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"One more," whispered Brian, counting. "And that's all."
Justin hit his lover one more time and dropped the belt on the floor. Then Justin burst into uncontrollable sobs, stretching himself out next to Brian and putting his arms around him.
"It's all right," Brian whispered. "I don't feel a thing. I swear."
"Liar," Justin breathed. "I didn't want to do it! I didn't!"
"I know you didn't," said Brian, holding him tightly. "But I can take it, Justin. It's my job to take it. Because I'm your jock. Do you understand me?"
Justin sighed. "Yes. I understand."
"Good," said Brian. "Help me up."
Justin helped Brian to his feet and onto the lower bunk. Brian's legs ached and his side was throbbing, but Ben's little white pill kept the pain blunted.
Justin reached under the bunk and took out a small plastic bottle. He poured some of the cool lotion into his hand and rubbed it gently on the backs of Brian's legs.
Brian winced as Justin's soft hands touched his stinging legs. "Where did you get that cream?" he asked as Justin smoothed the lotion up and down.
"Emmy gave it to me to keep my tattoo moist," said Justin. "It's from the Hospital."
"Don't waste that stuff on me, Justin. You'll need it."
"There's plenty," said Justin, closing up the bottle. "Don't tell me it doesn't hurt, Brian. Your legs feel hot." Justin wanted to turn on the light to see for himself just what Brian's legs looked like, but turning on a light after hours would get both of them written up by the C.O. on duty.
"It'll fade by morning," said Brian, dismissively. His head felt heavy and his heart was pounding. "Listen to me, Justin -- are you listening?"
"Yes," he whispered.
"I don't want you to leave the cell for the next two days. You're on sick call, okay? I'll bring your food to you -- just me and no one else. Got it?"
"Yeah," Justin nodded. "I got it."
"And no visitors," Brian ordered. "Especially not Emmett or Wesley. I know they mean well and they'll want to commiserate with you and all that shit, but keep them away. Emmett will be snooping around, wanting to see your bruises. And for godsake keep your shirt and your pants on all the time for at least the next week, even when you're in the cell. You'll have to stay out of the showers, too. They'll all want to get a look at you. But you don't want anyone to see you, right? You're ashamed to let them see you. Remember that, Justin. It's very, very important."
"Right," Justin sniffed. "I don't want anyone to see the marks, especially Em."
"You can wash up here in the cell. We both will," Brian continued. "And we'll both stay out of the Rec Room and off the Yard for the time being. We're both going to be anti-social for a while. Is that okay with you?"
Justin agreed. "It's more than okay."
"Now, get some sleep," said Brian. He pulled the thin blanket over himself. He flinched slightly when it touched the backs of his legs. He'd have to be careful for the next few days. He couldn't let anyone see his legs. But he could tell the other jocks that he'd hurt his old wound when he was 'dealing' with his punk. That would explain any stiffness in his movements.
"Can I get in with you? Please?" Justin asked. "Don't say no."
"All right," Brian said.
He moved over and let Justin in under the blanket. Brian put his arms around the boy and squeezed him. Maybe they wouldn't get away with this, but if they did, then Justin would be safe. Safe as long as Brian was still in the Quad. As long as they were still together.
"It's a beautiful tattoo," Brian whispered.
"I think it is," said Justin, staring into the darkness. "I heard Big John say that it was faggy to get another guy's name tattooed on yourself, but I don't give a shit. So what if it's faggy? I'm a fag. And I don't care who knows it -- inside the Quad or outside."
"Don't say that, Justin. You might care when you get out," Brian pointed out. "What about when you go back to school? Or when you meet new people?"
"I won't hide what I am, Brian. I can't hide, not after all that's happened," Justin insisted. "If anyone asks me about my tattoo, I'll tell them, 'That's the name of my lover. And if you don't like it, you can go fuck yourself!'"
"You're going to get yourself in so much trouble in your life, Justin," Brian sighed. "You just don't know how NOT to make everything into a personal crusade."
