“That’s not a ring, stupid,” Paul remarked.
The aisle was ready, sticks on the ground laid out carefully, forming a narrow makeshift pathway. Andy passed me a bunch of lavenders she picked from their garden at home, mixed with some dried stems of other plants.
Clay shrugged, holding up the tab from a can of soda, examining it in the light. “Good enough for me.” He shot the group a wide toothy grin. I held a similar one in my hand.
“Okay, that’s good!” Tony said, clapping his hands together. “Who will marry them?” he asked, his eyes scanning the group.
Paul shook his head. “Pass.”
“Are they going to kiss?” Andy’s eyes were wide.
Paul’s nose wrinkled and he made a face. “Gross.” He turned to Tony. “Maybe you should do it. This was your idea.”
Tony was about to protest when Andy pushed her way between the two.
“Stop!” Andy held both arms out, as if she could stop the argument. “I’ll be priest,” she boldly declared.
“You’re a girl. Girls can’t be priest,” Tony disagreed.
Her cheeks reddened, and she planted both hands on her hips. “Well, if no one’s brave enough to marry them, I’ll do it.”
Clay and I looked at each other. Clay looked back to the group, and he shrugged, as if bored with the discussion. “We’ll elope.”
He was met with silence. Even I didn’t know what to say. I nudged his arm playfully. “Clay—”
“Elope?” Tony frowned. “What’s that? A fruit?”
Paul looked scandalized. “Like Vegas and stuff?”
Andy gasped. “No! We should do it properly. I’ll marry you.”
“You’re a girl,” Tony said again.
Andy’s eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared.
I let out a sigh. They’re at it again today.
The bickering went on. Clay and I looked at each other again, trying to keep from laughing.
Ignoring them, he slid the makeshift ring on my finger slowly, and I felt my heart swell in my chest just looking at it. “For better or for worse…”
11 years later
“I’m leaving for Nashville,” Clay says, his eyes downcast, both hands in his pockets. He stands in front of my door, the first drops of rain falling onto the ground.
My heart drops to the pit of my stomach as soon as he says the words. I don’t say “Hello to you, too” because, well, it’s just past midnight. I don’t get mad at him for telling me this at the very last moment. I don’t even say anything, period. It’s like the words are stuck. All I can think about is him leaving, and it makes my throat tighten and my heart throb.
“You are?” I finally choke out. I should know this. I just didn’t think it would happen right now. He’s told me this before—the first person he ever told of his dream. I’m not going to hold it against him. I could never do that to him. So I smile, because I know how it feels to want to chase your own dream, and the longing that makes you want to do almost anything to see it through. Because I’d support him in whatever makes him happy. “You’ll do great.” It comes out in nearly a whisper. “You’ve wanted this so bad for so long.”
His head tips up and his hazel eyes meet mine. His gaze softens, and in a move I don’t expect, he removes his cap, places it on my head and keeps his hand there for a beat. In that moment, the affection in the gesture makes my heart squeeze. He’ll be gone soon. With the way he makes me feel, I know I’m never going to feel this way about anyone ever again.
“One day when you’re rich, famous and flying in jet planes, don’t forget about me, okay?” I joke.
He snorts. “Mav,” is all he says in that tone that tells me I just said something so ridiculous, I should banish the thought from my head.
“You’ll keep in touch?” My voice cracks. Damn it. I don’t want to cry. I don’t need him to see me like this before he leaves.
“I promise,” he vows solemnly, meeting my eyes. And for some reason, I know I’ll never get a moment like this again. Three words are on the tip of my tongue.
This is it. My chance to say it. “Clay, I—”
It’s like something snaps inside him, because he interrupts me by pulling me close in a hug so tight, I’m already dreading the moment he lets go. Oblivious, always so oblivious to the chaos inside me. “Mav—Fuck. I’m gonna miss you. You’re a great friend. The best.”
His words sink in and my eyes drift shut as my arms go around his back in response. And by some miracle, I hold the tears back. What I learnt throughout the years is that you learn to fake it. Sometimes you fake it so bad, you start to feel like you’re turning into someone else, maybe even a shell of yourself. I just don’t know who that person is anymore.
I don’t know how many times he has to say it for it to sink into my stupid heart, because the word affects me as much as it did the very first time.
And as I give him a final wave, I watch as his car drifts away and fades into nothing. Only then do I let the first drops fall.
* * *
7 years later
I have a secret.
A secret I’ve never told anyone. A secret most days even I’m scared to admit to myself. As I stare at another magazine where he’s splashed in the spread with another beautiful celebrity on his arm, it tears my heart a little. I dumped it last month in the glove compartment and forgot about it. Rummaging for my sunglasses, the magazine had fallen out. I don’t know why I still buy them. It’s stupid. Every now and then, I pick one up to see how he’s doing. Most of the rumors are probably false.
