Not so fast...
Pittsburgh, August 2016
Justin knew what they were doing. In fact, he had expected it. Braced himself for it. Steeled himself against it.
But it was still getting to him.
There was nothing big. Nothing horrible. Nothing really noticeable to anyone else. It was little things. Things that went missing, like his new pencils. His sketchbook. His favorite tee shirt. His toothbrush, which disappeared and then, just as mysteriously, appeared again. Justin immediately threw it out, not wanting to think where it might have been.
When he went out to drive his Jeep to the store, the tires were deflated. Not completely flat, but with enough air let out of them that he had to make a detour to the gas station to pump them up.
He found some of his CD’s broken, as if they’d been smashed with a hammer. And his DVD of ‘Yellow Submarine’ had been snapped in half and then carefully placed back in the case.
Someone poured… something – he couldn’t guess what – into his bottle of orange and tangerine juice. He dumped it all down the drain and bought a new bottle. But the next time he went to get his juice, it had been opened and whatever was in there stank. After that he didn’t trust any of the food in the fridge, but when he asked Carmel about it, she simply stared at him, not understanding what on earth he was talking about.
“There was nothing wrong with that juice, Mr. Justin!” she insisted. “I bought it new. I think you are imagining stuff. You worry too much, chico.”
So Carmel thought he was paranoid. He didn’t believe that she was in on the sick shit Jimmy and – possibly – Gus were playing, but it was definitely influencing the way she looked at him. Like he was a little nutty. Or a lot nutty.
More of his clothes disappeared and then turned up torn or stained or ruined somehow. Nothing important, just shirts and shorts and underwear, but the value of the clothes didn’t matter. It was that they were doing things to them.
Stupid things. Childish things.
But it began to get to Justin.
He wasn’t sleeping at night. He would lie awake wondering what they would do next. Whether they would up the ante on him. Maybe do something really crazy. Or dangerous.
And he was afraid that this stupid game would begin to affect Brian.
In little ways it was already affecting Brian, as anything involving Justin affected him. He wasn’t making the progress he should have been making. When Justin wasn’t sleeping well, Brian didn’t sleep well. When Justin was anxious and jumpy, so was Brian.
Justin tried confronting Jimmy about it, but Jimmy only smirked at him.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Baby Blue. Maybe you need to step away for a while. Or see a shrink yourself. This is obviously too big a job for you.” Jimmy turned away, but then he stopped and added. “Brian will be a lot happier and get better much faster in Los Angeles, don’t you think?”
“He’s not leaving Pittsburgh!” Justin retorted, his face burning.
“We’ll see about that.”
Then Justin tried to speak to Gus about it. Gus was just a kid, but he could be reasoned with. He didn’t want to hurt Brian, after all.
But Gus avoided him. If Justin came into the room, Gus walked out. If Justin tried to talk to him, he literally covered his ears.
“There’s nothing you can say that I want to hear. You’re coming between me and my dad and when he realizes that, he’ll hate you as much as I do!”
That stung. Really stung. Because Justin didn’t want to come between Gus and Brian. He never wanted anything to come between them. And as much of a brat as Gus had been to him since he came to Pittsburgh, Justin still loved him. He still remembered the impossibly cute and sweet little boy who loved to draw pictures with Justin. Or the wobbly toddler, careening around the loft while Justin chased him. Or the baby with the large soulful eyes, so much like Brian’s. Or the night when Gus was born and Justin was there, naming him. Well, perhaps not exactly naming him, but agreeing with Lindsay that Gus was certainly a better name than Abraham.
But all that was lost. Gus didn’t want to know any of it. To him, Justin was an interloper. Somehow Gus had gotten the impression that Justin was an enemy. And evil leech who wanted Brian to himself, just so he could throw him away – again.
