The World Behind
"We are all gathered here today for one reason," the man on the stage said. "We are all here because of fear."
Chris leaned over in his seat and whispered, "That might just be the first honest statement I've ever heard spoken in a church."
Tony didn't answer him, just sat a little straighter in his seat. Chris could have kicked himself. Only two kinds of people were interested in this work -- those who believed with a faith so pure that they were offended and ashamed that anyone would use the name of God to cheat the poor and weak, and those who believed in nothing except that the poor and weak should not be cheated. Tony was the first kind, and Chris knew it. He just forgot to rein in his sense of humor sometimes. He leaned over again and whispered, "Sorry," and Tony smiled at him quickly. They both turned their attention back to the man on stage.
Chris had been waiting a while for this. For someone who didn't believe in much of anything, he'd become something of a connoisseur of preaching. Chris preferred style over substance, Tony told him disapprovingly, but then again, Tony would add, in their line of work, Chris wasn't exposed to much in the way of substance. Chris wasn't expecting much in the way of substance from Justin Timberlake, but he'd heard enough to look forward to his style.
Justin was younger than Chris had thought he'd be, and he looked even younger standing alone in the center of the stage. Still, Chris was expecting great things. Justin had flared up out of nowhere in the past year or two, blazing hot and bright across the South, Godstruck followers trailing him by the hundreds. These days there was always a crowd around Justin. Oh, and money. Somehow, there was always a lot of money around Justin Timberlake, more than any man of God could have come by honestly.
Justin raised his hand, and the rustling of the crowd dwindled. "Some people will tell you that fear is ugly. But you and I," he said, walking right to the end of the stage, smiling down at the faces turned up toward him, "you and I know that's not true. Fear is -- it can be such a beautiful thing. Why else would we cling to it so desperately? Our fears are so familiar, so intimate -- they're ours. They fit us so perfectly. We've worked so hard to make them so. They keep us company, late at night, singing us to sleep with their sweet voices, whispering those words we long to hear -- all the reasons why we cannot do those things that are hard for us, why we can do -- must do -- can't help doing -- those things we desire. Why, some days it seems like our fears are our closest friends."
Justin stopped and looked out over the crowd. He was surrounded by silence. "My brothers and sisters," he said, "will you give up your fears to me?"
No one spoke. Justin smiled again. "Maybe I should be surprised," he said, "that you all don't say to me, why should I give up my fears, when you've just finished telling me how beautiful they are, when you know how much I need them? But somehow, everywhere I go, no one ever says that to me. And I know the reason why. It's because you all know, just like I do, that like so many beautiful things, fear is deceptive. It's deadly. It offers us something, of course it does, otherwise it would be easy to resist. Temptation isn't temptation if it isn't tempting. But what it offers us is just a pale imitation of what we are all truly longing for.
"It's hard, I know, to give it up. I know that you're thinking, if I give you my fears, my familiar fears, my own fears, then what will I be left with? I'll be empty without them. But I am here to tell you, my friends, that if you give up your fears, then God will give you something even greater in return. He will not leave you lonely and longing, alone in the dark night without even your fears to comfort you. Give up your fears, and you will not be empty, because He will fill you up -- with grace, and with faith, and with love.
"I swear to you," Justin said, his voice low and gentle. Chris shook his head in admiration. He had never seen anything as sincere as those big blue eyes. "I swear."
Justin lifted his hands and said again, "Will you give up your fears to me?"
The crowd roared with one voice, "Yes!"
His hands still out in front of him, Justin walked slowly down the steps of the stage and into the crowd. A man grabbed his hands and Justin leaned toward him, tilting his head until it almost rested against the man's forehead. The man shouted out something about loneliness, about death, something so raw that Chris almost turned away. He didn't, though. He wanted to see what Justin would do.
Justin didn't flinch from the man's ranting. He waited until the man fell silent, then lifted the man's hands, old and dirty, work-worn, still clutching Justin's own, up to his lips. He said something against them, too low for Chris to hear, but he saw a look of trust fall across the man's face. Then Justin smiled and moved on.
It took three hours for Justin to work his way through the crowd. People drew back from him in the first moment, out of respect, and then swarmed toward him, clutching at him, their fears pouring out of them, over them, in waves of words. Justin listened patiently, then spoke a few low words of his own. He slid their hands gently from his, and only at that moment did Chris ever see a sign of strain. Justin's hands rubbed up and down his own arms afterwards, as if he were trying to wipe them clean. His hands twisted together briefly, as if he were wringing them in pain, or clasping them in prayer. Whatever Justin did, Chris couldn't look away from him. He knew every other person in the crowd was watching Justin too. He could feel the weight of their watching, the weight of their fear and their faith in the air. For a moment he was amazed that Justin didn't stumble beneath it.
As Justin approached them, Tony shot a panicked look at Chris. Chris just shrugged. Tony took Justin's offered hands, and closed his eyes. Chris watched curiously, but as close as he was, he still couldn't hear the words that were said. Then Justin let Tony's hands fall from his and turned to Chris. Chris crossed his arms over his chest.
"Will you give up your fears to me?" Justin asked gently.
"Oh, I don't think so," Chris said. "I'm still using them."
Justin laughed. It was a real laugh, loud and a little raucous, and Chris saw heads turn toward them. "Suit yourself," Justin said.
Chris watched him walk away, and wondered.
After the show, Chris and Tony watched the crowd file out from a distance.
"Wow," Tony said.
"He puts on quite a show."
"You don't think that maybe this one's for real?"
Chris laughed. "What did he say to you?"
Tony blushed. "Nothing, I just -- I don't know. He seemed like he believed it."
"They all seem like they believe it," Chris said. "If they don't, then sure as hell no one else will."
"Right, right. I just -- the kid seemed pretty good to me. You're sure he's a fake?"
