Authors: Vivian Lux
There was no greater rush than the rush of performing. If you sat me down, put a gun to my head and told me to pick my poison...well, I'd choose Bourbon first. But it would be one hell of a choice.
The rush of starting a tour, that was a different thing entirely. All of the work, all of the planning, all of the backups and contingencies and last-minute decisions seemed to come together in a perfect swirl of accomplishment. For a person like me, the kind that likes to see a plan come together, touring was like heroin.
So that was my excuse. I was high as fuck.
Scarlett came dancing up to me, eyes shining unnaturally bright. I grabbed a towel from Glenn, my tech, and wiped the sweat away from my face. When I pulled the towel away, she was close. So fucking close.
"Keir!" She lifted her arms as if to hug me, catching herself at the very last moment and bringing them together in front of her chest in clumsy applause. "Keir, Oh my God, you guys are good. You guys are so fucking good!"
"I'll tell you what's good," I growled.
This was not how I wanted to do it. On the bus, I had been thinking of her, coming up with a plan, dreaming up ways to fix this and bring her back into my life again.
This was most definitely not according to my plan.
But kissing her, right here, right now, seemed like something that would kill me if I didn't do. Like an addict jonesing for the next high, I moved from the rush of performing to the rush of pressing my lips against hers.
I was rough, too rough. The noise she made, maybe it was protest, but I'll say this—she did not pull away. Not as I moved my lips against hers, parting them with a rough stab of my tongue so that I could taste her, taste her as deeply as I had tasted her when we were young.
She tasted exactly the same.
That was the real high here. The high of having her, her body against mine. I swear it was muscle memory, kissing her, touching her, moving my lips down, down, down that long neck, licking and grazing the pulse point that beat rapidly under my lips. "Stop," she said, only once, and I did. I did what she asked, but then she undulated her body so that her breasts brushed my chest, and when I kissed her again, she didn't protest anymore.
Maybe I would have kissed her forever. There in the subterranean warren of passages that ran under the stage, I would spend the rest of my life with Scarlett Sawyer backed up against a wall, held immobile by my hands while I poured out five long years of turmoil into kissing every inch of her exposed skin. I would have, I know this.
But my brother had impeccable fucking timing.
It was Scarlett who noticed him first, placing her hand in the center of my chest to push me away from her. I pulled back, a little angry, then I saw where she was looking.
"You know," Rane said, flicking his fingers casually like we were all just chilling, "I've had some pretty bad ideas in my life. But this?" He flicked his fingers again to point directly at Scarlett. "This is the worst idea I've ever seen."
And then before we could respond, he turned on his heel and stomped down the hallway to the green room.
"You shouldn't have done that," Scarlett hissed.
"Well, you didn't exactly stop me,” I shot back.
"I did! I did say stop."
"And then started kissing me again," I pointed out.
Even in the low light of the hallway, I could still see the pink in her cheeks. She was pissed, really pissed. But I liked to think I knew her well enough that I could tell she was pissed at herself as much a she was at me.
"Keir…" she began.
I stepped back further. "Spare me the lecture."
"We should just… Let's be smart, okay?"
I had to laugh. "Honey, whatever it is we are to each other, it is definitely not smart."
Old feelings. The kind that stick around, building up in your muscles like lactic acid after a run. What was left of the love I once had was still there.
That's why I kissed him.
That's what I was telling myself.
He shouldn't have kissed me.
I was telling myself that too.
From Phoenix, we rolled out, on the road again. When I moved out to the West Coast, it was by air, the great expanse of land underneath me like a carpet. Back then, I was like a giant striding across the earth, taking no notice of my surroundings. Now, I was down at ground level, and every little feature and change in the landscape fascinated me.
So I stared out the window, watching the desert, instead of feeling the old feelings that still remained.
And I was doing a pretty good job of things until Keir came up to the front of the bus and sat down.
"Are we going to talk about what happened last night?"
I looked at him. "I hadn't planned on it, no."
"Are we going to talk at all?" he asked.
"What do you want to talk about?" I hedged.
He exhaled. "I had a question for you."
My body stiffened and turned to stone while my mind flailed about like a drowning person. "Okay," I squeaked.
He sat back in the captain's chair, completely at ease. "Where's your laptop?"
He gestured to the notebook in my hand. It was filled with my odd shorthand, scribbles and drafts. "Every interviewer I've ever encountered has had a laptop in front of them constantly. I swear, some of them I couldn't even tell you what they looked like because their whole face was just this bright green reflection."