That much Justin understood. The story of Justin and Brian’s relationship was a volatile one, full of break-ups and make-ups and everything you’d expect from a pair of major drama queens. But no one who knew them – not even Michael at his most hostile – had ever doubted that they loved each other deep down. Even when Justin had left Brian – he cringed to think about it now – it was never because he didn’t love him. It was because he was young and stupid. Because he wanted romantic words. Or because he was dazzled by Hollywood glamour. Or because Brian had disappointed him. Or… too many stupid reasons that made no sense in retrospect.
No wonder Gus didn’t trust him, if that was what he had pieced together.
But Justin had tried to prove Gus wrong. Tried to show him what Brian meant to him, even after all those years. He knew the truth about the accident, but had downplayed Gus’s role in it to everyone, including the cops. And he’d vowed to himself that he’d never tell Brian what had happened that evening, with Gus storming out of the house, trying to run away in the Jeep, with Brian flying after him on the motorcycle. The Jeep grinding to a halt because Gus didn’t know how to drive it. The motorcycle swerving and spinning out to avoid crashing into it. Brian skidding across the asphalt, his head hitting the ground. Gus screaming.
And Justin running. Running to reach Brian.
That nightmare came to him every night, whether he was asleep or awake.
He wondered if Gus was having it, too.
Maybe they both needed shrinks.
Then he found his sketchbook. It was sitting on the desk in Brian’s office, where Justin usually worked on the panels he was doing for the new issue of ‘Rage’ – the one featuring the return of J.T. It had not been there the day before.
All the drawings he’d done of Brian, whether as Rage or just sketches of Brian sleeping or sitting or listening to music in their room, had been blacked out with a marking pen, his face obliterated. On the last page of the sketchbook someone had written “GET THE FUCK OUT” in that same black marker.
If was nothing big. Nothing that couldn’t be redrawn or recreated. But it hit Justin in the gut, like a knife twisting.
For some reason he thought about Chris Hobbs. How Hobbs had once been almost a friend, and how quickly he turned into an enemy. An enemy who would have been fine with leaving Justin dead on that parking garage floor.
And he would have been dead if Brian hadn’t been there to save him.
He wanted so much to save Brian, too. To heal him. To repay him for everything he’d done.
But it wasn’t working. It wasn’t.
Justin was exhausted mentally and physically.
He’d tried to kick Jimmy out, but Jimmy only laughed at him. And he couldn’t kick Gus out, either. In the end, Gus was Brian’s son and that fact trumped anything Justin could offer.
He was fighting a losing battle.
Justin put his head down on the desk and wept. He didn’t want to cry like some little faggot, but he couldn’t help it. He was a grown man, but he felt more helpless, more hopeless than he had at 18.
Maybe Brian would be better off in California. Gus and Carmel would be happier in the house they were used to – Ron’s house in Creekside Canyon. And Brian could get the finest care in the world – or so Jimmy said. He was probably right, too.
Because Jimmy would never give up. He was rich and powerful, with important, famous friends, and every resource money could buy at his fingertips.
What did Justin have? Nothing. Nada. Nyet. Bupkis. According to Brian that was something Ron would always say. It meant you had less than nothing.
He stared at the ruined sketchbook and then closed it slowly and pushed it away.
Brian was down in the basement with Danny, doing his physical therapy. Gus was at Red Cape with Michael. Carmel was running the vacuum somewhere – he could hear the muffled vroom-vroom.
Jimmy was in the rec room, watching TV and drinking lemonade spiked with vodka.
Justin went upstairs, packed his undamaged clothes in his bag, and walked down to the garage. The tires on the Jeep had, once again, been deflated, just a little. But that was enough. The gas station wasn’t far.
Brian wouldn’t understand. Carmel would probably be puzzled. But Gus and Jimmy would know. They’d won. As they knew they would win. Because they held all the cards.
It was better this way. Brian would probably hate him, but that wouldn’t last. His brain would heal and that would be that. He’d forget.
Forget faster than Justin would.
Which was never. Ever.