"Oh, I'm sure," Chris said. "He's too good not to be. Besides, even if I had a doubt, take a look over there." He pointed back to the stage, where an older woman and three men in expensive suits were standing, carefully studying the crowd. "The vultures are circling. They follow the smell of money. Believe me, they don't waste their time on the real thing."
Tony left that night for Delia, to research the organization behind Justin and to follow up on any claims of fraud. Chris stayed behind and got a job in Justin's camp. It was easy. Organizations like this one ran on the backs of the poor saps who worked for nothing or next to it, just for the chance to be near the great man. Chris had talked himself into fifty jobs like it.
It was harder to get close to Justin. This was a bigger production than any he'd worked before, and the men running it were more professional, and more suspicious. Or maybe Chris was just a little off his game. Either way, Chris decided to stay away from the men in suits. Before he was there a week, he had a better prospect.
He was carrying some folding chairs backstage when he first ran into Justin's mother, a bleached blonde with worried creases around her mouth, sipping from a flask she snuck out of her purse. When she saw Chris, she almost dropped the flask, and he had to put down the chairs in a hurry to catch it for her. He handed it back to her with a raised eyebrow, and she blushed.
"It's medicinal, right?" Chris said, and winked. Justin's mom laughed. "Listen, if God had wanted us never to have a drink, then he never would have made a man called Mr. Jack Daniels, now would he?" Justin's mom laughed again. "I'm Chris, by the way."
"Lynn," Justin's mom said. "I'm --"
"I know who you are," Chris said. "I'm in the presence of a great woman."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," Lynn said. She laughed again, nervously, and took a delicate sip from her flask. "No, I wouldn't say that."
"Well, you know what they say, behind every great man "
"Oh, no," Lynn said. "No, I've got nothing to do with what Justin is." She took another drink. "No, sir," she said, and walked off, listing a little to the side. She stopped to tuck her flask back inside her purse and looked back over her shoulder at Chris. He waved back. He thought it might be worthwhile to get to know Justin's mother.
One morning when Chris was hanging around Justin's door with the rest of the starstruck losers and the true believers, he overheard two of the men in suits arguing. He drifted toward them, trying to look like he wasn't really listening.
"Baby boy's having himself a morning," one of the men said. "I'm not going back in there. They don't pay me enough to take his shit."
"It's been a rough week," the other man said soothingly. "Things'll calm down a little in a day or so, we'll calm him down, but until then, the kid's got to eat."
"Yeah, I don't see you volunteering --"
"I'll go," Chris said. The men looked at him. "I mean, I can take him his lunch. I mean, if you want, if it would help you out." The men looked at each other, and Chris could see that they wanted to laugh. This was the part he always hated the most, the contempt these people barely bothered to hide for all those people who wanted to believe in something so desperately. Chris reminded himself that they wouldn't be laughing a few weeks from now, when he and Tony finished their work. "Please," he said.
"Sure, buddy," the second man said. "Run on over to the kitchens and bring back a plate. Get one for yourself, too. And hey, thanks so much for your help. I know Justin will really appreciate it." Chris was barely out of earshot before he heard them laughing behind them.
All the shades were pulled and Justin's room was dim, as dim as it could be in the middle of a bright sunny day. Justin was huddled on the couch, his knees pulled up in front of him, staring at the place where a window was hidden by blinds. "Look, I just want to be left alone," he said without looking up. "I don't know why that's so much to ask, but I just want one fucking day to myself, where I don't have to be all perfect and godly."
"Well, mission accomplished," Chris said. "I don't think anyone's going to mistake you for Jesus right now. The opposite, maybe."
Justin looked up in surprise at Chris' voice, then said sullenly, "I think you might be exaggerating just a little bit."
"Oh, I don't know. You ask me my idea of hell, some days I just might say it's listening to some kid bitch and moan about how they just want to be left alone." Justin laughed, that same laugh Chris remembered from before. "So, listen, do you want your lunch here or not? Either way, I need you to take it so I can eat mine." Justin stood up and took one of the plates. "And I guess you wouldn't consider turning on a light."
"No," Justin said quickly. "I mean, I -- I like it dark in here. I just, you know -- there's a lot of people looking at me all the time, and I'm kind of tired, and --"
"Hey," Chris said. "Just asking." Justin was still standing nervously in the middle of the room, so Chris sat down and started eating, keeping up a steady stream of chatter the whole time. He didn't look at Justin until he finally heard Justin laugh again as Chris speculated on the origins of the burgers on their plates.
"I'm sorry," Justin said. He'd taken a seat on the couch again, over to the side where Chris had to look over his shoulder to see him. "I was rude before, and I didn't mean it. I just -- all this gets to me sometimes, you know?"
"Sure," Chris said. He looked back at Justin again.
"It's just -- there's so many people, and they're all so afraid." Justin's voice was soft and wistful, and Chris couldn't hear anything false in it. "I wish -- there's just so many people." Justin shook himself out a little, and said more cheerfully, "But that's what we're here for, right? I mean, what else would I do? I've been doing this since I was eleven."
"Since you were eleven, huh?" Chris said. "I hit the road when I was young myself, although it wasn't exactly for something like this. A few minor differences."
"What were you traveling for?" Justin asked.
"Oh, I joined the circus." Justin laughed, and Chris turned again to watch him.
Justin was probably the easiest audience Chris had ever had. He laughed happily at Chris' jokes, asked eagerly for more of every story Chris could tell, and seemed like he would have been glad to keep Chris there long into the night. But Chris heard the familiar sounds of the show starting up, and he knew they'd be looking for Justin soon. "I better take off," Chris said. He rose and Justin followed him.
"Did you want --" Justin offered his hands to Chris. "Did you want me to -- I could pray with you, or is there something you wanted me to --"
"No," Chris said. He took a step back before he could think better of it. "No, I didn't want anything, I was just -- I just brought you some lunch."