"I know," Justin whispered. "I can't help it. Emmy says I'm a natural born drama queen. Except that I'm not a queen!"
"No," Brian smiled. "You aren't a queen, Justin. You're a princess!"
"Shut up!" he replied. He started to punch Brian in the arm, but then he stopped. Hitting Brian. Hurting him. A wave of regret washed over him. Filled him up until he couldn't hold it in anymore.
Justin pressed his face against Brian's shoulder. Tried to bury himself in Brian's smooth, hot flesh. And he cried himself to sleep in the dark in Brian's arms.
Brian was carrying a tray of food up to the tier for Justin when Emmy and Michelle began walking alongside of him.
"I'll take that dinner up to Sunshine for you, Bri honey," Em offered. "I was on my way upstairs anyway. Michelle and I are working on a fabulous new outfit for me for Movie Night. Wait until Loretta sees it! She'll be pea green with envy!"
But Brian only frowned at the two queens and held tightly to the tray. "No thanks, Emmett. I can take care of it."
Emmy set her lips firmly. "But, Bri Baby, I was only concerned about...."
"Fuck off, Em!" Brian growled. "I mean it. Stay away from Justin. When I think that he's ready to leave his cell, then I'll tell him that he can leave his cell -- and not before. And if I catch you, Emmett, or you, Michael, or Barbie or Lou Lou or Wesley or Jackie or anyone else sniffing around that end of the tier, I'll kick all of your asses!" Brian glared coolly at the two queens while Emmy and Michelle exchanged glances. "Is that clear?"
"Clear as crystal, sweetie," said Em, inching away from the angry man.
"Good," said Brian. "Now back off of Justin."
Brian stomped up to the third tier while Em and Michelle watched him go.
"I knew that fucking kid would be nothing but trouble the minute he came in here!" Michelle complained. "Ever since Brian hooked up with him it's been one damn thing after another!"
"Don't get your undies in a bundle, Michie," Emmy soothed. "If Bri hears that you've been bad-mouthing Justin he's liable to boot your butt across the Yard like a football."
"I don't give a crap, Em!" Michelle snorted. "Brian got hurt and he almost died because of that damn punk! After the kid moved in with him, Brian changed. And it's not a change for the better! You can't talk to him about anything anymore. And he never comes around and shoots the breeze in the evening. And he never sits and eats with us."
Em shrugged. "Bri Baby has bigger fish to fry, honey. He's a jocker now and he's got 'man' issues to deal with. This whole thing with Justin and his tattoo is only one of those issues. So I'd leave it alone if I was you, Michelle."
"I'm going to talk to Ben about it! Maybe he can do something!" said Michelle, with determination.
Emmy grabbed Michelle by the arm and gave her a shake. "Listen, idiot! Don't be messing around in jocker business! You want Ben to give you the same thing that Bri gave the kid? Stay out of it, Michelle!"
Michelle pouted, but she took Em's words to heart. Ben was pretty mild-mannered, but he was also one of the biggest, most pumped-up guys in the Quad. He'd pushed her around a couple of times, but never given her a beating. And she didn't want to provoke him into giving her one now, especially when things were going so well between them.
And Michelle had to admit that Ben's high status in the Quad meant that Michelle's position had also risen. As the bitch of the 'Big Man' Michelle got a respect she had never enjoyed before. Other queens deferred to her. Except Emmy, of course, who never deferred to anyone. But other inmates gave her gifts -- bribes, really -- to get the favor of the Juice Pig. Nothing big, but a pack of cigarettes or a bag of a hard-to-find brand of candy or gum went a long way on the tiers. Those little things mattered in the stifling atmosphere of Stanton.
"I think we all better stand back and let Brian do his thing, honey," said Em. "You know that he didn't hurt little Sunshine too badly or Dr. Caputo would have been up there pronto. The two of them are probably working things out between themselves."
"Bri's turned into a real hard ass!" said Michelle.
