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Into The Empty Sky

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Stephen doesn't care for the staff at this place. They try to get him to talk about his feelings when all he wants is to take a pill and get it over with, and they shove drugs on him when he really needs someone to talk to. Most of all, they don't seem keen on providing him the kind of quick fixes a busy man like him needs. There's only so long his fans will let him get away with being "on vacation," after all.

"They didn't let me have so much as a marker the first three days," he fumes to Jon over the world's blandest macaroni and pudding. "You people on the outside, you don't know what it's like! You walk around all high-and-mighty in your fancy belts and your exotic scarves and never stop for one minute to imagine the people in the world who have to go without."

Jon shakes his head. He took off his coat when he came in, but the scarf is still draped over his shoulders, creamy-pale folds making his skin look almost flushed by comparison. "Three days without being able to write anything? I'm surprised that didn't make you crazier."

Stephen pouts. "For someone who loves me unconditionally and has promised to support me no matter what, you're being awfully mean."

"Sorry, babe. So how's it going, now that your writing privileges are back? Come up with any good ideas?"

There had been a glorious revelation about who really killed JFK, but he'd lost it. Stephen stabs the plastic spoon without much conviction at his broccoli. "I did have this one brilliant plan to save America by shipping all the gays off to a secluded tropical island," he admits. "Then I remembered that I don't like coconut."

 

"I'm fine, Bobby," he snarls a week later, in response to a question nobody's asked.

"Don't you have work to do, Tad?" he yells, when he's been stared at for a few minutes too long.

"Well, move along!" he orders a harried intern whose name he can't remember. "What do I pay you for?"

"Y-you don't pay me," the intern stammers, looking around the halls for help that doesn't come.

And then one afternoon he's sequestered himself upstairs, sunlight worn thin and grey by high city walls slanting across his desk. The sharp ink of his handwriting piles up across the page. Two dozen balled-up sheets of cheap printer paper heap around his feet.

Everything's connected. He knows it. People who don't get it, they just don't feel the truth like he does. Or maybe they're not important enough to have so many people after them. The Illuminati, the League of Doom, the people who faked the moon landing, the bears....

(Or maybe they're in on it. That would explain why so many of them have tried to talk him down.)

Typing it all up isn't immediate enough. Besides, the liberal technocrat robots might have hacked his computer. He needs to feel the words take solid shape as he wrings them out of thin air.

His hands are sprained and cramping by the time someone takes the empty skeleton of the pen away.

 

The line to the phone is long and boring, but sitting in the common room is just as boring and doesn't have a prize at the end. Stephen harangues his fellow patients, who mostly tune him out or harangue back even louder, until they've all dispersed and he can clutch the receiver to his ear.

"Jon?" he whispers, hyperaware of the orderly frowning at him from the end of the corridor. "Is it reasonable to believe baby carrots are part of an Iraqi terrorist pro-vegan conspiracy?"

"Nope," says Jon. "Congratulations, by the way. You sound good. Really lucid."

"And you sound less hoarse and fragile than usual," replies Stephen. After a heartbeat, he cuts off whatever Jon was about to say next with "Not that I think this, but what about the idea that your voice is a miraculous warm blanket that I want to wrap myself up with and go to sleep in?"

"Depends. Literally a blanket, or metaphorically?"

It takes Stephen a couple seconds to remember the difference. "Metaphorically."

"In that case, it's fine. Poetic. Though you probably should keep that stuff to a minimum around the staff; they're not well trained to appreciate it. Thank you, by the way."

Phone time is technically over. The orderly approaching him has become three, one to lead him away and two emergency backups in case he makes a fuss. "I can't talk any more," hisses Stephen. "I'm sorry. I love you."

He slams the phone down and turns his most brilliant, ingratiating, definitely-no-risk-of-property-damage-here smile on the unamused staff.

 

"I'd like to talk about a sensitive subject, if I may," says the interviewer cautiously. When Stephen nods for him to continue, he doesn't beat around the bush: "Jon Stewart."

"Jon and I don't talk, Larry," replies Stephen without hesitation.

The interviewer looks relieved, then a little confused. "You mean you don't talk anymore?"

"No, no, we don't talk at all," corrects Stephen. "The man is pinker than an Indian river grapefruit."

"You're saying he's a Communist?"

"That is exactly what I am saying, sir."

"Can you elaborate a little?"

Stephen is happy to. Jon's also a Godless heathen and an intellectual elitist and a Hollywood liberal and more or less everything Stephen hates, which makes it easy to come up with material for hours of convincing his public that Stephen has nothing to do with him, and certainly doesn't use him as a personal barometer of how-nuts-am-I-now.

 

Stephen's lying in the grass, in the hidden dip of courtyard formed by an L-shaped building facing away from the main quad, when Jon finds him. "You know you've got the whole place panicked."

Fresh clover tickles his nose and his bare biceps as he rolls over. Stupid flimsy T-shirts and unflattering elastic-waist pants. "Serves them right."

Jon settles on the slope beside him, throwing a shadow over his waist. "What's wrong? Is it the new meds?"

