For complete disclaimers see part 1.
If you’d like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com
“Hey, girl!” Rachel jogged across the parking lot to her friend, and one time college companion.
“Hey.” Willow smiled, stopping her path to the building. Rachel grinned, out of breath from her short run. “What’s up?” The blonde nurse shifted her bag from one shoulder to the other, already in her scrubs for the night’s shift.
“Did you see that article in the newspaper?” Rachel asked, digging through her own large bag, bringing out Sunday’s paper, folded so that Christine Gray’s picture smiled up at the blonde. Willow nodded, but took the paper from her friend anyway. She wondered how long ago the picture had been taken, as the singer looking nothing like the black and white, grainy image.
“I’m so glad she’s doing better,” she said quietly, glancing up at her friend, also nodding.
“I know. Did you tell Kevin about it?”
“No.” Willow sighed. “I know he won’t say anything, but, I don’t know,” she shrugged, a sheepish grin tugging at her lips. “He didn’t even really know who she was when I pointed it out to him yesterday. I think the specialness of it would be lost on him, you know?”
“Did you tell Connor?”
“Yeah. And don’t worry, he won’t say anything, either.” Rachel said, taking the paper back, stuffing it back into the bag. “Sometimes it still amazes me that she was here,” the red head indicated the building they were both walking toward.
“I know.” The blonde was silent for a moment. She and her friend hadn’t talked about it since it had happened, both afraid to. What if someone else heard them? Was it breaking the rules of the contracts they had signed? “It was so scary that night, Rache. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw someone plunge off the bridge.”
“You’re brave, Wills. I don’t know that I would have jumped in after them.”
“Sure you would have. You’re a nurse, it’s instinct.”
“Not to risk my life, it isn’t.” She smiled, Willow chuckling lightly. “I give total props to you, my friend. That was really an incredible thing.”
“Thank you.” Willow glanced shyly at her friend before smiling down at the asphalt of the parking lot they crossed.
“I’ll be so glad to get rid of these damn nights.” Rachel sighed. “It’s just a good thing that Connor works from home and can work any ol’ crazy schedule. How is it working with you and Kevin?”
Willow shrugged, holding open the tinted glass door for her friend.
“Thanks,” the redhead said.
“It’s okay, I guess. We managed. Don’t have much choice. To be honest, the hardest thing is taking care of the animals almost by myself.”
“Kevin doesn’t help?”
“Hey, girls,” doctor Kathryn Morrow said as they passed her in the hall.
“Hey, doc,” the nurses said in unison, all three chuckling. Rachel pushed the button on the elevator that would take them to the floor where the nurse’s lounge was, with attached locker room.
“He does, but I’m the one there during the day. I mean, shoot, he doesn’t even get home until after dark half the time.” Willow leaned back against the stainless steel walls of the large car, hands tucked behind her butt, palms against the cool steel.
“Well, if they’d hire someone else down at the lumber yard, I doubt he’d have to work so damn much.”
“I agree.” The blonde looked up at the lit dial above the doors, watching as their floor came nearer, the car jolting to a stop, then slid open.
“Hey, are we all still on to go see the new Star Wars movie this week? I hear it’s getting great reviews.” Rachel pushed open the locker room door, her friend following close behind.
“Uh, I think so.” Willow turned the dial on her lock, the numbers whizzing by until it clicked and the lock slid down, allowing her to remove it. Every time she released the lock she couldn’t help but think of high school, fumbling with the lock the first day of classes until you learned the unique intricacies of the new padlock.
“I can’t wait! And Connor! My God, you’d think the world had come to an end,”
As Rachel went on and on about the movie, blonde brows drew. She noticed something, and bent down to pick it up. At the bottom of her locker lay a white business-size envelope. It had been slipped in through the vents in the door.
“What’s that?” Rachel asked, noticing her friend’s preoccupation.
“I don’t know,” Willow said absently, turning the envelope around in her fingers. Written across the front was her name and the hospital’s address. There was only a P.O. Box for a return address.
“Maybe it’s anthrax,” Willow met grinning blue eyes. “I’m just kidding, Wills, jeez.”
“Funny.” Now curious, the nurse shook the envelope, holding it up to the light.
“Oh, jeez, come on. Just open the damn thing.”
Slipping her finger under the flap, she ripped across, the paper slicing easily. Inside was a folded piece of paper, folded in thirds. Opening it, she saw it was a hand-written letter, something else sliding out of the folds of the paper. She caught it, realizing they were tickets. Eyes trailing back to the letter, she read:
Dear Miss Bowman,
I feel strange writing a letter, not having done it in a very long time. I can’t thank you enough for what you did, risking your life to save that of a complete stranger. I’ve never seen such heroics, and can’t believe people like you truly exist.
I wanted to say thank you. Because of you I have another shot, and that is something I don’t take likely, nor will I soon forget. Not in this lifetime, anyway.
Please accept the tickets enclosed. You and a guest are invited to my show in Oklahoma City, June 13. I hope to see you there and thank you in person.
