornly.
"What do you want then?" Lynn said, a mother-sharp edge in her voice. "Would you prefer worse? Because the only way things stay the same is if you're dead."
Justin didn't say anything. Finally Lynn sighed and patted his shoulder and stood up. "You look tired. Maybe you should head on up to bed."
Justin got up. "I was thinking," he said, and stopped for a minute. In the harsh morning light Lynn looked older. Older, not old, but he could see it coming, lurking in her laugh lines and in the corners of her eyes. It almost made him stop. He didn't. "I was thinking I need to go."
Lynn studied him and Justin managed to meet her eyes. He hadn't said it to punish her, or not mostly. It was days and days now, and still she hadn't done anything but pretty much leave him alone. It was exactly what he'd said he wanted.
"All right," Lynn said. "Maybe that's -- you go ahead to JC."
"No," Justin said sharply. "No, that's not what I -- that's not where I'm going."
Lynn kept looking at him and Justin had to struggle not to look away. She was going to say something, Justin could tell she was, and more than anything he didn't want to hear it. He couldn't tell her that, though -- that would be worse than hearing it. Instead he kept his mouth shut and kept looking at her. Finally she sighed and said, "You do what you want, baby. But you know you can always come back here."
Justin swooped her up suddenly and hugged her fiercely. "I know," he said. "I know that, I know I can come home whenever I want."
"Not just when you want," Lynn said, lifting her head from his shoulder. He didn't like the way she looked into him. "Whenever you need to come home, too."
Justin fled to his dreamless bed.
He only slept a few restless hours before he was up again. As he packed, he thought he didn't want to leave at all. Maybe he could stay, listening to his momma's laugh floating out of her warm yellow kitchen. Later he'd sit at the kitchen table, eating her chicken-fried steak and listening to her and Paul talk about their day. But he knew that sooner or later they'd head up to bed, and he'd be alone. Sooner or later they'd head up to bed, and he'd be alone, and once again he'd hit the road.
Today when he hit the road, he wanted to be going somewhere.
In the car, his momma's lipstick still waxy on his cheek, her perfume still hovering around him, Justin thought about just driving till he got there, no call first, no warning, just turning up like he was sure of his welcome. He drove a good fifty miles thinking that was exactly what he was going to do. Then he pulled over to the side of the road. He didn't know where he was going. And he wasn't sure of his welcome.
Justin knew he had to call.
The thing was, Chris was always the one who called. When he was mad, he called and bitched and yelled and called back when Justin hung up on him. When he was depressed, he called and didn't say anything and sighed and said, "No, it's not -- I dunno," and breathed into the receiver while Justin drove over to his place, cell phone cradled on his shoulder. When he was bored, he never stopped calling.
He didn't call when he was happy. He didn't have to. When he was happy, Justin had always been right there.
Chris had a ritual about calling after a tour ended. He always waited two days, exactly forty-eight hours, from the last time they'd seen each other. It was always forty-eight hours, like he'd figured out that that was the precise amount of time needed for Justin to forget all the petty annoyances of living on top of four guys for nine months and start missing him.
Justin had known Chris wouldn't call so soon this time. After all, this wasn't just like a regular tour ending. This was different. But still, forty-eight hours after he'd gotten into the running car to go to the airport, he had found himself waiting for the phone to ring. Chris always sounded the same when he called for the first time after a tour, voice arcing high and questioning on Justin's name, laughing with delight and relief when Justin answered, as if he hadn't quite trusted the phone lines to work after all that time, forty-eight hours. But forty-eight hours had passed, and another forty-eight and another, and then Justin had stopped counting and Chris still hadn't called.
Justin had thought about calling Chris a couple of times. More than that, really, if he were honest with himself. But the thing was, Chris was always the one who called. Every time he thought about calling, he thought about that, and he always put the phone down. What he wanted was what he'd always gotten.
But he hadn't gotten it.
Justin took out his phone.
The number was right, Justin knew the number by heart and besides it was programmed in, but he got a message saying it was no longer in service. He thought for a minute. That explained a lot, maybe. Phones got lost, or stolen, and sometimes people got so used to having their numbers saved in their phones that they forgot even numbers they called every day. They got used to the way things had always been, to their routine. Nobody expected it to fail them.
Justin called a number he didn't know by heart.
"Justin," Bev said, and she sounded surprised but a little restrained, like maybe she had somebody in the room with her. Justin's heart lifted as he thought about who that somebody might be.
"Hey, Bev," Justin said. "I was trying to call Chris, and it said his number wasn't recognized, or something, so I thought maybe he lost his phone or switched numbers or something and hadn't told me yet." Bev didn't say anything. "So I thought maybe you could hook me up."
"Justin," Bev said slowly, and she sounded a little angry. "Justin, I'm sorry," she said, and Justin knew she wasn't angry at him. "He asked me not to give his number out."
"But -- but it's me."
"I'm sorry, sweetie. And I'm not saying he's right, because I don't think he's right, but I promised him."
"Bev, Bev, I totally understand, my momma would totally be all protective of me too if I wanted to take, like, a break from people, but you know, you know he didn't mean me."
"Sweetie," Bev said. "Sweetie, he said not to -- he said you."
"Oh," Justin said. It sounded stupid just hanging there in the soft pitying silence, but he couldn't think of anything else to say. "Oh."
"I'm sorry," Bev said gently. "But he just -- he'll come around. He just needs some time."
"So, what?" Justin said. "So he's just not going to talk to any of us for, like, weeks and weeks?" Bev didn't say anything. "Or just me," Justin said. "He just won't talk to me."
"It was hard on him, the way things -- the end." Justin flinched. "He didn't -- well, he took it hard." There was something guarded in her voice again.
"Is he there?" Justin said. "Put him on, please, please Bev, just for a second, please --"
"Justin, Justin, honey, please," Bev said. "He's not here. He's on his trip."
"On his -- right, his trip," Justin said dully. "Where is he now?"
Bev paused a moment, and Justin snapped, "I'm not going to stalk him."
He was ashamed of himself when Bev said quietly, "I just couldn't remember for a minute -- he flew into London this morning, I think."
"I'm sorry," he said.
"I'm sorry, too," Bev said. "I'll tell him you called, okay, honey?"
"No," Justin said quickly. "No, please don't."
Bev didn't say anything, and Justin knew he was screwed. He couldn't blame her, though. His momma would have told him, if the situation had been reversed. It was a mother thing.
"All right," Bev said. "I won't. Since he won't -- it seems only fair." Justin heard Chris in the crisp, thoughtful way she said it, as if she'd been balancing all the pros and cons, as if it were important that things be fair. He had to put the phone down on the passenger seat.
When he picked it back up, Bev was saying, "-just a little cooling off period, I think, maybe for all of you. I'm sure, I'm sure it won't last. I'm positive." She stopped talking, as if she were waiting for Justin to say something.
"Okay," Justin said.
Bev sighed. "You take care of yourself, you hear? And I know I'll be seeing you real soon."
Justin listened to her hang up. He closed his phone and placed it carefully back on the passenger seat. Then he bent forward until his forehead was against the steering wheel and closed his eyes.
When he couldn't stand being still any longer, he started the car and drove.
He went to JC.
Justin didn't bother to call JC first, because he never had to call JC first. Other people did maybe, but he never did. He didn't bother to call Joey either, even though he knew that was where JC was, because nobody ever had to call Joey first.
His momma had obviously called, though, because Joey had the door open before Justin pulled all the way up the driveway. Briahna ran out to meet him, and Justin was glad to pick her up and swing her around and bury his face in her hair for a minute. Joey looked so glad to see him.
Joey walked down the driveway and pulled Justin into a hug. In the same motion he took Briahna from Justin, so easily Justin didn't notice until his arms were empty. When Justin stepped back Joey looked at him over his daughter's head. "You shouldn't have stayed away so long," Joey said.
"I know," Justin said miserably, looking down at his shoes.
Joey knocked gently at Justin's chin with his knuckles until Justin looked up. "You're okay," Joey said. He smiled and Justin smiled gamely back at him. "Come on, you can come up with something a little more convincing than that." Justin tried to smile a little wider, but he could feel it start to go wobbly. Joey laughed and messed up his hair. "Okay, maybe you can't. Looks like you got here just in time."
Joey started to walk down to his car, and Justin said, "Wait -- where are you going?"
"We're going to the park," Joey said. When Justin didn't say anything, Joey said, "Justin, JC's inside."
"Oh," Justin said. He looked down at his sneakers again. "Joey, I didn't --"
"Go ahead," Joey said. "I'll see you tonight." When Justin didn't move, Joey yelled, "C!" Briahna put her hands over her ears and laughed. "Justin's here!"
Justin headed up toward the door with a lurch of fear in his stomach. He didn't know why. He'd driven miles and miles just to see JC, just so JC could tell him what was wrong and make him feel better. He didn't know why he was so reluctant to take the last few steps. He told himself to stop being stupid and let himself into Joey's house.
"I was just changing --" JC said from the top of the stairs. The explanation was kind of unnecessary, as JC was still pulling a shirt down over his head. As Justin watched the last few inches of JC's stomach get swallowed by one of Joey's T-shirts, Justin thought he knew what he'd been afraid of. He'd been afraid that one more thing would have changed, one last thing, that JC would have changed.
JC smiled. "J," he said, "I've been expecting you for, like, days," and Justin knew nothing had changed.
Justin took the stairs three at a time, and JC was laughing at him when he reached the top, laughing when Justin pushed his hands under Joey's T-shirt and slid them up JC's chest, laughing when Justin shoved him back against the wall. JC stopped laughing when Justin's tongue pressed into his mouth. Some things never changed, apparently, thankfully, some things never changed.
Never changed, never changed and JC's hands were in his pants, JC's tongue in his mouth, and Justin was trying to desperately move them both down what must have been the longest hallway in human history. He felt JC wince against him when they slammed into a doorknob and reached behind him to turn it blindly. JC laughed again when they fell into the room and some things never changed.
Never changed, never changed and somehow on the way to the bed things got flipped around and JC was the one pushing him until Justin fell back on his elbows on the mattress. JC had managed to get Justin's pants down around his knees, and Justin got tangled up trying to kick them off over his shoes. JC helped him and he was laughing again, still, and some things never changed.
Never changed, never changed and Justin didn't realize he was saying it out loud until JC rose up over him, his knees on the bed on either side of Justin's thighs. "Justin," JC said softly. He touched Justin's cheek gently. "Justin, are you sure --" and that wasn't the same.
Justin shoved JC's hand away and grabbed at his shoulders, turned his face to the side so he couldn't see JC's eyes. "Please," he said, like he'd never had to before, not seriously, not when it wasn't a game, "please, please, please." Nothing happened for a moment. JC didn't move. Justin let his hands fall down to the bed. JC still didn't move. Justin whispered, "Please," his eyes squeezed tight shut so he wouldn't have to see what JC looked like when he said no.
"J," JC said, and he was whispering too, even though he didn't have to. Justin kept his eyes shut. "Oh, J," JC said, and started moving.
JC always seemed like he'd be sweet, tender, almost sentimental, but in reality he was sharp teeth on Justin's collarbone, fingers digging into Justin's hips. He'd always been like that, or not always maybe but for far enough back that it was like nothing had changed. Justin's eyes opened in a familiar shock as JC bit down on his shoulder, arched away and back into JC's relentless thrusts. JC was always like that, as if in this one place JC let himself be afraid he wouldn't be remembered, let himself try to leave a mark. Justin knew that later JC would run his hand over Justin's body, tracing delicately over and over again, as if he were surprised to find that his fingertips fit the dark violet marks on Justin's skin exactly, as if it were some miracle, some amazing sign or fate.
Some things never changed, never changed, never changed.
Afterwards JC curled up behind Justin and Justin relaxed back into him, watching JC's fingers slide down over his thighs. "We shouldn't have done that," JC said, and Justin laughed, not meanly, but happily, because some things never changed. He watched JC's fingers reach the bruises they'd left and cover them completely.
"We won't do that again," JC said, and Justin closed his eyes as JC's hand stilled and then pulled away, so he wouldn't have to know what it looked like when the last thing changed.
"Justin," JC said. "J." His voice was warm against Justin's shoulder, and the steady rhythm of his breathing pushed him against Justin, just a little, over and over again.
Justin turned his face further into the pillow but didn't say anything else. He wanted to tell JC to leave him alone, but he was afraid if he did that JC might, and he wanted to not be left alone more than he didn't want to hear whatever it was JC was going to tell him. Justin tried just mumbling, hoping that JC would think the pillowcase had muffled whatever Justin was trying to say.
"Oh, J," JC said, and his voice was warm and light and balanced somewhere just between laughing and sighing. "What are you gonna do with you?"
"I don't know," Justin said.
"Well, you know, maybe time to start working on that."
"What do you think I've been doing?" Justin turned over angrily and looked at JC. Which was a mistake. He dropped his head onto JC's chest and said, "I don't want to."
"What do you want, then?" JC's hand slid up under Justin's shirt, over his back, moving in easy circles that did nothing to soften the crispness of his question.
"I want everything to be the same as it was before."
JC did laugh this time. "Oh, is that all?"
"Yes," Justin said stubbornly. "That's all."
"Only what everyone in the world has wanted at one time or another, and never gotten. That's all."
"Everybody doesn't -- some people do, they do get it," Justin said. "There are people who do. We had it."
"No, we didn't," JC said. His grip tightened on Justin's back before Justin could sit up. "I don't mean -- it's not that we didn't have something great, that all of us weren't happy. But it's not like we all sat around thinking every minute, I hope nothing ever changes, I hope everything is always exactly the same."
"I did," Justin said, but he couldn't quite look at JC when he said it. That didn't stop JC from looking at him. "Well, but I only wanted things to change by getting better."
JC laughed again.
"Stop laughing at me," Justin said. "It's not funny."
"J, I'm not laughing at you."
"Well, maybe you didn't notice, but I'm the only one here."
"No, I just meant --" JC sighed and stopped. "J, it'll get better."
"Yeah, you said that before and it didn't. Everything just got worse. I just don't -- I don't understand why everything has to suck now. And don't tell me it doesn't because it does, for me at least, and for -- for me it does."
"It'll get better," JC said. "It's just, right now," JC sighed and stopped again. "We're learning how to leave each other," he said. "It's a hard lesson."
"I'm not learning," Justin said. JC didn't say anything. Justin closed his eyes and thought about the twist in Lance's voice, the pity in Bev's, the things his momma didn't say to him. He thought about the road behind him fading from his rear view mirror. "Well, I don't want to."
"Yeah, well," JC said. "It's not that any of us wanted to so much."
"Why is it -- it's harder for me." JC smiled a little and Justin said, "No, but it is, really, it's harder for me than the rest of ... it's harder for me. Why isn't it so hard for you?"
JC propped himself up on his side just enough so that Justin's head slid down a little, onto JC's arm. "I think -- Joey, he had maybe a little longer to get ready, and he knew what he was leaving for, you know. Lance, too, although he's not -- he's still having to keep his distance a little."
"What about you?" Justin said.
JC lay back again and stretched his arms out over his head. Justin's head fell onto the pillow. JC smiled at the ceiling. "I'm just naturally good at leaving things," he said.
Justin didn't know what to say to that. He lay on his back, too, and looked up at the ceiling. "I don't want to," he said finally.
"That's what it's about, J," JC said without looking at him. "You learn to leave things, leave them over and over until you find what you can't leave, what you can't live without. Then you learn to leave that too. We've got to practice losing things, over and over, to get ready for the real thing."
"But, C," Justin said, turning onto his side. "What if -- if somebody's always leaving, maybe -- isn't somebody always left behind?"
JC looked at him. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah."
"I think," Justin said. "I think that's --" He bit his lip and looked down. JC put his hand on Justin's chest, just below his throat and rubbed gently. "I think maybe for me --" Justin tried to stop but JC didn't do anything that would let him forget what he was thinking. "I think maybe for me, it's not that I have to learn to leave -- things. I think I'm just -- I don't know how to be left behind."
"Yeah," JC said. His hand kept moving against Justin's skin. "Yeah, maybe."
They lay like that for a long time. Justin looked at the ceiling and listened to his breath come shakily under JC's hand. When JC started to get up, he grasped JC's wrists and pulled him down. It was just about comfort, Justin was sure, that was all he wanted. He wasn't thinking about what JC said before, wasn't thinking that he wanted to make a liar out of JC about something, at least. It wouldn't have mattered if he did. It wasn't like it had been before, then or ever. JC moved over him like the tide going out, gently, easily, slipping a little further away every time. This time, JC didn't leave a mark on him.
When they were finished, Justin lay in bed and watched JC get up and get dressed. It had gotten dark in the room. Justin had to squint a little and he still couldn't see JC's eyes.
JC paused at the door and said, "Justin." Justin didn't answer. He knew it was too dark for JC to see his face.
JC went out and closed the door behind him.
By the time Justin got himself up and showered, the bedroom was fully dark. The house was far enough away from the street that no lights shone in the windows. Justin took his shower in the dark, because he couldn't be bothered to turn on the lights and because it seemed like the thing to do. The tile in Joey's bathroom was pale, so it wasn't like he couldn't see at all. It was strangely comforting, all of him cradled by the darkness and the warmth of the water, all of him except the one strip of cool skin where he leaned his forehead against the glass door.
