Chapter 12 - Clusterfuck
Justin was still feeling jumpy and on edge when he jumped out of the cab of the semi-truck that he’d thumbed a ride from earlier. He waved so-long to Mack, the trucker who’d picked him up back at the on-ramp to the freeway, and looked at his watch. He’d made better time than he’d expected, thanks to getting that ride. It was only 7:30 am and he wasn’t expected at Britin until late morning. But Justin hadn’t been able to sleep anyway, so he figured he might as well get started on the chores Brian had for him at the stables rather than waste time pacing in his apartment.
Ever since Justin had taken out the night time visitor who’d been searching his apartment two nights earlier, he’d been unable to calm down. He'd felt nervous and couldn’t sit still for long. He’d tried to contact Brian a few times yesterday throughout the afternoon and the early evening, but the man wasn’t answering his phone, so Justin figured he was probably still dealing with Lindsey. Unfortunately, Justin didn’t really have anything else he needed to do just then and wasn’t in the mood to draw or paint or read. Justin knew better than to even try sleeping when he was like this. If he closed his eyes, images from his time overseas that he’d tried to keep buried for the past several years would instantly pop into his mind. The last thing he needed right now was to succomb to a panic attack or get trapped in another flashback. Instead, he paced.
Since his apartment was pretty small, there wasn’t really much room for pacing, and he felt uncomfortably confined there - he didn’t feel safe even in his own home anymore. All evening and into the night, he'd found himself obsessively checking the lock on the door every fifteen minutes. Then, around midnight, he had given up and just pushed the table and several chairs over in front of the door as a makeshift barricade. When he caught himself debating over whether or not to try securing the windows, he knew he had to get the fuck out of there before he completely lost it.
It wasn’t even five am when Justin practically ran out of the apartment. He had no real destination in mind. He just knew he couldn’t stay in that small room any longer. The pre-dawn air was refreshingly crisp and invigorating. He just started to walk without any conscious direction. It wasn’t until Justin was already nearing the outskirts of downtown, that he realized his feet had him headed in the direction of Britin.
The first inhabitant to greet Justin was the farm’s watch-goose, Mei Mei, who had somehow gotten out of her pen already this morning - she was well known to be an escape artist of the highest order, almost a feathered Houdini. Mei Mei was accompanied by her trusty sidekick, Neptune, the Khaki Campbell duck that followed her everywhere, and Midge, the big red hen. Mei Mei *zoinked* at the man, challenging his right to walk on her farm, with her head held low to the ground and her wings outstretched in order to make herself more menacing. The duck and the chicken quacked and clucked along in support but stayed well behind their larger friend. Justin refused to be intimidated, although he had come prepared and wisely pulled the remains of his morning bagel out of his pocket, scattering the crumbs along the ground and effectively distracting the feathered guards. As he advanced a little further onto the property, Justin suddenly felt a gentle head butting at the back of his legs followed by the low whimpering of his favorite furry friend, JB. Justin stooped down so he was level with the pooch and gave him an affectionate scratch behind the ears, promising a round of play later on in the day when he had the time.
Brian was roused from his all-night reverie by the sounds of the goose announcing the arrival of a visitor somewhere in the front of the house. He reluctantly pulled himself up out of the depths of the overstuffed armchair where he’d spent most of the past night, drinking, thinking, and stewing over the news that Lindsey had been oh-so-happy to impart to him yesterday. He gingerly walked over to big picture window that overlooked the yard, and noticed a very shirtless and very sweaty Justin dutifully going about completing his daily tasks. His first thought was . . . damn he really is a sexy little fucker. But that thought quickly gave way to the slight nagging feeling that some or all of what Lindsey had said about the blond might be true.
From what little Brian knew about this beautiful ex-marine, he didn’t believe that Justin could be capable of something so nefarious. Sure, the circumstances that had caused their paths to cross were sketchy at best, but the idea that Justin had shown up merely to alleviate himself of some misguided guilt for killing Ben - intentionally or not - was completely ridiculous. Brian glanced at his right hand holding Ben’s picture of himself - the one that Lindsey’s goon had stolen from Justin’s room and then given to him as proof of Justin’s deception - and had to grudgingly admit to himself that the evidence was damning, but before coming to any conclusion he really needed to talk to Justin.