Willow looked up at her friend, stunned, then looked back at the letter, quickly reading it again.
“What is it?” Rachel breathed, trying to read over her friend’s shoulder.
“It’s from Christine Gray,” the blonde breathed, handing the letter to the other nurse, her hand trembling. Blue eyes read over the letter, eyes getting wider and wider with each passing line.
“Oh my god,” she said, a smile spreading across full lips. “That’s incredible.”
“Yeah,” Willow swallowed, still unable to believe that Christine Gray had taken the time to write her a personal missive, as well as send concert tickets! As the blonde studied the tickets, she noted they were good for backstage entrance, too. Her eyes met those of the redhead. “Guess what?”
“You’re going to a Twilight concert with me.” Willow showed her the tickets, both women erupting into cheers and whoops. Jenny Marquis, self-proclaimed maintenance expert, walked on, eyeing the two like they were nuts. Quieting down, they quickly got their bags stowed, then hurried off to their respective floors.
Willow leaned against the sink, blonde bangs falling into her eyes, the hairs sticking to the moist skin found under them. Taking several deep breathes, she pushed off the sink, looking up into the mirror above it.
She looked so worn down, bags under her eyes, which glowed green from the upset.
“Honey, are you okay?” Dr. Maureen Halston asked, hand on the nurse’s back. She looked on with concern at one of the most compassionate women she’d ever been blessed to know. She worried about her, worried that Willow would give far too much of herself to her patience, not leaving anything left for the woman herself.
Willow sniffled, running her hands through her hair, nodding.
“Yeah. I’ll be okay.” She laughed nervously, feeling foolish. “You know, after all the years I’ve been doing this, you’d think I’d get used to losing them.” She looked up at the doctor with pleading eyes. “Does it ever stop, Maureen?”
The twenty-year veteran sighed, shaking her head. “No, honey. You’re always affected by God’s special babies, but you learn how to deal with it. You have to, Willow.”
“I know.” She sniffled again, running the back of her hand across her nose. The doctor smiled, heading into a stall to grab a wad of toilet paper.
“Thanks,” the blonde blew her nose, then sighed, trying to make her heart release just a bit of sorrow; just enough to get back to work. “I’ll be okay, Maureen, thank you.” She smiled up at her friend.
“Okay. I best get back to it.” With a quick one-armed hug, the older doctor was gone, leaving Willow with her thoughts.
The grounds of Mercy were impeccably kept, grass green, flower beds scattered in an array of colors and smells, tucked into brick planters.
Willow sat on the edge of one of those planters, arms wrapped around herself as she stared out into the hot summer afternoon. It may have been in the upper nineties on her skin, but inside it was the dead of winter.
It was almost three in the afternoon, and she’d been at Mercy for just over eighteen hours, and she felt the strain. She’d worked long shifts before, and she was usually able to push the fatigue away and turn that tress into determination.
But this time, …
Willow folded her legs up, wrapping her arms around her knees, resting her chin upon them. She thought back to the events of the past day.
“Hey, sweetie. How are you today?” I pull up a chair, taking Melissa’s hand in my own. I notice her fingers wrapping around mine, so small and thin. Very pale. How could she not be pale? In and out of Mercy for long stints over the past six months.
“Okay,” Melissa says, her voice very quiet, whispery. Blue eyes, made huge from all the weight the girl had lost, embraced by dark circles and dark lashes, which flutter as she blinks. “’M so tired, Willow,”
“I know, honey.” I smile at her and caress the back of her hand with my thumb. I can’t help but feel my heart swell at the sight of this lovely twelve year old girl. Her hair had long been gone- chemo. Her doctors and all us nurses were doing everything possible to save her from the leukemia that ravaged her body.
My heart is breaking, knowing that Melissa’s time is short, but I still prayed with everything in me that she’ll be okay, that some miracle that Maureen talks about so often, will happen, saving this poor, innocent kid.
Still, I held strong.
“Can I get you anything, sweetie?” I ask, glancing up as someone walks into the room. I smile at Melissa’s mom, Ellen, then turn back to the girl.
“No,” she says, looking over at her mom. “Hi, mom.”
“Hi, sweet pea.” Ellen takes the chair across the bed, reaches out to me. I take her hand and squeeze it. As I look into her eyes, I can see she knows what I do. Time is running out. Both our eyes turn back to the beautiful young girl in the bed between us. “Your dad is picking up Brian. They’ll be here soon.”
“Kay,” Melissa fights to stay awake, her eyes getting heavier and heavier.
“Sleep, honey,” I say, squeezing the girl’s fingers. “We’ll be here when you wake up.” She mumbles incoherently, then nods off. I look back to Ellen, nodding toward the hall with my head. She nods, standing. Leaning over her daughter, she kisses the girl’s naked head, then we head out.
I close the door to room 212 as we step out into the hall, and I turn to Ellen. She’s beginning to cry, her dark eyes liquid, and it breaks my heart.
