Out Of The Loop
There was no sound when it hit. No one knew that there was danger around, or that their lives lay in the hands of a marksman. Everyone was clueless-- until Justin Timberlake stood still. The music still played in the background and the rest of *NSync were dancing and singing, except for Joey. The young Fatone was the nearest one to Justin, having just past behind him. He noticed when Justin stopped singing and he turned to him. Crimson began to blossom in the white parts of his shirt. Justin stared down at the growing redness, his eyes wide. “Wha--” The rest of the group stopped singing and looked at him. The band stopped playing. Everyone had heard through his headset microphone what he’d said and the crowd was silent. “J-Justin?” He recognized Joey’s voice and turned his head to him. His mouth opened as though he would talk, but nothing came out. He caught Joey’s eyes, then crumpled to the floor.
That’s when the shouting began. The screams of pure terror pierced the crowd. Those too high to see much of anything had seen the blood on his shirt, and the big screen in the middle of the arena, such a close up shot, turned many stomachs as Justin’s body fell to pieces to land on the stage floor. Everyone looked around, those below looked up. They hadn’t heard a sound. They hadn’t even heard a shriek of pain from Justin, merely a muttered word of shock. Pushing. Screaming. Crying. The fans ran from their seats. Some fell to the floor. Others stepped on and trampled the falling people. Children were hoisted into their parents arms, or a friend’s, and carried away. Some picked up people from the floor, strangers though they may be. Others fell to join them and were given the same treatment by feet of a terrified audience. They rushed the doors and pushed themselves through to scramble out of the place of horrific crime.
Steve Fatone watched the stage while everyone gathered around Justin. Joey was holding his head in his lap. He saw JC lean down and took his hands quickly, pressing them down firmly on Justin’s chest, hoping you could stop bleeding of the chest the same as from the leg or arm or stomach. His eyes were frantic. Justin’s were scared, but still shocked. His mouth opened and closed. The other three members knelt near him. Everyone’s clothes were soaked with the spreading blood. Joey looked around at people staring and screamed, “Call a fucking ambulance!” He didn’t wait for any responses. Just turned his eyes back down to Justin. There was a vague hint of memory in his eyes. He cried out his name, and still held him tightly. And Steve just watched, standing in shock, as Justin lay on the cold floor with his head cradled by a friend.
~ * ~
Helluva way to find out the truth, ain’t it? After you’ve been lied to, made to feel safe, made to think you can have true friends, relationships, fame-- anything. To find out that it was all a lie because you could never have that because their safety was at sake-- it’s a helluva thing to find out. And even worse to find out because one of your best friends gets shot right before your eyes.
The last time I saw this, I was eleven. It was right before we moved to Florida. New York-- Brooklyn. The place I say I love and still sometimes, do. That was where I saw it last. A planned hit in broad daylight on a friend, my age. Just walking down the street and he fell. But, I heard it that time. The smack of a bullet slamming into someone right next to you. The thud as he hit the ground. And the recognition that it was right in the heart. He was gone before he hit the ground. And I was just eleven years old.
This time, though, he didn’t fall dead. He just fell. But blood is blood, bullets are bullets, and it’s fucked up as hell to watch your friend close his eyes and not know if he’s gonna wake back up. But-- he was still alive when he fell so that has to count for something.
What doesn’t count for anything is my family. Mom had told me it was over. We were safe. Go out, be happy, have fun. A whole new life is what she said we had. And I wanted it so badly that I believed her. But, now, I know I shouldn’t have, because it wasn’t true. It was just a disguise to cover the old life that we’d never escape. And once Justin hit the floor and I cradled his head in my lap-- I hated her for every word she ever said to me.
~ * ~
Six men, two women. They sat in a special waiting area in the hospital. The camera crews packed the waiting room and the emergency area. A three ring circus had broken out in the hospital. Reporters had flurried the second word got out. Radio stations sent out their best to call in with live and late breaking news on the condition of Justin. They had tried speaking to the friends but were pushed aside as security moved them somewhere quiet.
In their solitude, the were perched around the room. JC sat next to a weeping brunette, her head on his shoulder. His hand softly brushed her cheek as his own silent tears rolled down his face. Lance and Chris sat a seat apart from one another, their eyes turned down. Lance’s hands covered his head, pulling at his own hair. Chris clasped his hands together, intertwining his fingers, scared and worried. Steve’s eyes were downcast. His tears never stopped flowing. His body shook with jitters. The sound of him rubbing against the hard plastic chair. Young Wade Robson sat across the room from the others. His feet were pulled into the chair with him and he held his legs tightly. He’d seen crime before. He lived in LA. But never had it been that close. There was no shame in the fear that his eyes held. And Joey-- he sat for a few minutes beside a sorrowing redhead between his fits of pacing. Back and forth, he moved, over and over again. Steve’s clothes and his footfalls were the only sounds among the silent weeps and prayers.
Commotion broke out again and screaming and loud questions could be heard. Moments later, the door burst open and in walked Britney Spears. Three hours after Justin had gone into surgery, his Pinky had finally showed up. Her hands fidgeted as she twirled the gold ring on her left pinky. Instantly, she began asking questions. “Where is he? Did they say anything? Oh my God, Justin-- Stinky-- Where-- what--” She lost the ability to form a coherent sentence and the redhead moved to her, taking hold of her arms. “Em-- Ember,” she muttered before falling into the young woman’s arms. She sobbed as Ember softly smoothed her hair, trying to calm the frightened young woman.
Joey watched them and had to turn away. Barely out of his teens, Justin laid on a cold table somewhere with his chest open. And his girlfriend who hadn’t even managed to escape the term of “teen” was crying in his fiance’s arms. His heart strings pulled, then almost snapped as he thought of Justin’s family. They would be there soon. Lance had called them while JC was dialing Britney’s number. It would only get worse when the family showed up, asking questions, frightened for their little boy. Their only son. He shook himself from the thought, chasing the fright and pain away, then turned to his brother. He watched Steve ringing his hands, and he wondered just what it is that he was thinking.
3 The woman who walked into the room next was exhausted. She’d been standing, working, trying her best for the past five hours, plus some. She’d had to steady her hands when she was called into surgery. She looked down at the graying face of Justin Timberlake and froze for a second. She remembered that she had tried to take her daughter to the concert that night, but hadn’t been able to get off of work for it. Now, she was glad that she hadn’t been able to. She was told on her way in what had happened. It could have been anyone. It just happened to be one of the stars. She’d shaken her head as she looked down at the young blonde and went to work.
Dr. Gillian Barouche looked into the faces of the forlorn, waiting expectantly for some word. Justin’s family was easy to spot, huddled together, crying, giving words of inspiration that covered fear. The rest were around, staring at her as she walked in. The young blonde she recognized as Britney Spears ran over to her and asked frantically how her boyfriend was. The brunette with JC had gone over and taken her away, pulling her back to give the doctor breathing room.
Dr. Barouche took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “The surgery was long. There was internal breathing and the bullet was lodged between two of his ribs, as though it had moved from the original spot. We did the best we could.” There was a collective gasp as they waited for bad news. “The next forty-eight hours are going to be critical,” she told them. It was evident that they were all waiting for her to say that Justin hadn’t made it. “He lost a lot of blood and he’s going to have a long recovery time. He’s being moved to the ICU right now. I’m sorry, but only family is allowed in with him, right now.” Britney’s lip began to tremble, and Dr. Barouche had no idea of what else to say. She bit her bottom lip and sighed. “The nurse will let you know when he’s settled into the unit. I-- I’m sorry I can’t do anything more.” She heard someone whisper a thank you and quickly exited the room. She almost ran from the area, the tension and worry in the room almost too much for her to handle. So many lives affected over one bullet. She couldn’t imagine what the rest of the world was thinking. And she knew her time wasn’t done because she’d be the one forced to talk to the media about the surgery as soon as the family were ready.
Inside of the still silent room, Britney turned her head to everyone. She realized that no one had spoken since the police had come in to ask more questions a few hours earlier. Justin’s parents and step-parents hadn’t said a word. They just came in and took a seat. They were obviously afraid and in shock. Britney had been, too, but when she’d come in hers had turned to jitters and soon to hysterics before she was ultimately calmed down. Everyone seemed to be relieved but they still weren’t saying anything. Her eyes landed on Joey. He was still pacing. He was the only who didn’t have relief in his face. He was still worried. Partially about Justin, from what she saw, but-- there was something else. She didn’t say anything to him, but just watched him. She noticed his eyes going from the floor to his brother then back again. Multiple times his saddened orbs twitched, but never out of the pattern that had been forming for hours. She turned her head again, this time to the shallow breathing of the brunette from earlier. Charlize Huntington. While she held tightly to JC, her eyes moved back and forth with Joey’s movements. Something in her gaze made Britney think. Charlize had known Joey back in Brooklyn, so maybe she was just worried about him, but when Joey looked up, changing direction only once to look at the childhood friend, Britney became suspicious. She watched their mouths move to form a word, then stopped forward.
“What’s going on?” she asked, looking from one to another.
“Don’t Brit me, Charlie. Something’s going on. What were you about to say?” She said nothing and Britney turned to Joey. “Tell me.”
“Britney, you don’t want to--”
“Yes, I do, Joey. So, just-- tell me.”
Joey stepped away from her even more and stood in a corner. His eyes left everyone except for Steve, who still sat fidgeting. He’d seen the interaction between Joey and Charlize and wondered how long before he was pulled into it, but from the look in Joey’s eyes, Steve was already into it up to his neck. “That was a hit,” Joey finally muttered.
“A hit,” Charlize said, echoing Joey’s last words.
“You mean--” Britney just stared at the both of them. Feet apart, their eyes were the same. She let her eyes follow where Joey stared and planted a gaze on Steve, then turned back to Joey. “What do you-- what do ya’ll know about--” She couldn’t even say the word.
Joey shrugged. “I grew up in Brooklyn. I saw a lot of ‘em.”
“But-- why, Justin. Why--” She stopped to think. “W-were you-- near him?” she asked cautiously. She couldn’t think of anyone that would want to kill Justin, but she really couldn’t call to memory any bitter enemies that Joey had, either. But, he’d said he’d seen them before. Not just a few. A lot. She knew people who lived in all areas of New York that had never seen a professional hit in their lives, but Joey-- he’d seen a lot. Joey didn’t respond to her, just kept his head down and she walked over to him. She forced his head up and asked again, slower and with more definition. “Were you near him?” Joey couldn’t say the words, but his head gave a slight nod.
Britney moved back away from him. She stared for a few minutes, thinking. He was near. He’s seen-- “This was for you!” she yelled. She stepped back to him and slapped him hard across the right cheek. “Justin could-- and you-- dammit! You did this!”
