We Ran: chapter 13 (Karen).

They did a beautiful job with Papa’s service. Of course as far as family goes there was only me to take care of the meal at the church afterwards, Andy being busy catching up on work at the shop, but so many of the ladies pitched in that I hardly had to lift a finger, even just to put a spoon into the green bean casserole. We went straight from the pews to the cemetery, and then we slipped back into the church’s basement for a feast. Papa loved to eat, but I don’t know that it can really justify three different kinds of pie. Still, it was nice to hear the hall fill up with warm stories about the work he’d done and what he’d meant to everyone. It was much better than the tears.

Afterwards I’m trying to collect the folding chairs and the paper slips we’ve draped over them to make the whole place appear presentable. The chairs themselves are a disgrace, metal painted a bluish gray with large patches missing to reveal a layer of red, but as long as the chairs still stand to serve their purpose, modesty says we cannot spare them. I like removing the slip covers because it’s like shedding a costume and crumpling it up to throw away. It makes it okay to be a little ugly and exposed.

“Karen Mae, what do you think you’re doing!” It’s more an exclamation than a question because it’s obvious that I should know I’m misbehaving. Mrs. Winters was my second grade teacher and was considered old at the time. Now she’s absolutely ancient, but all those years dealing with cunning children has kept all of her senses trained like a dog’s.

I can’t tell her that tearing off each cover feels better than pulling a tissue out of the box. “I feel like I’ve done nothing but shake people’s hands or accept hugs today,” I explain to her, folding the slip in my hands over and over. I wonder how small I can make it before it starts to tear apart and what she might do if that were to happen.

“Well, now you can gather up all of your casseroles and load them up into your car to take home. You really shouldn’t be exerting yourself right now.”

“Why?” It’s not really something that you should ask. People want you to be wounded when you’ve lost a loved one, but the question’s already out, so all I can do is look back at her and wait for what she has to say.

After so many years dealing with emotional students and parents, she’s not easily flustered. She’s had to play every role from grief counselor to prison guard, and there’s no real reward for making it to retirement. She doesn’t have to really think about whether it’s okay to be blunt because being subtle isn’t going to accomplish anything for her anymore. “It must be very difficult for you to lose your father after all of the years that you two missed together. I’m sure that must weigh very heavily on your mind at this time.”

My jaw feels like an anchor has been lodged through my lower lip, yanking it down instantly. All day, nobody has mentioned what happened when I was eighteen. Why would they? It’s history, and it’s not like I haven’t apologized. It’s not like I can go back in time and tell myself that I shouldn’t skip out of town. As far as I’m concerned, everything that happened had its purpose, even if it’s been confusing to everyone who isn’t me. Nobody else was there. Well, nobody else but Dustin. “I am sorry that I caused my father pain, yes, but that was my decision. What happened between us was between us, and no, I don’t feel guilty about that when he died of cancer, not a broken heart.”

It’s hardly the time for me to get into a confrontation, so I throw the cover into the trash and walk up the stairs, hearing each step moan in accusation. By the time I make it to the top, all I want to do is run out the front door and go lock myself inside the house. Andy will be back from work in a while, and then I can tell him to come back for all the food that they’ve left behind. And the flowers. God, what are we going to do with that many baskets of flowers? They all smell so awful together, like everyone wants us to suffocate. We’ll have to pick a few to put on the grave, then a few for the house. The rest can go to a nursing home or the hospital or something. We’ll get it figured out eventually.

I’m about to dart outside to my car when I feel a hand on my arm. I don’t want to share another hug or go through another conversation about my loss. I don’t want to open up, and I don’t want to break down. I just want to be alone, and I honestly cannot remember the last time that I had the privilege.

“Do you have a moment?”

Pastor Norrell has obviously been ushering people in and out, giving them hope and comfort all day long, but I can tell by the look on his face that he’s not about to take me aside and pat me on the back. There’s something that’s urgent, and he doesn’t seem like he wants to have me put it off until later. “Sure thing. What is it?” I think I even manage a smile, but maybe it’s just the corners of my mouth twitching.

“I was thinking that we could go somewhere a bit more private than this. Could you step into the office?”

I’m not terribly familiar with this church, and even so, I’ve never really thought about it having rooms not dedicated to worship. Behind the pulpit there’s a door that’s somewhat obscured by the limbs of an artificial tree. He pushes it to the side with his foot and then unlocks the door. “You can never be too careful, even in the house of the Lord,” he explains with a kind smile as he opens the door for me. In his fifties, he’s just starting to lose the physique of his youth and settle into that of his later life. His hair’s gone pale, and his facial hair kind of resembles sandpaper, like he can’t be bothered anymore to get a smooth shave. Still, his face is one that reminds you of anyone’s father, and that makes him a calming presence.

Even his office is like that, with papers and books scattered all over the place in a way that reminds me of a student’s room rather than that of someone who would be a guide or religious teacher. “You could use some flowers in here. Do you want some? You can have your pick,” I offer, trying to keep the conversation light. He laughs, but it’s in that polite sort of way.

“What I wanted to talk to you about is your father. Obviously I’m very sorry for your loss, but as you know, he wasn’t well for quite some time. He anticipated his demise, and he wanted to provide for you. Frankly, I’m not a lawyer and have never cared for the law or anything made to be confusing rather than enlightening. But there was something else.”

“Something else? Like what?” I think about what my father had that he could leave behind. He owned a business, so there’s all the complicated stuff that goes along with that. Property, employees, the money made and the taxes that are probably owed. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s managed to find a loophole that doesn’t really exist. What if we owe more money than he’s left us? Why would he do that to us?

“There was a letter that your father received. Years ago. He wasn’t sure if you knew about its existence, but in the event of something happening to him, he wanted you to have it. I don’t know if there’s anything he wanted you to do with it. I haven’t even opened the envelope, though I’ve had this for about two years now. Let me tell you, I’ve thought about holding it over steam to unseal it, but I would never do that. Better to confess the temptation and grow from it. But this is yours now.”

I’m surprised to see that there’s postage and an address on the envelope. I expected a note that had just been sealed up for some reason, but this has never been opened. Judging by the way the ink on the front of the envelope is smudged, it’s been some years since it’s been sent. The address is my father’s, same as it ever was. And then I notice the handwriting. It’s Dustin’s.

I’m sure there’s some moment I should remember when he was writing something that he wouldn’t let me read, but there were so many secrets between us that it’s not like I could pick out a single moment and recognize that as being it. I slip my finger under a gap in the seal and tear carelessly, not trying to be careful about it.

His familiar scrawl is all over this sheet of paper, messy and spastic as though each word came to him through lightning. I can hear his voice in my mind as I read over the words. I can’t believe he did this. I can’t believe he actually took the initiative to write a letter to my father, a man who would never accept him, and apologize while remaining proud. I can’t believe he would do it and not even tell me about it.

It probably doesn’t matter. After all, he failed me—us—in so many ways that even if he had brought it up, I would have just called him a coward or something. Still, reading this I see the Dustin that I fell in love with as a shy, young girl, the boy who put on airs and was quietly brilliant. We made up plans to take over the world together because we knew that we’d never get too far. Then we tried anyway and were surprised when we failed.

“Is there anything that you want to talk about?” Norrell asks, and my first impulse is to snap at him to just mind his business. But that would be cruel, so instead I just take a deep breath and try to ask the Lord to grant me the patience to deal with this situation. I know that He would never give me a challenge that I couldn’t overcome, but sometimes I wonder if He might not be mistaking me for another woman.

“It’s just something from a past life. I think I need to just sit down with this at home and try to figure out what I’m going to do next. Thank you for saving it for me and not reading it though.” I force another smile for him, wondering if expressions count as lies and if that’s blasphemy in this situation. Something else to weigh on my mind, as though I don’t have enough.

Pastor Norrell shows me to the door of his office, giving my shoulder a squeeze and assuring me that he’ll pick out a few plants to take off my hands. At least it’s something going my way. The flowers, the leftover food, the women who want to all be the most comforting presence around—they can all wait until I’ve just had a bit of time to remember how to breathe.

As I’m walking to the car, I notice that there’s still someone by the grave. At first I think it must be Andy, maybe he managed to finally get out from under the pile of work that he had to do, but I know that it was more of an excuse than an actual reason to avoid the funeral. He’s never been good with that sort of emotional thing, and after staying away from home for so long, I’m hardly the person he wants he show a united front with. In a way it paid off, making me look like more of the doting child while he took care of business, but if it’s not him, it would only really be one other person.

My brain is screaming at me to get in my car and get away from here as quickly as possible. It would be for the best, to prepare myself for the moment that I’ve been avoiding for years. But I’m not a timid girl anymore, and it’s not like he has any hold over me either. He’s risked a lot coming here, and the least I can do is say hello.

My heels sink uneasily on the ground as I walk, and I get a chill as I wonder whether I’m walking over any graves that have been mislabeled or displaced over the years. It’s no fate that I ever want to have, but it’s not like I’ll actually realize it anyway.

As I get close, I can see why nobody has started to gossip and panic. When we left town, he was a gaunt teenager, clean-shaven with short hair and bright eyes. The years have been kind to him, but at the same time they’ve beaten him down. There’s a new hunch to his shoulders and shadows beneath his eyes, scruff along his jaw line, and he could certainly use a haircut. I think there are even streaks of gray that have managed to creep their way into his hair; they never were there when we shared a bed together and I woke up to the back of his head. Inexplicably, a bouquet of roses dangles from his hand. I don’t think he’s ever bought me flowers in his life.

He straightens up to his full, intimidating height when I approach, more than a couple of inches over six feet, and I wonder when it was that we both stopped being teenagers. This isn’t the way that we’re supposed to be here in this place, not where we used to hide away from the adults and plot our future together. Seeming to understand how ridiculous the flowers are, he lifts them up sadly and then holds them out to me, blossom first. There’s no convenient way to accept them, so I just stare at them. “I would have gotten something a bit more appropriate, but I think I might’ve caused a fuss if I did that.”

