Chapter 23- The Aftermath 

“Waiting for something to open my eyes,

I wait for this feeling to know I'm alive.”

                                - “Waiting for Something,” Sense Field


                He still didn’t know why he had done it. It wasn’t as if he had planned his every move in advance and then manipulated the situation. But on the other hand, he couldn’t reassure himself that it had been a reckless, spur-of-the-moment thing.

                Then what was that kiss? He couldn’t figure it out. He couldn’t figure himself out.

                All JC could recall was seeing Hannah’s pupils flare in surprise before he touched his lips to hers. Then he became lost in the moment. And when it had ended…she left.

                He tried to tell himself that it wasn’t such a big deal. One kiss. It didn’t mean much in the world anymore. He had kissed many women, and nothing ever amounted from it.

                It wasn’t important to her, either, he thought to himself. After all, she had been the one who climbed back into that taxi.

                But even with these constant reminders, his mind kept dwelling on that kiss.

                God, what am I, a stupid teenager with a crush? He was seriously losing it.

                Two days had passed already. He had seen the reviews and articles about their Grammy performance, and studied them meticulously like he always did. After everything that happened, he was still the same person stuck in the same place. No more Bobbie clinging to him, no big performance looming ahead, but he hadn’t grown at all.

                The reviews were mixed. Some thought that they were progressing along, closer to becoming ‘real artists.’ Others believed that it was the dying cry of the passing pop fad. A lot of the articles mentioned the incident with Elaine. She had apparently gotten through all the metal detectors and security by posing as a backstage hand. No one knew how she had managed that. She was still in police custody.

                He kept going back to read the reviews whenever he had spare time. JC didn’t want to have other people’s opinions matter so much to him. But they always did. Sometimes he took their word over his own.            He knew he always told everyone that the critics didn’t matter to him and that they never would. But it was a lie, and a blatant one in his opinion. If only they knew how much their words stung him and prodded him forward in attempts to please them.

                It seemed like that was all his life was, or at least, what it had become. One lie layered under more lies.

                It hadn’t always been this way, he knew. Back in Bowie, he had actually felt his age. He could be immature or nervous or scared, and it was okay.

                He wanted to go home.


*                              *                              *


                “Are you sure everything’s fine over there?”

                Lillian sighed at Justin’s anxious tone of voice. She knew he was only concerned about her, but he was acting like she was an infant who needed to be coddled at every moment.

                “Justin, I already told you, I’m fine. The apartment is fine. Everything is normal,” she reassured him over the phone. “Don’t worry about me, okay? I’m not as fragile as you think I am.”

                “I know that,” he quickly answered, hearing a slight rise in her voice.  He could tell she was starting to become irritated. “I’m sorry. It’s just that…I’m still a little scared, you know? I can’t help it.”

                “Sweetie, I understand. But it’s over now. I’m getting back to my schoolwork. What’s the band up to now?”

                “I don’t know. We’re meeting later today to talk about it. We’re kind of caught between another tour and starting a new album. But Johnny doesn’t want any overkill, so he’s thinking about a short break.” He smiled to himself. “If we went on a break, I could visit you.”

                “That would be nice. I don’t have to make those early morning flights anymore.”

                “And you could give me all the neckrubs I wanted,” he added playfully.

                “In your dreams, Justin.”

                “Every night.” Someone began tapping persistently on his shoulder. “Hold on a sec.”

                He turned around and glanced up at JC. “What? I’m on the phone.”

                “Obviously. I’m not blind,” JC replied, rolling his eyes. “Is that Lily? Let me talk to her.”

                Justin didn’t want to interrupt his conversation with his girlfriend. “No,” he lied, “I’m talking to Wade.”

                “You dream about Wade giving you neckrubs?” JC asked, raising his eyebrows. “I’m sure Lily would love to hear about this.”

                “Shut up, man, you know I don’t swing that way,” he retorted, still stubbornly holding the phone away from his friend.

                “Uh huh. Then how do you explain that beauty pageant you entered?” JC inquired, laughing at the memory of seeing the videoclip of his youngest friend winning a local pageant.