I felt myself start smiling. "No, not me." I shook my head. "Do you remember Mrs. Soule? From the library?"
He cocked his head in confusion. "Scar, the only time I ever went to the library was with you."
I smiled. "So you remember her, then. She gave the research workshops I did after school after my mom took me off the track team."
His eyes went wide. "That ancient lady?" he asked.
I nodded. "I have her to thank for teaching me shorthand."
"And here I hated her for wasting my precious girlfriend time," he mused.
I shook my head vehemently. "She was amazing. She knew that writers wouldn't always have their crutches available. You need to be able to get down your thoughts, fast and accurately, without relying on technology. It's not like you can drag a laptop out on a battlefield, or on location in a warehouse. Plus, I like to be able to look at my subject's face instead of at my screen."
Keir leaned forward. "And how do you feel about looking at my face?"
I opened my mouth, and a little sound came out, and then I closed it, pressing my lips together. "I'm supposed to be the one asking the questions, aren't I? Isn't that why I'm here?"
"Quid pro quo?" he asked. "One of mine, for one of yours?"
"Like Silence of the Lambs?"
He narrowed his eyes. "Quid pro quo, Clarice," he said in a dead-on Hannibal Lector impression.
"That movie terrified me!" I cried.
"I only showed it to you so that you would bury your face in my shoulder," he confessed.
I felt myself blush. "I know. I only agreed to watch it so I could bury my face in your shoulder."
His eyes flashed. "Tell me more."
I closed my hand tightly around my pen. "Did you expect success to come so quickly?" I said crisply, pen poised.
The light left his eyes and he sat back. "Depends on your definition of success," he said, steepling his fingers under his chin.
I bit my lip. I had this feeling of being drawn in to him, like a powerful current. I could fight it, or I could give up and float. "How do you define success?" I asked. Because he wanted me to.
"Love," he said. "A wife, some kids."
My heart hammered so loudly in my ears that I nearly missed the rest of what he was saying. My pen stopped moving, dragging a long, jagged line across the page.
Keir was still talking, almost dreamily. His eyes were closed, the heavy black line of his lashes casting a shadow on the curve of his cheekbones. He looked tired. "Time to make music, if I wanted, and the ability to walk away from it all if that's what I wanted instead. If something was important enough to me."
I couldn't get a deep enough breath. The current was pulling me closer and closer to the jagged shoreline. I would break if I didn't start swimming right now.
"Were you worried you wouldn't be able to replicate the success of the first album?" I practically barked at him.
Keir's eyes fluttered open like I had woken him from a sweet dream. He cleared his throat. "Rane wasn't. I was."
"You are the worrier." I nodded, scribbling in the margins of the page.
"I guess so. I worry about the things I love."
"And that hasn't changed now that you have nothing to worry about?"
"Who said I had nothing to worry about?"
"You answered a question with a question."
"You've asked me like fifty billion in the last five minutes. I haven't asked you a single one yet."
"Okay, fine, ask me something easy," I said lightly, chewing mindlessly on my pen cap.
He leaned forward. "When I kissed you, did you like it?"
I stopped chewing and gaped at him.
His mouth curved into a crooked smile. "Simple yes or no question."
My tongue twisted in my mouth, nearly choking me. I hated my hesitation. I hated my hedging, my constant second-guessing. I hated how afraid I was, how rigid and imperious I was when there was no need to be. I didn't want to be this person anymore.
"Yes," I whispered.
The eager light in his eyes frightened me because it reflected my own emotions exactly. The hesitation, the wary fright I dismissed only a second ago, came back with a vengeance. "But we can't do it again!" I scolded. His face fell, making me spiral back down into apologies. "I'm sorry, it's just that I'm getting out of a bad thing right now and I'm not looking to start something new."
He stood up suddenly. "It wouldn't be something new, Scarlett. It would be with me."
America is a big fucking country. You know this, on some subatomic level. But once you get out on the road, putting mile after mile behind you, then you truly see how massive it is.
Massive and ever-changing. Phoenix was five hours from Los Angeles, but a whole different planet. The rains that had followed us out of California had caught up overnight, soaking the desert and unleashing the smell of creosote.