“You’d probably do that anyway. I’m surprised there aren’t helicopters circling this place right now.” I’m trying to tease him, but I can feel how flat my voice sounds.

“Guess we weren’t quite as special as we fancied ourselves to be then.”

“Speak for yourself.”

He gives a sad smile, and I can tell that he hasn’t slept. It’s the same expression he’d give me if he’d spent an entire night out drinking, or if he had driven for hours without a break just to get back home when he knew that I was nearly to the breaking point of missing him. “I think this is where I tell you that you look good.”

“Only if you actually think that I look good.”

“Well, there’s no question about that.” It’s something strange for him to admit while we’re standing at my father’s grave, and he seems to realize that as his eyes drop to the dirt that was packed down and smoothed out while we were inside. “Have you dyed your hair darker?”

I tuck a strand behind my ear absently, feeling odd that he would be able to pick out this detail when we haven’t seen each other in years. I don’t know how he has a way of getting under my skin, particularly when we don’t own each other anything anymore. “I thought it was time for a change. You’re getting a little salt and pepper yourself.”

“Well, I thought that it might make me seem a bit more mature if I kept it that way.”

“I think it suits you, in some way.”

He grins timidly at this, and I see a shadow of the hesitant boy that he had once been when we’d started to get to know each other. We’re far too old for all this, but there’s nobody around to tell us otherwise. He takes a sharp breath in through his nose and finally lifts his eyes back to mine. I forgot just how blue they could be, like he has any sort of control about those sorts of things. “Look, I’m really sorry to hear about your father. I read about it in the newspaper. I’ve been in town…”

“I know. I’ve known for a while. You know how people—”

“Always talk around here?” It was something that we always used to complain about, and even when we moved away, he wasn’t thrilled by the notion that anyone else was in his business without him filling them in.

“At first I thought you were coming after me or something. Like you thought that you could win me back.”

“Well, maybe I thought that. Maybe I thought a lot of stupid things when I came back here, but I’ve mostly spent my time just trying to make peace, you know? Going back and making my apologies to people, seeing if there’s anything that can be done there.”

“How’s that been going for you?”

“Mostly shitty,” he says, wiping his nose as he does so. At first I think that he just has a cold, but when he turns his head a bit, I see his eyes shining. He’s always been a bit on the emotional side, but I haven’t often seen him cry. It’s an uncomfortable feeling since I know that logically, I should be the one sobbing over my loss. Instead I’m wondering if it would be logical for me to hug my former husband or if we should just keep this distance between us. “I called your father.”

“Oh.” I feel the letter already burning its way through my pocket. There had been such a defiant tone to it, the confidence of youth clear with every pen stroke. Had he been apologetic when he had spoken to my father, or had he just spoken in cold, hard facts about what had to happen back then to go with our emotions. “When did you do that?”

“A while ago. When I first got back into town, actually. I called my father, but you know how he was. He’s still the same. Or was. I don’t know what he’s up to these days. So I figured I could do something melodramatic like try to put myself out of my own misery, or I could just start to go backwards. He told me that I couldn’t cross back over bridges I’d already burnt, so I figured it would be good to figure out which ones that would be.”

“What happened?”

He crouches down by the headstone, nestling his bouquet down amongst all the other flowers and other arrangements that have been placed there. I know that it’ll only take a day or two before these things disappear, scattered around unloved graves or stolen by people who are just too cheap to get their own. “He said that he was sorry for ever judging me. For thinking that I couldn’t provide for you. If he’d just accepted me, then we probably wouldn’t have done what we did.”

“Do you really believe that though?”

“Well, I wouldn’t have knocked your brother over the head. I don’t think I would have risked my balls like that if I didn’t think it was absolutely necessary. Your dad was still not too thrilled about that one, but I think he had a sense of humor about it after so long.”

“Because I was back.”

“Because he knew that I didn’t pose a threat to him anymore.” Without the roses, he has nothing to do with his hands except shove them deeply into his pockets, hunching over as though that might let him find something that he’s lost. I want to tell him that it’s not true, but there’s just too much that’s gone between us. I can’t lie to him, but I can’t hurt him either. He clears his throat nervously and shifts around, something that I haven’t seen him do in ages. “Anyway, he told me about the cancer and said that he was trying to patch up the holes in his life before he went. I don’t know that he would have forgiven me if he didn’t have that weighing on his mind.”

“Why would he have to forgive you though?”

“Because I took you away from him.”

“But he knows that’s not what happened. I told him so.” It’s not that cold out, but I still bundle my coat around me, trying to make it part of my body as though it can hold off the chill that’s building up inside of me. “When I came back, I was just going to get my own place, but I didn’t have the money for it. I didn’t know where else to turn, if anyone else would just call me a whore and leave me out in the cold, so I just knocked on his front door and hoped that it was still the same address we’d always had. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he kicked me out, but he just opened his arms and held me to his chest. He said, ‘Welcome home,’ just like he always expected it to be that way.”

I hadn’t really shed any tears about my father’s death, but now I feel them stinging at my eyes because for just a moment, I forget that he’s gone. The illness had already started then, they’d found a lump, but he hadn’t told me about it. We’d just been together, a family again, and I was his little girl. “I told him everything that happened. How we planned it. What happened when we were gone. It was weird, but everything that took years to live just took a couple of breaths to tell him. And then he told me that it didn’t matter anymore. But I knew that it did. I knew that I’d destroyed some part of him.”

There’s pain on his face, but he doesn’t say what he’s thinking. Instead he just shakes his head and moves on. “Even if you did, you came back to mend it up again. That’s what counts. I’m sure his last years were his happiest. I know that you loved them all a lot. I never should have asked you to stop talking to them.” A weird sort of half-smile comes across his features. “Not that you ever were completely out of touch with them, of course.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

He gives a helpless shrug of the shoulders, but I’ve known him long enough to be aware of what that really means coming from him. There’s more up his sleeve than he’s let on, of course. “I’ll be straight with you then. I know all about it. I know about Damien and how you knew where you were going all along. How he would report back to you even after you left. I know you’re family. Didn’t you guess all that when I found my way back here? Did you think I’d come back here on my own?”

I hadn’t expected so many words to come out of him all at once, and just blinking after all that is an effort. I try to take it in, dividing up his words into chunks that I can try to digest individually. He knows that we didn’t just settle down to a new life in an unknown city where nobody would recognize either of us. He knows that Damien is my relative. He knows that we’ve been in touch. And so he knows that he’s not the only one here who has been less than truthful. “So you were chasing me then?”

“It doesn’t matter what I was trying to do. It’s not about me. It’s about you. You love your family, and that’s fine. If I’d known the extent of that sooner, maybe we could have avoided a lot of heartbreak. But maybe not. That’s all there is to it. But you’ve lost a lot, and I’m sorry for it. I’m sorry I took those years away from you.”

“No. Everything that you have to be sorry for is so far in the past. It’s pointless to apologize for it now since it’s not going to do anything. But thank you.”

“For what?”

“For finally admitting you were wrong, even if I was half the time.” I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve thought about this moment before. I’ve turned it around so many times while lying in bed or in the shower, getting ready for the day or winding down. It’s been a comfort of sorts, to think that eventually we might not be at odds with one another. Dustin was more than my husband. When we were young, we were the only people who understood one another. We stood in our corner together, convinced that we were going to take over the world. Of course we would make up, but I never thought it would be like this. I never thought apologies would be exchanged over my father’s grave.

“Well, maybe it would have actually meant something if I’d done it a decade ago.”

“It does mean something. It means a lot to me. You showing up here now, it’s really special.”

Is that a blush that crosses his cheeks, or is he just starting to feel the sting of the wind against his cheeks? “I guess I just figured out a long time ago that you can’t make people want the same thing you do. All you can do is put it out there in the universe, and if you don’t get that energy back, you have to just move on to something else.”

“What have you moved onto then?”

“Who says I’ve moved on?” he asks, and a chill runs through me. There’s just a moment’s hesitation that he affords before he shakes his head and gives a quiet laugh. “No, I thought that people were better gossips than all that. I suppose they just want the best bits though. I’m in the bar every night, behind the bar and still standing before I leave. Learned a bit of the old mixology from your cousin. I’ve been helping out at the library here and there. They’re trying to get their catalog all converted so they can put it on a computer. It’s a lot more work than they were anticipating, and they need most of their real employees to actually help the visitors. They think I’m really good there though. They want to offer me an opening when they have one for someone who didn’t go to school for that kind of thing. They—you’re laughing.”

I don’t know why accuses me of that. Wait, I do. I am. It surprises me. I’m laughing and can’t even help myself, not hysterical with grief or anything that I know I really ought to be feeling right now. Instead it feels good just to let out something that’s not negative or forced or outside my comfort zone. It’s just plain, simple laughter. My eyes are blurry with tears, but they’re the purest ones that I’ve felt all day. “I’m sorry, really I am. I don’t know what’s come over me, but I can’t really stop. I think it’s really great that you’ve gotten back on you feet like this. I just never really could have pictured you doing something like volunteering in a library.”

“Because Bonnie and Clyde never would have stood for something like this?” he asks with a little smirk. It’s basically what I’m thinking but can’t really put into words. We were never supposed to turn into normal people, but maybe we were just ordinary teenagers anyway. “What about you? What are you doing?”

“Bookkeeping at the shop. With Papa sick the way he was, it just seemed logical, you know? Help out any I could. It was the least I could do when they gave me a place to stay.”

“Andy still work there?”

“Yeah. He’s got ownership of it now. Well, we both do, but you know what I mean. He’s the one who’s going to be able to run the place. I can just keep the wheels turning, but he’s the one who makes the wheels do anything at all. That’s where he is right now. Lots of work that we fell behind on before, but nobody’s going to be coming in for a few days, so he reckons he can just push his way through the backlog for a bit.”