"Oh," Justin said. He thought that over for a moment, chewing on his lower lip. "I never asked your name," he said.
"Oh," Justin said again. Then he smiled. "Thank you, Chris," he said.
From then on Chris was welcomed into Justin's company. The men in suits smiled at him indulgently, as if he were a stray puppy that Justin had picked up on the road and begged to keep. Chris felt a little like one, too, when he saw Justin's eyes as he walked into Justin's room.
If Justin was an easy audience, he was an easy talker, too. Only the slightest encouragement from Chris and Justin was off and running, telling stories about things he'd seen on the road, places he'd seen from the bus but hadn't had time to stop at, people he'd seen but hadn't had time to talk to. His life seemed made up mostly of a series of things he'd passed by, that and the hundreds of people who turned their faces up to him every night, who offered him their fear and their pain. Chris would have felt sorry for him, if he hadn't been hearing from Tony about the money those hundreds of people gave to Justin, money they couldn't afford, if he hadn't seen the vultures in suits passing through the crowds after Justin had passed through. The money was the one topic Justin couldn't be drawn on. Whenever Chris tried to bring it up, Justin said vaguely, "I don't worry about that. The businessmen -- that's their job." Then he'd ask Chris eagerly about some ordinary boring thing his sisters had done, or some random place Chris could barely remember having mentioned once, ages ago.
"Has it always been just you?" Chris asked one day. "I mean, on the road like this. You and your momma, I mean."
"Mostly," Justin said. "It was just the two of us for a long time, till we hooked up with Lou. He's the one who got all these people involved, who really got us moving. And then," Justin smiled a little, "for a while, I had a friend who traveled with us. He was, he's my best friend. I've known him forever, and he was -- he came to keep me company, for a while, on the road. That was the best, when he was with me. I wish "
"You miss him?" Chris said gently.
"I wish you could have met him. I think you would have really liked him."
"Why did he stop traveling around with you?"
"It was just -- I mean, we all agreed it was for the best," Justin said. "It was time, he had to go off and have his own life, a normal life, and he couldn't have that if he stayed with me all the time. And it wasn't good for me to be distracted, to have my mind on other -- this type of thing is not, it's not for everyone, and it's not even for most people, really, so. We all agreed it was for the best."
"I bet he misses you too," Chris said.
"He didn't want to go," Justin said. Then he stood up abruptly and walked to the window. He pulled aside the tightly drawn blind. "I think, I think they're coming to call me," Justin said. "I better start getting ready."
It was nowhere near time for the night's show, but Chris didn't say anything. He loitered near the door until he saw Justin come out and have a quiet word with the man who stood guard there. Justin headed out across the open field, his hands in his pockets, his eyes intent on the path in front of him. Chris didn't follow.
The crowd that night was almost feral, clawing and clutching at Justin, howling out loud until the hair on the back of Chris' neck stood up. He watched Justin move patiently among the faces turned up toward him, watched Justin come backstage shaking a little, as if he'd just borne some great weight, shaking and still twisting his hands. He turned to Lynn, who was standing next to him, watching too.
"God," he said.
"Yeah," Lynn said.
Chris said, "Do you ever wonder if this is the right thing for him, if this is what he's really meant to do?"
Lynn kept her eyes on Justin's back as he walked toward his room, flanked by two guards. "Even as a baby, he was different," Lynn said. "He was my first, my only, and I was so young, but even then I knew there was something -- not usual about him. He would play so quietly, so intently, that you wouldn't know he was in the room. And then sometimes I'd hear him, alone in his bedroom or in the backyard, and he'd be talking and singing so sweetly to voices only he could hear. I tell you, that does something to your heart when you're a mother, the first time you figure out it's not an imaginary friend, it's not normal babytalk. When you realize that your child is talking to God, and that apparently God is talking back. I tell you, it did something to me. And then, as he got older, it was like he could look at you, at strangers on the street, at me, look and see something inside you. The things you wanted to hide, things he shouldn't have been able to understand even if he could see them, but he saw them and he wanted to help you with them. It was -- he was frightening to people. They drew back from him, and he was so confused, because he just wanted to help them. And I tell you, that does something to your heart, too, when you're a mother." She looked at Chris. "He's better off like this, here. He's doing what he was called to do."
"But -- do you think he's happy?"
Lynn laughed, and Chris heard her son's laugh in it, loud and raw, although Justin's had never sounded so bitter. "People like you and me, Chris, ordinary people like us, we don't understand what it's like to be extraordinary. We don't know what it's like, to have something like that to give -- not that we don't all have something to give," she said quickly, and Chris knew she'd seen something in his face that he hadn't meant to show. "But it's not the same. He's -- he's not like ordinary people. Up there, in front of all those people -- they want him when he's up there. They love him when he steps down to touch them. But all those people, if they'd never seen him here, if they just ran into him on the street, they'd turn away from him. They'd be afraid of him. So, you ask me if he's happy, and I say, I don't know. He's as happy as he can be, maybe, in this world."
"God," Chris said again, and Lynn laughed.
"Yeah," she said. She pulled the flask out of her purse and took a drink. "Yeah, God."
For the next several days Justin locked himself in his room, coming out only to preach and to take one long walk a day. On the sixth day Chris ran after him and said, "Can I come with you?"
"I'm not going anywhere," Justin said.
"I'll go there with you," Chris said, and Justin laughed and said sure. "This isn't the way you usually go."
"Are you spying on me?"
"I'm just naturally observant."
"Well, I just felt like going this way today," Justin said. "Is that a problem?"
"Not at all," Chris said. "So what do we usually do on these walks?"
"We pray," Justin said. "Silently."
"And what is it that we pray for?"
"Praying isn't always meant to be for something, you know," Justin said as he pushed his hands down into his pockets and hurried down the road, a step or so in front of Chris. "You're meant to glorify God, and to thank Him."