                Justin colored. “You’re dead.”

                “Just give me the phone,” JC said, quickly reaching out and grabbing it from his hand. “I’ll be done in ten minutes, I promise. Anyway, you should check on Joey and Chris. They found your last bag of Hot Fries.”

                Justin sprang up from the kitchen stool he had been perched on. “What? But I hid it under the sink in the laundry room!” He ran out of the kitchen, leaving JC alone with the phone.

                “Tell me what’s wrong,” Lillian immediately demanded as JC brought the phone to his ear.

                He grinned reluctantly. Trust Lily to cut right to the heart of the matter. “Where should I start?” he asked, only half-joking.

                “Well, I know your performance is bothering you. Try that first, and we’ll work our way through it all,” she suggested.

                “Justin’s only giving me ten minutes.”

                “He’ll understand. Now start talking.”

                JC made a noise, starting off on a groan but ending with a sigh. “It wasn’t good enough.”

                “Who thought your performance wasn’t good enough? Some critics?”

                “Yeah, like always. Every time I think, ‘This is it, now they’ll finally respect us,’ but it never happens. And I manage to get disappointed all the same.”

                “Jace,” she breathed, “Why do you let it get to you so much? You realize you have to take what the critics say with a grain of salt. You started off in this business knowing exactly what you were getting yourself into. It’s impossible to break the mold now.”

                “I try to tell myself that, believe me. It’s hard, though. I can’t make myself feel something.”

                “But what can you do about it? What’s even left to do?”

                His eyebrows furrowed suddenly, distant words echoing in his head. ‘You should make an entire album of your own music, written only by NSYNC… A live studio NSYNC album.’ Was it even possible? Would the rest of the guys go for it? It sure as hell would be interesting to pull off. Maybe…

                “What are you thinking about?” Lillian asked, noticing how his end of the conversation had dropped off abruptly.

                “Brat said…” he muttered to himself, still mulling over the idea.

                She caught on to the sobriquet. “That reminds me, why did Hannah head home so fast? Did you see her before she left?”

                JC colored slightly, grateful that she couldn’t see his reaction to the innocent question. He didn’t intend to tell her about what had happened between them that night. He didn’t want to tell anyone.

                “Um, only for a second. She was in a rush.”

                “Maybe she’ll call or email,” Lillian suggested hopefully. “She doesn’t seem like the type to just run out without saying anything. We didn’t even get a chance to say good-bye.”

                I did, JC thought. But I guess I screwed it up.

                He hated to admit it, but he couldn’t help but feel a little insulted that Hannah had left after he had kissed her. He was no smooth Don Juan by any means, but a woman had never just suddenly left like that before. He thought that was what she wanted: a sign that he cared about her. Didn’t a kiss qualify as a sign of affection?

                Of course, she did have her reasons for leaving. She had her own responsibilities at home to take care of. But given his recent state of mind, her reaction to his kiss and immediate departure only made him feel more inadequate.

                He recalled a recent interview with a teen magazine, and how Chris had claimed that he always needed a girl to cling to. Guess this proves him right. Even with Brat he felt the need to keep her by his side. And considering how he would have done anything to chase her away when they were kids, this change of heart really was pitiful of him.

                Even with these downward-spiraling thoughts, though, his mind was still racing, an idea quickly formulating. Maybe he could solve two problems with one plan.

                “I hear shouting,” Lillian mentioned, interrupting his thoughts.

                JC glanced behind him, observing the scene taking place in the living room through the open kitchen entranceway. “Yeah, that would be your boyfriend attacking Chris. Wait, wait. Okay, now Chris is on top.”

                “Can you pull them apart before they break something important? Like their heads?”

                He laughed. “I suppose I could see how those would come in handy one day. Hold on a sec, let me be the peacemaker.”

                Lillian waited patiently as she heard the phone being set down with a clang, followed by JC’s voice joining the commotion. After a few more shouts and grunts, during which she could picture Chris and Justin lunging for each other as JC held them apart, footsteps sounded and someone picked up the other end of the phone.

