A light snore reminds me that I’m not alone. The heaviness of a body sprawled out, sets me off immediately. The stale smell of day old perfume lingers in the air and on my sheets.
The curtains are pulled back, the sun shining through the large window which affords me the best view and privacy.
Rolling over, there’s a face I don’t remember. A face that holds no name in my recollection or any vivid memory of how she ended up in my hotel room let alone my bed.
The bed part I can probably figure out.
The blonde hair tells me that I didn’t bother to get her name or ask her what her favorite drink was. Guaranteed our conversation was eyes, hands and lips only. There is one hair color that can make my heart beat and blonde isn’t it.
Neither is red.
They have to be brown or green, never blue.
This isn’t a downward spiral or some drug induced moment. I don’t do drugs, never have, but I may drink excessively on occasions like last night. This is me coping with my mistakes and failures. I may be successful when I’m on stage, but at night I’m alone.
And so freaking scared of dying alone.
I reach for my phone to check the time. Instead I pull up the gallery that holds her image, my thumb hovering over her face. I’ll see her when I go home and I don’t know what I’ll say.
I know she hates me.
I hate me.
I ruined her life. That is what her voice message said. The one I’ve saved for the past ten years. The one I’ve transferred from phone to phone just so I could hear her voice when I’m at my lowest. I can recite every hateful word she said to me when I was too busy to answer and never found the time to call her back.
Never found one second to call and explain to her what I had done to us. She was my best friend and I let her slip through my fingers just to save myself from the heartache of hearing she didn’t want me anymore.
I had dreams too.
And my dreams included her, but she would never have gone for it. I’m not living her American Dream. I'm living my own.
My decision destroyed everything.
My nameless bed cohabitant reaches out and strokes my arm. I move away quickly. Now that I’m sober, I have no desire to be anything to this person.
“Liam,” she says through her seductive tone that sounds like a baby. It makes my skin crawl when women talk like this. Don’t they see that it makes them sound ridiculous? No man worth his nuts likes this sort of thing. It’s not sexy.
Wrapping the sheet around my waist I sit up and swing my legs over the edge, away from her and her wandering hand. My back tenses when I feel the bed shift. Standing, I pull the sheet tighter to keep myself somewhat covered. I shouldn’t care, but I do. She’s seen me in the dark, but I’m not affording her or her camera another look.
“I’m busy.” My voice is strict, a well-practiced monotone. “Jorge, the concierge, will make sure you get a cab home.”
I sleep purposefully facing the bathroom so I never have to look at them when I tell them to leave. It’s easier that way, no emotions. I don’t have to look at their faces and see the hope fade. Each one hopes they will be the one to tame me, to make me commit.
I haven’t had a steady girlfriend since I entered the industry and a one night stand isn’t about to change that. These girls don’t mean anything and never will. I could change. I could settle down and marry.
Have a kid or two.
My manager, Sam, would love it, especially if it was her. She’s my only repeat lay. The first time was an error in judgment, a lonely night on the road mistake. Now she wants more. I don’t.
When she told me she was pregnant I wanted to jump off a cliff. I didn’t want kids, at least not with her. When I think about having a wife, she’s tall and brunette. She’s toned from years of cheerleading and her daily five-mile run. She’s not a power hungry executive in the music industry who spoke of hiring nannies before a doctor could confirm her pregnancy.
She suggested marriage; I freaked and flew to Australia to learn to surf.
She miscarried two months in. I made a vow that we’d keep things professional from that point on and that is when I started my one night stand routine. Despite everything, she still loves me, and is waiting for me to change my mind.
“You know,” the barfly from last night starts to say in between shuffling and her huffed breathing as she puts on her clothes. “I heard you were a dick, but I didn’t believe it. I thought we had something special.”
I laugh and shake my head. I’ve heard it all, each one thinks we have something special because of the most amazing night they’ve ever had.
“I didn’t pick you for your brains.” I walk into the bathroom and shut the door, locking it for good measure.
Leaning against the door I bang my head against the solid wood. Each time I tell myself I’m going to stop, and I think I have until something makes me want to forget. My hands rake over my face in pure frustration.
I’m not looking forward to going home.
The reason for returning is staring at me from my bathroom counter. The page-long article of the guy I used to call my best friend. Picking up the paper, I read over the words that I have memorized.
Mason Powell, father of two, was killed tragically when the car he was driving was rear-ended by an eighteen wheeler.
And I wasn’t there.
I left like a coward when I didn’t say goodbye.
I changed my cell phone number because she wouldn’t stop calling. I had to make a clean break and Mason was part of that. She and Katelyn were best friends and he’d tell her where I was and what I was doing. It was better this way.
I was only meant to be gone a year. I told myself I’d return home after twelve months, make everything right and show her that I wasn’t the same person she fell in love with. She’d see that and thank me, move on and marry a yuppie business man, one who wakes up every day and puts on a crisp dress shirt and pleated slacks that she'd iron in their Leave it to Beaver household.
I squeeze the paper in my hands and think about everything I’ve missed. I don’t regret it, I can’t. I did this for me and did it the only way I knew how. I just didn’t think I’d care so much about missing everything.
I missed the day he asked Katelyn to marry him. Something I knew he wanted to do since we were sixteen.