“I didn’t do anything,” he muttered, lowering his head once more.
“You had to do something! Nobody would try to kill Justin!”
“He shouldn’t have gotten shot,” he told her. “We-- we left it all in New York.” Wheels in his head began to turn and his head moved up to Steve. “We left it all behind, didn’t we, Steve?” His voice was harsh and interrogating. Steve Fatone looked up to his brother and not a word was needed. Joey pushed harshly past Britney and grabbed Steve by the shirt. The guys stood and began to move towards him, then stopped as Joey pulled his older brother from his chair. “We’re out of it, right, Steve? We’re out! Just like Mom said. We’re out! Say it!” Steve was quiet and he turned his head away. Joey turned it back and shook him. “Say it, damn you! Say we’re out!” Steve closed his eyes, inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly. When his eyes finally opened, they stared directly into his persecutors and said softly, “You’re supposed to be out of it.”
~ * ~
I really hadn’t needed him to say it. Or say anything for that matter. The second I realized how close I was to him and how professional that had to be, I knew something was up. I just hadn’t know just what and how close it really was. I always thought Dad had moved out of fear or something, but maybe it was just business. Everything’s always business. Why should I have thought that anything had changed? But, Steve--
He brought it closer. He brought it to everyone else. And the worst part? He didn’t even tell me. He knew I was in danger. He knew everyone was in danger. But he didn’t tell me. They let me fall in love with a woman I know now that I can’t keep because she might end up in a hospital or in the morgue. They let me start a career that I can’t finish because what happened to Justin could easily happen to someone else, be it one of the other guys or someone in attendance.
I kinda think I should be happy. Ya know? I mean, that something had happened and I’d been missed. My life had been saved right? Yeah, but it don’t count for shit when the person who takes a bullet for you doesn’t even know it’s coming. When it’s someone that you would take a bullet for. I know I’m not old or anything, but I’m older than Justin and if I’d have known it was coming, I’d have taken it gladly to spare him. Hell, if I’d even known what was going on in my own goddamned family, I wouldn’t have been there anyway. I would have stayed away to keep everybody out of trouble. If I had’ve known, I could’ve kept everybody from gettin’ hurt.
But it’s too late for that now. I can’t do anything but stand and stare or sit and worry. I can’t do shit because I don’t have a fucking clue as to what to do. Nobody told me how to live the life of a mob kid. Nobody told me just how to act when your family’s part of the Italian Mafia. And why didn’t I? Because nobody told me the fact that my family was still in the motherfucking thing! So, the world is collapsing, my friend’s life hangs in the balance, and I can’t do shit cause I don’t know what the fuck this shit is all about and don’t have a goddamned clue as to how to do anything about it.
~ * ~
Joey was pulled, finally, from his brother. Steve’s face was already starting to bruise and blood leaked from a small line above his eye where his younger brother’s knuckles had connected and split the skin. He looked up at Joey and it was as though he were looking at a wild man. Joey fought against the people holding him. He turned away from Ember as she stepped in front of him, trying to calm him down. The movement only forced him to look at Charlize. He turned his head again. Somehow, Joey managed to look past Ember to his brother. Steve could feel his body burning. What was that old saying, he thought, trying to close is his eyes. If looks could kill? That was the one. If looks could kill, Steve Fatone would be farther down than six feet. He’d be in the bowels of the earth, churning in flames and molten lava. He could feel his heart thumping hard against his chest, as though it were trying to burst free and run screaming from the room.
Steve could only hope. He wanted to leap up and make an escape, but he couldn’t. No one was blocking his way, but his body was frozen. His muscles were tight and his body weight held him to the floor. He felt as though he were pinned underwater, the pressure of an ocean weighing him down, helping the cannon ball at his feet to take his last breaths. His eyes stayed connected with Joey’s. He could remember when they’d laughed together and had fun. Some of that was just earlier in the day, before the concert, and right up to the point, really, where Justin got hurt. Because of him. Because he had gotten involved in things he shouldn’t have. Because there was a war going on that they should have all escaped when they left Brooklyn. An injury that shouldn’t have happened. And in his brother’s eyes, that’s all Steve saw. The accusations and the bitter hatred of the things that Steve had just been thinking. There were no memories of laughing brothers tossing one another off of a stage, or hitting on the same girl, or even planning schemes and plotting against the other Fatone brothers. There was nothing there but despise, and Steve really couldn’t blame him.
“Get out.” The first words Joey had spoken since pulling his brother to the floor. As he’d pounded him, he’d said nothing. Mere grunts and winces as his fists connected with the one person he never thought he’d be having such a fight with. But, then again, Joey knew it wasn’t a fight. Steve wasn’t trying to stop anything from happening. He wasn’t try to block or return the punches. He just laid there and let his younger brother beat him until he was taken off of him. As they stared at one another, neither spoke, nor did they really want to. But, for some reason, Joey’s mouth opened and words came out. Steve’s eyes stayed on Joey as he repeated his command, but still he didn’t move. “Get the fuck out,” Joey told him, slowly.
When Steve didn’t move, Joey started to go toward him. JC and Chris held him tighter and Lance moved to join them. Ember stepped in front of him, and looked up into his smoldering eyes. She tilted her head to the side and wondered just what he was seeing. Definitely, it wasn’t his brother. She moved her head to the other side and looked again. An enemy, she thought. Her hand waved in front of his face, but he didn’t blink. She mused on if it were true that deep anger could really make a person see red. If it were true, then more than likely that was the only color he saw. And the only person he saw was his brother.
Charlize moved over to Steve and bent down. She expected to see fear in his eyes, but instead saw a welcome. He wanted them to let Joey go. He wanted him to beat him to within an inch of his life, maybe to an inch out of it. Charlize was almost on her knees when she backed up at the thought. “You brought it back.” She said. It was neither a question nor a statement. It was more a random thought of confusion mixed with hopes for denial. Steve looked at her for a moment, not speaking, before closing his eyes. Surrounded by anger, terror, life, death, and the sickening odor of disinfectant that covered the hallways and every room, Steve Fatone had just admitted his guilt with no more than a minor movement. She backed away from him and walked to stand near Britney.
The young blonde was still in shock. Her mind moved as fast as it could, trying to rationalize and understand what was going on. Her boyfriend was in critical condition. He held on by a thin thread that could snap at any time. And he’d done nothing wrong. He’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’d taken something that was meant for another, and didn’t even know it. Her eyes had been downcast but they turned to Joey. Justin had taken what was meant for him, and as much as she wanted to, she couldn’t put all of the blame on him. She wanted to able to scream and yell, as she’d done just minutes ago. She wanted to hit someone and looking at Joey, she knew he wouldn’t even flinch if hit him, kicked him, or anything else. He was guilty on his own charges, let alone by anyone else. She turned to Steve and had to close her eyes. His stillness showed what he had done, or at least what he felt he’d done. Now, there was someone she could kick, but it would be like kicking a pillow. It would move with the momentum of the strike, but not utter a sound or pull away.
“Joe--” Everyone stopped as Steve finally spoke. Joey’s breaths came quicker, angrier, as he heard his name and he started to take a step forward. Even with them holding him, he could have broken away and started his barage of punches all over again. Instead, however, he let his footfall slightly in front of him and just glared. Steve began to pick himself up, shakily. His body felt like gelatin and he expected it to collapse at any moment. He leaned against the wall and took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Joe, I--”
“Shut up,” Joey cut him off. His words were halting, harsh and filled with fire. “Leave.”
“I-- I will. I just--”
“Get the fuck out before I--” Ember put a hand over his mouth and turned to Steve. “Just go, okay? You’re just making matters worse.” Steve wanted to say more, unsure of even what that desire encompassed, but he stayed silent. He let his eyes fall on Justin’s parents, sitting, staring at him. Nice people, he thought. Probably don’t have a clue. He sighed, then with his eyes downcast, did as he was asked and left the room. He forced his way through the crowd of reporters and disc jockeys. He caught sight of the doctor from earlier. Gillian-- something, he thought. She was smoking a cigarette and he realized just how badly he could use one at the moment. But, instead of stopping and searching for a slender white stick, he hailed a taxi and climbed inside.
~ * ~
The nurse had come, and hurriedly, Britney followed her out of the room. With their respective new spouses, Randy and Lynn Timberlake had followed slowly. They went in one at a time to see Justin. They had left the youngest of the boys at home, not having told them anything until they knew something themselves. His mother had broken into tears and her husband took her from the room. His father had managed to talk the doctors into letting Britney inside.
Joey watched silently as Britney entered the sterile room, having put on the obligatory scrubs. The others had been looking at him, but as Joey stepped forward and pressed his hands to the glass, they had moved away. So, he stood alone, watching as Britney touched Justin’s arm tentatively. Tears fell from his eyes and he started to turn away, but he couldn’t. Inside of him, he knew it was partially his fault and he could not deny that fact.
Inside of the room, the only noise came from the beeping of machines. They told his heartbeat, his breathing, his brain functioning. They were comforting to some, letting them know that their dear ones were still alive, but for Britney, they meant nothing. Machines and tubes could never tell her of the end or continuation of Justin’s life. Life was more than near comatose sleeping. Life was Justin’s eyes open and shining when he looked at her. It was his hand touching hers, their fingers intertwining. It was his laugh, his smile, his voice; the way he said Pinky so many different ways, ranging for serious, to loving, and even to frustration. The slightest inflection of his voice changed the entire meaning of just one words. That was Justin’s life. Not what lay in that hospital bed.
When she first came in, she almost burst back through the door, searching for some place to hide. She stopped herself, but as she came closer to him, it was harder and harder to control. The last time she’d seen Justin, he’d been smiling. He’d been sparkling with amusement. They’d spent the days off together, gathering enough time and memories to hold them both until they could do it all over again. She tried to keep that image in her head as she looked down at him.
He was pale. That was the first thing that came to her mind. No, Justin had never had that deep tan that seemed to be the rage among a lot of people, but he’d never been so-- white before. It seemed odd to say that, but there was no other way to describe him. His skin was the color of an area of newspaper covered with a thin layer of Whiteout. The whiteness formed into gray areas along the edges and she realized just how close to death he had come. Britney could remember seeing movies with dead people in them. The makeup was always so horribly done, she used to think, but looking down at the still form of her boyfriend, she knew just how real they had made it look. It had been perfect. It had looked like Justin did at that moment.
She fought the urge to turn away and slowly extended her hand to touch his arm. It was cold. Justin was never that cold. Not even after running out in the snow in whatever state he happened to be in during the winter months. He would step inside and instantly be warm. His blood warmed his body inside and out, pumping through the thick muscle of his purely heated heart. Laying gray in the hospital bed with her hand on his icy arm, Britney’s tears fell silently. She released the freezing arm to move up and run a finger down his cheek. That was cold, too. She looked at her finger absently, half-expecting to see some smudge of damp Whiteout, but her skin was clear. That was just the color he had become.