                “He stole my hot fries!” Justin exclaimed petulantly to her.

                “I so did not!” Chris yelled in the background. “It was all Joey’s fault.”

                Justin ignored his older but by no means more mature bandmate. “JC wanted me to tell you ‘thank you.’ What’d you say to him anyway?”

                “I don’t know.” She thought over their brief conversation. “I can’t remember anything particularly inspiring.”

                “Well, you must’ve done something good because he just raced off to the office. I’m glad he’s not so down anymore.”

                “I’m glad you’re not so worried anymore,” she answered, smiling to herself. “Call me crazy, but I like you better when you’re happy.”

                He chuckled softly. “Yeah, I like me better when I’m happy, too. And you make me happy.” Wishing that he could be talking to her face-to-face, he groaned. “I can’t believe we won’t see each other in, like, forever.

                “You’re so melodramatic,” she teased. “Spring break will be in two months. We’ll see each other then.”

                “I know. I just want to be with you now.”      

            Twenty minutes later he hung up the phone, knowing that the long-distance bill from Florida to Massachusetts would be expensive but more than willing and able to cover the cost. If he could, he would hop on a jet plane and fly over this minute. But, the band had a meeting with Johnny at the Jive offices in an hour.

                Justin always knew he was a sappy romantic at heart, despite his admittedly reckless and flirtatious reputation. He never thought that he could miss one person so much, though. And with Lillian, it wasn’t simply missing her. He actually yearned for her. There was a strong urge to just grab her to his side and never let go.

                And after what had happened with Elaine…Letting her out of his sight for a minute gave him a panic attack. He was silently grateful that Lillian was handling the situation so well, because he was still falling to pieces.

                They had finally found each other, and had been so close to losing it all. He had been too close to being alone again. The thought scared the hell out of him. To know love and then be deprived of it…he couldn’t imagine anything worse.


*                              *                              *


                Another unusually cold day in mid-February, another homecoming to a dark and uninspiring apartment, and another night of rummaging through the freezer for a quick microwave dinner.

                Hannah was really starting to despise her life. The unfortunate thing was, she had never actually noticed how boring her daily routine was until she had jaunted off to play in NSYNC’s orchestra. After coming back from that sort of life, how could she even pretend to be satisfied with her current one? It was an all-around dismal situation to be caught in.

                It was nine o’clock on a Friday night, and what was she doing? Sitting in her sparsely decorated living room in her pajamas and poking at an unappetizing Uncle Ben’s Rice Bowl. And as if to emphasize the nadir her life had reached, the television was tuned to a marathon of VH1’s Driven series, continually reminding her of what she would never amount to. Of course, the current episode was profiling NSYNC. She could have groaned at the blatant irony.

                In her defense, though, there really wasn’t much else to do. There weren’t many clubs in DC, and she wasn’t comfortable going alone anyway. She had already practiced the new cello solo she had been given that day during rehearsal, and was liable to snap her bow in half if she looked at the music one more time. It was too early to go to sleep, but too late and chilly to take a walk around the block. Simply put, she was in a stalemate.

                She could try to finish the poem she had begun writing a week ago, when she had returned home. Her lips pursed. That wasn’t a good idea, though. The reason she had abruptly left it unfinished was because she couldn’t handle the rush of emotions that had barraged her while writing it.

                Confusion, anger, love. The same feelings she always experienced where Josh was concerned. But joining them now were guilt, regret, and disappointment. These were summoned after she heard about a stalker’s attempted assault on NSYNC and an “unidentified associate.” She knew it was Lillian. There couldn’t be anyone else whose name NSYNC would want to protect. What kind of person was she, to up and abandon her new friends simply because she couldn’t win over Josh’s love. It was so selfish of her, and whenever she thought of her actions she became ashamed. Maybe she deserved the bland and dreary life she was plodding through.

                The only relief she had was when she fell asleep. She never had any nightmares, luckily enough. Instead, her nights were filled with silly but unabashedly romantic dreams about Josh. About that kiss that had spun her world on its axis but probably had no impact on him.

