by Lesa Soja
Chris managed to get odd jobs a lot of the time, errands, carrying groceries, helping paint a wall. They never lasted long, though. Once he was old enough for a work permit, he got better jobs, ones that would give him regular hours, and more of them. He gave his paychecks to his mom and told her to get something for the girls, and so they had new shoes and paper and things for school.
He bit his lip when the welfare checks came, which his mom saw, though he hadn't meant her to. One night she came into the kitchen looking nervous and said, "Chris, I decided I'm gonna go back to school. I'm gonna take some night classes." He smiled at such wonderful news, and she gave him a big smile back. Some months later he came home and found her talking to Mrs. Hanrahan in the stairwell. "Here he is," his mom said, "my inspiration. Now I'm gonna get my certificate, and I owe it all to Chris." He ducked his head and grinned.
When he left for Orlando, he swore to himself that as soon as he made it, he'd get the others out, too. He got a job the first day and registered for classes the second and sent his mom money orders every two weeks after that, as much as he could afford.
Lou said, "I think you have real potential, Chris," and smiled genially. Chris knew Lou was making it sound easier than it was, but it was the best offer he'd had. Really, the only substantial offer he'd had. And he wasn't afraid of hard work. He wrote to his mom that he thought he might finally have found a break, putting an extra twenty in the envelope on the strength of it.
The guys he found for his group didn't need that kind of help. But they were awfully young, some of them. They had the voices the group needed, so he let them join, but he resolved to keep an eye out for them just the same.
Chris came into the lobby and saw a mass of girls by the desk, and a tuft of pale hair among them. "Oh, Lance," he said aloud, and then he waded in. "Lance, hey, man, we gotta get going. You can't be flirtin' with the pretty girls all day!" The ones nearest him giggled. He grinned at them and pushed on. "Lance!" Lance saw him finally, turning to Chris with panicked eyes. Chris seized Lance's hand and turned around by main force, towing him towards the doors. "Thanks, honey!" he said at random, brushing past the outstretched hands. "It's really great to see everyone coming out for the show! We hope you really enjoy it tonight!" There were more girls on the sidewalk, but Lynn had brought the car around and was waiting for them at the curb. "Thanks, everyone!" He shoved Lance into the back seat.
When they had pulled away from the hotel, Lance turned towards Chris and smiled, weakly but relieved. "Thanks, Chris," he said.
Chris ruffled Lance's hair and pried the pen he was still clutching out of his other hand. "Anytime, man," he said. "Hey, anybody know the address of this radio station?"
Joey had talked Justin and Lance past a bouncer, and now they were all dancing together. Chris was trying to keep an eye on them, which he accomplished by sneaking up behind them, leaping onto their backs, and shouting in their ears.
"Fuck, Chris! Let go!" Lance yelled. He laughed like a maniac till he had squirmed free of Chris and twisted back towards Joey on the dance floor.
Justin just moaned, "fuck," and staggered forwards. Chris slid to the floor and turned Justin around by the shoulders.
"Justin," he said. "Hey, Just." He dragged Justin to the bar and made him drink a glass of water, and then another. Justin still looked rather green. "Wanna head back?" Chris said. Justin nodded. Before they got in the cab, though, he knelt down on the curb and threw up. Chris wrapped one hand across Justin's forehead and rubbed his back with the other, small soothing strokes between his shoulder blades.
In the cab, Chris pressed another water bottle into Justin's hands, and Justin drank short swallows of it all the way back to the hotel. He let Chris lead him upstairs and sat compliantly on his bed while Chris tugged off his shoes. He lay still while Chris pulled the blanket over him, but then reached for Chris's hand. "Thanks, Chris," he muttered, making an effort to focus his eyes.
Chris smiled. "Feel better, Justin," he said. He turned the lights off on his way out.
JC was standing between two guys at the bar. That wasn't so unusual, but the stiff set of his shoulders was, and the white grip of his knuckles on his glass. Chris pushed across the floor to him and slapped him on the back. "JC, buddy ol' pal!" he said, settling his feet firmly on the ground. "How ya doin'?"
"Fine," JC said, his eyes wide and darting.
"Whyncha introduce me to your friends, here?"
The taller one looked at Chris. "Hello, Ami," he said, smiling nastily. His English was accented but clear. "Are you another like this one?"