A chair sat beside the bed. She moved her foot back enough to grab one leg, pulling it closer while she held her contact with Justin. She knew sitting in it, she’d never be able to reach above, and barely through the silver bars standing high on either side of him. Britney slid her feet from her loosely tied tennis shoes and knelt in the chair. “Stinky,” she whispered. She wasn’t surprised when he didn’t acknowledge. He was in pain. He was asleep. He was trying to stay alive. But, she knew he heard her. With all of the talk about how actions speak louder than words, there was nothing more brash as words spilled from her mouth, no matter what they were. Justin always heard her when she talked to him, so this should be no different. “You’ll be okay, Stinky,” she whispered. Her eyes fell to his left hand and saw his ring gone. Her eyes went wide and quickly, she jerked back, almost falling out of the chair. She ran to the door, opening it with speed and looked around. “The ring,” she asked. “Where’s his ring?” They looked at her puzzled and she held up her left hand. “The ring!” she said, pointing to her own gold encompassing her pinky. Chris walked over to her, catching on, and pulled something shiny out of his pocket. He placed it in Britney’s shaking hand and closed her fist around it. “I know how much it meant and-- I didn’t want it to get lost,” Chris told her in explanation. She looked up at him, unsure of what to say, if anything. Chris just shook her head and gave her a soft kiss on the forehead, and Britney ran back inside. She took up residence in her chair again and slowly slipped the ring on his finger. “See,” she muttered as her hand went back up to slide against the ice of his cheek. “Pinky’s here. So-- things will be okay.”
~ * ~
Even for me that was all too much. I don’t know why I stared into the window for so long. I don’t know why I didn’t just walk away and let it go on in privacy, as it should have. But, I couldn’t. It’s so screwed but-- there’s a part of me that says I’m dreaming this. I’m having some sort of weird nightmare and I’ll eventually wake from it. But, I know it’s not. I won’t. This is reality. Brit’s tears, Justin’s pain, my family’s lies and betrayals. They’re all real. And you can’t run from reality.
I’ve proven that haven’t I? My family supposedly ran from the life that my brothers and I didn’t even know existed, though I was oblivious for longer than they were, and I tried to forget faster than they did once we left Brooklyn. We ran, but we didn’t escape it. Reality is, I should have figured something out eventually. I was a kid so that’s understandable but now? How could I have been so fucking blind? Those well-dressed men had been coming to my house for the entire pre-teen ages of my life. Then, we move to Florida and they’re still around? And I didn’t pick up on a damn thing.
Well, no, that’s not true. See, I did wonder. Some looked familiar. Some were complete strangers. And I asked my mom who it was talkin’ to Dad and she said just business people. Isn’t that what she’d always said before? Business people? So, I should have made the connection. But, I didn’t want to. I know that now. I didn’t wanna see anything wrong cause I wanted to believe I could live a normal life. I wanted to believe I could trust my family.
Selfish, huh? Well... yeah, it was. And I won’t go and deny it. I wanted to be able to do all of these great things and never once did my parents tell me I couldn’t. They let me do it. They said I could follow my dreams.
They shouldn’t have.
All they did was begin makin’ a carrier for grief and guilt. They didn’t tell me that I would watch more friends hurt. That I was gonna end up watchin’ through glass as one of my best buds toppled on the line of life and death, waitin’ to see which way he goes. They didn’t tell me that one day it could be me in that room, layin’ there and toppling. They didn’t tell me that I could be in the morgue, or in jail. They didn’t tell me a goddamned thing except, “You’re such a talented boy, Joey.”
Well, ya know what Ma? Thanks. I’m sure all that talent is gonna help Justin now, or Ember. Or Charlie or JC or Brit or Lance or Chris or any fucking other person around. It’s not gonna help Steve the next time I get my hands on that little shit. It’s not gonna help you when I come through the door and tell all of ya to kiss my ass. And least of all, it damned sure ain’t gonna help me, any day, at any time, ever.
~ * ~
Joey left. He left the hospital, the city, the state and found himself on the next flight into Orlando, FL. He’d left everyone and everything behind in Chicago and gone home. Alone. He was expecting Steve to have already gone back, if not at least called. Will he be there when I get there? he asked himself. With a shrug he realized he didn’t care. He didn’t give a damn who was there. He had things to say, things to scream and understanding to gain. The plane landed and Joey went to the lot for extended stay and climbed into his car. His head hit the steering wheel the second the door closed. The inside of the vehicle was stuffy, but he didn’t care. His hand absently moved the buttons on the dash and the cold air was a shock to his system. But, he didn’t move his head from the steering wheel. There had been a short blaring of the horn when he’d first hit, but it quickly died down. His thoughts were random, floating to everything and everyone. First, there were memories. Justin falling to the floor. Britney crying and shaking. The ring being put back on Justin’s finger. Bludgeoning Steve. Then the memories turned into guilty visions. One by one, his friends were shot down right before his eyes. They each were murdered just because they were near him. Their lives were extinguished because they had cared about him, and finally, Joey was added to the list of the gone, and there was no one left around to hold his head or take his hand as his life was snuffed out.
He jerked his head up. His lungs burned with the effort it took for him to breathe. In the dim light, his eyes tried to focus. He thought someone was watching him. He heard footsteps. His heart stopped and his lungs quit for just a moment until he saw a woman and her children walking before him. He let out a long stretch of air, then picked his keys up from the seat beside him. He stopped centimeters away from the hole. His mind flashed to every movie he had ever seen, settling on Casino and the scene of Robert DeNiro’s erupting into a ball of fire. With his keys held tightly in his hand, he got out of the car and bent to the floor. He went all around, checking for explosives and saw none. He rose the hood and there was nothing there. “You’re panicking,” he told himself aloud as he got back inside and slammed the door hard. He strapped his seatbelt on tightly, then muttered, “Damned right I’m fuckin’ panickin’.” He closed his eyes, trying to stop the sudden spinning in his head and to clear his vision, then carefully ignited the ignition and took off for home.
There were cars outside of the house. So many that he had to park three houses down and across the street. Joey didn’t like the idea of having his car so far out of sight, but it was either park there or never go inside. The idea had occurred to him as he slowed, passing his house. He could just keep going and pretend that it was all dream. Go back to his own house, sleep and when he woke, he’d be in a hotel room somewhere, being shaken awake because he overslept. As nice as it sounded, thought, Joey knew it wasn’t happening. He knew he’d go inside as he slid between two cars in front of a neighbor’s house. For a moment, he was surprised that there weren’t television news crews surrounding the area, but then he thought, “They’re probably at my place. Oh the joy.”
Joey walked up the street and stopped at the edge of his family’s property. It wasn’t much, the house and area. They looked like every other family on the block, with a nice stretching lawn, backyard, and a sizeable house for the siblings and whatever visitors may come. The house was brick and mortar like all of the others. It was a nice family home, or so he had thought. Taking a deep breath, Joey made himself go up the walk and onto the porch. The door was open and there was a rather large man standing beside it, dressed in black. “Who’s funeral?” Joey muttered grimly. He opened the door and tall, dark and deadly turned to him. Joey noticed the definitive bulge in his jacket and almost stepped back. He managed to keep his composure and open the screen door. Funeral Guy moved to stand in front of him. Joey’s eyes rose to look into the face and he had a momentary flash. The funeral at his young friend, Bobby’s house after he’d been shot. The man in front of him had been there. At the door. Dressed the same. Only difference was, as far as Joey knew, there were no services or wakes being held within the house. He thought back, running names off in his head. Mitch, Matt, Martin, Mark, Markie, Marco-- that’s it. “Marco,” he said to the man and he rose an eyebrow in question. “Could you move?” Joey asked none too nicely. “I need to talk to my dad.” Marco watched him, memorizing how many Fatone children there were, and who was missing from the house. He finally stepped aside and walked inside.
~ * ~
Joey felt the eyes on him as he walked through the house. He ignored them. They were of no importance to him. Not at that moment, at least. All that was on his mind was getting to his parents and making them explain. He arrived at the door to the den and someone was standing there. He didn’t bother looking up as he muttered, “Move.” The burly man wasn’t going to budge, apparent after the third utterance to get out of Joey’s way. With a growl, he mustered all the strength he had and threw him aside, then kicked the doors open. Eyes looked at him in shock. He saw his father and rushed him, grabbing the Fatone patriarch by the collar of his starched shirt. Joe, Sr. had been expecting his son after receiving news from Steve about the concert, but not in such a manner. “Joe,” he said, “Wha--”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Joey’s voice was deep, guttural. His eyes flashed an inner beast that was trying its best to escape and dismember the man in its sights, the one who had caused all of the trouble. Shocked, his father didn’t answer and Joey slammed him against the wall. “Why did you lie!” It was less a question as it was a demand for the truth.
“Let me down,” he told him, trying to retain control.
“Do you know what happened? Do you! I was right fucking there! It could have-- fuck! It should have been me!”
“I’m a fucking target and you didn’t tell me, you son of a bitch!” Behind him, Joey heard the definite sound of clips being checked and weapons being clocked. He looked to his father as he prepared to tell the men to stand down. “Do you think I give a fuck if they shoot me? I could kill your ass right this fucking minute and wouldn’t give a fuck!”
“Nobody is shooting anyone,” the elder man’s voice boomed. “Now, if you would put me down--”
“Joey, honey, please.” Still holding his father, Joey turned to his mother and slanted his eyes. “Don’t,” she said. Joey growled. “Don’t speak to me,” he told her. He turned back to Joe, Sr. Angrily, he pulled him away from the wall, then threw him against it. “Talk!” he ordered.
Joseph Fatone, Sr. regained his composure and brushed his clothes straight. “The first thing you need to do, young man,” he told him, “is calm down.”
“Calm down!” Joey threw his hands in the air in disgust and began to move angrily around the room. The stares and glares irked him and he yelled at everyone, “Get the fuck OUT! Now!” No one moved. “NOW!” he yelled again. The men looked first to his father, then to a man seated at his father’s desk. Both men nodded and everyone left the room. The man behind the desk stood calmly and turned to Joe. “We won’t be far.” Joey wasn’t sure if it was a warning or a threat, but as the man left, he didn’t care. He turned back to the only people left in the room. His parents. The ones who had lied to him and could possibly cost one of his friends his life.
“We didn’t think you needed to know,” his mother, Phyllis, said to him.