I missed his wedding and the birth of his twins. He was a father and a husband. He had three people who depended on him and now he’s gone. He’ll never see his children grow up and do the things that we did when we were younger. All the things we said our kids would do together. I missed this because I had something to prove to myself. I gave up on their dream and the life we had all planned out.
And now I’m heading home to face the music.
The words become a blur the longer I stare at them.
The paper wet from my tears. Tears that haven’t stopped falling since I received the phone call. Now I’m holding an order form with his name on it. The casket spray to be done in our high school colors – red and gold. The standing spray to be done in their wedding colors, our college colors, green and white. This is what Katelyn wants.
Katelyn is going to bury her husband in a few short days and yet she’s sound enough to make decisions on what kind of flowers are going to drape over her husband’s coffin.
Me? I can’t even make it through reading the order form.
When Katelyn called and asked me to do the flowers it took everything in me to say yes when I really wanted to say no. I don’t want to do this. I don’t even want to believe that Mason is gone. I’ve known him since first grade and now he’s gone. He won’t be stopping in on Monday for his usual pick-up. Katelyn won’t be getting her weekly dozen of roses, something she’s been getting since he started proposing at seventeen.
They were the lucky ones, having it all figured out in high school and sticking with it. I thought I had that too, but I was blindsided my first semester in college. My life was turned upside down with just a few short words and a door slam, creating a wall between me and the love of my life.
I stand on shaky legs, wipe away my tears and make my way over to the door to flip the Closed sign to Open. I don’t want to open today, but I have to. There is a wedding, homecoming and Mason’s funeral in the next few days and I’m the lucky one doing all their flowers.
I pin Katelyn’s order on the board next to the rest of the orders. I have to treat her like any other customer even though this is one I wish I wasn’t filling.
Deep breaths, I tell myself as I start the first order. There are forty corsages and boutonniere’s to make today and all I want to do is smash the roses between my palms and throw them out the door.
Door chimes break my concentration. Time to put on a happy face. Jenna is walking toward me, coffee cups in hand. I wipe my hands on my green apron and meet her at the counter.
“Thank you,” I say just before sipping the hot liquid. The way to my heart is definitely through a caramel latte.
“I knew you needed it. I could sense your deep desire when I was in line.”
Jenna is my part-timer and all over friend. She moved to Beaumont three years ago to escape an abusive husband and fit in instantly with me and Katelyn.
“How are you holding up?” she asks. I shrug, not really wanting to talk about things right now. I need to get through the day. As word starts to spread old classmates will be coming back and, as vain as it sounds, I want to look good. I don’t want to look like I just got dumped because that is what most of them remember anyway.
“I just…” I hide my eyes behind my hand. “I don’t have memories that don't involve Mason. I don’t know what’s going to happen on Monday when I open and he’s not here to buy Katelyn’s flowers. He’s done that for over ten years.”
“I’m so sorry, Josie. I wish there was something I could do for you guys.”
“Just being there for Katelyn is enough. I’ll handle my own feelings.”
Jenna comes around the counter and gives me a hug before going to put on her apron. I’m thankful for her help, especially today. Maybe I can pawn off the funeral arrangements and focus on the happy.
But then again, maybe not.
Standing out front, staring into the shop is Mr. Powell. He looks lost. “I’ll be right back,” I say to Jenna as I slip out the door. The weather is breezy with a chill in the air. Definitely not your average Fall day here.
“Mr. Powell,” I say, reaching out to touch his arm. He lost his wife last year to cancer and now his son – I can’t imagine.
“Josephine.” His voice is broken, horse. His eyes are hollow and bloodshot. “I was just walking and when I looked into the window here I remembered the first time I had to take Mason to get flowers for Katie. They were going to some dance and I was going to drive them.” He shakes his head as if he’s not sure if he’s making it up or if he doesn’t want to remember anymore.
“That was a long time ago, Mr. Powell. Do you want to come inside and I’ll call Katelyn for you? Maybe she can come pick you up.”
He shakes his head. “I don’t want to bother Katie. She has enough to worry about than to babysit her father-in-law.” He stops speaking suddenly, his eyes glaze over. I look around to see what, if anything has caught his attention. “Am I still her father-in-law?”
My hand covers my mouth but it can’t muffle my cry. “Of course you are,” I whisper. “She’s your Katie, you’re the only one who gets to call her that, ya know. She loves you as if you’re her own father.”
Mr. Powell looks at me and nods before walking off. I want to follow him and make sure he makes it home or wherever he decides to go, but I stand frozen on the sidewalk watching him walk away.
Mason will never know the impact he’s had on everyone in Beaumont.
When I make it back into the shop, Jenna is pulling the roses for the funeral sprays. I breathe a sigh of relief that I didn’t have to ask her. She just knew. I walk up behind her and wrap my arms around her, hugging her, thanking her for being a good friend.
Orders come in like crazy, most of them for Katelyn or for the service. I keep my delivery boy busy today and each time he walks in he’s smiling from ear to ear. I can’t imagine why. Most people don’t tip when they receive flowers for a funeral, unless of course, you’re Mrs. Bishop, Katelyn’s plastic stuck-up mom who is everything that the word 'proper' stands for.
Jenna and I work side by side. I try not to pay attention, but can’t help but look over every few minutes. The arrangements are turning out beautifully. I’d like to think that Mason would be impressed.
