by Chris J

I held the note in my hand, crumpling it and uncrumpling it obsessively as I sat in the sticky, vinyl chair and waited. Waited and waited for a visit or a call or some kind of contact that hadn't come. It gave me some small amount of comfort to see his words begin to vanish into the hundreds, thousands, of tiny creases. If the words no longer existed, then maybe it won't have happened at all.

I wish someone else had found him, has seen that pale face, those blue lips, those wide staring eyes, and known at first glimpse what it meant. (No, not dead, not yet, still breathing shallowly and clutching the pill bottle like his life--his death--depended on it.) I wish someone else had felt their guts clench so hard they doubled over onto the floor before they even reached him. I wish someone else had been the one to scream for help, to panic, to cry, to ride with him, to be waiting for that assurance that they would ever see him again.

I wish I was anywhere but here.

Lance was off sequestered with management, figuring out what they were going to do, figuring out how the hell this had happened in the first place, figuring out backup plan upon backup plan depending on how this whole thing played out. Played out. That was the sick and twisted phrase they had used to describe this hell where we waited to see if he would live or die.

Justin was looking at his things, through everything that was personal to him, trying to find a reason besides these empty words on this piece of paper. Invading him in a way we'd never dared. Trying to find a way to make us whole again.

Chris was sitting with his parents, with his brother and sister, consoling them, telling them a hundred little white lies that would make them feel like everything was going to be okay. Hiding the fear I knew was inside him, inside all of us. He didn't know what was going to happen. None of us did.

I wish someone was here to console me, to comfort me, to lie to me, too. To put their arm over my shoulders and tell me things were going to be all right again soon. To let me cry and understand all the reasons why my tears fell so ceaselessly. I wish I didn't feel like the only arms that would ever hold me again were my own.

The paper was so soft now, the fibers breaking down, disintegrating. I was disintegrating. Pieces of me were falling away, vanishing, with each moment I spent alone in this room, this room with the vinyl chairs and the humming lights and the vending machines that blinked and whirred. Like anyone who ever spent time in this room would want anything more than a friendly face, a consoling gesture, a piece of good news.

I read the words again, pieced them together from the fragments that remained and the phrases burned in my memory. I wanted five minutes with him, just five minutes before he'd done this, so I could tell him we all felt these things, all thought them, all worried about them, all despised them. Five minutes to tell him he wasn't as alone as he felt. That he never had been.

And damn us all, for never saying the things that needed to be said, for believing the hype, for carrying our public personas back with us and playing the parts when we were alone, when we most needed to shed those skins. Damn us for turning in to ourselves when we should have turned out. Damn me for turning to music, damn Chris for turning to lunacy, damn Lance for turning to business, damn Justin for turning to his mirror, and damn him for turning to his false cheer.

And the worst thing? The most horrible, most damning thing? That we hadn't noticed. That none of us has seen it happening, seen everything sliding downward, gaining momentum, falling to pieces. But it was all so clear now, so painfully, agonizingly clear. Not just him, but all of us, all of us treading that line between light and dark. Tendrils of guilt that I'd been so blind entered my hollow body, entered my mind, probing and clenching and settling in.

Justin and his obsession with his looks and his fame and his desirability that offered a fragile shield from real life, real emotions, real problems. Lance and his analytical mind that kept him from having to do anything but work, that let him escape into another kind of prison. Chris and his alter ego--zany, wild, unpredictable--that was eating the real him alive. Me and the songs in my head, the words, the preoccupation with laying them down, with saying things without saying them. Hiding true feelings and meanings and hopes and fears in lyrical obscurity.

And then there was him. The optimist, the happiest face that held us together when nothing else could. When none of the rest of us knew how. That damn mask that covered this, these words that he wrote, these darkest feelings that he felt. Him with his smile and his secrets and his goddamn pill bottle, suddenly empty, clutched in a despairing fist.

I should have known that no one can smile all the time.

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