Whenever he thought about it later, which was just about seldom enough for comfort, he wondered if things started brewing again on the day he cracked his eyes open to afternoon sunlight and the fuzzy feeling that everything had changed.
He could tell he was still drunk, because he didn’t feel like crap yet. The lump on the bed next to him stirred and muttered “Whuh,” jerking at the blankets when he stretched out an arm to fumble for his watch. For the life of him Chris couldn’t remember any of it.
“Who are you, again?”
The guy shot him a look and turned over, so Chris got up.
The party was still raging, or maybe it was a new one with all the same people. He nodded at two familiar-looking blonde girls in the kitchen who immediately started whispering to one another and giggling. Whatever. There was no coffee to be found in the kitchen cabinets or the empty pantry or outside by the pool, but the little fridge under the bar held a six-pack of Negra Modelo that was mostly cold.
Okay, maybe things hadn’t changed yet, but they would. For some reason he was sure of it.
He finally found his phone in the litter of cups and empty bottles and squeezed limes on the bar. It seemed to work just fine after he wiped it off with a clean-looking bar towel. Justin answered right away, amazingly, and Chris stuttered a bit, voicemail speech gone right out of his head.
“Oh, my god. Justin Timberlake? Is it really you? I can’t believe you actually took my call!”
“Fuck off, Chris.” Justin sounded good. Tired and down and pissed off, but really good. “What do you want?”
“Oh, nothing. You know. Just calling to say hi.”
“Nothing. Just, you know.”
Justin sighed. Chris listened to him breathe, waiting, but after a few long seconds the line went dead.
“Right,” Chris said, setting the phone carefully on the bar next to the Negra. “Well. I gotta run. Love you, bye.”
It was an awesome sunset that night, red and gold and green over the lake, and some new people showed up, and after a while Chris didn’t think about the old people any more.
Three days later the guards buzzed to let him know he had a guest. Since they didn’t usually bother with that anymore, he heaved himself up to put on some pants.
No one knocked. Finally he shrugged and threw open the front door.
“Hey, Chris!” Joey grinned from an idling Escalade, elbow stuck out the driver’s side window. “Come on, dude. We gotta go!”
“What?” He gestured vaguely around the place. “Joey, man. What’s going on? I have people over.”
Joey’s grin took on an edge that made Chris want to take a step back, and then Joey hit the horn and kept on hitting it, honking again and again until someone in the house groaned.
“What the fuck, Joe! My neighbors know me, but they’re gonna get pissed eventually.”
“Then get your ass out here!”
“Is it my birthday again so soon?” He looked around the yard suspiciously, but no cameras or lights or family members were lurking about in the bushes, thank god.
“Come on. We gotta go. Jesus, Kirkpatrick, just get in the car already.”
Joey’s smile faded completely. “Why, you got something better to do?”
Inside someone laughed, and someone else shouted. Music cut in suddenly, old school disco, much too loud. The sound of breaking glass came from somewhere out back. Chris wasn’t sure if he knew anyone in his house.
Maybe just for a minute.
He climbed into the Escalade and slammed the door, propping one foot up on the dash automatically.
“Wait – I need my phone.”
Without a word Joey flipped open his own phone and tossed it in his lap.
“Motorola,” Chris said scathingly.
Joey glanced at him briefly, then didn’t talk to him for a hundred miles.
Long about Gainesville, Chris sat up.
“Did I leave my front door open?”
Joey laughed. It was the first sound out of him other than “Number four with a Coke” since they hit the road, so Chris took it as a good sign.
“I’m sure your friends will watch your place.”
“Sure,” Chris said. “So, Joe.”
“Can I ask –”
Joey hit the gas, weaving in and out of the late afternoon traffic along 75 North. Chris settled back, crossing his arms. Round one to Joey – okay, round two. He suspected he had some time to reconsider his strategy.
The outskirts of Valdosta were sliding by in early evening heat haze when Chris tried again.
“Okay,” he said, “Here’s the thing. I know you, Joe.”
Joey turned his head slightly. “Uh huh.”
“And we may not have seen each other in a while –”
“Almost a year, Chris.”
“Really? No, that’s not — anyway, I know when something’s wrong with you.”
“Nope,” Joey said, punching buttons on the console. “Nothing’s wrong.”
Chris went back to watching scrub oaks fly by and tried to still his bouncing knee. Fair enough. Round three to Joey. “Okay,” he said, wondering where to go from there. If there was anywhere to go.