It’s crazy how much things have changed. Giving the photo one last look, the secret wraps tighter around my heart like a fist. He runs around different circles now, I tell myself for the hundredth time. I toss the magazine back in the compartment and take a few deep breaths. I pull my phone from my pocket, go to the message I last opened months ago and bite my lip in indecision.
That’s when Adele’s new song starts playing on the radio.
I have a long-standing theory—songs played in the car make everything sound ten times more intense. There’s something about a car ride that amplifies the feeling. Something that makes the lyrics sink in, and makes your heart throb along to every beat. That’s what I tell myself anyway when I find myself bawling. My finger hovers over the dreaded “send” button, unable to make up my mind. I zoom past my old messages towards my most recent one, wondering what the hell I’m doing.
Clay!! How are you?
Did you know andy got a dog today? A poodle.
P.S. she named him buttercup
Congratulations on winning the award
Hey, are you awake? I need to talk…
I drop my forehead onto the steering wheel. And just like the hundred times before, I can’t bring myself to send it. I lean back on my seat and scroll back to the last message he sent around a year ago.
He’s probably busy. Someone like him who’s kind of blown up the past few years didn’t just land there by pure chance. He’s been working hard writing new music and touring, and if that means that’s what he wants to focus on for now, that’s okay with me.
I promise, he’d said. I squeeze the wheel tighter.
“This is Rayne, and we have Clay Lyons in the studio today. How are you doing today?”
Oh God. This isn’t happening.
“Hey man, I’m good.” His voice is smooth, almost hypnotic, and it sweeps over me, making me feel like he’s just sitting with me in my car, deciding whether to get a cheeseburger or pizza.
He sounds really upbeat today. Content. For a few minutes, he talks about his new charity single, all his blazing energy and his passion for music oozing. After everything, I guess that one thing didn’t change.
“This year’s ending soon. It’s gone by fast, hasn’t it?” the radio host asks. “No regrets this year?”
He doesn’t pause for even a beat. “None.”
The single word steals my breath. I blink. Really? At all?
My eyes squeeze shut. A flurry of emotions hit me. Maybe he is busy. Maybe he wants to take care of things first. But… What if it’s just because he doesn’t want to talk to me?
“I’m happy,” he continues. “This year’s been great, I got to work with some really amazing people…”
It’s Christmas in nearly a month, and I was hoping on reaching out. Even busy people take breaks, right? So that means, maybe, for whatever reason, he just doesn’t want to see me.
His voice washes over me as the single plays. It’s deliciously husky and just a little soulful, the kind that grabs the heart and won’t let go—like he’s done with mine. It’s a potent combination.
Someone once called his voice liquid gold. Another time, I heard someone say listening to his voice was pure seduction. It’s what skyrocketed his popularity and made him a country star, one who’s had his concert tickets sell out and become one of the hottest rising stars.
Biting my lip, I settle on a decision. For my sanity. No more agonizing over what to send. No more waiting on someone who runs in completely different circles now. Someone I’ll likely no longer cross paths with.
I scroll back to my message, and I delete each character until the field is empty again, the blank space filled with all the things I never said.
I do what I never thought I’d do when he knocked on my door seven years ago. I select the conversation on my phone and take a deep breath. Finding what I’m looking for, I press delete.
I don’t know why the simple action matters so much since it doesn’t change anything, but it does. I regret it almost as soon as I do it.
My phone rings, and my heart nearly jumps out of my chest. It’s Andy. Although we couldn’t be more different when it comes to our chosen field of work with her being an accountant, we’re still alike in all the ways that matter. She must be on her break at the moment.
“Maven!” she begins excitedly before I get a chance to speak. “Guess what?”
She doesn’t give me a chance to finish the question. “I won us two tickets to Hawaii.”
* * *
Tonight’s a good night. I can feel it in my bones when I sing, the stage vibrating under my feet. Exhilaration sweeps over me. My mouth opens and I start my first song for the night as a guest for the charity concert. It’s been a long day, but the energy from the crowd is unreal.
I hold my mic out, and the crowd sings my lyrics back at me. Lyrics I wrote in the bus during my travels from the past two years. Everything I’ve been feeling. Everything I wanted to get off my chest.
Fucking A. There’s nothing like the sound of thousands of people singing your song back at you, as if it were their own. And I guess it has been. Music is deeply personal, and it has a way of just making you feel. Times like these make me feel like I’ve been given a gift. What adds to the thrill is the knowledge that I’m finally taking a break. Away from media exposure, away from busy crowds and busy streets. I’ve been planning it for a while, and now it’s finally the right time.
As much as I love what I do, the last time I saw my family was several months ago. I just need to get through this week. One more week left and I can finally see her. She just doesn’t know it yet.
Longest fucking week ever.