"Yes, Brother Justin. But I think both of those are things you can do in the comfort of your own room. People generally only trek out to the middle of nowhere because there's something they want desperately, or something they want desperately to hide."
"I'm not trying to hide," Justin said.
"So what is it that you come out here to pray for?" Chris asked again.
"Strength," Justin said. "Courage. For His help to do the thing I know I'm meant to do."
"Aren't you already doing it?" Chris asked, and Justin looked back over his shoulder quickly. "Are you thinking that maybe you're not really, maybe this isn't the right thing to do?"
"No," Justin said. "I mean, yes, of course, I'm called to do what I'm doing, but I know there's something more, there's going to be something I have to do, but " He sighed and waited for Chris to catch up to him. "I resist it."
"I know this feeling," Justin said. "I know it, and I know it's wrong. I've done it before, there have been -- other things, another thing, that I've had to give up, and I resisted them, too. But it didn't do any good. I just -- I know what my problem is, and I come out here to pray for help with it."
"What's your problem?" Chris asked.
"I can't leave the world behind," Justin said. He smiled, just a small fast smile, as though it hurt him. "When I was little, I'd hear them talking in church about leaving the world behind, and I thought it was an actual place, you know, another one -- the world behind. I thought there was some world behind this one, a beautiful one, full of people who loved it there. The preacher was always so angry when he talked about it, that I thought it must be such a wonderful place, so much better than this world, because he had to work so hard to persuade people to leave it. He would talk about how everyone had to leave the world behind, and the more he talked, the more I wanted to go there." Justin scuffed his shoe in the dust of the road. He laughed, and it sounded like it hurt him too. "It's funny, the way you get things wrong when you're a kid."
"You didn't get it wrong completely," Chris said. "I mean, the general idea you got -- there's another world beyond this one, and they want you to leave this world behind to get there. You just didn't realize that you were already living in the world behind. Although if you thought it was meant to be someplace beautiful, I can see how you made that mistake. It's not so bad right here, but in general I've found this world a pretty ugly place."
"Have you?" Justin said. He looked at Chris quickly again, then looked down. "I think it's so beautiful I can hardly stand to look around me some days. It's so beautiful I'm afraid of it."
"Why should you be afraid of it?"
"I'm afraid -- I'm afraid I'll be called and I won't answer, because I can't I love it too much, this world, and -- and worldly things. I love it too much to leave behind." Chris had never seen Justin afraid before. It was a little strange, to have spent so much time with someone and never have seen them in fear, even a little, of a height that was a little too great, of an unpleasant argument, of anything. He had seen fear in all the faces turned up to Justin, before Justin relieved them of it, took it away for them, but he had never seen it in Justin. Chris didn't like it.
"Are you sure," Chris said, and even as he said it he knew he was talking too loudly, too angrily, "are you sure that you're really being called?"
Justin blinked, and Chris knew that Justin heard his anger but didn't know the reason for it. "Of course," Justin said.
"How do you know?"
"I just do. I feel it."
"But you resist it, too, you said. Right? So how do you know -- maybe you're supposed to resist it. Maybe that's what you're called to do.'
"No," Justin said. "That's not -- that's blasphemy."
"But how do you know?"
"I do," Justin snapped. He looked at Chris and there was still fear in his eyes, but it wasn't the only thing there any more. He said again, more quietly this time, "I do."
"All right," Chris said. "If you say so."
They walked on for a few minutes, then Justin said, "I'm going to pray now." Chris nodded and kept walking. "So you shouldn't talk to me any more, because I'm going to be praying."
"I'm not the one talking," Chris said. This time Justin nodded, and the two of them walked on in silence.
As they made their way back home, still silent, they passed a small wooden house set back from the road. An older man was sitting in the front yard, fixing some sort of motor. He raised a hand as they passed and Chris waved back at him. Then the man called, "Wait!" Chris put a hand on Justin's arm to stop him.
"I know you," the man said to Justin. "We saw you in Delia -- you're the one, the preacher --"
"Yes," Justin said, and there was something tight in his voice. "Is there some way I can help you?"
"My wife," the man said. "She's in a bad state."
"If she's sick she needs a doctor," Chris said.
"No," the man said. "She's not sick. She's in despair."
"I'll come in," Justin said.
The man led them into the single bedroom of his tiny house. His wife was lying across the bed, her eyes open and staring sightlessly at the wall, her gray hair straggling across her shoulders. The man tried to pull the bedspread a little straighter over her. Justin sat down on the edge of the bed.
"What's wrong?" he said softly to the woman. She didn't turn at the sound of his voice. "What do you fear, mother?"
At the last word the woman let out a wail like nothing Chris had ever heard. The man next to him choked and turned away, and Chris lifted a hand to his mouth. Justin didn't flinch. He reached over the woman and took her hands in his, holding her from behind. He pressed himself against her, covering her with his body. The woman sank back against him, still keening.
"Since our boy," the man said. "Since he passed she hasn't..."
Justin didn't seem to hear. He bent down over the woman, his mouth next to her ear. Chris leaned closer, unable to help himself. He'd never been near enough to hear what Justin said to people.
"Oh, mother," Justin said, and the woman shook again at the word. "That's nothing to fear, nothing for you to fear. You'll always be a mother, always be his mother. You had him, you had him and you lost him and that's almost the greatest pain there is. The only pain greater would be never to have had him at all, but you will never have to fear that. You carried him inside you once, and you carry him inside you still. One day you'll see him again, and he'll call you mother. He'll know you, for what you were and what you are and what you will always be. He'll know you. There's nothing for you to fear."
"Oh, mother," Justin said again, and at the word this time the woman wept. Next to Chris her husband gasped, and moved toward the bed.
"She hasn't cried since that day," the man said. "I thought, if she'd be able to --"
Justin eased himself away from the woman and let her husband take his place. He stood looking down at them, his hands tangling together.