Joey turned his glare to her. “Didn’t think I needed to know?” His words were elongated, and he spoke as though he were responding to a child. “How the hell could you think that? What the fuck were you gonna do? Oh, don’t answer that. Exactly what you did before. Wait until I stood next to my best friend and watched him get gunned the fuck down!”
“Joe,” his father said, “this wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“Shit like this is NEVER supposed to happen. But, it fucking does! You could have told me!”
“If you would shut up for a minute, I’m going to tell you now.”
“Oh, great! Tell me AFTER the shit has hit the fan! Did you just stand there and hold a friend in your arms and think he was gonna die? Did you have to look his parents and his girlfriend in the eye because you KNOW that shit was meant for you? No! You didn’t! And now-- fucking assholes!”
His mother was crying. She walked to him and touched his shoulder. Joey instantly jerked back. Her face crumbled even more and her words came out soft. “I-- We-- we just wanted you to feel safe.”
“Well, it’s too fucking late for that. I’m NOT safe. Nobody around me is safe! First, Justin... who’s next? Charlie? The rest of the guys? Em--” He stopped before saying her complete name. “You know what you’ve done right?”
“I know that you’re moving back home,” his father told him, staunchly. “We can protect you better if you’re home.”
“You have got to be out of your fucking mind!” he screamed. “After today, I’m not coming anywhere near any of you fuckers, again. You’ve put me, my friends-- my fucking LOVE in the biggest fucking danger-- I can’t believe you people! Take credit for what you fucking did! You gave me a life I shouldn’t have had and put the fucking stench of DEATH all around me! And by God-- I HATE you for it!” He walked past his crying mother and stopped in front of his father. “You can take your protection and go fuck yourself,” he growled. Striking fast, he punched his father in the right jaw and stormed out of the den. Commotion rose as he left, but he ignored it. Someone stepped in front of him.
He knew who it was. He didn’t even bother to get a clear look before his foot lashed out and took Steve in the stomach. He brought his knee up into his face, then shoved the wretch out of the door, slamming the solid wood behind him. He passed Marco. He passed the groups that were coming into his parent’s house. He passed the neighbors. He passed everyone until he got to his car. Joey jumped inside and screeched down the street.
~ * ~
I can’t fucking believe this shit. To this day, I don’t believe it. Did he really think that after what they’d done, I’d come live with them, again? God! How stupid are they! And my mom-- I swear-- I never thought that I’d talk to her that way, but I can’t say that I’d ever take it back. She lied. Right to her baby boy, she lied to his face. And then she wanted forgiveness? It wasn’t going to happen.
I had things to do. I had places to go. I had people to get clear of and get clear of me. Charlie-- she’s used to it. But, at least she knew about her family. Though, I don’t think she really did because I finally realized when I was speeding down the street why I remembered Marco. He was one of her cousins. If he was there, then the whole family was probably around. I wondered if she knew. She might have. She might not have. She always said they were out and I know her-- if she says something, it’s cause she believes it. Not to spare feelings. You have to have tact to do something like that and hers is severely lacking. But, Charlie-- she should be safe. As safe as she could get that is.
The guys, Britney-- we have no reason to see each other now. Tour’s obviously cancelled. And as far as I was concerned, so was everything else. As long as I avoided them, they could be safe. No more contact and they won’t be in the way. Once I convinced them it was for their own good. They weren’t the problem.
Now, Ember-- that was a problem and a half. She’s a stubborn little bitch, but she’s my stubborn little bitch. But, she shouldn’t ever have been. Yeah, yeah, I’m being an idiot. I said Charlie’s family was there, but Ember’s-- as far as she’d ever told me she hadn’t been in it. Contrary to popular belief, not EVERY Italian family is in the goddamned Mafia. I had thought I was an innocent when she came into my life, but really, I was just the spider luring in a fly. “Come into my web, said the spider to the fly.” Well, this is a web I don’t want her caught in. Cause who knows what those fuckers would do. I knew what they were doing. They were gettin’ to the baby to get to the parents. But to get to me there were so many others they could go through. And no matter what anyone might think, they know her. They might not know her personally, but they probably know more about her than I do. Fucking bullshit. So, I gotta get her safe. If I didn’t get her safe she could end up the same place as Justin-- or worse.
And me? Well, I’m fucking Joey Fatone. Ignorant as I might have been, I wasn’t anymore after that day. I could take care of myself. I just couldn’t take care of the others. And I had to make sure they didn’t get hurt. As for that bullshit about my parents? Fucking bastards. They never saw me again. I didn’t give them the opportunity.
~ * ~
There were messages on his answering machine. The light flashed brightly within the darkened room. Joey hadn’t made it home after leaving the home of Phyllis and Joe Fatone. His vision had blurred as he drove off and his pupils dilated. The crimson centers could almost be seen. Peering out, all Joey could see was red. Everything around him held a deep red hue. He’d had to pull over to the side of the road, unable to tell a red light from a green one. He found himself getting out of the parked car and roaming up and down the streets of Orlando. His head was done and his eyes flashed up to see his path, after colliding head on with a teenaged girl. She’d looked at him as he grumbled an apology and realized just who she was looking at. She gushed, then she flirted, and was shocked when he didn’t flirt back. It had become common knowledge that he was engaged, but though he wouldn’t go too far with anyone, he still held the bad habit of flirting outrageously. But, this time, he did nothing. He barely looked at her as she pulled a small pen from her back pocket and an old receipt and asked him for his autograph. He listened to her go on and on as he sighed, only looking up when she mentioned Justin.
“Is he okay?” she asked. “We’re all like really worried about him and all.”
“I, uh-- I can’t say. I mean, that’s his parents decision and his but-- keep hope up for him. Okay?” His voice was low but the burning of his vision intensified. Hurriedly, he got away from the young fan and continued his walk. His thoughts passed quickly through his mind. He had no more family. He couldn’t have friends. By some weird twist of fate, one of the world’s most notorious “people persons” had become completely alone, and it was all by choice. Joey loved the company of other people. He liked to party and have fun and just kick back and relax, but his lacking knowledge of a lifestyle that he hadn’t wanted, he had to make the decision to live alone. His family-- they couldn’t be family. They were too callous and lied too easily to be people who were supposed to care for and about him. They were strangers, now. People passing him on the streets who he gave no more than a slight glance. His friends couldn’t be around him. It was too dangerous. They may see it differently, but just as it was choice, it was also his duty to make them understand. And his fiancee-- the woman who had ran off his terror of commitment-- She had to go, too. He had to let Ember go just as he’d done to every other woman in his life.
Thoughts of each of them flashed before his eyes and that brought him to another-- Kelly. Of course, it wasn’t her that he was necessarily focused on. It was the little girl they shared, only a few months old, that would never understand why Daddy went away. He couldn’t fathom how, when she was older, it could ever be explained to her. Joey sat down on a nearby bench and put his head in his hands. He visualized the empty carseat in the back of his car. He saw the little bubbles of spit pouring from her lips as she vibrated them against one another. And he could feel her head against his chest as she fell asleep atop of him, giving him peace enough to go to sleep with her. His baby girl. His Bri Bear. He knew he had to stay as far away from Brianna as possible, for her own safety.
Between Ember and Brianna, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to really do it. To just tear away from them both and live truly alone. It would have been best for everyone if he just moved away, but no matter what his brain told him was the right thing to do, every fiber of his being said that he should at least be home, as it had been for the past twelve years, even if he was alone, barricaded in his house.
By the time Joey looked up, it was getting dark. The sun was falling rapidly. With a sigh, he stood and made his way blindly back to his car. He didn’t even bother to check for signs of tampering. He didn’t think as he turned the key and the engine roared to life that the roar could have been of fire igniting and burning through the vehicle.
And he was still staring at the rapidly blinking light of his machine, unsure if he should just push the button and listen or let it continue to flash. He finally decided to answer it, and laid down on the sofa as the messages began to play.
“Joe? Honey, are you there? If you are, can you pick up? You just left so fast and-- I’m worried. Superman? Please, if you’re there-- maybe you’re not, but if you are, pick up. If you’re not, please call me. Please? I love you.”
“Hey, Teddy, it’s Charlie. Pick up the phone. I just-- I need to talk to you, okay? And since you’re not answering your cell, I figure you turned it off. Verizon won’t be happy about that. Don’t like my joke, huh? Well-- who cares. Lemme know what’s the deal and I’ll tell you. Just-- call, okay?”
“Joey? Man, where are you? We could all use the support. Brit’s havin’ a fit. Justin-- let’s just say crash cart. Lance and Chris don’t know what to do and neither do I. Call us.”
“It’s Charlie again. You need to seriously call somebody. Everybody’s worried. And I sorta talked to your mom and-- what did you say to her? She’s crying. Nevermind. I just need to talk to you. Call me?”
“Please, baby, pick up, please. I’m worried. I mean-- you said-- and Justin-- and-- call me. I’m sick here and need to talk to ya. Just here your voice on other than a machine. Call me, baby. Please?”
Joey let the remaining messages play with his eyes closed. There were four hangups. Three more from Ember, one from Charlie, another from JC and still more from Lance, Chris and Wade. As the recordings ended, Joey turned to his side. The darkness of the room blanketed him, but instead of giving heat, the covering sent chills through his body. He opened his eyes for just a second. “Did I lock the door?” he muttered. Joey rose and was pleased to see that he had at least remembered that. He stopped at the table with the phone and almost picked it up. His hand was on the receiver, lifting the cordless phone from its base. It immediately started to ring. His thumb hovered cautiously over the “talk” button, then the entire thing fell from his hands, to the floor as the machine picked up.
“Joey? It’s Kelly. I heard about Justin. That’s-- it’s just so horrible. I tried your cell but no answer so I figured you’d check your messages. Tell Uncle Justin that Brianna sends him wet baby kisses. And she’s got some for you, too, whenever you get back. She misses you. <sigh> Well, you’re not answering and I do have company so-- call me when you get in so you can come pick up your kid. Later, Flirt.”
He’d heard Brianna in the background. It was late. She should have been asleep. He turned to look at the clock and it was almost ten at night. She was usually asleep by then. Granted, she woke up a few hours later to complain but she was still asleep. Or maybe she just did that to get on her father’s nerves. Joey wasn’t sure but he thought she should be in the bed. What if she had a nightmare? His mind came up with all sorts of scenarios and each one made him want to rush over and take his little girl and lie down with her until she fell asleep. He had his car keys in his hand before he realized just what he was doing.
Joey watched the keys fall in slow motion to the floor. Every space of air seemed to part ways as the keys descended to the carpet, landing with a click as the metal pieces hit one another. He stepped back slowly and sat on the arm of the sofa. His body fell backwards and he landed with a thump. He would have done it. Just jumped and went to see her, to hold her, to show her a father’s love. He had to admit that he wasn’t exactly enthused to hear that Kelly had been pregnant, but once Brianna was born, he couldn’t imagine life without her. And now, he had to make himself live life without her. And in just a few moments, he’d shown himself that he just might not have been as strong-willed with his decision as he thought he was.