"Another motherfucker you'll wish you'd left alone? Yeah." Chris touched JC's fingers, and JC slipped behind him, just as the tall guy's fist swung out. Chris threw his forearms up to block it and then kicked the guy in the knee. He doubled over, and the blond turned to catch him. Chris grabbed JC by the wrist and ran for the door.
He didn't let go till they were back in the narrow hotel corridor. There he had to pause to search his pockets for his key. JC touched his arm.
"Chris," he said, and his smile was clear and sweet. "Thanks." He leaned forward and kissed Chris on the cheek. Then he went into the room he was sharing with Joey and shut the door.
Sometimes after that, when Chris had his hand on his dick in the shower, he would think about JC being a little more grateful than that. But JC was invariably such a flake that Chris was never really tempted to ask.
He wrote his mother that he'd be able to send her fifty more dollars a month from now on, and tapped the letter smartly through the slot into the little yellow mailbox.
"Where'd you go, man?" Justin said when Chris got back on the bus.
"Out to see the sights, my friend," Chris said. "It is a fine, fine world we live in. You really should try to take more of it in."
"Freak," Justin said. Chris laughed and raced down the aisle to steal Joey's bagel.
Lance and Joey came in to breakfast laughing and half-stumbling against each other. Chris and Justin looked from one of them to the other. "Damn," Lance said. "I, shit. I can't believe you got to me. I was sure I was going over!"
"You looked like a goner," Joey said. He went over to the window and looked down. "Man! There's girls on this side, too."
"Oh, you know that woulda been the worst part!" Lance said, pressing a hand to his chest as he sank down onto the couch. "Not the concrete, but - "
"- they'd've picked your bones clean," Joey said.
"Just don't tell my mom, or we'll never get rooms with balconies again."
"Or mine," Justin chimed in.
Joey laughed. "No fear," he said.
Lance tipped his head back on the couch cushions. "Hey, Supe," he drawled. "You're mah hero."
Joey was grinning. The sun coming through the window traced the muscles in his arms and gleamed in his dark hair.
Chris opened his mouth and laughed loudly.
When they were back in the US he called all the banks near his mother's neighborhood to find out which one had the lowest required monthly balance. Then the next time he went to see her, he took her there to open a checking account. She sent him a check a few weeks later, when the ones with her name and address pre-printed on them had arrived, a check for one dollar, made out to him. He smiled, tracing his fingers over the flowery script she had chosen, and then tucked it away behind Taylor's latest school picture.
Lance began looking worse and worse, paler and paler, though he still pushed himself as hard as ever. Chris watched him carefully.
"I'm gonna talk to Lou," Chris told him one night.
"No," Lance said.
Chris glared at him, but Lance glared back until Chris had to shake his head and walk away. There was no arguing with Lance when he got like that. Chris started making sure Lance ate breakfast every morning, though, and went to bed at as reasonable an hour as they could manage every night.
Chris knew perfectly well that that wasn't enough, of course, and Lance finally did collapse one day in the middle of sound check. Chris, who'd been keeping his phone on him at all times, just in case, called 911 and gave the operator clear directions to the arena, his voice steady though his hands were shaking. Before long the ambulance arrived, and Lance was quickly bedded down on a stretcher, hooked up to an IV, and started on his way to the hospital. The rest of them followed in a car Chris borrowed from a roadie. When they got there, Lance's doctor told them he was going to be all right.
They were in New York when Lance's mom pulled Chris aside and asked him if he knew what exactly their contract said about concert revenues. There was a terrible sinking feeling in his lungs and then he shook himself slightly and told her he would find out.
He got copies of all the papers, everything the guys had signed on his encouragement, and read them carefully and thoroughly. Next he called up people he knew in Orlando and got the name of the best entertainment law firm on the east coast. Then he called a group meeting, including Diane and Lynn, and set the envelope full of legal paper down in the middle of the table. "Okay," he said. "Here's what we're gonna do."
"Don't worry so much," Chris heard Joey saying one afternoon on the bus, when he muted the TV for a commercial. Joey had his arm wrapped protectively around Lance's shoulders, and his fingers rubbed gently up and down the short sleeve of Lance's T-shirt. "It's gonna be okay. It's all gonna be okay."