"How did you know," the man said, "how did you know what to say to her?"
"I never remember what I say," Justin said, and in that moment he looked very young. His hands twisted around each other. "It's not me who knows what to say."
Justin walked out of the room. Chris followed him, not saying anything until they were out on the road. "Justin," Chris said.
"Don't look at me," Justin said. Chris looked down at the road and didn't say anything else. After a while, Justin said quietly, "That's how I know." Chris didn't say anything.
Back in Justin's room Chris said, "That woman -- you did something for her."
Justin said, "I don't want to talk about it."
"Something good," Chris said.
"You sound surprised." Justin looked at him. "Did you not -- you didn't think I could. You didn't believe."
Chris didn't say anything.
"Why would you be here," Justin said, "if you didn't believe?"
This was a question Chris had known to be prepared for. He found it best to stay as close as he could to the truth. "I was skeptical," Chris said, "I never did believe before, but the first day -- I saw something, I felt something I hadn't before." Flattery usually worked well, too. "I just -- I wanted to know more."
"And now you do," Justin said. He smiled at Chris, and he looked like he was glowing. "I never -- the people who come to see me, they come because they already believe. They wouldn't come, if they didn't believe. I've never -- I mean, maybe somebody did, but I didn't know, there's so many people I can't know them all. I've never given anyone the gift of faith," Justin said. "Not till you."
"Not till me," Chris said. Justin held his hands out to him, smiling, and Chris took a step back. "Can I ask you something?" he said. "Something that I've been wondering about. Like I said, I was a skeptic, and there's something that's been bothering me."
"Of course," Justin said. "I'll help you if I can."
"Why do you take people's money?"
Justin said, "I don't take anything that's not offered to me freely. And besides, I told you before. The businessmen take care of that."
"Maybe you don't see it," Chris said. "But they tell people -- these people, they come to you because they're afraid, and you help them, and then these men, your men, they make them think they have to give this money, or else their fears will come back. They tell them God wants them to do it, that you want them to do it."
"I help people," Justin said. "They're afraid, and I help them not to be. And if they want to give me something in return, to thank me, to help me to help other people -- well, I have to live, too. It's not like I don't help them, after all. You said yourself, I give them something."
"Yeah," Chris said. "Are you sure they're not just exchanging one fear for another?"
"I take away their fear," Justin said. "I don't make them afraid."
"No, you've got men to do that for you. Businessmen."
Justin pushed past Chris toward the door. "I have to go," he said.
That night Chris stood backstage with Lynn and watched Justin work. At the end, Justin paused at edge of the stage and turned back to the crowd. "I want nothing from you," Justin said, "that you cannot give to me freely. I want nothing from you that is given out of fear. I want nothing from you --" Justin stopped, suddenly, and stood looking over the crowd. Chris could see their faces turned up toward him, a little confused, but still full of trust. Justin turned and walked offstage.
As he passed, both Chris and Lynn called out to him. Justin didn't stop. Before he reached his room, Justin was flanked by two men in suits, one talking to him, not angrily, but insistently. They stopped outside Justin's door. The man was still talking to Justin, at him. He put his hand on Justin's arm and Justin nodded, slowly. Then he went into his room and shut the door.
For the next three days Justin stayed shut up in his room. The first two nights he came out to preach, but on the third he refused to answer the door and the show was cancelled. Chris hovered close to Justin's room, watching as ominous clusters of men in suits held short tight conversations. He watched Lynn sit on the floor in front of Justin's door and talk softly, and then stop talking. Finally she got up and walked over to Chris.
"Tell him he has to come out," Lynn said.
Chris said, "No."
He stood watching as Lynn was led away by one of the men in suits. He stood watching long enough that the men seemed to forget he was there.
"We'll take care of it tomorrow," one of them said to the other.
"Take care of it how?"
"You haven't been around that long," the first man said. "I have. I've seen this before. Baby boy gets antsy every once in a while, but not to worry. We'll have a little something for him tomorrow night. Dr. Lou knows how to take care of what ails him."
Chris stood watching as the men in suits walked away. He stood watching all night, until Justin came out of his room in the morning. He knew Justin could see him, but Justin didn't stop to say anything, just headed off in the direction Chris had seen him take many times before. Chris didn't follow. He knew Justin didn't want him to.
Tony was waiting for him in Delia, so Chris grabbed a nap on the train and had two cups of coffee in the diner. By the time Tony got there, Chris was feeling halfway to human again.
"Bad news," Tony said, and all of a sudden that coffee wasn't sitting so well with Chris. He'd never seen soft-spoken, easy-tempered Tony look so furious.
"You found something?" Chris said.
"Worse -- I couldn't find anything, not anything we can use. I did some research on the crowd who're running this thing, and let me tell you, our boy couldn't be in with a worse bunch. Every type of ugly, crooked thing just on the right side of legal that one man can think of to do to another, this group has done."
"Just this side of legal, though?"
"Right," Tony said. "They're too smart, they've done this too many times. They're not going to do anything openly against the law. Immoral, unethical, sure, but not illegal."
"Right," Chris said.
"So I guess it's on you," Tony said. "A little bad publicity is as poisonous to these people as a court case. More, maybe, depending on what you catch them doing. Some people don't mind being cheated in the name of the Lord, but they do hate hypocrisy. Have you seen anything we can use?"
Chris thought about Lynn drinking backstage, Justin locking himself in his room, the delivery arriving tonight. "Not so far, but I'll keep my eyes open." He took another sip of coffee. "You've really changed your mind, though, huh?"
"What?" Tony said.
"I don't know, last time we talked it seemed like you still kind of believed the kid was legit."
"Oh, I still think he may be," Tony said. "But don't you see, that just makes it worse. If he's not faking it, if he really believes it, and he's letting these men cheat these people? In his name? It's worse than if the whole thing were a scam. It's -- it's the worst kind of blasphemy."