Walking downstairs was like walking into a different house. All the lights were on, and the TV was blaring some sitcom in earsplitting competition with Man of La Mancha echoing from the kitchen. Joey was standing out on the patio, and Justin knew he was talking with another member of the Fatone clan just by the way Joey's hands were waving, even before he saw the phone tucked against Joey's shoulder. Justin paused in the hallway, and Joey turned to him and smiled, a huge wide joyful smile, and mouthed something at him. Justin couldn't understand what he was saying, mostly because Joey was yelling into the phone at the same time, but when he headed for the kitchen Joey grinned wider and gave him a thumbs up sign before turning back to his conversation.
Justin could have made himself three dinners from the leftovers in the kitchen, but he settled for a sandwich. He carried his plate back into the den and sat down next to Briahna on the couch. "Whatcha watching?" he said, but the little girl just put her finger to her lips and shook her head. Justin felt oddly rejected until the commercial, when she climbed onto his lap, careful of his plate, and started to explain who all the characters were.
Despite the noise in the room, Briahna spoke in a tiny wisp of a voice. Justin said, "Speak up, honey," and when she shook her head he reached for the remote. She grabbed his hand before he could pick it up. Then she tugged at his chin with her other hand until he slumped down and tilted his head down to her mouth. Her quiet murmur in his ear subsided when the commercials ended and the show started again. Justin ended up watching her instead of the TV, her lips parted, her eyes big and heavy-lashed. They sat there for a long time, not talking, Briahna's small body warm against Justin's. Justin leaned his head back against the top of the couch and felt the weight of her body change, grow heavier and duller as sleep took her. Finally he scooped her up and stood, then laid her gently on the sofa. He turned off the TV and tucked a blanket around her.
Then he picked up his keys and went out driving.
When Justin got back, the house was dark except for a small splash of amber light spilling out from the kitchen. Someone had left the light over the sink on. Justin started to head up the stairs when Joey said, "J." Justin turned and walked back to the kitchen.
Joey was sitting pushed back a little from the table, a bottle of whiskey and two glasses in front of him. He looked tired, even in the low forgiving light. Joey took a sip of whiskey and held out the other glass to Justin. Justin knew from the steadiness of his hand that Joey wasn't drunk, but the crisp snap of his wrist as he shook Justin's glass impatiently made Justin wonder just how long Joey had been sitting there. He took the glass from Joey's hand and drank, then dropped his keys on the kitchen counter behind him. Justin winced at the sharp rattle they made in the quiet room.
"Where's JC?" Justin said.
"He went over to the studio," Joey said. "Been there since before you got up."
"The studio?" Justin said. "I thought he didn't get --"
"No," Joey said, "no, yeah, that fell through. But he thinks he might have an easier time shopping something around if he's got, you know, something for people to listen to. You know him, he needs to be --" Joey shrugged. "Anyway, I thought that's where you went."
"No," Justin said. "No, he doesn't want me there." Joey rolled his eyes. "Shut up. It's true."
"Nobody likes me, everybody hates me," Joey sang softly. "Guess I'll go eat worms --"
"Fuck you," Justin said.
As he pushed past Joey, Joey grabbed his wrists and pulled him down into his lap. Justin struggled, but Joey was strong and warm and familiar, most of all familiar. Justin said, "Fuck you," again, right before he relaxed against Joey's chest.
Joey laughed a little. Justin could feel it against his neck, tickling right at the base of his hairline. "You're getting too old for this shit," Joey said.
Justin pushed up but Joey's hands stayed tight around his wrists. "If you don't want me to --"
"That's not what I meant," Joey said mildly. "You know it, too."
"Joey," Justin said, letting his head roll back onto Joey's shoulder.
"Where'd you go?"
"Nowhere," Justin said. "Just driving around."
"Yeah, we heard you been doing that."
"Nice to see the old grapevine's still working."
"Like that's not why you're doing it," Joey said. His voice was rich and warm in Justin's ear. "'Look at me -- I'm miserable! Look again -- still miserable! Now I'm miserable in a car! Now I'm miserable in Tennessee -- '"
"Shut up!" Justin said. He struggled but Joey kept him pinned in his lap. "Let go!"
"Justin," Joey said, "we both know you could knock me on my ass right now if you were really trying." He let go of Justin's wrists and Justin bent forward and put his head down on his arms on the table. Joey ran a hand up under Justin's shirt and rubbed his back. "Come on now," he said. "You gotta quit this shit. Seriously."
"Joey," Justin said. "Joey, I'm not faking -- I really am... I'm miserable."
"I know," Joey said. "Believe me, everybody got the memo."
"Not everybody," Justin snapped before he thought about it. Joey didn't say anything, but his hand stopped on Justin's back. Justin held his breath.
"Kiddo," Joey said finally. "Kiddo, you know him."
"I thought I did," Justin said.
"J," Joey said. "You do. You're just forgetting." Justin let out his breath slowly, a long exhalation pulled out of him by the slow drag of Joey's hand along his spine. "He's just -- he's gotta go do something as unforgivable and unlovable as he can think of, and then we forgive him and love him and everything's okay again. You know him." Joey was quiet for a while, his hand moving thoughtfully over Justin's back. Justin lay against the table and closed his eyes and tried to think of nothing but the circling of Joey's fingers against his skin. "But it's not about -- it's about you," Joey said, and Justin opened his eyes. "It's about what you're going to do."
"I just want," Justin said, "I just want everything to be the way it was."
"Yeah," Joey said, "yeah, I didn't say it was about what you want."
"I don't know what to do," Justin said. It was a relief to say it out loud in Joey's quiet kitchen.
"Yeah, well, maybe you need to start doing something about that." Joey's voice was gentle, though, and he didn't say anything else. They sat like that and Justin was grateful for it, grateful for the faithful weight of Joey's hand moving over his back, grateful for the soft sound of Joey's breath in the still room, grateful even for the dull stabs of pain that started to crawl up his back after they'd been sitting there a while. But eventually Joey let his hand curl over Justin's shoulder and tug Justin up. "C'mon," he said, "you can't sleep like this."
Justin stood a little creakily and picked his keys up off the counter. "J, don't --" Joey said.
Justin said, "I'm not -- I'm not gonna drive around."
"Good," Joey said. "You go on to C."
"No," Justin said. He looked down at the floor. "No, he doesn't want me."
"Yeah," Joey said. "Yeah, that's why he left the address of the studio in three different places, even though I've been there with him like fifty times. He obviously doesn't want any company tonight."
"No," Justin said. "He doesn't --" Justin took a deep breath. "Everything's changed," Justin said. "It's different, with him and me."
"Maybe," Joey said. "But kiddo, the world couldn't change enough to make JC not want you, some way."
Justin looked up at Joey and smiled a little. "I'm just gonna go home." Joey looked like he was going to say something, but just shook his head. "No, I mean -- it's like you said. I gotta quit this shit."
"Yeah," Joey said, "but I didn't think you were gonna go, like, cold turkey."
"Maybe that's the only way," Justin said.
"Yeah," Joey said. "Yeah, maybe."
"So yeah," Justin said. "I'm just gonna go home."
"Good boy," Joey said. He reached out and pulled Justin into a hug. "Good man," he murmured in Justin's ear. "Good man."
Justin intended to go home. He really did. He managed to drive straight there from Joey's, ignoring the way the road seemed to beckon, black and wide and welcoming, and pulled up in his own driveway. He even turned the car off and took his key out of the ignition.
He just couldn't seem to get out of the car.
It was childish, he knew. Worse than that, because even as a child he wouldn't have been allowed to indulge himself like this, and that thought was sharp enough to make him pick his head up off the steering wheel and open his car door.
Then he shut it and put his head back down.
His house was dark and closed on a three a.m. street. But even at three a.m. Justin knew it, it was his street, a street of open screen doors and laughter spilling from open windows. And it didn't matter that his house was dark, of course; Justin had had this house for years, knew every room with his eyes closed. It was so completely known and familiar and just plain his that the idea of hovering out here like a ghost in the night made Justin want to laugh. He didn't.
He didn't get out of the car either.
Overwrought, he told himself, which was something his momma always said to him when he got worked up over something stupid. Overwrought, overtired, overemotional. What he needed to do was just relax. Maybe it would be okay to drive around, just for a little while, until he calmed down. But even better, maybe he'd go inside the house, just for a minute, to get some water, maybe a couple of CDs, and then he'd drive around just for a little while and then it would be morning and then he'd feel much better. That was what he needed -- just a little time spent driving around with Innervisions in the deck. Justin smiled. That was exactly what he needed. That was exactly what he wanted. That was exactly what he'd do.
Justin hadn't actually managed to get out of the car when he realized that Innervisions wasn't in the house. He'd lent it out.
Justin started the car and hit the road.
Chris' house was dark and closed too, on a three a.m. street just like Justin's. And Justin knew Chris' house, too, could walk through with his eyes closed and his arms at his sides and never bump into anything, not even the piles of abandoned novels and worn-twice T-shirts and candy bar wrappers that sprouted in the corners of any place Chris stayed for more than twenty minutes. But somehow Justin didn't have any trouble getting out of the car and walking up the driveway.
With his key in the door, Justin felt like he was home.
He felt that way for a good three minutes, until the alarm started shrieking. Justin punched frantically at the keypad. He knew the code, Taylor's birthday, he hadn't forgotten it, probably couldn't forget it if he tried, it was burned so deep in his brain, in his muscle memory. He tapped it in two, three times, each time pushing harder, as if that was the problem, and the last time he jammed his finger and something about the sharp blank shock of pain reminded him of the buzzing empty seconds of dead air when he dialed Chris' old phone number. He stuck his sore finger in his mouth and leaned heavily against the wall.
The noise was blaring, deafening, and for a second Justin thought about just getting back in the car and driving away. Somebody'd come turn the damn thing off eventually. But that somebody was probably already on his way, and with the way Justin's luck had been going lately, they'd catch him trying to run and the whole thing would be even more pathetic than it already was. Justin sank down, his shoulder sliding along the wall, and crouched there, still sucking on his finger. He sat back on his heels and closed his eyes and waited for somebody to come.
It was one of the security company guys, not the cops, thank God, and he knew Justin because it was Justin's security company too, and he was on Chris' list, and besides, he was Justin Timberlake. It was an older guy, and he shook his head as he turned off the alarm. "You gotta be careful if you're gonna be out drinking," he said, and Justin was so grateful for the silence that he didn't think before he said,
"Oh, I wasn't drinking."
The man paused for a minute, and as Justin looked up at him he thought about what he must look like, hunched on the floor in his sweated-through shirt, looking exhausted and completely freaked out. "Or, um, yes," Justin said. "Yes, I was, but I'll be more careful, you're absolutely right, I should have made sure I remembered the code before I went out, or wrote it down somewhere, or maybe not because that might not be the safest thing to do but I could have done something --"
"Well, good night," the man said quickly. He left the hall light on as he left. Justin sat on the floor and pulled his knees up to his chest. There were three spare bedrooms upstairs and Justin knew his way to them blindfolded. He probably still had an extra set of sweats in the back room, the one with the big windows that looked out over the yard that he always stayed in. He tipped his head back against the wall and looked at the stairs, disappearing into the darkness like it was fog. Justin stood up and walked into the den.
He kicked his pants off, snagged one of Chris' T-shirts from the pile in the corner, and went to sleep on the couch.
"Well, isn't this just the saddest thing you've ever seen," Joey said. He stood in the doorway. JC was behind him, just visible past Joey's shoulder, his head haloed by the sunlight.
Justin peered out from under the pillow he'd dragged over his head sometime after six in the morning. Chris' den had too many windows and they all faced east. "What're you doing here?" Justin croaked.
"Some drunk idiot set off the alarm, and I'm on Chris' list," Joey said. "They called me at like five in the morning."
"Three," Justin said. "And I wasn't drunk."
"That doesn't exactly make it better." Joey plopped down on the sofa, forcing Justin to bend his knees to make room. He slapped Justin's calf. "Put some pants on, and let's go."
"Where are we going?" Justin said before he thought about it. Then he said, "I'm not going anywhere."
"Sure you are," Joey said. He snapped his fingers and said, "Come on, up up up!"
Justin was half off the couch before he knew what he was doing. Fatherhood had made Joey tricky. Justin sat back down and said, "No."
"Well, you can't just ..." Joey leaned in and looked at Justin for a minute. "Dude, is that Chris' shirt? This is all getting a little too Single White Justin for me."
Justin threw himself back down on the couch and pressed his face against the back cushion. JC said, "Joe."
"No, I mean, we're really starting to verge on the freaky here. Imagine if you lived here, and you walked in on this right now, wouldn't you --"
"He's not gonna walk in," Justin muttered sulkily.
"How do you know?" Joey said. Justin felt him stand up.
"He can't. He's in London."
"He's in London, like London England, or he's in London like you killed him and buried him under the house and are listening to his telltale heart beat through the floorboards?"
Justin raised his hand high, middle finger extended. Joey laughed. JC said, "Joe," again, but he was laughing a little too.
"I'm just saying," Joey said.
JC sat down next to Justin and put a hand over his ankle. "Sit up," he said, but Justin didn't listen. "Joey, why don't you go get a drink or something?"
"Okay," Joey said. "But if I open up that refrigerator and see a decapitated head staring back at me from next to the iced tea, I'm not gonna be happy."
"Fuck you!" Justin yelled, and then coughed as he got a mouthful of couch cushion. He heard Joey laugh as he walked away. JC rubbed his leg soothingly for a minute, then tapped his ankle.
"Sit up, J," he said. Justin sat up reluctantly. He pulled his knees up and rested his arms on them. JC looked at him. "What are you doing?"
"I left my Stevie Wonder CD over here."
"And what, you're waiting for it to get back after a night out?" JC stretched an arm out along the back of the couch and Justin tipped his head back against it. "What are you trying to do here?"
"I'm not trying to do anything," Justin said. "I'm just -- I'm just trying to feel a little better, okay? Everyone else is fine and I'm fucked up and that's okay, but I just want you all to leave me alone and let me figure out -- just leave me alone."
"J, I can't, when you're like this. And you know I can't, and that's why you came back. If you really wanted me to leave you alone, why would you have come looking for me?"
"I don't know," Justin said. He meant for it to sound sullen, but there was a waver in his voice that he suspected might just sound pitiful. JC's fingers curved until his knuckles were rubbing gently along Justin's neck, just below his ear. Justin heard it almost as much as he felt it, a silken scratch of sound.
"I do," JC said, but he didn't get up. Justin resisted the urge to drop his head, to squeeze JC's hand against his shoulder and stop JC's soft insistent fingers. Instead he said,
"Do something for me?"
"That's better," JC said. He smiled.
"Is that a yes?" Justin said.
"Do you really have to ask?" Justin didn't answer. JC laughed a little and said, "Yeah, it's a yes. You know whatever it is, I'll do it if I can."
"Would you call Chris for me?" JC's fingers stopped moving. His smile still hung on his lips. "Please?" Justin said.
"No," JC said, and when his mouth stopped shaping the word his smile was gone.
"I know Bev will give you his number, if you don't have the new one," Justin said. "If you just ask her, you don't have to say it's for me you can just say that you need it, which isn't even a lie, and she'll give it to you, I know she will and you can just --"
"Justin," JC said, and Justin's words dried up before he could even close his mouth. "I said no." JC wasn't looking at him. Instead he looked straight ahead with his arm still crooked around Justin's shoulders. Justin stared at him, at the stern line of his cheekbone and the way he wasn't smiling.
"Why?" Justin said. "JC, come on, please, I promise I won't give him a hard time, I won't try to make him do anything if he doesn't --"
"Justin," JC said again, the name snapping out crisply. JC still didn't look at him. "I can't."
"You mean you won't," Justin said.
JC looked at him and Justin dropped his eyes until JC looked away. "Yeah," JC said thoughtfully, like it was something new. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
"Fuck you," Justin said. "Fuck you, JC, you said you'd help me, you said you'd do anything and now you won't. You even said yourself it's not that you can't, it's that you won't, so just leave me the fuck alone, like I told you to, just leave me alone --" Justin's voice broke a little and he stopped in horror and fury. He leaned forward a little and then slammed back hard against the soft back of the couch.
"J," JC said, and he turned to Justin, his arm curling closer around him, the lines of his face softening as all of him turned, "Come on, J, just -- just trust me on this, okay? That's not what you need. You know it, too, if you'd just think about it -- "
"Fuck you," Justin said again. "You think you know everything, you think you know what I should do, but you don't. You don't know what I need, you don't know what I know --"
"J," JC said, "do we have to do this? You're here for a reason, you know. Why else would you have come back here, to me?" JC smiled, his lips curving just a little, just enough to make Justin want to smack that smile off his face. "You know you came back to me so that I could --"
"It's not your couch I'm camped out on," Justin said.
JC froze, his face still twisted in that small smile, his arm still caught around Justin's shoulders. Then JC pulled his arm down to his side. Justin could feel JC's hand shake as it slid across his skin. JC looked at Justin for a minute, his face hardening again as he studied Justin. Then he stood up. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, okay."
"C, I didn't mean --"
"You did," JC said, his voice steady. Justin didn't know what to say to that. He dropped his eyes as JC continued to watch him. "It's okay," JC said finally, and Justin looked up again. "It's, you know, maybe it's for the best, you know?"
Justin knelt up on the couch and grabbed at JC's arm. "No, no it's not, C, I'm sorry. I didn't -- I don't want you to go. I just... I just feel so shitty, and I hate it, and I just -- I don't know. I just ... I feel bad."
"Yeah," JC said slowly, "yeah, well, maybe you need to." Justin dropped JC's hand and looked up at him. JC sat back down on the arm of the couch. "I don't mean -- sometimes you just have to feel something, you know? You just have to go through it. There aren't always shortcuts."
"I don't want to," Justin said stubbornly.