"Brian is no longer one of the girls, sweetie," Emmy reminded her friend. "And that's something everyone in the joint will have to acknowledge. Now let's get back upstairs and work on my new shirt! I want it ready by Friday night."
The two queens sashayed up to the third tier, but Michelle was still frowning. She didn't like change and she didn't like Bri Baby acting like a macho jerk. Didn't like him acting like he was too good to hang out with the queens anymore.
And acting like that punk Justin was the center of his whole universe! Kicking the kid's ass meant more than just keeping the brat in line. It also meant that Brian wasn't only pretending to be a jocker, but that he WAS a jocker. And he wasn't Michelle's jocker.
And with Justin around, he never would be.
Brian unlocked the cell door and carried the dinner tray inside.
Justin was lying on the bottom bunk with his sketchbook propped against his knees. He sometimes drew elaborate fantasy scenes filled with strange creatures and beautiful heroes in weird landscapes. But there was always a golden horse somewhere in the picture, grazing or standing in the background or running freely across the blue plain.
"Hey!" Justin smiled, setting his pad aside.
"Stew tonight," said Brian. "Sorry it isn't something better. But they had brownies for dessert. I got you two, of course."
"Oh, boy!" said Justin. He sat on the edge of the bunk while Brian sat down next to him. Justin leaned over and kissed Brian. "The food looks great. You're too good to me."
"I am not," said Brian, blushing. But he kissed the boy back. He wanted to toss the tray aside and push Justin back on the bunk, but he knew his lover was hungry. So he watched Justin dig into the stew with enthusiasm. Brian could never get over how much pleasure the kid took in eating the tasteless food that Stanton dished up. I guess when you're young everything tastes good, thought Brian, although he didn't remember it that way for himself.
Justin polished off the stew and one of the brownies. "I'm going to save the second one for later."
"Good idea," said Brian.
"Unless you want it?" Justin asked.
"I ate my dinner in the Chow Hall," Brian reminded him. "That one is for you."
Justin set the tray on the floor and then eased himself back on the bunk. Brian grinned down at him.
"I think you can go out tomorrow," said Brian. "It's Movie Night and I know you don't want to miss seeing the film. Maybe they'll show 'Star Trek.'"
"'Star WARS'! Not 'Star Trek'! That's a television show. 'Star Wars' is a movie. The coolest movie ever!" Justin corrected him. "They'll never show that here, Brian. We'll go to see it when we get out. We'll go together."
"Sure," said Brian. "Together."
"Brian," said Justin, hesitantly. "While you were at the Chow Hall someone came to the cell."
Brian frowned. "Who?"
"Father Bob," said Justin. "But I wouldn't let him in. I thought maybe he heard about... about what happened. But I wouldn't go to the door. I told him to go away. I would have told him to 'fuck off,' but he's a priest, so I thought I better be polite. But he asked when you'd be back. I didn't say anything."
Brian took a deep breath. "That was good, Justin. You did the right thing."
"You said nobody was supposed to come into our cell. Nobody! So I didn't let him in," Justin said proudly. "You don't think he's going to cause trouble, do you, Brian?"
"Hello! Anyone home?" called a voice.
"Shit," said Brian. There was no way to get away from anyone in the Quad. They could always track you down.
"That's him," said Justin, sitting up on the bunk, "Father Bob."
"I know," said Brian. "Sit tight, Justin. I'll take care of it."
Brian got up and went to the door of the cell.
The priest was standing there, grinning and holding a folder. "I came by earlier, but you were still at dinner. Can I come in, Brian?"
"My cellmate isn't feeling well, Father," Brian replied. "Could we do this another time?"
"But I need to get the paperwork in tomorrow, Brian," Father Bob persisted. "The Family Visit was specifically requested to be as soon as possible."
Brian grimaced. He opened the cell door and went out onto the tier, pulling the priest away from their cell.
"Listen, Father," Brian said in a low voice. "Next week is Visiting Day for the East Wing. If my mother and father are so anxious to see me, why can't they come to the Visitors' Gallery and see me there? I'm sure an hour will be more than enough 'family time' for all of us."