“I was wondering why he didn’t turn up today. I sat in my car until the whole thing was through. Even if your dad forgave me for everything, I don’t think he would. Not with the knock I gave him back then.”

“He even has a scar on his head from it. It’s really small, but he can’t grow any hair there, so it makes him really angry.” Just remembering what we went through so long ago gives me a tiny hit of adrenaline, and I so badly want to go back to when things were that simple that I consider suggesting that we just jump into his car and go, just to see who would come after us. But nobody did back then, and there’s even less of a reason now for anyone else to care. We know now just how important we aren’t.

Taking a step forward, I let my fingers brush against his wrist. It’s the only bit of skin that’s exposed between his sleeve and his pocket aside from his face, and it would be too personal, too painful to reach up that far. “People are going to talk if we keep standing out here like this.”

“Are you really still so scared of what people have to say?”

I close my eyes and try to remind myself that there’s no point in being infuriated when I can turn and walk at any time. “What I mean is, we should go somewhere else to talk. Do you want to go to a diner or something? There’s one just down the block. Then again, you probably already know that.”

“I know where it is. But I don’t think that’s a good idea. Take care of yourself.”

And just like that, he walks out of my life.

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We Ran: chapter 12.

There are no waving torches or pitchforks when I cross the city line. I expect people to come banging in the doors of my car, police officers to demand that I pull over so they can handcuff me and march me immediately off to jail for my past crimes. They’ll find my bag of cash, of course, and it will take no time at all for them to concoct some story about how I must’ve knocked over a bank or taken advantage of someone in a desperate situation. Even if I could get Damien to back me up on the truth, they would just assume that I’d done something to convince him that paying me off was the best option.

Still, it doesn’t matter what I anticipate because none of it happens. The only thing to welcome back to the old town is the steady sound of rain splattering itself across the hood, roof, windshield of this car. It’s a piece of shit really, barely made it back here in two or three pieces, but it’s served its purpose. There’s a part of me just couldn’t justify spending that much money on a car that could get me to town and hold together if I wanted to keep driving off into nothing. I know that without some proper care in a garage, or in a parking lot if I can get the supplies myself, this thing is going to break down the first place I stop. And so be it, really. Wasn’t I trapped here once before? An escape wasn’t as difficult as I had always imagined it to be.

The old movie theater is still standing, much to my surprise. My internal autopilot is still strong after more than a decade of being away, guiding me to pull inelegantly into a parking space thanks to the sheets of rain pounding down as though a Hollywood stagehand is filling up a bucket and hoisting the contents at me. It feels appropriate as I kill the engine, listening to it drown. If it doesn’t start again when I get back inside, I could have a problem. Well, another one.

Still, I feel light when I open the driver’s side door and make a dash toward the entrance. The doors have changed; rather than being panes of glass that have been smashed in by young hooligans like the one I was once, there’s just one door that’s made of heavy wood and propped open inexpertly by a book that looks like it might slip at any given moment. It takes some willpower not to bend down and try to make out the title. Instead I step inside because there’s a light on and it’s dry while I’m dripping.

It’s the same and yet not at all. The lobby is still broad and spacious, graced with red velvet curtains and the most confusing carpet pattern that I have seen in my life. Still, there’s no marquee, no popcorn machine, no concession stand. In fact, there’s no indication that there’s any entertainment on offer here anymore. And yet…

“Did you want a room?”

“Excuse me?”

The teenager who’s standing behind a desk where the ticket booth ought to be rolls her eyes as though I’m causing her physical pain with my slowness. I can’t blame her, of course. I’m some stranger who’s rolled in with the storm, dripping with rainwater and gawking in her lobby like it’s any business of mine to be here. “Do you want to get a room or not?”

“This is a hotel?”

“What’s it look like?”

“Well, a movie theater, to be honest with you.”

“It was, once upon a time.” She tells the story with some boredom, as though it’s just something that she heard as a myth rather than a fact. Of course, to her it would just be a story. I’m not eighteen anymore, and she’s nearly part of another generation rather than remembering what it was like to see the film cough to life and threaten to pull apart for the transition of every scene.

“I know it was. I used to…I’m from around here, originally. I moved away a long time ago.”

“Back visiting people then?” She sounds skeptical or bored, I can’t decide which, but it doesn’t exactly matter since she knows it has to be wrong. Why would I have to visit a hotel otherwise? And why wouldn’t I be tugging along a suitcase anyway?

Still, this is a convenient accident. “Just rediscovering my roots, I guess,” I tell her with an apologetic smile, hoping it comes across as sincere rather than creepy. She is, after all, quite young and quite alone.

If she’s intimidated, she doesn’t let on, instead turning the guest registry and passing me a pen. She doesn’t ask me for any cash or a check. God bless the small town mentality. It’s good to know that trust still exists in some isolated pockets of this country. “Do you have any preferences about your room? It’s not like we’re exactly booming in the business here.”

“As long as it’s just room for one, I’m not all that particular about my surroundings.”

“Then you’ll take room nine. When you go out, just make a right and keep going until you see it. Stay under the awning if you want to stay dry this time.” She swivels on her office hair and manages to yank the key down from its peg just by stretching her endless arm up in the air. Turning around, she holds it out to me with a stony face. “Do you have any idea how long you’ll be staying with us.”

“I’m afraid not. Can I pay by the day or week?”

“Come back in the morning and let me know which you think it’ll be. I’ll require payment then. Have a good night.” And then she’s disconnected from me, switching on a radio as some music I don’t even recognize comes over the airwaves. I think it’s called grunge.

“Good night to you too. See you in the morning.” I tip the keys to her like they’re a drink that I’m about to enjoy, but she’s already engrossed in some magazine that’s on her desk. I don’t mind all that much. It means that I can have a bit of privacy.

It’s surprising to me how quickly I’ve gotten used to being on my own. I was married for years, and yet we never really seemed to be together after all. We slept in the same bed, we had breakfast together, Karen fixed my lunches, but most of our hours were spent apart one way or another. She would read her Bible, I would scribble messages in my notebooks about something or another that I needed to remember in order to be a better employee, and we would fall asleep with different people in our minds and our arms tucked under our pillows rather than around one another.

If I load the film back into my memory, I know that I always capture Karen at the same moment in her life. Her hair is a dark chestnut, long and wavy and worn loose as the coils tumble down nearly to her waist. She turns those almond-shaped eyes to me and always seems to see through me. She’s never really worn lipstick except for the rare occasion of painting her lips red, and I always found it charming that whenever she’s made the effort, it’s been bold and obvious. She’s never been one to have makeup that just blends in and seems like a lack of effort. She’s tall, thin, but her curves are usually obscured by longer skirts and shapeless cardigans. I’ve always enjoyed this. That meant that I was the only one who was able to see how her waist dipped in and then eased out, how her breasts pressed confidently away from her chest and how she cocked her hips at just the right angle. It drove me crazy and sated me at the same time.

But of course she’s not going to be waiting for me when I get to the room. It’s strange how the inside of this place and then slipped divisions inside. There are no more velvet seats, no more remnants of people actually enjoying themselves. I can’t tell about the other rooms, but mine is a stark white with lights that glow yellow. Still that hideous carpet though. Did they find a way to match it? It seems brighter here somehow. I don’t know why anyone would ever want to do that. It’s a strange place to convert into a hotel, the sloped floors straightened out and the tall ceilings dropped to add extra floors. It’s like walking into history to find out all of my memories are wrong.

My stuff’s still out in the car, but I shrug out of my wet jacket and shoes and leave them by the radiator. I’m not sure if the heat will ever be on, but it feels like the logical place for them. Maybe they’ll get dry, or maybe I’ll get electrocuted. Sometimes you have to put your life into the capable, curious hands of fate.

The bed is hardly the most comfortable I’ve ever encountered, but considering I’ve been living on a couch, it’s really not so bad. It’s space to myself, anyway. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt comfortable with all this much space to myself, but I know that lingering in one place isn’t going to accomplish anything for me. Would Karen want me to have restful nights without her? It doesn’t matter what Karen would think. Karen’s gone. She’s in town, but that has nothing to do with me.

So none of this matters.

It’s a ridiculous conclusion to come to, but it’s the only one that really makes sense. She’s been living her life without me, and even if she’s asked Damien how I am, she can’t possibly be moved by my situation. If she’d heard about my suicide attempt, and I do doubt that he gave her the full picture on that one, she didn’t exactly rush to my side or even give me a call. In fact, she didn’t even give any indication that she knew I was alive.

Maybe I left her on her own too often, but that’s no reason to do the same to me now. It’s not proving a point. It’s not going to make life any easier. It doesn’t make her a bigger person, it just belittles what we had for that brief time that we shared with each other. I may have been a shitty husband, but at least I honored my vows and loved her forever. That’s more than she can say for herself. That’s what she promised in front of her God. What would He have to say about her behavior?

There’s no need for me to get frustrated about this now. I’ll look her up in the morning. In the duffel bag that’s sitting in the trunk of my car, I have the last address that Damien ever had for her. They’d even exchanged fucking Christmas cards every year, and I had no clue about it. Anyway, he was sure that he was going to be cut off the list after this. Even if nobody knew where I was going or what I was doing when I left town, it wouldn’t take long for the gossip to start and speculation to mount. And it wouldn’t be all that difficult to guess correctly.

My room is equipped with just the basics: an ugly television that looks older than anything else in this place, a dresser whose drawers I don’t exactly trust, a closet without a door for security purposes, and a nightstand with a lamp. I check the bottom drawer for a Bible, but there isn’t one. I wonder if this is a first. Instead it’s a phone book, proudly yellow and boldly announcing that it has more numbers than ever before. Are we all just getting more connected? Will there come a time when there’s no way we can even imagine unplugging from each other?