“Come here,” I open my arms, and she falls into my embrace, crying into my shoulder. Squeezing my eyes shut, I try and keep it all inside. The last thing Ellen needed was for me to fall apart, too. “I know,” I cooed, feeling this woman’s pain and anguish.
It took several minutes for her to calm, but finally she does, but I didn’t break physical contact with her. My arm around her shoulders, I led her toward a small area down the hall where a couple of sofas were set up, as well as vending machines.
“Want some coffee, Ellen?” I ask, kneeling before her. The dark head nodded, and I quickly made myself busy making the coffee that I knew so well- two bags of Splenda and a dollop of cream. “Here you go.” Helping her to keep the Styrofoam from spilling in her trembling hands, I sit next to her, rubbing gentle circles over her back.
“She’s going to leave us soon, isn’t she?” Ellen asks, her voice trembling as badly as her hands. I sigh, not sure how to answer that. I had yet to lie to the family, and sure didn’t want to start now, but at the same time, I didn’t want to cause her anymore pain than she was already in.
“She’s put up such a good fight, Ellen,” I say quietly. Ellen turns to look at me, dark eyes pleading.
“Please just be straight with me, Willow. I need to know,” the last comes out in a whisper, and she starts to cry again. Afraid her coffee will spill all over her hands and lap, I take it from her, resting the cup on the table next to my chair. Taking her into my arms again, I let my actions speak for me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tammy Wistoff, another nurse, run down the hall, almost comically sliding to a stop when she sees me. Waving her hand frantically, I gently pull away from Ellen and go to Tammy.
“Willow, Melissa is asking for you and her mother,” the young nurse says. Just one look in her eyes, I feel a stab of dread in my heart. Glancing over m shoulder, I met dark eyes, looking pleadingly at me.
With a sigh, I head back to the woman and hold my hand out for her.
“What?” she asks, “You’re scaring me, Willow,”
“She’s asking for us, Ellen.”
Making our way down the hall, Ellen clutches my hand while trying to get hold of her husband and son on her cell phone with the other.
Comforted with the knowledge that they were on their way, we hurried into Melissa’s room.
“Hey, baby,” Ellen whispers, standing next to her daughter’s bed and took her hand. Blue eyes, faded and so tired, turn to me, and I, too, go to the side of the girl’s bed. Slowly, as though she had a twenty pound weight in her small hand, Melissa held her hand out to me. I take it.
Melissa blinks, though it’s almost as if in slow motion. In the past few days she’s gotten so weak.
“I love you, mamma,” she says suddenly, looking at her mother, who’s eyes are filled with tears.
“I love you, too, my baby,” Ellen says, clutching her daughter’s hand in both of her own, bringing it to her lips. I felt my own eyes stinging as the tears pushed against my will. Then those eyes were on me.
“Hi, sweetheart,” I whisper, smiling down at her.
“You’re so cool,” she says, the softest smile on her lips. My smile widens, my vision becoming even more blurry.
“I think you’re pretty cool, too, Melissa.”
She smiles, eyes closing before her head turns, and once again she looks at Ellen.
“Mamma,” she says, almost like she’s caressing the endearment with her lips. “Don’t cry, mamma,” Melissa reaches up with slow deliberation, the tip of her finger touching a tear that slides gracefully down Ellen’s cheek. “I’m not scared,”
With those few words my own dam breaks. I try and hold in the sob that is struggling to get free, but luckily only tears come out, quiet, unobtrusive. Part of me feels like I should leave, giving mother and daughter these last moments alone.
There is commotion in the hall, then Ellen’s husband, Jack and their son Brian hurry into the room.
“Baby, your dad’s here,” Ellen whispers, making room for him. I smile at the fourteen year old boy, standing to give him my spot next to his sister. Slowly I back away and out of the room.
New tears fall as Willow can hear Ellen’s voice echo in her head- “No!” She knew in that moment that Melissa had lost her battle, and her young body was finally able to find peace.
Burying her face in her hands, the tears slipped between her fingers, making her shiver as the cool breeze caught the wetness, cooling her skin.
After awhile Ellen had found Willow and had clung to her, thanking the nurse over and over again for everything she’d done for Melissa and the family. Willow took her thanks, but felt she wasn’t deserving. No, she wasn’t a doctor nor a miracle worker, but felt she should have been able to do more, just a little extra.
She felt like she’d failed the girl, and it ate at her.
Sniffling several times, she swiped at her eyes and pulled her cell phone out of her pocket, flipping it open and staring at the keypad. All she had to do was press the button with the number one on it, send, and she’d be connected to Kevin.
With a sigh, she flipped the phone shut, gently setting it on the planter beside her. She’d have to do like Maureen said and deal with it, find a way to let it go.
Christine inhaled deeply, just the barest touch of a smile curling the corner of her lips. Eyes opening, she looked around. It was just as she’d left it before starting her tour- scattered sheets of blank pages feathered out on the wood floor, resting in the shadow of her beloved grand. Finished work was still resting on top of the piano, the lid down.