* * *
“This isn’t a hotel.”
“No, it’s not.” Andy doesn’t expand further, and I frown in confusion. The house stretches wide across the cliffy area, no doubt offering spectacular views from up top. When we came here, I was expecting us to stop by some moderately modest hotel, but instead, we’re now standing in front of a house that looks like it was taken straight out of those home magazines.
“You won the stay to this place, too?” I ask, making sure we have the right place.
“Uh huh,” she answers, her eyes wide in awe.
“It’s practically a mansion.”
Okay, so it is a mansion. On the other hand, she said we won tickets, but maybe it wasn’t just us. “How many of us are staying here exactly?”
She does a half shrug. “Just us.”
My eyes widen. “There are at least five bedrooms in this place for two people?”
What did they think we were going to have, an orgy?
It’s odd that they went overboard with accommodation, but I’m not going to complain. Some people only dream of staying in a place like this.
The owner must have expensive tastes, because it shows in the interior of the house. Nothing is exceedingly flamboyant, but every piece of furniture still exudes class. When we reach the end of the house, at its ground level, it extends towards a rumpus area. A pool table sits on the center. When we step out the rumpus, what greets us is a giant pool. I only stare. Andy whistles from behind me. “Wow. Why does one ever need a pool this big?”
I only shrug.
We both agree that we came here for the beach, not to gawk at the ridiculously huge mansion, no matter how tempting. Deciding we’re too tired from traveling to do much today, we decide to just get settled and then get some rest. But first, food is in order.
* * *
“It came up for good cheap places when I did a search, but…” The restaurant sign dangles from the pinned edge and Andy glares at it suspiciously. “Now I’m not so sure it’s a great idea.”
It doesn’t help that the wind causes the sign to swing back and forth, a slight creak from the way it moves.
It’s quiet when we step inside. There is a couple that sits in front having what looks like a bowl of mushroom soup and some grilled fish.
My stomach grumbles. We’re hungry after the flight, but also too exhausted to search for another place again.
“The reviews weren’t too bad, though,” Andy considers. “What do you think?”
I do a quick scan of the menu. The food looks colorful and appetizing. Maybe they just need to do some renovating. I don’t mind at all if the food is good.
“If the reviews say so, maybe we can give it a try,” I say.
I choose shrimp and a mustard dip, while Andy goes with ramen and scallops.
The orders come fast. Andy cautiously pushes the scallop with a fork. She sees mine arranged haphazardly and her eyes go round. “That does not look like the picture. Is it edible?”
My stomach makes a loud sound yet again. “Well… It’s already here. May as well, right?” Or maybe it’s just my hunger talking. I decide to give it a try since we already ordered it. The coating is crunchy and the shrimp tastes good, if a little too salty. I give her a thumbs up. “See? I’m okay.”
She stabs her scallop and bites on it. She gives me a slow nod. “Not bad.”
The table wobbles when Andy shifts her plate closer. We exchange a look. Moving more carefully, we finish our meal. We don’t say a thing, but I can tell what she’s thinking, because I’m thinking it too—we won’t be back here any time soon.
* * *
I’m startled awake by a strange dull scraping noise, and a couple of heavy thuds outside my room. I could almost swear I heard someone curse.
No one told me that we’re staying in a haunted house.
It’s pretty dark, but I use my phone screen’s soft glow to light up my path when heading downstairs. We locked the door earlier, and I didn’t hear any windows crash. But then, our intruder could have legendary lock picking skills for all I know.
A tiny space between curtains allows the moonlight to slip through. I tiptoe towards the source of the sound. The stranger is tall, and bathed in the glow of the moonlight, I can see that he’s leaning on the counter almost lazily, like he’s tired and that’s exactly where he belongs. I narrow my eyes and slip behind the wall, separating the kitchen from the hallway and the rooms.
It looks like he’s dragged something heavy inside. Please don’t let them be bodies. Please don’t let them be bodies. I cross my fingers. This is it. I take my chance. He’s leaning down, and while he’s pulling them closer towards him, I prepare for a leap. I sneakily jump the intruder, and he lets out a surprised gasp. Score one for me, I caught him off guard. He sways and almost loses his balance.
“Wait—” Ah, my intruder speaks.
Wait a second… I know that sound.
Before I have much chance to process this, still in the middle of the struggle, the lights flicker on. It’s almost blindingly bright, and the next thing I know, I’m staring at the stranger’s broad back clad in black, and Andy is staring at us in shock, her eyes wide as saucers.
But she doesn’t scream, or threaten to call the cops, or… Actually, she’s pretty calm right now. Confused, but not panicked.
In the middle of the chaos, I realize what I hoped weren’t dead bodies earlier are actually two dark blue duffel bags, one of which has a zipper partially open and a water bottle peeking out.
“Mav? Clay? What is going on?”