The telephone is a pale shade of mustard and covered in taped messages about the cost of local and long distance calls. I wonder how many times they’ve changed the rates and whether it’s reflected the economy or greed. I suppose in a way they’re the same.

My fingers find the digits on the phone from memory. I’m not sure that they’re even the right ones anymore, but there’s no reason for me to just sit here with the receiver in my hand, wondering what it is I can do with my time besides driving past the house and hoping that she hasn’t moved since December.

The ringing begins, and it’s comforting in a way. I can count the sounds, reduce them to numbers. One comes after another. It’s relaxing. One, then two, then three. Four is next, which is also two times two or two squared, which leads to fi—

“Hello?”

My eyes well up at the sound of the voice because it’s not at all what I expect. Appearances change, sure, but unless someone’s a heavy smoker, you don’t really stop to consider how someone’s voice might evolve over the years. All I’ve had for years are memories, but even those haven’t acquired the dry crackle of a vinyl record no matter how many times I’ve taken the mental needle and applied it to the groove.

“Hi. It’s me. Dustin.”

There’s a tender gasp, and I hear the receiver fumble a bit before it finally aligned to a mouth again. “You son of a bitch,” comes the growl. “You think this is funny? I’m going to find out where you are, and then I’m going to find out who you are. And then…you should just hope that you’ve cleared out by then. That’s the only advice I’m going to give you.”

“But it’s really me.” My father has transformed into an old man in my absence. I guess that’s something that startles everyone eventually, the fact that our parents aren’t actually immortal, but I’m not sure if my awe comes form the fact that he’s aged or that he’s actually lived long enough to do so. “It’s Dustin, I swear to God.”

“This isn’t funny. I’m going to hang up now. I’m going to call the police, you fucking—“

“When I was a kid, I lived for books. You’d taken one of mine, a Curious George one, and you wedged it under your television stand because you’d built it and it wobbled a bit on the carpet in your bedroom. I hadn’t read the book, so I decided to snatch it out while you were at work.”

The story’s one that I’ve shared with people before because I fancied myself something precocious, but it’s not like any of those people were malicious enough to pretend to be me using that inside information. My father seems to understand this as he lets out a hesitant laugh. “I came home early to surprise your mom only to hear that crash as soon as I walked through the door.”

“You saw the TV on the bed and thought that I must’ve gotten crushed or decapitated, but I was bent over between the bed and the stand, holding onto my prize. I never actually got to read it, you know.”

“Yeah well, that’s what really happens when you’re curious.” He goes off into a coughing fit, and I wonder if he’s sitting next to a tank of oxygen or a half-finished bottle of beer. “I don’t really know what to say to you.”

“I don’t really know what I’m doing either. Every time that I picked up the phone to call, I’ve told myself that I should have a plan first.”

“You and your plans. You were always a schemer. Tell me, how have those plans treated you? Surely you aren’t just calling so you can get in some bragging.”

He doesn’t mean it maliciously. At least I think he doesn’t. Still, there’s something about age that makes people blunt in a way that will always sting. “Like shit,” I admit. There’s really no point in pretending, and if he wants me to feel any pain, he can just have this satisfaction.

He takes a long breath, and then I hear something in the background. Shouting, staged gunfire, the call of Indians in battle. He hasn’t talked to his son in more than a decade, and when he does, he can’t even be bothered to switch off his stupid Western program. Part of me wishes he would react with anger just to know I’m out there, but all I’ve ever had from him is apathy. “What about that girl you were crazy about?” he asks, just raising his voice to be heard over the television. “How is she?”

“She left.” I mean to add the word “me” to the sentence, but the two letters manage to wedge their way sideways in my throat. And she did leave, just told me off in front of everyone and then went home to improvise suitcases out of any bag possible. “She’s been gone quite a long time now.”

“Oh. Always thought she was the reason you couldn’t be bothered to talk to us. She always acted like she came from better stock.”

“Insulting her isn’t going to help,” I snap, and I regret it as soon as I speak. He’s just trying to show his support in his own fucked up way, and there’s no reason for me to defend Karen. Maybe he’s right and I was just too far in love to ever notice the way she treated anyone who wasn’t me. “I wish I’d never left with her. I wish I could have been patient.”

“Well, you can wish in one hand and shit in the other, then tell me which one fills up first.”

“Thanks, Dad. From the bottom of my heart.”

“You were never my son, you know. Didn’t you pay attention to the rumors at all? People talk because they have reason to. They were true. I gave you my name and my home, and then you just threw it all away the first chance you got. Now you call when everything’s gone to shit for you? It doesn’t work like that, kid. You don’t get any credit for lessons that are learned fifteen years too late. You can’t walk across a bridge you’ve already burnt.”

He doesn’t give me time to say goodbye before he’s gone, and I know this will be the last time we speak even if he manages to squeeze another thirty years out of his miserable, dried up husk of a body.

He’s right, of course. I’ve always assumed my way would be perfectly acceptable, and any time that I’ve encountered opposition, I’ve gladly been the asshole lashing out in ill-conceived self-righteousness. Since I’ve left, what have I accomplished? What is one thing I’ve gained that I haven’t lost through being a drunk, a fool, or both?

Pulling out the phone book, I skim the tiny print and dial again.

“Hello?”

“Hi. It’s Dustin. You know, Dus—”

“I never thought I’d hear that voice again.”

Primal Music: part 20.

She didn’t know what she was doing, not really. She kept telling herself that this was the man who had broken her heart, but the rest of her body didn’t care. Bruises and emotions didn’t operate on the same level, and she had long since accepted the fact that her vulnerabilities were showing. Rather than flinch away from him, she was moving closer to take the chicken off his hands. “I got you into this,” she reminded him as she let her hand feel out the bruise. He gasped but didn’t move away from her.

“I’m not sure I’d brag about that,” he pointed out, though the sight of her body so close to him brought a cloud of distraction to his eyes.

She decided to let her body sink down on his lap as she draped her forearms against his shoulders. “You’ve stayed away for years, given me my distance. I’ve had a life that you don’t even know about. I’ve never had a problem that I couldn’t tackle because I know what it’s like to be alone. Truly alone. Somehow you gave me that. I don’t want to thank you for that, but it is what it is.”

Of course he was confused by the mixed signals, his pain and her words and the closeness of her body. They were words she’d rolled around in her head for years, considering how she might treat him if their paths had ever crossed again. Somehow her script didn’t get the response she wanted, so she just had to laugh. “I can draw a bath. I think you might catch something off that chicken if you let it thaw too long.”

“If you say so.” There was doubt in Gordon’s features, but he mercifully didn’t demand to go to the hospital instead. When he slowly coaxed off his t-shirt, his bruised side looked much more swollen than his untouched right side. He looked down at himself, then sneered and looked back at Lizzie. “Ridiculous, isn’t it?”

She thought it was unfair that he should suffer on her behalf. He was a scrawny musician, a lover rather a fighter. She hadn’t asked him to take the beating, and she hadn’t cowered behind him either. “I don’t care what other people think,” she said.

“I don’t either.”

“Well, if that’s how you feel, then you need to take off your clothes.” She saw the surprise on his face and laughed. “I’ll give you a towel, don’t worry. You don’t have clean clothes here, and I’m not letting you stay if you get into the bath fully clothed and then drip everywhere.”

He didn’t understand the request, not really, but he stripped down regardless. T-shirt was discarded, shoes and socks were pushed aside together, and jeans and pants were boxers aside. Gordon was grateful the moment he received the towel from Lizzie. With body and ego limping, he couldn’t have worn the cotton blend with more pride he had been swathed in silk.

“Let me just get the water ready for you,” she told him, but there was part of her that hoped he might take her words for an invitation. She leaned over the tub and adjusted the temperature until it was warm enough for someone to soak in without worrying about how hot it was. As though anticipating some fit of modesty, she found a bottle of bubble bath and spread it throughout the water. She could remember a time when he’d probably tease her for going through these motions, but she pushed that out of her mind. Part of her wanted to sink into the froth with him, to remember when they weren’t so fractured and confused about how to speak to each other. She didn’t know how to be anyone but his lover, not really.

“You may as well go while the water’s still warm,” she entreated him. She tried not to look at his body beyond the bruising. He was still remarkably slim for his height, and she was certain that he was more toned than he had ever been when they were a couple.

“We still haven’t had much of our talk. Not really,” he reminded her, which brought a blush to her cheeks. It seemed petty to revisit the past when the present was so fraught with tension, as she had in her mind so many times as she had tried to suss out exactly how she felt about him. She knew he was stepping into the tub the minute he groaned, but she kept her eyes on the tiles of the floor until there was a splash and he sank down. “Please stay. I might drown if I can’t get myself out of this tub.”

Even through the guilt, she laughed at him. The bathroom light was harsh, the way she liked it to better pick out all of her flaws and signs of aging. It brought out the hollowness of his cheeks and the sharp lines of his frame. Grey hairs kissed at his temples, and he had let his curls go shaggy. The years that stood between them had never been clearer. “You should’ve settled down by now,” she told him, quietly critical.

“Yeah, well, who wants to date a man who’s not even home most of the time?”

“A rock star,” she chided.

“A rock star,” he repeated, his tone mocking. “I don’t wear leather pants. I don’t have a six pack or a legendary tongue. I’m not covered in badass tattoos. I don’t even have traditional good looks. So what about me is rock star enough to make up for the fact that I’m probably on the way down rather than up?”

“You’re handsome,” she protested. “You just have to get your priorities straight. What you do isn’t going to last forever. Don’t you want to have someone to come home to?”

He smiled and let himself sink into the bubbles a bit more. He was too tall for the tub anyway, and his knees stuck up jaggedly above the waterline. “I used to have someone to come home to. But I fucked that up, and I guess I’m not very good at keeping that. I don’t know if it’s because I intrinsically believe I don’t deserve it or if I just don’t want to keep someone tied down to an unrealistic existence. Who wants to be one of those sailors’ wives, standing on the shore and looking out for the ships to come home?”