Walking over to it, she fingered some of the pages, her mind automatically conjuring up the music in her mind’s ear, following the notes with her eyes for a brief moment before memory finished the song.
Striding past the piano, she walked over to the bar at the far end of the large, spacious, nearly empty, room. The late morning sunlight filtered in, coloring everything bright and clean.
Stopping, she opened the cabinets next to the small, bar fridge, surprised to see it empty.
“Milly,” she murmured, a pleased smile quickly spreading. As the singer expected, the trashcan under one of the cabinets was filled with glass bottles of varying shapes and sizes. Christine knew if she bent over the small, stainless steel sink she’d smell the distinct odor of alcohol.
Walking back across the room, bare feet padding against the cool, oak boards, she seated herself in front of the keyboard of the Baldwin, lovingly lifting the lid, the black and whites coming into view. Reaching out a finger, she tapped middle C, listening to that one beautiful note resonating in the room, which stood two-stories tall, the entire outer wall glass and looking out into the Japanese gardens.
Closing her eyes, she sat straight, hands poised above the keys, and with blinding speed began to play, her fingers racing over the ivories, the music flowing like water, her ears drinking it in. She needed to feel the music.
Her body swayed with her emotions, rising and falling, cresting only to slam down again upon the rocky shores of melancholy. Though the music was sad, Christine couldn’t be happier.
“Okay, here’s the plan,” Bob clicked a button on the small remote that rested unseen in his hand. “We follow basically the same route as last time.” A list of cities in various states all around the country popped up on the large, white screen. Another click and bullets appeared next to certain cities. “In these places you’ll be meeting with camera crews for pre-arranged conferences, which,” he looked at Christine, eyes sharp, “you will continue with the story of fatigue and over doing it, got it?”
She nodded dumbly, eyes on the screen, mind in outer space. She tugged at her bottom lip with her fingers as she slowly propelled the chair back and forth, using her feet for leverage.
“Good deal.” He clicked again and went through a quick slide show of the various venues she’d be playing at, including Coors Field in Denver. “The good thing about doing this now instead of February is that in Colorado you’ll be in the stadium as opposed to the Pepsi Center, where we were before. More seats, more people, bigger pay check.”
“For who?” she muttered, eyes reaching the ceiling. Bob looked at her, clicker ready to do the voodoo it did far too well in Christine’s opinion.
Bob Knowels ignored the singer’s comments, moving on to the next slide. It showed Christine at an earlier show, hair wild around her face, makeup dark and smoky. She recognized the pants she wore- black leather, slung low on her hips, and black boots. Very similar to what she wore at every show. The top, however. That was new.
“What is this? I don’t own a top like that, nor have I worn one. Hell, it’s not a top, Bob, but a friggin’ bra!”
“I know,” he grinned, obviously proud of himself. “I had Wayne play a bit with a picture of you during the Toronto tour, cut and paste with his computer, and voila!” He indicated the picture. “This is your new look.”
“No way,” Christine sat forward in her chair, hands clutching the edge of the conference table before her, ready to rise. “I am thirty-one years old, Bob, and the fifteen year old skanky look is out. You have me looking like a goddamn prostitute!”
“Old habits die hard, eh, Christine?” She looked at him, stunned and deeply wounded. Opening her mouth to say something, he quickly continued. “You need to do something to put you back on the map, Christine. You’ve been out of the game for six whole months! And you fucked up during a goddamn tour! We’ve got to get you back in the spotlight.”
“And dressing me like a whore is the way to go?” she growled, nails digging into the wood.
“Careful, Christine,” Bob warned, his own voice lowered.
She looked at him, hatred running through her veins, face like stone. Biting her tongue, she decided to change the subject.
“By the way, I’m doing much better. Thanks for asking.”
“I know you are.” He tossed the clicker across the smooth, wood table. “I’ve spoken with your doctors.”
“And what?” He rested his temple against his fist, hooded eyes studying his client.
“Forget it.” She shoved out of the chair, heading toward the door to the conference room in Bob’s office building.
The singer stopped, hand on the door. She glared at him over her shoulder.
“Why should I give you my pity or congratulations? You did it to yourself.”
She stared him down, neither of their gazes wavering. He was pushing her more and more, and she wasn’t sure how much longer she could take it. His threats were beginning to ware thin, her priorities shifting.
Without another word, Christine walked out, leaving the door open behind her. Bob called out after her.
“Fittings are set up for Wednesday!”
Christine slammed through the double glass doors of Bob’s offices, nearly running a passing woman over as she headed toward the elevator, hastily pulling her long hair into a ponytail and tugging the baseball cap on low. Mirrored sunglasses would follow once she hit the bright day outside, famed blue eyes hidden from view of fans and paparazzi.
She got about ten feet from the building when she heard the first rush of camera clicks.