"Right," Chris said. He closed his eyes and took another sip of his coffee. "Blasphemy."
"I don't expect you to understand," Tony said. "You don't believe."
"Of course," Chris said. "Of course I don't understand."
It was dark by the time Chris got back. There was no show that night, and there weren't many people around. Justin's room was lit up like a Christmas tree, all the blinds open and every lamp shining. A man in a suit was standing out front, so Chris headed toward the window at the back. He'd been thinking all the way home about what he might see. He hadn't decided what he'd do if he saw someone hurting Justin, or drugging him, trying to make him do something he didn't want to do. His only ally was Lynn, and she wouldn't be much help. Still, he'd figure out something. He'd been thinking about it the whole ride down.
He wasn't prepared for what he saw.
Justin was on his knees in front of the couch, bent over with his face pressed into the cushion. His hands were raised above his head, twisted together, as if wrung in pain or clasped in prayer. He was naked, and in the bright light Chris could see the outline of a tattoo on his back, black wings spread and rippling as Justin panted.
He hadn't known Justin had a tattoo. He thought about that for a moment, about Justin spread out on a table, the needle moving over him, and then he saw a hand move over Justin's back, covering part of the wings, and Chris didn't think about anything but that.
A man was kneeling behind Justin, laughing softly over him, obscenities spilling easily from his mouth as Justin writhed beneath him. He dipped his head down to Justin's back, his tongue tracing along Justin's tattoo, and Justin's head lifted, his eyes still closed. "Oh," Justin said, "oh, please," and Chris spun around and drove his fist into the trunk of the tree behind him.
It was disappointment that he felt, Chris told himself, disappointment that one more person he'd thought of trusting turned out to be unworthy of it. Disappointment that once again, the world proved as simple and as ugly as Chris had always suspected it was. Disappointment, Chris told himself as he picked splinters out of his bloody knuckles.
That was all it was.
Chris was still crouched below the window when the lights went out. He heard the door of Justin's room open and close, and he moved toward the sound. A man in a suit was counting out bills.
"I'm telling you," the man Chris had seen with Justin said, "I ought to be paying you all. It's the easiest money I've ever earned."
"We're not paying you to do it," the man in the suit said. "We're paying you to keep your mouth shut about it."
"Gotcha," the young man said, and headed out into the darkness. After a little while, the man in the suit followed. Chris sat down in the dirt next to Justin's door.
In the morning Justin slipped out of his room, heading down the path he'd taken so many times before. This time Chris followed him, taking care to stay out of Justin's sight.
Justin walked quickly, intently, his hands shoved deep in his pockets. He left the road and crossed into the woods. He walked for a long time before he stopped at a small sunny patch of cleared land, a triangle carved out of the forest by a sagging fence. Justin stood in the center of the sunlight, his eyes closed, his face lifted. Chris watched.
For a long time Justin didn't move. He stood silent and so still that Chris could see each breath he took. Then suddenly, without a sound, Justin dropped to his knees. His eyes were still closed, his face still turned up to the light. Chris took a step back. He shouldn't be here, he thought, he shouldn't be seeing this. The scene the night before had not been this intimate or this private. Still, Chris couldn't bring himself to look away.
Suddenly, and still without uttering a sound, Justin fell full-length to the ground, his arms at his sides, his face always raised toward the light. He lay there for a long time without moving, while the sun sank in the sky. Finally Justin cried aloud, "Oh, oh please," and Chris turned his face away.
When he looked back Justin had risen to his knees. Chris watched his straight back and his fingers drawing tight circles in the dirt.
"Chris," Justin said, and Chris jumped at the sound of his name, said so quietly in these quiet woods.
"I know you followed me," Justin said. He stood up, keeping his back to Chris. "And I know why." He turned around and Chris took a step back from him. "I remember you, from that first day. I remember you made me laugh," Justin said. He walked by Chris and headed back toward the road. "I've got to get back."
Chris didn't follow him.
Chris thought about what Justin said. He thought about the cabin, the blinds open and the lights blazing in the middle of the night. He thought about that while he sat in Justin's room with the shades drawn and one small lamp lit, waiting for Justin to come in for the night.
When Justin came in and saw him there, he crossed his arms and leaned back against the door. "Is there something you want to say to me?" Justin said.
"You're better than this," Chris said.
"No," Justin said. "I'm exactly this."
"That's why you wanted me to see," Chris said. "Last night, and today --"
"Not today," Justin said.
"Last night," Chris said. "You know why I'm here, you know what I'm doing, you know I'm looking for something I can use against you--"
"Speaking of that," Justin said. "I've been wondering. Do you think I'm faking? I'm just curious. Do you think I'm a liar, or do you think I'm crazy?"
"I know you're not either one."
"Well, it has to be one or the other. You can't have it both ways. Either I'm lying to everyone and fooling them, or I believe it and I'm crazy. Unless -- are you telling me you believe in God now? Because I really think I get some special extra credit for that. That's like Road to Damascus-level extra credit."
Chris said, "It's not God I believe in, Justin."
Justin unfolded his arms and ran a hand through his hair. Then he put his hand to his mouth. Chris watched him bite his knuckle as he thought. Finally Justin said, "You can't say that to me."
"Why not?" Chris said. "It's the truth. What else am I not supposed to say to you? Should I not tell you that these men are using you, that they cheat people and trick them and they do it in your name? If you let them, that's just as bad as if you did it yourself, and you are. You're letting them, and you don't have to."
"What else am I going to do?" Justin said. "I remember, I was eleven when we started but I remember what it was like before. It's real, I'm not faking and I'm not crazy, it's real and I can't stop it and I remember what it was like before. People were afraid of me, they turned away from me on the street, they didn't want me to touch them and I only ever wanted to help them. This isn't just what I'm called to do, it's the only thing I´m fit for. I have to live somewhere, I have to do something, and now, well, I may be a freak but at least they've given me a freak show. And at least," Justin said, "at least sometimes I get to help people, too. I give them something -- it's not a fake, it's not a trick, whatever else it is. I give them something."