"Yeah, well, maybe that's part of the problem, J." JC sighed and rubbed a hand through his hair. "And I'm not helping."
"You are --"
"No, I just -- you hate feeling bad, and I hate you feeling bad, and it's too easy for us, you know. It's too easy for us to do what we've always done. For me to do what I've always done."
"But I want what we've always done," Justin said. "I do. You're the one who said --"
"You don't," JC said quietly.
"I do --"
"It's not my couch you're camped out on," JC said. Justin didn't say anything. JC draped his arm back around Justin and Justin laid his head on JC's shoulder.
"It's not..." Justin said. "It's just -- I need you, all of you. I can't be what I'm supposed to be -- I feel like there's something -- I don't have something. All the time I don't have something. And when I don't have it, I feel like I'm not -- like I shouldn't be anything. I don't want to be."
"It's not what you have that shapes you," JC said. "It's what you lose."
"I don't want to lose anything."
"Ah, J, it's not really a choice," JC said. He ran a hand through his hair. "It never is. Not for the important things."
"I don't care," Justin said. "I don't want to."
JC laughed, suddenly, sweetly. "You still haven't -- you'll find out," he said. He brushed his mouth against Justin's temple and then untangled himself from Justin. He stood up and walked toward the door. He looked back over his shoulder at Justin. "When you do," he said, "I'll be right here."
Justin watched him leave and then sat back on the couch with his arm over his eyes.
"Oh, tragedy," Joey said. He sat down next to Justin. "Where'd C go?"
"He left," Justin said.
"Well, grab your crap," Joey said, "and we'll join him. I know it'll be hard to leave your posh lifestyle here, but I believe I can promise you a spare room bed all to yourself, three meals a day, and at least half time custody of the remote control back at the Fatone Home for Confused Popstars."
"I'm not coming." Joey stood up and put out a hand to haul Justin to his feet. "Joey, I just -- I can't. C and I were talking and it's not -- I gotta do this on my own."
"It's not that I disagree," Joey said, "it's just -- well, you said that last night and this, this doesn't look much like cold turkey to me, you know?"
"I know," Justin said. "It's just -- it's hard, Joey. I know you think I'm being a big baby and a drama queen --"
Joey looked down at him and smiled sadly. "I don't think that, J."
"It's just -- it's really hard." Joey kept looking at him, but somehow Justin didn't mind. They were quiet for a while, just watching each other.
"Hypothetically," Joey said, his voice soft but still sudden enough to make Justin jump, "completely hypothetically and making no promises whatsoever. But if you could say something to -- if you could say something, what would it be?'
Justin closed his eyes. He tried to think, tried to figure out just the right thing to convince Joey, to convince -- just the right thing. He couldn't think of anything.
"I don't know," Justin said finally, miserably. "I just need -- if he would just talk to me. It's just really hard for me to be -- when he won't even talk to me, it's just. It's hard for me to be okay, when he won't even talk to me. I don't think that's so much to ask, you know?"
He opened his eyes and thought that somehow, despite himself, he might have found the right thing, because Joey's lips were pressed tightly together and his eyes were angry. "No," Joey said. "No, I don't think that's so much to ask." He turned toward the door, then turned back. "No promises," Joey said, but he smiled and Justin smiled back.
"I know," Justin said. He couldn't stop smiling.
When Joey was gone, he picked his jeans up from where they lay crumpled on the floor and fished his phone out of the pocket. He sat back on the couch and waited for the phone to ring.
The phone didn't ring.
Justin left it on the coffee table so it would be right by his head when he slept. The ring was turned up to its highest setting. It didn't matter. During the day he kept it in his hip pocket as he wandered through the house, checking it every now and then to make sure it was still on. It always was. Every time he checked it made him feel worse, and he swore he wouldn't look again. Every fifteen minutes made him a liar.
Three days and he placed his cell carefully on top of the toilet when he was in the shower and he grabbed it twice when somebody on TV's phone rang and still no call. Justin was starting to think wistfully about wrong numbers when he stopped himself. He had three choices, he told himself firmly, and he had to stop wishing for things he wasn't going to get and pick one of them. He could go back to his house. He could go back to his mother's. Or he could go to Joey's and let JC patch him up. Three choices, three good choices, and that made him luckier than most people, he told himself even more firmly. He was really lucky. He had plenty of people who loved him, and plenty of places to go.
Justin sat back down on Chris' couch. He had to make a decision, and he was going to sit right there until he made one. He wasn't going to let himself check his phone again, or get up and get a drink, or turn on the stereo or the TV, or do anything at all. If he had to, he would bore himself into action.
He sat there for two hours and twenty-five minutes before he lay back on the couch and turned out the light.
He knew he wasn't going anywhere.
Justin woke up gasping in the darkness. Something heavy had fallen onto his chest and he fumbled blindly until he knocked it off. He started to sit up but before he had both feet on the floor the lamp above his head was switched on. It wasn't the soft amber light that made Justin blink and rub his eyes.
"You know," Chris said, "there are laws against trespassing in this state." He bent down and picked up the gym bag Justin had thrown onto the carpet. Without thinking about it, Justin wrapped his arms around Chris' waist and buried his face against Chris' stomach. The zipper on Chris' leather jacket bit into his cheek, but Justin didn't pay any attention to it. He just held his breath and held on.
Everything stopped for a minute. Justin couldn't even hear Chris breathing in the quiet room. It felt like a dream, one of the dreams he'd had a million times as a little boy, where he fell and fell and fell, plummeting through the frozen night, aware of nothing except the sensation of motion. His grandmother had told him once that if you dreamed you were falling and actually hit bottom, you'd die at the moment of impact. His momma had laughed and told him that that was an old wives' tale. Justin was sure she was right, but he'd never tested it. Ever since then, he'd resisted the dream when he had it, struggling desperately toward consciousness, bursting with relief through its velvet hush to lie panting and awake.
Justin felt a hand stroke gently over his head to cup the back of his neck. Chris said softly, "J, J, it's all right," and Justin was sure it was a dream. He didn't care. He lurched against Chris and clung to him. He felt Chris' hands run over his arms, pulling at Justin's fingers.
"Come on now," Chris said, but Justin shook his head and held on. Chris shoved at his hands, but Justin clutched him harder. Even if it was a dream, Justin wasn't going to let go without a fight. Especially if it was a dream. Then Chris let go abruptly and stepped back. Justin lost his balance. He fell to the floor, banging his shoulder against the edge of the coffee table. A quick crack of pain flared through him, and he knew he was awake. He knelt breathless on the floor, his eyes still closed. For once he wasn't relieved.
"J," Chris said again, and Justin looked up hopefully in time to see Chris toss the gym bag toward him. "Come on," Chris said, and turned to walk to the door. Justin picked up the bag and followed him.
Chris walked quickly through the house, and Justin hurried after him, the bag bouncing against his leg. With his free hand he rubbed his shoulder, reassured by the ache that bloomed beneath his skin. This still felt an awful lot like a dream.
When they got to the garage, Justin let out his breath in a long easy exhalation that felt like it reached down through his heels. There was an unfamiliar car there, a beautiful black Jag, perfectly restored, exactly the kind of car that Justin admired in theory but would never have bought, exactly the kind of car Chris wouldn't have bought for himself in a million years. Not even in a dream would Justin imagine Chris driving a car like this.
"I know that's not your car," Justin said. The words were light and teasing, and they felt familiar in Justin's ears, in his mouth. Comforting. He leaned against the car door and grinned at Chris.
"It is," Chris said, the crisp edges in his voice erasing Justin's smile. Justin looked away from Chris' eyes. He felt foolish for thinking that they could ease back into each other seamlessly, for thinking that Chris would even want to. Justin put a hand up and covered his cheek where Chris' zipper had bit in.
Chris said, "After all, it's been a long time since you've seen me. A lot of things have changed."
Justin flinched, then shrugged it off. He started to open the car door.
"Wait --" Chris said, and the raw corners of the word stopped Justin. He looked at Chris expectantly. Chris ran a hand through his hair, then rubbed his fingers across his mouth. He looked like he was struggling with something. Justin couldn't tell if it was something Chris wanted to say, or something he didn't want to. He waited. "Aren't you even going to ask me -- " Chris said, then stopped.
"Chris," Justin said, and smiled. He should have known before what Chris was worried about. "Chris," he said, "I know. I don't need to ask."
Chris looked at him, sinking back a little on his heels. Justin hadn't even noticed the tension in Chris' shoulders until he saw it ease out of them. "Chris, man," Justin said, his voice halfway between laughing and sighing, "I know -- I knew, I swear, I knew you'd be back, I knew that once you heard I was fucked up, that you'd come back to help me. I wasn't worried, not for a second," and maybe that wasn't one hundred percent true, but that wasn't important now. What was important was reassuring Chris. "I knew that if I needed you," Justin said, "that you'd have to come back. You wouldn't be able to help it."
Chris looked at him without saying anything for a long moment. When Justin took a step toward him, Chris took a step back. He folded his arms across his chest, pulling his body in closely, tightly. Justin started to take another step toward him, but Chris didn't move. Justin stepped back.
Chris laughed, a taut angry sound. "Ah, J," he said, "baby, you don't change, do you?" Justin bit his lip. He wasn't sure what the right answer to that was. Chris laughed again, then walked around to the other side of the car. He got in and reached over to push Justin's door open. "Get in," he said. When the door nudged against Justin's hip, he stepped back and then got in the car.
"Chris," Justin said.
"Shut up," Chris said. "And shut the door."
Justin left it open. "Chris, what's -- why are you acting like this?" he said. "I don't understand --"
"I said shut the door," Chris said.
"But, Chris, I don't -- what's wrong?"
Chris looked at him sharply, then smiled. "You said you didn't need to ask," he said.
Justin shut his mouth. Then he put his hand over his face, thinking. Chris grunted impatiently and started to reach over Justin to pull the door shut. Justin put his hand on Chris' arm and Chris pushed him away. "Chris," Justin said again. "Chris, why ..."
Chris looked at him, his face close to Justin's. "Go ahead," he said softly. "Go ahead and ask, but I'm warning you right now, you better think real carefully about the question you ask me. You better make sure you want to ask it."
"I know --" Justin said, "I know what I want --"
"Because whatever it is, I'll answer it, and I'll tell you the truth when I do."
"Chris," Justin said, and Chris sat back and crossed his arms over his chest again. Justin looked at him. Chris was serious, but Justin didn't need to look at him to tell that. Chris was always serious when he sounded like that. "Chris."
"Yeah," Chris said. "Yeah, that's not a question."
Justin shut his mouth again. Chris nodded slightly and then looked away. "Either ask your damn question," Chris said, "or shut the door." Justin shut the door and leaned his head against the thick glass of the window. He tucked one leg up underneath him on the leather seat. The car started smoothly and Justin watched the walls of the garage slide away into the night.
The car moved through the darkness and the silence cooled between them. Justin looked out the window at the sleeping houses around them and twisted a finger in the hem of his T-shirt. He was still wearing his pajama pants. He didn't look at Chris and he didn't think Chris looked at him.
Finally Justin said, "Did you miss me?" He kept his eyes on the night outside. His shirt was wound tightly around his index finger and he concentrated on the small sharp sting where he was cutting off the circulation.
Chris sighed. "Yeah, J," he said. His voice was low and hoarse and Justin didn't look up, but he was pretty sure Chris still didn't look at him. "Yeah, I missed you."
Justin pulled his hand free of the tangle of cotton and the blood rushed back into the tip of his finger. He felt his lips curve in a small smile.
Chris said, "That's not why I came back, though."
Justin stopped smiling. He thought carefully about what Chris said. Then he laid his head against the window again and shut his eyes.
There wasn't another question he wanted to ask.
Justin woke up with a start and pushed himself back against the car seat. The window was fogged where his mouth had been pressed against it. Justin dragged the back of his hand over his lips and kept looking at the small gray circle of frost clouding the window. As long as he was looking at that, he wasn't looking at anything else.
"Come on," Chris said softly. He stopped shaking Justin's shoulder. "I gotta get something to eat."
Justin followed Chris obediently through the diner parking lot. It was just before dawn, and the sky was a pale clear blue striped with one thin line of silver just above the horizon. Justin kicked a rock across the asphalt just to feel the skip as it bounced off his shoe, just to hear the crisp crack and skitter as it rolled to a stop. There was a slight chill in the air, even though Justin could already tell the day would be hot, a shivering breath of wind that wrapped around Justin's arms and raised goose bumps.
Chris turned in the entrance of the diner, one hand holding the glass door open. His leather jacket was hanging open over a dark green shirt that Justin didn't recognize. Justin watched Chris' fingers fiddle with the zipper. A while ago Chris must have painted his nails black. Justin could see the faded streaks of polish still clinging there. He could see that Chris had started biting his nails again.
"Come on," Chris said, and Justin ran the last few yards to the door. He ducked under Chris' arm and slipped inside.
The diner was a twenty-four hour place, but they'd caught it at just the worst time. They'd missed the closing time crowd, drunks and bartenders both glad to be someone else's problem for a few hours, but they were too early for the breakfast rush. Although the sun was rising the restaurant was still lit for nighttime. The bright flood of fluorescents made the white tile and countertops look sickly. Somehow the fact that it was really clean made everything worse. Justin looked at his reflection in the shining silver creamer and thought he could see hours and hours of boredom, a waitress dragging her rag across the same surface, over and over and over again.
Chris tossed him a menu and settled back in a corner of the booth. He didn't take one himself, just sat back with one knee pulled up, boot on the bench, and one hand tapping restlessly against the tabletop. There were three waitresses clustered around the counter, worn-out washed-out looking women just killing time until the next shift. Justin opened up his oversized menu and flipped through the pages. He stared at the garishly colored pictures. He recognized everything in there, of course he did, but somehow it all seemed foreign. The words didn't make any sense to him, like they were in a different language that used a familiar alphabet. The pictures didn't seem like food at all, but photos of something else entirely, souvenirs from someplace Justin had never heard of and wasn't sure he wanted to. He felt like he was in a dream, but not in one that he'd ever had. He felt like he was trapped in someone else's dream.
Justin realized the waitress was taking their order when he heard Chris talking. He had to concentrate to make out what Chris was saying. He watched the firm flow of muscles in Chris' throat as he spoke. When it was his turn, Justin pointed to something at random and smiled up at the waitress. She sighed and headed back toward the kitchen, leaving Justin's menu open in front of him. Chris plucked it out of his hands and put it back in the rack behind the sugar dispenser.
Justin shoved himself back in the booth and leaned toward the window. He let his face rest against it, the cool smooth glass comforting. He closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes to the clatter of dishes being placed none too carefully in front of them. The menu hadn't lied -- the food was every bit as lurid as the pictures had promised. Justin watched Chris lift a forkful of yolk-yellow eggs to his mouth and had to look away. He grabbed a pale beige piece of toast and crumbled it into smaller and smaller pieces.
The waitress came back with a pot of coffee and Justin pushed his cup toward her. Chris reached out and flipped his cup upside-down in the saucer. Before Justin could protest, Chris said, "You won't be able to sleep."
Justin picked up his glass of water and sat back in the corner of the booth, holding it in both hands. He gulped it down in big mouthfuls and then put the glass back down on the table. Somehow he felt even emptier. His fingertips were wet with condensation from the glass and he dangled them over his placemat, painting shapes with the drops that fell and soaked into the paper. He tilted his head back against the window and closed his eyes.
He heard Chris get up and looked over in time to see Chris disappear down a narrow hallway. Bathroom, probably, and Justin knew he probably should go too but he couldn't be bothered to move. He tipped his head back again and looked up at the ceiling. There was a long thin light fixture above them, one side dimmed where the bulb had burnt out.
Chris came back and dropped a handful of change on the table. Then he fumbled in his pocket and came up with a wad of crumpled up bills. He left that on the edge of the table too, then glanced over at the guy sitting alone three booths down from them and pushed the money further back and weighted it down with the edge of his coffee cup. "Come on," he said, and Justin got up and followed Chris out.
Justin shuffled across the lot to the car with his hands in his pockets, kicking absently at rocks. One bounced up and glanced off the gleaming rim of one of the tires. Chris looked back at him. "Get in the car," he said through the open window.
Justin got in. He tucked his arms up into his shirt and wrapped them around his body, letting the sleeves hang empty. He stretched his legs out in front of him and turned toward the window again. Chris threw an arm over the seat and looked behind him, then backed out of the parking spot. They pulled out onto the quiet street. Silence opened around them, patient, expectant. Chris reached down and turned the radio on.
"Go to sleep, J," he said, and Justin closed his eyes.
He went to sleep.
When Justin woke up again, the sun was high but it was still chilly in the car. Chris had turned the air conditioning up. Justin pulled one leg underneath him and sat up, rubbing at his hair. He looked out the window. They were on the interstate.
Justin looked over at Chris, the first good look at him he'd taken since he came back. Chris had shaved off his goatee but left his sideburns, longer than Justin remembered him wearing them and squared off at the bottom. His dark hair looked spikier but that could just be from not combing it. Chris looked pale and tired, but after all he'd been up all night. Chris didn't look bad at all, considering. Justin flipped the sun visor down and examined himself in the small mirror there.
Chris laughed. "You're gorgeous," he said.
"Shut up," Justin said, but he laughed too. He reached down and turned up the radio, then changed the station. He crossed his legs Indian style and ran his hands through his hair. He cracked his window to let a little air in and squinted into the sun. He didn't know if it was the daylight or the extra hours of sleep, but he felt much better. He felt ready to face the world. He didn't feel like he was caught in someone else's dream. He didn't feel like he was in a dream at all.