“When are you going to say yes to Nick?”
I threaten to stab Jenna with my shears. “He asked again the other night,” I say as I pull some baby’s breath to cut.
“What number is that?”
I shrug. “I lost count.”
Jenna tosses down her shears and places her hands on her hips. “What the hell are you waiting for? He has a good job, he loves you and he takes care of Noah. Not too many men want to play daddy when it’s not their kid.”
I try to hide my smile, but she punches me in the arm. “You said yes?”
I nod which causes her to jump up and down. She pulls my hand forward and frowns when she sees I’m not wearing a ring. “We're going wait until everything calms down. It’s not time to celebrate, ya know? We both lost our friend and even though we’re happy and in love, Katelyn and the kids mean more to us than telling everyone that we're finally getting married.”
Jenna wraps her arms around me, holding me tight. “He’ll make you happy, Josie.”
“He already does,” I reply when she steps back. I can already see the wheels turning in her head and this just solidifies what I said to Nick; we need to elope.
She turns back and starts working again. “Do you think he’ll adopt Noah?”
I drop my shears onto the ground, barely missing my foot. I clear my throat. “I… I’m not sure about that.”
“Why not? He’s been raising him since he was what, three?”
I bite my lip and just nod at her. “We’ve never discussed it and I really don’t want to talk about Noah’s dad right now.”
She looks at me and smiles. “Okay,” she says, but I know she’ll ask again.
I haven’t thought about Noah’s dad in years. No, that’s not true. More like hours and even more so since Mason died. I don’t know if he knows about Mason or even cares. I just hope he doesn’t show up here.
I rode at night to avoid people following me. I slept during the day and made it home in seventy-two hours.
What a strange word. For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived in a hotel. They’re easy, peaceful with top notch security. I never have to leave if I don’t want to. I have someone that does my grocery shopping and laundry. When something breaks, someone's there to fix it and my guests are screened.
The weather is colder than I remember. I hope my maid packed me the appropriate clothes. Sam is having a new suit sent to my hotel. She wanted to come with me for moral support, but I declined. I don’t need her. I don’t want her here. Just in and out I told her. Except I left a few days earlier than scheduled because I need time to see her.
Even if it’s just to look at her from across the street, I need the extra time to remind myself why I gave up college and her dreams to spend countless days in a cramped studio and sleepless nights traveling in a bus across the country. I need the vision of her to drive the point home that I made the right decision for me, regardless of how much I hurt her.
I need to know if she’s moved on, I hope that she has. How many kids does she have and what does her husband do for a living? I only hope he treats her better than I ever did because she deserves it and so much more.
Pulling into the Holiday Inn just outside of Beaumont, I shut off my bike before the manager comes out to tell me I’m disturbing the peace. With the kickstand down and my helmet off, I slip on a pair of fake eyeglasses and pull a baseball cap down low. I know word will spread once I step foot into Beaumont, but for a few days I’d like to be anonymous. I slide my arms into my weather proof guitar case and unhook my bag from the back of my bike.
The walk to the lobby is painstakingly long. This hotel isn’t far off the highway and the noise is very present. This is most unassuming hotel and one people wouldn’t think to look for me. I remember when I told Sam to book my room here I thought I killed her with just the words of a three star Notel Motel. Yet here I am walking into a commoner lobby with the TV blaring and stale coffee sitting in the pot next to this morning’s donuts.
“How can I help you?” The clerk is speaking even before I’m in the door. Her voice is high-pitched and annoying; a sharp and painful reminder of nails across the blackboard. Her hair is pulled back so tight that her face has no option but to smile. Her lips are painted Hollywood red. I want to hand her a Kleenex and tell her that guys in Hollywood really don’t go for the whole lipstick thing because it’s evidence.
But I don’t. I don’t say hi or even smile at her. I just want to get to my room and maybe sleep a little. “I need to check in,” I tell her. I hand her my driver’s license and wait. My fingers start tapping on the counter as she types my name into the computer. Each time she looks up at me and smiles, I want to step back. Someone ought to tell her that she wears too much make-up and if she pulls her hair any tighter she’ll be bald.
“Is Mr. Westbury your dad? He’s the professor for my poli-sci class,” she asks with a hopeful gleam in her eye. I shake my head no even though the answer is probably yes. I wouldn’t know since he hasn’t spoken to me since I dropped out of college.
“Oh, well that’s too bad. He’s a really great professor.”
“Lucky you,” I say. Her face deadpans at my lack of enthusiasm.
“If there's anything I can do for you just let me know,” she says back in her high-pitched annoying and very childish voice. She sets the keycards down on the counter and asks me to fill out the car registration slip. I write down only the pertinent information, avoiding the make and model of my bike. They don’t need to know.
I pick up the key cards and head to the elevator. When I step in, I look at the card and sigh. I’m on the sixth floor, the highest one they have, but not high enough for me. This will have to do and it’s only short term. I’m just here to say goodbye to Mason and stare at her for a bit before returning to my life.
The hallway reeks. That is the first thing I notice when I step out of the elevator. That and the ugly ass carpet lining the halls. I despise the smell of stale smoke. I push into my room, dropping my bag onto one of the double beds. I walk over to the sliding glass door, throw open the thick dark curtains and stare out at the lights of Beaumont. I flick the latch and open the door, stepping out into the chilled air.