~ * ~
“I want someone to tell me what is going on. All of it.” Britney looked around the room, but her eyes focused on Charlie. The others knew as little about the possible situation as she did, but Charlie-- She’d grown up with Joey. She’d shared a part of his life that none of them were privy to. She should have the answers to the mounting questions.
Charlize shivered under the weight of Britney’s gaze. She sunk down into her chair from the force of the stare, and then sunk lower as more eyes turned toward her. Out of all of them, she felt JC and Ember most of all. They wanted to understand, but she believed they couldn’t truly understand unless they had been there. Unless they had ever been directly involved. They are involved, a voice inside of her said. Everyone in the room was involved the second Justin had fallen to the stage floor, most of all her interrogator.
She returned Britney’s gaze, hoping by focusing on one, she wouldn’t feel quite so intimidated by the number of people actually in the room. She still didn’t want to tell her. She wished that they could all live in the fantasy that had been concocted for Joey when he turned twelve, but it was no longer possible for any of them. She took in a great breath, then released it slowly. “Have you ever seen The Godfather?” she asked them. They all nodded. “Well, let’s just say that it really isn’t that bad. At least I don’t think.”
Britney rolled her eyes. “That’s not what I wanted to hear.”
“You really don’t want to hear the rest of it. None of you do.”
“We deserve to know,” the young blonde pop star told her. “And Justin deserves to know, when he’s better, just why he ended up with a bullet in his chest.”
“That wasn’t Joey’s fault,” Charlize said quickly. “He didn’t even know anything was going on.”
“How could he not know?”
“Look,” she said with a sigh. “How often have your parents told you little white lies to keep you from getting hurt?” Britney was silent. “Well, to the Fatones, this was their version of that fib.”
“This shit is more than a fib.” Eyes turned to Ember as she waited across the room. Her phone was gripped tightly in her hand and every few minutes, she looked down to make sure that the battery wasn’t low. She waited for Joey’s call, sure it would come. “This is-- it’s--”
“Tragic,” Charlize told her. “You just--” She sighed. She stood and moved her eyes across the friends seated around here. “You want an example of how he didn’t know? Let’s look at Em. Last name Peretti. Does that automatically mean that she’s in the mob? No. Believe it or not, all Italians aren’t part of it.”
“My family ran from enough problems with the mob in Canada. We stayed out of American mob as much as possible.”
“That’s not saying you’re not in it,” Britney told her.
“No, it’s not. It’s not saying my family isn’t involved. Personally, I’m not. What my family does is something all together different.”
“And-- Joey’s not?”
“Directly? No. You guys don’t understand. Right before he moved-- he saw a hit. A friend. Oh, the friend was the target but it’s gotta be hard to stand next to an eleven year old boy as he’s gunned down on the way home from school.” Ember gasped as the vision of a young Joey in fear took control of her mind. “Yeah. He was scared. He didn’t like it. But, he was a kid. Nothin’ he could do about it. Around then is when they moved down here.”
“And they told him it was over,” JC put in. “That they were running.”
“What better way to work a situation? He was a kid. He didn’t care about how much sense that made. Moving to a place that has as much organized crime as New York. He took it for what it was worth because that’s what he could handle.” She shrugged. “He was out. They told him he could live his life. He listened to his parents.”
“But-- if he’s out-- then why--”
Charlize looked to Britney and sighed. “Out doesn’t necessarily mean safe. Joey’s out. His father isn’t. His brothers aren’t.”
“Steve? I mean-- he’s been around and--”
“Didn’t say a peep. Gotta protect Joe.”
“What about his sister?”
“That idiot? She likes the spoiled life of a wannabe Mafia princess. She’s in it up to her pointy little head.”
“Wait a minute.” Chris stood and walked over Charlize. “Just how do you know so much?”
Again, she shrugged. “I’ve still got connections if I need ‘em.”
“You said you were out of it,” Lance said, pointedly.
“I am. But, I wasn’t delusional to think everybody in my family was. Brothers, sisters, cousins-- doesn’t matter. I use it when I need it and with Joey not talkin’ I needed it.”
“Because I have to know just what sort of trouble to expect.”
JC watched his girlfriend as she spoke of the other side of life. They’d been dating for over a year, and he’d had no idea of what she was or was not illegally involved in. Her life was as dangerous as Joey’s seemed to be currently, only she wasn’t a target. As far as he knew, that was. Joey was a proven target for violence and destruction. Charlize caught his eyes and they stood staring at one another.
This was what she’d wanted to avoid. There was no reason before to bring up the past. Granted, hers wasn’t as far-reaching as Joey’s had proven to be, but it was still there. It existed. With Justin’s shooting, life had been sent into overdrive, maximizing memory. “Not now,” she said to JC. His eyes told her what he wanted, to talk, and not only to her. She turned to the others and shook her head. “That goes for everybody thinkin’ what Josh is thinking. Joey isn’t going to say anything at all to any of you. And if what I’ve heard is right, he’ll be telling you all to forget he ever existed.”
“How can I do that?” Ember asked. She stood angrily, still clutching her phone tightly. “Just forget all about him? I don’t think so. He has to talk to me. I know he wouldn’t want me to stay away. You’re just guessing. He wouldn’t want me away.”
Charlize moved to her and put a hand on her shoulder. It wasn’t meant to be a comforting touch. She was going for a lock on realism and a guiding hand out of denial. “Em-- hon-- it’s time to come into reality. Joey Fatone has a hit on his head bigger than the one on The Bull. Justin might not have been the target this time, but believe me. Big Joe Sr. is in deeper shit than when he left Brooklyn. Which makes little junior the prime target. And that means there’s not only bullets and knives and garottes and other shit out there with his name on ‘em. They could hold our names, too.”
~ * ~
Charlize left the city with only the barest of words, most of which had been to JC. She gave him the briefest explanation possible, promising him that she would tell him more later. She didn’t have time to get into it all. He wanted to know everything. How her family got involved. Who she’d gotten her information from. Why she had never told him, all of the times that she got a visit from her parents or vice versa, while they were all sitting together in JC’s house, why she had never once thought it a good idea to let him know what was going on. She’d given him the simplest answer. “Because they weren’t in trouble.” He still wanted more of an explanation. Why did she decide to fess up just hours before? Again, a simple answer. “Because Joey’s in trouble.” And you? “I’m not involved.”
The plane landed in Orlando and her legs were shaky getting off of the plane. Her eyes searched the immediate area. The only eyes that penetrated her were those of passengers behind her, trying to get around her or somehow force her to move faster. Charlize shook her head and walked out into the main area of the airport and headed to a rental agency. Her car was in the extended parking lot, but she wasn’t up to checking it for security. No matter what she told JC, she knew there was always a possibility of danger, and always gave a thorough check when she was gone long.
Climbing into a black SUV, she sighed. She strapped her belt on tightly and rearranged her mirrors. There wasn’t much crowding in the lot of Enterprise and before long, she was on the streets. She made a quick stop at her apartment, and was gone out again. Working around the roads of Orlando, Florida, she tried to come up with plausible ways to approach Joey. She knew that the subtle approach was out of the question. Maybe it would have worked before, but since then-- things had gotten too hot too fast to beat around the bush.
The fact that she didn’t know soon enough to warn anyone told her and should have shown anyone else just how far out of the loop she really was. Information was not given to her voluntarily, and most of that was her own idea. She wanted her life concerning organized crime to be on a need-to-know basis, and apparently, her family didn’t think she needed to know. Granted, they really didn’t know much as it was. They knew the basics, but whatever war was going on was between the Fatones and the D’Atello’s. Others were affected somewhat, but the crucial parts were between them. She knew that much from begging. Even when she asked, many of her family, especially her parents, were very willing to talk. She had learned that long ago, as well as just who she could trust to tell her. She’d gone to her little cousin, Pete. He looked up to her when they were younger and would do just about anything for her. But, it still angered her that knowing Joey could be a target, no one told her.
Charlize’s dander was still up when she pulled in front of Joey’s house. All of the lights were out. The house was darker than the midnight sky. She stepped out of the sports utility vehicle, making sure the windows were closed and the car was tightly locked. She took one last glance at the car, then went up to the door and rang the bell. No answer. She rang again. Still nothing. With a sigh, she tested the door and it was locked. She was grateful for that at least. He hadn’t been out of his mind enough to just leave his front door open. Or had he? He could already be dead, she thought, and the guy just was bein’ thorough and locked the door.
Charlize cursed. She went through her purse and found the extra key that Joey didn’t know she had and walked inside. She’d had the key made from Ember’s just before she’d flown out and though she had felt slightly guilty about it before, she was glad that she’d done it. The door closed tightly as she pressed hard against it, then locked the deadbolt, and, for safety’s sake, put the chain on. She remembered when Joey had put it on there and she thought he was a nut for it. Guess he wasn’t, she thought with a shrug.
“Why did you talk to her?”
Charlize was still standing at the door. She jumped at the sound of Joey’s voice. Her eyes worked hard to adjust to the darkness, the only light from the moon outside. “Joey?” she said softly.
“What did you say to her?”
She sighed. “I just asked your mom--”
“She’s not my mother.”
“Please, Teddy, tell me you didn’t-- God, that’s why she was crying.”
“What did you say to her?” he asked.
“I-- I just wanted to know if you were there. You weren’t answering the phone or anything.”
“Don’t look for me there anymore.”
“Because I’ll never be there.”
“Teddy--” She moved slowly across the floor towards him. He was on the opposite side of the room, sitting in a recliner that leaned back into one corner, away from the windows. As she got closer, he didn’t look like the giant teddy bear she’d always teased him about. He was too uptight to be a delightful children’s toy. Instead, he was on guard, and if he were any kind of toy, he was a G.I. Joe, on R&R but alert all the same. “Joey,” she said, kneeling down beside the chair, and taking his hand. “I know you’re upset, but she loves you. They all do. Steve--”
“Don’t mention his name.” He was quiet for a moment and Charlize didn’t break the silence. His eyes didn’t turn down to one of his oldest friends, but stayed focusing straight, looking towards the door. “What do you want, Charlie?” he finally asked her.
“I wanted to tell you what I found out.”
“Who told you?”
“You haven’t asked him for anything in a while.”
“I haven’t needed to know in a long time.”
“And why do you want to know now?”
“Because you’re in trouble. Serious trouble.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t know how deep you’re in.”