He looked over at Chris again. "Hey," he said, "hey, why did you --"
Chris shook his head. "No," he said.
"Dude, it wasn't gonna be a yes or no question. I wanted to know why you --"
"No," Chris said. He glanced over at Justin, but turned back to the road quickly. "I wasn't answering, I was just saying, no questions."
"What do you mean, no questions? That doesn't --"
"I told you last night --" Chris said.
"Yeah," Justin said, "yeah, you said that whatever I asked you'd tell me the truth, and so I've got a couple of things --"
"You had your chance," Chris said.
"Well, I need another."
"Yeah, that's too bad for you," Chris said.
"I don't even know where we're going," Justin said. "You could be, like, kidnapping me."
"You can get out anytime," Chris said. "Just give me a holler and I'll even slow down."
"You know," Justin said, "you can't actually stop me from asking questions. I mean, this is America. I have freedom of speech. I can ask as many questions as I want."
"You got a point, J," Chris said. "I shouldn't have said no questions. What I should have said was no more answers."
"I just -- you know, this sucks," Justin said. In the window he saw Chris roll his eyes. Justin smacked his hand against the car door. "I just, you know, I thought if you came back ..." He saw Chris' hand clench against the steering wheel and he bit his lip. "I mean, when you came back ..." Justin didn't say anything and Chris didn't say anything.
"I just, I had some stuff I -- I wanted to ask you," Justin said quietly. He put his hand up and spread it out over the window. He watched the other cars go by through his fingers.
"Bullshit," Chris said. His voice was calm and steady.
"What?" Justin said. Chris didn't say anything. Justin thought for a minute. "Look," he said, "I know I said last night that I didn't need to ask, but I wasn't talking about -- I didn't understand."
"You're telling me," Chris said. Justin didn't like his tone of voice.
"Well, maybe if you'd answer a fucking question instead of acting like --"
"You don't even know what to ask," Chris said. His voice was still calm and steady, and Justin still didn't like it.
"What?" Justin said.
"I'm not going to waste my time," Chris said, "when you won't even -- you don't know what question you should be asking." He looked over at Justin again, and this time it was Justin who looked away. "Yeah, you're a little quiet now."
"Well, it's not fucking fair," Justin said. "I mean, you're setting it up so that whatever I ask, I'm going to be wrong. There's no way I can win, so I'm not even going to play your stupid game."
"You know, I said I'd tell you the truth," Chris said, and Justin started to speak but Chris' voice cut through him coldly, "so maybe you could at least do me the same fucking courtesy."
"Are you saying I'm not -- that I'm --"
Chris' smile cut through Justin as coldly as his voice. "So you're gonna tell me that the only reason you're not asking me anything is because you don't want to play my stupid game?"
Justin didn't answer. Chris nodded and said, "Yeah," softly, almost as if he were talking to himself.
"Chris," Justin said, and Chris looked over at him. More than anything Justin wanted to ask him something, wanted to ask him the right thing. But he was afraid. He was afraid of asking the wrong question. He was even more afraid of asking the right question and having Chris answer him. In this mood, he was afraid of what truth Chris would tell.
Chris looked back at the road and said, "Yeah," again, just as softly. Then he didn't say anything else. Justin could see his reflection, faint and shadowy in the glass. Chris rubbed the heel of his hand from his chin up to his temple, but he didn't say anything. The silence was heavy and familiar around them, and Justin hated it.
"Fine," Justin said finally, still looking out the window. "I just -- I don't even know why you even came -- if you're not even going to pretend like you care."
"That's not why I came back," Chris said.
"Fine," Justin said again, lower this time. He stayed curled against the car door, eyes on the side of the road, until the blur of motion made him start to feel a little sick. He glanced over his shoulder at Chris, then shrugged. Chris could make him shut up, but he couldn't keep Justin from doing something productive, anyway. He reached into the back seat and fumbled around in his bag until he unearthed a notebook and a pen. No matter how carelessly Chris had packed for him, Justin had known that would be there. He shifted to his side and curled back up, eyes on the notebook this time. The blank expanse of white paper was a luxury to him, one he'd denied himself for so long. The pen felt blunt and heavy in his hand. He felt strangely reluctant to commit anything to the page -- it was so clean and empty. After a while he started to feel a little sick again. As he shoved the notebook and pen into his back pocket, he glanced over his shoulder and caught Chris watching him. "I'm going back to sleep," Justin said. Chris didn't say anything. Justin closed his eyes. He was still feeling uneasy. It wasn't like motion sickness exactly, more like when he'd gone too long without eating and then stuffed himself. He stayed as still as he could and waited to fall asleep again.
Justin woke up when the car stopped. Chris didn't say anything when he got out, and Justin was too drained to try to figure out where he was going without actually asking. He stayed where he was. He felt sluggish and slightly achy, probably from sleeping sitting up, in such an awkward position. His sleep had been jagged and shallow, broken by dreams he couldn't remember. He didn't think they'd been bad, but just a little disturbing. Uncomfortable. When Chris tapped his keys against the windshield, Justin jumped. He grabbed his gym bag out of the back seat and got out of the car. The clock in the motel office said 2:34.
"Are we -- we're stopping," he said. Chris' smile quirked fast and bright in the darkness. For a moment Justin thought Chris was going to laugh, but he didn't.
"Yeah," Chris said.
Justin followed Chris across the parking lot and leaned against the wall while Chris unlocked the door. He held out his hand, and Chris just looked at him.
"Is this -- I need my key," Justin said.
Chris looked at him. "You wanna hold the key?" he said. He opened his palm uncertainly around the card.
"Well, yeah. I mean -- I gotta get in."
Chris looked at him for a minute, then laughed. He closed his fist around the card. "I only got the one room, J."
"Oh," Justin said. He rubbed at his eyes. He didn't know why his brain was working so slowly. He walked inside and Chris closed the door behind him.
It was a familiar little room, although Justin had never been there in his life. Two narrow beds under two pastel paintings, a TV, an open door leading to a white bathroom. Justin smiled suddenly. "It's like old times," he said.
Chris laughed again, a shorter twist of laughter, almost drained of sound. "Yeah," he said. "It's like old times."
Justin sat down on the nearest bed and looked up at Chris. "So, do you wanna --" He tried to swallow the question, but it didn't matter because Chris cut in before he was finished.
"I gotta go out for a while," Chris said. He didn't look at Justin. The keys rattled in his hand. "I just -- I'll be back later. Don't, you know. Don't wait up."
Justin watched Chris leave, and then sat dully on the bed and watched the door for a little while. Then he made his way to the shower. It was amazing how filthy he could get when all he'd really done was sit in a car all day. There was something comforting about the anonymity of the bathroom, the towels centered on their rack, the toothbrush and cup done up in plastic. Justin liked disturbing them, dropping a towel on the floor after washing his face, tossing the plastic toward the trash can and missing.
The water ran cold before Justin got out of the shower. He snagged his sweatpants out of his gym bag and grabbed one of Chris' T-shirts. Chris hadn't really packed enough of Justin's stuff. He sat back down on the bed and folded the clothes he'd taken off. He took his cell phone out of his pocket and looked at it. He had three messages. He turned the message light off and tucked the phone away in the bottom of his bag.
After he put the phone away, he took his notebook out. He sat down in the chair by the window. He'd been thinking about it all day. He couldn't get anything done in the car, but that made sense, when he thought about it. At first it had confused him, because he'd always done his best work in a moving bus. But the car was different, smaller. There was a different quality to the motion. Closer to the ground or something. He was more aware of the road. Besides, Chris had been watching him. But now he'd stopped moving, and he was alone.
Justin dropped the notebook into his bag. He crawled into bed and pulled the covers up. The air conditioning was on in the room, too, and he was chilly. There was probably some sort of switch or thermometer he could play with, but he couldn't be bothered to find it. He turned the light next to his bed off and turned the TV on low. There wasn't anything he felt like watching but he liked the noise. He'd slept too much during the day and his internal clock was all messed up. He didn't think he could sleep any more, but there wasn't anything else to do.
When he heard Chris fumbling for his key outside the door, Justin turned off the TV and curled up on his side. He closed his eyes and listened as Chris let himself in and closed the door quietly. Chris went into the bathroom and Justin could see the light come on after the door was closed. He shut his eyes again when the light went out.
He listened to Chris move around in the room. He held his breath when Chris paused at the foot of his bed, but Chris walked over to the next bed and fell heavily onto it. "Good night, J," Chris said. Justin lay in his bed with his eyes closed and listened to Chris sleep in the next bed.
It was just like old times.
Chris was up when Justin woke the next day, sitting at the small table on the balcony with his hands around a cup of coffee. Justin wandered to the bathroom and took a shower, then came back out still drying his hair with a towel. He leaned against the doorway to the balcony. Chris tipped back in his chair and looked up at Justin. Justin let the edge of the towel fall down over his face as he rubbed it hard over his head.
When he emerged from under the towel Chris was still looking at him. Justin took a step back into the room. Chris said, "Go get some breakfast, or whatever you call it when it's this late, while I take a shower."
"Don't you want -- you're not coming," Justin said, catching himself just in time.
"No," Chris said. He rubbed his hand over his mouth. "No, I think we'll all have a pleasanter day if I don't eat anything."
Justin grinned. "Hungover," he said.
"Always with the keen insight," Chris said, but he smiled a little too. "Go."
When he got back up to the room, Chris was sitting out on the balcony again, but he'd changed his clothes and his hair was wet. "Hey," he said when Justin leaned against the doorway, "hey, I'm ready." He still looked a little pale in the sunlight, and he clung to his coffee cup a little desperately, but Justin had seen him look much worse.
"I got you a Danish," Justin said. "For later. In case you're hungry. It's cheese."
"Great," Chris said. "That's just what I need. For later. A nice, gooey, greasy, disgusting cheese Danish that'll be sitting in the car for hours."
"You're welcome," Justin said.
"Thank you," Chris said. He stood up and walked past Justin, still clutching his coffee cup with one hand. With the other he grabbed Justin's shirt and pulled him along. "Let's go."
Justin sat on the hood of the car and swung his bag back and forth while Chris checked them out. When Chris stepped out of the office, he tossed the keys to Justin. "Get your ass off my paint job," he said.
"You're letting me drive?" Justin said.
Chris laughed. "Yeah, I'm letting you drive. I gotta get some sleep. I got in late last night."
"I know," Justin said.
"Yeah," Chris said. He opened up the passenger side door and got in.
Justin let himself in on the other side and threw his duffel bag in the back. He moved the seat back and screwed around with the mirrors and the radio for a few minutes. Chris had already closed his eyes. Finally Justin said, "Um. I don't know --"
"Just drive, J," Chris said without opening his eyes. "Wherever. It doesn't matter. We'll drive back the other way tomorrow."
"Sounds like a plan," Justin said. Chris didn't answer.
They spent another night in a motel off an exit ramp, and the next day swathed in silence and in small talk that was not quite as comforting. The sun had set and Justin had almost relaxed when Chris switched radio stations and then laughed. "Man, I love this song. It's like the worst Replacements song ever, but it was the only one that ever really got played."
"I like it too," Justin said.
"You wouldn't've hardly been old enough to remember it."
"I remember you and Joey playing it," Justin said. Chris snorted. "I do!" He sang a little to prove it, you be me for a while and I'll be you, and Chris smiled.
"You do," he said. "God, I love this album. Like all the other ones are better, but I just -- we did so much shit with this in the background." He shook his head and laughed again, low and private, and Justin wanted to know what was behind that laugh.
"Tell me," he said.
Chris said, "Live nude danger."
Justin looked at him blankly, and Chris laughed again. "You remember my friend Stacy," Chris said, and Justin shook his head even though Chris hadn't made it a question. "Sure you do. She came out to visit back in Orlando like twice, back toward the beginning. You remember."
"Yeah," Justin said slowly. "Yeah, I think I remember."
"Good," Chris said, and his voice softened a little. "She was like my best friend my junior year, her and her brother Brian, but people always thought she was my girlfriend and Bri was my best friend and we never said anything cause, you know, easier. Summer before senior year we used to hang out every night at this bar where Stacy's real boyfriend worked, cause he wouldn't check our IDs. It had like the best jukebox in the world, and it had that Replacements album on and we used to play it over and over again. The guy who owned the place had a thing for Stacy too -- she used to hang out at his table sometimes and sit on his lap and he'd give her five bucks for the jukebox even though he knew what we were going to play and you know, somehow that never seemed quite so creepy until just now."
"It's a little on the creepy side."
"Right next door to Boru's, there was this, like, I don't know what you'd call it. It wasn't a strip club exactly, and they had movies and shit there but it wasn't totally a porn shop, it was like a mix of the two. One of those places that just make you depressed, you know? Just, you know, the idea, that there were people who had to work there, and people who had to go there, and you didn't know who you felt sorry for more but the whole thing made you want to go to bed for three days and pull the covers over your head."
Chris stopped talking and his fingers tapped hard against the steering wheel. Justin didn't say anything, but he leaned forward a little. "I remember," Chris said quietly, briefly, as if he were answering a question that Justin hadn't asked. Justin caught his breath and looked out the window for a minute. Chris waited until Justin relaxed back into the seat and smiled at him before he started talking again.
"There was this sign," Chris said, "up over the place, neon, real tasteful, you know? And it said Live Nude Dancers. Except that all the letters were never working, right? Something always didn't light up. And we were walking out of Boru's one night, drunk off our asses, and Bri looked up and some of the letters were out, just like always, but I guess he was especially drunk or something, because he stopped right in the middle of the street and pointed and said, 'Live Nude Danger. That's so -- what does it mean?' And Bri, man, he was just standing there with his mouth open, looking up at that sign, with the light falling on his face. He looked -- he looked like something out of a movie or something. I don't know. And that song was playing from the bar, all the windows were open cause it was so hot and we could hear it, like, like a soundtrack or something. I remember thinking at the time, how sharp and clear the light was in the dark, how Bri looked like he was -- how it looked like a movie. How it was going to be one of those memories."
Chris stopped, and the silence that fell around them wasn't the comfortable stillness it had been earlier, but something edgier and expectant. Justin said into it, "I know," and wasn't surprised when Chris snapped back,
"Of course you do. Your whole fucking life is a movie set."
He wasn't surprised but it still took his breath away like a punch to the gut. He clung to the armrest and took deep breaths and didn't look at Chris. He was surprised when Chris said, "J, I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Justin said. "It's not -- there's nothing to be sorry for, you don't have to --"
"Don't throw it back in my face," Chris said, and Justin smiled.
"Okay," Justin said. "I just don't know why -- that sounds like a good memory, to me."
Chris said, "Yeah. Yeah, it was." Justin looked over at Chris, who was frowning at the road in front of them. Chris glanced over at him, quickly, and Justin leaned his head against the window and looked out again.
"It's just -- there's something about memories like that, about thinking things like that. You're just sitting there and you hear some song, not even a very good song, and it's like all of a sudden you're tangled up in this memory, and it's like -- It feels like it was the biggest thing in the world, you know? Like it was the biggest thing you were ever gonna feel, just because it was the first time. And it's not -- I mean, when I broke up with Dani, or when we -- all of that was worse than anything I ever thought I felt back then, but it's like somehow, there was something, because it was the first time. Or not, not the first time but because I thought, I really truly thought, it was the only time, you know? There was something there, that was never in the endings that happened later, not even ... Because that first time, I thought it was the only time, and I could never think that ever again. After that I could never think it couldn't happen."
"But --" Justin said, before he could stop himself. He hadn't meant to say anything. Chris looked at him and he knew he'd end up talking, so he just said it. "But you said, before. About the band -- about us. When we stopped. You said that you didn't know -- you didn't think it would ever happen."
Chris looked at him for a minute, then shook his head. "You're right," he said, his voice light and surprised. He looked back at the road, and lifted a hand to his mouth, rubbing his knuckles against his lips. "You're right, I didn't."
Chris didn't say anything else for a while, just drove with one hand on the wheel, one hand still against his mouth. Justin was quiet, too, not so much because he didn't have anything to say but because he thought Chris might need the quiet. It was only a few hours before Chris pulled into another motel parking lot. "Get out," Chris said.
"We're stopping already?" Justin said, but he grabbed his bag and opened the car door. Chris didn't move. "Wait," Justin said, one foot already on the asphalt. "Aren't you coming?"
"I got some things I gotta do," Chris said. There was an electric undercurrent in his voice, something Justin almost recognized. Not anger, exactly, but something close. Chris' fingers were still moving against his lips, as if drawing that electricity out. The gesture was familiar, although Justin couldn't remember the last time he'd seen it. He couldn't remember exactly what it meant. But he remembered enough to pull the door shut and hug his bag to his chest.
"Are you -- you're coming back, right?"
"Get out of the car, Justin," Chris said.
"Not until I know if you're coming back --"
"For fuck's sake," Chris snapped, a familiar anger sparking from his words. Justin let his duffel fall onto his lap. "You did your best to make damn sure of that, didn't you? You fucked yourself up and you made sure everybody heard about it, just so you could be sure that I'd still come running whenever you wanted --"
"I was fucked up!" Justin said. "You think -- it wasn't easy, when it ended, it fucked me up and I just was trying --"
"Oh, bullshit. I was there, baby, I remember what happened. You were fine -- it didn't fuck you up."
"You think I wanted us to --" Justin could barely catch his breath. His fingers were twisted in the canvas straps of his bag.
"Oh, you were sad about it, I'll give you that. I'm not saying you were dancing for joy and kicking us out the door. But you were gonna be just fine. And you were just fine, too, at least until you -- You were just fine."