Chris turned his face back to the TV. Joey went on murmuring in a soothing monotone for a long time, though Chris could no longer make out the words.
Johnny's warm, patient face was pinched up and unhappy. Chris sat forward in his chair. "Johnny," he said. "You don't have to stay either, man. Come with us."
Johnny looked up, and the set line of his mouth broke into relief.
It took a long time for everything to be prepared and the suits to be filed, but their lawyers really were good, and once they finally started, it only took two months until they were walking down marble steps with signed settlement papers in their folders. Justin hugged JC in the car while JC squeezed Chris's hand. Joey high-fived Lance.
"We did it!" Joey yelled over the blaring rap Justin had cranked up as far as JC would let him.
"We really, really did it!" Lance shouted back.
"What are we gonna do now?" Joey yelled.
Chris turned and gave him a tooth-baring grin. "Now, we rehearse," he said.
Things got easier after that. The new album came out, and then things were even easier. Chris set chunk after chunk of money aside, watching it build, waiting till there was enough.
"So, um," Joey said. "The thing I wanted to tell you all. Is that. Kelly's pregnant. She's going to have a baby."
There was a pause. "Congratulations, Joe," JC said quietly. "When's she due?"
"Um. April, she thinks."
"Wow, man. Congratulations," Justin echoed.
Chris didn't say anything. The look in Joey's eyes tore at him, panicked and dark. His mind raced for a frantic moment, but of course Kelly was having the baby. There was nothing to be done.
Lance came in to breakfast wearing a T-shirt that said I fuck to come, not to conceive. For a long moment they all stared at him. Then Joey bent his head over his cereal bowl and recommenced lifting his spoon mechanically to his mouth.
"Lance," Chris said, fighting the urge to stand up, "go change."
Lance smiled broadly at him and went back out the door.
Joey's shoulders stayed hunched tightly together. Chris picked up a piece of toast, and it crackled in his hand.
"Mom," Chris said, "get your coat. We're going house-hunting."
As soon as the closing was over they drove straight to the house and walked all over it again, every room. Chris watched his mom touch the doorknobs carefully, the thermostat, the stove and the dishwasher and the washing machine. No more laundromats, no more rent checks, no more hasty moves.
"We can get Emily a car now, too," he said. "I know she's been wanting one, and there's room in the garage."
"Chris," his mom said. She stopped walking, turned and laid her hand on his arm. "It's wonderful of you to do so much. This is so wonderful, to have a place for the girls. But -"
"I think maybe, if Emily wants a car, she should get a job and save up the money for it."
"But she doesn't have to," Chris said. "We have the money, now."
His mom looked at him gently and rubbed his arm. "Of course. But - sometimes it's good for her to earn something herself, too."
"Oh," Chris said. "Sure. Of course."
Lance and Joey were speaking to each other again, Chris noticed. He wasn't sure how that had happened, or even when, but at least breakfast was no longer a stiff, silent affair. The two of them didn't come in together anymore, though.
Joey screamed. Suddenly there was a knot of people around his trapdoor, voices rising and rising towards the high ceiling, and the playback cut off abruptly. Chris stood frozen.
"Stupid idiot," he muttered, "stupid idiot, stupid fucking idiot!"
He couldn't remember where he'd left his phone, whether he'd brought it with him that morning, whether he'd even brought it on this fucking trip. If Joey had just fucking paid some attention, this wouldn't be happening.
Justin grabbed Chris's elbow. "Come on," he said, and Chris found himself riding in the backseat of a car he didn't recognize, with JC pressed up against his side. The doctor at the hospital told them that Joey was very lucky, that no bones were broken and no major blood vessels had been cut. Joey would heal up fine, though not in time for the video shoot.
Joey's eyes were closed when Chris peered quietly around the door. His long legs stretched out across the bed. Chris glanced at the bandages and then up at Joey's face again, still and pale in sleep. His mouth was a loose, relaxed line, and one hand lay near it on the pillow.
Chris left so the others could have their turns.
The liner notes were due and Chris still hadn't written anything. He chewed on the end of his pen for a while and then began scribbling. And, he wrote grimly, as the entire crew was celebrating me saving the day, I got caught up in the hype and forgot to bring you the water. There. He threw the pen down and shoved the whole mess into Melinda's envelope.