Brian slipped the photo into his front shirt pocket and, with a deep fortifying breath, walked out of the house, heading toward the barn and a confrontation with Justin. One way or another, he just had to know the truth. Ben was too important to him to just let this particular inconsistency fester like a boil in his mind. Brian had been trying to get a real answer out of the Marine Corps for so long now, without any real results. He’d filed form after form, he’d spent hours on the phone calling the Pentagon, JAG, military records, and everyone else he could think of including Ben’s unit commander, but there still was no definitive word on Ben’s death. He had to find out once and for all, and in order to do that, he would have to pin Justin down.
Brian slowly headed towards the main double doors on the front of the barn. Inside there was lots of activity considering the early hour. He heard the horses neighing and the poultry, who had followed the interloping blond inside, were clamoring for their own breakfast. Justin was whispering to the stable’s residents, his quiet reassurances and snickering laughter filling the empty spaces of time with a soft tenor trill that sparked a fire low in Brian’s gut. The early morning scene was almost magical - the early light trickling in through various cracks and the occasional open stall doorway - highlighting every dust mote drifting on the still morning air. The animals were crowding around the young man, who just happened to be standing under a direct beam of sunlight that illuminated his blond mane like a golden halo.
“What do you know, it seems like the head of the roost isn’t the only cock up before the crack of dawn. What brings you to Britin this early in the morning, Sunshine?” Brian interrupted the silent moment with his characteristic snark. “Trying to win points with the boss?”
“Brian? I didn’t expect anyone else to be up this early,” Justin’s head snapped around to look at his interlocutor.
Justin instinctively moved towards his lover as soon as he realized Brian was there with him in the flush of early morning. His arms reached for Brian, his intent clearly to encircle the older man’s waist in his grasp. Brian adroitly sidestepped the advance, however, and maintained his emotional as well as physical distance.
“Brian?” Justin questioned - he couldn’t help but notice the way Brian tried to avoid his touch.
“Lindsey came by to talk to me yesterday afternoon . . .” Brian started, his tone indicating that he was clearly uncomfortable with both the topic and the way he’d approached it. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the damning picture, holding it out as an exhibit to the accused - Justin - without any further explanation.
Justin looked up at the taller man, his breath held as he caught a good look at what Brian held in his hand.
“Where did you get this,” Brian insisted when Justin was still obviously at a loss for words.
“I-I-I . . . I found it,” Justin stuttered, unable to explain things, having been caught off guard like this.
“This was Ben’s. He took it everywhere with him. He told me he never went on a mission without it,” Brian asserted, waving the picture in Justin’s face as his voice broke.
“Brian, please listen to me,” Justin tried to stop the tirade, but Brian was on a roll and wasn’t ready to listen to Justin’s side of things just yet.
“No! You listen to ME! You come here . . . it wasn’t by accident, was it? What are you doing? Stalking me? Why do you have Ben’s picture, damn it? Why? Just fucking tell me!”
“I know I should have told you earlier. I tried . . . I didn’t know how.”
“Try telling me now,” Brian demanded.
Justin dropped the bucket of feed he’d been holding and turned away, unable for the moment to maintain eye contact with the man he’d come to love in such a short period of time. As Justin thought back to that horrendous episode, trying to get his thoughts in order enough to explain to Brian exactly what had happened, the voices, the noise, the heat of the scene seemed to envelope him. All around him, the comforting domestic environment of Britin’s stables seemed to bleed out and was replaced by that darkness that seemed to enfold every single one of Justin’s memories of Iraq. He was swept up by the noise of yelling, explosions, rifle fire and screaming.
“It was in the early morning. There had been a night raid. Things didn’t go as expected. There was so much destruction everywhere I looked. I just found it - glinting in the harsh sunlight - in the middle of nowhere. In the midst of all of it I found something. Something that ultimately saved my life. Brian . . . I know you probably won’t believe me, but that something was you! You saved my life, on more than one occasion, as others around me died.”
Brian looked on, dumbfounded, as Justin got lost in his memories, the young marine walking away as he spoke as if he was no longer in the stables with the older man.
“I tried to find out who it belonged to . . . on more than one occasion. I never stopped. But nobody claimed it. Finding something like that . . . in a war, it’s like finding an angel in hell . . . So I kept it with me. And I survived a lot of things. Things that I had no right to survive . . . And I promised myself that if I made it out, I would find that man and I would thank him for saving my life when others weren’t so lucky, but I couldn’t find the right words . . .” Justin instinctively grabbed ahold of the dog tags around his neck, his fingers unerringly finding the black one for his buddy Aces, tracing along the lettering as if he was reading the name in braille.