Joey’s lips tightened in something like a smile. “It’s too fucking hilarious that I’m about to say this to you, but sometimes you just know when it’s time to get away, you know?”
“Right,” Chris said.
“Yeah. Yeah, you – it’s going to be okay, right?”
“She can’t stay mad forever.”
“Probably not, no.”
They looked at each other briefly. He started to smile, expecting Joey to do the same, but Joey gripped the wheel with both hands and frowned at the road ahead. He wasn’t sure if he was disappointed for Joey’s sake or his own.
As Macon turned into Atlanta turned into Birmingham, and the sun went down and Joey turned off the air and cranked down the windows, Chris started to get a little suspicious. Maybe a little pissed off. Hard to say just yet, but he sensed a certain trend.
“So, funny story,” Joey said lightly. “Seems that Justin’s on a break between projects, and his new PR people wanted to call it a hiatus.”
“You talk to Justin?” Chris said, and wanted to bite his tongue.
“I talk to everybody,” Joey said. “Here’s the cool thing about roadtrips, Chris. You get to drop in on friends everywhere you go!”
For a minute his head and throat and chest filled up with a white hot fury. “So this is a roadtrip,” he managed. Joey settled a heavy hand on the back of his neck and shook him slightly.
“He’ll be happy to see you.”
“Sure,” Chris said. “Why wouldn’t he be.”
The last couple hundred miles crawled by in a flash. He stared into the headlights of every passing car, but it didn’t seem to help.
“Come on in,” Justin said, backlit in the open doorway. “I bet you’re tired.”
Once inside Joey scooped him up in a big hug, pounding on his back, and Justin laughed and pounded him back. He looked good, healthy, maybe a little tired, serious. Good. Chris held his breath.
“Hey, hi. How’s it going.”
“Not too bad,” Justin said, a little line forming between his eyes. “Grab some couch. I’ll go get us all something to drink.”
Joey collapsed into a recliner by Justin’s gigantic tv with a happy sigh. “See? I told you it would be okay.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Chris said.
Joey and Justin and he talked for about a thousand hours, an eternity really, but it did get less uncomfortable as he got used to the idea of actually being there, of actually talking to Justin in Justin’s home. It could be done.
It was so doable, in fact, and Justin was still so easy to talk to, that after Joey fell asleep in the recliner Chris forgot to watch himself.
“Cam’s totally ready for me to take a break,” Justin said with a little smile. “She doesn’t understand that I find stress invigorating.”
“You’d think she’d realize by now.”
“Right, I know? But anyhow, a little time away never hurts.”
“Yeah,” Chris said. “Well. You know how that goes.”
Justin went still, and there it was. “That’s not — I never even hear from you, Chris.”
“I call you,” Chris said, remembering the sunset and the Negra Modelo.
“You call me once a year to say nothing.” Justin got up and crossed to the stairs. “Pick any room,” he said, his face a pale blob in the dim light. “I need to get some work done in the studio before tomorrow.” He disappeared, and Chris sat for a long time with his warming beer, listening to Joey’s snores from the recliner.
“I call you,” he said.
The next morning they dragged him out to Denny’s and talked about a bunch of stuff while he held onto his coffee cup. He let it all go by, watching the circles under Justin’s eyes, until he heard Joey mention JC.
“You talk to JC?” he said, beginning to feel like a broken record.
“Well, sort of. JC’s all weird lately.” Joey speared a sausage from Chris’s plate. “He said to leave him alone.”
“He said that?”
Justin swirled a piece of waffle around in the syrup on his plate and nodded at the waitress as she topped off his coffee. “Actually, he told me to leave him the fuck alone.”
After a second Justin smiled briefly.
“And where is JC living these days?”
Justin shrugged and started in on Chris’s eggs. “I’m just about done here,” he announced. “Let’s get going.”
“After all, we have a schedule to keep,” Chris said.
Joey tossed a fifty on the table and slid out of the booth. “Yep. Your guy get the tickets, Justin?”
“Oh, for the love of god,” Chris said. “I’m never getting home, am I.”
Fuckers ignored him.
Turned out JC was still living in the same old crappy concrete block sticking out of the side of a hill in LA, but no one answered Joey’s vigorous honking.
“Did he know we were coming?”
He got nearly identical eyerolls from both Justin and Joey. It occurred to Chris that his question remained unanswered.
“Is he even in town?”