The only sound in the toy room was the metallic announcement about weather engineering that he heard every time he got to this level. But the back of Chris's neck was crawling. He whirled around and glared at Joey. "What?"
"Nothing," Joey said. The end of his pool cue was resting on the ground, and he leaned some of his weight on it. "You're about to get clobbered by those fighters."
"Fuck," Chris said, jerking violently to the left. The next shot hit him anyway.
He closed his eyes and pulled the tight shirt off over his head, stumbling for balance as his arms tangled in the sleeves. When he looked around for the next costume, Joey was staring at him again. Chris felt like yelling but they only had forty seconds and JC and Lance were already sprinting towards the catwalk. He pulled the black shirt on and ran for it.
When Joey cornered him on the bus, Chris was ready to scream before Joey even opened his mouth. "Chris," Joey said, "I'm worried about you."
"Don't be," Chris said. "I'm fine."
"So fine that you haven't slept more than thirty hours this week?"
"What's it to you?"
"Chris." Joey reached over and laid a warm hand on his knee.
"Fuck off," Chris said. Joey's mouth was set in a deep downward curve. Chris tried to stand up, but Joey's hand held him down. "What the hell, Joey -"
"Look, I know you're messed up about something and -"
"- let me go, you -"
"- I know you hate telling people shit but -"
"- fucker, get out of my face, get -"
"- every so often you've just gotta let someone -"
There was a crunch against the metal of the bus wall. Chris's hand began distantly to ache.
"Help you," Joey said finally.
Chris kept his eyes on Joey's forehead.
"Chris," Joey repeated. Then he turned around towards the front of the bus. "Raul," he called. "We have to stop."
Joey held Chris's good hand through the drive and the waiting room and everything except the X-rays, mercifully silent.
When Justin and JC and Lance had trooped back onto the other bus, Joey led Chris up the steps of theirs. Instead of heading for the bunks, he stopped at the big couch, folding himself around Chris with warm, heavy limbs and pulling a quilt over both of them. Chris was woozy with drugs, and Joey's fingers were underneath his chin, forcing him to look up. He was afraid Joey was going to say something. But all Joey said was, "Good night."
"Nigh'," Chris muttered.
Chris woke up in the morning with both his head and his hand throbbing. Joey, who was up already, handed him a painkiller and a glass of water. He waited while Chris sat up and swallowed the pill, and drank several more sips of water. When the glass was empty, Joey took it and put it down on the floor.
Chris started to lift his hand and then stopped and ran the other one through his hair. He tugged at a thread hanging off the quilt, and looked out the window at the fields going by.
"Okay," Joey said. Chris turned reluctantly to face him. "Talk to me."
Chris kissed him.
When they pulled back, Joey looked at Chris slightly unsteadily. "Is that what this is about?" he asked.
Chris nodded. He pulled Joey's head down again. Joey opened his mouth, and his fingers slid around the back of Chris's neck.
Joey winced when Chris's cast hit his thigh. Chris's hand felt painless by then, though, so he went on and bent his head to Joey's cock. Then Joey started shifting and writhing against him, and Chris smiled. Joey tilted his head back, eyes rolling closed, and a helpless little sigh escaped his mouth.
Jay Leno asked which of them had broken his hand. Chris stayed quiet, but Lance pointed at him.
"Well," Chris said, "there was this - there was this busload of kids, and, like, the bus was on this bridge, and it started to fall off the bridge a little bit -" The dumb bastard wasn't getting it, so Chris stepped it up. "It wasn't really a bus, it was a canoe." Jay looked puzzled still, but the audience erupted into cheers, and he let the subject drop.
In the next segment Jay switched to picking on Joey. His dad's band, his spending habits, the crap he took with him on the bus.
"You know what, I feel really bad," Chris broke in. Jay turned back to him. "Earlier, I was kinda stretching the truth a little bit. It was actually two kids…"
Justin hooted, JC was twisting in his seat and laughing like a loon, and Lance, next to Chris, was grinning uncontrollably. In front of him, Joey sat quietly.
Chris rapped Joey on the back of the head with his cast. Joey ducked his head forward, rubbing his leg, and burst into bright, broad laughter.