“A woman who’s in love with a sailor,” she pointed out. She saw that he still had the capacity to pity himself the same as ever, but there was something more to it. He wasn’t speaking sadly, just matter-of-factly. It was as though he had wedded his loneliness long ago.

Swallowing down her pride, she leaned over to brush the humid curls from his forehead. Just as soft as ever.  “I forgave you a long time ago, Gordon.”

If he’d wanted to keep his response subtle, the water ruined that plan. He splashed about as he turned his torso to face her in spite of the pain that it so obviously caused him. “Why?”

“You were young. I was even younger. We were trying to find our way in the world, and sometimes we just do bad things. You were the first person I ever loved. The first person to really break my heart. But we weren’t really working with each other. Every time you left, I had to build myself up and tell myself that I could be okay without you. Then you’d come back, and I’d resent you for throwing everything off in my little world. I put up walls so you couldn’t fuck up what I’d worked so hard to create for myself. We didn’t connect anymore, but I couldn’t talk to you about it because you were working so hard and finally getting somewhere. What was I compared to that?”

He pressed his lips together in a firm line, searching for an answer. “You were the girl I loved.”

“Sometimes you can’t love a person enough to avoid the bad stuff. We were drifting apart. Something was going to happen to us along the way. I was just a silly girl and thought that I could meet the love of my life when I was a teenager.”

“I don’t think that’s silly.”

“Of course you don’t. I’m the girl who got away for you. I’m the one who can inspire you to write all these songs of longing. As long as I’m not a real person to you anymore, I can be anything you want me to be. But I’m here. I exist. And I’m telling you that I think it’s okay if you move on with your life. I want you to be happy. I never wanted you to wallow and be miserable all the time. You did that well enough yourself.”

The slight still made him laugh, and the back of his hand was too wet to brush light tears from his eyes. He always had been emotional, and his blue eyes always made it easier to tell when he was about to cry. “I guess you’re right for the most part, but you’ve always been a real person to me. I don’t write those songs because I’m in love with an ideal version of you. I just look back on all the shit we went through and wonder how we lost it. I mean, we didn’t have heat, and we were happy. We still managed. Then we actually had a bit of comfort, and it all went to hell. And things have gone so well for me. I can’t think of anything more that I could even want out of the band, but I go to all these hotels that look the same and have people ask me the same questions all the time, and I’m exhausted. I’m so tired of feeling hollow because the only time I’m happy is when I’m singing about you or thinking about you or trying to put you into words. I don’t want to make myself miserable. I want to be happy. I want to be with you, or at least have you say that it’ll never happen again so I can just accept the fact that I had my shot at happiness but threw it away.”

She found herself blinking back tears because they were the words she’d never expected to hear from him. She’d chased him away, hadn’t she? It wasn’t out of a lack of love though, but instead because she feared she would always forgive him for what he had done to her. She hated that he’d cheated, but she also felt that there may have been some reason she had driven him to do that. Too many doubts had raged in her mind and tormented her, and if she had taken him back, she knew she would have just been waiting for the next indiscretion, the next fight. It took all the strength she had, but she whispered, “I don’t even know you anymore.”

He took in the words and nodded. “My name’s Gordon, and I’m in a band,” he told her. She could still remember how he’d stood in the bathroom back then, embarrassed and angry and hopeful all at once. There wasn’t much of a gap between that boy and this man, even if he was soaking up to his chest in bubble bath. “I had everything, but I didn’t realize it. I had the girl, the career, the success. I guess I’ve been running from myself for years, really throwing myself into my work. I think I’m a normal guy. I like hockey. I like watching movies, especially comedies, and my favorite ever franchise is Star Wars. I laugh until I cry when I watch ‘The Simpsons.’ I’m not home a whole lot, but when I am, I try to cook because I think it’s a good habit to have. I really don’t like going to the gym, but I know I’m not twenty anymore. I took up swimming because I overthink. I still overthink, but I can hold my breath a long time.” He took a deep breath, but she didn’t answer, so he decided to keep going. “I want to write a screenplay one day, or maybe a novel. I’ve a few—“

That was enough for her. She gripped the edge of the tub as she leaned over to kiss him. She was cautious because of his tender nose, and she could taste the rust of his blood still on his skin. Still, she didn’t flinch away. He eased into her touch, surprised, shocked, then feverishly trying to cling to the moment before it was taken from him forever. Her calves shook from bending down next to him, but she kissed him until her lungs were pounding out their protest within her. “I thought you wanted to get a swimming pool filled with topless models and be a big fucking star,” she reminded him.

“Well, plans changed.” A big, dopey grin took over his features, and he leaned back in the water to try to catch his breath. “I guess I’ve grown up a little. Not completely, but a bit.” He licked his lip, and she wondered if he could taste the traces of her there. “Why did you kiss me though?”

“I thought it might help me figure something out.”

“And did it?”

There were any number of words she could have used to reassure him, but instead she coaxed her blouse over her head. She feared he could see how short her breaths were, but she had to keep telling herself that things would be okay. This is my choice. This is on my terms. I want to be happy and think that he can make me happy.

He sat up straighter in the water, but she held a finger up to indicate that he just needed to relax. A zip and a shimmy, and her pencil skirt was left in a pool on the floor. There was no need to hide her body because he had seen every inch of her. She’d acquired tattoos in the past few years, small marking that would help her remember while others were intended to signify how she was moving on. His eyes could have gravitated to those inkings, but instead he was watching her face, her eyes.

“Since you, I’ve been chasing men who’d break my heart.” Maybe they weren’t words that he wanted to hear, but she knew that he had to know the truth. “Men who hit me, men who drink too much, men who don’t seem to remember that I exist. Because I think that I can fix them. And if I could fix them, then I could fix you and finally get back to you, because you made me so happy when things were at their best. I never fixed any of them though. I just hurt myself. And I shut down parts of myself so I could stop feeling those awful things, so nobody could get to me.

“Then I saw you, and I told myself not to feel anything. Not to think anything. I’d hear you out, and that would be all. Then you had to go and get hurt, and that scares the hell out of me. I can’t just keep pretending that because I’ve worked so hard and taken care of myself, nobody can touch me or deserve me. If you hadn’t been here tonight, I don’t know what that man would’ve done. Maybe I wouldn’t have seen him at all. Maybe I would’ve done the same thing I did. But maybe I would have taken it.”

“You can’t worry about that,” he murmured. “You can regret anything you want, I can’t stop you, but it’s not going to change what happened. The past shouldn’t stop anybody from living.”

She sniffed and nodded. “I haven’t felt alive in a long time. I guess that’s the price of keeping it together. You just crush everything down and tell yourself that that’s okay, but it’s just getting by. I want to feel anything. Even if it hurts.”

“I hope it won’t though.”

Her skin felt like it was burning as she unhooked her bra and let it drop to the floor. She wiggled from her underwear and didn’t want to look at him, didn’t want to know if he was watching or if he was still behaving as far as his gaze was concerned. “I have to tell you something though. Something that’s going to hurt you.”

It seemed ridiculous for the two of them to fold up into the tub when there was barely room for him, but she had to close the gap between them. She stepped into the water and was grateful that it was still hot enough to scald. How he withstood it, she didn’t know, but maybe they were both keen on punishing themselves still. He bent his knees and pulled them closer to his chest, and she encouraged his legs to part so she could settle between them. She couldn’t have him looking at her through this, so she turned to rest her back against his chest.

For a moment, his body tensed, and this his arms circled around her. Even if they weren’t entirely certain how to handle themselves, their bodies hadn’t entirely forgotten how to interact. “Maybe if you tell it like a story, it won’t hurt so much,” he suggested, his lips so close to her ear that she shivered in spite of the temperature of the bath.

She let her hands rest on his. It would be silly to try to draw strength from him, but she just wanted to steady herself and remember what it was like to be able to rely on another person. “Once there was a girl. All this girl ever wanted was to be better. She didn’t know what that meant, not really, but she wanted to be more than she was. So she learned how to dress and make herself up and talk and strut like the woman she’d soon be. This girl met a man and convinced him she was a woman, at least for a little while. And so when she did become old enough, she decided she would find him and see what happened.

“The man was very busy, but he loved the girl, and she loved him. They spent years together, but they were also years spent apart, and it was too much for them. The girl grew distant and didn’t pay attention to the man’s needs. The man misread her. The man felt alone, and he found solace in someone else’s arms.”

Her fingers tightened against him, fingernails finding purchase. She didn’t mean to hurt him, but she was afraid he would draw away before she could finish speaking. “So the girl left. She fled home with her tail between her legs because she didn’t know where else to go. She went to stay with her mother because she’d been living with her father before, and it just didn’t seem right to go there again. Plus her father liked the man too much. Her mom, she’d always been a bit of a tough man-hater.”

Gordon laughed quietly in her ear at the memory of his few awkward interactions with Lizzie’s mother, and she wished that he would stay that relaxed as long as she spoke. “She was starting to feel sluggish and out of sorts. She figured she was just depressed. She tried to get out into the city, make new friends, get a job, that sort of thing, but there was still something off. So her mom made her take a test, which was silly because she didn’t see how it was possible. But it was positive.”

The tears came then, but she refused to wipe them away.  There was no way that she could carry on pretending it hadn’t happened to her. “I didn’t know what to do. I was so young, I’d barely gotten a new job, I couldn’t afford to take time off or even figure out how to raise a kid. I wanted to go back to you, but Mom wouldn’t hear of it. I didn’t tell her what you’d done, just that we’d had a big fight and weren’t going to make it up because we were such different people, and she already had a couple of divorces under her belt. She didn’t think that a kid would be the thing that could make you and me make sense. And I was living under her roof, so I had to do what she wanted me to do or else she’d kick me out. So she made me, she made me—”

“No.” Still, when he moaned the word, she was certain that she didn’t have to tell him. It was clear from their night already that there was no small child sleeping in the bedroom, waiting for her to come home.