The sound of breaking glass causes me to look left. Immediately, I wish I hadn’t because just off in the distance is the water tower Mason and I, along with a few others, used to climb after our games. We’d take a case of beer up there, leave the girls down at the bottom and see who could hit the bed of my truck with their empty bottles.
“Looks like someone is carrying on our tradition,” I say to no one.
“Mase, come down here. I’m lonely,” Katelyn yells up at him.
The laughter between us and the girls is just enough to keep a constant flow of noise in the air.
“I love you baby,” Mason yells through cupped hands.
“I’m going to marry that girl and make beautiful babies with her.” We start laughing, but I know it’s true. Katelyn walks on water where Mason is concerned. I know the feeling. I look down and see the silhouette of my girl standing by my truck, my letterman jacket making me jealous because it’s wrapped around her. But this is tradition.
“I know man,” I say, patting him on the back.
“Double wedding,” he shouts as I spew my beer out into the open air.
“Dude, you’re a dude. You aren’t supposed to talking about weddin’s and shit.” Jerad says before chugging his beer.
Mason shrugs. “When you love someone, you just know.”
Nothing is the same and everything could’ve been just like it was planned out. Mason’s not supposed to be gone. If anything, it should be me. I screwed up the plan.
I step back into the room, closing the door and pulling the curtains closed. When I look at the bed, it’s mocking me, telling me I’m uninvited. It doesn’t want me as much as I don’t want it.
I can’t stay here. This room is going to suffocate me. I get rid of my disguise and grab my jacket and helmet. Maybe riding will clear my head, but then again, maybe not. The last time I went on an unplanned road trip I made a life-altering decision.
The red exit sign above the staircase is more inviting than the elevator. I slam my shoulder into the door and rush down the stairs, sliding down the railing just like I did when I was younger, something I haven’t done in a long time.
My helmet is on before I reach the lobby. The last thing I want is the receptionist tart getting any ideas about who I am. My luck, she’d let herself into my room, lie on the bug infested bedspread and wait for me to claim her.
“Do you need a wake-up call?” she asks as I rush through the lobby. Is she serious? I pull out my phone and look at the time, it’s after midnight.
I shake my head. “I’m good,” I say as I throw open the door and head for my bike.
There is nothing like the roar of an engine. The vibration alone comforts me. I spin the throttle before kicking my bike into gear and tear out of the parking lot. I can feel her watching me, I’d bet anything she’s licking her lips with excitement.
With no destination in mind I stick to the back roads. The less traffic the better. Just me and the road and the looming sun threatening to rears its ugly head for yet another day of bullshit.
I’m shocked when I hit the Beaumont line. Well, not really. I’ve been thinking about this town non-stop since I learned about Mason. The town is quiet, wrought iron lights lighting the path through the streets.
Nothing has changed.
I slow down as I make my way through town. Turn left, turn right and end up on the street I grew up on. When I stop in front of my childhood home, one light on outside and one on inside, I know my dad’s awake.
Nothing has changed.
The two-story white house with the red door is the same. No cars in the driveway, lawn manicured to perfection. My room is dark and I wonder what they did with it. Are my pictures still lining the hallway or did those come down when I betrayed them in the worse way? What will they say when their defiant son knocks on the door and wants to stay for dinner?
I drive two blocks down and one over and stop in front of the Preston house. I’m not a fool to think she still lives here, but I know she wouldn’t miss this unless she and Katelyn are no longer friends.
The porch light flips on and the door opens. Mr. Preston, the man who was to be my father-in-law, steps out onto the porch. I know he can’t see me through my darkened helmet, but maybe he’s wondering.
He stands there and stares at me and I at him. He’s aged, just like I’m assuming my father has. He steps down onto the grass and that’s my cue to go. I hit the throttle and take off down the street, leaving Mr. Preston in his yard wondering.
I pull into the driveway of Katelyn and Mason’s modest ranch home, matching pink tricycles sitting in the yard. I can’t bring myself to get out of the car. It’s like accepting the inevitable. I know nothing will bring back Mason or change what has happened, but maybe I can prolong it just a little bit longer.
“Aunt Joey what are you doing?” I jump at the little voice that snuck up on me. Peyton is staring at me, standing by the passenger side of the car. Her dark curly hair is in pigtails tied with ribbons and her toothless grin lights my day.
“Nothing, sweetie, just thinking,” I say as I get out of the car and walk around to where she’s standing. She’s in her Sunday football jersey and sweatpants and has a football tucked under her arm. She’s every bit Mason.
“He’s at school.”
Her face falls as she looks down at the ground. Her little sneaker-clad foot starts swinging back and forth. “Mama says we don’t have to go to school until after.” Her voice trails off.
I fight back the tears as my heart breaks for her and her sister. They only got five years with their dad and will only remember one if they’re lucky. I bend down in front of her and wipe a stray tear off her cheek. “Noah can come over after school before he goes to practice, okay?”
She nods and I bring her into my arms, carrying her into her once-happy home.
This is my first time in the Powell home since the night we got the call. I came over here to stay with the girls while Katelyn was in the hospital waiting for a sign that Mason was going to make it. I paced the floor, the same floor they paced when the girls had colds or the flu and kept them up at night.
