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Juice was smoking a cigarette, leaning against the wall and waiting for Brian at the head of the passageway.
"Did you see the teach?" asked Juice.
"Yeah," said Brian as they walked back into the Quad. "All the kids were sitting in there, scribbling away. I gave her Justin's story. She seemed worried about him."
"Well, you said Justin is her best pupil." Juice frowned. "Don't you start worrying about him, Bri. I think the kid is having some kind of reaction to all the excitement of planning the party and then... that little encounter at the end. The kid has been through a lot of shit in the past few months. He's a suburban country club brat and not a street punk, like Stormy or Joey. Being arrested and then convicted must have been traumatic enough, not to mention what happened after he got here."
"I know," said Brian. "Emmy is up there with Justin now. He's sick, but I don't know if he's really got a stomach ache or if it's pure fucking fear."
"The kid showed balls, Bri," said Juice. "He put up a righteous front."
"Yeah, he did," Brian agreed. "But not when we were alone. Not back in the cell, in the dark. That's when he fucking fell apart. And how do I deal with that? Sometimes I'm not sure if it's better for him to forget about it all or to face it somehow. Talk about it. Get it out of his system."
Juice looked at Brian. This man had survived hell. He must have done something to protect himself. "How did you deal with what happened to you, Bri? Did you talk to someone about it?"
Brian laughed. "Are you shitting me? Talk to who?"
Juice made a face. "How about the SOB you shared a cell with for how many years?"
"Try 8 years." Brian stopped and took out a cigarette. He didn't like to smoke in the cell because it irritated Justin's allergies. And he especially didn't want to light up there when the kid wasn't feeling well. But he needed a smoke. Needed it badly. "You think I sat around and talked about my 'feelings' with Ron? Are you playing with yourself, Juice?"
"Not since I moved in with Michelle!" said Juice, lighting Brian's cigarette.
"Good for you," Brian returned, blowing out a puff of smoke. "No. Ron suggested that I see the staff psychologist, but after one session I realized that the guy was way too into the nasty details. He was more interested in writing down prurient prison stories than in helping me get over my fucking nightmares."
"Did you have a lot of those?" asked Juice. "Nightmares, I mean?"
"Only constantly for about 5 years. And sometimes I wasn't even asleep when I had them. All I had to do was pass the gate into the South Wing. Or see one of the low-riders out on the Yard or in the Chow Hall. No, I didn't have to be asleep at all."
"And what about Justin?"
"He has them too. Not every night, but a lot of nights. At first he used to wake up screaming. But now he just wakes up whimpering and crying. I'm not sure which one is worse."
"That's fucked, Bri. That's a fucked up thing to happen to a kid."
Brian took a hard drag on the cigarette. "A lot of kids in here have had fucked up things happen to them. Justin told me, very matter of factly, that Stormy was on the streets hustling his ass when he was 12 years old. And Jackie, the little drag queen who Emmy has taken under her wing lately, was in the county lock-up for prostitution before she got arrested in some shoplifting sting and ended up here. I don't think Jackie is more than 20, but her fucking future looks pretty set. Same with Stormy and most of the other punks. It will be one joint after another until they end up like Andy and Beemer, playing cards in the Rec Room. Or like Ralph."
"Ralph? Who the hell is Ralph?" asked Juice.
"A really old guy, a lifer. Ron used to consult with him about stuff going on in the Quad. Ralph's been in Stanton longer than anyone else and he knew everything that was going on in here. That's why he was valuable to Ron. Now he's in the geriatric ward over in the Hospital Wing."
"That's not going to happen to Justin, Bri," Juice said. "You know that. He's got a family and he's got a future. He'll get out of here and go on with his life. He'll be a spoiled country club brat once again. No harm done in the end."
Brian stared at the burning end of his cigarette. He thought about what it felt like to have a cigarette butt pressed directly into your skin. At first it's the most painful thing you can imagine, but after a while you don't feel it anymore. You don't feel anything anymore. And the fear is that you'll never feel anything ever again. But Brian was feeling the burn, the pain. And he was feeling the fear.
"He has to get out of here, Juice," Brian said, dropping the cigarette and crushing under his heel. "The sooner the better."