“I wanted to tell you so badly. I tried to call you, but you were off touring or something. I couldn’t get through, and then I just kept putting it off. After the ab—the procedure, I didn’t think I could tell you. I thought that I’d betrayed you so horribly that you’d never forgive me, so what was the point? You’d hurt me, but God, I really threw something away that was us. And I couldn’t stand that. So I went to work. I became obsessed with saving up. In a couple of months, I had enough that I could move out, and I came here, back to the city. I haven’t talked to my mom much since then because it just hurts too much. I don’t know if I’m angrier at her for the suggestion or at myself for being weak and listening to her because it was the easy way out.

“But I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t done it, but I don’t know how we could have a baby together. But with your life the way it is, how could we bring a child into that? You were making enough money though. I could’ve quit my job. We could’ve been with you and been a family. And there was nobody I could talk to about it, nobody I could tell because they wouldn’t understand what happened to us or why I did what I did.”

He was quiet behind her, and she didn’t know what to make of it. Her cheeks were burning with pooled blood, and she felt that she’d made a huge mistake. She’d let it lie too long, had made him come all this way and wait hours just to find out that he didn’t know the full story of what had happened between them. All those years of flogging himself for his one indiscretion had been for what? She hadn’t always rejected him, not really. She would have spoken to him, but she had kept her distance in order to mourn for the both of them.

She put her hands on the tub and tried to stand. She had to get away from him and hide in bed until he left. The shame of their past was too heavy for her to endure. But as she tried to pull herself up, his arms were still firm around her, this time coaxing her to sink back against him. “You can’t leave me now,” he said firmly. She could hear the tears in his voice, feel his chest struggling as he tried to keep from breaking down when she already felt like she’d ruined them before they could begin again. “Stay. Just stay.”

She didn’t know what else she had left to offer him, so she listened. This time, she stayed.

Primal Music: part 19.

His hands gripped the railing firmly, and he struggled to hobble up the first step, one foot at a time. “Does that happen every night when you come home?” he asked. He always had tried to summon humor to deflect.

“Are you okay, Gordon? I’m so sorry. I should have warned you it’s a bit rough around here. The neighborhood’s changed the last few years. Honestly, I’ve never had a problem on my own. I don’t know—”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry.” His features spoke a different story though. He was already firmly into his mid-thirties, and a year seemed to be added to his face with each step as he fought against the pain to close the gap between them. “He was taking a swing at you. I grabbed his fist, but I forgot he had two. Fortunately I blocked him with my face.”

His nose. It was bleeding. After cutting the man, she hadn’t even noticed because her heart was hammering too hard, her mind trying to anticipate every possible scenario. There was still blood on her keys. The sight made her stomach turn, and she nearly sprinted to her door so she could get inside and feel safe again. “Please hurry, Gordon,” she called out to him as she went for the sink. “The sooner you get in here, the sooner you can relax.”

She threw the keys in the basin and ran the water hot. There was a flashlight on her key chain, but fuck it. She could buy another. What mattered was squeezing some orange liquid dish soap between her hands and scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing. Bile rose in her throat, but she choked it back down. She didn’t feel brave anymore, just disgusted and terrified because someone dangerous knew where she lived and had a reason to resent her.

She should have telephoned the police, but she knew it was a lost cause. The man would be long gone by the time the NYPD arrived, and a case like this wouldn’t matter enough to them to chase. She’d just be another lost slip of paperwork.

When her hands were clean to the point of aching, she ran to get a washcloth to wet. Gordon finally slipped inside and slammed the door behind him, then leaned heavily against the wooden paneling. “Nice place you have here,” he panted as he rested his head back.

“No, you’re supposed to lean forward. Do you want to fucking drown yourself?” she asked as she handed him the cloth. “Don’t worry about staining that. Just tilt your head down and let it drain. Apply pressure. Go sit down.”

“Yes, Mom,” he answered dryly, but she could see that he was grateful. He wiped at the blood on his face and then held the rag to his nose as he shuffled toward the couch. It was covered in silly things, dresses and magazines and bags of shopping that she hadn’t gotten around to putting away yet. She whizzed over to clear some space for him but he just sank down in an empty chair. “Remind me not to piss you off like that. I mean, I’ve pissed you off pretty badly, but Jesus Christ. Did you take up martial arts or something?”

She flushed because she didn’t want to admit what had set her off. “We should get you some ice or a hot compress or something. I don’t know what to do. He kicked you, right? Was it in the ribs?”

He didn’t answer, too busy nursing himself already, so she unzipped his hooded sweatshirt and peeled up the dark blue t-shirt underneath. Even in the dim light from the attached kitchen, she thought she could see a heavy bruise forming on his left side. As though he could feel her gaze on him, he twisted away until she had to let the shirt drop back into place. “Good thing he didn’t aim for the liver. I would’ve been a goner.”

“Gordon, be serious. What if he broke one of your ribs?”

“Then nothing can be done for it. I’ve cracked a rib before. Playing a video game, no less.”

“You didn’t.”

“You should’ve seen the other guy.” He did his best to smile for her, but with the material pressed to his nose, she had to go by the way his eyes creased in the corners. “I have to admit, this is not the way I envisioned my knight in shining armor moment.”

“Well, you certainly were one, what with the way your body took the beating.” She gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze and crouched by his knees so she wouldn’t hover or pace. “Is there anything I can get you to make you feel better? Or do you want to take a hot bath and soak? I’m really sorry about this. I can’t believe it, I really can’t.”

He chuckled quietly, but the sound tapered off into a groan. “Don’t make me laugh. It hurts. I just want to sit for a while. And if you have a bag of frozen peas or something, I think that would be fantastic.”

She wasn’t sure how much food she had in the apartment since she embrace the Manhattan lifestyle of using her oven for storage rather than cooking. Still, she rummaged through the freezer and was rewarded with some small piece of chicken that had been encrusted in enough ice to render it jagged. His shirt would at least provide enough of a buffer to make it tolerably cold against his ribs. “It’s no homecooked meal, but I hope it’s okay,” she told him as she held out the frosty piece of meat.

He raised an eye at the chicken but still set it gently against his side. “For all I know, that was a thug you hired to keep me away from your home.”

“I wouldn’t have keyed him if he was one of mine.”

“Maybe you just wanted to rescue me.”

“Well then, mission accomplished.” The adrenaline rush had faded away from her system, and she wanted nothing more than to go to bed to relax. Of course she couldn’t do that while he was still wincing and trying to mend his wounds. “Let’s see your nose then.”

When he pulled the cloth from his face, the bleeding had stopped, but there were still dried flecks of blood clinging to his nostrils. “Probably a less attractive sight than I was an hour ago,” he stated knowingly.

“I never said you were attractive then,” she reminded him. Still, cringing, she took the washcloth from him and took it to the sink so she could rinse it out. She tried not to think about how much blood had been washed down her drain that night as she offered the ruined rag to him again. “Here, clean yourself off.”

He dabbed at his nose but seemed reluctant. “So, what happens next? You kick me out as soon as I feel better, and that’s that?”

“No, of course not.” Color flooded her cheeks because she was trying to figure out how he could spend the night and sleep on her lumpy, budget Ikea couch. It wasn’t a comfortable piece of furniture, and it seemed cruel to subject him to a night in her messy living room with his bruised side. “Do you need a shower or bath or something?” she asked him. After a thick pause, she added, “I can help.”

He looked down at the spot where the chicken cutlet had begun to leave a wet patch on his shirt. “I suppose I could use a tiny bit of help,” he admitted.

Primal Music: part 18.

He gave her a cautious look, as though trying to read exactly what she was suggesting. She really didn’t know herself. To sit and dig up the past with him in public felt too revealing, and there was always a minor chance that someone might recognize him and make a big deal out of things. There were few options for where they could really be alone though, and she understood the consequences of opening her life to him again. Maybe he got that as well. “Well, I did fly across the country to see you, so catching up would be…lovely..”

“Lovely.” She wasn’t sure that was the word she’d use for it. But maybe there was potential. Or maybe she shouldn’t find forgiveness within herself. She didn’t even really know this man, just the segment of their histories that had overlapped. What she knew—what she thought she knew—was that there must be some piece of him that still loved her if he still wrote about her.

Outside, he began blindly walking down the sidewalk, and she had to grab his arm to steer him in the direction of her apartment. Maybe it was the dangerous choice to take him there, but she didn’t feel comfortable with anything else. There were enough rooms that she could keep doors closed and retain her privacy, she reasoned. They’d shared every intimate detail of their lives, so why should this be really difficult? She could always cast him out into the street. Wouldn’t be the first time.

“So, I read what you said about me in that article.” As he walked, he tucked his hands into his pockets. The jeans were a much tighter cut than he used to wear, and she could tell that he wasn’t used to the fashion by the way his fingers could barely wiggle their way in. “You were way too gracious, you know.”

“Why?” She watched him curiously, wondering if he was trying to get an explanation out of her. Surely he wouldn’t go so far out of his way just to pick her mind. That’s what phones were for.  “I mean, the guy asked plenty of questions, but it’s not like I feel like airing that sort of business in public. My family liked you too much. I wasn’t going to tell the entire world that the song they dance to at weddings is about some bitch who couldn’t bother to give her boyfriend attention on Valentine’s Day.”

“You’re not that.” Even as he spoke, it was clear he knew that that was what had driven him to cheat. His Adam’s apple bobbed, but he found his words quicker than she expected. “You were right, you know. To leave me for what I did. It doesn’t matter what I thought you had or hadn’t done, it was still wrong of me to react like that.”

“Gordon. You don’t have to apologize now. It’s a bit late for that. It was a long time ago.”

“That doesn’t make it right.”