“Fuck,” she mumbled under her breath, not in the mood to deal with the photogs. Fans she could handle. After all, it was because of them she was allowed to do what she did and making a living from it. But the photogs, or hounds as she thought of them, were a whole different story. They sniffed around the city all day and night for a high-profile celebrity to snap unsolicited pictures of to sell later to high paying magazines, newspapers, collectors, and magazine shows.
She hurried her pace when she heard her name being called by a chorus of photog hopefuls.
“Christine! Over here! Look this way, Gray!”
This, of course, drew the attention of fans and autograph dealers. It still astounded her that an autograph dealer had made fifteen thousand bucks off a graph from her last year. The more elusive the celeb, the more their graph went for.
It made the singer sad, never knowing who wanted her autograph because they were truly a fan or if the were just trying to make a quick buck off her.
Up ahead she spotted a little girl, probably about eleven or twelve, standing in front of a shop window with an older version of herself. Dark brown eyes peered at her shyly from under black bangs, white teeth appearing as they clamped down on a lower lip.
Christine pushed her way through the growing crowd of photogs, grinning when she saw the girl talking excitedly to the woman at her side, pointing at the singer and basically looking as though she were about to bounce right out of her shoes.
The older woman glanced at the singer, her own dark eyes widening in shock, and nodding vigorously at the little girl who then took off at a dead run at Christine.
The girl stopped just shy of reaching her, suddenly turning very shy and uncertain. Finally brown was able to meet blue, and Christine smiled down at the girl, bending slightly so she was more on the short girl’s level.
“Hi.” The singer said, all paparazzi stopping, clicking away at the exchange. The singer stood, annoyed, turning to the rude intruders. “Come on, guys. Give us a moment, huh? I promise to give you a few when I’m done, okay?”
“Cool! Thanks, Christine!” Jerry Mitchell, who the singer had seen tons of times, grinned at her.
Turning back to the star-struck girl, she smiled. The girl smiled back.
“Can I have your autograph?” the girl managed around the finger that had found its nervous way between her teeth. Christine smiled.
“Sure. What’s your name, hon?” The singer smiled up at the older woman who stood behind the girl, and handed Christine a deposit slip she’d torn from her check book and a pen.
“Juanita,” the shy girl said.
“Juanita. That’s a very pretty name.” The singer gave the girl her signature smile, beautiful white teeth, blinding. This made the girl even more shy, seeming to revert in age right before Christine’s eyes. She leaned back into the body of the woman behind her, a protective hand coming to rest on the girl’s shoulder.
Using her knee for a solid surface, Christine quickly scribbled out a message to the young Juanita, then handed the page to the girl.
“Here you go, hon.”
“You’re welcome. Oomph!” The singer was shocked when the girl basically launched herself at her, wrapping thin arms around her neck. Unable to hold back the grin, Christine hugged the girl, giving her a squeeze before letting her go. Standing, she shook the older woman’s hand, the older woman saying something to the girl in Spanish.
“Thank you again,” Juanita said, both smiling at the singer, then heading back toward the store they’d been about to enter. Filled with a sense of pride that a sweet kid like that would want her autograph, and think she was something special. Yeah, it made all the paparazzi in the world worth it.
Turning, she put on her game face, ready to pose.
“Alright, boys. Who’s first?”
We both flinched at the sound of breaking glass, Adam looks around frantically for the sound. His dark eyes finally meet mine in the darkness of the alley.
“Are you sure you wanna go in there?” he whispers. Looking up and down the trash-filled alley, I sigh, nodding as I meet his gaze.
“I have to, man.”
“No you don’t. Chris, we’ll find another way. You can stay with us again for a few days. You know mom won’t mind-“
“It’s not about finding a place to stay, Adam, or having money for a place. Man, this is my chance!” my voice is filled with passion, as are my eyes. Imagine, the guy giving me a chance to sing. Me!
“But this place is a dive, Chris. You’re not even old enough to get in this place, let alone sing here.” He grabs me by the shirt, dragging me into the shadows as two men start to fight in the mouth of the alley, one being thrown out into the street, the other following.
The truth of the matter is I’m scared to death. The Diamond Back is not exactly top of the line entertainment in Manhattan, but it’s the only gig I can get right now, so I’m taking it. I want to say that to my friend, but he won’t understand. He doesn’t get how bad I want to sing and play my guitar. Adam doesn’t have a passion of his own, other than finding trouble, so he can’t understand.
“Listen, Adam, I’m gonna do this, so either you can sneak in with me to listen or you can grab the next train home. Your choice,” I turn and head toward the back door the bar with far more confidence and bravado than I actually feel.
“Wait,” Adam snags my arm, nearly pulling me off my feet. I glare at him. “I just worry, okay?”
“Yeah, I know.” I grin at him, tapping him playfully on the cheek. “I love you, too, bud. Now I have to go.”
This time he doesn’t stop me, and I make my way into the dark, smoky bar. The stage is tiny and behind a screen of chain-link. The Diamond Back is known for its fights and rowdy patrons, so I’m glad it’s there.