Even the diesel assault of the truck stop couldn't hide that strange smell that hung in the air. When I had packed up my belongings into two duffel bags and hit the road from Buffalo to LA, that smell was what really impressed the hugeness of this country upon me. I'd never smelled anything like it before. The strange smells, the alien colors of the desert, all browns and tans, completely foreign to my East Coast eyes. The earth, normally cracked and solidified from lack of water, seemed to radiate the smell from its very essence. Fresh, clean, earthy—it smelled like rain… It smelled like life, it smelled like a new fucking start for a twenty-one-year-old who had just gathered up the pieces of his broken heart.
Later on, as I browsed around, Googling, trying to figure out what that alien smell was, I found out the Spanish explorers had named the creosote bush "Hediondilla," which literally meant “little stinker.” I guess it didn't mean the same thing to everyone.
I inhaled deeply as I strode around the rest stop, smelling the smell of new beginnings even as I licked old wounds. That talk with Scarlett had me all jumbled, and I didn't want to think about it anymore. Breaking out into a stupid little jog, I tried to focus on the landscape around me. The whole reason we chose to make this tour by bus was to see the fucking country, and here I was, barely conscious of where I was.
Here on the side of the highway, inhaling the scent of starting over. I resolved to do now what I couldn't do back then. Start over again for real. Holding on to the past was hurting Scarlett just as much as it was hurting me. Whatever expectations I had were clearly wrong. She was a new person, and I had a new life; how did I think we'd fit together again?
It was pathetic, really.
I could be civil. I could be a gentleman. I could let it all go.
As I watched our driver for this leg fill the tanks on the tour bus, I made a solemn resolution. I was going to leave Scarlett alone. That was the only way I could fix this.
Once I came up with a plan, I never failed to put it into action. I wondered if Scarlett or my brother noticed the change in me as I slid into the rhythm of touring like a well-worn pair of blue jeans. Tearing the roof off of stadiums and arenas every evening, then falling asleep to the gentle sway of the bus as it transported us to the next night.
From Phoenix, it was seven hours to Albuquerque, where we played for a standing-room-only crowd. They said there were fights breaking out amongst ticket scalpers that lurked at the side entrances, but inside everything was magical. From Albuquerque, we took I-40, a straight shot east to Oklahoma City before swinging south to Dallas. One night in a hotel room in Dallas, just to wash the road grime from our skin, and then we readied ourselves for the long haul to Atlanta. I finished three paperbacks on that leg alone.
It was in Atlanta that we first started hearing the weather reports. "I'm not canceling anything yet," Keith, our manager, shouted over the garbled din of the speakerphone. The five of us looked at each other. Twitch shrugged. "If you guys cancel and the hurricane changes course, you'll look like a bunch of pussies."
"And if it doesn't change course?" Rane asked.
"It's slow-moving," Keith blustered. "We have plenty of time to decide."
Balzac grunted as I stabbed the off button. "Meh, whatever. These weather guys always blow this shit out of proportion anyway."
Pepper made a noise that could have been a snort of amusement or a snort of derision. I never could quite tell.
Scarlett scribbled something in her notebook.
By then, we had been on the road for a little over a week, coexisting, if not peacefully, at least without any more major incidents.
But that didn't stop my heart from faltering when, after a piss break, I boarded the bus to see Rane and Scarlett hunched in the back corner, talking earnestly.
Fuck. I wandered away at a pit stop for just one second, and all hell was poised to break loose.
I gripped the top of the front seat, surprised at the intensity of what I was feeling. Was it curiosity? Confusion? Protectiveness?
A mixture of all three?
"What's going on?" I asked, a little more belligerently than I would have liked.
They both looked up. Rane was facing me, and he gave me a big old innocent smile. "Scarlett's interviewing me," he said primly. "You're not the only person in this band, you know."
I looked from him over to Scarlett. I could always read her facial expressions. And what I saw there was sheepish panic. She was an open book.
"I'm supposed to be getting a story about the whole band," she said, her hands fluttering. "I guess I've been kind of slacking off in that regard."
I nodded. That was true. They did need to talk. I should really leave them alone.
I plopped myself down at the table instead. There was a heavy silence.
"Scarlett was just telling me about her job," Rane offered.
I looked at her. Why hadn't I thought to ask her about that? I had been so caught up in our past that I completely ignored her present.
Rane, damn him, knew that. He knew exactly which button to press. "But I'm sure you probably heard all about that already, Keir," he said, his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.
"Not much to tell," Scarlett said, waving her hand, desperate to get the attention off of her.
"Of course there is!" Rane chuckled. "How you managed to get from Buffalo to LA and land a job with a music magazine right out of college? That's pretty incredible."