“That doesn’t make it relevant. You were the first man I ever loved, you know? And you broke my heart when you did that, but you taught me a lot about the world. That was when I had to land on my feet and support myself. I could thank you for doing it because I went straight from living with my parents to living with you. I never learned how to be on my own.”

“And then you went straight back to your parents?”

“For a while. Until I could afford to come back here and get my own place. I was used to working hard, so it didn’t take me very long to save up for that.” She smiled so he’d know that it wasn’t a go at him for relying on her money for so long. She fumbled through her purse so she could get a cigarette. It was best to have her hands and mouth as busy as possible so she wouldn’t focus so much on him. “Dad loves the song, by the way. Says I was crazy to leave you.”

A bit of color entered his cheeks. Good, she thought. Keeping him on his toes was all she had when he was used to wheeling and dealing. “What did you think of it though?”

“When I first heard it? I don’t know. It’s not like there’s anything in it that identifies a specific girl. And it’s been half a decade. Who knows how many women you could’ve been with in the meantime.” The dig was slight, but she couldn’t help jabbing at him just a little. It was a defense she was used to employing to keep herself from getting hurt these days. “I had my suspicions. You were always the sentimental sort, especially about things that you didn’t have anymore. It would be just like you to feel sorry enough for yourself to tell the entire world how contrite you were through a song.”

“It wasn’t about that. It was just about…” He trailed off and tugged at his ear. The nervous habit still drove her crazy, and she grabbed his hand to make him stop. If this was the way he was going to be through the conversation, then he’d be short a lobe before they made any progress at all. “It was about remembering the good times that we had together. I couldn’t give you a future, but I guess I could do something with the past.”

Her fingers were still around his wrist, and she remembered what it was like to have her palm to his, how safe she felt when his rough calluses closed around her smooth skin. “Did you think that maybe it would be a bit painful for me to hear that? Like you were guilting me after all those years had passed and I was just trying to move on with my life after you hurt me so badly?”

“No. I don’t really stop to think about songs being anything but therapeutic. Did it hurt you?”

“No. I thought it was sweet.” Seeing the panic rise up within him had been enough. He was all too wrapped around her fingers anymore. Was it his way of atoning, or was he just in love with the girl he thought had gotten away from him forever?

She briefly considered kissing him on the cheek in appreciation for the way he was behaving. This wasn’t the Gordon she remembered but one who had regressed even further back than his indiscretions, one who was a shy teenager again. At least one of them had gone through that phase.

But no. There was the front door to unlock, the apartment to think about, the bare cupboards to worry over in case he hadn’t bothered to eat before looking her up. Politely, he hovered behind her so she could lead the way up the stairs.

There was the jingle of another set of keys behind her. No doubt one of the younger tenants was impatient to get inside to dabble in some sort of drug use.  She wasn’t entirely proud of where she lived, but it wasn’t with a roommate or with her parents, so she counted herself lucky. “Just keep it in your pants for five more seconds and we’ll be inside,” she grumbled.

She didn’t hear the blow, not really. One second she was trying to turn her key, and the next someone shoved her up against the front door. She couldn’t shout out because she was too confused, too surprised that her arm was suddenly twisted back. A cry of pain behind her, and she was knocked against the metal door again, this by a much heavier body.

Gordon was saying something as he tried to get up, but with the way he groaned and abandoned his sentence, she knew that he’d been kicked in the stomach. Fear shot through her body, but there was more to it than that. She had brought him here and was responsible for this, whatever was happening. If she were the only one to be attacked, then she might have been paralyzed by fear. With Gordon, guilt and protectiveness made her whirl around with her keys, lashing out at the first bit of skin she could find.

The metal slashed against a young man’s face. She pushed hard with the jagged edge and felt skin give, leaving a raw, angry cut upon the sunken cheek of the junkie. “You stupid cunt!” the man shouted, reaching for his pocket.

She was quicker as she dug into her purse. She knew she had mace–it was unreasonable to live alone in a neighborhood like this without it–but the first thing her fingers closed around was a travel can of hairspray. With shaking hands, she tore off the cap and pointed the nozzle at the stranger.

The mist blasted into the cut. The man howled in pain. He reached out for her, but she aimed for one eye, then the other. She didn’t know where this boldness came from. She just knew that if he touched her, he could hurt her in ways she couldn’t even imagine. She wasn’t about to let that happen. She wasn’t going to let this asshole ruin the life she’d built for herself. So maybe it wasn’t necessary to swing her heavy purse to hit him in the testicles, but well, she was angry.

The man slouched down to the ground, howling and cursing. She was thinking about the advantages of a well-placed kick from a stiletto when she felt a hand at her elbow. She was ready to land her next blow, but then Gordon’s grimace came into view. “Come on, we should call the police,” he told her. When he stepped back to the door, she noticed just how slowly he was moving.

She squeezed past him and stood in the front hall. He was barely in before she closed and locked the heavy door. “I’m just up on the second floor.” She started to hurry up the stairs, fueled by adrenaline and a fear that the man outside lived in the building and could get inside as soon as he recovered his wits. She was to the first landing when she noticed that Gordon wasn’t directly behind her.

Primal Music: part 17.

Going back to working behind the bar hadn’t been Lizzie’s ideal path in life, but affording an apartment alone after a messy divorce made certain actions necessary.  Jumping in and out of love so quickly had left her bank account desperate for a quick infusion of cash. Besides, lending a hand on the crippling nights of the weekend meant that she didn’t have to field so many questions from her friends about why she hadn’t met another man, why she wasn’t going to go clubbing with them, why she hadn’t moved on from that idiot who had been stupid enough to cheat on her so many years ago. She could just roll her eyes and remind them that she had work, she had bills to pay, and she liked her independence. She almost had herself convinced that her excuses were founded.

The End of the Road really wasn’t so bad as far as bars went. It was in a decent enough part of town, and the Christmas lights extended like vines along the edge of the ceiling to give it a warm, comforting feel. The regulars were mostly cozy older couples who liked to have a night out and younger men who liked a lot of beer with a few chicken wings but still remembered to offer a tip after spending a few hours asking her why there wasn’t already a rock on her ring finger. It was the least they could do after drudging up the painful memories.

The Olympics were around the corner, and the expensive flat screen televisions were constantly going on about all of the preparations that were being made in London. Her heart ached as she thought of the big city and what she could have made of herself if only she’d had the guts to just start her life across the ocean, when there had been fewer obligations and prying eyes. She could have danced, learned a craft of some kind, become a baker, opened her own shop, become a different woman entirely. It was a fancy that she knew she would never have the opportunity to indulge. Living away from her parents was more than most of her school friends could brag about, and she knew she ought to be grateful.

She scowled when she felt her phone vibrating in her pocket. Most of the time she didn’t bother to answer calls when she was working the bar, but Sundays tended to just bring out a moderate drinking crowd. She recognized the journalist’s number and considered ignoring his call. The man from the magazine had turned up at the bar some weeks before, already fully aware of who she was and what role she had accidentally played in pop history. She’d tried to deny the story, especially since she hadn’t reverted back to her maiden name yet. Stuart pushed on undeterred and revealed that his source was none other than Keith, her incidental nemesis who apparently still harbored no small bit of ill will towards her. To him, it had seemed like fitting revenge to employ a bit of Google detective work to figure out where she was and what she was doing with her life after Gordon.

“You’ve already gone to print. What else could you possibly want?” she snapped at her phone. A hello was far too civilized for a man like that, especially when she was back to her Rust Belt roots.

There was a crackle on the other end of the line, and she imagined that it was the man clearing his throat because he hadn’t expected to be greeted so aggressively. “Well, I’m actually calling on a friend’s behalf,” he explained.

“And what would any friend of yours possibly want to do with me?”

“Well. Say that there’s someone who wanted to know how you were doing. Someone who wanted to catch up with you after years of being apart. Say this person asked me to have your phone number. What do you think I ought to say to that person?”

There was a stool by the corner of the bar that Lizzie sat on when things were slow or when she had to give her feet a break from the high heels she treasured. One of her palms found the seat, and she turned her back to the few patrons in the bar. She didn’t want to be asked if she was okay.

But she had to be strong. She’d gotten along on her own for so long and didn’t need to fall down that sensitive path again just because he became interested. She’d bent to his will too long until she suddenly hadn’t. She hadn’t discovered her spine just to offer it back up to him again for his happiness. “I’d tell that person that he’s had years to try to look me up and that I’m really not all that difficult to find since you obviously managed it, so he can just do it for himself.”

“I thought you might say something like that.”

She gasped and nearly dropped her phone. The voice hadn’t come from the device. It was behind her, at the bar, where she wasn’t looking because she’d been too busy trying to appear calm. She didn’t know what to expect when she turned around, except it had been too difficult for her to avoid his face over the years. Age had treated him well, giving his features a certain ruggedness that suited him. Laugh lines creased his face when he smiled as brightly as ever, and his dark hair had lightened to grey around his temples. His skin was a bit tanner than she remembered, but he was still the boy in hopelessly garish t-shirts and jeans, with his endless series of hoodies just baggy enough to emphasize how thin he was.

She hung up on the journalist without a second thought and turned around to see him looking just as he did in his photos, with his curly hair askew and dark blue eyes wide, searching for any reaction flickering across her face. She wasn’t sure what her body was telling him, but she didn’t want to seem too desperate—or not gracious enough. “Can I help you, sir?” she asked, trying not to be rocked back by the familiarity of seeing him across the bar like this.

He smiled shyly, wrinkles appearing around his eyes, and she thought it was a shame that she hadn’t been there in the time it had taken those grooves to form. “I’ve made it before final call then? Excellent. How’s your pour of Guinness?”

“Absolutely terrible. You want Guinness, go to a themed pub. I’ll just overflow the pint and then let it settle. It’s a bit early for drinking, but I suppose it’s worth it to have a local microbrew.” She checked the taps and found a stout that would be acceptable to his tastes, if they hadn’t changed.