"I know you do," Chris said. "And you can, you can keep helping people, but not here, not this way --"
"You can figure out something," Chris said. "Anything, anything would be better than this. You're not a child any more, Justin, it won't be like you remember."
"Won't it?" Justin said. "Just you look at you right now, standing all the way across the room from me. You're afraid of me right now, and you were the first time we met. You wouldn't let me touch you then, and now --"
"I'm not afraid of you," Chris said. He crossed the room to stand in front of Justin. They were so close they were almost touching. "I´m not afraid of you," Chris said, and took Justin's hands in his own.
They stood like that for a moment, and then Justin dipped his head down next to Chris' ear. This close Justin's eyes were incredibly, impossibly blue. His voice was soft and light and almost laughing. "Oh, Chris," he said, and Chris dug his fingers into Justin's hands to keep from letting go. "That's what you're afraid of?" Justin said. "That's nothing to fear, nothing for you to fear. You can touch me," Justin said, and his voice was still light, still familiar, still his, "don't be afraid of me, you can touch me, you don't have to be afraid, oh, don't be afraid of me, oh, please, oh, Chris, don't be afraid, don't be afraid, don't be afraid," and Chris pushed away from him, yanking his hands free. Justin's head snapped back and hit the door. He looked young and frightened.
"I don't remember," Justin said, "I never remember what I say, I remember things from before and after but never the moment, I don't remember. So if I told you something, if you told you something that I shouldn't, that you don't want me to know, I swear I don't remember --"
Chris kissed him.
"I'm not afraid," he said, and Justin hit the door again but this time Chris' hand was behind his head. His fingers tangled in Justin's hair, and his other hand grasped Justin's arm hard. Justin made a noise against his lips, and Chris thought about the people he watched every night, their hands clutching at Justin desperately, and he forced his hands still.
Justin said, "Turn out the light."
Chris fumbled for the lamp and the room went dark. With the blinds drawn tightly against the night, Chris was in a darkness as black as if he'd had his eyes closed. Justin reached for his hand and led him to his narrow bed. Justin stopped, and Chris felt him pull his shirt up over his head. Again he had to stop his hands from clutching Justin. He waited, and let Justin pull him down onto the bed.
Justin's hands were greedy, and his mouth, moving recklessly over Chris' skin, pulling him down and down. In the dark Chris could almost see the sounds Justin made, fast and eager, spilling out of him like blue bright sparks of electricity. "Shh," Chris said, "shh," not to quiet Justin but just to feel the sound break against Justin's body. Justin rolled under him, and Chris ran his hands up to Justin's shoulders. "Shh," he said again, and "shh," smoothing the sounds up Justin's spine.
Chris traced the memory of Justin's wings in the darkness. He thought he'd taste black ink or blood there but all he found was Justin, salt and sunlight. It was enough. Justin threw his head back, arching under Chris' tongue, and said, "Oh, oh, please." His hands grabbed and twisted at the sheets. Chris slid his hands down Justin's arms, Justin's back still moving against his mouth, and covered Justin's hands with his own, lacing their fingers together. "Shh," Chris said again, and Justin's hands stilled beneath his. Justin rocked back and back.
Justin called out, "Chris," and the sound burned bright in the black room. Chris could see it with his eyes closed.
When Chris woke in the morning, Justin was already awake. Chris could tell by the careful weight of Justin's body against his that Justin had been up for a long time, waiting for him.
"Don't worry," was the first thing Justin said to him. "I thought about what you said, and you're right. I'm going to fix everything. Tonight, I'm going to talk to Lou and, and everybody, and I'm going to tell them that I want to do things differently. I mean, I'm sure they were just looking after my interests, and maybe they were a little overeager, I mean, after all, they're businessmen, but once they understand -- I mean, I need them, but they need me too, right? I'm going to talk to them and I'm going to set everything right."
Chris said, "It doesn't work like that."
"It will," Justin said. "I'll make sure it does. But not right now," and he kissed Chris, almost shyly, closing his eyes and lifting his face up to Chris', expecting to be met halfway. He was. Chris knew there were a hundred things, a thousand things, he had to tell Justin, to warn him, about how these things worked, about how these men worked. But the sun was working its way through the closed blinds, warming the dim room, and in the low light Justin glowed. For now all Chris wanted was to roll Justin onto his stomach and study in detail the wings tattooed on his back, to feel Justin sigh and shake against his tongue, to test and see if Justin tasted the same by daylight as he had in the dark.
It wasn't until after Justin had finally left, after they'd banged and banged on the door for him, threatening him with ever more dire fates if he didn't get up and get to work right that minute, that Chris said aloud, "It won't work the way you think it will. It never does."
The words weren't wasted, after all. The room wasn't empty until Chris got up out of bed and left it.
It had been a while since Chris had watched Justin at work. That night he made his way backstage and stood next to Justin's mother. The first moment Chris saw him, he said, "Oh, Justin." He couldn't help it. Justin was lit up, shining like he didn't even know there was something he was supposed to keep secret. Chris knew Lynn saw it when he felt her stiffen next to him.
The start of the show was the same, a slightly higher pitch than usual, but still nothing Chris hadn't seen before. Nothing was different until Justin walked through the crowd and stopped in front of a young girl. She was maybe sixteen years old, standing with her head bowed, trembling in the fierce grasp of an older woman -- a mother, a teacher, an aunt. Justin tilted his head down to hers and offered her his hands. The girl grabbed them like she was drowning. She whispered to Justin, and there was no way Chris was close enough to hear what she said, but he wanted to turn and run from the pain rising out of her.