"I wasn't!" Justin said. "I wasn't fine -- I mean, fuck --" Justin threw his hands up in front of him, open palmed, just to show Chris how he'd tangled them in the straps of his bag until he'd raised white welts, just to show Chris how he was shaking. "You think I look -- I'm not fine. I'm all fucked up."
"Oh, you are now," Chris said coolly. "And whose fault is that?"
Justin let his hands fall to his lap. "You think -- you think I'm faking? This, for, for you. You think I'm faking --"
"No," Chris said. "I know you, baby, you're no actor. I know you're not faking."
"Then -- I don't understand."
"And you're no liar, either, J. You never have been. But nobody's better than you at avoiding a question."
Justin carefully eased his hands out of the snarled canvas, watching as red blotches sprang up where the straps had bitten in. He watched until the red faded away, and then said, "I don't know what to say if you think that I would -- if you think I, like, tricked you or something to make you come back. But I am fucked up, whether you believe me or not."
"Yeah, I never said I didn't believe you," Chris said. Justin looked up at him, then wished he hadn't when he saw Chris' smile. He didn't look away, though. "And nobody can make me do a damn thing any more. Not even you."
Justin looked away at that. It didn't make Chris stop.
"You're fucked up, all right, J, but it wasn't the breakup or anything else that did it. You fucked yourself up, good and proper. You did it all by yourself."
"Why would I do that?" Justin knew better than to look at Chris by now. He could see him, just barely, reflected in the window. He saw Chris' reflection shake a little, like Chris was laughing without making any noise, and said angrily, "Oh, sorry. I forgot I wasn't allowed to ask any fucking questions."
"Oh, I'll make an exception for that one," Chris said, "just because I would love to answer it for you --"
"Don't do me any favors," Justin said quickly, still stung. "I don't know why you even bothered to come back. I mean, if I fucked myself up, I can just fix myself up right now. I don't know why I didn't think of that."
"Yeah, I was kind of thinking you thought that," Chris said, his voice low and slow. In the window Justin could see him shaking his head. "But it doesn't work that way -- you can't fix yourself up all easy. Nobody else can fuck you up the way you can fuck yourself up. And it's not easy to put that back together again." His voice got even lower. "Believe me, I know."
"Anyway," Justin said, "anyway, I didn't fuck myself up."
"Wait and see," Chris said. "Wait and see." Justin shrugged, trying to keep the words from sinking into him.
"Just -- just leave me the fuck alone, all right? Just leave me alone."
"J, man," Chris said, as he leaned across Justin to push his door open, "that's what I've been trying to do."
Justin closed his eyes. He could feel the wind against his face from where the door gaped into the darkness. His hands twisted in the straps of his bag again, until he couldn't feel his fingers, until Chris shifted impatiently. Then he said, "Are you coming back?"
"Justin," Chris said. Justin opened his eyes and looked at him.
"All right," Justin said. He got out of the car and walked into the motel without looking back.
At the desk Justin rented a double, then stood with both keycards in his hand until the guy asked him if he was okay. Then he left one card there for Chris and went up to the room.
He dropped his bag on the bed and took a shower, just like he had the night before. Although he let the water run cold again, just like he had the night before, he still couldn't calm down. Even as he dried himself off, Chris' words clung to him. He paced up and down the room, his body buzzing with indignation, his mouth full of all the words he hadn't said. And beneath all of that, below it, pounding with a steady insistent beat was a thought he couldn't shake, a raw rhythm he couldn't soothe.
Wait and see, Chris had said. Wait and see.
He couldn't even call it a nagging doubt, because what nagged at him wasn't a doubt at all, but his own belief. Chris had said he had fucked himself up.
Justin didn't want to see, but he didn't want to wait. That wasn't right -- he couldn't wait. He sat down on the bed and took his notebook out of his bag. He always got the same kind, small and compact, easy to carry everywhere. He opened it up and stared down at it. He didn't understand why every empty page was so vast, when the notebook wasn't much bigger than his hand.
The only sound in the room was the hoarse hitch of his own breath. He could hear it speed up as he told himself about stress, about how hard it was to produce under pressure, about how it happened to everybody. Then he made a harsh sound, loud in the quiet room. Somehow it hurt more in his ears than in his throat. Chris had been right, and he made that sound again, because Chris was always fucking right. Justin was no liar. He'd written songs in the back of vans at the crack of dawn and hunched by a candle in the corner of a dark bar. He'd written an entire album in six weeks with the label dogging him impatiently and half the world waiting to laugh at him, and none of it had bothered him for a second. It couldn't bother him, because that flow had always been there, music and words surging somewhere beneath his skin, beneath his bones, somewhere so deep inside him that Justin hadn't thought anything could reach it, anything except himself.
He'd been right.
Now he was empty except for the sound of his own breath, jagged and ugly. He thought of the words he'd written so carelessly on the backs of magazines, the messages he'd deleted, the scraps of paper he'd had to force himself to tear up tiny and throw away. He'd been so relieved when he hadn't had to fight himself any more.
The room was quiet, quieter than any hotel room he'd ever been in, even though he was used to rooms much more expensive. He should have been able to hear people walking in the hall outside, the rumble of trucks on the highway. But the room was silent, as empty as he was. He didn't know how to fill it.
Justin picked up the phone.
"J, where are you?" JC said crisply, and Justin knew he'd been asleep. The only times JC didn't sound a little drowsy were when he just woke up and when he was upset.
"I'm sorry," Justin said. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean --"
"Baby, what is it?" JC said, his voice smooth and warm. "What's wrong?"
"I think -- I think I did something. I didn't mean it, I mean I meant it, I did it on purpose but I didn't know what I was doing --"
"J, J, slow down," JC said. "You're losing me." Justin heard that harsh sound again, and JC said quickly, "I'm here, I'm right here, I just don't know what you're talking about."
"I don't," Justin said, his breath rasping in his ears, and he tried to slow down, matching his breathing to JC's until he could stand the sound of himself. Finally he said, "Did you ever, like, give something up, because you thought you had to, you thought you needed to, to get something you wanted, except you didn't really know you were giving it up, you thought you were just, like, pushing it away for a while? Just until ... Like, you thought you were just stopping, just for a while, just for a little while, you didn't think that you were -- you didn't think you were going to lose it?"
For a moment there was no sound in the room except for the two of them breathing together, JC's breath hitching a little in time with Justin's. Then JC said, "Yes."
"C," Justin said, and he should have been relieved, because JC could tell him how to fix it. He wasn't relieved. "C, how did you get it back?"
"Ah, Justin," JC said, and Justin shut his eyes against what he heard in JC's voice. He thought suddenly that maybe he of all people shouldn't have asked JC that.
"Justin," JC said, his voice richly urgent. "J, come home."
"No," Justin said. He didn't know why he said it. The word was out before he knew he was saying it.
"Why not?" JC said. "J, I thought you --"
"I can't," Justin said. He thought about that before he said it. "Chris has -- I don't have the car."
"Where are you?" JC said. "I'll come get you."
"I don't know," Justin said. JC sighed impatiently. "I don't -- I don't want to go."
"J," JC said sharply. "What do you want?"
"I -- I don't know," Justin said, and hung up the phone quickly, because Chris was right. He couldn't lie. He knew what he wanted. He sat alone in the quiet room and wanted it.
He didn't get it.
Justin didn't sleep that night. When the sun came up, he took a shower and then picked up his bag and left. Chris' car was in the parking lot. As Justin got closer, he saw Chris asleep in the front seat. Justin walked over to the passenger side. The door was unlocked. He let himself in.
Chris jerked awake at the slam of the door. "Hey," he said, running a hand over his head. He sat up. "Hey," he said again, softly, looking at Justin carefully. "Listen, I didn't -- I'll take you home, okay?"
"No," Justin said.
"I left a key for you," Justin said. "At the desk. You didn't have to sleep here."
"J, are you sure --"
"It's not fair for you to get to ask me questions if I can't ask you any," Justin said. His voice had an early morning quiver to it.
"J," Chris said again, and stopped. He sighed and ran a hand over his head again, making his hair stand up. "J, you can ask me questions."
"Oh," Justin said. "Oh, so now we're just gonna pretend like we're back to normal and you're gonna dump me back home --"
"No," Chris said. "No, I just -- I just figured you earned a question."
"Oh," Justin said again. There were so many questions bubbling in his mind, he wasn't sure how he'd pick one. He wanted to know what was wrong with himself. He wanted to know why Chris had come back. He wanted to know when Chris would leave him again. "Um. Well, you can ask me a question too. That's fair."
"Gee, thanks," Chris said.
"You're welcome," Justin said. He put his feet up on the dashboard and stretched in his seat. He didn't know why he was so reluctant to ask his question, now that he had the chance. He looked over at Chris in time to see Chris' fingers tighten on the steering wheel. Justin watched Chris brace himself and asked, "Where are we going?"
Chris' gaze flickered over him. "I don't know," Chris said, "I thought we'd play it by ear. Did you -- unless you wanna go somewhere."
"No," Justin said. He kept watching Chris' hands, his knuckles still white on the wheel. Chris didn't say anything. "Well, I guess -- your turn," Justin said. He slid down further in his seat and pressed the toes of his sneakers against the windshield. He spread his palms out on his thighs and looked down at them, arranging them carefully so his fingers were spaced exactly evenly apart. He felt Chris look at him and he didn't look up.
Chris said, "Why didn't you ask me what you really wanted to ask me?"
"What?" Justin said.
"Oh, no," Chris said. "You already asked your question, also you heard me."
Justin looked out the window, but when he looked back Chris was still waiting. Justin thought a minute. "I guess maybe I didn't ... I might be ... I thought I might not want to hear your answer," he said.
"The whole point was that we'd tell the truth, J," Chris said sharply.
"AND I thought you might not want to hear your answer," Justin said.
Chris didn't say anything. Justin watched his hands, perfectly centered on his thighs, and wondered why he was still tensed, as if expecting a blow. He took a deep breath and tried to relax. He couldn't. He looked over at Chris and caught Chris looking back. Justin turned back toward the window.
Chris made a sound that was more like a quick puff of breath than a laugh. It sounded the way Justin thought a shrug looked. He didn't turn his head but he knew just how Chris looked when he made that noise. "I bet you're regretting giving me that question now," Chris said.
It wasn't a question, but Justin answered anyway.
"No," he said.
They didn't stop that day. At least, they didn't get out of the car. Justin surfaced from sleep a few times blearily, briefly, so briefly it could hardly be called waking up. Most of the time they were still driving, and he thought he glimpsed a few familiar signs. Driving back the way they came, probably, the way Chris had said, and he closed his eyes before he could think more about it. Once when he opened his eyes Chris had pulled over to the side of the road, sitting with the door open, smoking in the sunlight. Justin had started to sit up, but Chris said, "Go back to sleep," and Justin did. It wasn't hard.
When Justin finally woke up for real, something felt different. He sat up warily. It wasn't inside him -- he felt the same, a drowsy ache in his muscles that he didn't think was solely due to sleeping in such cramped quarters. It looked the same outside, the sun just starting to set, the heavy shimmer of twilight blurring the headlights of the cars around them. Justin had always loved this time, not quite night, not quite day. It was just the time of day when anything could happen but hadn't happened yet, anticipation shining in the streetlights as he drove with his cell phone tucked against his shoulder, making plans for the night. He pulled his phone out of his pocket before he thought about it, then stuffed it into his bag. He looked out at the stoplights blinking warmly, red and amber and green.
Stoplights, and that meant they'd left the interstate. That wasn't what was different, though. They'd done that before, cutting back on smaller roads to circle around toward where they'd started, aimless looping around a central point, like a compass dragged around a map. They might rip the paper ragged, but they'd never get too far away from where they'd started.
Except, Justin thought, maybe they would. He looked over at Chris, who looked the same, a little more tired, a little dirtier than earlier, but the same. Chris had one hand on the wheel, the other resting on the edge of the door, his elbow hanging out of the open window. He was frowning a little, and licking his lips like he was thirsty. Chris glanced over at him, then back at the road. He started to smile.
Justin knew what was different.
"Are we going somewhere?" Justin said.
Chris laughed. "Smart boy," he said.
"I knew it," Justin said. He put his feet up on the dashboard and slouched down in his seat. He folded his hands in his lap. Chris' hand brushed his leg as he reached down to turn up the radio. Justin drummed his hands against his thighs and hummed along with the song. He looked out at the scenery spinning out around them. The highway was carved into a hill, deep brown rock around them scarred with red and violet and green. He smiled a little. He recognized the landscape, as much from the easy tilt of Chris' head, the eager familiarity in his eyes, as from his years of touring.
Justin's phone rang from the depths of his duffel bag. He thought about ignoring it, but Chris glanced at him and Justin turned around and burrowed through his bag. It was still ringing when he found it. Justin let it ring, balancing it on his lap warily, like it might go off at any second. He knew the number.
When the ringing stopped, Chris held out his hand. Justin looked at him. "Give me your phone," Chris said. Justin dropped it into Chris' open palm. Chris stuffed it into his pocket without looking at it. "Right pocket of my jacket," Chris said. Justin reached back over the seat again and grabbed Chris' jacket. He took Chris' phone out of his jacket pocket and handed it to him. Chris sighed and rolled his eyes. "You keep it," he said.
"Um, okay," Justin said. He held it uneasily.
Chris sighed even louder. "Just check it every couple days, make sure nobody needs to get a hold of me for an emergency," he said. When Justin didn't say anything, he said, "There's nobody I really want to be talking to right now, you know?"
"Yeah," Justin said. He zipped the phone into his bag, then turned back around and put his feet back up on the dash.
"So," Chris said. "Aren't you wondering where we're going?"
"Yes!" Justin said.
"Yeah, I thought you might be," Chris laughed.
Justin gave him a look as dirty as he could manage. Chris just kept laughing at him. Justin crossed his arms over his chest and turned toward the window. It was hard to stay mad when Chris was still chuckling like that, a warm friendly sound that wrapped around him. He smiled a little, careful to keep his head turned away.
"I can see your reflection," Chris said.
"So what?" Justin said, but he turned away from the window, his mouth pursed up with the effort of not smiling. "We should stop somewhere soon. I'm hungry."
"Now there's something I can help you with," Chris said.
"Oh, wow," Justin said, nudging Chris and nodding toward the jukebox. "I bet we're going to get some great music now."
Chris laughed as they watched the two guys lean into the glass. "Oh, yeah. I have a feeling we're about to hear ZZ Top's greatest hits. And a lot of Lynyrd. Freebird at least twice."
"The Lynyrd's a giveaway. The guy with the bad mohawk's wearing a concert t-shirt."
"You can't read that from here."
"No, but it's got a confederate flag on it. Come on, it couldn't be anyone else."
"If I tell you something, you have to promise not to hold it against me."
"I know you like them. I don't hold it against you -- you can't help it. It's your southern heritage, like eating gross parts of the pig. You're genetically programmed not to know what sucks."
Justin laughed and sat back in the booth. He put his feet up on the bench next to Chris and crossed his legs. Chris's fingers slipped warmly around his ankle, his thumb pushing up underneath the hem of Justin's jeans. Justin smiled and slumped down further, but Chris pulled his hand away quickly, as if he'd forgotten himself. Justin didn't say anything.
When Honky Tonk Women came on, Chris said, "You know, I think we may have misjudged our young friends."
"Wait," Justin said. "This could go either way."
They waited, drinking their beers quietly. When Papa's Got A Brand New Bag started, Justin shrugged and laughed and said, "Okay, I think we were wrong. They're doing pretty good."
"You been wrong all night," Chris said, and Justin shrugged again. He had.
He and Chris had been quiet for most of the drive. Justin didn't mind. He had felt -- he'd felt almost comfortable. Easy, almost, in a way he hadn't been in a while. Except that wasn't exactly right, because he'd never felt quite like this before. He'd never had to. Still, it was better than -- it was nice. He liked feeling comfortable.
He thought maybe Chris did, too, but he didn't ask. He couldn't. He thought he could tell, though, by the way Chris seemed more relaxed, more like his old self, although a little quieter. Justin felt a little quieter, too, but more like his old self. Maybe this was how his new self was going to be. He thought that would be okay, when he thought about it.
Mostly he tried not to think about it.
When Chris had pulled off the highway into a rest stop, Justin had thought they'd just be stopping at the McDonald's. "It's got a drive-through," he had pointed out helpfully, but Chris didn't listen. He parked in front of the little no-name motel tucked away at the back. He got out, but Justin hung back.
"Do we have to -- I kind of like driving at night," Justin said.
"You'll get a chance," Chris said.
"Wait here," Chris said. "And trust me."
He'd gotten a chance. When Chris came out of the office, he shoved the room key into his pocket and tossed the car keys through Justin's open window. "Shove over," he said, and Justin lifted himself into the driver's seat. "Get back on going north and then get off at the next exit."
The next exit had dumped them into a small town, and Justin followed Chris' directions until they came to a small gray building draped in Christmas lights. "They're a little early," Justin said.
"Or late," Chris said as he hopped out of the car. "Come on, I'll buy you a bowl of gumbo."
Justin stopped. "Um," he said.
"Oh please," Chris said.
"Nothing, it's just -- we're awfully far north for that."
"Well, you don't have much choice, because that's about all they make. Besides, it's really good." Chris rolled his eyes at the look on Justin's face. "Trust me," he said.
Justin walked in with his arm brushing Chris'. "I'm not saying I'm gonna order it, but --"
"If you hate it, J, we can go somewhere else," Chris said. "But you're gonna like it."