It was my first appearance here, though I’ve played at any number of other cheesy joints. It was a quick buck, usually in the neighborhood of about seventy-five to a hundred bucks. It was free money to line my pockets, and it meant I didn’t have to swing a trick for a couple weeks. I was thrilled.
Grabbing my guitar, I step on stage. There’s no house band tonight, and I certainly don’t have a band of my own, so it’s just me, myself and I. Oh, and Pluck, my guitar.
I had on the best pair of jeans I owned, only a couple holes instead of connect the dots holes. Topped by a black t-shirt, I was stylin’.
Adjusting the microphone, I looked out at the crowd, which was filled with mostly men in very dangerous looking chains and leather, and looking at me rather expectantly.
“Hi,” I say, the microphone moaning in a shrill screech, already gaining me boos from the crowd. So, standing on that five foot by five foot stage, me, a microphone and a stool, I was supposed to entertain these guerillas.
“Hey, honey, ain’t I seen you somewhere?” someone yelled out, and I felt the hair on the back of my neck stiffen. Fuck, that was all I needed was to run into a client. Thinking fast, unable to see the guy’s face as the lights were in mine, I quirked a grin.
“I don’t know- you been to Hef’s mansion lately?” To my surprise and relief this got a round of laugher, and before anymore questions or comments could be shot my way, I lowered the guitar strap over my shoulder, and placed my fingers on the guitar’s neck. “Here we go, boys.”
Looking down at my fingers as they strummed the instrument, I got myself in the right frame of mind, head beginning to bob with the acoustic beat I was creating. I decided to ease this crowd into my own stuff, first warming up with a few classics. Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt, then really got them excited with ‘Holding Out For A Hero’ by Bonnie Tyler. Those boys were whooping and cheering. Shit, I’d never had so many offers in one night in my entire life!
They were nice and ready for me, so I launched into a song I’d written last year.
“Okay, this next song is called ‘Clutch’, written by yours truly.”
Damn, I was having fun! I don’t remember ever having such a responsive audience before. I’ll definitely be coming back to this place.
With more drinks shoved in front of me than I can remember, I pop the top off a Corona and swig from the golden liquid, a very satisfied smile spreading across my face.
“Are you even old enough to drink that?”
“Excuse me?” I turn around, ready to grab some nuts when I see who’s sitting on the stool next to mine, one manicured hand casually dangling off the edge of the scarred bar. He’s dressed in a gray suit, tie perfectly tied, dark gray. His hair is dark and perfectly slicked back from a tanned face. “Who the fuck are you?”
“My name is Robert Knowels and I’m wondering if you’re old enough to drink that.” He indicates the cold one dangling by the neck from my fingers.
“Fuck off, Bob.” I turn my stool, back to him.
“How old are you, kid?”
“Old enough to know where the sun don’t shine, and to stick my bottle there.” I glare at him over my shoulder, and he laughs.
“Look, kid, I’m not here to cause problems for you or bust you. I was walking by this … bar, when I heard you singing.” He explains, the contempt in his voice at the mention of the place obvious.
I turn my stool, glancing over at him, looking him up and down, nose wrinkled. “Great. So I got me an old guy for a fan. Lucky me.”
“No, but perhaps you’ll have an old guy as a manager.”
I look at him, trying to read his eyes. This dude’s serious! Turning to fully face him, I tilt my head, eyeing him as I sip my beer.
“Here’s my card. I’ll be in town for another few days.” He reaches into the inside breast pocket of his suit jacket, bringing out a very thick wallet. Opening it up, he digs for a moment, then withdraws a black card, handing it to me tucked between two of those manicured fingers. “I hope to hear from you, Christine. You’ve got quite the talent.”
I take the card, looking at it. In silver, textured letters reads ROBERT T. KNOWELS, MUSIC ENTERPRISES LTD. Looking back up to him I see he’s already getting off his stool. Tucking the wallet away, he looks around once more, then without so much as another glance at me, he leaves.
The last of the bags are loaded into the belly of the black and silver bus, two identical ones idling behind it.
“Are we all good?” Stone Lee, road manager extraordinaire asks into the small cell phone/walkie talkie in his hand.
“All loaded and ready to roll,” answers the tinny, disembodied voice.
“Okay. Let’s roll ‘em!” he calls out, waving his arm high in the air for the other drivers to see. All the buses go from idle to roaring to life as the large man climbs the stairs of the first bus. The doors close behind him with the whoosh of air brakes being released, and they’re moving.
The early morning air is crisp, but there was already every indication that it would be a hot day in L.A.
Stone made himself comfortable on the comfortable couch toward the front of the bus, made to seat five, the television unwatched as he typed away on his laptop, making sure everything was still good to go for the first couple upcoming concerts. They’d hit all of California then move up through the north west then over and down, zig zagging their way across the country.
Christine was back in her private quarters on the bus, which took up the entire back half. She lay on the queen-sized bed, knees drawn up, bare toes tapping to the beat on the comforter as the music played through the headphones of her Discman.