“He’s in there,” Justin said, craning his head out the window of the rental to scan one of the hanging terraces. “I don’t know if – he stays in a lot.”
“JC stays in a lot?”
“Things change, I guess.” Justin climbed out of the rental.
“No shit,” Chris muttered.
JC finally cracked open the back door, blinking out at them and scratching his head. “Sorry, must have fallen asleep or something,” he said. “Hey, Chris! Wow, long time. Come on in.”
The kitchen was trashed. Not more than usual, from what Chris remembered, but for some reason the dust and piles of stuff and half-closed curtains gave the place an abandoned quality. JC hugged him briefly, and Chris could feel the fine bones in his spine and shoulder blades. Clearly JC was on another one of his not-eating kicks.
“What’s new, JC!”
He leaned against the sink and crossed his arms. “Nothing much. What’s going on with you guys?”
“Oh, you know,” Joey said. “Cruising around. We were thinking maybe lunch?”
“Sure, Joey.” JC rubbed his chin and looked around the kitchen. “I, ah –”
“Naw, let’s go out, C,” Justin said, picking up a bundle of mail and putting it back down. “You hop in the shower and we’ll wait for you.”
“Okay,” JC said slowly.
“And then we’ll go for a little ride.”
“Cool.” JC looked out the kitchen window for a minute, picking at a thumbnail. “I’m glad you’re here!” he said to Chris.
“Me too, JC.”
“Then I’ll, uh.” He drifted from the room. The only sound Chris could hear was a fountain or something, drops of water falling in the quiet house.
Something was definitely up. He was getting used to Joey’s pattern of heading off in seemingly random swoops and circles and ending up somewhere, and Justin had clearly decided to be cool about everything. That was just fine and dandy with him. Fine and mellow. But JC was —
Justin caught his eye in the rearview and lifted his chin. “Hey, JC,” he said, holding Chris’s gaze.
“What did you think of Timba’s latest tracks?”
JC thought for a split second too long. “Sorry, man. I haven’t heard ’em yet.”
“It’s cool, JC,” Justin said, his voice lighter than his expression in the mirror. “You should check it out when you get the chance.”
“Yeah. Yeah, all right! I’ll have to, uh. When.”
Justin raised his eyebrows, and Chris scrunched up his nose, trying to wrap his brain around a JC who had trouble getting interested in music.
And around and around and around, Santa Monica and Malibu and back to the city and out the other fucking side, and Justin and Joey seemed perfectly content to chat about nothing for hours with the top down, just driving aimlessly, seeing the sights. JC fell asleep in the sunshine. Chris envied him. His ass was starting to hurt.
At an intersection in Long Beach or somewhere, whatever, who cared, the rental started sputtering and died. Joey cranked it again and again while coasting it over to the curb. “Huh,” he said. “Must be out of gas.”
“Huh!” Justin said.
They all stood around looking at it except JC, who wandered over into the shade. “Dude,” Justin said, kicking a tire. “Total piece of shit.”
“I know, right?” Joey flipped open the Motorola. “Well, better make the call!”
Justin grinned, nodding, and Chris was filled with a deep, dark suspicion. Apparently he wasn’t alone in that. JC stalked over to Joey just as he closed the phone and grabbed his arm and shook it, and Joey said, “Whoa, dude!”
“Who did you call, Joey?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, just sat down on the curb some distance away, running his hands over his upper arms like he had a chill. After a minute Justin went and sat next to him.
Lance looked at all of them with a slight smile, then looked at the forlorn rental and back at them again, and his meaning was clear. Chris felt a giddy unfamiliar something bubbling up inside him.
“Hey, what’s up, Lance!”
“Oh, you know. Same old thing,” Lance said. “So, where you kids off to?”
“Just drivin’ around some,” Joey said breezily. Lance gave him another one of the looks and nodded slowly.
Once they got settled in Lance’s bigass SUV, Joey and Justin and Lance fell into easy conversation. Apparently they talked, too. Fucking whatever.
JC kept his face turned toward the window, not saying a word, and Lance didn’t say a word to him. Huh.
They drove all day and into the evening.
Joey tried hard, but after a while nobody wanted to talk. Too much thinking, Chris figured. It was amazing to him how five people who never shut up back in the day could be so quiet for so long.