"I hate them!" snaps Stephen. "They coat my brain in molasses so I have to sludge through it if I ever want to finish a thought, while everyone else gets to zip around at normal speed. Stupid, right? Stephen Colbert, complaining about not being able to think enough?"

"It's not stupid." Jon squeezes his arm. A seagull freewheels in the sky above them. "This stuff is tricky. You've gotta find the right combination of chemicals that zaps the paranoia and the disconnects from reality without zapping the rest of you in the process."

"Did your ancient undergrad psych courses teach you that?"

"No, the posters on the wall here taught me that," deadpans Jon, before softening. "Tell your doctors it's an issue. Maybe you just need time to adjust. And when that time's up, if it still isn't working out, I'm sure they'll tweak your mix accordingly."

"Oh, you're sure," huffs Stephen, curling his fingers through Jon's. "You're not the one who's clinically paranoid in the first place."

Jon bends low and kisses each of his fingertips. "Do it for me?"

 

"Is that Jon Stewart there?"

He's pointing at nothing, and on the inside Stephen bristles, aware that he's being made fun of. On the outside he keeps it mild. "I have a restraining order against Jon Stewart. He's not allowed in the building."

"Is that so?"

"The man is a sexual predator," snaps Stephen. It's a lie, but the wise and powerful Papa Bear seems convinced Jon is dangerous and a bad influences, and Stephen desperately wants to stay in this man's good graces. He soothes his conscience by changing the subject as soon as possible.

 

Jon protests, but not loudly enough to get anyone's attention, as Stephen drags him into a dark room and shuts (but doesn't lock) the door.

"The switches are recessed," he explains, bracing himself against the wall to tug a sliver of metal from his laceless shoe. "So you can't turn them on after the staff has declared lights-out, unless...."

"Unless you keep a bobby pin in your shoe," finishes Jon, giggling through his hand. "That's ridiculous."

The fluorescents go on. Jon's mirth evaporates. "This is—"

"They don't look in here," insists Stephen, stamping his foot against the well-padded floor. "It's the only way we can steal some privacy in this godforsaken place. I don't need to be watched 24/7, and even if I did, you're here!" He pokes Jon in the chest with the bobby pin. "You think there's any risk of me sticking this thing in my jugular vein while you're watching?"

Jon grabs his wrists to fend him off. "Stephen, babe, think about this. How much trouble are you going to be in if you get caught? Is it worth it?"

"We're worth it!"

Jon melts, just a little. Stephen swoops his head in, not all the way, just enough that there's nothing for Jon to do but close the last inch between their lips.

Stephen's pushy at first, closing around Jon like a claw game around a stuffed toy and pinning him to the nearest rubber wall with fierce kisses and grinding hips. All that dissolves by the time he's gotten Jon's shirt off, hands mapping Jon's chest with increasing desperation, anxious to claim as much warm skin as he can reach.

Until Jon's head falls to the side with a gasp, and Stephen notices a smudged bit of text on the padding behind him. The letters are ugly fat lumps drawn in thick marker, the edges of each line blurred where most of it was wiped away the last time this place was hosed down:

I HAVE BEEN GIFTED WITH ONE ARC
MYSTICAL POWER: TO SEE PATTE
EXIST. THE AMERICAN PSY
CALLS IT SCHIZ
DA COL

Stephen's stomach churns. Is it reasonable to believe anyone could ever love me?

Jon kisses his eyelids. "Shh, babe. Of course it is."

 

Jon isn't answering his phone.

Stephen hasn't seen or heard from him all day, and is about ready to tear up the whole city looking. The staff assure him that it's fine, there's nothing strange going on, and besides, he has work to do. Confined to the building, he stalks the halls at every free moment, agitated and fuming. He forgets to take his pill; he misses lunch entirely.

When it comes time for the toss, Stephen is nearly at his wits' end — and then he hears Jon's familiar voice, loud and clear.

"Jon, where are you? Where are you?" he shouts, nearly leaping over the desk.

A startled pause, then: Stephen, we — we're in Ohio for the week, remember?

"Oh!" breathes Stephen, settling back into his chair. Of course. That makes sense.

He settles in for a week without Jon. There's plenty to do on his own, after all: folks to yell at, regular meals to eat, inspired Nation-changing pieces to write, side effects to monitor, conspiracy theories to sort out. Frankly, it's a wonder he manages to squeeze in visits with Jon at all.

And if his thoughts begin to fall into neat little lines as the days wear on...if he wakes up every morning to find last night's frenzied writings looking more random than paradigm-shattering, and works longer the next evening to turn out fewer pages...frankly, their forced separation couldn't have come at a more convenient time. Maybe he ought to stretch it out a little longer, give himself time to find his voice again. Maybe—

No, screw that. When he doesn't have time to spare for Jon is exactly when he needs to make that time the most.