She so preferred headphones to the larger speakers of a stereo. Somehow it brought it closer, made it more personal and intimate. Three Door Down sang to her, her fingers clasped over her stomach, eyes closed.
The singer was filled with a mixture of fear, anticipation and excitement like nothing else could bring her. She had been told that ticket sales were outstanding, most of the concerts sold out. But still, would her fans forgive her for abandoning them last winter?
Sighing, she threw those thoughts out of her mind, instead concentrating on the music. She had to get herself clear in the head for the performance that night. It would be the first concert she’d given sober in more than two years. Part of her was excited, actually able to be present for it, and not go through it in a numb haze. Oh, but what she wouldn’t do for a calming hit of weed.
This thought startled her, making her feel guilt course through her. Margaret had warned that could and probably would happen. “You can’t expect a habit of over a decade to just fade and go away over night,” the counselor had warned.
That wasn’t good enough for Christine. She was stubborn and impatient, and wanted it to happen now. She had worked so hard to give up the want and need for the numbing medicine that drugs had become for her. Life was so much easier when you didn’t have to feel.
“Check, check, check. Check one, check one, check one.”
As the sound engineers and set builders did their thing, Christine met up with the boys for talks of how the show was to go that night.
The singer walked the large auditorium, able to hold twenty-thousand pulsing, cheering, screaming fans. She smiled at the thought, closing her eyes to imagine their voices, all mingling into one beast of excitement.
“Okay,” she breathed, “maybe this won’t be so bad.”
“Why didn’t you tell me, Willow? Damn it, I’m your husband. I know how attached you were-“
“I’m fine, Kevin.” The blonde looked at her husband’s reflection through the mirror, telling him with her eyes that she didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t take the bait.
“When did she die?” he persisted, sitting on the closed toilet seat, watching as his wife applied a touch of make up to the eyes that had first caught his attention six years ago.
Willow sighed, twisting the cap off of her mascara, looking back at herself, opening her eyes wide as she lined her lashes. “Two weeks ago.”
“Two weeks,” he did the math in his head, brows knit. He shook his head, not remembering any change in Willow’s demeanor. He sighed, picking at a stringy wedge of toilet paper that had been left after some of the tissue had been ripped from the roll.
He hated how much Willow kept to herself, wishing that she’d let him help her. He knew that the death of that girl with leukemia must have been devastating to her. She had been with the family since the kid got sick. That much Willow had told him.
“Do you trust me, Will?” he finally asked, watching as she brushed something across her cheeks and forehead. He didn’t understand all that makeup stuff, and since she didn’t wear it much, had no idea what was what. She stopped what she was doing and looked at him.
“Of course. What kind of question is that?” The nurse felt slightly hurt at such a question. Kevin shrugged.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.” He stood, kissing the back of her neck. “I hope you guys have fun at the concert. That was really nice of Rachel to get you guys tickets like that.” He appraised the beautiful woman in the mirror, wrapping his arms around her waist.
“Yeah, it was,” Willow couldn’t meet his eyes. She felt guilty as hell lying to him about where the tickets came from, but if she told the truth, she’d have to tell him about that night in February.
“I’ll see you when you get home.” One final kiss to her cheek, he left her alone in the bathroom.
Willow sighed, understanding why Kevin was hurt with her, but not knowing what to do about it. They had dinner with Rachel and Connor two nights ago, and Rachel had brought up Melissa’s passing. Kevin had been stunned, looking at his wife with expectant eyes. The blonde had expected a discussion that night when they’d gotten home, but instead he had waited until that morning.
“So since when do you keep stuff from me?” he asks, putting away the laundry I’d washed yesterday. Confused, I glance up at him, making the bed.
“That girl who was sick. The one we took to the movie that time.” He closes the closet door, perhaps a little harder than necessary.
I sigh, realizing he was ready to rumble now. “I wasn’t aware that I had to keep you updated on everything at work.” Tossing the folded socks from the dresser to the bed, I open the sock drawer and begin to move things around, making room for the freshly washed items.
“Oh come on, Willow. It’s not about that and you know it. I’m not your keeper, but Jesus, you really cared for that kid, and from what Rachel said at dinner, you were pretty devastated when she died.”
“Look, Kevin, it’s my job, okay? I took on the responsibility of becoming a nurse, so now I have to deal with it. And I certainly don’t need you to baby sit me, alright?”
He looks at me, and as soon as the words are out of my mouth I feel like a real bitch. Sighing, I run a hand through my hair. “I’m sorry.”
“No. No worries. You’ll deal. Fine.” Kevin rushes by me, heading out of the bathroom. I don’t follow, knowing how he is when he’s upset, I’ll leave him be.
Putting the rest of my clothes away, I head to the bathroom for a shower.
“Honey?” Willow pulled her wallet out of the purse that sat on the kitchen table. Not hearing anything, the blonde looked over her shoulder, trying to spot her husband. She could hear the faint sound of the television, and headed into the living room.