“I’m not in.” Joey growled and finally turned his eyes to her. While she was still trying to focus completely in the dark corner, Joey had been sitting there long enough to feel comfortable and at ease in the dark. He slipped his hand from beneath hers and looked into chocolate eyes. “They’re in deep. Not me.”
Charlize sighed. “Looks like your dad and a certain barone name of D’Atello had some disagreements.”
“Joe Sr. had one of Big Johnny’s sons taken out. He’s takin’ you as revenge.”
“I’m not the only son.”
“No. But, you’re the innocent one. Markie D’Atello was a school teacher. Elementary.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Joey insisted.
“Like I said. Association. You just-- you gotta stay low until this blows over.”
“Nice phrase.” She sighed. “Look, just-- you don’t leave. Don’t come to us, we’ll come to you and--”
“Uh uh.” Joey sat upright, slamming the bottom of the chair down. Charlize jumped. Slowly, young Fatone stood and looked down at her as she remained kneeling. “Nobody’s comin’ to me, cause I’m not talkin’ to none of you.”
“You can’t just shut people out.”
“The hell I can’t. I’m a target. Not the rest of you. You need to keep your own head down and let me do this my way. Everybody else needs to just back off.”
“What about the rest of the guys?”
“You think they wanna see me? JC probably just called here out of pity. ’Cause of me, Justin’s on death’s door and *NSync doesn‘t exist.”
“That wasn’t your fault. You didn’t know.” He said nothing and Charlize sighed. “What about Ember? And Brianna?” Joey was quiet as he stepped away from her. He kept moving until his back hit a vacant area of wall. “How do you think I got in, Teddy? She has a key and she’s not going to just stay away. That’s a fact.”
“Give it to me. The key.”
“Doesn’t matter. Mine is just a copy. I can get another one.”
“L-leave... alright? Just go.”
“You gonna say that same thing to Brianna when Kelly brings her by and she calls for you?”
“That was an even lower blow, Charlie.”
“No shit. But, this is reality. Snap the fuck out of whatever fuckin’ depressed hole you’ve dug for yourself and live in our world. It’s not that easy to cut off people who love you.”
“They can stop.”
“Loving you? Not fucking likely.” She growled at him, getting angrier. “You are such a fucking bitch sometimes, you know that? You’re killing everybody by pushing us away!”
“No!” Joey yelled. “I’m keeping you alive! Killing you would be letting ya’ll become targets. Just pawns. A way to get to me to get to Joe. I am NOT killing anybody! Just leave me alone!”
“Go! Now!” He turned his head and she jerked it back. Her glowered as she went into her purse with one hand and pulled out cold, dark brown metal. “I don’t need that,” he growled.
“If you’re going to be a jackass and disown the people that can protect you and get rid of the people that love you, you need it. Now, take it. I know you know how to use it.”
Joey stared down at the revolver in her hand and reluctantly put his hand out. She placed the gun in his palm and instantly, Joey wrapped his hand around it. He held the grip and checked the rounds, finding it full. He looked back at Charlize. “You’re gonna need this more than--”
She rolled her eyes. “As if I don’t have more than one? Remember, Teddy, I’m not the one living in denial, ya know.” She turned then and walked away from him. Joey hadn’t been jumpy when she came inside, and that relieved her. Had he been, she would never have left the gun with him. But, she would still be sure to tell the others to be careful, especially Ember. She’d walk into the house and there was no telling what would happen. As long as she announced herself, though, she would be fine. Unless-- She stopped at the door and turned back. “If they come in here and try to get you-- use it.” Joey didn’t say anything. “Promise, you’ll use it. You won’t just go out without a fight.”
Joey was silent for a long time before he finally said, “I promise.” With relief, Charlie turned back to the door. Halfway out, she stopped again as Joey muttered, “Thanks, Charlie.” She looked back at him, glad that the night masked the tears that were starting fall, then said, “You’re welcome,” and left the house.
~ * ~
Low. She was hittin’ below the belt and she knew it. She knew that I wouldn’t be as strong as I needed to be when she brought up Ember and Brianna. It’s not fair. I haven’t had time to fortify those walls, yet. But, Charlie was always like that. She told me whatever she figured I needed to know and said just what she thought I needed to hear and definitely didn’t pull her punches. That doesn’t make it any more fair, though.
Didn’t she see that I was doing my best to keep everybody safe? I was trying? I didn’t return any of Em’s calls did I? Nope. Did I call Kelly back and tell her to bring Bri over? Definitely not. I was strong. I held firm. I was tough as nails. Or else, I was just chickenshit.
I knew I’d have to call both of them eventually. I had to explain and try to make them understand. I had to come up with something for Kelly to tell my baby girl about why I wasn’t around. I was being a good father. I’m not a fuckin’ deadbeat, ya know. I’ll still send her whatever she wants and needs. There’s only one thing that I can’t give her, and that’s me. I can’t take the chance of being shot while I hold her. Or someone sneaking into my house while we’re asleep and strangling or stabbing or doin’ anything else to me. Who knows what they’d do to her. Especially since she always ends up falling asleep either on top of me or right near me. I can’t put her in the crossfire. I love her too much to do that. She deserves a happy life and that ain’t gonna come with me in there fuckin’ things up for her.
I can’t do that to Emi, either. I love her. Plain and simple. If any love came anywhere near close to what I have for Bri, it’s Emi. She’s just so beautiful and she’s so understanding. Usually. I mean, she knew I was a flirt, knew I had a kid, and still took the time to be with me. Even when I didn’t think that I would change, that I was just waitin’ for the next thing to come along, she had confidence in me. She’s a big one about confidence. Makes her stubborn. And that was a bad thing cause I know she’ll be stubborn about this.
She will just walk into the house. She’ll just come in and talk to me and unless I have the locks changed I can’t keep her out. I’m not doing that. Less that I don’t wanna be a prisoner in my own house, or at least feel like one, and even less about me not wantin’ strangers in my home. It’s more because that’d be the last bit of truly locking her out. Like totally forgetting about her or something, and I can’t do that. God, help me, I’m a weak son of a bitch, cause I just can’t lock her out of my heart or my house.
I guess there’s hope somewhere in me that one day it’ll be safe again to talk to her. Safe to see her and hug her and hold her and kiss her and God knows what else because I won’t have to worry about anything. There’s just too much to worry about now, and I can’t add worrying about her safety, or Bri’s or Charlie’s or Britney’s or anybody else for that matter. It’s too late to be worrying. I should have been worried sooner. I shouldn’t have been so goddamned naive about everything and known something was going on. I should have learned something from Steve’s stupid ass or Phyllis’ voice when I talked to her. I should have been worrying then so I could have protected Justin. I couldn’t, though. I couldnt’ because I didn’t know. But, now, I know. I know and I can protect ‘em, even if it means sending them away.
~ * ~
They came one after the other. They’d tried groups at first, but Joey wouldn’t talk to them. They hoped he would be more open individually, but he just sent them away. He did his best to explain. They just didn’t understand. The hardest had been talking to Ember. He thought it would be to Brianna, but she was so young that he could say anything and she would still smile. The only closeness he would allow for himself was the one public meeting he’d had with his daughter and her mother to explain. He knew from Kelly’s eyes that had he not taken the choice upon himself, she’d have made the same decision. For him to be away from Brianna until it was all over. Had he wanted to try and keep some semblance of life, he knew she would have ripped that from him. It was one of the many actions and thoughts that had always helped Joey know that she was no different than the rest of the women he’d been with before Ember. She wanted what she wanted and once she got it, the hell with Joey. She had a child that she could claim fame with and Joey let her have it. He let her have her because he knew he couldn’t take care of the baby.
But, Ember-- she was different. She wouldn’t stay away. Each time he took her key, she had another somewhere that she used to come in again. She didn’t remove her clothes. She didn’t stop coming to the house. She stayed at her own small house, and that was as far as she would go. Along with Charlie, she’d burst herself in every day to at least see if he were still alive. She never said that, but Joey knew that was what she was doing. She wanted to make sure that he hadn’t been taken away from her in the middle of the night, even though he had tried to take himself from her at every turn.
The only ones who’d been smart enough to stay away was the family that he had disowned. He didn’t hear from any of them, and especially not Steve. Just the thought of him made Joey want to break things, and many times, he did just that. There were shards of glass and bits of porcelain spread across various parts of the house. He hadn’t even bothered to pick them up anymore. He just let them lay there as reminders of how his own family had broken him.
The day finally came, however, when Joey had to take the initiative and talk. He owed his friend that much. He owed him some kind of explanation. Once he’d healed enough to, Justin had been moved to a hospital in Orlando. The fact that he’d made it during the worst part, the 48 hours, lifted a small part of Joey’s guilt. He could tell himself that at least he hadn’t gotten anyone killed.
When he walked into the hospital, Britney was beside the bed. She started to speak, but Justin covered her hand with his own and slightly shook his head. She looked at him then sighed, and left the two men alone. Justin was looking better than the last time Joey had seen him. He wasn’t quite so pale and more than anything, he was awake and alive. Joey sat in the chair vacated by Britney and stared at Justin, unsure of how to go about his apologies.
The first thing Justin noticed about Joey was that he looked horrible. Justin hadn’t seen him in almost a month and it seemed as though he had grown at least that time’s length of hair on his face. His eyes sank into his skull and beneath them was luggage enough for ten trips to Europe. He gave a slight smile and asked, “Planning a trip?” He placed chilled fingers against the dark circles underneath his eyes. Joey was quiet for a moment before taking Justin’s hand away and whispering, “I shouldn’t be here.”
“Why?” Justin asked him.
“Because-- it’s not safe.”
“It’s a hospital, Joey.”
“I-- I had to replace the window in my house,” he whispered.
“Why?” he asked again.
“There’s a bullet hole in it.”
Justin was quiet as he let that sink in. He’d been told by the others what was going on, but he still felt that he needed to hear it all from Joey. The word bullet took him back to the stage, his shirt blossoming with blood as the round struck him hard in the chest and he collapsed to the floor. Joey noticed his eyes go into the distance and knew where his mind was. He turned his head away and sighed. “Like I said, I shouldn’t have come.”
Justin shook his head as Joey’s voice broke his reverie and turned to him. “No. I-- Joey, we need to talk.”
Slowly, Joey’s head turned back to him. Tears fell slowly from his eyes, trekking down his cheeks to drop with loud plops against his pants. His reddened eyes grew darker. “I’m so sorry, Justin.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” he told him.
“Yeah, it was. It was meant for me.”
“You didn’t know.”
“I should have.”
Justin took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. It wasn’t so painful to breathe anymore and he was glad about that. “Joey--” His words were slow and filled with concern. “You’re not the world’s savior.”
“I could have been yours,” he said softly.