So he took the opportunity to expand on the time-honored theme of Lance’s sorry pig-headedness regarding the radio and the abomination unto the Lord that Country Music was and always would be. He made some excellent points, he felt, with plenty of twangy examples, and soon Joey threw in some choice cuts but Justin argued both sides as always, traitorous bastard. After a while JC even made some amused noises like he was listening. When Lance told them all to shut the fuck up, it was kind of nice. After that Chris settled into his old road rhythm of random outbursts every fifty miles or so.
Nobody else said much after that, but for some reason Chris felt a little better about it.
Joey wouldn’t let Lance stop the car until they were completely lost in the middle of nowhere, although Justin claimed to know where they were. “Back to nature, it’s good for ya,” he said, inhaling expansively, hands on his chest.
“Wow, trees,” Lance said, and disappeared into the lobby of the motel.
He was not at all surprised when JC shook his head at the plan to scout for deep woods pizza. What did surprise him was when he found himself pulling Joey aside to say, “Go on ahead. I’m gonna, um.” Joey slapped him on the back for some reason.
JC’s room was dark except for the lights from the parking lot through the open curtains. Back to not surprised. But he did let Chris in, so that was something.
“Hey, I just thought you and me could hang for a change.”
JC sat down on the bed and Chris hovered around him, trying to come up with something to say. Fuck this silly shit. Finally he decided on the one question always guaranteed to set JC off and running.
“So, what you been working on lately, JC?”
“I’m not –” JC bit his lip. “I can’t, Chris.”
A faint sound came out of JC like it had to escape. Chris realized JC’s hands were twisted together in his lap, clenched like he was trying to keep himself from flying to pieces. Chris knew that feeling well. “JC,” he said gently.
“I’m just really tired, Chris.”
Chris watched the occasional glare from headlights race up the wall next to the windows for a long time, but JC stayed silent after that. It was a quality Chris had always admired in JC, his ability to repress and internalize everything, but JC looked like he didn’t even remember what smiling was.
Finally he slid an arm carefully around JC’s hunched shoulders and sat holding him like that, watching the wall, and JC let him.
He was flipping through channels when the other guys got back, leaning against the headboard with JC face-down and snuffling into the bedspread next to him, one hand curled loosely around Chris’s knee.
“He’s tired,” Chris explained, feeling like the biggest tool ever.
“Uh huh.” Joey set the pizza box on the table by the door. “Looks like it.” His eyes were warm.
Justin settled on Chris’s other side carefully, clearly trying not to jounce the bed. “Give me that,” he said, so Chris handed over the controller. “He’s really out, huh.”
“Yeah,” Chris said, moving his fingers so they barely touched JC’s messy hair. Justin leaned against him, aiming the controller, and he wondered if he had finally gotten something right.
The door clicked shut.
Chris looked around the room and raised his eyebrows at Joey.
Joey frowned. “I guess he’s tired, too. Eat up. We have someplace to be.”
Lance kept tapping away with all three fingers when Chris poked his head in.
“Chatting,” Lance said. “Don’t want people to forget about me while I’m off communing in the forest.”
“Well, good luck with that. I thought me and Joe were just heading out for drinks and here we are, six weeks later.”
Lance shut the laptop. “Yeah.” He stowed it away in his bag, taking a long time to do it. “About that. What are we doing out here, anyway?”
“Dude, I really have no idea.”
“Yeah.” Lance flattened his hand carefully on the bag. With a sense of nostalgia Chris realized Lance was bracing himself for a lecture. It was an attractive thought, almost as attractive as pussying out and ignoring the whole deal, but in the new-found spirit of getting it right Chris decided to approach things as directly as he ever had with Lance.
“So, Lance,” he said. “You and JC.”
“There is no way I’m talking to you about, like, anything.”
“No, god! I hope not.”
“I mean it, Chris.”
“Fine. I’m just saying.”
“Okay,” Chris said, satisfied. “It’s just, it’s kind of interesting and refreshing when my friends are not unhappy. I think I like it. Anyway, speaking of heading out for a drink – yes?”
“That might work,” Lance said.
He gave Chris an entirely different sort of look, searching and a little young, and there went that unfamiliar bubbling thing again. Weird. It felt kind of like hope.
It was a neon shithole in the woods, completely surrounded by trucks and beaters and motorcycles, so of course it was the perfect place.
“I’m gonna get wasted, and then I’m gonna get my ass kicked,” Chris said happily, rubbing his hands together.
“I got your back, man,” Justin said. For a second Chris couldn’t breathe.
“Way back,” Joey said. He and Justin gave simultaneous guffaws of great lameness and did the stupid high-low-five thing, then headed across the dirt lot together.