The same floor that Mason dumped a plate full of chicken when he tripped over the bag of footballs he forgot to put away after practice. Katelyn and I laughed so hard. When he stood up Mason had chicken grease all over his face. One look from him and Katelyn knew he was coming after her.
I set Peyton down and kiss her on the forehead. I don’t even know how to comfort her and her sister, let alone her mom.
“Where’s your sister?” I ask.
Peyton shrugs. “With mama, I guess.”
“Aunt Joey who is going to watch football with me now?” her voice breaks as she asks the simplest question of all.
Usually I have an answer for everything, but when I look into her eyes I don’t know what to say to her because there isn’t an answer. It could be me one week or Mr. Powell, but it will never be Mason. He was her football buddy and she his.
“I’m sure Nick would love to and even Noah. Maybe your Grandpa can come over on Sundays.”
“It’s not the same,” she whispers before leaving me in the middle of the room surrounded by nothing but memories, once in a lifetime moments captured by a real life lens and frozen in the past. And sometimes that's not enough. Any memories made now won't have Mason.
“Hey.” I turn to find Katelyn behind me. Her hair is pulled back in a sloppy bun and she’s wearing one of Mason’s shirts. I can’t hold back the tears and choke on a sob as I rush to hold her. She cries into my chest, her sobs shattering my reserve.
“I’m so sorry,” I say softly to her. Her hands are clutching at my shirt as she fights to control herself. She was there for me when my world fell apart and I’m going to be there for her, even if it kills me.
When she pulls back I wipe her tears just like I did for Peyton. “You seemed okay yesterday,” I say trying to remind her that she is having a few good moments.
“Yesterday I didn’t have to make any decisions except what color flowers I wanted. Today I have to pick a casket and bring…” she takes a deep breath, covering her face with her hands. Her diamond engagement ring is sparkling as it catches the sunlight. “I have to pick out his last outfit and I don’t know what he’d want to wear.”
This is something I can’t even imagine. I wouldn’t know what to do. When things changed for me I wanted to die, but Katelyn and Mason held me together. They were my glue. The love of my life didn’t die, he just decided I was no longer what he needed in life and went away. I didn’t have to bury him or clean out his office. He took my heart with him when he shut the door.
“I think maybe you should ask the girls what they want him to wear. Let them help you because you are going to need them to get through all of this. I know Peyton is worried about who will watch football with her on Sunday.”
“I know,” she sighs heavily. “Elle wants to know who is going to tuck her in at night because no one does it like daddy.”
I pull her back into my arms and hold my friend. There are no words that I can say that will solve this dilemma for her, only time will. But time hurts.
Katelyn takes my advice and asks the twins to help pick out their dads final outfit. When they come out, the three of them are holding a mismatch of clothes. Katelyn shows me a pair of dark slacks. Peyton holds up his coaching shirt and Elle shows me the shoes he’ll be buried in, one cleat and one tennis shoe. I crack a smile which causes them all to laugh.
It’s perfect and so very Mason.
The drive to the funeral home is quiet. Katelyn plays with her rings, much like she did when she got engaged. I look down at my bare hand, and wonder when Nick will slip a ring on my finger. There doesn’t need to be an announcement; people expect it. Nick and I have been together for six years. It was time to make a decision. A man like Nick isn’t going to wait around forever. Everyone says he’s a catch because he’s the one of us who really made something out of his education and they’re right. I’d be stupid not to marry the town’s pediatrician.
Picking out a casket is a lot harder than it seems. You can pick the type of wood, inlay and the color. All things that Katelyn had to decide while sitting in an office that smells like dead people.
Katelyn has to pick music, programs and list the pall bearers. I watch as she writes down the names, leaving the sixth spot blank.
“You forgot one,” I point out.
She shakes her head. “Just in case,” she says. She doesn’t have to explain what she means, I know who she’s referring to, but I don’t want to think about… him.
After I drop her off, I head home. Noah should be back from school and I just want to hug him until I’m reasonably certain he’s never going to leave me.
“Noah?” I call as I enter the house. The TV is on and I find him lying on the couch. He’s watching an old game film of Mason and Nick from high school. I hear that familiar name and look down at Noah, running my fingers through his hair. “What’s going on, buddy?”
“Just watching,” he says, curling into my hand.
I sit down and cuddle him into my lap. I love that he is still my little boy when I need him to be.
“You look so funny, mom.” He starts laughing. I pull his hair and pinch his ear just so I can continue to hear his giggles.
“Just wait until you’re my age and we watch your videos.”
“In here,” I yell as Nick comes into the house. He takes one look at what we’re watching and scoots in behind me, wrapping his arm around my shoulders.
“Why are we watching this?” he whispers into my ear. I shrug and motion toward Noah. Nick knows I’d never put this in, watching these highlights does nothing but open old memories.
Noah continues to laugh at me and Nick about how funny we looked in high school. Each time I remind him that I have naked baby pictures of him and I’ll be showing them to all his girlfriends.
Beaumont wins the game and that’s my cue to turn it off. I search for the remote, panic setting in. I don’t want to see what’s at the end.
“Mom, who are you kissing?”
I look at the screen and see the boy that haunts my dreams and reality. He turns and faces the camera, his arm slung around me. When I see his blue eyes I bite my lip. I’ve been thinking about him more and more since Mason died, and I wonder if he’s happy. I get up and turn off the TV so I don’t have to look at him anymore.