“I’m fine. I’ll be back up dancing and singing--”
“You can’t just turn your back on us.”
“I’m doing this for you. I can’t-- I’ve seen that before. I can’t watch it happen again and again. I can’t do that.”
“It won’t happen. You’ll be safe again.”
“I’ll never be safe,” Joey whispered. “And when I’m around, you won’t be either.”
“For me to believe that, you have to tell me all of it.”
“I want to hear it from you.”
Joey turned his head away, then stood seconds later. He couldn’t look him in the eye as he forced him to tell about his friend in Brooklyn, his move to Florida, his naivete even in adulthood, and how his own family had turned him into some kind of danger magnet and let him believe he could share his life with others as freely as he had been doing. His head turned back and he was still crying as he said, “I got rid of them-- mother, father, sister, brother, cousins-- the whole shot. But, whoever wants me dead doesn’t care. I’m just a fucking example to be set by people I never wanna see again.”
Justin bit his lower lip. As Joey spoke, his eyes had held tears of their own. They weren’t from his own pain or memories, but for Joey. He’d always loved his family and had been so close to them, especially Steve, and for him to cut them off like that-- it had to hurt more than any bullet could ever had. He’d been shot with Eros’s lead arrow and all that love had turned to hate. As much as Joey tried to hide it, Justin saw in his eyes as he spoke his final sentence that the hate was the most painful thing in the world because it was one that he wouldn’t have chosen willingly. “I-I’m sorry,” he finally said to him.
“You have nothing to be sorry for. I’m the one that’s sorry. Pathetic to boot.”
“You’re none of that. You’re my friend.”
“I can’t be.”
“Joey, dont’ do this. I mean, come on. This is just-- drastic. This cant’ last forever.”
“No. Just until they get me.” He started to move back to the chair then stopped. His hand rested on the stiff back. “I-- I gotta go. I gotta-- I don’t know. I’ve been here long enough.”
“I have to.”
“I took a bullet for you.” Justin knew he was hitting below the belt, but at the moment, he just didn’t want to see Joey walk away. “The least you could do is what I tell you to.”
“You didnt’ take a bullet. You happened to get hit in the crossfire. Besides, I didn’t ask you to.”
“Doesn’t matter. I did it anyway.”
“And you’re askin’ me the total opposite and I’m doin’ this anyway. For your own good. Bye, Smooth.” Joey turned and walked out of the hospital room, ignoring Justin’s pleas for him to come back and talk to him. To reconsider his decision. To not just disappear. But that’s what Joey did. Quickly down the hall, to his car, then his home, Joey disappeared from him, hoping that if he had to be the reason it all ended, that he was at least the only one that ended up a means to an end.
~ * ~
Joseph Fatone, Sr. sat across from his son, Steve. His somewhat wrinkled fingers were steepled. His chin rested atop the tips. It had taken three months, but the war had finally ended. Blood had been the price, but as of yet, it hadn’t included the patriarch’s namesake. On one hand, he was glad, but on the other, he was quite distraught over his son’s behavior in that time. Joey was making it perfectly clear that he wanted nothing at all to do with his family. No one had spoken to him since the day he disowned them all, but word spread quickly and had gotten back to Joe’s ears.
“Dad,” Steve said, “this isn’t necessary. We might even get Joey back now that it’s over.”
He shook his head. “That’s not going to happen. He’s gone too far away to come back now. But, this still has to be handled.”
“But, like this? Dad, he’s family.”
“He’s a liability.”
“He’s your son.”
“Not from hearing him say it.”
“Dad, you’re just-- this is cold. He’s pissed and with good reason. We didn’t tell him anything. He had to watch Justin get shot. Hell, I had to watch Justin get shot and I knew that something like that could happen. He just needs more time to get over it.”
“He’s not getting over it, Steve. Look at him. He barely leaves his house. The only ones who come near him are Charlize and Ember, and even them he kicks out with haste. He’s a recluse.”
“You’ve been watching that closely?”
“Of course, I have.”
Steve was silent, then asked, “What about Charlie? And Ember? And Brianna? Your own granddaughter. Is she a liability, too?”
“Of course, she’s not. Her mother--” He shrugged. “The others aren’t what we’re talking about, however. It’s Joey and what you’re going to do about this.”
“Wha--” Steve’s eyes went wide. “What the hell can I do? If he sees me, he’ll kill me.”
Joe’s eyes stayed firmly on his son. They told nothing and everything. Looking into them was looking into a photograph. No matter what you thought you saw, there was always something else that you didn’t. He lowered his hands to the desk and laid them flat. His thin lips rolled inside of his mouth then popped back out. Joe leaned back into his plush leather chair and watched as Steve became more and more nervous. Finally, he turned to look out the bullet-proof window behind him, and said, “I guess you’ll just have to do it first.”
~ * ~
JC walked into the room and Charlize was on the phone. She didn’t even notice his presence, and if she did, she hadn’t acknowledged it. She was smiling and JC wanted to know why. She hung up the phone and walked to her, reaching her as she started to dial another number. JC took the phone from her hand and cancelled out the number. She looked up at him upset. “What are you doing? I have to call Joey!”
“You don’t have to do anything until you tell me first.”
“Dammit, Josh, just give me the damn phone. It’s important.”
“And I’m not?” She opened her mouth but JC cut her off. “You’ve been finding every chance in the world to not tell me what I’ve been wanting to know. We’re all worried about Joey, and I’m glad he’s at least talking to you, but you need to talk to me, now.”
“I talk to you everyday.”
“Not about you and all of-- this.”
Charlize groaned as she stood up and began to walk around the room. “All of what? This life I didn’t tell you about? And why do you think I didn’t tell you, huh? Because I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“You didn’t give me a chance. I got tossed right in here with everybody else and I wanna know from you why I didn’t know about whatever connections you had.”
“You didn’t need to know.”
“Don’t give me that again. I want truth.”
“That is truth!” she yelled. “It’s how I live it, so why shouldn’t you? I’m on a need-to-know basis that I put myself on. I don’t want to be involved with all of that shit. But, I can’t help it. At least I didn’t totally deny it like Joey did.”
“If you’re on NTK, then why weren’t you told?”
“Because-- we weren’t directly involve so they didn’t think that I needed to know about it.”
“And now? You’re more involved in it than ever.”
“Jeez, Josh! I call my cousin to get word so I can talk to Joey. Did you know he dropped his family? Now, how the hell will he know what’s coming? He won’t! He’ll just be a fucking sitting duck and so will everybody else if I don’t do something.”
“I knew about his family,” JC told her, “but-- you’re doing just what he didn’t want you to do. Putting yourself in danger.”
“Like you don’t? Knowing goddamned well that his home has been broken into? That he’s just narrowly managed to survive no matter where he is? You still go over there and he still turns you away, but that doesn’t make you anymore safe than I am. In fact, you’re less safe.”
“And what gives you the boost in safety?”
“I know how these people work.” She didn’t let him respond. “I grew up with the shit. Okay? Try overhearing your parents talk about possibly sending you to boarding school after you’ve been threatened. These people don’t play by the rules, they play for keeps. And most of the time, they don’t give up until they’ve gotten their target.”
“What do you mean most of the time?” His mind had involuntarily pushed aside the previous comments, trying not to imagine what that would have been like.
“It means I have to talk to Joey and tell him that last week he became an exception.”
“That’s right. Now, if you please, I’d like to let Joey know that he can stop living in seclusion.” She turned her back to JC and went back to the phone and dialed Joey’s number. As usual, the machine picked up and she rambled until finally he picked up. “I got good news for ya,” she told him.
“It’s over. As of last week. The hit was called off.”
“The Don stepped in and put an end to it. Bad business over what ended up amounting to petty shit.”
“That’s a lie,” he said flatly.
“Joey, I just talked to Pete. He told me. Hell, his dad told me.”
“Then, they’re wrong.”
“How do you know?”
“Kelly left me a message saying someone was watching her house last night and is still there. Probably waiting for me to show over there.”
“You’re being paranoid. So is she.”
“Nope. Best way to get me off-guard is to think that it’s over. It’s not over.” He hung up the phone and Charlize cursed. “What?” JC asked her as she threw the phone to the floor.
“He doesn’t believe me.”
“Because he claims they’re watching Kelly’s house. That in itself is stupid. They should be watching Ember’s house. I know the D’Atello’s and they don’t go for the babies. They go for the girlfriends.”
“So why would someone watch Kelly’s?”
“Who fucking knows. But somebody hasn’t stopped, no matter what Uncle Dan said. Or else, Joey is just paranoid as hell and it went to Kelly when he first told her. I’m goin’ with paranoia cause it’s over. The war was stopped. He’s not the target anymore.” She sighed. “I’d know if it wasn’t true.
~ * ~
Two months after the hit was called off, Ember was still visiting Joey and he was still throwing her out. For her own good, he told her, but this entire situation was just making it worse. He’d tried his best to break off the engagement, but she refused to believe it. She wouldn’t give up on Joey as easily as he was giving up on himself. She was determined to do all that she could to make him see that he needed her to help him as much as he persisted that he was helping her.
“Joey, baby, it’s over.” She sat on the floor in front of his chair. When she came over, when anyone came over and was actually let inside of the house, the rule was to stay away from the windows and leave the lights off, and that was obeyed.
He looked at her with sad eyes. He wished it was over. He wanted it to be over. But, he knew it wasn’t. He knew that at any moment, his door could be broken down and they both could be killed in the name of complete bullshit and pride. He wanted to touch her face, but had stopped. It broke his reserve. Like every time he tried to call to speak to his daughter and he remembered her small voice. He couldn’t afford to go weak. There were too many lives at stake. “It’s not over,” he finally said to her.
“It is. Charlie said--”
“Charlie doesn’t know. She just thinks she does.”
“It’s not whoever was trying to kill you.”
“Then it’s somebody else.”
“Baby, you’re being paranoid.”
“No, I’m not. I know when people are watching me.”
“Yeah. Reporters wanting to know when Joey Fatone is gonna come out of his house.”
Ember sighed. “Joe--”
“I don’t know how much longer I can keep dodgin’ it, Emi. They’re gonna get me. I don’t want them to get you, too.”
“Nobody’s going to get me.”
“I don’t want you here when I die.” It had taken him the entire time since Justin’s near-death to actually say the word to Ember, but he had finally accepted his fate. There was no emotion behind it other than knowledge that it was coming closer.
“You’re not going to die.”
“We all die. It’s one of life’s few constants.”
“You’re not gonna die today.”
“Maybe. There’s always another day.”
“You could go to the police. You never went there. You could go now.”
“That’s not going to help anything.”
“Because-- they’re more than likely bought off. They can be bought in Florida just as well as they can be in New York.”