Chris was right. Justin had eaten three bowls, and might have had a fourth except that Chris and the bartender who brought their food out to the table were already laughing at him. Instead, he had two pieces of pie, which he didn't eat just anywhere, at least not when he wasn't close to home.
"If I'd known you were gonna eat so much, I wouldn't have picked up the tab," Chris grumbled, but as that wasn't exactly the same as saying I told you so, Justin let it go. He sat back and put his feet up on the bench next to Chris and watched the bar start to fill up.
Filling up was a relative term in a place this small. Besides their two friends at the jukebox, there was an older guy sitting at the bar talking to the bartender, and a woman and a man about Chris' age sitting at a table in the back. That was it, and still the bar was half full.
"How did you find this place?" Justin asked suddenly.
Chris just shook his head. "No questions," he said.
"I'm just gonna remember and ask later."
"Oh, okay," Chris said, and lined up Justin's empty beer bottles along the edge of the table. "You do that."
"I will," Justin said, and slouched down further in his seat. He closed his eyes and drank his beer and listened to the music on the jukebox. Those guys didn't have bad taste at all.
Justin didn't know exactly how much time had passed when the door burst open and a few kids came in. Kids, he thought, although when he looked at them more closely he figured they were probably his age. A guy and three girls called to the two guys who'd been in all night, as if the bar were much bigger than it was and if they didn't holler, they might possibly all miss each other in the crush. The guy looked enough like the first two that they could be brothers, but the girls. The girls were dressed up for a big night out, hair sprayed perfectly in place, dark liquid liner thick around their eyes, mouths red and wide and laughing. Every once in a while they started to dance with each other, until the bartender said mildly, "No dancing." Mostly they just leaned their elbows on the bar or their bodies against one of the guys they were with and swayed with the song.
The music stopped and two of the girls bounced laughing over to the jukebox. Justin stood up, shifted a little for balance, and said to Chris, "Gimme a dollar."
"Excuse me, Mr. Millionaire," Chris said, but he dug into his wallet and handed Justin a couple of ones. "Try to stay out of trouble, all right?"
"Maybe I want trouble," Justin said.
"You don't know what trouble is," Chris said.
Justin stopped and thought about that. There was something profound about that, something really really true. "Man," he said quietly, and then shook his head. He didn't know what trouble was.
Chris laughed at him. "You are scandalously drunk," he said. "Now go play your song."
The two girls were still standing over the jukebox when he got there, bickering over which Eagles song to play. The realish blonde pointed at something, and the other girl laughed and said, "Kerstin's party!"
The first girl laughed, too, and tapped on the jukebox with one long pink nail. "Twenty-one times, and she doesn't even have a car!" Both of them fell down over the glass, giggling and bouncing off each other.
Justin stopped and closed his eyes, right there in the middle of the floor. Something about their familiar call and response, the way they'd shared some joke so often they didn't need to do more than repeat a few words to remind each other, made him suddenly, stubbornly, homesick. Except it was something worse than homesickness, darker, because he was missing something he knew he wouldn't be able to go back to. Something that wasn't there for him to go back to.
When he opened his eyes both girls were looking at him. "Hey," one of them, the blonder one, said, "hey, did you want to play something?" They moved apart a little, to give him room between them, and smiled at him when he walked over. They closed in around him then, still smiling up at him and helping him turn the CD covers over. They kept looking at him carefully, and Justin couldn't tell if they recognized him or if he had just been standing with his eyes closed in the middle of the room for a little too long. He glanced over his shoulder, his face brushing against stiffly sprayed hair, and saw that Chris had moved up closer to the bar. Then one of the girls put her hand over his and he looked back down. Maybe they didn't recognize him or feel sorry for him. Maybe they just liked him.
Justin fed his money in and they chose their songs. Even once the first one had dropped, the three of them stood swaying against the jukebox. Susan was the blonder one's name, and the dyed one's name was Brittany. He knew they didn't recognize him when she said that. He looked up again, trying to catch Chris' eye because he knew how Chris would appreciate that, but Chris was watching the game playing silently on the TV above the bar.
Susan and Brittany were trying to explain what they'd been laughing about earlier, but they were a little drunk and Justin was drunker and the story was full of names he didn't know and didn't want to. He liked the way their high voices shaped themselves around him, though, and he liked the way they smelled, vanilla and lilac and some fruity drink, and he liked the way they looked, shining and sweet in the twinkling Christmas lights running the length of the room. He was leaning against Brittany, his face turned toward her hair, with one arm around Susan's waist, when he was slammed back against the jukebox.
"What the fuck?" he said. There was still a hand planted in the middle of his chest, holding him in place. He wrapped his own hand around it and shoved.
The hand belonged to the guy with the bad Mohawk and the Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Nothing," Justin said, standing up straight. He had a good four inches on the guy. Of course, the guy also had two friends right behind him, backing him up. Justin looked for his own backup. Chris had turned away from the TV, but his face was full of such calm detachment that he could have still been watching the game. Justin jerked his head, a little some help here, please gesture that he knew Chris would recognize. Chris raised his beer bottle to him and smiled. Justin hated him.
Apparently Mohawk was starting to feel a little neglected, because he tried to push Justin again. "I said, what do you think you're doing?"
Brittany tugged at Mohawk's arm and said, "Come on, don't do this."
"Man, are you serious?" Justin said.
"Oh, I'm serious," Mohawk said, but one of his friends grabbed his other arm lightly and together he and Brittany eased the guy back a step.
Justin shrugged and started to walk back toward the bar. Just as he passed them, Mohawk spat, "Faggot."
Justin's arm was out before he even knew what he was doing, catching Mohawk across the neck and knocking him back. He had just enough time to think, Oh shit, and then he was flying backwards, falling into a chair with a hundred and sixty pounds of drunk guy on top of him.
"Hey," the bartender said sharply, "take all that outside. Right now."
To Justin's surprise the Mohawk guy got right up off him. "Yeah, you wanna take this outside?" he said.
Justin wanted to say, "No, not really," because what did it matter, he was never going to see these people again and it wasn't worth it, he'd been called worse and in print. He really meant to say that, to be the bigger guy, to walk away, but somehow when he opened his mouth what came out was, "You better believe it, asshole."
"All right," and then Mohawk's friends were pushing him out. Justin stood up and brushed himself off, then made his way to the door. Chris was standing there waiting for him, already holding the door open.
"After you," Chris said.
"Yeah, didn't see you a minute ago," Justin said. "Thought you might be too busy watching TV."
"I wouldn't miss this for the world," Chris said, and grinned at him. Justin hated him.
Outside, in the far corner of the gravel parking lot, Mohawk was scuffling with his friends, dancing on the balls of his feet and throwing huge showy punches and getting patted on the shoulders in a pathetic imitation of a boxer and his managers. Justin thought they looked idiotic, and at the same time thought he wouldn't mind bouncing around like that with Chris, getting himself psyched up. Suddenly, out here in the crisp night air, Justin felt a lot less drunk than he knew he was.
Chris was already leaning on the hood of one of the cars, bumming a cigarette from the girl whose name Justin didn't know. He watched Chris rip the filter off and toss it on the ground, then say something to make the girl laugh. It figured. Chris could probably have sex with the girl right there on the car, and nobody would even notice, but Justin just talked to a girl and he was in a stupid ridiculous fight with some redneck.
The redneck in question stopped jumping around and hollered, "Hey!", which Justin guessed was redneck for it's time to start our stupid ridiculous fight. He walked over and stood across from Mohawk. Justin had seen a bunch of professional fights, and had even done some boxing at a gym, real boxing where he got hit. But he wasn't quite sure what the rules were for this kind of thing, if he and Mohawk were supposed to say something to each other, or size each other up, or --
Justin got his answer along with a mouthful of dust when Mohawk leapt onto him and tumbled them both to the ground. Justin swore when he hit the gravel, and Mohawk took advantage of Justin's surprise to land a few quick nasty punches to Justin's ribs. Justin was bigger, though, and stronger, and it wasn't too hard to roll both of them over so Justin had room to swing. They scuffled in the dirt for a few minutes, and then Justin was dragged backwards and he thought, Not fair, not fair, and yelled for Chris because even now Chris wouldn't let him get beat up by three guys.
He was swinging wildly and the two guys holding him dropped him on his ass. "Hey, hey," one of them said, "we're not -- it's just over, man, it's over."
Justin sat back and rubbed his jaw. He spat out blood -- just a little, he'd bitten his own lip -- and said, "That's it?"
The same guy laughed and said, "What, you want more?" Justin shook his head and the guy held out a hand for Justin to haul himself up. Justin brushed himself off and then looked back at his opponent, who really didn't look that much the worse for wear either. But he looked worse than Justin did, though, Justin was sure.
He wandered back over to where Chris was smoking and leaned next to him. "My hero," Chris said, and handed him the cigarette. Justin took a drag and then handed it hurriedly back.
"The fuck?" he said.
"It's a Virginia Slim," Chris said. "Beggars can't be choosers." Justin hiked himself up and sat on the hood of the car. Chris tugged his sleeve down over his hand and wiped at the corner of Justin's mouth. Justin flinched. "Now, now," Chris said, "if you're going to play with the rough boys, this is what happens. You're lucky I didn't spit on a piece of tissue."
While Chris was still fussing over him, the same guy who'd helped Justin up came over and stood watching them a little awkwardly. "Can I help you?" Chris said.
"So we're going back to Tony's," the guy said, "to, you know, hang out and whatever, and, you know, if you want to come." When they didn't say anything, he said, "You know, Tony, he didn't mean anything. He just gets stupid when he's drunk. You should come."
"Okay," Justin said.
"Neither of us should be driving right now," Chris said sharply.
"We can give you a ride," the guy said. He trotted off back to his friends, and Chris looked at Justin.
"I thought it might be rude to say no," Justin said. "I mean, if they're asking."
"Right," Chris said. "Because I'd hate for you to be rude to the guy you just beat up."
"I didn't really beat him up."
"No, you didn't," Chris said, "but I wasn't going to be the one to bring that up."
When they got the rides sorted out Chris and Justin were sitting in the back of one of the girls' pickup truck. Justin clung to the side when they hit the road, then tried to relax his grip when he saw Chris watching him. "Do you think," Chris said, "that this was a trick? Like, they're luring us out to the middle of nowhere to kill us because you beat their guy?"
"I didn't till now," Justin said. "Now I feel like I'm in the first fifteen minutes of an afterschool special. Do you think we should like jump out or something?"
"No, I don't think we should like jump out, although I would be interested in what exactly you think 'or something' would be." Chris stretched out on his back and put his hands behind his head. "I'm sure it's nothing. There's probably just going to be, like, a dog fight or something."
"Oh my God," Justin said. "Seriously, Chris, we should jump out, or something, or I'll just knock and get Susan to pull over or I bet she'd even take us back to the car if we said we forgot something, but I can't be doing that, seriously. That's horrible, I mean seriously-"
"I was kidding," Chris said. "Seriously yourself, I ain't gonna be watching any dog fight either. They're probably just going to get us high on some bad pot. Calm the fuck down."
"Okay," Justin said. He pulled his knees up to his chest and tilted his head back. The sky was deep and dark, slashed here and there with bright stars. The night was quiet except for the sound of the truck engine. It was a little cold, so Justin hunched down and shoved one hand between his legs for warmth. His first instinct had been to roll against Chris, fall into him the way he would have done once, but he didn't. Over the past couple of days they had dropped almost into their old routine, teasing and laughing. It was familiar, but not the same, as if they were both just a beat off from their old selves. But it was better than it had been before. Justin didn't want to push it. Still, it was cold. He slid just a little closer to Chris and put a hand on his ankle. Chris didn't say anything, but he didn't move away.
Chris was right. There was no dog fight or even a drag race, nothing but a bunch of kids sitting around a shabby living room, getting high on bad pot. Even though Tony didn't have any kitchen chairs and his sofa looked like something he'd found out by the dumpsters, he had a big-screen TV, a pretty decent stereo and an XBox, and Chris took great pleasure in schooling the guys on it.
"We do play it professionally," Chris said modestly after he won yet another game. "What?" he said quietly when Justin elbowed him. "Seriously, if you count up how many hours we played that, as opposed to like actually performing, I think I have a pretty good case. You're just jealous of my skills."
"I'm not jealous," Justin said grumpily. "I didn't even want to play."
"No," Chris said slowly, "no, you didn't."
Justin shrugged uneasily under Chris' gaze. "What?" he said.
"Nothing," Chris said, still watching him. "I didn't think of it till now, but I just would've thought -- why didn't you want to play?"
Justin started to say he didn't know, but then he shut his mouth. Chris said, "See, cause I would've thought you would've wanted to -- you always used to. We always used to. It would've been just like old times."
"I'm tired," Justin said. His voice sounded loud to him, but no one else even looked up. "I'm gonna ask one of the girls to drive us back to our car." He walked off, aware that Chris was still watching him.
Susan gave them a ride to the bar. It was just her and them, because nobody else was ready to leave, so they all could've fit on the front seat, but Chris headed wordlessly for the back. Justin had scrunched uncomfortably in the middle of the seat, but he felt stupid moving over when Chris didn't get in so he stayed where he was. Then he felt stupid all pressed up against Susan, so he moved over. She glanced over at him but didn't say anything. She looked tired and kind of annoyed.
"Sorry," Justin said. "For dragging you out of the --" He didn't know what to call it. It wasn't much of a party. "For dragging you out."
"No, it's okay," Susan said. When she smiled, she looked tired and kind of sad. "I was going to head home soon anyway."
"You weren't having fun?"
"No, it was fun," she said. "I mean, it was fine. It's just, you know, that's like all we ever do. Same people, same bar, same screwing around afterward. I just get -- it gets old after a while, you know?"
"Sure," Justin said. "Sure." He turned toward the window and pulled one leg up under him. After a minute, he heard Susan sigh and turn the radio up a little. Justin closed his eyes.
It wasn't all that long a drive back to the bar. When the truck pulled up into the parking lot, it was deserted, the small building locked up tight, the Christmas lights extinguished. "Well, here we are," Susan said.
"Yeah," Justin said. "Um, thanks, thanks a lot." He glanced out the back window. Chris had already jumped out and run over to the car. "Um, I guess I better --" Chris honked the horn. "Good night, and thanks again."
"You're welcome," Susan said. "Take care."
Chris had pushed the passenger side door open before Justin made it over to the car. He started to say something when Justin got in, but Justin curled up on his side with his back to Chris and tipped his head against the window. He was going to pretend to sleep for the ride back, but once his eyes shut he felt his limbs start to fill with a dull sodden exhaustion. His mind was still skittery and restless from the pot, but he took slow, shallow breaths and kept his eyes gently closed instead of screwed tightly shut, until his thoughts settled into a circling rhythm, movingmovingmoving, so familiar and comforting it almost wasn't like a thought at all. Fatigue floated through him like a warm ache spreading from a bruise.
The slam of a door jarred him awake, but he didn't open his eyes until his door swung out from under his shoulder. He would've fallen if Chris hadn't put his arm out. "C'mon," Chris said. "We're home."
"No," Justin said, without really knowing what he meant. His mind had leapt back into frantic action, but it was so fast he couldn't follow himself. "No, I don't want --"
"No," Chris said quickly, and hauled Justin up. "No, we're not home. We're just here." He pushed Justin lightly, one hand in the middle of his back, and closed the car door behind him. "C'mon," he said again, "one foot in front of the other. That's it. Keep moving." He guided Justin into the motel and down the hallway with one hand on his shoulder. He kept hold of Justin while he opened the door, then nudged him inside and let go.
Justin fell face first onto the bed nearest the door. He stopped long enough to kick his shoes off, then pulled himself up toward the head of the bed. He heard the door close behind him.
"Bet you're glad I got the room now," Chris said.
Justin tried to agree, but the cottony bedspread rose up to meet his face and he fell back asleep before he had a chance to say yes.
He woke up with the sun shining brightly in his eyes. He sat up slowly, slowly, and looked around. He couldn't see Chris, although the shades had been helpfully opened and Chris' bed was still unmade. Justin started to lie back down. He felt soggy with sleep, waterlogged, and he drooped back toward the bed as sleep started to pull him down again. He was still on top of the scratchy bedspread, though, and still mostly dressed. He rubbed his cheek where he could feel the imprint of the bedspread's pattern. It seemed like too much trouble to get up and turn the bed down.
It was only a few steps across to Chris' abandoned bed. Justin managed to shed his pants on the way, and curled up gratefully on the soft sheets. He tucked the blankets around himself and closed his eyes. Then he opened them and blinked into the sun. It was only a few more steps across to the windows, but it seemed like too much trouble to get up and draw them. He pulled the covers over his head and turned toward the door.
When he surfaced again Chris was sitting on the other bed, watching TV with no sound. Justin sat up, the blankets rippling around him, and rubbed a hand over his hair. "Where were you?" he said sleepily, but Chris just shook his head and tapped the clock on the little table between the beds.
"It's time to get up," Chris said. "I want my dinner."
Justin couldn't believe he'd slept that long, not till dinnertime, even though it was only four o'clock, which was only dinnertime for old people. Of course, by the time he'd showered and gotten dressed and drank the Coke Chris had gotten him from somewhere and then stretched out next to Chris to watch two Roseanne reruns, it was dinnertime for regular people. Justin was hungry, too. Even though he hadn't noticed it before, it was the kind of empty gnawing ache in his stomach that he only got when he'd been hungry for a while, when he was rehearsing and wouldn't leave until he'd gotten it just right, when he was the last one left in the room, just him and his reflection while he listened to the others eating next door, Joey banging on the wall and bellowing his name every five minutes. He was that kind of hungry, but he just lay on the bed until Chris got up and grabbed Justin's shirt and pulled him to his feet.