Scarlett flushed. The set of her mouth told me something was up. "It's nothing… Really…"
"I mean, I guess it helps when you have an in…"
Her head jerked just a little bit. I was pissed at Rane for needling her when she was clearly uncomfortable, but I wanted to see where this was going.
"Yes, I suppose so," she half whispered.
Rane settled back in his chair, lacing his fingers casually over his head. "You know? I just remembered that I've actually heard of Kevin Cunningham! Can't say much about his character, but his work is solid. I think I remember him assisting for a photo call of ours back in the day, so you've met him too, Keir. He's one of the good ones."
Scarlett's eyes glistened and her fists clenched.
"Who the fuck is Kevin Cunningham?" I asked. I felt like a fish rising to bait against my will.
Scarlett sat up suddenly, her notebook tumbling to the floor. "I should call my editor," she said tightly, coldly.
Rane sat back in his chair, looking from Scarlett, to me, back to Scarlett. As if his work here was done.
"Who's Kevin Cunningham?" I asked again. Rane had hooked me, and now I was struggling against the line as he reeled me in.
He stood up, stretching his arms over his head. The noise of the bus starting up again nearly drowned out what he had to say, forcing me to lean in to catch it. "Ask Scarlett about Kevin," Rane said. "Maybe you should have had some fun these past five years, little brother. It's gotta smart, thinking how you waited all this time, and she just moved right on."
Something thick and hard settled into my chest. I could taste the bitterness at the back of my throat. I looked towards the front of the bus where Scarlett sat hunched over her notebook, scrawling in that strange shorthand of hers. Her whole face was flushed, and even from back here I could see that her eyes glowed unnaturally bright.
But I was too fucking angry to leave it for better timing.
I stood up, hating how easily Rane had baited me, even as I silently thanked him for finally getting the answers I couldn't. "Kevin, huh?" I called up to the front of the bus. "That's his name?" The motion of the bus matched the slip-sliding sensation in my stomach. I stormed up the aisle towards her. "Was that who you left to go meet? Was that why you weren't waiting for me?"
Scarlett set down her pen. I waited, fist clenched at my side. I waited for her icy response, her cold words reminding me that she didn't owe me an explanation, that it was
life and I didn't control her. I waited for her to point out the obvious, that what was done was done and I should really fucking let it go by now.
Instead, she screamed and punched the panel in front of her.
There were only a few times I had seen Scarlett fall apart. She didn't do it unless she had a good reason. I stood at the front of the bus, bracing my hand on the back of the seat across from her, and waited to hear the reason.
She took a deep breath. "I didn't cheat on you," she said calmly. Only the single tear tracking down her cheek betrayed her. She stared straight ahead, her eyes fixed on a point in front of her that was both far away and close at hand. "I didn't do that. I met Kevin in college."
I swallowed around the lump in my throat. This was what I needed to hear. "So you have a boyfriend?"
She shook her head vehemently. "No. No, I don't."
"You broke up?"
She gave one small, stiff nod.
I felt like I was running as hard as I could just to catch up with wherever she was. "Is that why you're upset?" I demanded. "Because the breakup and all?"
She let out a slow hissing sound, like air leaking out of a balloon. "I am not upset about breaking up with him, no."
Her fists were clenched, and she still stared at that fixed point ahead of her. And inside of my chest, my heart divided into two warring camps. One of them, the one that was loudly cheering and turning somersaults, was thrilled that Scarlett was actually, unquestionably single. The other part, hurt and wary, wondered why she was so damned delighted about being single.
"Things ended badly?" I ventured. It seemed imperative to keep her talking. This might be the only chance I had before she clammed up again.
She nodded stiffly. "Yes."
It was just a small motion, and if I didn't know her as well as I did, I probably would have missed it. But I was watching her, a student of her face with years of study under my belt, so I saw it. That little wobble in her lush lower lip.
Scarlett was trying to be brave.
Scarlett wanted to cry instead.
That same awkward rush of protective feelings that gripped me when I saw her talking to my shithead older brother grabbed ahold of me now and wouldn't let me go.
I sat down in the seat next to her. "Scarlett, did he hurt you?" I asked, slowly, steadily.
She opened her mouth soundlessly then shut it. "I don't want to talk about it." Then she looked at me, finally tearing her eyes from that vacant space to look me full in the face. "He wasn't a good person, Keir. I finally figured that out, even though it took me a really long time. He didn't treat me right."
She swallowed. "Not like you."