“He’s no one, baby.” I say as I leave the room.
Driving through town last night was a mistake. Stopping in front of the Preston house was an utter lapse in judgment. I was surprised to find that Mr. Preston was awake, let alone willing to come outside and stare down a stranger on a motorcycle, especially one dressed in all black.
The walls of this hotel room are closing in and fast. I should’ve stayed farther out of town where I could at least have a suite with space to move. I need to pace and think. Think about what I’m going to do when I see her. I just want to look. I need to know that she’s okay and happy. That she’s moved on with her life and I’m nothing but a blip on her radar.
Maybe she buys my music because she can say she once knew me, a long time ago. I’ve pictured her many times standing in the line at the grocery store holding People or Rolling Stone when I’m on the cover. I want to think that she’s read the articles and seen me talk about her without actually saying her name. That she’s created a playlist on her iPod of all the songs that are about her, that she knows I’ve never stopped loving her.
I pound my fists into my head. “You’re so stupid, Liam. She doesn’t fucking care about you. You left her and changed your number so you wouldn’t have to listen to her crying on your voicemail.”
I have to get out of this hotel because staying here just reminds me of her and the night we lost our virginity to each other and it’s driving me insane.
With my helmet on before I reach the lobby, I sprint through the door avoiding the day clerk that is working. She’s actually a bit cuter then the night clerk, but not by much. There’s nothing worse than a woman who tries too hard.
I speed through the back roads, taking corners faster than I should, passing cars that are going too slow and blowing by a school bus full of kids. A few horns honk and windows roll down, hands flying out. I don’t bother to look in my mirror to see them flipping the bird. I’ve done it before to whatever jackass thinks he owns these roads.
Mason and I used to own these roads. We were so stupid when we were younger. Always driving too fast or drinking, not to mention the many games of mailbox baseball. Hell, I used to make-out with my girl while driving, letting her straddle me just so I could feel her against me before dropping her off at home.
Hot summer nights spent in the back of my truck looking at the stars, holding her between my legs with my arms wrapped around her. I told her I’d love her forever. I said I love you first and promised to never let her go.
I pull up short and pull over into a parking lot. I need to calm down. Driving like an idiot doesn’t solve anything. The last thing I want is my name in the paper because I was being reckless. I’ve worked hard to keep my image clean. No more mistakes for me.
When I look up I see that I’m at the Allenville Museum, a place dedicated to high school sports. I get off my bike and walk in, paying the five dollar admission. Inside it’s like a shrine. I’m hanging from the ceiling with my record breaking stats displayed under my picture. There’s a picture of Mason and I together. We were supposed to break records at the University of Texas but he wanted to stay close to Katelyn and opted to go to the state school with her. He was the smart one.
A large picture of Mason is front and center in the museum with a black cloth draped over the edges. There is a table next to his picture with more photographs from high school, with a few of him and me and some of the other guys. We’re all so young in our football uniforms, holding up our index finger telling the world that we’re number one. We didn’t have a care in the world, we just wanted to win. One of our championship footballs sits on a stand. I want to touch it, feel the pigskin against my fingers, but I refrain. Those days are gone. I left them all behind when I packed up and left Texas for the bright lights of the big city.
“Do you hear that crowd?” Mason yells at me before we leave the tunnel. This is our last game ever in high school and this year we’ve gone undefeated. We annihilated the competition. Mason is so close to breaking the state record for rushing yards and I broke the record for passing earlier this season. We both signed our letters of intent for the University of Texas this morning.
And now we’re about to play for our fourth state title.
“Yeah man, I hear it. Crazy, right?”
“There has to be more people than last year.”
Of course there is. We are the best.
I slap my girl’s ass as she passes by with her white, gold and red cheerleading skirt flipping up as she runs. She turns around and saunters up to me with that look in her eye. I know what she’s expecting and I plan to deliver.
“You know how sexy I think you are when you bite your lip? You have this look in your eyes, Liam. Do you have plans for us later?” she whispers into my ear. My focus is now solely on her instead of the game as her hand sneaks under my t-shirt. There is nothing better than her skin against mine.
“Knock it off you two,” Mason says as he slaps me in the back of the head. “If you give him a stiffy during the game, some linebacker is going to break his pecker.”
We all start laughing. She kisses me goodbye, telling me to kick ass. She never wishes me good luck, just to kick ass.
I slip on my helmet and run out onto the field. We run through the cheerleaders and the student body. Music is blaring as we are announced onto the field. Parents and fans are on their feet in the stands, yelling loudly.
Mason and I go off to the side and warm-up, always together. We have a routine and we aren’t about to break it now.
When the whistle blows, I take center with Mason on my left. The play is for him. He needs only one hundred yards to break the state record for rushing and I’m going to make sure that happens tonight. Our first play is a hand-off to him; he breaks the first tackle for a thirty yard gain.
We do this over and over until his dad holds up a sign showing 100 and I know. I hand Mason the ball and watch him jog it over to his dad. They hug and the fans go nuts. Mason Powell just set the state’s all-time leading rushing record with nine thousand five hundred and two.
I remember that game as if it was yesterday and standing here makes it feel like it was. I can almost smell the concession stand cooking hotdogs and popcorn. I can hear the cheers and feel the vibration from stomping feet on the bleachers.