“All righty, then,” Chris said to the night air.
He turned around to get a little validation, but Lance and JC were standing by the SUV with their arms around each other, and JC looked to be shaking or maybe crying, and Lance was saying something in his ear.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Chris said loudly. “Can’t we be heartfelt and party at the same time?”
“Don’t make me come over there and hug you, too,” Lance said. JC huffed out a little laugh, backing up a step and wiping his face with his fingers.
“You don’t scare me,” Chris said with dignity, and took off for the bar.
He shouldered his way through the noisy crowd, trading stern glances with farmers and truckers and — whatever those guys wearing fringe were. Justin and Joey greeted him with shots, glassy-eyed already, and he knocked ’em back one right after the other. It was like drinking dirt. Dirt mixed with gasoline. That kicked you in the head.
“Mezcal,” Justin said happily, slapping him on the back and then wandering off toward Lance and JC with two more shots of poison.
Joey just grinned at him when he glared, so Chris settled back, elbow on the bar, to survey the room for possibilities.
“Oh, fuck no. Joey, you son of a fucking bitch.”
“Ready for another shot?”
“Joey.” Chris shook his head, truly amazed. It was quite possibly the cheesiest karaoke setup he had ever seen, even worse than Big Daddy’s, with palm trees and Christmas lights and mirrors and what looked to be a laser array. “You are some kind of, I don’t know. Psychotic evil mastermind? Fuck.”
“I’m serious. You’re so fucking lucky we’re never going to talk about this, Fatone.”
Joey shrugged. “I have two things to say to that.”
“First of all, even when things’re completely fucked up, it’s better having you guys around. Don’t disappear again, okay?”
Joey was looking at him steadily, absolutely seriously, and Chris felt touched to the heart. “Joe. Shit, man, I -”
“Also, if you don’t get up there, Justin and JC are going to pick the music.”
“Motherfucker.” He pushed back his chair.
In the end Joey had to carry JC’s drunk, protesting ass up to the little stage and put the clunky microphone in his hand.
“Sing, boy,” he said.
JC stared at the microphone. “Oh, man. I don’t,” he said, looking a little wild around the eyes, so Chris mimed stuffing the mic in his mouth, and then frowned reprovingly and shook his head. He guessed it worked, because JC shot him the finger and the few bargoers watching them laughed.
“What song did alla you guys decide on, anyway?”
“I think we’re good just like this.” Justin grinned at the DJ, who nodded and looked confused.
“I’m telling ya, I don’t remember the words,” Lance said, stepping up.
Justin draped an arm across his shoulders. “You remember,” he said in a low voice, and Lance smiled down at his mic. Chris pulled JC into place and Joey crowded in too and the music cut out in the bar.
“Well,” JC said into the mic.
Someone whistled, and someone else cackled, and JC’s eyes opened wide. “Fucking today, JC,” Chris yelled, and everyone laughed, even JC. Then he lifted his mic and counted them in.
It was too slow and JC sounded scratchy and uncertain and there was just no way Chris was coming anywhere near those notes now. But he had forgotten the power of Lance’s bass and how Joey’s voice blended in like silk, and he had to smile when JC and Justin locked gazes, singing to one another as though no one else existed. It was perfect.
But mainly it was a big blur, and suddenly they were done and he could see faces in the crowd goggling up at them. Then clapping and hooting and stamping, and quite a few people with expressions like they were just now remembering something, and it was the best feeling in the world, the best, just like always. Almost as good as when Justin snuck up behind him and hugged him without warning, lifting him off his feet.
“That was good, huh,” Justin murmured in his ear. “Still got it.”
Chris grabbed his arm and held on.
Birds were starting to twitter in the trees when they stumbled into the parking lot.
“I am perfectly okay to drive,” Lance said, gazing owlishly at the SUV keys.
“Sure, baby,” Chris said, taking them out of his hand, and Joey helped him into the vehicle by slinging an arm around his neck. “Don’t make him throw up in the car, Joe. He’ll be pissed in the morning.”
“He’ll be fine.”
Justin and JC were still singing, trading off harmonies, sometimes in the middle of a word. “That sounds like shit,” Chris said, pulling up to the edge of the dark highway. “Hey, anyone remember which way to go from here?”
JC giggled, one of his strange, excited noises that Chris had missed so much. “Forward,” he said, and Chris nodded and turned up the music, because that sounded just about right.