“Does it come for free if it’s bad?”

“It’ll come free anyway. I hear that musicians gets their drinks comped.”

“I didn’t realize the policy extended to this establishment. Cheers.” He shifted around a bit in his seat, one of his telltale signs that he wasn’t saying what he was thinking. She could still see through him after years, a fact that she found reassuring and frustrating at once. “I can’t get over how gorgeous you look,” he said quietly.

She would have smacked him on the shoulder and yelled at him to stop if he hadn’t been her client, but under the circumstances, it probably would have been weird. In bartending mode, she was all flirtation and tolerance. “Did you expect me to wilt up and die in five years’ time then?”

She could see that his tongue was immediately twisted because she’d reduced his compliment to dust. Good. Let the songwriter have a bit of difficulty finding the words. It gave her time to think about a drink herself. She probably wouldn’t have bothered, but she hadn’t had time to prepare herself for this moment. She set out two glasses, filling them with Jameson. She knew he wouldn’t turn that down. “This is the last free drink you’ll get here,” she warned as she downed the whiskey. Proper nostalgia would have called for tequila, but she didn’t want to wallow that much.

“Cheers again then,” he said as he tapped his shot glass against hers, even though she’d already emptied it. His shot disappeared, though he seemed more interested in holding his pint than actually drinking it. “I always thought it would have been harder to find you after all these years. That things would have changed more.”

“Well, I tried to get married and move on, but the universe had other plans for me,” she said quietly. “Maybe I was always meant to be stuck helping other people drink away their cares. Escaped fate for a while, but then I ended up back here all the same.”

“I don’t believe in fate.” His tone was surprisingly firm, but she wasn’t surprised. This was a man who had worked his way up from the worst possible shows to topping the charts around the world. Some of it had been blind luck, but effort had been the driving force behind his band’s success. “So when you say you tried to get married, you mean…”

“I mean I managed to get married. It’s the staying married part that I wasn’t so good at.” Her memory went back briefly to the man she’d thought she could settle for. He’d been a bit of a gym rat, toned and tanned and a masculine man about town. He was the banking sort, the complete opposite of Gordon, and not the sort of man who would ever talk about his emotions or ever make her feel so mixed up again. “He liked his drink and his poker nights with his friends. I waited up for him once. I guess you could say that I grew into a jealous streak and didn’t necessarily believe that cards were keeping him out every Friday night. He gave me a black eye for that concern, and I gave him papers.”

Guilt had flickered across his features briefly, no doubt blaming himself for her paranoia, but then there was nothing but alarm for her well-being. “I really don’t know what to say about that,” he admitted.

“You don’t have to say anything about it. He’s in the past. And you were too, until you stuck your big nose in my business. Now, get stuck in to your pint. I’m going to get ready to get out of here, and I’ll be insulted if you don’t drink that down.”

“You know my favorite drink has always been a free one.”

“Some people never change.”

“Everyone changes,” he protested. It was just like him to do that.

She brushed him off as she grabbed her purse and headed for the bathroom. Briefly she wondered if this really would be a repeat of their first meeting, if he would follow her inside and make it impossible for her to ignore him. The young, idealistic part of her was hoping for it; the realistic divorcee within her made her lock the door securely behind her. This was the time to check makeup and send panicked texts to her friends, not to indulge in residual fantasies involving the man who had just walked into her life. The man who had been just the first of many to cheat on her, she reminded herself bitterly. No amount of mascara was going to change that fact.

She didn’t know if she’d spent too much time in the bathroom when she returned to find him at the bottom of his pint glass, but she didn’t mind. It just meant that they would have less time to kill in public like this, awkward and anxious. “Right then, Andy’ll handle the rest of the night, so I’m free. Do you want to go somewhere we can talk?”

Primal Music: part 16.

“Is this really necessary?”

“Just be civil and have dinner with this guy. It’s not too much to ask.” Tanya had her eyes on her cell phone rather than Gordon. As a band manager, she was used to fielding complaints that tended to center on comfort levels rather than actual needs. She knew the bare minimum obligations that her clients had to meet, and she tried to push them slightly above that target. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. She turned her dark eyes on Gordon and brushed a few graying curls behind his right ear. “You know I love you, but you can be a real prick when you want to be.”

“Maybe I want to be a prick now.”

“That’s not news that’s fit to print. You know it’s already all over the Internet.”

He had much more of a reputation for being boring and awkward rather than a diva, but staying that newspaper shade of off-white took a great deal of effort. “Get out of here before I change my mind. I’m the frontman. I can do these things,” he deadpanned as his manager popped up and walked away. He noticed the way she tapped a man on the shoulder, and he prepared himself for the approach. Of course this hadn’t been left to chance. The reporter had been waiting on the opening, probably before his subject had even arrived at the restaurant.

“Gordon. Hi.” The man was a bit older than Gordon, with his gut beginning to retain the signs of a life well lived. His light hair was cropped short, pale green eyes making steady contact as he held his hand out for a shake. “Stuart. I’m with Pulse Magazine.”

“Right. Of course.” Gordon paid attention to exactly none of these details, but even if he had, chances are he would not have retained them. Making music was becoming a smaller fraction of being a musician by the day. So much of his time was spent answering the same questions for strangers who didn’t do basic research. It was better that he didn’t even bother to focus on it. If he did, he’d feel like a zoo exhibit rather than a man. “Well, Stuart, I’m going to just order myself a cup of coffee, not because I’m hungover but because I’m a bit scattered. Once that’s in front of me, you can feel free to take whatever potshots you have up your sleeves.”

For once, this seemed to be an amicable session. The first few questions were about the band’s current status, upcoming promotion, the usual. Stuart had nosed around well enough not to ask about the new album’s sound or inspiration, why they’d decided to record in London, and Gordon found himself grateful. Now past thirty, he found himself in the position of being precariously famous. His biggest work was behind him, a couple of singles that had been popular around the world with a couple less-successful albums following that, but the band still had name recognition and selling power.

“In spite of all you’ve done in the past few years, you’re still known for a song that came out five years ago,” Stuart ventured, as though he could read Gordon’s thoughts. Most people didn’t try to get under his skin like that, but he felt sardonic respect for how different that was.

“Most bands out there never get their one song, you know?” he said as he stirred milk into his coffee. He knew the other man was studying him and his reaction, and he wanted to appear casual. “We’re grateful for it. Do I think it’s our best song? Of course not, but it’s helped so many people. We hear so many stories from fans about what it means to them. It’s almost not ours anymore. It’s like the friend you’ve known for years who introduces you to other people.”

“But that song came with a price, didn’t it?”

“Five bucks at Walmart. You got in on that deal too?”

The journalist forced a laugh  and flipped through his notes. The fact that he had pages dedicated to Gordon’s life unnerved him, but there was no point to getting nervous about it. To try to think of the man’s next step would be his downfall, so he watched those nimble fingers skim and smudge his own words. “You almost didn’t make it though, did you? Losing your bassist and your girlfriend at the same time, that must’ve been absolutely devastating.”

He didn’t notice that he’d let go of the spoon until it bounced off the lip of the table and took the plunge toward the carpeted floor. “Fucking clumsy,” he murmured as he leaned down to pick it up. His heart was already racing in his ears, and his head felt too heavy for him to rise again. How had this man heard? Who had told him? His love life had never been interesting enough to make the gossip rags because he never dated anyone famous (and, really, he’d never been convinced he was handsome or rich enough anyway).  He wanted to take a deep breath, but there was really only so long a man could stay bent over to retrieve a spoon. “Where were we then?” he asked chipperly as he set the silverware back on the table.

“I was asking you about what it was like to cut ties with Keith and to be left by Lizzie.”

He had her name. Nobody had even mentioned her aloud to him in years, and he felt the blood drain from his face. He knew Stuart would have a field day describing the transformation. “Please don’t mention her by name,” he said weakly. “When you write this up. We went through enough together. I don’t know how you got her name, but I don’t think she’d want people knowing that she’s spawned a song that…” Had been on soundtracks and in commercials? Had dominated the airwaves?  Had been covered countless times on shitty talent search shows? “…is so ubiquitous.”

“Oh, of course I’d not do that. I’m here to capture the truth, not ruin lives. I’ve decided to describe her as—“ Stuart cleared his throat and sat up a bit straighter to refine his diction as he quoted himself. “—‘a rare beauty, with a petite figure, olive skin, and chocolate eyes that are as sympathetic as they are analytical. One moment she’s a doe, and the next a tigress. Nothing escapes her.’”

“That sounds familiar, yes.” By those words, he knew that he had to have found her. Nobody could make those details up over the phone.  “You spoke to her?”

“You’re actually the last person for my feature. I’ve covered your bandmates, old friends in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Keith, and then Lizzie.”

He knew realistically that he ought to show interest in the other people that factored into the article. People from New York might feel betrayed by how he had defected to the West Coast when success came calling, and Keith was surely ready to spit whatever venom it took to get his lawsuit settled and a big, fat check in his hand.

But here was the first person in years who had talked to Lizzie directly about him. He’d thought about calling so many times, but he never had the right words. He’d apologized, pleaded, bargained, shouted when they’d broken up, and none of that had worked. What else was there to pass between them? She wasn’t likely to forget how it felt to be cheated on, and to tell the world about that would certainly sour all of the romance of his biggest hit. Which he felt he probably deserved since it was likely only embarrassing to her.

His fingers made his coffee-stained cup rattle against its mahogany table. At this rate, he’d be flinging everything onto the floor and conducting the interview while sitting on the carpet. “So, how is she?”

“She’s getting on well, I suppose. Wasn’t all that keen on talking to me, if you could believe that. She had nothing but good things to say about you though.” Stuart didn’t disguise his surprise as he sipped at his own coffee, the very picture of composure. “With how highly she speaks of you, it really is a wonder you’re not together anymore. Time and circumstance though. At least, that’s what she made it out to be.”