I can still see Mr. Powell’s face when Mason broke that record. I wanted my dad to look at me like that.
As I walk around I see us everywhere. The four state titles we won in football and two in baseball. Nick Ashford is staring back at me, his smug smile as he holds his most valuable player award. He wanted to be me. When he came to Beaumont he followed me around. He was always hanging out with us like he was our life-long friend, when all he wanted was my girl.
Other than Mason, I don’t know what happened to any of my classmates. I didn’t keep in touch because I had nothing to say and didn’t want to hear what a failure I was for dropping out of college. I had to make the best choice for me and I did even though I know I hurt everyone that I loved, especially her.
When a group of young kids come pouring in I duck into the bathroom. I’m not expecting them to know who I am, but their teachers might and I don’t want to sign autographs or pose for pictures. I just want to be me even if it’s short-lived.
When I come out of the john there’s a young boy standing at the counter with his hands under the water. I look at him through the mirror. He’s crying even though he’s trying to wash away the tears by splashing water on his face.
He’s sort of small and his hair is a bit longer than normal for boys his age. Maybe he’s being bullied and hiding in here. I hate bullies. Mason and I wouldn’t stand for any bullying when we were in school. We made sure of it.
“You okay, bud?” I ask against my better judgment. I don’t want to know because I don’t want the confrontation, but I can’t stand seeing kids cry.
He nods and covers his face. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” he says. Smart kid.
“You’re right. I just want to make sure you don’t need your teacher or anything.”
“No, I’m okay.”
“Good deal.” I wash my hands looking back at the boy through the mirror. He’s watching my every move, eying the tattoos on my forearms, probably wondering if I’m going to kidnap him now that he’s spoken to a stranger.
“Hey Mister, I know you.”
I wipe my hands on the paper towel without giving much away. “You do, huh?” I say with no eye contact.
“Yeah, you’re the one kissing my mom in the video I have.”
I think back to my many music videos and don’t remember kissing anyone. “Did you see this on TV?” I ask.
“No, you were in a football uniform.”
I freeze. I’ve only ever kissed one girl while wearing a football uniform. I look at the boy, really look him over. His dark hair and elongated chin and his piercing blue eyes. It can’t be.
There’s no fucking way.
“Oh yeah, who’s your mom?” I ask, playing it off.
“Is that so?” I ask barely able to make the words come out of my mouth.
He nods and smiles real big showing some missing front teeth. “Did you kiss my mom a lot?”
What do I tell this boy? I can’t exactly tell him the truth, especially not knowing what’s going on. “Yeah, your mom was real beautiful. I bet she still is.”
He nods in agreement. I used to think my mom was the prettiest until I couldn’t stand to look her at her and watch her robotic ways.
“I gotta go. See ya around,” he says. Before I have a chance to respond, he’s out the door.
I run out of the restroom and museum as fast as I can. The boy tried to talk to me as I went by, but I ignored him. I need answers and whether I’m ready or not, she is going to give them to me.
I have to slow down when I hit Main Street. I can’t afford someone getting suspicious or risk being pulled over. I park across from her shop and watch the door for a minute. I’ve known about the florist shop for a few years. When our anniversaries came up or I was homesick, I Googled her like a crazy stalker and found out what she was up to, but nothing I read said anything about a kid.
I drive around until its dark, waiting for closing. I don’t want an audience. I pull up just as she steps out with a short red head. They hug goodbye and she looks at me. Her features are soft and she’s not scared of this stranger on a motorcycle covered in black. She doesn’t know who I am, she’s just being friendly.
I have no game plan as I watch her step back inside. She switches the Open sign to Closed. If I’m going to do this, I need to do it now before she locks the door. Leaving my helmet on, I open the door, the bells alerting her to my presence.
“We’re closing up,” she says from somewhere in the shop. I can’t see her, but I can feel her in the room.
I take off my helmet and pull off my gloves setting them on the counter. She doesn’t see me when she comes around the corner.
“How old is he, Jojo?”
My hands fly to my mouth in a lame attempt to catch the gasp escaping. The vase I’m holding crashes to the floor, the water drenching my shoes, socks and jeans. I step around the broken glass and destroyed flowers for a better visual. I close my eyes before looking at the man standing at my counter.
I can sense him; feel him moving across my skin like he’s never left. When I open my eyes, he’s staring at me. I remind myself that I need to be strong. I call the shots here.
“What are you doing here?” I barely squeak out. My voice is hoarse as if I’ve been yelling for hours on end. It’s not strong and determined. It’s not the authoritative voice I’ve practiced in the mirror a thousand times over for this moment.
He moves toward me. I step back and put up my hand. I don’t want him to come any closer. He looks dejected. He puts his hands into his pockets and looks down. I don’t want to look at him, but I can’t help it. It’s been ten years and he’s changed so much, yet everything is the same in the way he looks at me.
“Don’t call me that,” I blurt out.
“Why not? It’s your name.”
I shake my head, biting the inside of my cheek. I know why he’s here and I want to hate Mason for it. I want to kick and scream and punch him for doing this to me… us. Everything was okay and now it’s not.
He smirks and shakes his head, taking a step back and leaning against the counter. I break eye contact with him when he bites his bottom lip. I clear my throat and move away from the broken glass.