"Come on," Chris said. "I'm a growing boy."
They didn't drive far, a few exits on the highway and then maybe forty-five minutes on smaller roads, before Chris pulled up at a little bar that looked a lot like the one they'd been at the night before. It was a little bit bigger, a little bit fuller, and there was no jukebox and no excitement like the night before, but Justin didn't mind so much. He just sat next to Chris at a table towards the back, drinking bad beer and talking about nothing. Justin didn't really mind at all.
They fell into an easy pattern, zigzagging back and forth from small town to small town, never stopping in the same place twice. They slept most of the day in whatever motel Chris picked out the night before, and Justin slept for some of the drive, too. He always woke up before dinnertime, with that strange sodden feeling of too much sleep and an insistent scratchy tug beneath his skin that wasn't soothed until they started driving again. The motel rooms all looked the same, and the bars too, but Justin didn't care. He kind of liked it.
They went to bars, mostly, different ones every night, that didn't have much in common except for cool music and cheap beer. Sometimes they went to restaurants, never fancy and never chains, and once they went to an old movie theater and sat on folding chairs up in the balcony with their feet on the art deco railing. Chris wasn't answering any questions and he wasn't asking any. Justin didn't mind about that either.
One night they went to an arcade, late enough that Justin thought there wouldn't be any kids young enough to recognize them. His heart sank when he heard someone call across the room, "Chris Kirkpatrick?" and he braced himself. But when he turned around the guy didn't even look at him and Chris was already smiling. Justin got introduced and shook hands and then faded back and started playing pinball at a machine far enough away that he couldn't hear what they were talking about.
When Chris wandered back over, he was still smiling, a small private smile that made Justin ask, "Who was that guy?" even though he knew his name, Tom, and that he'd gone to school with Chris junior year.
"Just somebody I used to know," Chris said, and nudged Justin aside a little so he could play. Justin thought about pushing, but that was a truthful answer, after all, and he liked the look of that smile on Chris' face. He didn't push. He was rewarded when Chris said,
"You know I got my Cyclone here?"
"Seriously?" Justin said. "I always wondered where you got that, man. You can't hardly find that anywhere."
"I know. I always said, you know, when I was a kid, we played that all the time, and I always said when I grew up I was gonna have it in my house. And then, I was down here for something, I don't remember what, and I was just fucking around here one day and the guy who owns the place was taking it out, and I was like, what are you doing with that, and he was gonna get rid of it, if you can believe that, and he sold it to me for like, six hundred bucks." Chris laughed a little. "He made me go get the cash, too, because he didn't believe I had it in the bank. He remembered me."
Justin laughed, too, and then said, "When was this? I don't remember any of this."
"It was back a while ago," Chris said. "You were, you know. You were doing your own stuff, and I was just kind of driving around -- I don't remember why I was back here."
"Oh," Justin said. "Well, you got lucky with that, though. Six hundred bucks? You're not gonna do better than that."
"No," Chris said. "No, I was lucky." He looked around and shrugged into his jacket, even though it was well before the time they usually called it a night. He said, "You wanna just drive around a while?"
Chris was off somewhere when Justin woke up the next morning. Chris was always going off somewhere in the mornings, though -- he said Justin slept too late and he couldn't just sit around. Justin didn't think he slept all that late, but he knew it was absolutely true that Chris couldn't just sit around. After his shower, when Chris still wasn't back, Justin sat out on the little balcony that looked over the parking lot. There wasn't room for a chair out there, just barely room for him, so he sat cross-legged on the concrete and turned his face up to the sun.
Inside the room Chris' phone started to ring. Justin wasn't tempted to answer it, but once the ringing had stopped, he couldn't stop thinking about it. He was supposed to be listening to Chris' messages, making sure that there was no big emergency or anything, but he hadn't checked them once since Chris had first given him the phone. He didn't know if Chris was checking Justin's messages. Chris hadn't said anything if he was.
Justin's duffel bag was hanging on a chair just inside the door, Chris' phone tucked safely inside. Justin leaned inside and rummaged around for it. The message light blinked reproachfully at him. He thought briefly about dumping it back into his bag and letting it get lost. After all, if it were a true emergency, somebody'd find them. That was stupid, though, Justin knew that, and something worse than stupid.
Chris had sixteen messages.
Justin listened to each one just long enough to figure out who was talking and if they sounded upset. Nobody did. Pissed off, and worried, and one of Chris' sisters sounded like she was laughing at him, but nobody sounded upset. Justin fast-forwarded through them, pausing every now and then when there was something that he just couldn't skip over. He heard Lance's voice saying, "sure you're thinking," voice raising a little to punch the k, and Justin thought he could see Lance's eyebrow raising right in time. He rewound over and over again just to hear Joey saying, "Chris, for serious now," sounding equal parts worried and mad, and he was pretty sure that if he listened to the whole message he'd hear his own name. Justin didn't, though. That would be a violation of Chris' privacy. Plus he didn't know if he could take hearing whatever Joey had said about him.
The last message was from JC. Justin only meant to make sure it wasn't an emergency like he was supposed to, that was all he was going to do. But JC's voice took him by surprise. It shouldn't have, he knew there was no way that JC wouldn't have been calling Chris, and he'd tried to brace himself for it. JC had always been able to do that to him, though. In the studio and in private, just when Justin was sure that JC's voice was entirely familiar -- beautiful, of course, and strong and rich and full, but known, completely known -- JC had always been able to shake him, shock him, make him listen like it was completely, entirely new.
"I don't know," JC's voice said, not bothering with a greeting or to identify himself, and Justin had to smile because JC's messages always started like that. "I mean, I know what you're doing, but I don't think it's gonna -- I don't think it'll do what you want it to. I just -- Chris, I don't think anything can," and Justin wasn't smiling any more. "I just think, there's some things you can't run from, you know? No matter how much you want to. There's some things you just have to lose. You don't have a choice. And trying not to, I don't think, I don't think it makes it easier. I don't know, maybe that's the point. I guess I just wanted to say -- I don't know what I want to say, exactly. I thought maybe it was to tell you to take care, but I don't know, I think maybe you both have had people taking care a little too much. I guess I just wanted to say, you know. You know. I just wanted to say. And now I have."
Justin didn't delete the message when it was done. He just sat looking at the phone, until he heard Chris opening the door and fumbled to get it back into his bag. He was too slow, though, and Chris caught him with it still in his hand.
"I was just -- " Justin said. "You said I should check, in case, you know, emergency. You said."
"I know, J," Chris said.
"And, um, there was no. Emergency."
"Good," Chris said. Justin dropped the phone into his bag and zipped it up. "I haven't -- I should check yours. I guess."
"I'll, um, I'll wait in the car," Justin said, and ran gratefully for the door.
It was a little while before Chris came downstairs.
"No emergencies," Chris said as he got into the car.
"Well, good," Justin said as he pulled the car out of the lot. "I mean, not that I expected, but still, that's --"
"But JC, man, he's got to stop with the messages. Cause, seriously, if that's the kind of thing you're listening to, I'm surprised you weren't having an even bigger nervous breakdown when I found you."
Justin hadn't been having a nervous breakdown, he thought, he'd just been a little freaked out, and understandably so, but one look at Chris told him that maybe that wasn't the fight he wanted to be having just now. He settled for saying, "I don't know, C usually knows what he's talking about."
"I think we might not be talking about the same person. JC Chasez? Skinny kid, big nose, about three days away from changing his name to a symbol?"
Justin laughed, and then said, "No, seriously, I think, I think maybe you... I don't know. I thought, when I was back home, what he said. I think, you know, I think it might be right." Chris didn't say anything, and Justin kept his eyes on the road and pushed a little harder. "Cause he said, you know, that we had to learn. That we were learning to leave each other."
"Man," Chris said. Justin stole a glance over at him and saw Chris shaking his head. Justin shook his head a little, too, in sympathy. It wasn't easy to hear, the first time.
"Man," Chris said again. "He is one gloomy motherfucker, isn't he?"
Justin choked. "You don't -- you don't think -- "
"Think that it's amazing that you weren't down-not-across suicidal after listening to him go on for a while? I do, believe me, I do. Those messages, man, it's like he was leaving your little daily word of doom and depression. It's like the opposite of an affirmation. It's like an unfirmation."
"But he's not -- he wasn't all gloomy and depressed," Justin said. "I mean, I was, but he wasn't. He was kind of, just, happy. I mean, worried, and he missed us, but I thought he was --"
"Yeah," Chris said. "You know how he's happy? He's happy because he never takes his own goddamn advice. He's a big fucking happy hypocrite."
"No," Justin said, "I don't think so," but he was smiling, mostly because Chris was. And because it was like old times, suddenly, Chris teasing JC and Justin defending him, but always ending up laughing a little, too.
"No, seriously. We're all learning to leave each other, right, that's his big theory. And he's learning that by, what -- sleeping on Joey's couch every night?"
"But I think he already --"
"No, listen. Listen. I had him pegged right from the start. You know -- or, actually, you don't know this because I never told you because I was being all tactful -- shut up -- but way back in the beginning he was the one, he was the one who said, 'Oh, I don't think we should, it's a really bad idea to sleep with anyone in the group.' That was, by my calculations, about, oh, twelve minutes before he started nailing you."
"You don't understand --"
"Oh, I'm sure I don't," Chris said. He was grinning even wider now, warming up to his subject. "I'm sure I just cut him off too soon, and what he was about to say was, 'It's a really bad idea to sleep with anyone in the group, unless it's the one person that fucking could get you ten years of hard time in any of the forty-eight contiguous states'. Maybe I just didn't hear the end."
"It's not illegal to fuck me in Hawaii and Alaska?"
"No, Justin, no it's not. Thank you for bringing up that valuable point. You should feel free to slut your way right up to the Arctic Circle."
"No," Justin said, "I mean, I mean, underage me. I mean, underage guys."
"I have no idea."
"But you said the forty-eight contiguous states --"
"I was just yelling."
Chris said, "What were we talking about?"
"You were just picking on JC," Justin said, smiling.
"And you were sticking up for him," Chris said. "Just like old times." Justin stopped smiling. "Don't bother trying to deny it. You always had a soft spot for him."
"I wouldn't call it a soft spot," Justin said with a straight face, and there was a brief second of silence before Chris laughed. Justin cracked up then too. They were both laughing harder than the joke deserved, but Justin thought maybe they needed it. It felt good, he thought, watching Chris' shoulders shake. Then Chris stopped laughing, and Justin did too. Chris' shoulders were still shaking.
"Fuck," Chris said. "Fuck, I miss -- I miss it."
Justin didn't say anything.
"Pull over," Chris said sharply. "Fuck, pull over," and Justin swung the car onto the shoulder. Chris got out and took a few quick steps, then stopped and hunched down next to the car. He picked up a stone and skipped it across the blacktop, then threw a few more.
Justin looked out at the horizon. He listened to the crisp crack of the rocks against the road. There were a few metallic thuds as stones hit the car, but Justin didn't say anything. The sound stopped, and Justin still didn't say anything. He was learning.
Finally Chris got back in the car. Justin started the engine, and glanced over at Chris, just once, just to check. "I miss us," Chris said, and leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes. He didn't say anything else.
Chris was learning, too.
It was a hard lesson.
He should have known. Justin thought that later, he should have known. He knew Chris, and he knew how Chris reacted to things, to everything, and he should have known. But he'd forgotten, maybe, or maybe he was just stupider than he looked or maybe he didn't really -- he should have known.
Chris was quiet in the car, giving Justin a few brief directions and then subsiding back into what Justin was sure wasn't sleep. But Justin was feeling quieter, too, and he thought maybe that was just how they were now, their new quieter selves, and he didn't think anything else about it. If he had, maybe he would have known.
Chris slid up straight in his seat, blinking slowly, one hand massaging the back of his neck as he let his head fall forward. If Justin hadn't known before, that would have told him that Chris hadn't been asleep. Chris always leapt out of sleep, sharply, eyes bright and alert like a wild animal's. He wasn't like Justin, who'd spend an hour lying in bed when he could get it, half-awake, floating dozy and dreaming until the very last moment of sleep had drifted past him. Chris had no patience for that in-between state. He was either awake or asleep. There was no middle ground.
"So I been thinking," Chris said, his voice steady, and Justin should have known from that alone. He didn't, but he should have. "Maybe it's time for another couple of questions."
"Sure, man," Justin said, and he probably would have said the same thing if he'd known but he didn't, he wasn't prepared. "As long as I get to ask, too."
"Good," Chris said, easily, pleasantly even. Justin smiled over at him, then looked back at the road. "So are we done here? Have you had enough yet?"
"What?" Justin said, and he wasn't expecting a thing.
"You get what you needed yet? I mean, this tour of my white trash years has been fun and all, but the only thing left to do is try to get you a fake ID. And at your age, all we could really try for is a fake one that'd get you the senior discount at McDonald's, and I don't know if the thrill would be the same."
Justin laughed. "I didn't realize we were doing that."
Chris laughed, too, a short blunt laugh that Justin swore he could feel on his skin, deeper even, down all the way to the bone. All of a sudden Justin realized he was in a different type of conversation. "What, you thought I was taking this trip down memory lane just for fun? Just because I wanted to? Ah, baby, you're always the same."
"What?" Justin said again, and he was expecting something this time. But some things you just couldn't brace yourself for.
"You didn't think we were doing this because I wanted to, did you?"
"Yeah," Justin said. "I mean, why else --"
Chris said, "Liar."
Justin hit the brakes, hard, hard enough that the brakes squealed and his seatbelt stretched taut across his chest and a car behind them leaned on the horn in a furious wail of protest that shrieked around them and then died quickly away. Hard, but not hard enough, because Chris slammed forward and then bounced back, his head smacking the leather hard, but not hard enough. Justin gripped the wheel and thought of breaking glass, blood black on the highway, and waited for his hands to stop shaking. It was luck, that was all it was, just luck that there weren't any other cars around, that they hadn't had an accident, because Chris sure as hell hadn't looked, and he glanced over at Chris, ready to tell him that, and caught Chris smiling, just barely, just a little.
When Justin saw that, he knew he couldn't have known.
He'd thought, for just a second, that all this was just Chris' brand of payback. Justin had seen something he shouldn't have, something Chris thought he shouldn't have, and so he had to pay for it. It was just like Chris, really, and if it hadn't been so long, so long since they'd been together, so long since they'd been together like they should have been, he would have remembered sooner. He would've been expecting it all along.
But when he looked at Chris, his face twisted in the remains of a smile, Justin knew that that wasn't what this was about at all. Justin looked at Chris and knew Chris wasn't trying to hurt him -- or not only to hurt him. Chris was telling him the truth.
Justin thought about what Chris had said and he wished that there had been other cars on the road a moment ago. Then he thought, No. The word beat a relentless rhythm in his ears. He closed his eyes and shook his head but the word was still there. No matter how much Justin told himself to stop being a coward, to stop avoiding the truth, he still resisted it. He couldn't accept it. He didn't want to.
He opened his eyes and caught Chris looking at him. Chris smiled wider and looked away, but it was too late. Justin had seen what was in Chris' eyes, and he recognized the loss there. He knew that it was for himself, maybe more than for Chris. He recognized that pain, and that smile. But he remembered something else, too, Chris' voice telling him he was no liar. Justin thought about that, and he knew that Chris hadn't been lying then. But Chris wasn't lying now either. Chris believed that he was telling Justin the truth.
Justin focused on the road in front of him for a few moments. Then he steadied his hands and caught his breath and thought about what he was going to say. No matter how long he thought about it, there was only one word left to him.
"No," Justin said.
"Oh, come on," Chris said. "You're trying to tell me that's the truth? You really thought all this was for -- you didn't think all this was about you, about getting you what you need? Come on."
"I didn't," Justin said. Before Chris could say anything, he said, "Okay. Okay, maybe I didn't think it was because you wanted to, but I didn't think it was all for me, either. I didn't think --"
"Yeah, you didn't think," Chris said.
"I thought it was for both of us," Justin said. "I thought -- I thought maybe it was what we both needed."
"Liar," Chris said, his voice flat and even and relentless.
"Liar, liar, liar," and Justin flinched each time. It shouldn't have hurt, because Justin knew it wasn't true. He thought it wasn't true. He didn't want it to be true.
"Liar, liar, liar," and Justin said,
"I'm not -- I wasn't, I'm not," and put his hands up over his face. "I did think -- for both of us, I thought you wanted, I thought you needed --"
"Bullshit," Chris said. "Like you ever even thought about what I needed. You never even asked me what was wrong. You never even asked me why I left."
Justin let his hands drop in sheer disbelief at Chris' unfairness. "You wouldn't give me a chance. You wouldn't even let me ask you --"
"Would that have been what you asked me?" Chris said. Justin opened his mouth, and then shut it. "Yeah," Chris said. "That wasn't even on your list."
Justin didn't say anything, just looked at his hands where they'd fallen on his lap.
"So," Chris said. "You gonna answer my question? You get what you need yet?"
"I don't -- no," Justin said. "No -- I don't know. I don't know why I wanted -- I don't know what I needed."
"Baby," Chris said, and Justin winced before Chris could call him a liar again. But Chris looked him up and down once, slowly, and said, "You really don't know?"
"No," Justin said.
"You want me to tell you?"
Justin met that look and held it. Chris could never call him a coward, anyway. He said, "Yes."
Chris laughed a little. "You really sure you want me to tell you the truth?"
"No, I want you to lie to me," Justin said.
"Yeah," Chris said. "That's not exactly news to me."