Justin turned back around and looked Brian in the eyes finally, tears marring his beautiful blue gaze. “How do you explain something that you don’t really understand yourself?”
“Understand this, this was BEN’S! It was meant to keep him alive and safe,” Brian couldn’t wait for any further explanation, his fury over the seeming betrayal taking over and overwhelming any understanding that Justin might be seeking. All Brian knew was that the photo that was meant for Ben - that was supposed to be Ben’s good luck charm and keep him safe - had been taken by another.
“I wish it had,” Justin mumbled so softly that Brian almost couldn’t hear the words. “I wish it had.”
“Well it’s good to know it apparently served it’s intended purpose, only it saved the wrong fucking person. I think you should go, Justin. Just . . . go!” Brian said, his voice quiet but scarily insistent.
Justin looked up at the angry hazel eyes that were shooting lethal glares his direction and knew that he’d lost. He’d lost everything. Without another word, Justin dejectedly walked out of the stables and out of his angel’s life . . . He didn’t even notice the green leaves of the trees or the dappled sunlight as he trudged his way back down the long driveway, his world had been subsumed by the sounds, images, and smells of the flashback that his confession had submerged him into. The greenery around him faded into the browns and tans of a desert landscape. The breeze blowing through the trees became the restless sweep of sand granules rubbing against each other in the unceasing winds of a barren arabian desert an ocean away.
From his hiding spot outside the barn door, Gus heard most of the dispute between his father and Justin. He had only come down to the barn to find his puppy, but as soon as he heard the raised voices, he hesitated to go inside. The little boy heard his father’s order that Justin leave and watched as Justin trudged past him without even acknowledging his presence. He started to wonder if he had done something to anger the man that he had quickly come to consider his new best friend.
“Justin! Justin!” Gus hollered after the retreating ex-marine, running after him down the driveway with JB trotting along and barking in sympathy.
Justin seemed engrossed in his own thoughts, however, and didn’t even look down at the eight year old or the bounding great dane pup. As the distracted young blond man turned and started down the main road beyond the end of the driveway, Gus stopped and stood in the middle of the road, looking dejectedly after the departing form. Justin’s shoulders were uncharacteristically stooped and his head down as he blindly shuffled down the long dirt road away from Britin.
Brian slowly emerged from the barn and looked stonily at where his former lover had disappeared, noting for the first time that Gus and JB were also looking at the man who was sluggishly walking away. Brian groaned at the thought that his sensitive son might have overheard some part of the conversation - Gus was still almost as overwrought at Ben’s loss as Brian was and the last thing the over-protective father wanted was to make things tougher on his son.
“Daddy why did you make Justin leave? I like Justin a lot, don’t you? He’s so cool and he helped me a bunch with JB - I don’t want him to go away, Daddy. Is he mad at me for asking him to help me train JB or because I couldn’t get it right? If that’s the reason, then I can try harder to . . .”
Brian interrupted his son, “No, Gus, no. Justin isn’t angry at you. Not at all. You didn’t do anything wrong, son. Justin and I just had a little argument, is all. You know adults don’t always agree all the time. It doesn’t have anything to do with you, okay?”
“Okay . . . but, will he come back then? I still wanted Justin to help me train JB. He promised he would and he said that a Marine never breaks his promise - they never leave a man behind . . . He will come back, right?” Gus pleaded, looking up at his father with those big round, sad brown eyes that normally Brian just couldn’t resist.
“We’ll have to see about that, Sonnyboy. I’m not sure that Justin and I will be seeing very much of each other anymore. We don’t really agree on somethings, but it doesn’t have anything to do with you, Sonnyboy . . ." Brian tried to placate the child without promising anything about Justin, who wouldn’t be back again if HE had anything to say about it.
“But, Daddy, that’s not fair,” Gus whined, clearly not willing to give up his new friend and not at all mollified by his father’s flimsy explanation. “I like Justin! I want him to help me with JB. Why can’t he stay and help me? You’re always sending the people I like away. You sent Mommy away and Uncle Ben went away too . . . I don’t want anybody to go away anymore,” Gus had broken into sobs by this point, and Brian’s heart was breaking right along with it.
“Gus, I know this is hurting you and I’m sorry about that . . .”
“You’re lying. You’re NOT sorry. You always do this. I HATE you!” Gus screamed before Brian could say more - as unapologetic as any hurt eight year old - and then ran towards the house, leaving Brian dumbfounded.
Brian was left standing alone, more alone than ever now . . .