“What are you doing here, Liam?”
He shrugs. “Do you have something to tell me?”
I shake my head, bringing my hand to my forehead to push off the pending headache. This is not happening right now, it can’t be. “No, we have nothing to talk about. You made that very clear that night in my dorm room.”
Liam moves away from the counter, he stops at a few of the plants nearby, rubbing their leaves between his fingers before stalking toward me. I have nowhere to go. I could run, maybe scream and alert the neighboring business next door, but what good would that do? One look at Liam means their golden child is back in town. Everyone will be so happy.
“What’s his name, Josie?” he asks bluntly as he get closer to me.
“Why do you care?” I fire back. His eyes throw daggers. I don’t care if he’s some hot shot musician. He left me. “You should go.”
“Nah,” he says shaking his head. He steps closer and I step back. I can’t move anymore without falling into a display of flowers. He holds up his hands. “I just want to talk. I don’t think you want me to start asking questions, do you?”
I shake my head no. Liam asking questions throughout town is the last thing I want. I don’t want Noah’s name brought up and people pointing fingers at him, even though some already do.
“How old is he, Jojo?” he asks in the same tone he would tell me that he loved me in when we’d walk from class to class or when he’d drop me off after a date.
“He’ll be ten in June.”
He steps back and looks at me. I can see the hurt in his eyes but I don’t care. He left me. He left me to raise a baby on my own.
“What’s his name?” the hurt evident in his voice, but I can’t let that get to me. I can’t. I need to be strong.
“When can I meet him?”
I laugh at his question and take this opportunity to move away from him. He stays where he is. I move behind the counter and start putting my things away. “You can’t, there’s no need.”
“What the fuck do you mean I can’t? I have a son. A son that you kept from me and you’re telling me I can’t meet him?”
“What makes you think he’s yours?” I regret the words the moment they leave my mouth. Sheer pain washes over his face and I feel a small amount of elation for hurting him.
“You’re telling me you cheated on me? Is that it, Jojo?” I don’t have time to react before he’s next to me. His cologne overcomes me, making my heart beat faster. Over the years I’ve wondered if he’d changed the Burberry cologne I bought him, but he hasn’t and I have to fight every desire I have to reach out and touch him.
“I love you, Jojo,” he whispers into my ear. He moves with fluidity and desire. I know I’m his first, I’ve never doubted that. I bury my head into the crook of his neck; he smells so good, desirable, and sexy. My body sings a song and only he has the melody.
I look into his eyes, his forehead rests upon mine. His mouth drops open when my fingers trail down his body, pushing him deeper.
“You’re so perfect,” he kisses me in between the words, showing me how much he loves me.
“I love you, Liam.”
“You’re forever my girl.”
“Why are you flushed, Jojo?”
“Please stop calling me that,” I all but beg. He steps away and leans on the other side of the counter.
“Sorry,” he says. He starts playing with his lower lip and I want to slap his hand away and tell him to knock it off. “Did you cheat on me?”
I can’t answer him. I don’t want to answer him. Even if I did it’s none of his business, but he knows me. He knows I didn’t, he’s just waiting for confirmation.
“You don’t get to come in here and demand answers, Liam. You’ve been off playing rock star. You’re the famous Liam Page. You left this,” I spread my arms around and point to myself. “You left me. There’s no room for you here.”
He laughs. “That’s not very hospitable of you. Whatever happened to the old adage that you can always go home?”
“People don’t disappear without a freaking phone call or letter for ten years. People don’t show up at your dorm and break up with the one they said they love and never return phone calls.” I hide my face behind my hands. I didn’t want this to happen. I could’ve gone twenty years and been okay without seeing him again. I fight to keep the tears away. I’ve shed enough tears over this boy to last a lifetime. I can’t shed anymore.
“People change,” he says.
“I don’t want to do this with you.”
“Right now?” he asks.
I shake my head. “No, never. I have nothing to say, Liam. You said what you had to that night and you didn’t wait to hear what I had to say or answer any of my calls. I don’t have to listen to your excuses and I definitely don’t owe you anything.”
I turn away so I don’t have to look at him anymore. I need to stay strong and level-headed. I need to channel the breathing techniques that the doctor gave me before I had Noah.
“You expect me to walk away knowing I have a son?”
I snicker. “Yeah I expect you go walk out the door, get on your fancy bike, go back to your celebrity girlfriend and back to wherever it is you came from. There’s nothing here for you and I don’t want you hurting my son. I don’t want him to know you just so you can walk away and out of his life for the next ten years.” I wipe a tear that drops from my eye. I will not show him the effect he has one me.
“I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Oh my god, Liam, from everything I just said you pick out the girlfriend part?” I shake my head. When I turn back around he’s looking down at the ground.
“We’ve moved on and you’re not part of our lives. Noah doesn’t need you, he doesn’t even know you so please just go and don’t come back.”
Liam nods his head. He doesn’t make eye contact with me as he walks by. I watch his body, the same body that I know every inch of as it moves around my counter to where his helmet is resting.
“See you around, Josephine.”
He’s only called me Josephine one other time in my life, the night he broke up with me. Once the door closes and he’s on his bike I break down. I fall to the ground, clutching my sides as I cry. Cry for ten years of missing him and him missing everything, including Noah.