                In her dreams, they were both in love and enjoying every second of being together. But in the empty hours before sleep, that was when she missed everyone the most. She could call them, she knew, or email, but was too embarrassed to explain why she had left so quickly and too horrible of a liar to make up some good excuse.

                It had only been a week so far, seven paltry days, but if these days were a precursor to the rest of her life, she would sooner die.


*                              *                              *


                “JC, you have to understand why I’m against this. Try to put yourself in management’s position, or in your publicist’s shoes.” Johnny Wright waved his hands in the air, emphatically trying to get his point across. “NSYNC is a pop band. And you know I hate to say this, but NSYNC is a pop boy-band.”

                JC rolled his eyes at the label. “I hate it when you say that, too.”

                “So then you understand why I can’t let you guys make a live studio album. It’s unheard of! New Edition never made a live album. Neither did New Kids on the Block or Backstreet Boys.”

                “It’s a completely different situation,” he argued back. “Times have changed since New Edition and New Kids were big. And the Backstreet Boys…well, they were never on BET, were they? You can’t compare us to them.”

                “I know that, believe me,” Johnny reassured him calmly. “But to the eyes and ears of the general public, you are one and the same.”

                “Then why don’t we break away from the typecast and make this album? It’ll be something completely new from a band like us.” He leaned forward in his chair, his elbows braced on his knees. “Why are you so set against it?”

                His manager sighed and stared across the desk, examining JC’s confused and hurt expression. “Jace, you know that if it were all up to me, I would have greenlighted this album as soon as you stepped into the office. But obviously, it’s not my exclusive decision to make. I have to consider every aspect of the album. How will we publicize and promote it? How many sales can we expect? Who can we bring in to produce tracks? There are other people who make a living off your album sales, and I just don’t know if they would be willing to take the chance.”

                “But it will cost barely anything to make!” JC jumped up from his seat and began walking the length of the room excitedly. “We can write our own songs. We won’t need expensive producers. We can bring in local musicians who won’t demand huge salaries. And because it’ll be recorded live, all we have to do is get some sound equipment in a room and push the record button. There won’t be any need to stay in the studio for months.”

                “I’m all for trying new things. But do you honestly think it’s possible to write enough songs for a full-length album without any professional producers? I know you think because you and Justin and Chris have written a couple of songs before, you’ll be able to pull it off, but realistically it’s rarely been done. And when artists have tried it, most of them failed. For you guys, especially, it will be harder to do.”

                “God, Johnny, don’t underestimate us,” JC demanded, scowling. “Have some faith.”

                “Faith does not sell records,” he replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “I know this live album idea is more personal than professional, JC. You should realize that too. I cannot let you just go running around experimenting new things when there are four other guys in the group I have to consider.”

                JC sat back down in his chair restlessly. Sure, it was personal. But he knew that all the other guys felt the same drive for respect and acclaim. They had been interested in his idea, but they just didn’t believe in their abilities to pull it off successfully. He believed for them, though. Wasn’t that enough?

                “Okay, I understand why you can’t make this an ‘official’ NSYNC album with management and corporate label backing, but what if you didn’t have to do anything?” he proposed, possibilities racing through his head.

                Johnny didn’t miss the intensity of his gaze. He knew that JC was onto something. “You want to fund it with your own money,” he realized outloud.

                “Exactly,” JC said slyly. “I know I have enough. We won’t even release a lot of copies, only a couple hundred to friends, family, and maybe some radio stations. It’ll be the cheapest album for Jive, because it will cost them nothing. All you have to do is give us a vacation so we can work on it.”

                Johnny sat back in his high-backed executive chair, mulling the proposal over. JC mimicked his body language, appearing completely confident in what Johnny’s final decision would be.

                “Fine,” Johnny finally acquiesced, not able to resist smiling back at JC’s wide grin. “I’m giving you three weeks. That’ll be the longest break you’ve had for at least a year. Use it wisely.”

                “Is there any doubt?” JC asked rhetorically before disappearing out the door.  


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