"When is the soonest he can go up for parole?"
Brian shook his head. "The PLD is working on it. They think they can make a case for some irregularities in the arrest. And if that doesn't work, then they may make an appeal for shock probation. The trouble is that so many kids get ganged in prison that making the case for Justin might be hard. It will depend on the judge. And there's politics involved, too."
They started to walk again, down into the East Wing. "What kind of politics do you mean?"
"The prosecutor made Justin's case a goddamn campaign issue. The guy is bucking to run for mayor someday and he was building a reputation for 'cracking down' on drugs. You know, Mr. Law and Order. Unfortunately, treating a naive high school kid with a couple of bags of pot like he's a major threat to society was a fucked up strategy." Brian took a deep breath, thinking about Justin in the Hospital. And also lying on his bunk in the cell, his stomach aching with anxiety. "But until he can get out of this hell-hole, I'm going to have to watch him every minute. It's the only way."
"Do you really think the bikers were serious, Brian? About going after him?" The two men paused on the landing of the stairwell. Ben's cell was on the second tier.
"The low-riders operate on fear," Brian answered, his voice low. "If you are afraid of what they'll do, then sometimes that's enough. They don't have anything like the power they had 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago. There are fewer of them and most of their scams have been taken over by other gangs. But individually they can still fuck you up -- physically, mentally, and emotionally. They've got Justin in a corner because they fill his nightmares. The Men from Hell, he calls them. Who knows if they'll ever get completely out of his head? Who knows if they'll ever get out of MY head? But all it takes is for one of them to get Justin in a place where he can't get away. One of them to mess up his mind and hurt his body. That's all it takes."
"And then what, Bri?" Juice asked sympathetically.
"And then I'll have to kill the guy. There's no other way." Brian looked up, as if he could see the kid, somewhere on the tier above.
"There's always some other way, Brian. Always," Juice asserted.
"Not for me there isn't. I've never been able to face what happened to me. Never been able to do anything about it. Never been able to be a real man just for myself. But for Justin...." Brian started walking up to the third tier. "I have to do it. It's my last chance."
"Bri!" Juice called after him. "There's always another chance!"
But Brian only shook his head and continued up to the tier.
Brian unlocked the cell door and opened it quietly.
"Hi, hi!" said Emmy, softly. She'd been sitting on the floor, her back against the big throw pillow that she and the other queens had made for Brian's birthday.
"How's it going in here?" Brian glanced over at the bunk and the form huddled in it.
"Well, he drank a lot of ginger ale, but I couldn't get him to eat anything," said Em. "Not even the crackers."
"That's all right, Em. If his stomach hurts I don't blame him for not wanting to eat."
Emmy stood up and stretched. She had been working on needlepointing a new pillow with a rainbow design across the front. "I think I'll be on my way then, Baby, if you think you can take over here?"
"I think I can handle opening a can of ginger ale, Em," Brian replied.
"Well, I AM a medical professional, but even an amateur like you should be okay doing that," Emmy returned. "However, Bri, if he's still throwing up tomorrow, I'd take him over and have Dr. Caputo look at him." Em gathered up her needlepoint and her movie magazines and slipped out the door.
"You're welcome, Baby." Em gave Brian a quick kiss on the lips. "Good luck." Then she headed down the tier, back to her cell.
Brian moved around the cell noiselessly. It was still early, but he was exhausted. The stress of constantly being on the alert all day was wearing on him, and staying up all night while Justin cried and was sick meant that Brian felt ready to drop. He undressed and hauled himself up into the upper bunk.
"Brian?" said a little voice in the dark.
"What are you doing up there?"
Brian sighed. "Getting some sleep. Now why don't you do the same?"
Justin sniffed slightly. "If you're up there, then how can I go to sleep down here?"
"Justin, I don't want to disturb you when you aren't feeling well," Brian answered. But he knew it was a losing battle. He climbed down. "Do you want more ginger ale?"
Justin sniffed again. "Maybe."
The ginger ale in the open can was warm and flat, but Justin sipped it and then burped softly. "Thank you."
"Anything else I can get for you, your highness?"
Justin shook his head.