“You’re being paranoid again.”
“No, I’m not. I’m being realistic.” He shook his head. “Why do you think they haven’t really been investigating the last five months? Cause-- they conveniently forgot that someone was trying to kill me.”
“You don’t know that. You never talked to them.”
“I do know that. That’s WHY I never talked to them.”
Ember sighed and shook her head. “You can’t live here like this forever.”
“No, I can’t. And neither can you. So just-- go. Okay? I already have Justin on my shoulders. What happened to him? Don’t become a casualty. Don’t add to it.”
“I’m not going to just walk away from you. I love you too much.”
“And I love you just as much. That’s why I’m telling you to go away. So you don’t get hurt.”
“You’re hurting me now more than anybody else ever could.”
“You’ll thank me later.”
“I’ll never thank you for this. I’ll only thank you for letting me help you. Please, let me love you.” But, Joey was done talking. He turned his eyes toward the door. She touched him and he didn’t move. Ember stood and kissed his lips softly and it took all of the force within him not to return the small show of affection. Ember walked backwards away from him and sighed. “I’m not leaving forever, Joey. Just the day. But remember, I’ll be back. I’ll always be back.” She gave him one more glance and then walked out of the door. Once he heard her drive away, Joey blinked away unshed tears and closed his eyes.
~ * ~
They don’t understand. I thought they would, but they don’t. It’s too late for me. A man knows when he’s going to die. He may not know exactly how he’ll go. He may not even know if he’ll be able to stare into death’s eyes as he’s taken away. But, he always knows that it’s going to come, and that it’s coming very soon. I know it’s coming. I know what’s going to happen. Simply put, I’ll be snuffed out and after a while, they wont’ even remember I was here. I don’t want to be a martyr or anything. I’m not dying just because of them. I’m not merely going to die in place of them. I’m gonna die because that’s what fate was put before me on the day I was born. I’m gonna die because-- just because it’s obviously my time to go. And since I know that and I can’t deny it, there’s only one thing left for me to do.
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take
“I told you not to come here, anymore!” Joey screamed. His head moved around frantically. His eyes saw the people around him, but not the ones that he wanted to focus on. Before, they had been told to stay away. Now, they were a distraction. “You have to go. You have to go, now!” He shoved them towards the door, but the two women held their bearings.
“We’re not leaving,” Ember told him.
“Joey, stop it!” Charlize yelled at him as he tried to jerk her arm and toss her towards her car. “You can’t keep doing this!”
“Charlie--” He stared at her gravely. He felt eyes on his back. They weren’t nosy neighbors. They were a predator’s glare. Darts pierced Joey’s skin as the stare intensified. He held his back rigid. He gripped Charlize’s arms tightly, holding her in front of him. “It isn’t safe,” he told her.
“The war is over, Joey. We can be safe.”
“It’s not over.” His head turned as Ember moved around him, positioning herself to his left side. “Dammit!” he yelled as he moved over to her. “You have got to fucking leave. Now!”
“I’m not going anywhere, Joey.” She looked into his eyes and saw the fear within, but her own pain was too much for her to care. “You can’t just throw me away.”
“It’s for your own good.”
“I don’t give a flying fuck!” she screamed. “I love you, dammit.”
“I love you, too. That’s why I told you to leave.”
“That’s not helping!” She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Her body shook with the intense exhale. “I tried, Joey. For almost six months, I’ve tried. I just-- I can’t do it anymore. I can’t live with the silence and not know if you’re dead or not. God, Joey, you don’t even call.”
“They have my phone. I can’t call you. I can’t see you. Not and keep you alive.”
“I’m a big girl, and believe it or not. You are not Superman. You can not stop a bullet.”
“The hell I can’t,” he muttered, turning his head to the side. Ember turned his face back to her. “What did you just say?” she asked him. He shook his head vigorously. The darts in his back pounded more and more. He was prey, ready for the taking. He was distracted. He had to get them away. “Just-- leave, okay? You’re-- you’re not helping. You’re distracting me.”
“Oh, now I’m a distraction? Loving me is a distraction?”
“Yes, dammit! It is! I can’t keep a look out if--” He stopped. He noticed Charlize looking around cautiously and turned his head to her. “What?”
“I, uh-- think we should go inside.”
“Uh uh. I think you should just leave.”
“There’s no cover in the car, Joey.”
“You won’t need cover if you leave.” He sighed. “You shouldn’t have come here. It’ll just put ya’ll and everyone else back in the middle. Leave. You have to leave and never come back.” He turned his attention back to Ember. “Go, baby, please. Don’t do this, Emi. Just-- leave and forget about me.” He held a death grip on her upper arms and she struggled to get loose. “Believe me, it’s better. You can just go and move on and just forget about me. You wont’ be in danger. You--” His babbling instantly stopped. His body jerked for only a second before he began to fall forward, limply. Ember was pulled down by his weight. Her body lay beneath his as they settled to the ground. “J-Joey?” she said, worried. A wetness began to spread across his back. It spilled down his sides and Ember brought crimson splattered arms to her eyesight. And then, the young woman screamed.
Charlize knelt down beside them, but her eyes were on their surroundings. She had no idea where the shots could have come from. They seemed to be as out in the open as possible, except for the surrounding houses. She heard no running footsteps other than those of neighbors who had been looking out of the window. Could it have been one of them and they never knew? She could only guess at the number of shots from the way Joey’s body had rocked in a pain-staking slow dance of death. No sound at all had come. The area was completely quiet, except for the screams of Ember.
She turned her head to the fiery red. She had rolled Joey’s body over and held his head in her lap. His eyes were wide and glazed as they stared into the sky. If he was breathing at all, the bits of air were in short supply because his chest barely seemed to move. Ember’s arms were covered in red, staining her skin and her clothing. Her reddened fingertips touched Joey’s cheek. They fell softly down his stubbled skin, leaving a trail of blood along his face.
Charlize shook and quickly pulled out her cellphone. She called 911, but she knew that they wouldn’t make it. She watched with her own tears as the bloody handprints on Ember’s face streaked with a rainfall of sadness. “I-- I’m-- God, this-- I can’t--” Ember couldn’t get a complete sentence out. Her mind was scrambled and still in shock. She’d tried to get back what she had loved so much and ended up losing it forever. Her hand shakily rose to lower his eyelids. Ember bent down and kissed his lips softly. She turned her head to Charlize and muttered, “I felt his soul go away.” The brunette choked. “It was so-- fascinating,” Ember said to her.
Finally, true realization struck the young woman. Her quivering right hand extended to lay against Joey’s still body. She’d grown up with this man. They’d been friends and briefly, at one time, something more. But, no matter what route their relationship took, he was still her friend. And he lay before her quiet and motionless. “J-Joey,” she muttered. She felt a tremor and it took her a minute to realize it was her own body. Her tears were falling harder as she fell onto him, her head laying against his unmoving chest. “No,” she whimpered, moving her hand up to touch his face. His features were slack in eternal sleep. “Joey, no,” she whimpered again as shock hit her full on.
A cell phone rang and Ember reached over blindly and picked it up. She hit the talk button subconsciously. “Hello?” She waited a few minutes. “Joey’s dead.” She hung up the phone and continued to stare off into space as her fingers rested against Joey’s eyes. In the distance, she could hear the sirens faintly. They rushed closer and closer to them, moving with deliberate speed, but on the ground, the dying trio were motionless.
Justin Timberlake turned to the others as he held the phone loosely in his hand. Britney stood close to him. She touched him and the receiver fell through thick air to finally touch the floor. His body fell slowly to the floor. His legs were crossed in some modified Yoga position. His arms lay between his legs, moving with his torso as he rocked back and forth. Britney fell to her knees beside him, trying to get him to talk. JC, Lance and Chris moved closer to him. Chris leaned down in front of him and took hold of his face, pulling it up to look at everyone. “What is it?” he asked him. “Who answered.”
Justin spoke faintly, barely looking directly at anyone. “Ember.”
“What happened, Justin?” JC asked him.
“Joey?” Lance questioned.
“They-- what’s wrong with Joey, Stinky.” Justin turned his brimming eyes to Britney. He shook his head no, pleading silently for her not to make him speak. She took his cheeks from Chris and forced him to look into her eyes. “What’s wrong, Justin? Come on, baby. Tell us. Tell me.”
Justin looked into her soft, gentle eyes and tears poured from his eyes. His mouth opened and closed as he gasped for air and the words. Speaking the words would only make it real. Denial meant that it wasn’t really true. Nothing had happened. He hadn’t heard those two words that sent him reeling. He hadn’t listened to a flat voice tell him what no one wanted to hear. But, Britney’s eyes held him firmly and her pleading desire to know wouldn’t let his denial take root. He opened his mouth one final time and finally pushed the words forward. “Joey’s dead.”
~ * ~
People who have escaped death always say that their entire lives flashed across their eyes that one second before their heart stopped. Maybe it did for them, but not for me. All I could see was the future, without me in it. It should have been better. Everyone was safe. I wasn’t a danger to them anymore. But, I saw it all and it was worse than I imagined.
Ember’s rigid body, talking to no one as she sat alone in my house. Moving through her day as though he were still there. Wearing the wedding ring that I had bought before I broke off the engagement, but never taken back to the store. Listening to messages on the machine after hearing my voice give the message. She just lived on as though I were never gone.
Justin lived in anger. He had unknowingly taken a bullet for me, only to have the ones bearing my name come to a halt at their rightful destinations. The anger that swelled in him from just the thought of me, of not being there when I died was too much even for Britney to take. She wouldn’t live her own life, though, because she couldn’t just leave her Stinky to possibly hurt others in his rage, or himself. Two lives of happiness became hostility and resentment.
Charlie’s body joined my in a lurching gait, walking a few steps before falling in JC’s doorway. Bullets in her back. How they got there, I don’t know. JC was in a shambles. I could see him pouring his heart over a dead body that he should never have had to see.
And the rest of the group? They didn’t know what to do or where to go on. I saw them walking in hazes. Trying to do interviews. Hounded by paparazzi. If their lives were hard with me there, they were even worse with me gone.
Just think. I was trying to do a good thing. And before I took my last breath and the visions disappeared, I thought maybe I had. The images in my head were my guilt taking its last bit of control before disappearing forever. I couldn’t tell the future. I didn’t know how they would handle it. I didn’t know if it would haunt them the way I’d envisioned. I didn’t know a damn thing.
Okay, so maybe one thing. Emi told me that I couldn’t stop a bullet. I’d proven her wrong. I really was Superman. I had stopped more than one bullet and whether they were aimed for her or not, they didn’t touch her. I stopped the bullets. Too bad they were made out of Kryptonite.
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