Kevin sat on the couch, arm resting along the back. Willow leaned down, hugging him from behind.
“I’m sorry, honey,” she said into his neck.
“It’s okay,” he said quietly, turning his head to give her a solid kiss on the lips. “You two have a great time, okay?” Willow nodded.
“Okay.” Hugging him tightly, she let him go, grabbing her keys from the table, tucking her wallet into the back pocket of her jeans, and headed out.
“I have never seen so many women in all my life,” Rachel muttered, leaning over to her friend who chuckled.
“I guess that’s what happens when you’re a lesbian icon.” Willow muttered back, eyeing all the excited women around them.
“You’re kidding? What, is she like Melissa Etheridge or something?”
“Of the alternative music world, yes.”
Rachel looked at the blonde, brows drawn. “How do you know?”
“I read about it,” Willow whispered, smiling at the look of confusion on her friend’s face.
“Huh. Guess I didn’t know you were such a fan.” Rachel whispered back. The lights began to lower.
The lights were nearly completely dimmed now, the front of the auditorium, and blackened stage, filling with gray smoke. A pulsing beat could be heard, low, almost to quiet to be heard, but could certainly be felt. Willow’s bones pulsed with it.
“Mm, you feel that?” a smoky, almost deep voice riding on velvet, said, the voice sensuous as it spread throughout the auditorium. The audience started to go nuts.
Willow and Rachel looked at each other, matching grins spread across their faces. The excitement was palpable.
The beat was getting louder, blue lights slowly rising, pushing their way through the smoke, sparkling lights all around the stage, giving the effect of a night filled with fog, the coolness from the dry ice machines reaching the front row, where Willow and Rachel sat, making the effect that much more real.
“You feel it. Like a heart beat,”
“She’s got a really sexy voice,” Rachel whispered, Willow nodding in agreement, eyes searching the stage. “I wish I sounded like that when I talked dirty.” Dark figures began to be outlined as more lights rose. Members of the band, a low guitar beginning to join in with the beat.
“Feel it, want it, taste it,” the last whispered, as if said in the throes of passion. The audience was on its feet now, eyes desperately scanning for just one glance of Christine Gray.
Willow gasped as a small burst of light illuminated the drummer from below, casting his features in freakish shadows, his sticks in continuous motion.
“That’s right. Let’s get a little light on the subject,” was breathed over the audience. The blonde was surprised to feel a little shiver down her spine, her excitement building with everyone else’s.
Another burst of light and the guitarist was revealed, followed the bassist and keyboards, all in swift succession. A ring of smoky figures around the outer edges of the stage, the center in impenetrable darkness.
The drum beat was at a feverish pitch now, resonating in the bones of the excited, anxious fans, nearly out of their minds with anticipation.
Suddenly all music stopped, a heavy silence filling the large space, and everyone in it. Willow was almost holding her breath, hearing her own heartbeat fill her ears.
A sensuous sigh, then blinding light, thousands of pairs of eyes squinting at the burst, then cheering like made once their vision cleared, Christine standing center stage, head arched back, eyes closed, the silver light above her shining down like the very touch of God.
A heartbeat passed, the cheers at a deafening pitch, then the music began in earnest. A blast of fire and smoke, and Christine Gray was visible in all her glory, the light full-on, blue eyes gazing out upon her sea of fans, microphone held to her mouth as she began to sing.
Willow, caught up in the rush of adrenaline, was on her feet with twenty thousand other people, dancing in the aisles. The front row was close enough to the stage that they could take a few steps and touch the apron.
Christine felt her own blood roaring through her veins, standing on that stage, singing her heart out. The audience was a black blur to her, save for the first six rows or so.
Dressed in fitted, yet comfortable, blue jeans, ripped in all the right places, her ribbed, white tee molded to her torso, capped sleeves hugging firm biceps. Her dark hair was wild, spread across her shoulders and down her back. She was the picture of sensuous strength.
She scanned those rows, seeing a mass of faces, all looking up at her in absolute adoration, some singing along with her. She played to them, walking to the very edge of the stage, feeling hands grabbing at her legs. She touched some of those hands, kneeling down and singing directly to certain women.
As she moved her way down, seducing them with her voice and words, and what has been described by more than one journalist as “Unearthly beauty and sexiness,” she reached the seats that had been reserved for Willow Bowman and her guest.
She recognized one of the women, realizing she was one of the nurses from the ER that night. She studied the people flanking the redhead, seeing that the one to her right was a man, so figured the woman sitting at her left must be Willow.
The blonde looked so much different without the creepy clown makeup. When Christine looked into those green eyes, she knew it was the same woman.
She smiled at the nurse, bowing slightly and looking up at her through her bangs.
The blonde looked at the singer, not four feet from her, and her excitement level rose. She blushed, having the lone attention of Christine Gray. She almost fainted when the woman bowed to her, giving her a playful wink before standing and moving on.
“Oh my god!” Rachel yelled above the music, tugging excitedly at her friend’s hand. Willow grinned.
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