"You think you're going to be sick again? Do you want to sleep on the outside?" Brian asked. He didn't want Justin to have trouble getting to the toilet if he needed to.
"No," said Justin. He felt safer on the inside of the bunk, with Brian between him and the door of the cell.
"Okay. Scoot over."
Justin moved closer to the wall and Brian got under the thin blanket.
"Did you take my story over to Miss Carver?"
"I took it right over and handed it to her. Ben went with me. The lady asked how you were, too. She seems like a nice teacher."
"She is." Justin was silent for a minute or two. "Did she... ask you anything, Brian?"
"Ask ME anything? About what?"
"Oh, nothing," whispered Justin. He wondered what Miss Carver had thought, seeing Brian for the first time. She was probably expecting Justin to give her another section of Brian's manuscript. But instead, she got the author. "I talk about you sometimes. I thought she might be curious. Maybe she'd think you were hot or something."
Brian snorted. "Why would a nice, intelligent straight woman think that I was hot?"
"Because you are, Brian." Justin moved nearer to Brian's warm body. It was April, but the evenings were still chilly and the prison was drafty. "All the boys think so. Jackie has a crush on you." The little drag queen was always following Brian's movements with her large brown eyes.
"Don't let Jackie's old man, Rick, hear you say that. He'll come over here and beat the crap out of me!" Brian joked.
But Justin made a weak gulping noise. "Don't say that!"
"Are you going to be sick again?" Brian asked. He sat up slightly and held onto the kid tightly.
"No," Justin whispered.
"I was only kidding," Brian reassured him. "You have to relax, kid. You just have to, or else you're going to be in trouble when you get back out in the Quad." Brian stroked his silky hair. He loved touching it. "You can't be afraid, Justin. Or at least you can't show anyone else that you are afraid."
"I know," he answered, barely audible.
"That doesn't mean that you shouldn't be careful. We both have to be careful. But that's a given in Stanton, every day of the year. You already know that. You learned it the hard way, Justin. And so did I."
"That's what I'm afraid of, Brian." Justin could only admit, only say that he was afraid, in the darkness. But he WAS afraid. Terrified. Not for himself so much, but for Brian. Afraid of what Brian would do to protect him. Afraid of how far Brian would go to guarantee that Justin would be safe. "I never should have had the party. It was such a fucking mistake! And now... now...!"
"No! It wasn't a mistake," Brian soothed. "It's not your fault that Cisco and his creeps decided to crash the party. What you did was amazing, kid. It was a success. No one has ever done anything like that for as long as I've been in the joint. People will be talking about it for years! What you did was fucking legendary, Justin!"
"It... it was?"
"Yes," said Brian. "For two hours you made this place human. You made the guys forget that in here they're no better than animals in cages. You gave them a reason to think that they were more than that. You gave them music and food and some good memories. You gave them a reason to celebrate. A reason to be happy." Brian paused for a moment, trying to control his voice. "You gave me a reason to be happy."
"Brian," he breathed. He could hear Brian's heart beating close to his ear. It was a comforting sound.
"Just be quiet," Brian murmured. "Don't work yourself up or make yourself sick. It's okay, Justin. It really is."
But they both knew that it wasn't okay.
Justin moved his hand down and touched Brian's cock. Caressed it gently.
"I think you better just sleep now, Justin. We're both tired and you're not well too well...."
"Please, Brian," he implored. "Please let me. I don't want to waste a single minute. You... you never know if... if...."
"You can't think like that, kid." Brian closed his eyes. The feel of Justin's warm, soft hands on his dick, of his body pressing against his, was almost more than he could endure.
"Please? Don't say no!"
And Brian let the kid take his cock into his mouth, let Justin handle him, envelop him, tend to him in a way that no one had ever done in his life. No one had ever cared so much. Or if they had, they had never allowed Brian to see that care. He thought of his mother. And he thought of Glenn, about whom he'd never know the truth of his feelings. And he also thought about Ron, who gave with one hand and took away with the other.
But Justin never took anything away. He only gave everything he had. All of himself. All of his life.
And Brian knew that the day would come when Brian would have to do the same for Justin.
Posted November 27, 2004.