But the priest shook his head. "Your parents want this Family Visit very badly, Brian. I have been contacted by your mother's pastor, Father Tom Butterfield, and he says that they have some things to speak to you about that they didn't feel they would be able to say in the Visitors' Gallery."
"What kinds of things, Father?" asked Brian. "If they're trying to convert me, tell them to forget it!"
But the priest looked at Brian sadly. He knew that this inmate had had a very hard time in prison. He was bitter and cynical and perhaps he had a right to be. "Please, Brian -- try to open your heart. You parents are reaching out to you for a reason. Don't turn them away."
"You don't know them, Father Bob," Brian replied. "They turned their backs and closed their hearts to me a long time ago."
"Then don't make the same mistake that they did, Brian," urged the priest. "You have done a lot of good for the men in this prison. And for your young cellmate, too." Father Bob paused, watching Brian's face. It softened when the priest mentioned the boy who was Brian's cellie -- and his lover.
"Okay," Brian said softly. "But if things aren't going well, I want to make sure that I can get out of there. I don't want to have to stay for the entire 48 hours if I don't want to. I also don't like leaving Justin alone in the cell for two full nights. I'm his only protection, Father."
"We'll make certain that he's safe, Brian," the priest promised. "Perhaps he could stay over in the Hospital Wing while you're gone? I could speak to Dr. Caputo."
"Thanks, Father." Brian sighed. There seemed no way to get out of this Family Visit. He held out his hand and shook hands with the priest. If only Ron could see him now -- he'd have a shit fit! Brian making agreements with a priest! Meeting with his parents. And having the Family Visit that Ron himself had coveted for so long. Brian mused on the irony of it all.
"You won't regret this, Brian," said Father Bob. "It will be a new beginning for you and your family."
"Sure," said Brian.
But he also knew better. There were no new beginnings for Brian in the Quad. Only more of the same for the next 10 years. That was Brian's reality -- for better or for worse.
Justin lay in his bunk and listened.
Brian and Father Bob talking at the cell door.
All Justin could hear were the words 'Family Visit.'
And Justin knew what that meant.
He had been secretly reading as many of Ron's letters to Brian as he could get his hands on. He wasn't able to see them all. Sometimes Brian took them away from the cell before Justin had a chance to read them. But usually Brian hid them inside one of his books for a day or two before he carried them away -- to the Law Library, Justin assumed. And then Brian hid them away there. Or else destroyed them.
But Justin had read enough of the letters to know that Ron was obsessed with the idea of having a so-called 'Family Visit' with his ex-cellie. And that meant a Conjugal Visit.
Justin couldn't imagine that the prison authorities would allow it, but Ron seemed to have connections everywhere, even with Warden Horvath. If anyone could get a Conjugal, it was Ron. He'd think of an angle. Or he'd make threats. Or even resort to blackmail.
And it looked like it had worked.
If Father Bob said that it was going to happen, then it was definitely going to come down.
Brian and Ron in the trailer for 48 hours.
Justin buried his face in the pillow.
It didn't matter! He knew how much Brian cared about him. How much he loved him. Justin knew that! Justin didn't doubt it for a minute, especially after the incident with his tattoo.
But Ron was another thing. He was all about Brian's past. All about things that Justin would never know about and could never completely understand. Years of Brian and Ron being together and having a private bond that, no matter how much Brian might love Justin, would always exclude him.
Brian came back into the cell and locked the door behind him. He went and stood at the sink for a long time, staring at himself in the mirror.
"Brian?" said Justin. "Is everything okay?"
"Sure, kid," said Brian, walking over to the bunk and sitting down next to Justin. "Everything's dandy."
"What did Father Bob want, Brian? It seemed like something important."
Brian reached out and stroked Justin's silky blond hair. "It was nothing. We'll talk about it later. Why don't you show me the new sketches that you're working on?"