 

The hawk-eyed nurse watches as he pops first the little blue pill, then the medium-sized green pill, and finally the little white pill into his mouth, chasing each with a swig of water from a paper cup. When she's satisfied, he steps out of line and heads for the greenhouse. He has to submit his wrist-bracelet ID for inspection at two points along the way; tending the plants is a job reserved for the most compliant patients, the ones who are so sane they'll probably be out of here any day now.

Surrounded by a protective wall of mist and leaves, ignoring the secret messages in the way the plants are growing (which probably weren't even sent by God anyway), he spits the little white pill into a watering can and gets busy spreading fertilizer while it dissolves.

Jon looks up from smelling an iris. "Guess that explains why these are the world's least psychotic plants."

"You're not supposed to be here," says Stephen crossly. "It's not visiting hour."

"And yet, here I am. So what does that tell you?"

"Well, I'm not accusing you of breaking in using your crafty Jewish wiles, or the doctors of switching visitor hours around just to confuse me," says Stephen. "That says the blue pill is working. And I know this is part of the hospital, not part of the set of one of our highly respected late-night TV shows, which says the green pill is doing its job."

Jon gives him a wan smile.

"But," continues Stephen, gripping the watering can and looking him square in the eye, "I'm talking to you at all. Which means I'm really glad I stopped taking the white pill."

Jon nods for him to come closer. Unsure of himself but unwilling to disobey, Stephen takes a few steps through the wafting scents of hyacinth and orange trees. If he's too close when Jon gets angry, no amount of conviction (or pride in his greenhouse privileges) will stop him from curling up on the floor and screaming until someone comes and makes the pain go away.

There's no anger in Jon's face, though, only lines and a sad frown and shallow iris-blue. "I know you're scared, babe. But there are real people out there you could love too, if you give them a chance."

"Does anyone real even know I'm here?"

"Your sister's responsible for your care. She moved out of state last year, but she comes to visit at least every six months. You were living with a nice enough guy when you were admitted. If you looked him up, he'd be glad to hear from you."

 

"It's good to see you again, Stephen. How's your...show?"

"You don't have to humor me today, Lulu."

His sister stops cold on the winding path. Autumn leaves skitter past her feet, as if fleeing the encroaching late-afternoon shadow of the main ward. "You...you called me Lulu."

The list of names he must have called her is endless. Some obviously came from the common room TV (Martha Stewart, Rachel Maddow); others are so random they verge on not being names at all (Jennifer 8 Lee? Ketchup?). "Don't get your hopes up," he snaps. "I'm still loopy, just more stable about it. Nobody's talking about discharge until they're sure it's going to last. And even if it does, they'll still want me as an outpatient, so you can't wash your hands of me any time soon."

"Steve, that's the last thing I want to do," says Lulu, brown eyes going misty. "There's a great clinic right down the freeway from where Marco and I live. We'll set you up with an apartment nearby, and you can call us any time you need to talk. Or...or if you'd rather stay with your doctors here, we can still find you a place...and doesn't Jon live in town?"

It's Stephen's turn to miss a step. "You've seen Jon?"

"What? No, sorry, I didn't mean to speak for him. But the way you talk about him, I'm sure he'd be willing to look in on...." She trails off. "Steve? What's wrong? What did I say?"

Shake it off, Col-bert, Stephen orders himself, and makes a backhand grab for the pieces of his shattered heart. "Nothing. Come see the greenhouse with me. They said I was allowed to make you a bouquet."

 

The sky is dark and starless through the barred window. He refuses to turn on a light.

The mattress doesn't dip beside him, and Jon doesn't speak as he says, Tomorrow, huh.

"Tomorrow," echoes Stephen. There's a dried iris on his desk, petals curled and withered. He can barely see its outlines in the dimness.

It'll take time, but you'll find more people to love you, says Jon. You don't need a family of ten siblings or an audience of millions or an imaginary boyfriend to be loved.

When he kisses Stephen's cheek, Stephen can see it, but doesn't feel it.

 

A light dusting of snow with no secret codes at all frosts Lulu's van as she helps him load his luggage into the back. It's a formality; after deciding to leave the notebooks full of hidden patterns and accusations and brilliant plans, he barely has enough for one person to carry. Before the blue pills, he would have snapped at her for trying.

"I was hoping to meet Jon today," she remarks, closing the hatchback with a decisive thump. "Did he see you off already?"

Stephen tilts his head upward and stares through the endless grey. He can't cry. For one thing, the tears would freeze on his lashes. "He wouldn't have done it with company. He's a very private man."

He climbs in the back seat and nods a polite hello to Marco, who's shorter and thinner on top than the vague figure in Stephen's memories. Lulu hops in the passenger seat, the thick folder with a copy of Stephen's chart tucked under one arm. "We'll stop and find a motel in a couple of hours. If you see any food that looks good along the way, just holler and we'll grab dinner."

She's still talking when Stephen tunes her out. It's a long while before he pays attention to anything, much less the logos of fast food joints he hasn't set foot in for over a decade. He watches the snowflakes gathered in the cuffs of his coat and the folds of his cream-colored scarf, and doesn't look up until they've melted away entirely.