Justin didn't flinch. He listened patiently and kissed her gravely on the forehead. Then he took a step back from her, his hands still held in hers, and lifted his voice.
"My friends," Justin said, "so many of you who bring me your fears, bring me fears of love. You fear who you love, you fear how you love, and every one of you fears that you are alone in your fears. Alone, and in sin. But I tell you, you must not fear love. The Lord has given us two great gifts, and all he asks of us in return is that we give them to each other.
"The second greatest gift we can give, that He has commanded us to give, is to love someone else. To make that leap of faith, to put your trust in another, to offer yourself, without pride, without fear -- can there be a gift greater than that?
"There is. There is one gift greater, and that is to allow ourselves to be loved. To make that great leap of faith, to allow someone else to trust you, to take what they offer you, bravely, without fear -- there is no greater gift. Oh, the Lord is great, to have given us such gifts as these!
"Oh, my friends, there is nothing to fear in love." Justin's voice was strong and clear and shining like the sun. "The only sin of love is to fail to rejoice in it."
The girl was weeping openly now, and Justin leaned down and kissed her again. Then he let her hands fall. He walked back through the crowd, and a path opened before him. Every eye was on him, but for once they didn't seem to weigh heavily on him.
Chris felt their weight. He looked out at the crowd, and saw how many faces turned away from Justin. He saw the men in suits gathering like storm clouds.
Oh, Justin, Chris thought. Oh, Justin.
They had barely gotten rid of the crowd before the men in suits clustered around Justin and led him away. Chris could hear the shouting already starting.
"What did you do to him?" Lynn said, her voice shaking. Chris looked down and saw her hands twisting together. Another day that might have broken his heart.
"I told him the truth," Chris said.
"He was better off without it."
"He's not a kid any more," Chris said. "You can't protect him. He doesn't need to be protected."
"He's not like us," Lynn said. "He has a gift, he needs --"
"They use him, Lynn. Doesn´t that matter to you at all? They use him to cheat people, to lie to them."
"I don't care about other people," Lynn said. "They can look after themselves. Or let their precious Lord look after them. I'm looking after my boy. Someone has to."
Chris said, "Have you ever thought about what will happen to Justin, when these men are done using him? Do you think the Lord will look after him then?"
"The Lord made Justin the way he is," Lynn said. "Like I said, someone has to look after him."
When Justin finally came back to his room, it was almost morning. He looked tired and broken and for the first time since Chris had seen him, he didn't look young at all. Chris had expected it but a wound doesn't stop bleeding just because you've seen the knife. He said the kindest thing he could think of.
"I told you so," Chris said. He wanted Justin to know he wasn't disappointed. He'd expected it.
"Don't be," Chris said. "With these people, there's no other way it could be."
Justin stood and looked at the floor in front of Chris. His hands hung limply, loosely, at his sides. "I don't know what to do," Justin said.
"Yes," Chris said, as gently as he could. "Yes, you do."
"I'm afraid," Justin said.
"I know," Chris said. He held his hand out and Justin took it. He tugged until Justin sat down next to him. "You're better than them," Chris said. "You're better than this."
"I wish --" Justin lifted Chris' hand to cover his mouth, then took it away. "I want to be."
"I know," Chris said. "Don't think about it till morning."
Justin laid his head on Chris' shoulder. "It's almost morning," he said.
Chris hadn't meant to sleep that night. He knew Justin wouldn't. But he must have slept, because he woke up and Justin was gone.
Chris knew where to look for him.
He walked down the road and crossed over into the woods. He walked until he found the little patch of cleared land, long abandoned. He'd been there once before. This time he didn't hang back and hide.
Justin was lying prostrate in the dirt, his arms out to his sides, his head lifted in supplication. His eyes were closed. Chris had seen this once before, too. He walked over and stood next to Justin's body.
"Justin," he said. Justin didn't answer, but he rolled up to his hands and knees, then sat back. His fingers twisted small strange shapes in the dust.
"I'm afraid," Justin said. He didn't look at Chris. "I know I should -- I know what I have to do, but I can't "
"I know," Chris said.
"This is the only world I've ever known, the only world I've ever wanted. I don't want it any more, but -- it's hard to give it up."
"No," Chris said, and Justin looked at him in surprise. "This isn't the only world you've wanted."
"Well," Justin said, "I guess there's the next world, but I was kind of hoping it'd be a few years before I had to --"
"No," Chris said. "There's one other. Don't you remember? The world behind." Justin didn't say anything. "You told me how you'd wanted to go there for so long -- you've been longing for it. You left it behind so long ago, when you were still a child, but you were never meant to. It's what's been calling you your whole life."
"I didn't think you'd believe in things like callings."
"I don't," Chris said. "That's not what I believe in."
"I'm afraid," Justin said again.
"I know," Chris said. It was the only thing he had to offer. He knew it wasn't enough.
"Ask me to go with you," Justin said suddenly. His voice was quick and eager. He looked up at Chris, his eyes filled with hope. Chris wanted to take a step back from them. "Ask me -- tell me to go with you, and I will."
"Justin," Chris said. "I can't -- this isn't something you can put on somebody else, that you should do because somebody asks you. You should do it for yourself."
"I know," Justin said. "I know, I know I should, but I can't -- I'm afraid. I'm afraid, but if you ask me to, I'll do it." Justin looked up at him, his eyes wide with all that he was offering to Chris. "Ask me."
Chris remembered shrinking from the fear in the eyes of all of those people who looked up at Justin. He'd never thought that trust might be as heavy a weight to bear. For a moment, he was afraid of it. Then he looked down at Justin, kneeling in the dirt. Justin smiled up at him. Chris was still afraid of it.
"Come with me," Chris said, and offered Justin his hand. Justin took it and pulled himself to his feet. Then he laced his fingers through Chris'. He didn't let go.
Chris folded his fingers over Justin's. "Come with me," he said. "Let's go find the world we left behind."