Justin nodded. Brian didn't want to talk about it. He didn't want to talk about Ron to Justin. That had always been an area that Brian didn't want to share with Justin. Ron -- and also Brian's family and his life before Stanton.
"I've been drawing some pictures for Wesley's science fiction story. He started it in Miss Carver's class last spring. It's pretty good, too." Justin picked up his sketchbook and opened it to the drawings he'd been working on. "This is the planet and these are some of the animals and plants."
"They look kind of weird," said Brian.
"They're alien plants and animals, that's why! They're supposed to look weird!" Justin smiled. Brian was clueless about science fiction. "This is the space ship. I'm not really too happy with it yet, but I think that Wesley will like it."
"It looks great to me," said Brian. He knew nothing about art, but Justin's sketches always amazed him. They were so creative and full of emotion. It must be a wonderful thing to have a talent like that. Something that no one could ever take away from you. Justin could draw a picture anywhere, even in prison. He had used his talent to trade for the things he needed for Brian's birthday party and he often bartered pictures of the men and their loved ones for other luxuries, such as soap or shampoo or small plastic containers of Vaseline.
Justin began explaining Wesley's story to Brian in detail, but Brian found his mind wandering. What could his parents be up to? What did they want with him? And why a Family Visit when an hour in the Visitors' Gallery would do just as well?
"Brian?" asked Justin. "Are you listening to me?"
"Oh, sorry, Justin," Brian said, shaking the cobwebs out of his head. "It's a really interesting story. I didn't think Wesley was such a good writer."
"He isn't," admitted Justin. "His plot is pretty much 'The Lord of the Rings' in Outer Space, but at least it's something. And he's not that great a writer. Not like you are, Brian."
Brian tossed his head. "I'm no writer!"
"Yes, Brian," Justin insisted. "You ARE a good writer. And when your story is published in 'The New Yorker' everyone will know that you are. And then when you're...." Justin stopped. He was afraid to say the word 'free' for fear he'd jinx things.
"And then... we'll see what happens." Brian closed his eyes as Justin set the sketchbook down on the floor next to the bunk.
"It's going to be perfect, Brian," Justin said.
Brian's face looked so sad and beautiful in the shadowy light of the cell. Justin prayed for the day when everyone would see Brian the way that he saw him. The day when they knew what Brian had endured and understood that he wasn't guilty of the things he had been convicted of. When they saw Brian the way he really was -- as a hero. A beautiful, damaged, but triumphant hero.
"You're going to be famous! And your story will be a book! Miss Carver says that one of the big publishing companies is sure to snap it up. And you'll get a big advance! And be on the Best Seller List! And on television, too!"
"All of which I'll enjoy from my cell," Brian added.
Justin's face fell. "No, Brian! You'll get out. They'll all see that you're innocent!"
Brian looked at the boy's trusting face. "But I'm not innocent, Justin. I may not be guilty of all of the charges that I was convicted of, but I'm not innocent, either. I drove the car. I'm an accessory to a crime. To a break-in and a bombing and a murder. And I say that in my manuscript. I admit it. I have no reason to lie."
"But you don't deserve to stay in prison for 20 years, Brian!" Justin almost shouted. "Especially when the people who really planned the bombing and did it got away. They're free, Brian! And that's not fair!"
"Life isn't fair, kid," Brian breathed. "Those are the breaks. And I have to live with them."
"I don't believe that, Brian," Justin stated. "And I won't stop fighting. Not ever!"
"Then you fight, Justin," said Brian, holding Justin tightly on the narrow bunk. "Fight for me. But don't sacrifice yourself for a lost cause. Because you have your whole life ahead of you. And someday -- maybe sooner than you think -- you'll walk out of here. And I don't want you to look back. Never look back, Justin."
"I won't leave here without you, Brian," Justin vowed. "I won't! We'll go out of here together. I know we will!"
Brian turned his face away so that Justin couldn't see his eyes. "Sure, kid. Whatever you say. Together. Always."
And for that night, at least, it was true.
Posted June 22, 2005.