He shouldn't have been surprised by now that Chris could be so unfair, but still it hit Justin like a slap. He could feel the flush from it rising in his cheeks as he said, "You said you would -- I didn't even ask, you said --"
"All right," Chris said sharply. "All right. Although I shouldn't need to." Justin thought he might never have wanted anything as much as he wanted not to look at Chris right now, but he didn't look away. "Just look at what you did, J."
"What did I do?" Justin said, and he couldn't help the way his voice shook, but at least he asked the question.
"What did you do?" Chris echoed, and it was cruel of him, Justin thought, to make his voice shake that way. Justin clenched his fists and his teeth and he didn't look away. "You know what you did. You fucked yourself up, on purpose, all on your own, and then you made sure everybody knew about it. You did your best to make sure we'd come running --"
"I wouldn't say you came running," Justin said through his teeth.
"No," Chris said. "No, you wouldn't, and so what did you do? You went running yourself. You went running to C, and when that didn't get you what you wanted, you ran right to me."
"I didn't --"
"You were in my house, J," Chris said coldly. "You really want to argue that with me?"
"I'm sorry," Justin said, and stopped because his voice was shaking so hard his teeth were chattering. He put his knuckle in his mouth and bit down, closing his eyes. When he opened his eyes, Chris was still watching him coolly. "I'm sorry," Justin said, "if I fucking needed somebody to help me --"
"Oh, you didn't need me to help you," Chris said. "If you had, if you truly had, that would have been some kind of excuse. But that's not what you needed. You just needed to make sure I'd still drop everything for you, whenever you wanted me to. You just wanted to know that I still -- you fucked yourself up so that you could make sure everything was still all about you."
Chris shook his head as if in admiration. "And you got what you needed, all right. And you weren't even surprised. It's like you said that night -- you didn't even need to ask me why I came back. You knew I'd turn up, just because you wanted me to. You got what you needed, what you wanted, just like always. I gotta hand it to you, you're ruthless, baby. You always do whatever you have to to get what you need. That's never surprised me. It's just the things you want -- man, sometimes that still takes me by surprise. You'd think I'd know better by now."
"No," Justin said. He shook his head, trying to shed Chris' words. "No, no, no --"
"Come on," Chris said. "You trying to tell me you didn't do just that? You didn't fuck yourself up just so you could prove --"
"No," Justin said. "I did, I know, I did it myself, but that's not why. I would never, I would never -- that's not why."
"Why then?" Chris said. Justin didn't answer. "Tell me why," Chris said, his voice slipping down low like a snake, twisting around Justin. "Come on, baby, tell me why. If you're so sure, if you know that's not why, then just tell me. Tell me why. Tell me --"
"Because I wanted to!" Justin said. The words burst rawly from his mouth, and Justin lifted his hand and wiped them away from his lips. The back of his hand burned with them. He stopped for a moment in surprise, then opened his mouth again, just to hear what he'd say. "I wanted to," Justin said. Chris was watching him, his face blank with something Justin couldn't name, but Justin didn't care. "I wanted to," Justin said, because it was the truth.
"J," Chris said, softly, but Justin didn't listen.
"You were right," Justin said, "I was, I was fine when we -- when we stopped. I was fine, I wasn't fucked up, and I didn't want to be fine. I wanted to be -- I wanted to be different."
"Why?" Chris said. "Tell me why," and the words sounded softer this time, as if Chris were trying to wrap him in them as gently as he could, but it didn't matter because Justin was going to answer that question even if Chris didn't ask.
"Because I didn't want to be -- if it didn't fuck me up, if it didn't even bother me, then it was like I didn't, I didn't have anything from the whole thing, I didn't even have a scar. I didn't want it to just stop and for me to be fine, like I didn't even lose anything, like it wasn't anything to me, because it was, Chris, it was, it was and I wasn't even -- it should have fucked me up. It should have felt like losing something, like losing everything, and I didn't even -- I wanted to lose something," Justin said. "I wanted to lose something."
"J," Chris said again, "J --"
"So I did," Justin said. "I lost something." He stopped abruptly, before he'd expected to, a little out of breath, as if he'd been running and the ground had dropped away just in front of him, as if he'd caught himself just in time. Chris was still watching him, something new in his eyes.
"J," Chris said, like it was the only word he knew, the only word left to him.
"Don't," Justin said, and Chris' eyes flickered away briefly, then returned to him. "Don't try and be nice to me now, don't --"
"I wouldn't have thought that me being nice to you was what you'd be worried about right now," Chris said quietly. Justin laughed a little, a harsh wet sound that hurt his throat, and swiped his arm across his face.
"Now," Justin said, "now I think I've earned a fucking question."
"Yeah," Chris said. He put his hand up like he was going to run it through his hair, then stopped. Justin could see his face get tighter, harder. "Yeah." Justin didn't even have to think about his question.
"Why wouldn't you talk to me for so long?"
Chris had been expecting something bad, Justin knew, and was bracing himself for it, his hands just a little too still, spread out over his thighs. He didn't flinch at the question when it came. His smile flared, briefly, but not briefly enough for Justin, who said, "What, you think that's funny?"
"You know, that's two questions," Chris said lightly, looking away, but Justin wasn't having any of it.
"Why wouldn't you talk to me for so long?" he said again, and Chris stopped smiling. He looked straight at Justin.
"I thought you'd be okay."
"That's not an answer," Justin said fiercely.
"Yes it fucking is," Chris snapped, just as fiercely. "I didn't want to talk to you because I thought you'd be okay."
"That's an excuse, it's not a fucking answer."
"I thought you'd be okay," Chris said. "I thought that you'd be fine, and I didn't want to talk to you because I didn't want to see that, all right? I didn't want to see it."
Justin was the one who flinched.
"See?" Chris said. "I knew you you didn't want to hear it."
When Justin spoke, his voice was small. He hated himself for it, but he couldn't help it. "You wanted -- you didn't want me to be okay?"
"J," Chris said, "J, no. No, I never, I never would --" He put a hand on Justin's arm, and Justin pulled away. He saw Chris flinch then.
"But you said," Justin said, in that voice he despised.
"J," Chris said, his voice soft. "J, I didn't --" He stopped and ran a hand through his hair. His voice was brittle when he spoke again. "You never asked what I was doing all that time," he said. "Which, I mean, that's you, of course you didn't, and it's not -- but I was doing something. I thought, you know, the label thing didn't work out before, and I thought, you know, people always said I was kind of funny, and I could --
"Anyway," he said. "I wrote something, I wrote a script, and I didn't think, you know, it wasn't bad, and I called up -- you remember that guy we all met who worked on Conan? He's got his own show now, that thing with the rock star dad, and it's pretty good, and I guess I just thought maybe. So I called him up, and I asked him if he'd, you know, read it, and we went out for lunch, and, I don't know." Chris ran his hand through his hair again until it was standing up in unruly spikes. The contrast between his hair and the weariness in his face made Justin suddenly, furiously protective of him.
"Chris," he said, "Chris, you know you can't -- people like that, they're just waiting for a chance to cut us down because of what we are. What we were. I mean, you taught me that --"
"No," Chris said. "No, he wasn't -- he was nice. He read it, and he said that it was pretty good, and he gave me some, like, pointers, about how to make it better, and he even picked up the check for lunch. He wasn't -- he was okay."
"Then what --"
"It's just, he started talking about how it's really hard, even for people who are like, real writers, you know?" Chris' smile flared again, twisting his lips until his hand brushed over them. "Then he was all, I don't know, saying he didn't mean to be, he wasn't saying, but you know. He said that it's really hard, and that lots of people think, you know, they're funny, so they can, but there's more to it than that, that there's, you have to be. I don't know."
"Chris," Justin said.
"No, I mean, it's not, he wasn't wrong, you know? I mean, that's what started me thinking. I was just always, I was so careful with you and Lance, I was always trying to make sure you got it, you know, that you knew that the pop bubble wasn't real life, to remind you that life wasn't always gonna be like that, that that wasn't --"
"You did," Justin said desperately. "You did, you did such a good job, you really did."
"Yeah, but I didn't think I had to remind myself, you know?" Chris smiled again. "I just, I wasn't expecting to lose what I lost." Justin caught his breath until Chris continued. "I lost my context."
It was a minute before Justin said, "I don't understand."
"What's not to understand? I just -- I didn't realize how much I was, how much I was only what I was because of where I was, you know? I mean, I don't mean being all rich and famous, I just -- you know, the thing is, it's like everybody always said. I was pretty smart, for a guy in a boyband. I was really funny, for a guy in a boyband."
Chris laughed a little, bitterly, and Justin said, "You were." Even as he said it he knew it was exactly the wrong thing to say.
"Yeah, but baby, maybe you haven't noticed, but I'm not in a boyband any more." Justin didn't say anything. When Chris stopped laughing, he sighed. "So, you know, I'm out of context, I was out of context, and I just didn't -- I didn't want to go back and see you being all okay and fine. It's not that I didn't want you to be, I just, I didn't really want to know that there was one more place I didn't -- I just didn't need to see that."
Justin didn't say anything for a minute. When he looked up, Chris was watching him. Justin made himself laugh a little. "Yeah, well, as it turned out, maybe you didn't need to worry so much about that."
"Maybe not," Chris said. He didn't laugh. Justin said,
"Let's go," Chris said. "I need a drink."
They both needed more than that. They pulled up at a little no-name bar settled just off the highway, right next to a little no-name motel. Chris went to get them a room while Justin went into the bar. He had a pitcher of beer on the table by the time Chris got there.
They didn't talk. Justin thought he'd had enough talking for a while. They sat and drank and ate hamburgers and drank some more. It was after midnight and they were well into their fifth pitcher when Chris mumbled something.
"We've hit it."
"We've hit -- I don't understand," Justin said. He was drunk, but not drunk enough to believe Chris would answer him. Chris did, though, mumbling something into his beer.
"A bend in the road," Justin said. He liked the sound of that. Of course that was where they were. That was why he couldn't see what was coming -- it was there, of course it was, but it was around the corner, waiting for them, something that felt like the future, an endless vista stretching out bright enough to take his breath away.
"Not that," Chris said.
"What?" Justin said. "Yeah."
"No," Chris said. "We're at the end of the road."
"No," Justin said. "It's just -- we can't see, because it's around the corner, but it's not the end, there's something --"
"Justin," Chris said. Justin shut up and looked down at the table.
Finally he said, keeping his head down, watching Chris through his lashes, "But every ending is really the beginning of something else, right?"
Chris laughed. Justin was glad he'd kept his head down. He didn't think he could take the look in Chris' eyes full on. "Fucking Disney, man. They really brainwashed you. They should do a 60 Minutes on them or something."
Chris laughed again, a little more kindly, but Justin didn't join in. He waited until Chris was silent again, and then said, in a voice that was smaller than he wanted it to be, "You don't think this could be a beginning?"
"Justin," Chris said. "Come on."
"No," Justin said, "I mean, it could, there could be something that we just haven't -- it could be. It could be something good."
"Yeah," Chris said. "Yeah, sure. What's not good about it? You sleep sixteen hours a day. You get the shakes if it looks like we might even be thinking about spending two nights in a row in the same place. You can't even -- and that's not even starting on me. Come on."
"I don't know," Justin said stubbornly. "It could, if you'd just, it could --"
"J," Chris said, and his voice was heavy with something Justin was desperately afraid was pity, "tell me, tell me honestly that this feels like a beginning to you."
Justin tried not to answer, but Chris' gaze was as heavy as his voice, and the weight bore down on Justin and crushed an answer from his lips. "No," he said, and something left him with the word, something he hadn't even known he'd had. It was hope.
"Oh, J," Chris said. He shook his head. Justin was filled with an overwhelming sense of failure at having wrung those words, that look, from one more person. From Chris.
"I don't want it to be like this," Justin said. He meant for it to be defiant, but what came out sounded a lot more like a wail left over from his childhood.
Justin knew Chris heard that too, because Chris narrowed his eyes and evened out his voice into the crisp cutting tone he'd used to meet so many of Justin's tantrums before. "What do you want, J?"
"I want everything to be the way it was," Justin said, but he couldn't look at Chris.
"Really -- you really want that."
Justin bit his lip, then shook his head. He didn't lie to Chris. There was no point.
"Then what is it you want?"
"I don't know!" Justin said, pushing his chair back from the table. Beer spilled over his fingertips. "Are you happy now? I don't know!"
Chris pushed his chair back, too, and stood up. He loomed over Justin in the darkened bar. For a moment, as Justin looked up at him, he thought Chris might hit him. Then Chris smiled. "I tell you what, J," he said. "You come find me when you figure it out."
The words wouldn't have been cruel if they hadn't been unanswerable. Justin wished Chris had hit him.
Justin stayed at the table and watched Chris walk out. He didn't want to, but he couldn't think of anywhere else he wanted to go. He finished the pitcher and ordered another beer. He didn't want it, but he couldn't think of anything else he wanted to do.
He'd almost finished a third beer when the waitress touched his shoulder. "Honey, we're closing up," she said, and her eyes were soft. Justin was pretty sure he could remember a time when he evoked a stronger emotion from women in bars late at night. He left her a big tip anyway. He was grateful for what he could get.
Justin stumbled out into the night. He hunched his shoulders under his jacket and turned his collar up against the wind. He sat on the hood of the car and watched people shout and kiss goodbye, watched the waitress smile sadly at him as she locked up. A white Miata pulled up and she got inside it. He saw her lean to whisper something to the driver, or kiss him, before they drove away. He put his fingers to his lips. They tasted sour.
Justin was alone. Faint white light floated on the darkness, spilling from behind the curtains and under the doorways of the motel across the way. Justin turned his back resolutely on it. He thought he'd sleep in the car. The night wasn't that cold. But the car gleamed ghostly in the deserted parking lot, and Justin's courage failed him. He laid his forehead on the car's smooth roof, waiting to see if he could get it back. He couldn't.
He pulled out Chris' phone and called JC.
The phone rang five times before hitting voicemail, and Justin hung up without a message, then called back and let it ring three times, then another three, then another. That was their old code for "pick up the damn phone now." JC wouldn't have forgotten it.
"Hey," JC said, his voice thick with sleep.
"C?" Justin said.
"Who is this?" JC said, and Justin thought his heart would stop for a moment, until he remembered that it was the middle of the night and he'd only said one word and he wasn't even on his own phone so it was Chris' new number that would pop up on JC's caller ID.
"It's me," Justin said, whispering even though there wasn't anyone around who could overhear him.
"J," JC said, and Justin relaxed against the sound of his name in JC's voice, leaning on it the way he'd leaned against JC's shoulder, once upon a time. "Is something wrong?"
"No," Justin said. "No, I mean, just the usual."
"Justin, what do you want?"
He was so tired of being asked that. "I miss you," he said.
"I miss you too. That's not why you called."
"I love you," Justin said. All he wanted was to hear JC's voice, rich and beautiful as always, talking him down until he was ready to sleep, the way JC'd done so many times before, after shows and parties. JC's voice full of familiar words, lulling him until he could forget the night and everything that had happened, until he could forget everything until morning. The same way he had so many times before.
"J," JC said, a chill crackle of anger in his voice that sent a shock down Justin's spine. "No."
"What? I do."
"I know," JC said. "I know you do, and you know I do, and the other thing is, we both know that's not why you called."
"Why did I call then?"
"You really want me to tell you?" JC said.
Justin said, "No," quickly, desperately. It sounded like something torn from him, but he couldn't help it. He really didn't want JC to tell him.
JC said, his voice as cold as steel, "Then you better hang up the phone."
Justin wanted to hang up, but his hands clung to the phone. He heard JC's breath coming in short sharp bursts. Justin's chest rose and fell in the same rhythm.
"You called -- " JC said. "You called --" He laughed a little, raw and familiar. "I don't know why it's hard to say." Justin didn't say anything. "You called because you want -- You need me."
Justin didn't say anything.
"You called because you're all fucked up, and you thought you needed -- you thought what you needed was for things to be like they were before, so you went with -- you thought you just needed everything to be the way it was before." JC laughed a little again. "You were right, too, just not the way you thought. You do need things to be the way they were before."
"No," Justin said quietly.
"Oh, baby," JC said, and Justin had heard those soft words so many times before. He didn't think he'd ever heard the iron behind them. "You know it's true. You're fucked up, and you don't want to be, and you need me to help you -- you need me to fix you up. I don't know why you had to go, first -- but that's just the way it always is. Nothing's different."
"Everything's different," Justin whispered.
"Some things have changed, sure," JC said. "But nothing real's different. I'm not different." Justin didn't say anything. "You're not different."
"I don't know," Justin said. "I think I -- I want to be." It was JC's turn to be quiet, and Justin bit his tongue. Something about the silence made him think that he shouldn't have said that to JC.
"Yeah," JC said finally, "yeah, well, luckily, that doesn't matter so much."
"C," Justin said, "C, I think it does. I want it to."
"Do you?" JC said sharply. "So you don't need me -- you don't want me to help you fix things?"
Justin thought about it for a moment. He wanted whatever he said to be the truth. "I don't want to want it," he said.
"What do you want?" JC said.
Justin didn't have anything to say to that.
"Yeah, well," JC said. He sounded tired. "If there's one thing we can be sure of, it's that you'll call me when you figure it out."
JC hung up. Justin stood listening to the slight buzz of the abandoned line, somehow worse than silence. He turned and leaned against the side of the car, his eyes closed. The light from the motel still burned palely behind his eyelids. He stuffed the phone into his pocket and opened his eyes.
He stood up straight and let the light lead him to Chris.
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.